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Monday, January 4, 2016

Increasing Complexity and More Energy in the Context of Evolutionary Biology

In “the story of increasing complexity and then decreasing complexity,” we find complexity in “privileged localities” where “intense local flows of energy that are dissipated elsewhere, where things are less complex. . . . So increasing entropy in one region seems to allow decreasing entropy—that is to say, increasing complexity—in some very special regions, such as the surface of our Earth.”[1] Differentials in the universe began in the random, unpredictable differences at the sub-atomic level at the very beginning of the Big Bang.  It took 380,000 years for tiny differentials in temperatures and mass-densities to show up in the cosmic radiation background. Since then, much steeper energy-gradients have developed, and these have enabled greater complexity to arise and subsist.
Contemplating the enigma, wherein increased complexity and the associated additional energy required occurs amid a more general entropic process of a flattening out or dispersion of energy in the universe as a whole, can lead to the question of whether the level of complexity now extant in human civilization is a work in progress or a pinnacle. That is to say, will hitherto undiscovered sources of energy boost human arrangements and infrastructure—artifices of human intentionality—to higher levels of complexity? At a much longer temporal scale, will the Milky Way gain in energy and complexity as a result of incorporating a passing galaxy? In both cases, I marvel at the enigma wherein steeper energy gradients serve as more efficient energy conduits on the way to an entropic final destination. 

This history of life on Earth is a tale of increasing biological complexity. A single cell is more complex than is the Sun and our planet. From the Cambrian period, the diversity of plant and animal organisms has expanded so much from the common one-celled ancestor that we can say with Plotinus, "(I)t is a wonder how the multiplicity of life derives from what is not multiplicity, and the multiplicity would not have existed unless what was not multiplicity had not existed before the multiplicity."[2] What we typically forget is that with each increase in biological complexity, more free energy is necessary to sustain it.  
In human history, the capture of energy from the Sun for our species’ use has increased dramatically from the hunter-gatherer days to today. The leap afforded by the Neolithic Revolution, when nomads—taking advantage of “Garden of Eden” conditions—began sedentary, agricultural lives, is dwarfed by the tremendous jump in energy-usage from fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution. The change in technological and organizational complexity due to the Industrial Revolution far exceeds the increase in complexity that came as a result of the Neolithic Revolution.
Because 95% of our species’ time on Earth was spent in the hunter-gatherer, small clan, social arrangement, the incredible leap in energy usage (now 100 times what is needed for survival, per capita) from fossil fuels whose stored energy far exceeds the potential energy of animals and human labor, and the related leap in complexity in spheres such as business, government, and society (e.g., large cities) during and after the Industrial Revolution makes us fish out of water, evolutionarily speaking. That is to say, natural selection—the mechanism discovered by Darwin whereby a changed environment “selects” mutations that are more favorable to it—has not had enough time to adjust our species to the world that we have created.
For instance, we are “hard-wired” for having contact with up to 150 people because that’s how big clans got during 95% of the time that natural selection has had to fashion our species via incremental alterations or adjustments. We are fish out of water in the cities we ourselves have built. Similarly, natural selection is too long-paced to alter our innate short-sightedness such that we can apply collective learning to obviate the threats to our species’ survival from our energy use, such as in climate change. In short, the increasingly large leaps in the steepness of the energy gradients enabled by our successively rich energy-sources have by now outstripped the energy of our evolutionary biology being able to “catch up.” Put another way, our amazingly complex biology—far from the Cambrian Revolution that led to the diversification of life—is not in sync with the complexity that we have constructed to make our lives easier and even happier.

[1] David Christian, “Big History” Lecture (2015).
[2] Plotinus, The Enneads, III.8[3]10.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

On the Key Role of Energy in the Industrial Revolution

Reading from Peter Stearns' "The Industrial Revolution in World History," I'm intrigued with the twin elements of fossil fuels to power the machinery and organizational management to organize the production process, including the continued use of human energy/labor. I suppose Descartes' "mind-body" dualism is getting in the way of my understanding of the industrial revolution from the standpoint of the leap of energy and the related increase in complexity. 

The full essay is at "Key Role of Energy."

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Big Short and Concussion: A System on Steroids

Want a glimpse of the "powers that be," American-style? Three films--"The Big Short," "Concussion," and "Spotlight"--together form a perfect storm that in theory could trigger resistance. More practically speaking, the films are likely to result in more departmentalization, psychologically speaking. 

The full essay is at "The Big Short and Concussion."

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On the Financial Crisis of 2008: Why Business Ethics Failed

I submit that the academic field of business ethics failed in not being able to anticipate the fraud and exploited conflicts of interest that precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. That is to say, business-ethics scholars, including myself, failed utterly. To the extent that the general public relies on us to shoot off flairs in advance of a high likelihood of icebergs in the water ahead, we failed in our social responsibility, ironically as many of us were admonishing corporate managers to be socially responsible. Many who did so used could use their programs as advertisements or even window-dressing. In this essay, I point to some of the academic reasons why business-ethics scholars failed so miserably.

