Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why does a business have to grow?

Profit growth is an obsession of industry analysts and pundits. Every day there are headlines in the business sections of newspapers and websites along the lines of, "Company X revenue and profit growth disappoints, shares plummet Y%." Another way to state the same thing is, "Firm X had more sales and is more profitable than last year, yet is worth less today than yesterday."

I've never understood the rationale behind why a company must continually grow in order to be considered successful.

Let's assume that a company has revenues of $10 million, and a respectable net profit of $1 million. (Feel free to add or subtract a zero or two to make this company larger or smaller.)

Let's further assume that there is no inflation or, if you prefer, these numbers grow or shrink at the rate of inflation or deflation.

Note that this does not imply a static business model. Our hypothetical company will make investments to reduce its costs and deal with competitive pressures that reduce its margin. It will adjust its product portfolio over time and periodically introduce new services. The net effect of all this change, however, is financially neutral: real revenues remain constant and the firm is consistently but not increasingly profitable.

My question is: What's wrong with making a million dollars of profit on revenues of ten million every year? Why is growth of these numbers deemed a necessary element of success for a corporation?

Such a company would be savaged on the stock market, and I do not understand why.

I asked this question during a class discussion during my MBA studies, and received many responses that made no sense. Only one answer, while still unsatisfactory, was at least coherent. A classmate told me that since this firm's competitors would be striving for growth, it risked being left behind and eventually being swallowed up by its much larger rivals.

There must be something more, though. There must be some justification for an unrelenting focus on growth beyond, "Everyone else is doing it!" But I don't know what it could be, and haven't been able to come up with anything plausible.

Can you help?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Morality, responsibility, and the Catholic Church

I was so appalled by this article that I felt compelled to write a response. This was originally written in August 2011.

Morality, responsibility, and the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church recently argued before the British High Court that it cannot be held vicariously liable for the actions of its priests. Despite appointing priests to their dioceses, moving them around as it sees fit, obtaining tax benefits for them in nearly every nation, and seeking exemptions on their behalf from anti-discrimination and human rights legislation where it conflicts with Catholic dogma, the Roman Catholic Church has claimed that priests are not employees, and therefore the Church cannot be accountable for their crimes. In other words, the Vatican argued that it cannot be held responsible for the sins of its Fathers.

Raping a child is wrong. Anyone who finds this statement in the least bit objectionable, or attempts to subject it to numerous caveats and exemptions, has no place in a civilised conversation about morality.

Mass child molestation is among the most horrific crimes imaginable. Numerous reports have detailed a pattern of systemic sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in many countries on every continent. In all cases - every single one - the Catholic Church has done its utmost to evade any responsibility for these heinous transgressions: from denying any abuse ever took place, to attempting (often successfully) to ensure that local legal authorities did not learn that Church officials were molesting children, to promising internal investigations that never took place.

Forced sex with a young child is inherently vile and revolting. Yet the offensiveness of these acts is magnified by the fact that they were perpetrated by authority figures while entrusted with supervising children in their care. An assault from a stranger is terrible; it is all the more appalling when committed by a someone in a position invested with public authority and trust, such as a teacher, police officer, or member of the clergy.

And yet it gets worse still. The Catholic hierarchy has, at every turn, attempted to deny, obfuscate, and bury any accusation of impropriety. Rather than fire or discipline the priestly paedophiles in their ranks, the Church regularly shuffled them to new districts where they often repeated their crimes. Regardless of how aware the Pope, as head of the Church, was of these actions, their consistent nature, around the world, over the course of decades, qualifies the Catholic Church as a criminal organisation.

Recall, too, that this behaviour comes from a sect that preaches a universal moral code. Indeed, many Catholics argue that no morality is possible without the words written on their sacred scrolls. The sheer extent of the hypocrisy is astounding. It is inconceivable how anyone can look at the tens of thousands of children's lives shattered by the utter betrayal of these religious authority figures and claim that being steeped in the principles of Catholicism leads to a moral life where adherents accept responsibility for their actions.

The Catholic Church, patently contravening its self-serving rhetoric of being a force for good in the world, has demonstrated repeatedly that it will take any steps it deems necessary to protect itself, no matter how clearly it violates every reasonable definition of decency.

Morality and responsibility are core components of any civilised society. By its actions, the Catholic Church has revealed that these concepts are utterly foreign to its character. Let us turn to other sources for inspiration and role models for how to lead a good life and contribute to making a better world for ourselves and our children.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Who runs our schools?

