Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Notes on Uranium Weapons and Kitsch

I read this essay by George Gessert recently. If I could find a free link, I would use it, but I can't. I just hope a fair amount of that money is going to George. I liked the essay. I recommend looking it up through some sort of library database and reading it. It was well-written.

While in class, I tried to attack it by pointing out that even if "kitsch" (and I see that George uses kitsch in a somewhat different way than Wikipedia describes) allows atrocities to happen, does that really place the blame more on the American people, who are distracted by kitsch, than it does on the people actually behind the atrocities? Can we really blame either one? The American people are ignorant dupes, sure, but the leaders of America are basically sociopaths. Neither one has the moral sense of a philosopher, so why does it make any sense to judge them as if they were philosophers? Humans are what they are. That doesn't mean we can't try to change it, though, or point out where humans go wrong. Thus my critique is not really a very good critique -- it's perfectly reasonable and indeed important to point out that Americans live in a fake world of art while much of the rest of the world struggles to survive (hoping to live like Americans do -- in dreamworld).

After leaving the classroom I figured out what I'd really wanted to say: that most art is kitsch, and academic "high" art no less than others. I wish I could respect academics. I like them -- the faculty at my school couldn't be nicer -- but they are too narrow-minded, weak, and specialized to really respect or take seriously. They don't institute change, so why should they complain when the American people don't? They don't necessarily know good policy, and even if they do, they don't run for office to implement it. They think they're smart, but for all their intelligence they can't rise to the top. Or maybe they are at the top, and they're just fucking everything up. Or maybe I'm just an idiot and all my favored policy solutions wouldn't work.

If you know how to fix something, does that give you a moral obligation to try to fix it? If that "moral obligation" doesn't exist, then maybe it should. But I'm betting some "ethicist" will remind me that yes, of course it does, though it exists only because some ethicist feels it should -- it "feels" right. But didn't I just say that such an obligation should exist? Hmm.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Diminishing Marginal Returns and Academia

Academics specialize. It's what they do. Hell, it's probably more accurate to say that all humans specialize -- just that some of us specialize in rather mundane tasks. There are good economic reasons for that: specialization and comparative advantage allows for more and better work to get done.

Yet there are diminishing marginal returns to specialization, and an academic (especially in the social sciences and humanities) who knows nothing outside her field will generally not produce work as full as someone who is broadly trained. There will always be gaps obvious to those trained in other fields. The irony is that learning the other fields' perspectives can be so simple. After taking one class in Sociology I had the tools and perspectives: structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Now, I may have relatively crude conceptions of these theories, but the rational theory behind them has served me well nonetheless in philosophy and daily life. Similarly, all it takes to absorb the most integral concepts of economics such as opportunity cost, diminishing marginal returns, comparative advantage, and externalities is one easy class! The rest of the classes mainly just teach you other applications of these tools!

By the way, I've found that many faculty members at my school have never heard of an externality. If you haven't taken an intro economics or sociology class, you should!

The same applies to a lesser degree in mathematics and the sciences. Everyone should do at least Integral Calculus. And the reason most people don't has nothing to do with intelligence -- it has to do with willpower, interest, and teaching styles.

The most important reason for someone to be broadly trained is that these people make better citizens. And when I mean broadly trained I mean, of course, trained in economics at least. ;)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Fighting the Good Fight

Lucian Bebchuck is one of the seemingly few economists who can see what appears obvious to those of us who trade stocks: executive compensation is out of control, and its robbing shareholders. I'm reading his Executive Compensation As An Agency Problem [PDF] and in the second page he notes that "shareholders could try to challenge pay arrangements in court [but] ... corporate law rules effectively prevent courts from reviewing compensation decisions."

He has quite a vitae. Obviously one major step towards fixing this problem is changing corporate law. The next step is to require cumulative voting rather than slate voting -- or at least some alternative to slate voting. While the Wikipedia [WP] article notes that cumulative voting is required for corporations in many states, it neglects to point out that 50% of public companies are incorporated in Delaware (60% of Fortune 500 companies). Most of the remainder are incorporated in Nevada!

As with most major problems, there are simple and easy ways to at least partially remedy the problem. The inherent barrier is simply ignorance and perhaps deceit. I don't have time to research this issue thoroughly, but I will post if I find more simple solutions. Here is Bebchuck's solution.

UPDATE: Why Incorporate in Nevada?

2. Your Officers and Directors Can Be Indemnified.

In 1987, the Nevada Legislature passed a revolutionary law that permits corporations to place provisions in their articles of incorporation that eliminate the personal liability of officers and directors to the stockholders of Nevada Corporations.

This is one of the main reasons large companies like Citibank are domiciled in Nevada. Delaware and a few other states soon adopted lesser versions of this law, but Nevada's law remains among the most thorough and comprehensive in the country.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Industrial Ecology

When I first heard the term industrial ecology I didn't think much of it. But this story has perked my interest:
    At the center of the Kalundborg industrial park is a large, coal-fired electrical power-generating station. Waste steam from the power plant runs a pharmaceutical plant and an oil refinery. Waste heat is piped to houses in the nearby town, replacing 3,500 household oil heaters. Waste water from the oil refinery goes back to the power plant, in place of fresh water that had previously been pumped from nearby Lake Tisso. Waste gas from the refinery runs a factory making gypsum wallboard, which also uses gypsum extracted from the power plant's wastes. Sulfur, a byproduct of the oil refinery, becomes sulfuric acid at yet another plant. Fly ash, left over from the power plant, is made into cement. The sludge from the pharmaceutical plant's yeast-based processes fertilizes farmers' fields. Like symbiosis between plants or animals, what one partner excretes the other needs. One industry's trash is another's treasure.

It seems that there's huge potential to be had in connecting the industrial dots. This also reminds me a book I've always wanted to read, Cradle to Cradle.