The full essay is at "On the Financial Crisis of 2008: Why Business Ethics Failed."

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pope Francis Addresses the U.N.: A Religious Rationale for Reducing Carbon Emissions

Pope Francis declared to more than 100 world leaders and diplomats at the United Nations in late September 2015 that a "right of the environment" exists and that our species has no authority to abuse it or render it unfit for human habitation.[1]  In stressing that urgent action is needed to halt the destruction of God's creation, he made explicit reference to a religious basis for his moral claim. He said the universe is the result of a "loving decision by the creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the creator: He is not authorized to abuse it, much less destroy it."[2] This statement may overplay both the religious nature of the basis and the destruction. I turn now to parsing the statement in three parts, after which I will supply the basis of the pope’s religious rationale, which is narrower than he suggested in his speech.

The complete essay is at “Pope Francis at the U.N. on Climate Change.”

Pope Francis addressing the United Nations' General Assembly. (Bryan Thomas/Getty)

[1] Nicole Winfield and Jennifer Peltz, “Pope Beseeches World Leaders to Protect the Environment,” Associated Press, September 25, 2015.
[2] Ibid.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Business Implications of Power in Mergers: The Case of the New United Airlines

Ideally, a merger combines the best features of one company with those of another company such that the whole is of greater value than the sum of the two parts. Optimal combination as such may imply or at least depend on a rough power-balance between the two adjoining companies, for otherwise distended dominance could translate into the worst of one company (i.e., the dominate one) being foisted onto the merged entity. The opportunity cost, or benefit lost in going with the worst of the dominant company, could be measured by the extent to which the same function in the other company is better than that of the dominant company. Put another way, it would make no sense to go into a merger planning to let each company continue to do what it does worse than the other. Sadly, power can eclipse economic criteria even in a company. The merger of Continental Airlines and United Airlines provides a case in point.

United's "Love in the Air" promotion highlighting couples who met in the air. The case of the winning couple pictured here just happens to involve an "upgrade." The love in the air does not refer here to the employees on board or at the gate, even though the impression intended may be that flying United is a loving experience. (United Airlines)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Great Lakes Water in the U.S.: Treating a Union as a State

Squabbling amongst states in a federal system may be an inherent feature of federalism. How much the jealousies and petty interests manifest in terms of policies may depend on the balance of power between the federation itself and its member-states. In the case of the E.U., the spat at the state level over how to allocate the tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa effectively stymied federal action that could have assuaged the angst. It is no accident that the state governments hold most of the governmental sovereignty in the E.U. federal system. By contrast, the case of the U.S. demonstrates that nearly consolidated power at a federal level can obviate, or stifle, strife between state governments. This alternative is not optimal either, for interstate differences tend to be ignored, resulting in increasing pressure on the federal system itself. How to handle municipal requests for drinking water from Lake Michigan is a case in point.

The full essay is at “Great Lakes Water: American Federalism.” 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Subtle Conflict of Interest in Obama’s Nominee for FDA Commissioner

Robert Califf, U.S. President Barak Obama’s nominee in 2015 to head the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), had received consulting fees of roughly $205,000 between 2009 and early 2015 from drug companies and a medical-device maker.[1] He donated the money he had made since around 2005 to nonprofit groups, and he had ceased all such work before he became the FDA deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco. The question is whether he would have a conflict of interest in taking the helm at the regulatory agency that puts the public’s interest above those of the regulated companies. I contend that such a conflict is indeed entailed, though not on account of the money he received or any relationships he had developed with people at the companies.

 The complete essay is at “FDA Nominee Conflict-of-Interest.”

[1] Drug companies spent an additional $21,000 reimbursing the cardiologist for travel, meals, and other expenses. Joseph Walker, “FDA Nominee Received Industry Fees,” The Wall Street Journal, September 19-20, 2015.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bank of America Board Ignores a Binding Resolution: Fiduciaries Seizing Power from Shareholders

Corporate board directors have a fiduciary duty to act in the shareholders’ financial interest. What if a board’s directors think they know better that the stockholders as to their interest? In such a case, the directors would be acting like elected representatives who vote contrary to the wishes of their constituents for their own good. While valid from the standpoint of representative democracy, I’m not sure the principle has legitimacy in the corporate context, wherein property-rights are being represented. Simply put, an owner gets to decide how his or her wealth is used, within legal parameters of course. The case of Bank of America’s board may suggest that directors essentially work for their managements while being shamelessly dismissive of even binding directives from the stockholders as a group.

The complete essay is at “Corporate Governance at Bank of America.” 

