Professor Laszlo Zsolnai of the Business Ethics Center at Corvinus University of Budapest gave a lecture on “Responsible Leadership and Reasonable Action.” I Found Professor Zsolnai’s lecture strikingly relevant to our discussion earlier this semester while we read “Collapse,” specifically the chapters on environmental system failures and the damage done to the environment by big business.
Professor Zsolnai believes that business today is extremely self centered and too focused on self enhancement. He emphasized the damage that focusing on short term goals like quarterly results has on other important factors like ecology, the freedom of future generations and the development of humans. Professor Zsolnai included three ideal businesses in his presentation that have devoted themselves to a greater degree of sustainability. He emphasized the fact that these organizations measure their success not simply in financial terms but also by looking at external factors like how they are impacting the environment and their surrounding communities. Professor Zsolnai spoke about rationality versus reason and mentioned that “business activities should pass the test of ecology, future generations, and pro-socialness to be qualified as reasonable.” I found it kind of ridiculous to suggest that companies should begin to measure their results through the seemingly immeasurable metrics that Professor Zsolnai advocates for. I think that businesses can do a whole lot of good and have been changing their actions in response to society’s realization of the climate change issue.
Much of Trevor-Roper’s work focuses on the structure of power in Nazi Germany. He spends a tremendous amount of time describing “Hitler’s Court,” the many individuals who would often become victims to Hitler’s rage whilst hoping to remain among the party’s elite. A lot of the text discusses the jostling of “number twos” with the impression that Hitler’s days were limited.
I found the thoughts of Himmler, perhaps one of the more hopeful would-be heirs, to be confusing. Himmler and his assistant attempted to negotiate with Count Bernadotte, almost fulfilling Hitler’s role as head of state while Hitler was very much still alive. The book then focuses on the ramifications inherent in Hitler’s recognition of these events. I, however, was puzzled with Himmler’s thought process. At one point, Himmler is said to have been hopeful that the Allies might join what remained of the German army to push back the Soviets and limit their advance into central Europe. A fan of alternate history, I was intrigued by this thought. In hindsight, could this kind of action prevented the ensuing half century of cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union? I read this realizing that possibility but puzzled by Himmler’s belief that the Allies would be accepting of the new Nazi Germany sans Hitler in order to wage a new war against the Soviets. I then reminded myself that Himmler was also among those who relied heavily on astrologers for comfort and aid in decision making and this in some way explains his thought process.
Political Science Professor Rick Mayes gave this year’s “Last Lecture.” I have not taken any political science courses here at Richmond, but have heard from friends that Rick Mayes is among their favorite professors. Certainly, most of the student body holds Dr. Mayes in high regard. I imagine that some of this comes from the connection we have with him as a Richmond alumnus. Because of the high praise, I wanted to see what Dr. Mayes had to say for his “Last Lecture.”
Dr. Mayes highlighted six main points. The first of which resonated with me the most. His first point of advice was to work at least one undesirable job in the course of your life. Dr. Mayes told a story about how he worked as a bus boy after his freshman year at Richmond. He spoke about how he often felt embarrassed when he served his friends or people he knew. Then he spoke about the other bus boy who worked at the restaurant who was a man from Poland and seemed very grateful to be working to support his family. Last year after my freshman year, I looked for a job as a waiter or bus boy at a restaurant in my hometown and couldn’t find one. Ultimately, I found a job at a warehouse packing boxes at minimum wage. I worked with people who had been their for their whole lives picking books and filling orders. I remember sweating in the warehouse which lacked air condition during the middle of summer, searching for new jobs on my smartphone during the lunch breaks. I look back on that experience as something that molded me and provided greater insight into how others live. Dr. Mayes spoke about how in order to be successful, all you need is to be competent and empathetic. I find that whenever I speak to people in my intended career and they ask me about what I spent last summer doing, they all have similar stories. I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Mayes’ first point, I highly recommend that college students spend one summer working an undesirable job.
I tend to agree with much of Ms. Kumar’s post. I grappled with apparent hypocrisy of the idea that Skloot claims her work to be “a work of nonfiction,” with “no characters invented, no events fabricated” (xiii) and yet much of the tenor of the book relies on Skloot’s sensationalizing of certain events. Kumar identifies a number of these instances. She touches on the uncertainty of events having ever happened, and mostly comments on the racism inherent in Skloot’s writing. Kumar also picks up on an issue that I thought about after reading the book for the first time. Kumar states that “The stark hierarchy established between Skloot and her subjects does little to convince me that Skloot truly questioned her position as the author-ity of the narrative.” I thought Skloot’s attitude throughout the book was a put off. For example, she discusses at length her time waiting around to hear from members of the family, her impatience in pursuing the truth of the Henrietta Lacks story. She comes across, to me at least, as somebody who feels entitled to intrude upon the lives of the Lack’s family to complete her book because she felt that it was in their best interest, and didn’t seem to care if they didn’t think so.
