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Customers versus Governments

Customers versus Governments

    Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.


    It seems to me that no candidate for President of the United States should have an opinion about Iran. I assume any sitting President has access to secret information that the public, including candidates, do not have. And it’s likely that the secret information is meaningful. Moreover, I assume everything I read on the topic of Iran is either intentionally misleading, out of context, or just plain wrong. With those warnings in place, I will now talk about Iran, just for fun.

    Most people know that the United States has economic sanctions against Iran, which is the world’s 18th largest economy. Despite sanctions, Iran is one of the few economies that continued growing through the recent economic crisis. According to Wikipedia, Iran’s major commercial partners are China, India, Germany, South Korea, Japan, France, Russia and Italy.

    Meanwhile, the storyline is that Iran is building nuclear facilities for domestic use while also secretly planning to build nuclear weapons to destroy both Israel and themselves. According to this line of thinking, self-destruction is okay with some of the Shias in power in Iran because the 12th Imam will supernaturally appear just before Judgment Day.

    Some people question whether the 18th largest economy in the world really has a secret plan to destroy itself in a huge ball of radiation. Perhaps Iran’s nuclear effort is more about gaining leverage in future international dealings while providing Iranian citizens with a source of national pride. But whatever the motives, most observers outside Iran would be happier if Iran didn’t have a nuclear weapons option, or even an option to quickly develop an option.

    Obviously the United States is unwilling to impose economic sanctions on countries that continue to trade with Iran. We’re not about to start a full-out economic dust up with China, Japan, India, France, South Korea, Germany, and Russia. But my question for today is what would happen if American consumers targeted the specific companies doing the trading with Iran, regardless of their countries of origin? Would that strategy be practical or effective?

    In the United States, we see activists punishing domestic companies on a regular basis for all sorts of perceived and actual heinous acts. And it works. Companies act quickly to put their public relations house back in order.

    It doesn’t take much to get a boycott going these days. So I wonder if it’s possible to create a chart of companies doing business with Iran, in simple enough terms that the average consumer would understand who to boycott?

    Let’s say there’s an American company that does business with a German company that does business with Iran. If that connection were to be made public, could customers put enough pressure on the American company to influence the German company to scale back operations in Iran?

    No one wants to make unemployment worse, and boycotts could have that impact. So perhaps an acceptable rate of change could be defined as a gradual scaling back of business with Iran, perhaps 10% per year, to avoid a hypothetical boycott. That’s probably a small enough change per year to allow diversified companies to grow their overall business. But it would have a huge impact on Iran.

    What I’m suggesting here, as a thought experiment, is that citizens can influence Iran’s foreign policy in ways that governments cannot. All we’d need is the information about who trades with Iran, and who trades with the companies that trade with Iran, if such information is available.

    The second part of this strategy might involve the government of the United States approaching Iran with less of an “I’m going to bomb you any minute” attitude and more of a “You guys are awesome in your own way,” vibe. We don’t want the average Iranian citizen to think the government of the United States is an enemy. That will just strengthen support for their current leaders and their current way of business.

    Obviously I don’t know enough about Iran to have an informed opinion. (And neither do you.) My only point today is that we might be entering an era in which direct customer action is the best way to influence foreign policy, at least when dealing with the more robust economic powers. But for that shift to happen, consumers would need actionable information about who is selling what to whom. Should that sort of information ever become widely available, it would be a huge shift in the way foreign policy is handled. Obviously there would be widespread gaming of the system, and corporations would hide their actions under shell companies, but that’s a risky strategy for any company that has a brand worth protecting.

    This all brings us back to Ron Paul. I think he’s ahead of his time, and not in a good way. Someday, technology will make it possible for governments to shrink down to nearly nothing. Well-informed citizens, connected by the Internet, could accomplish almost all that government does for us today, including much of foreign policy. But that day is not today. I think the best path to smaller government involves the government transitioning into an information clearinghouse. If you’re unemployed, you want the government to tell you where you could move to have a job today. If you’re getting screwed by corporate confusopolies, you want the government to tell you which company has the best price for you. If you’re worried about Iran getting nukes, you want the government to tell you which companies do business with Iran, so you can boycott intelligently. If you care about education, you want the government to tell you which state is doing it best and exactly how.

    In the long, long term, I see governments as being nothing but intelligent managers of information. That’s a few hundred years from now.

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