Sunday, December 31, 2006

Goliath for Hire

One of the common justifications that I hear for government intervention in the economy, and specifically for regulation of enterprise is that the individual is exploited and pushed around by big corporations., that a large corporations has the ability to coerce the individual because of the power imbalance. This is what I fondly refer to as the David and Goliath syndrome, only in this case Goliath crushes David. You see this all the time in industries that are believed to be "essential" such as health care. The hospitals, the HMO's, the insurance companies... all "push the individual around". The individual "must have access" to health care, and so is in a tough position. Therefore, we must have controls on the industry.

This is hogwash.

Ignoring for a moment the fallacious claim that the individual must have access to health care, the posited scenario is a straw man. It ignores one fundamental mechanism that the market creates to deal with such a scenario: the agent. The concept of agency is the free market's mechanism for dealing with these sorts of issues. Merriam-Webster Online defines an agent as: one who is authorized to act for or in the place of another. An agent, therefore, is authorized to act on one's behalf in a given situation. What does an agent bring to the transaction? He may bring specialized knowledge, negotiating skills, time to spend on the issue, and even some of his own corporate leverage to engage during a negotiation.

Agents come in all forms, and may spend weeks or only minutes working on your particular issue. The easy ones to think of are people such as: real estate agents, doctors, lawyers, insurance agents. But agency takes many forms, and some are not so recognizable. A search engine such as Google is your agent, for a nano-second, providing you with information from its database. Consumer Reports or Underwriter's Laboratories is your agent, providing you with assurance on the safety or quality of particular products. Or one may think of new business models such as Lending, the negotiating site for home loans. These agents serve the same purpose, by representing your interests, and bringing some sort of leverage to your side of the table.

Agency is the natural outcome of any division of labor society, and it is ubiquitous. The market's answer then is: you hire someone to represent your interests in a particular situation. You hire your own "Goliath" to fight your battles for you.

From a November 27, 2006 Forbes article "Only Suckers Pay Retail" comes a great example of how this works. As employees have been shifted to medical plans with higher and higher deductibles, companies such as My Medical Control have formed to meet the needs of the individuals now caught with larger hospital bills that they must deal with. The company has data on common procedures and rates charged across the country, and negotiates better billing rates on its clients behalf, saving the client an average of 22% off of their medical bills. The company, as many other agency's are, is paid out of the savings it obtains for its customers so the agency is accessible to everyone.

Such an agency is the obvious choice for those who need to keep their insurance premiums affordable by taking out high deductible plans. Such people take higher risk of incurring medical costs, but hire agents to act on their behalf if and when those costs materialize.

So stop whining for government to intervene. Find a "Goliath for hire"; they're everywhere.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Forging the Shaft

My wife and I were in New York City last weekend for a shopping and sightseeing trip before the holidays. We stayed in Midtown just south of Central Park. On Sunday, we got a chance to spend some time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With only a couple of hours to spend, we both peeled off and headed for our respective favorites; she for Asian and Egyptian, and I for 19th century European and American.

Except for Greek and Roman sculpture, the 19th century has most of the gems of painting and sculpture. It is too bad however that Kant's influence in philosophy can be seen making its way into late 19th century. This decay included choice of subject, and so it is a tragedy that just as the Industrial Revolution was occurring, that art was turning its back on so wonderful a subject.

My find for the day was this painting which I stumbled upon by accident in the American wing. It is "Forging the Shaft" by John Ferguson Weir ca. 1868. A larger version can be found over on the Met's website or Pursuing Praxis blog (which has a nice overview of the American wing - I like an idiot left my camera at the hotel).

This was not the most prominently displayed painting, and frankly I walked by it the first time. With little time I was scanning galleries quickly and seeking out only paintings that quickly caught my eye. This one from a distance is smaller and, since the color palate is very dark, it didn't catch my eye.

However, once I saw it up close, I was blown away. It is exceedingly difficult to find industry as the subject of paintings of the era, and much less to find one so well executed. There are two aspects to this painting that I found fantastic. One is the rendering of light, using the furnace and the metal ingot as the only source of light. The second is the depiction of effort and tension (i.e. of work) on the part of the laborers.

This was by far my favorite. I sat and looked at this painting for over 15 minutes.

