Sunday, May 10, 2015

Fairness Fallacy

The American Society of Appraisers (ASA) defines "Fair Market Value" or FMV as the price (in money) that two parties would reasonably exchange when they are "neither under any compulsion to buy or sell, and both are fully aware of all relevant facts."  Reading the financial news this week, I was intrigued by how many analysts used the notion of fair value when it came to the near-floating Chinese currency, the value of Greek and Spanish debt, the importance of maintaining the eurozone, the consequence of the U.K. holding a referendum on EU affiliation, the appropriateness of the jobs statistics coming out of the U.S., or market effects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is an oxymoron when referred to as a "partnership". 

During a recent speech at the University of Notre Dame's Executive MBA graduating class, I discussed the ethics of lying.  Lying, it turns out, is a prevalent social utility for the most part because it works most of the time.  The willful concoction of a false statement to mislead another person or the selective obscuring of something that would inform another is as prevalent as conversation itself.  People manufacture stories about their past in hopes to achieve notoriety or advantage in the present.  People promote preferred dogmatic beliefs while selectively ignoring odious statements in their own codified texts.  Financial statements, tax forms, product or service promotions, religious historicism, you name it - falsehood abounds in overt and covert fashion.

It's interesting to note that lying was not listed as one of the "thou shalt nots" that many of us were taught from the tablets of stone.  While many infer that the ninth commandment about bearing false witness is a moratorium on lying, this is not likely to be entirely the case.  Bearing false witness is a very precise (and in certain eras, quite grave consequential) activity.  This is to actively make up an untrue accusation, not, say, pretending to remember it was someone's birthday a day after you were caught not remembering it.  In one of the cherished lying stories in the Bible, a couple who said that they had been charitable were allegedly struck dead for lying! 

In the class as in most conversations, the response to the question, "What's wrong with lying?" is, "Getting caught."  Interesting that the reflexive impulse around the act of lying is to suggest that its detrimental effect is its discovery. 

In business as in the rest of life, there are several more subtle, albeit equally consequential, forms of lying. 

Seduction:  seeking to appeal to an impulse that someone finds enticing to have the effect of achieving a response that, with full introspection, would not likely be engaged is a cunning form of lying.  The Latin term from which the word comes has the connotation of having someone abandon their duty.  What is most fascinating about seduction is the level of careful awareness of another that is required for this social utility to work.  If I know enough about you to know your vulnerabilities, there's a particular intimacy that must be honed on my part to know how to offer a compelling impulse sufficiently distracting to make you abandon your thoughtful judgment. 

Consumer-based marketing:  selective messaging to appeal to the desires, wants or needs of another.  One cannot interact with any form of media without having intrusive messages placed in the front of awareness.  I'm not interested in insurance, feminine hygiene products, drinkable industrial nutritional sludge, or expensive mattresses but, today, prior to reading or watching what I was actually interested in, I was bombarded by Geico, Tampax, Ensure, and TempurPedic.  Now why would I throw this activity under the lying bus?  Well, the answer is simple.  When I get a message about a good or service, I'm not getting ALL of the information.  I'm not informed of all relevant facts.

Which begs a question from the ASA FMV definition:  who determines relevant?  Does Bougainville Copper Ltd. have a duty to inform local landowners how it invests the money it didn't pay them for near 25 years before offering them a paltry settlement?  Does President Obama owe an explanation to the American people as to why the TPP must be negotiated in 'Classified' sessions when its about "free trade"?  Does a minority-owned asset manager need to explain to investors how they invest in businesses that promote diversity?  Do Geico, Tampax, Ensure, and TempurPedic have a responsibility of informing me of all the facts that I would want before making an informed purchase?

May it be appropriate to consider building models of human engagement - social, business, or otherwise - where a primary (if not main) objective is to deliver value inclusive of informing all parties of all facts - not just those selectively deemed relevant by the disclosing party?  Wouldn't it be interesting to see transactions where the value exchanged between parties included a premium for making sure that complete knowledge was shared and that, in the end, "best" was defined both by quality but also by completeness of transparency?  If you haven't disclosed to me the nature of your determination of relevance, can you ever expect me to be a willing participant in any transaction?  In other words, can I be anonymous and still receive from you the truth?

Why does any of this matter?  The answer is simple.  If we are to build robust models of human interaction and engagement, we must transform our acquiescence to the socially acceptable use of lying.  We must see willful exploitation of the ignorance of others as a part of lying and actively build transparency and integrity into the core of all our actions and interactions.   


No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave