A plea to housemates

A supposed value of the Boy Scouts is to leave every place they visit in better condition than when they arrived. ‘Better’ is the critical word here. This is not a matter of walking into the ruins of a depraved binge and bringing it to Martha Stewart’s standards. Rather, it’s about the courtesy and precaution where, regardless of the state in which you encountered a room or a counter-top or a sink or a shower, you depart only when it is in a state marginally better than when you arrived. Wash a fork and put it on a drying rack; wipe away the hair from the edges of the tub; empty the odorous waste bin.

Wilkins Micawber, in Dickens’ David Copperfield illuminates a related point:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.

The applicability of this to living with housemates is clear. Doing just a little bit of damage to the state of a shared facility – leaving the detritus of your shaving around the bathroom sink, adding some unwanted food to an overflowing garbage can – produces an effect out of proportion with the seriousness of your contribution to the mess.

People function largely through some conception of social license. They judge their behaviours less with reference to logic, external and abstract questions of morality, or personal moral codes than by the immediate responses of people nearby to what they have done. In this way, every little contribution to shared filth is interpreted by everyone sharing the space as license to do the same and worse.

Life is generally unkind to those who live by the dictum I am suggesting. Once you realize that the single empty cup sitting unwashed in the sink is an invitation to leave the burned pot full of failed tomato sauce in the same position, you will be endlessly cleaning up the messes of others. That said, it has always been the fate of the least filth-tolerant in any living situation to do more than their share for hygiene and, furthermore, if you can convey this basic ethical framework to the people around you (both words and your good example are always necessary), it’s possible a few souls can be rescued from the reckless socially-reinforced worsening of the quality of life for all.

Andrew Coyne on Peter MacKay’s departure from politics

His career at the top of Canadian politics tells us more about the state of Canadian politics than anything else. That such a palpable cipher could have remained in high office for nearly a decade is a testament to many things: the thinness of the Tory front bench, the decline of cabinet, the prime minister’s cynicism, the media’s readiness to go along with the joke. The one thing it does not signify is his importance. He had all of the titles, but little influence, and less achievement.

Hopefully this is a case where the most obvious interpretation is correct: senior Harper Conservatives expect to lose the next election, and are distancing themselves from the defeat in advance. Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the Liberals and NDP to ruin their own chances.

Off to Ottawa

From Sunday to next Saturday, I will be in Ottawa for the Canadian Political Science Association conference, and to visit my excellent friends Andrea and Mehrzad.

Before I go, I need to submit the final term paper for my Markets, Justice, and the Human Good course. Perhaps predictably, I am writing about economic inequality and environmental sustainability as policy objectives that are not always in alignment. I am hoping that once I get comments back and discuss it with Dr. Carens, it may be something I can rework and submit for publication.

Despite having two commercial photography gigs in the last two weeks, this summer without a normally scheduled job is taking a toll. I had to borrow from my PhD fund to pay the summer rent (though I hope to pay myself back with photo work) and am currently sitting with $26.17 in my chequing account. Hopefully, there will be a lot of free food at the conference (though they were notably stingy last year at Brock University).

Lack of justification for high executive pay

The most convincing proof of the failure of corporate governance and of the absence of a rational productivity justification for extremely high executive pay is that when we collect data about individual firms (which we can do for publicly owned corporations in all the rich countries), it is very difficult to explain the observed variations in terms of firm performance. If we look at various performance indicators, such as sales growth, profits, and so on, we can break down the observed variance as a sum of other variances: variance due to causes external to the firm (such as the general state of the economy, raw material price shocks, variations in the exchange rate, average performance of other firms in the same sector, etc.) plus other “nonexternal” variances. Only the latter can be significantly affected by the decisions of the firm’s managers. If executive pay were determined by marginal productivity, one would expect its variance to have little to do with external variances and to depend solely or primarily on nonexternal variances. In fact, we observe just the opposite: it is when sales and profits increase for external reasons that executive pay rises most rapidly. This is particularly clear in the case of US corporations: Bertrand and Mullainhatan refer to this phenomenon as “pay for luck.”

Piketty, Thomas (Translated by Arthur Goldhammer). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. 2014. p. 334-5 (hardcover)

Piketty on “the illusion of marginal productivity”

Let me now return to the explosion of wage inequality in the United States (and to a lesser extent Britain and Canada) after 1970. As noted, the theory of marginal productivity and of the race between technology and education is not very convincing: the explosion of compensation has been highly concentrated in the top centile (or even the top thousandth) of the wage distribution and has affected some countries while sparing others (Japan and continental Europe are thus far much less affected than the United States), even though one would expect technological change to have altered the whole top end of the skill distribution in a more continuous way and to have worked its effects in all countries at a similar level of development. The fact that income inequality in the United States in 2000–2010 attained a level higher than that observed in the poor and emerging countries at various times in the past — for example, higher than in India or South Africa in 1920–1930, 1960–1970, and 2000–2010 — also casts doubt on any explanation based solely on objective inequalities of productivity. Is it really the case that inequality of individual skills and productivities is greater in the United States today than in the half-illiterate India of the recent past (or even today) or in apartheid (or postapartheid) South Africa? If that were the case, it would be bad news for US educational institutions, which surely need to be improved and made more accessible but probably do not deserve such extravagant blame.

Piketty, Thomas (Translated by Arthur Goldhammer). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. 2014. p. 330 (hardcover)