When I returned home, I realized that he has several paintings using similar themes, including "The Gun Foundry" and "Tapping the Furnace".

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Talk about a Big Screen!

From a Forbes article, Field of Screens: self-illuminated astro-turf! Imagine a sports field also being it's own advertising board, and big screen TV. Maybe ads (and ad revenue) between plays, and helpful graphics such as that yellow "first down" line from your TV, now on the field itself.

A manufacturer has figured out how to incorporate fibre optics into fibrous material of astro turf. Used today on internally-lit Christmas trees, the technology is two years from commercialization in turf. A myriad of uses, not thought of before, could follow on the heels of this innovation.

Friday, December 01, 2006

GenX in the Chemical Industry

Just another day at the grist mill for a few chemical industry GenX'ers, including yours truly.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Why I Love Forbes

Every principled advocate of capitalism should work to continuously concretize those principles, i.e. see and digest real world business examples and then integrate those particulars back into their understanding of the principles. This process deepens understanding of the breadth of scope of applicability of these principles, and helps to counter claims that "capitalism only works sometimes" or "markets sometimes fail". I was first consciously introduced to the process of concretization in business school when exposed to the "case method" of study, whereby students learn and integrate key business principles by immersing themselves in a real world "case study" and attempting to apply those principles to decisions they would be faced with. I learned of the crucial importance of it during listening to Leonard Peikoff's The Art of Thinking.

Today the topic of business strategy and tactics is by far one of my favorites, and I continually try to expand my understanding of business by reading various journals. By far my favorite source of concrete examples of capitalism is Forbes magazine. Given the philosophical shortcomings of most defenders of capitalism today, I find that this magazine comes as close to being a principled surveyor of capitalism as one can find in the popular media today.

The magazine provides broad coverage or all aspects of business today. I am continually stunned by the variety of possible business models in practice today, and Forbes surveys them all, from technology, to commodities, to financial to entrepreneurial. Additionally, the story formats cover enough background and plotting to keep the stories interesting, while keeping the stories accessible to the lay reader.

The magazine conveys a tone of respect and admiration for business throughout. Successful business leaders are treated with admiration, and their insight and fortitude is celebrated. Business failure is analyzed, not as scandal or a pervasive blight, but honestly, and as an integral part of market function. Finally, the fruits of labor, material and spiritual happiness are celebrated rather than scorned.

The magazine argues from sound economic principles (albeit mixed philosophical principles). Steve Forbes is one of the premier advocates for the gold standard. Publisher Rich Karlgaard understands that it is man's reason and insight that drive entrepreneurs. The analysis of business structure is usually clean and essentialized.

Compare this treatment with Fortune, which treats business failure with the air of tabloid scandal, and successful businessmen as "players". Or worse yet, consider what passes for "business news" on NPR's Marketplace, whose broadcasts drip with contempt and sarcasm for the very object they purport to cover and serve, and who spend more time reviewing "market failures" than the markets themselves.

If you fancy yourself and advocate of Capitalism, whether you are in business or not, a subscription to Forbes is worth the price. It is accessible to the lay person. It will help you concretize the principles behind the workings of business, and most importantly, will give you a weekly shot of reverence for business and businessmen.

Monday, November 20, 2006

FDA Approves Silicone Breast Implants

From a November 18th Wall Street Journal article, FDA Approves Silicone Breast Implants,
Nearly 15 years after banning silicone breast implants in most cases, the Food and Drug Administration approved revamped versions at a time of soaring demand for cosmetic procedures.

Many of the original marketers, who lost billions of dollars in lawsuits related to allegedly flawed silicone implants, are long out of the business. Still, the FDA's approval late Friday will accelerate a push into aesthetic medicine by two companies that are heirs to the U.S. breast-implant business: Allergan Inc. and Mentor Corp.

Dow Corning Corp., a subsidiary of my company, The Dow Chemical Company, was one of those "original marketers". Forced into bankruptcy by class action lawsuits backed by little more than arbitrary claims, and junk science, Dow Corning finally settled for some $13 billion to avoid litigation that it probably would have only partially won, even though it had solid science behind its case.