Some of my problems with the book stem from its existence as part of the “one book, one campus” program. This entire concept seems elementary to me. Freshmen college students should be welcomed to college life by exposing them to Aristotle, Plato and the Federalist Papers, not coercing them to share in reading a dull book written by a self interested author. Kumar is right to point out the problems with choosing this book for the program. I had not thought about Skloot’s writing as being racist, but I definitely found it to be entitled.
Denny Beresford is the former chairman of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Mr. Beresford spoke at the Robins School of Business on a wide variety of issues relating to his experience setting various standards for which public companies must abide to in preparing their financial statements. Much of the discussion, and of most relevance to a Jepson course I would imagine, dealt with the potential merging of U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principals (US GAAP) and the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). There has been a tremendous amount of discussion over the past decade about the creation of a global set of accounting standards. This is a reflection of the noticeable trend toward globalization. Multinational corporations should not have to pay to attention to the intricacies of two different reporting systems in the different geographies of the world. Mr. Beresford did not provide optimism for those who seek to reach a global system of accounting standards in the near term. He spoke of the difficulties he experienced in meeting with members of the international equivalency of the FASB. Mr. Beresford also discussed his disappointment with the lack of urgency the FASB has recently shown in dealing with important accounting issues such as the accounting for financial instruments that played a role in the recent financial crisis. Mr. Beresford’s discussion provoked ideas about how leadership may be used to truly invigorate the progress toward a more simple and consistent system of financial accounting across the world.
After reading Diamond’s account of “Big Business and the Environment,” I was comforted by a somewhat different tone from an environmentalist regarding companies whose main operations are extracting natural resources. Diamond’s experience as an observer at the Chevron site in New Guinea provided insight into how companies are capable of extracting oil in environmentally friendly ways, and why this is actually beneficial to their bottom line. As former GE CEO and management icon Jack Welch summed up “whether you believe in global warming or not…If you’re in a company, you’d better be pushing those (green) products because the world wants these products. It’s a movement, just like there was going to be food shortages in the 60′s; and in the 70′s we were going to be overrun with population. These were movements, and when there’s a movement, we won’t know for 20 or 30 years if the movement is right or wrong; you can get as many people to argue both sides. But if you’re in business, you’re going to get on this bandwagon, and go with it.” (http://www.freshdialogues.com/2009/05/12/jack-welch-why-companies-must-go-green/) I have always found it incredible how people can demonize oil companies, all while living completely dependent upon their activities. Oil is ubiquitous in our society. Perhaps we should be be trying to work with companies so that they can create the least amount of environmental damage as possible while delivering the products we demand, rather than constantly demonizing them.
As an aside, Diamond commits a small logical fallacy in his analysis. In comparing hardrock mining companies to oil companies in their ability to spend on cleanup activities, Diamond cites the relatively small size of mining company market capitalizations. A company’s market capitalization has no direct correlation to the company’s ability to spend on any kind of activity. Market capitalization is simply a company’s current stock price multiplied by the outstanding number of shares of the company. It is entirely dependent upon the market and does not affect a company’s cash flows, which are what are truly important in determining whether or not a company can afford to spend on clean up activities. I understand Diamond’s point, but it is important to note fallacies of this kind that ultimately undermine Diamond’s position of authority in speaking with any kind of intelligence on the true motives and capabilities of a company operating in the industry.
Tonight, I attended a Robins School Executive Speakers Series event featuring Goldman Sachs President and COO, Gary Cohn. Mr. Cohn’s speech was enormously inspirational for the many students who look to be entering the finance industry after graduation. In addition to a brief overview of his career and his story and an outlook on the economy, Mr. Cohn spoke at length defending the finance industry and Goldman Sachs. In an academic setting, I have too often witnessed individuals who believe they know more than others preach about the causes of the financial crisis and how greedy bankers on Wall Street are to blame. I am disgusted by professors who openly attended the Occupy Richmond protests and had the audacity to challenge my career goals and explain how careers in finance are of little value and carried out solely in lust of money. It was refreshing to hear what Mr. Cohn had to say. Mr. Cohn spoke of how Wall Street “indirectly affects Main Street every day.” He brought up the example of our endowment, and how the capital markets are necessary to facilitate economic growth. Mr. Cohn conceded that Goldman has done a poor job of communicating its mission to the public in the past, but that they are determined not to let others communicate it for them.
