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Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Email Files

A few things I've received by email recently:

Einstein: Why Socialism

An email suggested this essay by Albert Einstein on "Why Socialism?" I hadn't read it before and found it interesting. Here are parts of the last section -- there's quite a bit more in the original:

Why Socialism, Monthly Review, May 1998: ...I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

For the sake of simplicity, in the discussion that follows I shall call “workers” all those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production—although this does not quite correspond to the customary use of the term. ...

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists... The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of capital is thus characterized by two main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see fit; second, the labor contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the “free labor contract” for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present day economy does not differ much from “pure” capitalism.

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. ... Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.

The Lion and the Gnat

A mysterious email brings a fable from Aesop:

The Lion and the Gnat:  "Away with you, vile insect!" said a Lion angrily to a Gnat that was buzzing around his head. But the Gnat was not in the least disturbed.

"Do you think," he said spitefully to the Lion, "that I am afraid of you because they call you king?"

The next instant he flew at the Lion and stung him sharply on the nose. Mad with rage, the Lion struck fiercely at the Gnat, but only succeeded in tearing himself with his claws. Again and again the Gnat stung the Lion, who now was roaring terribly. At last, worn out with rage and covered with wounds that his own teeth and claws had made, the Lion gave up the fight. ...

There's probably a moral to this story.

The Golden Hello

Here is a (slightly edited) email I received about this article on CEO pay:

Gilded Paychecks: Pay Packages Allow Executives to Jump Ship With Less Risk, by Julie Creswell, NY Times: It’s called the “golden hello.” For a chief executive of a large corporation, it is the ... thing[s] ... that must be guaranteed before the executive will move to ... another company ..., bonuses, stock options, restricted stock and pension benefits...

Such golden hello payments are intended to make the executive “whole” — in essence to treat the executive as if his career were one smooth ascent with no costly interruptions. ... Matching salaries, guaranteed bonuses and millions of dollars in stock options are typical. ... [S]ome executives are demanding that ... they receive price protection on losses they might incur in stock they own in the company they are leaving. ...

The existence of the golden hello undermines the very reason stock options and executive pensions are offered in the first place — to encourage executives to hit performance targets and then to stick around to receive the full value of their compensation package.

“The whole rationale for giving larger bonuses and larger payouts to executives is that their total pay package is supposed to be riskier than that of the average worker,” says Eleanor Bloxham, president of the Value Alliance, a group that advises companies on corporate governance. “What’s happening with these make-whole packages is that they have no relationship with performance at the new company...” ... [A]n executive who jumps ship can virtually guarantee a multimillion-dollar payout by the new company...

Here's the email following up on that point:

The "golden hello" is a new term to me. A good example of it is Carly Fiorina's package when she left Lucent: HP picked up the "value" of her Lucent options, nice for her since Lucent proceeded to nose dive shortly after she left.

When the next company picks up the options it removes what the options are supposed to do in the first place: bind the CEO to the company and give him/her incentive to perform. Combined with the golden parachute the CEO has little incentive to do anything. using Fiorina again, estimates are as high as $200mil for her total compensation at HP for a pretty lousy performance. Now she wants to take credit for HP's rise after she was fired, but funny, she isn't interested in taking credit for Lucent's fall.


No Comment Allowed on the Age of the Grand Canyon

Via email, a pointer to Steve Benen:

Rock of Ages, Ages of Rocks: ... An interesting controversy at the Grand Canyon has been percolating for three years now, and the issue, unfortunately, remains unresolved.

First, a little background. In August 2003, the National Park Service approved a creationist text, "Grand Canyon: A Different View," to share bookshelves with legitimate books at park bookstores and museums. In this case, the "different view" meant ... touting a literal reading of scripture to explain the Canyon's formation. The book argues, for example, "[A]ccording to a biblical time scale, [the Canyon] can't possibly be more than about a few thousand years old."

The decision to promote the book didn't go over well. Scientists who work at the Grand Canyon were outraged, as was the academic community -- the American Geological Institute and seven geo-science organizations sent letters to the park and agency officials asking that the book be removed. Their objections were rebuffed; the book stayed.

Three years later, the problem appears to be slightly worse.

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

"In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists...," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "It is ... the official position of a national park [that] the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is 'no comment.'"

The National Park Service promised a high-level policy review of the issue three years ago. Apparently, that never occurred. What a surprise.

There are a couple of angles to this story. It's absurd, for example, that scientists working for the National Park Service can't answer questions from visitors about the age of the Canyon. A practical "gag rule" to hide accurate information from the public is just indefensible.

As for the book... Does every possible idea deserve the official imprimatur of the National Park Service? Will the NPS save space for The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster's ideas about the origins of the Grand Canyon, or are fundamentalist Christians the only lucky group? ...

Just to be clear, the point isn't to censor the books based on pseudo-science. If a private business, whether it be Amazon.com or a religious bookstore, wants to sell books that offer "alternative" ideas about the age of the Grand Canyon, that's up to them. That said, there's a difference between private enterprise and state sponsorship. National parks should offer the public reliable information, not religious conjecture. ...

I realize the Bush administration's assault on science is well-established at this point -- there's even a great book available on the subject -- but do we really have to wait until 2009 for this nonsense to stop?

"Body Code"

Following Brad Delong's cue not too long ago, a movie for science fans (it takes a few minutes to download):

“Body Code” by Drew Berry

Here's a description:

Scientific Visualizations, Discblog: Having a soft spot for biology, I thought the most stunning of the entries was the University of Melbourne's “Body Code” by Drew Berry: a 9-minute tour of a freakishly chaotic molecular world (warning: a 35MB clip lays in wait).

In the first part of the film, we’re taken to the surface of a stem cell. Like a spasming blue seahorse, a surface antenna protein wiggles on screen and waits for its chemical cue. When it receives the signal—a flying, glowing, orange-yellow ball of fire straight out of Super Mario Brothers—it changes shape, pairs with another activated protein buddy, sends out a signal to the immune system, and ultimately instructs the stem cell to divide.

Next up is DNA organization. A pinkish double-helix strand appears on-screen, quivering like the tail of an angry rattlesnake. Then a histone protein, looking like a frantic blue puppy, comes seemingly out of nowhere lands on the piece of DNA. Two more upset puppies land on the snake and begin curling it into a chromosome. While Science just wets our appetites with a 1 minute and 32-second clip, the snippet alone is enough to reveal the molecular world as dynamic and energetic. ... (To see more of Berry's films, click here.)

[This came by email - thanks.]

On email, I really like getting suggestions of things to post -- I've found some really good things that way and the help is much appreciated.

So please, make suggestions. But I also worry that if someone sends something and I don't post it, they will wonder why. If that happens, it doesn't mean it wasn't something really good. There are lots and lots of reasons why I don't get to things. So, I hope that if that happens it won't dissuade anyone from emailing the next thing they see that looks interesting. But I hope you'll understand if, for some reason, I don't get it posted.

And thanks to everyone who has lent a hand so far. As I said, it's been appreciated.

    Posted by on Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 11:43 AM in Economics, Miscellaneous | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (2)


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