Such is today's environment when class action against large corporations need little more than accusations and a sympathetic jury to find in their favor. With the conventional wisdom predisposed to be suspicious of big business rather than respectful of it, its no wonder. The implant business at Corning was a small business generating little revenue, and Corning, in the end, did nothing wrong. Vindication comes a decade too late.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Cost of Socialism...

The American Economy is one of the most competitive on the planet, right? The Bush tax cuts have worked their magic and we are more competitive than ever, right? Not so fast...

In a recent speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Dow Chemical Company CEO Andrew Liveris highlighted a little understood fact: The U.S. is one of the least cost competitive countries in the world, and the gap is growing. A recent report from the National Association of Manufacturers highlights the issue, and its causes.

If you're thinking that by "least cost competitive" I am comparing The U.S. to such notable low-cost coutries as India and China, think again. The U.S. is falling behind it's more developed brethren; countries such as Canada, Japan, German, and the U.K.! How big is the gap? Even after normalizing on the basis of unit of productivity, the U.S. still lags in cost competitiveness by 30 percent, up from 25% just 3 years ago. This means that it costs 30% more to manufacture one unit or one pound of something here, than it does everywhere else.

In a global economy, and especially in markets that are global such as heavy industry, chemicals, steel, etc. this is an untenable level of advantage. It reduces the U.S. to a local suppliers, and also strikes the U.S. from the list of location for new investment.

The causes of continuing increases? They can be traced to 5 distinct causes, all the result of failed political policy. If you think the Republicans are saving us from disaster, think again. None of these have been addressed by any recent administration. Here they are:

  1. Corporate Taxation: yes, while Bush was cutting income taxes, he failed to mention that these tax cuts were progressive, i.e. they gave a proportionately higher cut to the poor. Corporate taxes were not cut at all. While this was happening, competitive nations were reducing their corporate tax burden.
  2. Regulatory Compliance: the cost of compliance with such things as environmental regulation can be measured, and the tally is not pretty.
  3. Energy Cost: Over-regulation of nuclear and restrictions on drilling for oil have taken their toll. The demand has been shifted mostly to natural gas, and this fuel stock is difficult to transport. As such we now have a basic economic situation, demand is outstripping supply, and the costs are skyrocketing.
  4. Tort costs: when people view corporations as inherently evil, and their needs as a claim on the nearest corporation, then the justice system will be twisted into a form of ongoing punishment for corporations. This is what is happening today.
  5. Employee Health Costs: In today's world, healthcare is now a right.
The effect? Existing U.S. manufacturing supplies local, not global markets, and corporations looking for manufacturing that can serve global markets go elsewhere for investment. Liveris gives a very enlightening perspective on his company's investment decisions.

The ultimate solution: lasseiz-faire. Leave the free market alone. This is a policy that neither of the political parties are the least interested in, and one which even our business leaders cannot morally defend against. Witness, Liveris' comment regarding environmental regulation,
No one is suggesting that all regulation is bad; much of it we couldn't live without.
Anyone interested in the details needs to read both Andrew's speech (which other than a few philosophical inconsistencies, expresses admiration for the modern industrialist and America) and this detailed report.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Move over Hank Rearden...

Steelmaking has been around for over a century and a half. Good thing that there is still innovation going on in the industry. From a September 18, 2006 Forbes article,
Hismelt has invented a new way of making iron that is supposed to cut production costs by 20%, reduce pollustion and convert billions of tons of currently uneconomic iron ore into a valuable commodity.
If you think that "old" industry doesn't innovate, think again. Everything that has a use can be improved and even old industries like steel, oil and chemicals have innovation occuring in them every day.

This new process for pig iron (the raw carbonized iron that goes into steel) termed "direct smelting" saves money by
  • using crude inputs (coal instead of coke, including high sulfur coal)
  • allowing use of crude ores (high phosphorus ore)
  • using an efficient high temperature furnace
  • allowing efficient economics at smaller scale plants
The project drew investors with particular interests in seeing the process become reality, and is on it's way to becoming operational at full scale. Investors are drawn by the desire to see part of the 20% cost savings go into profits. This is how innovation is driven, by investors who can create value in the form of profits from technological improvements. And you get the ultimate benefit in cheaper goods.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Bolivia to Oil Companies: "Come Back, We Didn't Mean It"

From a September 1, 2006 Wall Street Journal Article, "Bolivian Witch Hunts" regarding President Evo Morales lack of respect for civil liberties.