In Collapse, Jared Diamond cites the Soviet Union as an exception to his case work that environmental factors tend to play some role in the downfall of societies. He mentions “It would be absurd to claim that environmental damage must be a major factor in all collapses: the collapse of the Soviet Union is a modern counter-example.” I found this to be an interesting opinion, having just read Dobner’s take on the Chernobyl disaster last week. I’m sure Diamond agrees that Chernobyl was a severely damaging event for the environment. A zone of exclusion with a radius of 19 miles protrudes from the once proud industrial city of Pripyat, now retaken by forest. A citation on Wikipedia suggests that this area will not be safe for human life for another 20,000 years. The aftermath of the disaster is a prime example of the Soviet Union’s tendency to censor information and cover up potentially damaging events. What might Diamond cite as the main drivers of the dissolution of the Soviet Union? The popular choices are the reformation efforts enacted by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika. These reforms led to unrest across the various Soviet Republics and bred calls for independence.Some say that the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath played a large role in motivating these reformations.
On a vague aside, I found Diamond’s attempt to rationalize his experience with “big business” in trying to possess a “middle of the road perspective” to be unconvincing. As the Chernobyl example demonstrates, big (very big) government is capable of inflicting great harm to the environment as well.
As soon as I began reading “The Scientific Method” in Critical Thinking, I started making connections with automotive repair. I enjoy doing my own work on my car. I enjoy it not only for the incredible amount of money I save on labor, but also because I derive satisfaction out of the process of successfully diagnosing a problem, devising ways to become completely certain of what the problem is, and then fixing it. It is pretty clear how this process is similar to the scientific method as described in the reading. The reading uses an example of a computer problem. A friend who is working on the computer is interested in finding out what caused the problem. The friend says “Isn’t it interesting to find out the exact cause of the computer’s problem?” Then it is clarified, “You want to know: What’s the quickest way to cause this problem to go away? She wants to know:What’s the primary cause of the problem?” In some sense, this is what I fear most when I take my car to someone else to get worked on. Are they simply doing what will get rid of the problem the quickest? Or cheapest? I would rather know for sure and do it myself.
The process became apparent to me during the discussion of the failure of the levees in New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina. What is causing the problem? The tentative theory was that the flood waters simply rose above the levee. “Katrina flat out overwhelmed the system.” Because a correlation of levees failing where water did not rise above them exists, a new theory was proposed. I immediately thought of a problem with my car. The steering wheel would vibrate back and forth, particularly at highway speeds. I did not want to take the car to a shop because I knew they would charge me to complete an electronic balancing and that the vibrating would just reoccur soon after because I was fairly confident that the problem was more severe than a simple tire balancing. My initial reaction was that the vibration was due to some kind of brake problem, perhaps the rotors were warped. This would only be the case, however, if the vibrating occurred during braking. And in fact the opposite occurred. I came up with a new theory that my wheel bearings needed to be repacked, their looseness was causing a subtle vibration in the wheel. The correlation here is harder to detect. Ultimately, I decided to fix the wheel bearings and hoped that the vibration would be eliminated, and it was. Perhaps not a perfect example of the scientific method, but one that demonstrates the process.
While reading the first selection on fallacious reasoning, I found myself troubled by what I perceived to be an extreme vulnerability of the “either-or fallacy.” Written in form, this fallacy holds: Either P or Q. Not P, therefore Q. This serves to narrow a certain situation to two possible options. The fallacy then maintains that “there is at least a third viable alternative, or it is questionable that P is bad.” I found a vulnerability in the fact that when using the either-or fallacy for analysis, it is necessary to assume that more than two options must exist. This presents a pressure to discover more options, when in reality only two may exist. It tends to over simplify complex problems.
I noticed this vulnerability while reading the Grover Norquist example on page 44. The example points out that “there are only two solutions to the deficit problem: ‘spend less or raise taxes.'” Norquist, a fiscal conservative, obviously prefers the decision to spend less. Using “either-or” reasoning, the example then over simplifies the situation by offering that there is another, clear alternative: spend less and raise taxes. This assumption, however, disregards Norquist’s belief that raising tax rates does not generate more tax revenue. This follows the idea of the Laffer curve, which is a principle most fiscal conservatives believe in. To Norquist, perhaps there are only two options: Cut the deficit, or continue to let it grow.