Saturday, November 7, 2015

Triangular Predicament

I have several family members and family friends that are franchisees of the AFC Sushi Corporation, a company which covers a niche of selling fresh sushi in supermarkets across the United States. They are normally the agents of many principals: supermarket management, the health department, and a regional manager of the AFC Franchise. For the most part, supermarket management and the AFC Franchise have their views aligned, so I will mostly focus on the tensions that arise from being an agent to the franchise and the health department.

The franchise rates good performance by the profitability of a store. If sales are satisfactory and the procedures are followed, the franchise has no reason to step in. The health department, on the other hand, rates good performance by how well the franchisees adhere to the health guidelines laid out by the state.

The two principals see eye to eye on several things, such as the need for sushi to be made fresh daily, but a problem arises from the fact that the agents shoulder a large amount of risk from the franchise principal: franchisees buy both contracts with certain supermarkets and supplies from the AFC Sushi Corporation and then must maintain the profitability of the location.

In order to maintain sales and overcome stereotypes of all sushi being raw fish and the cultural stigmas associated with such, franchisees put a particular emphasis on sales and satisfying customers. Due to the nature of supermarkets, many customers prefer grabbing a package and checking out, as opposed to ordering and waiting. Thus, a majority of the sushi must be prepared beforehand. However, the health department mandates that sushi must be chilled to a specific temperature before it can be put onto the cooling display. In order to maintain both sales and obey health guidelines, sushi must be prepared well in advance before it may be sold.

In practice, sushi is usually put into the cooling display right after being packaged. Sushi is a relatively elastic product, as it is luxurious and shrouded by social stigmas. From the eyes of the agent, maintaining sales involves capturing as much potential customers as possible, and hoping some will become regulars. But as supermarket customers, these potential customers are different from those that might visit a sushi restaurant, having higher degrees of fickleness and impatience. This means decorative sushi that is put out to display immediately, to cater to those unique circumstances.

A simple answer to satisfying both principals could be to have the agents come in earlier. But coming in early is not a practical answer for the agent, as the people I know begin their daily commute to their respective supermarkets between the hours of 3-6am. Changing the order in which certain types of sushi is made is likely to have no positive effect, as over the years, agents have been guided to an efficient order of preparing sushi, such that regulars are able to pick up their favorite sushi as they come through.

In the end, the agent usually chooses to satisfy the franchise principal and ignore a specific few demands of the other principal, the health department. The scenario is reversed during routine health inspections, as agents will slightly curtail sales to avoid being fined or compromising their contract.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pulled in Two Directions

In high school, I was a part of the school spirit organization. Normally, I was assigned menial tasks like working stands at events, hanging decorations and posters, or painting faces, but once during my sophomore year, I was assigned under junior Aoka for the annual designing of a club shirt. In the interests of having two representatives from every grade level (Aoka included), there were six other students, but the club supervisor, Hana, wanted a clear weight in favor of senior members. Aoka was only a junior, but she had been with the organization since her enrollment. Nevertheless, one of the senior representatives, Ryou, a two-year member, was displeased by the decision, feeling that he was better qualified.

From the onset, Ryou tried to steer the team. Ryou repeatedly moved to block Aoka by cutting her off mid-sentence or ridiculing her ideas. When her proposals were moved onto the table, he would rally for vetoes and pressure the reluctant underclassmen to follow his lead. He would then attempt to rouse the other members (especially the other senior, Kaori) for submissions whenever he wasn't pushing his own designs onto the table.

Aoka was initially patient, perhaps oblivious, to Ryou's opposition. She eventually came to realize his hostility after multiple proposals fell flat. She then ousted Ryou angrily from his influential podium, verbally reprimanding his subversive behavior, and forced the caucus to accept a general theme for the shirt design. Ryou fumed and sulked for the remainder of the meeting, and the next.

After the confrontation, Aoka was certain that the fault lay with Ryou for being disrespectful, uncooperative, and manipulative. Ryou, on the other hand, felt that his interests as a senior were not being properly represented, and to that end, thought Aoka to be uncooperative and insensitive he was certain that everyone but Aoka acknowledged his rights, as a senior, to ultimate control over the design. Other members confided in me that they were indifferent to who wrests control, but were inclined to oppose Ryou as the instigator, to which I agreed. Kaori herself showed discomfort with how upfront and aggressive Ryou was, and probably would prefer deferring to Aoka as the chosen leader.

For the large part, the convening members chose to tiptoe around the feud. Before the confrontation, most members complied to Ryou's forceful demands, or found an excuse to avoid it. Afterwards, most of us chose to ignore Ryou, as he remained quiet and began playing truant. Aoka did not seek further conflicts, and carried business on normally.

Ultimately, the conflict came to a breaking point. As we approached making a decision between several drafts, the club supervisor, Hana, came to inform us that Ryou had asked to transfer him to a different task, due to Aoka being "unbearably uncooperative and indecisive." Trusting Aoka more, she came to inquire what had happened. When she was met with avoided glances and Aoka's calm explanation that Ryou was at fault, Hana let the topic drop, and concluded that we were too far along to reassign another senior representative, and briefly reminded us of the deadline before leaving.