Evo has already badly mishandled the economy. Exhibit A is his decision on May 1, amidst the biggest energy boom in the history of humankind, to nationalize the investments of foreign energy companies in his gas-rich country. Perhaps such bravado felt good to the country's first indigenous leader in modern times. But if he was making a political calculation, he left out one important variable: Bolivia is poor. So poor, it seems, that it hasn't the funding or expertise to exploit the gas itself.

On Aug. 11 the government announced the suspension of the full takeover of the oil fields "owing to a lack of economic resources." But it's a little late. Some 30 energy companies are reported to have ceased operations, and there has been no new investment. Bolivia has been converted into an unreliable energy supplier, badly wounding the only goose that lays hard-currency eggs.

This is what happens with leftist governments who have no understanding of what economic factors create wealth. Individual liberties, private property rights, and lassez faire capitalism, this is the fertile ground that must exist in order for rational investors to apply their capital and their intellect. Morales however thinks that oil refineries are something in nature, to be plucked and sucked at leisure like a ripe peach.

Oops, forgot. Bolivia doesn't have either the capital or the trained businessmen to effectively run these businesses. "Wait! Come back! We didn't mean it!". Now that they've shown the respect they hold for private property, and individual liberties no sane investor is going to come near the country.

This one is a bit personal. I'm Bolivian. My mother was an American teaching at an international school, the sort that American ex-pats send their kids to, when I was born. She stood at the entrance of the school in 1969 and watched the Bolivian army march in and nationalize the assets of Gulf Oil. How many times can the same mistake be repeated?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Alaska Deciding if BP Still Owes the "Vig"

From an August 18, 2006 Dow Jones Newswire article,
Stepping up its investigation into the shutdown of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, Alaska state officials on Friday issued subpoenas to BP PLC (BP) and its partners for documents on maintenance and corrosion-control programs that failed to uncover some pipeline problems.

Alaska's attorney general has been pursuing a claim against the BP-led consortium to recover lost revenues related to the partial shutdown of Prudhoe Bay, the largest producing field in the U.S. The state maintains that the venture should compensate the state for lost money if company negligence is found to be the cause of severe pipeline corrosion that led to last week's shutdown.


Alaska is heavily dependent on revenues for oil operations on its territory for revenues. As the largest oil field in the state, Prudhoe Bay provides the single largest share of oil revenues for the state's $7.6 billion budget, which began the fiscal year with a $200,000 surplus.

Look at what the state of Alaska is trying to do. They are behaving as if they've been "damaged" by "negligence". But damages, and negligence are legal concepts that apply to
individuals or corporations who either have no relationship or a voluntary relationship between each other. The state has neither; it has a coercive relationship with BP Oil, as do all governments. It did not enter into an agreement voluntarily with BP, nor was it hanging around minding it's own business. It dictated the terms under which BP would surrender its revenue to the state. It decided the percentages, and it decided who's taxes it would rely on to fund its operations.

Now it's unhappy with the results, and looking for someone to blame. This mechanism is nothing but a veiled attempt at an ex post facto law, changing the law after the fact. Alaska is hiding behind the mask of a "injured bystander", when the real negligence lies with the state itself. Alaska is more like the powerful bookie, who doesn't care if you have the cash or not. You still owe.

All business entails risks in its operations; earnings can be volatile as a result. The basic investor knows not to put all his money into volatile instruments if he needs a steady income flow to deal with his expenses. Alaska, instead, is heavily dependant on oil revenues for it's tax revenues. Like fools they rely on an income stream that is inherently volatile, and now wonder why it's not delivering 15% every quarter.... and the rent is due.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Just When you Thought You Needed State-Funded Science

I hate state-funded science. It is a product of welfare-state mentality, and advocated by statists on both the right and the left. While the choice of research targets differs depending on what side of the political aisle one is one, the fundamental idea that basic research is a province of the government goes unchallenged.

Fundamental research is much better directed by private, entrepreneurial and corporate interests, than it is by the government. The profit motive drives better research than does the arbitrary whim of government beaurocrats, open to political pressure.

