US Patent and Trademark Office Checkmates the Washington Redskins (Poll)

 

2. Markets struggle with morality. 

 

A second complaint launched by USPTO critics claims that markets more appropriately sort-out social questions. This narrative suggests, “If indeed the term Washington Redskins is derogatory towards Native Americans, consumers would eventually relax their support of the NFL franchise.”

While this is true in certain instances, when applied to the Washington Redskins controversy, this line of thinking suffers from conceptual and technical flaws.

First is a technical problem related to the [professional sports] economy itself. Where product/service substitutes readily exist, markets are more likely to gravitate to wholesome (moral) choices. A common theme runs through most successful consumer protest movements. That being, the availability of substitutes. We see this on a regular basis modern sectors of our economy.

Protests by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] have in-part resulted in a 30-year decline of fur coat sales. Earlier this year, nine members of Greenpeace broke into the corporate headquarters of Procter & Gamble, hanging a banner along its building exterior in protest of the company’s palm oil that the activist group asserts leads to deforestation in Indonesia. The Greenpeace action led to Procter & Gamble’s adopting a policy of “no-deforestation” regarding its palm oil supply. In both cases, fur coats and body cleansers/conditioners/lotion, product substitutes abound.

Unfortunately, one of the downsides of un-natural (i.e., legislated) monopolies is the artificial limiting of consumer choice of economic supply. Such an arrangement constitutes a private-public cartel with power of preventing consumers from satisfying demand from available alternatives. In these situations, relying on a market’s moral leanings is impractical, particularly in the near-term.

Another technical problem involves the consumer side of the market equation. Namely, where buyers are few or “concentrated”, producers and service producers tend to be more responsive to [moral] demands. So, for instance, the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott was possible, in large part, because the burgeoning black community was vital to the local transportation sector. Had similar boycotts transpired with [small population] blacks in Vermont, Utah, or Wyoming, it is doubtful that calls for social justice would have met a similar success.

Native Americans face this dilemma with a popular franchise based in our nation’s capital. The Washington Redskins have consistently sold out their season tickets. It is not uncommon for heightened demand to create waiting lists that run year-in and year-out. While fans might sympathize with Native Americans on the terminology controversy, the numbers were insufficient to stymie the sale of tickets, concession, merchandise, and broadcasting rights. The market of readily available consumers simply poses no impetus for Dan Synder to address the moral question in a meaningful manner and one acceptable to Native Americans.

A third problem with the market’s resolution is more conceptual. One can safely argue that the primary function of any civilized society is to “do no harm”; that is the maintenance of civility.  While a highly functioning economy is necessary to sustain the nation, economics is not sufficient for this long-term goal. Hence, we are first a nation of laws. If economics were our chief concern, drug trafficking and prostitution would be legal enterprises. The stealing, reconstituting, and selling of “hot” property would be commercially legitimate. And the distribution of contaminated food would not violate federal, state, or local codes as long as willing partners were on opposite ends of the transaction.

Governing ourselves first according to laws, and not economics, reveals our deepest preoccupations as a nation. Laws constrain commerce as they do other societal arrangements. The need for laws further demonstrates that our market economy (i.e., markets) are amoral, conceptually. In a vacuum or perhaps on paper, markets would appear to exhibit more mechanical attributes. However, when left to their devices, markets all-too-often evolve to immortal tendencies. Matters of cost vs. benefit cloud market operations. And history has demonstrated the failure of markets where morality collides with the harsh realities of profits.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Abusive child labor practices. Environmental destruction. Patent infringements. False product claims. Horrendous work conditions. These are manifestations of markets’ struggles to do the “just” thing. Corporations routinely factoring liabilities into risk management models so as to justify unethical decisions — such as faulty product designs — are fixtures in the American economy. We can only speculate how many centuries would have passed, for instance, before purchasers of carpet, draperies, clothing, and other textiles would have rejected these goods because of their close affiliation with slavery.

Markets often choose financial gain over moral priorities. And there is simply no evidence to suggest that the Washington Redskins offensive language, supported by a large [white] majority would yield the kind of backlash required to change course in the team’s branding. All indicators to-date, including perennial ticket sellouts, suggest the Native American grievance was falling on far too many deaf ears to impact the “market”.

 

 

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