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Hey did you see this United deplaning business on the news?  If you are here on the internet, I suspect you know exactly what I am talking about, but, in case you are reading this post in the far future or found it stapled to a tree or something, here is what happened: United Airline needed some seats on a full flight in order to move their staff around.  Instead of bribing their customers to take a different plane, the airline coerced the passengers with the fine print of the ticket contract (which, as you can imagine, allows airlines to do anything they want in exchange for zooming you across the continent at 700 miles an hour). One customer was aggrieved and refused to leave his seat, so they called in militarized corporate guards (or the police? Who can tell these days?) to beat him up and drag him off the plane. The United CEO then issued a statement basically saying “We can do as we like. Our market is guaranteed.”

Airline market share

As you can imagine, this has stirred up some hard feelings among the general public, but the CEO was right.  There is a cartel of four carriers which controls the majority of flights around America.  If you wish to fly, you must do so at the cartel’s terms (or else you need to buy a plane).  This consolidation has allowed the airlines to cut service, increase fares, and add a proliferation of fees. Most markets are under the thumb of a single carrier and, if you want to fly where they have suzerainty you will have to use that carrier or not fly.  Good luck getting a train or even a bus in America.

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I don’t mean to pick on the airlines: cable service provider, pharmaceutical companies, oil conglomerates, insurance companies, major banks…even toy companies all operate the same way in today’s deregulated society.  America has a monopoly problem: but today’s companies are smart enough to avoid having one entity take complete control of a market.  Business schools and the school of hard knocks have taught the heads of these companies to be slightly subtler about the way they fix prices and collude.   With their record profits, they have also bought up politicians and control the relevant legislation that goes in front of them.  Do you care about flight regulation legislation enough to lobby your congressperson?  I personally do not, but I bet United sure does!

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The bigger takeaway here is that capitalism is facing challenges of extreme success which are causing it to morph into naked oligopoly.  This in turn is stifling competition and innovation.  It is also breaking our political process. The Republican mantra that “government is the problem” and cartel companies like United or Aetna should be allowed to run everything for the benefit of a tiny number of great aristocrats does not really seem like a platform which was drafted by groundlings!  The Democrats pretend otherwise but they abandoned responsible attempts to reign in business cartels back in the 70s.  The parties have different favorites, but they are both content that the game is rigged.

It is not supposed to work this way.  In an ideal market, you could punish United and its smug multimillionaire CEO by spending three dollars more to take an airline that doesn’t beat up its passengers and drag them off the plane screaming.  In a better democracy, you could vote in a district where the winner was not already predetermined by gerrymandering.

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This sort of thing means we are going to have to pay attention. We all need to be aware of regulatory capture: an endemic species of corruption whereby giant companies write rules which look reasonable, but which actually price smaller competitors out of the marketplace.  Politicians rubber stamp these rules and claim they are looking out for the public interest (while the cartels support their subsequent careeers).  We are going to need to be more attentive and smarter, or we are all going to be doing what giant corporations and their pet politicians tell us to do.  The moment where we can act is quickly passing. We must push for effective new antitrust measures or we will all have to take our tiny expensive seat and shut up while brownshirts probe and beat us to their hearts’ content… not just when we fly but everywhere all of the time.

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

One of the underlying principles of this blog is that we should spend a lot more money and resources on scientific research and exploration in general (and on space research and exploration specifically).   Meanwhile, in the real world, the powers that be are busy chopping down the tree of knowledge by defunding all branches of blue sky research in general (and space research specifically). Market advocates in government assert that, if there is anything worthwhile in space, greedy companies will go there and take it for themselves without government assistance. I tend to take issue with this idea. Markets have a place in science…at the end of ideas when the true research is already well established and the path to making money-grubbing consumer dreck is extremely evident. Avaricious MBAs are unlikely to try anything really bold since they are trained not to move first but to let others take the risk and then come in and refine an already workable idea. The way I have framed this issue is politically expedient for getting my point across (MORE RESEARCH NOW), but it ignores the tangled relationship which government agencies already have with pre-anointed business monopolies and it also short-changes the bold and visionary entrepreneurs who are actually going ahead with wild and exciting space ventures at present.

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge...

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge…

Speaking of which, here is the footage from the latest SpaceX project. Elon Musk and co. were attempting to land the first stage of a commercial Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned test barge in the ocean. The rocket blasted off to carry a payload to the International Space station. The first stage returned to earth in a controlled fashion. SpaceX planners hoped to land this booster softly on a barge so it could be reused. The idea did not work…yet, but the rocket came really close to landing properly and the footage is truly exciting—like something from the sixties. I wanted you to see this clip because it is spectacular and inspiring, but I also wanted to remind myself that even today—even in the private sector—there are thrilling projects afoot.