So it was with mixed feelings that I read the August 16th, 2006 Wall Street Journal article, "Donors Sustain Stem-Cell Effort In California Amid Funding Battle",

Amid court challenges from groups opposed to the state effort, private donors have contributed more than $100 million in recent years to prop up the new stem-cell research agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as well as research programs at state universities, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal. Among the donors are Ray Dolby, the founder and chairman of Dolby Laboratories Inc., who has devoted $21 million to stem-cell-research programs in the past two years. Los Angeles real-estate developer Eli Broad has given at least $27 million. Venture capitalist John Doerr, bond-fund manager Bill Gross, and Qualcomm Inc. founder Irwin Jacobs have also been major contributors.

Such donations underscore the strong support for the controversial research in some corners of the philanthropic world, even as a larger debate rages about the role of government funding. Without these private contributions, the state might have been forced to sharply curtail operations. At the same time, the money has raised concern about the potential for private individuals influencing the direction of the research.

While I wholly disagree with state-funding of medical research, there in the midst of a beaurocratic log-jam was a perfect example of what would happen if the such research was abandoned to private interest. They'd step in, that's what; faster, better, and with more money than that state could provide by raiding its tax coffers.

If only those on the right who claim they favor limited government could dam the log-jam permanently, and redirect basic research to its rightful caretakers.

Wal-Mart didn't really need Chicago anyway

From August 16th, 2006 Wall Street Journal Article "Big Box Rebellion", responding to a new Chicago law,
Target was the first big chain to react, recently cancelling plans to open a new superstore in a run-down area on the city's North side. Only a few months ago the project was hailed by city leaders as an anchor for redeveloping that depressed neighborhood. Now it gets to stay depressed. Wal-Mart has also announced that its plans to build 20 new stores in the city over the next five years are "on hold" until the wage issue is resolved.

This isn't what the politicians said would happen when they mandated that certain mostly non-union "big-box" retailers pay a minimum of $13 in wage and health benefits by 2010, or more than two-and-a-half times the national minimum wage...

The entire "living-wage" movement is the latest product of upper-income politicians who want to stick it to non-union companies in the name of helping the poor. But the working poor lose twice in Chicago: first, in lost retail jobs and then in less access to low-cost goods. Alderman Carrie Austin, who represents the area where the Target store was supposed to locate, puts it this way: "My colleagues are saying, 'Don't worry they [the big box retailers] will come.' Well, mine just left."
There is a contradiction in thinking that lawmakers didn't realize until they actually saw the effect of their actions. Commonly, blamed for "exploitation" of the working class, big box retailers actually help the working class first by providing jobs, and second by figuring out how to deliver the lowest cost goods possible to stretch the working dollar. Retailers cannot simultaneously hurt the community and help it. Punish them for being bad, which they are not, and you'll get to find out just how good they were.

The other thing these lawmakers missed was that any entity that makes investments, whether an individual or corporation, has options. Would Wal-Mart like to have a store in Chicago? Sure, but only if it's a good investment, i.e. only if it can make an above average profit. Investment choices are driven by returns, i.e. profits. A money-losing store is something no investor will invest in, regardless of location. If Chicago wants to turn its city into a bad investment option, well then don't be surprised if investment capital dries up. Now, who really needs who? and who is the bad guy in this senario?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Persecuted "movie" Minority

One of the things that I hate about the modern cinema is the relative frequency with which businessmen play the role of villian in movies. From Devlin MacGregor Pharmaceuticals in The Fugitive, Cyberdyne Systems in The Terminator series, Biocyte Pharmaceuticals in Mission Impossible II, Gordon Gecko in Wall Street or the corporate mainframe in I, Robot (the corporate CEO headed the list of suspects until he was murdered), it seems Hollywood has a love affair portraying business as inherently unethical.

I always thought this was disproportionate emphasis on business as "the bad guy", and now I have some data. From a Wall Street Journal, (July 14, 2006) article entitled "TV's Killer Capitalists",
According to a study published last month by the Business & Media Institute, in the world of TV entertainment, "businessmen [are] a greater threat to society than terrorists, gangs or the mob."

The study, titled "Bad Company," looked at the top 12 TV dramas during May and November in 2005, ranging from crime shows like "CSI" to the goofy "Desperate Housewives." Out of 39 episodes that featured business-related plots, the study found, 77% advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners.

