kai ryssdal and marketplace visit the university of michigan

Yesterday, I went to hear Kai Ryssdal, the host of National Public Radio’s Marketplace speak at the University of Michigan. He was on campus wrapping up a weeklong special Marketplace report on American consumption. He was in town to interview University of Michigan Business School faculty doing work in the area of sustainability. After making a few brief comments, Ryssdal brought UM faculty members Andrew Hoffman (Associate Director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise), Robert Kennedy (Executive Director of the William Davidson Institute), and James Walsh (professor and President-elect of the American Academy of Management) forward to discuss whether or not consumerism is sustainable. Video of the hour-long exchange can be found here.

In my opinion, the panel could have benefited from someone outside academia, or at least from someone from outside the Business School. While the responses of Hoffman, Kennedy and Walsh were interesting, they didn’t reflect much diversity of thought as far as I could tell. I’m probably oversimplifying things a bit, but they each seemed to think that the free market, if left to its own devices, would eventually show us the way. They were likewise unanimous on the role of government. They each said that, although we are facing critical environmental issues and the like, we should hope that the government does not try to legislate solutions. They said that, more often than not, the government’s “heavy hand” did more harm than good. Corporations, they argued, would be forced to find solutions as problems arose. They pointed to Wal-Mart’s new green initiative as evidence.

Being terrified of public speaking, I stayed in my seat, but I wanted to ask how they reconciled this notion with the fact that, just two days before, Bill Ford, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company, stood in front of another University of Michigan audience said that, quite the contrary, he was looking for leadership from the government.

So, we sat and politely listened as these experts, all clearly very bright and thoughtful men, explained to us that technological solutions would almost assuredly be found in time to save us from doom. As they pointed out several times, mankind has faced down many doomsday scenarios before this one successfully. They brought up that Malthus in the early 1800’s had predicted that human population would soon outstrip the planet’s ability to support them. He, of course, was wrong. Intensive farming methods and the like had increased the carrying capacity of the Earth. They suggested that we’d find the same thing relative to global warming and the depletion of the Earth’s oil reserves.

I was imaging how much better the panel would be if one of the professors had been replaced by our pal Jim Kunstler, who, as we know, has a very dim view of what technology can do for us once the oil runs out. Maybe Kunstler wouldn’t have made the best panelist, but it would have been good to hear someone take a contrary view. I would have liked someone to remind the panelists that we wouldn’t have clean air and seatbelts right now if not for government intervention.

And, even if you do buy that corporations may be the best entities on the global stage to effect change, how do we know that the change would happen fast enough? When scientists tell us that we only have a ten-year window in which to mitigate the effects of global warming, do we really want to take a chance that corporations, acting in their own self-interests, can do what needs to be done in ten years.

In their defense, a lot of what the B School faculty members said made sense. As I mentioned above, they were clearly thoughtful people, and they did, on a few occasions, say that we the people needed to hold corporations accountable and push them toward reform. They weren’t suggesting that corporations were run by god-like men that did no wrong. All they were saying was that their self-interests would eventually align with what humanity needs to continue progressing. I guess if you believe that the big three would have voluntarily cut emissions without the Clean Air Act, you might find comfort in this. I find it a little difficult to accept though.

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  1. DanIzzo
    Posted November 18, 2007 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    My problem with the free market camp is that a free market will never truly exist. There will always be some government regulation (child labor laws, for instance) which will tilt the playing field. Even without that particular tilt, there’s always the shifting tilt of changing demands and market conditions. As a result the free market isn’t some sort of dream equilibrium state, but rather a tumultuous chaotic system which will move towards equilibrium, but never achieve it (think of the weather system for an example of this type of system.)

    While market forces certainly can shape corporate behavior, government regulation becomes necessary when market forces can’t move quickly enough to achieve public policy aims.

    I think a perfect example of where government regulation wins out over a free market mindset is cigarettes. Left to market forces, more people would smoke (check out China for an example of that). Without government intervention, when would it ever be in the interest of the cigarette companies to decrease consumption of their product.

    Just my $.02.

  2. Andy C
    Posted November 18, 2007 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    For the free market to work people actually have to care but they don’t and they never will. Child labor is fine if it saves us money at the store. Think of all the jobs taken away from U.S. children by children from other countries, it has really hurt the U.S. job market. We have no problem with them making us cheap shoes so why would we care about our own doing the same. Yep, government regulation is another necessary evil.

  3. Ol' E Cross
    Posted November 19, 2007 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Government also plays a major role in shaping consumption by what public projects it funds, from water lines to airports, roads and highways.

    And, it’s worth considering the huge number of new products/inventions (microwaves, nuclear energy, cell phones and satellite TV, etc.) that are spin-offs of massive government investment in military technology.

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