Are Businesses Really As ‘Uncertain’ As They Claim?

Uncertainty seems to be a significant driver of corporate business decisions, or at least a very popular rationalization. The problem is that the term “uncertainty” is wielded like a “sky is falling” bogeyman that makes it seem more like a validation for corporate greed and inaction than an actual business justification.The “uncertainty card” is at play in the legal battle between Verizon and the FCC over net neutrality guidelines. A Politico article quotes former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell stating, “Nothing was broken in the broadband market before the rules were issued, and nothing is broken afterwards, except for the uncertainty created by the rules.”McDowell went on to add, “The concern for consumers is that Internet network management has become politicized as a result of these rules. Ultimately what the rules do is drive up prices for consumers because of that uncertainty.”

Really? So, Verizon believes it shouldn’t be hampered by FCC oversight because it creates uncertainty? It seems to me the FCC rules are clear and certain, while the actual uncertainty lies in what broadband providers like Verizon might do—with or without customer knowledge or consent—in the absence of a net neutrality framework.

The specter of net neutrality “uncertainty” hasn’t hindered Google GOOG -0.24% — which is out-innovating broadband providers like Verizon and Comcast CMCSA -1.25%, and delivering vastly superior service for a fraction of the cost with Google Fiber. Apparently, uncertainty is in the eye of the beholder, and has a definition that morphs depending on the agenda it’s being used to defend.

Uncertainty has become a bogeyman buzzword applied liberally as a vague defense of a position. It has a reasonable ring to it, so it seems to be a valid explanation, and yet it doesn’t actually say anything of substance. It’s used as a smoke and mirrors distraction—a rationalization that can’t be argued because there is nothing of merit to debate.

Corporate America isn’t investing because of “uncertainty” about the economy. Companies aren’t hiring because of “uncertainty” over tax rates, or healthcare, or <insert issue here>. These arguments miss two important points: 1) They ignore the culpability of corporate America in creating the problem—causing the conditions that introduced “uncertainty” into the economy in the first place. And, 2) There is no such thing as “certain” in business. Waiting for everything to be certain before making a business decision is like waiting for all of the stoplights to be green before leaving your house to go to work.

One of my Forbes peers wrote in June about the alleged uncertainty over Obamacare. Karl Smith addressed the myth that Obamacare is causing increased uncertainty for businesses, and preventing businesses from investing. Smith argued, “I have pooh-poohed this idea as being both ridiculous on its face—there are many more serious sources of uncertainty than health policy—and as being inconsistent with the data—business investment is one the strongest parts of the economy.”

To be fair, uncertainty in and of itself is a legitimate business concern. Lawrence M. Walsh, president and CEO of The 2112 Group, a market research and services firm, explains, “When businesses have limited or no transparency into how new technologies, market trends or regulations will impact their operations and revenue streams, they will pull out the uncertainty card. Uncertainty is not an illegitimate excuse, as avoidance or mitigation of risk exposure is essential for every business.”

Walsh also recognizes, however, the abuse of “uncertainty” as a bogeyman scare tactic. “Difficult to discern, though, is when uncertainty is just an excuse for not making a tough decision or cover for making unpopular decisions.”

The companies that abuse the term “uncertainty” as a justification for inaction, or a rationalization for immoral or unethical business choices are ruining it for the companies that are actually just being prudent. Walsh stressed, “While it’s easy to criticize businesses for wanting to avoid uncertainty, risk aversion and management is often the difference between thriving and starving enterprises.”