Gotham Diary:
14 February 2012

Two stories in today’s Times seem to me to ring the same bell. Joe Nocera lights into the NCAA yet again, this time in a somewhat backward fashion, by “praising” the organization for turning a blind eye on entrenched practices in amateur/collegiate hockey that it would prohibit in any other sport. Nocera believes that these practices are beneficial to young athletes and ought to be the rule, not the exception. Why aren’t they? Because they interfere with revenue streams that accrue to colleges at the athletes’ expense, that’s why. It’s pretty sickening stuff.

The other story needs even less in the way of summary. Truly independent fair-labor watchdogs are laughing at Apple’s pious decision to sponsor the investigation of the Foxconn City plants, where many of its products are made, by the Fair Labor Association — an outfit that, like the NCAA, is funded by the very enterprises that it is supposed to regulate.

(Technical point: the FLA will be investigating Apple’s supplier, not Apple itself. Ultimately, however, it is Apple’s decision to continue working with the Foxconn City folks that is on the line.)

Into those stories, stir the debate about the Volcker Rule. Bankers are complaining that the Rule will cost them inordinate amounts of money and also lead to job loss. Volcker to banks: tough noogies.

What all three of these stories have in common, I think, is that the behavior to be prevented or regulated is wicked. Not criminal, necessarily, but certainly nasty. Take sweatshop conditions, where the factory might be clean and well-ventilated but the workers are subject to a midnight wake-up call to meet the whims of some dork at Apple (happily no longer likely to be “the best businessman in the world today,” Dork-in-Chief Steve Jobs). How do you rationalize treating workers badly? Here’s how you do it in the early Twentieth Century: you exploit Chinese workers. You exploit Confucian ethics and Asian authoritarianism: They’re like that anyway. And maybe they are, but of course that’s not the point, not if you’re an American wondering what it cost to put an iPad in your hands for only $500.

The case of the NCAA is darkly fascinating. The point of the Association is to protect athletes from commercial exploitation. All well and good, but the mission was corrupted when the schools belonging to the Big Ten and the other football circuits were in a position to do the commercial exploitation. Once again, the underlying behavior, the exploitation of adolescent athletes, is obviously wicked. No matter who does it, it’s wrong! And Joe Nocera is certainly making the case that schools are exploiting their so-called student athletes. Even if the player gets a degree, what has he actually learned in school? How well are thesse “students” prepared for the lives that they will, with any luck, live to live after their bodies cease to be profit centers?   


As for the bankers, can anyone tell me where, on this particular moment on the Blue Planet, big banking is being done in a responsible, constructive way that does more than pour the odd bonus into punters’ pockets? South America, perhaps. You don’t hear terrible things these days about South American banking. Maybe it’s in no shape to keep up with the smart alecks in Japan, China, Europe, and the United States who have developed a broad portfolio of fucked-up strategies.

(And while we’re on the subject of smart alecks, may I suggest to Andrew Ross Sorkin that addressing Paul Volcker, even in hypothetical punditry, with a sentence beginning “C’mon…” is unbecoming? ) 

My question is this: how do you “regulate” wickedness? Is it possible?