The piece below was largely written in December, 2010. It was sent to various media but rejected because the issue wasn't news enough for publication. When the topic became a hot-button issue after an Ontario Catholic school banned the rainbow during an anti-homophobia event (truth is stranger than fiction at times), most papers ran their own editorials on the subject and so don't need external contributions.

The essay could be updated on at least a monthly basis with new offenses to basic human decency and morality. I have included one from just a few weeks ago.


Who runs our schools?

Determining who sets the rules governing the publicly funded school systems in Ontario ought to be a relatively straightforward endeavour. But it turns out that who sets the rules, and who is obliged to follow them, depends not so much on who you believe, but instead on what you believe.

In theory, responsibility for setting the curriculum lies with the Ontario Ministry of Education, which also sets standards for acceptable conduct that is consistent with (among other statutes) provincial law and the principles of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In practice, however, there seems to be one set of rules for the public school system, and another for the separate (Catholic) boards. This has led to province-wide threats that Catholic schools will disregard educational standards, curriculum content, provincial mandates, and even the Canadian Constitution.

When religious dogma is deemed more important than equitable treatment for all, injustice is inevitable. Individual students in the Catholic school system all too frequently must endure significant encroachments on their rights to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.

In January 2010, changes to the sex education curriculum were posted to the Ontario Ministry of Education's website. These went largely unnoticed until April, when protests about the changes hit a fever pitch. During the brief period when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty defended the new subject matter, the reaction from Catholic schools was mutinous.

Defending the claims from several Catholic school boards that they would refuse to teach the revamped curriculum, Lou Piovesan, general secretary of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, claimed "Catholic schools do have denominational rights." His position was that these rights allow the separate school board to teach what they choose to their students, regardless of the official curriculum. The public has a constitutional obligation to fund Catholic schools, citizens are told, but "denominational rights" imply that Catholic schools can ignore whatever aspects of mandated provincial standards they disapprove of.

In other words: Material taught within the classroom is subject to a veto from religious authorities.

Why do Ontarians continue to accept this indecent double standard?

Ontario has passed legislation stating that all school boards must create inclusive policies to promote a safe environment for children of all creeds, religions, and sexual orientations. These anti-discriminatory policies are being covertly sidelined at the board level - Halton Catholic District's policies omit any mention of gender or sexual orientation equality. The chairwoman of the board justifies this because "we will not do anything against magisterial of the Catholic Church."

In other words: The Pope trumps the law.

How is this position in any way justifiable or permissible?

A student at Bishop Reding Catholic Secondary School in Milton has been trying to establish a gay-straight alliance since September 2010. In response, the Halton Catholic District School Board banned such groups from their schools earlier this year. Again, the chairwoman claimed that such a ban was justified "because they are not within the teachings of the Catholic Church." (The official ban was soon overturned after immense public outcry, but there are still no gay-straight alliances or similar support groups at any Halton Catholic school.) At a meeting on August 31, 2011, the Toronto Catholic District School board made this explicit: they passed a resolution that affirms denominational rights will take precedence when there is a conflict with government policy.

In other words: Catholic doctrine is more important than human rights.

Why do Ontario tax dollars continue to fund blatant discrimination?

The symbol of the rainbow was banned at a Mississauga Catholic school, ironically enough, during an anti-homophobia event on June 3, 2011. In March, at least seven students were suspended or sent home for wearing a green piece of tape with the word "choice" written on it - on a day when a school-sponsored event encouraged students to wear red tape emblazoned with "life". John de Faveri, Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board director, defended the action, stating,  "Pro-life is part of the Catholic stand. The pro-choice students were not appropriate in the context of a Catholic school."

In other words: In a Catholic school, censorship is an entirely appropriate means of stifling the voices of those who disagree.

How long will Ontario taxpayers continue to fund a school system that denies its students their right to freedom of expression in a peaceful and respectful manner?

If Catholics want to have denominational schools, they should pay for them privately - just as Jews, Baptists, Muslims, and Hindus must do today. The current state of affairs is intolerable morally, legally (the UN Human Rights Committee found Ontario guilty of religious discrimination in 1999 and 2005), and financially (at minimum, the separate school system costs Ontario hundreds of millions of dollars in additional, unnecessary expenditure every year).

Quebec moved to a single public school system by a simple bilateral constitutional amendment consisting of a mere twelve words. A recent Canadian Press-Harris Decima poll indicates a majority of Canadians are comfortable with modifying the Constitution to achieve worthy goals.

Ontario should cease funding a system that is discriminatory, censorious, and contemptuous of both the rights of its students and the laws of the land. Ontario should do the right thing. Ontario should move to a single secular public school system.