Coral Reef at Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge

Coral Reef at Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge

It has been a while since this blog waded into the murky & sordid waters of politics, but recent national news demands notice…and, for once, the political news is good rather than awful! My favorite action by President George H. Bush (the 43rd president of the United States) was the creation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument–which the former president announced on January 6, 2009 just days before his second term ended. The monument included 199,500 square kilometers (77,020 square miles) of reefs, beaches, coastal waters, and unique atoll landscapes around the unincorporated United States Pacific Island territories. I have included a map of the exact area below instead of mentioning all of the little atolls, seamounts, and micro islands individually. Suffice to say, I only recognized the names from World War II naval battles. All commercial use of this part of the ocean is now prohibited: there is no factory fishing, mining, or drilling allowed (although right of passage is permitted as are research and recreational activities—including sports fishing).

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The exact details of the park can be found on the Fish and Wildlife Services website, but the net effect is that a large and beautiful part of the Pacific has become a wildlife park, free from the insatiable hunger and wanton destruction of “resource extraction corporations”. But that is all just back story: the news gets better. Last Tuesday (June 17, 2014) the current president, Barack Obama, announced his intention to vastly expand the protected area of Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (which, btw, desperately needs a snappier name). If the president follows through with his plans, the PRIMNM (the acronym is also not euphonic) will expand to 2 million square kilometers (782,000 square miles) thereby doubling the amount of protected ocean refuge in the entire world! The unspoiled site is not currently a major location for drilling, mining, or even fishing (although no doubt the all-devouring tuna fleets will weep and beg and claim that anything less than unfettered access will result in their destruction).

Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

My greatest concern about the present state of the world is the rapid destruction of the ecosystems of the world’s oceans. Because of overfishing and dumping, the oceans of Earth are emptying of fish, turtles, mammals, birds, and invertebrates while filling up with jellyfish, carbon dioxide, mercury, and plastic crap. If you are like me, you probably live a wretched existence as a disposable drone in some cubicle farm—which makes the concerns of the world’s last pristine coral reefs and natural fish hatcheries seem very distant and abstruse. Yet the world spanning ocean is not just a source of postcards, sashimi, and fishsticks, it is the cradle of life on the planet—the central and irreplaceable ecosystem which reaches out endless tendrils that touch all living beings. Our survival is contingent on the health of the oceans.  So I would like to salute President Bush for founding the sanctuary and I would also like to congratulate President Obama for his choice to expand it! Who knew we had politicians who could actually accomplish something worthwhile? Let’s have more bold choices like this so that the ocean of the future is not just a giant dead pool of salt water.

Kingman Reef (The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument) Photo by Enric Sala

Kingman Reef (The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument) Photo by Enric Sala

Varaha Fighting Hiranyaksha

In the epic stories of Hinduism, Lord Vishnu, the sovereign protector of the universe, was always fighting power hungry demons and monsters (for example one such myth explains the formation of Lake Lonar).  Some of Vishnu’s opponents, however, were much more terrible than others.  Among the very worst was a filthy albeit incredibly puissant asura named Hiranyaksha (asuras were malevolent and greedy demon-gods).  Hiranyaksha was the son of Diti, an earth-goddess who sought–through means of her monstrous children–to overthrow Indra (the king of the gods). Hiranyaksha had golden eyes and a written pledge from Brahma that no god or man or beast could kill him.  Through some oversight, the boar alone was missing from the list.

Not satisfied with the many atrocities he had committed and the many beautiful things he had stolen, Hiranyaksha grew truly ambitious. He stole the entire earth and carried it to the bottom of a polluted ocean.

From time to time, Vishnu took on mortal incarnations–or more properly, “avatars”–to conduct his battles against the forces which sought to destroy or subvert the world. In his third avatar lifetime, Vishnu appeared in the form of a colossal boar, named Varaha in order to fight Hiranyaksha. Varaha sprang out of Brahma’s nostril as a tiny pig, but he grew and grew until he had reached a size sufficient to lift the entire world.  This great boar dived down into the cosmic ocean to find Hiranyaksha and kill him. For an entire millennium, the two opponents battled in the poison depths. Finally Varaha gained an advantage. With his tusks he tore open the demon and with his great mace he smashed Hiranyasha’s head. Varaha/Vishnu then lifted the earth back to its correct position with his snout!

Varaha lifts the world from the poison sea (by Harish Jahari)

The story nicely follows up on the porcine theme of last month’s post and Hiranyaksha is an interesting addition to the Deities of the Underworld category, but what real relevance can such an abstract story have for us?  Surely nobody could be so greedy and insane as to try to steal the entire earth and drown it in poisons.  And if such a terrible thing were to happen, what reviled but titanic force could spring from Brahma’s head to assume the role of the big pig and rescue earth from wicked corpora…um demons.

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