When a group of students recently met with me about getting MIT to divest from fossil fuels, I suggested a more effective approach: If they really want to mitigate climate change, I suggested, start by calling out politicians and others who continue to deny the scientific consensus about climate change and its causes. And as I thought about the need to hold people accountable for the consequences of their science denial, I realized that institutions such as my own — not just our students — also need to get off the sidelines. We need to do a better job of defending and championing scientific truth.
And we cannot wait. The title for a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that opened on July 18 gets it right:“Climate Change: It’s Happening Now.” But so, too, is denial, and not just of the manmade causes of climate change.
Have you ever been shopping and found a great jacket with a perfect fit? Then you look at the price tag and pause. Should you buy that perfect item now or wait to see if it’s still available during the inevitable end-of-season sale? What if the store told you that it only had a limited number left, or only had two on the rack in your size?
In a recent study I conducted with Prof. Karen Zheng, we found that as consumers have become more strategic about purchases, behavioral motives like regret and availability misperception are significant factors and should play a key role in pricing strategy.
Regret happens when consumers compare the outcome of a chosen action with that of the unchosen one and realize they would have been better off with the latter. In other words, they may regret buying the jacket now at the higher price if it turns out to be available during the sale for 30% off. Similarly, they may regret not buying it now if their size is gone by the time of the sale.
Apple issued $12 billion of U.S. debt in April, which gave the company a domestic cash infusion that allowed it to keep more earnings overseas. Last month PfizerPFE attempted to acquire AstraZeneca, a transaction that would have made Pfizer a subsidiary of the U.K.-based company. These were useful examples in the taxation classes I teach at MIT’s business school, but the real-world implications of these decisions are troubling. Even worse, legislators have responded with proposals that seek to prevent companies from escaping the U.S. tax system.
The U.S. corporate statutory tax rate is one of the highest in the world at 35%. In addition, the U.S. has a world-wide tax system under which profits earned abroad face U.S. taxation when brought back to America. The other G-7 countries, however, all have some form of a territorial tax system that imposes little or no tax on repatriated earnings.
To compete with foreign-based companies that have lower tax burdens, U.S. corporations have developed do-it-yourself territorial tax strategies. They accumulate foreign earnings rather than repatriate the earnings and pay the U.S. taxes. This lowers a company’s tax burden, but it imposes other costs.
For example, U.S. corporations hold more than $2 trillion in unremitted foreign earnings, a substantial portion of which is in cash. This is cash that currently can’t be reinvested in the U.S. or given to shareholders. As a consequence, companies are borrowing more in the U.S. to fund domestic operations and pay dividends. Another potential effect is that companies invest the earnings in foreign locations.
Nearly one fifth of American workers work in retail and fast food, and they have bad jobs. They earn poverty-level wages, have unpredictable schedules that make it hard to hold on to a second job, and have few opportunities for success and growth. These are not just people who are uneducated or unskilled. In 2010 more than a third of all working adults with jobs that did not pay a living wage had at least some college education or a degree.
The conventional wisdom in business is that bad jobs like this are necessary to keep prices low and profits high. If a low-cost retail chain were to pay its cashiers more, then it would either make less money or have to raise its prices. Implicit in this logic is the seemingly self-evident tradeoff between low prices and good jobs. But that is a false tradeoff. Even in highly competitive industries like low-cost retail, it is possible to pay employees decent wages and treat them well while giving customers the low prices they demand.
I studied four retail chains that manage to do this: Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip (a U.S. chain of convenience stores with gas stations), and Mercadona (Spain’s largest supermarket chain). They offer their employees much better jobs than their competitors, all the while keeping their prices low and performing well in all the ways that matter to any business. They have high productivity, great customer service, healthy growth, and excellent returns to their investors. They compete head-on with companies that spend far less on their employees, and they win.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra appeared before a Senate panel once again Thursday to discuss the company’s flawed ignition switches and vowed that GM will “do all it can to make certain that this does not happen again.”
In terms of damage control, much of what Barra and GM appear to be doing right now is positive: fessing up about product failures, bringing in outside investigators and firing employees that failed to take appropriate measures.
And while these are important steps, they amount only to a good, if somewhat belated, crisis management strategy. In fact, these efforts pale against the very real organizational challenges that lay ahead for GM and Barra. In order make good on her promise to Congress, Barra must prevent the kinds of engineering failures that caused the ignition problems in the first place and the organizational failures that propelled the problem to its current tragic magnitude. And that will mean changing the culture at GM.
Engineers like to be right. They like to prove that they have the correct answer.
Highly trained and highly motivated to solve problems, at the point of releasing a design or demonstrating a model or a prototype, everything in them is wired to prove that they’ve arrived at the right answer. The premium is so high on being “right” that even when data starts proving them wrong, they work to show that they are right somehow. They seek to explain what is happening is an exceptional outlier or an aberration; not that it is a sign of a problem. Read More »