On the various "Law & Order" shows, for instance, almost 50% of felonies -- mostly murders -- were committed by businessmen. In almost all of the primetime programs, when private-sector protagonists showed up, they were usually doing something unethical, cruel or downright criminal.

Dan Gainor, director of the Business & Media Institute and the study's author, told us that he finds the shows very entertaining. "It's not like I hate the programs," he explains. "I hate the way they're characterizing business.

"Every other special group is concerned about how they are portrayed in the media -- and they should be: It does affect how people perceive them."

Over time, he says, plots that ritually make entrepreneurs the bad guys have a pernicious effect: "This becomes part of our collective worldview. We think all businessmen are somehow scummy. We think you had to lie, cheat or murder to get ahead."

Here, here. The view comes from a philosophical view of businessmen as evil, and business in generall as a grubby endeavor. Even when the evidence is overwhelmingly different.

Friday, July 14, 2006

"Only in America" is right!

"Maybe I shouldn't disagree with the Oracle of Omaha," I interjected, "but I think that the stock [Coca Cola] will take a big hit tomorrow [the day after announcing the resignation of CEO Doug Ivester]."
Unfortunately I was proved to be right as the stock declined about 10%. Warren [Buffet], to his credit, chased me down in Washington the next day to say, "I'm sorry, I was wrong and you were right. You are the new oracle!"
At the next finance committee meeting, when the Coca Cola CFO asked him a complicated financial question, Warren responded by saying, "I don't know, you better ask Paul!"

The "Paul" in this excerpt is Paul F. Oreffice, former CEO and Chairman of the Board of The Dow Chemical Company. The excerpt is from his new autobiography Only in America: From Immigrant to CEO which I just finished. This is a wonderful book, overviewing the extraordinary life of an charismatic industrialist and I heartily recommend it.

Born into a middle class Jewish Italian family in 1930's Italy, Paul's father was persecuted by the Fascists, and his family fled on the last commercial vessel to leave Italy before it entered World War II. Abandoning everything and emmigrating first to Ecuador, and ultimately to the United States, Paul finished college at Purdue and began work at Dow in 1953, ultimately earning the position of CEO, and then Chairman. Having experienced both the best and the worst the world has to offer, Paul succeeded because of his character and upbringing. His experiences sharpened his outlook on life, and allowed him to develop the principles, attitudes and habits that would bring him lasting success. At Dow he was instrumental in transforming a national chemical company into one with a global reach, and innovated the use of some of the financing mechanisms to operate globally. His hard charging, get the job done attitude makes for some interesting stories.

It is the story of Paul's development and his adventurous outlook on life that make this book worth the time. It is a glimpse into the benevolent world of one of America's titans, and into the environment that America offers men who wish to make something of themselves.

I first met Paul Orefice as a young co-op student at Dow (he was the key executive on the Dow recruiting team for his and my alma mater, Purdue University), and he served as an inspiration for me early in my career. You'll understand why when you read this book.

I met him for a second time last month when he signed my copy of Only in America.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


This is my first blog. I've been discussing and studying philosophy and capitalism for some time now, both on the internet and in the "real world". While the banter of a back and forth discussion is energizing, I've been thinking about doing more for a while. And so the concept of this blog started to form in my mind. A place I could put ideas down in whole thoughts, as opposed to responses to others.

I'm an Objectivist, and I wanted to write from that perspective. I also work in industry. As I looked out amonst the various blogs covering topics from Objectivist viewpoints, I noticed that while many wrote now and then on business topics, I didn't see one specifically devoted to celebrating industry, business, the businessman and the conditions which make it and him possible. Thus, I introduce The Crucible & Column.

I am particularly enamoured with factories, and heavy equipment. I used to be involved in the design and construction of chemical plants, and there is still something about a large piece of equipment being lifted into place, that I find fascinating. So the metaphors for the blog are taken from that vein:
  • a crucible: the container used for processing metals at high temperature
  • a distillation column: used for purification of liquids away from their mixtures
I intend the blog to be primarily celebratory with less focus on threats to capitalism, but as yet don't know how that mix will work out. So stay tuned.