The man of the hour. Brian Moynihan, Chair and CEO of Bank of America as of 2015. His power exceeded even that of the stockholders, whose concentrated wealth he managed. Lest it be maintained that a CEO with such power optimizes corporate earnings, consider that his predecessor, Ken Lewis, had the bank purchase Countrywide, whose fraudulent mortgages played a vital role in bringing about the financial crisis of 2008. Perhaps CEO/chair duality is of value simply in reducing a corporation's systemic risk. Hence, Congress may legitimately intervene.(Simon Dawson/Getty Images)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Pope Francis Puts Up A Syrian Refugee Family: An Opportunity to Clean House

During wars, houses of worship have become temporary hospitals meeting very practical needs. Caring for the suffering is particularly close to the message and example that Jesus provided. In response to Pope Francis’s call for each parish in Europe to take in at least one refugee family amid the tremendous influx of mostly Syrian refugees in 2015, the pope himself arranged to take in a family. Leading by example is certainly fitting for a follower of Jesus. I submit that the pope could have gone even further to drive home the message of what it means to be a Christian.

The complete essay is at “Pope Francis Puts Up Syrian Refugee Family.” 

Pope Francis washing the feet of men and women in a juvenile detention center on Holy Thursday in 2013. That he washed women's feet flustered some people in the Vatican who missed the main point of the ritual. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Gay Marriage: God’s Law, Legal Reasoning, and Ideology

Mixing religion, jurisprudence, and ideology together is one potent drink. Ingestion can cause palpable heart-burn as well as migraine headaches. In the case of gay marriage in the U.S., sorting out and evaluating the three elements can be rife with controversy and thus confusion. In this essay, I discuss the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples because doing so would violate God’s law and thus betray Jesus. Her religious rationale makes for interesting legal reasoning. I then look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision. I contend that a natural-right (and thus human right) basis clashes with ideological anger. Human nature itself is on display throughout, particularly as it wades into religion, legal reasoning, and ideology.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Why the E.U. is Compromised in Handling the Refugee Crisis

At least four E.U. states, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, rejected a federal plan on September 11, 2015 that would have imposed refugee quotas on the states. The failure to come up with a fair allocation of migrants by state threatened to undo the borderless travel within the E.U. The tremendous influx of mostly Syrian refugees exacerbated differences between the states; given their power even at the federal level of the E.U., the infighting was a risk to the viability of the E.U. itself. I contend that structural flaws in the E.U. itself unnecessarily compromised the Union from quashing the risk to itself by solving the refugee problem. The state governments were clearly not in unison in dealing with the problem themselves.

The complete essay is at “Why is the E.U. Compromised from Within?”

Refugees held up in Hungary because the state's government was overwhelmed. Why didn't the E.U. step in to help? (Mauricio Limo/NYT).

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Corbyn as Labour Party Leader in Britain: Are Increased Deficits Implied or Avoidable?

The notion that a political party oriented to redressing the widening economic inequality during the years following the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent debt-crisis in the E.U. necessarily must increase government deficits to do so is, I submit, faulty. That is to say, being especially oriented to the plight of the poor, with the goal being the elimination of extreme poverty, can be consistent with fiscal responsibility. The election of a socialist as leader of Britain’s Labour party presents us with an interesting case of assumed fiscal irresponsibility.

The complete essay is at "Anti-Poverty and Budget Deficits."

Jeremy Corbyn upon being elected as leader of the British Labour Party (Jeff Mitchell/Getty)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Moral Grounds Found Sufficient to Deny Employees Contraception Coverage: Is Morality Distinct from Religion?

In addition to religious organizations and their respective affiliates being excluded from having to include contraceptives in employee health-insurance, non-religious groups with a salient moral stance against the use of the devices are also exempt—this according to a federal judge in the United State. The moral stance need not be associated with any religion. By implication, moral principles are distinct from religious doctrines. Even though religions incorporate moral principles, the latter are based in another domain. I contend that the interlarding of the non-native fauna can dilute and even compromise a given religion, thus undercutting its viability.

The complete essay is at “Moral Principles and Religion.” 

The Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas capitol. Do the Ten Commandments serve only a religious purpose? Were they intended to serve only a religious purpose? 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Fewer Blue-Collar Lawmakers in Maine’s Legislature: Public Financing Cut by the U.S. Supreme Court on Free Speech Grounds

In 1996, Maine became the first American state to enact a public financing system for statewide elections. Voters passed a referendum by which the government provides money to candidates who meet a threshold of fundraising in $5 increments from voters in their districts. Before 2011, candidates got matching funds from the government if an opponent was funding his or her campaign with their own money, or if an outside group was spending money on the race over a certain amount.[i] The reason for the discontinuance of the matching funds and the subsequent impact on the number of blue-collar people running for office and being in the legislature demonstrate that the public financing of political campaigns can have a huge impact on both political campaigns and representation in a legislative chamber.

The complete essay is at "Blue-Collar Lawmakers in Maine."

1. Paul Blumenthal, “Maine Voters Hope to Restore Their Revolutionary Election System,” The Huffington Post, September 4, 2015.