In hindsight, there was something everyone could have done to prevent the fallout. Ryou could have chosen to be more communicate in a clear and civil manner, rather than assume his righteousness and everyone else's allegiance. For her part, Aoka could have been more accommodating of Ryou's wants. Instead of letting her frustration swell up and burst, she could have attempted to meet Ryou halfway on issues. For the rest of us, our submissive attitude played a large part into giving Ryou the momentum to corner Aoka, which inevitably led to her retaliation. If we had been a little more firm and resistant to Ryou's pressure, he might not have made the assumptions he did and potentially cause him to refocus his attention on a more generalized, diplomatic approach.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sharing the Digital Wealth

My most recent experiences with team production, peculiarly enough, manifests itself inside the world of online video games, in both gritty first-person shooters (FPSs) and the fantasy realms of massively multiplayer role-playing games (MMORPGs). The cooperative scenarios experienced through LED screens exhibit many of the conditions for when gift-exchange happens or doesn't happen as detailed in Jonathan Haidt's "How to Get the Rich to Share the Marbles."

In World of Warcraft, perhaps one of the most famous titles of the MMORPG genre, often presents dungeons and boss monsters that are more difficult  (or in the case of raids, which are gigantic bosses designed for even more players than usual, impossible) to solo. Cooperation is a requirement for progression to a conclusion, with the exception of heavily invested players. The rewards of clearing a dungeon or slaying a monster include in-game currency and loot, which ranges from healing items to armors and weapons. There are predesignated loot, items and currency which are scripted to drop every time, and random loot, often referred to as rare drops due to being procured by a random number generator and not being guaranteed. As these dungeons are exponentially more difficult without cooperation, party members will almost always distribute predesignated loot evenly. However, this is not always the case with extremely rare drops (a tier of rarity that may be described as "legendary")-- the sense of randomness dissipates most feelings of collaboration, as it was not an explicit reward for cooperation. Even so, many rare drops are also distributed, especially when the dropped item is unusable by the player's class, perhaps because the difficulty of the content elicits gratitude to the party when the drop is not extremely valuable.

Alternatively, in Elsword, a side scrolling "beat 'em up" MMORPG, reveals a different distribution of rewards. Characteristic to beat 'em up games, the content of dungeons are rarely challenging, as monsters are usually designed as time-wasting obstacles rather than threats capable of dispatching a player that is at least half aware of his surroundings. Cooperation in parties is geared towards saving time rather than a successful venture. Players do not feel indebted to each other despite the time saved, and gift exchange is nonexistent.

In Killing Floor, a cooperative FPS, players take on the role of soldiers and police officers to dispatch hordes of zombie-like specimens from a mass cloning experiment gone wrong. Kills and successfully surviving through a wave grants players money, which can be used at an arms shop that becomes available for a minute in between waves. While players are allowed to respawn after a wave (assuming the entire team is not wiped out), they fall behind extremely quickly in terms of funds as they stop earning money upon death, miss out on the wave clear bonus, and lose much of their previous equipment. As subsequent waves scale in difficulty, failure to redistribute the wealth often results in the entire party being wiped out. This is a slightly modified scenario of team production and reward distribution, as it is a continuous cycle and there is an implicit understanding that redistributing rewards after every "payout" will increase the likelihood that the entire venture succeeds. However, there are situations where the cycle exists, but dependence on cooperation is absent. There are a fairly large proportion of experienced players throughout the game that are capable of clearing every wave without the help of his/her team. Eliminating the need of the team eliminates any responsibility towards it, so while the players may be cooperating to lighten the work, one or more players are not dependent on the contribution of the rest. In these team compositions, two scenarios may arise. Certain veterans may be extremely altruistic-- once acquiring their necessary equipment, they will distribute every last pound (the game is based in London) to their less fortunate teammates. On the other hand, some veterans will treat the rest of the players as if they did not exist. The most telling determinant for how these specific players may act towards their team is how "helpful" they might be. While the content is not difficult for them, players are often appreciative of those who follow directions, such as holding a position that lightens their workload. "Helpful" may also simply be staying out of the player's way-- understanding of AI behavior allows veterans to easily dispatch specimen, and interference from a less insightful player may kill the two of them. When these players are not angered by the actions of his/her teammates, they typically distribute their wealth as to make the entire game enjoyable for everyone.

In my experience, when every player feels that the venture's success was largely dependent on the collaborative efforts of the team, gift-exchange is common. However, there was an additional condition that was key to how all spoils were shared: the varying degree of reliance players experience upon each other within parties, within games, and across games. This condition, in turn, was determined by the difficulty of in-game content and how talented/experienced a party member was. When the team worked through rather easy tasks or when one player contributes a majority of the work, there is a significantly less chance that rewards are equally distributed. When the work was challenging or the skills, talents, and efforts of every player was relatively equal, players are more likely to redistribute rewards. Within the realms of online gaming, cooperation is not always treated like collaboration. Acknowledgement of the contributions of teammates is heavily dependent on the judgement, biases, and experiences of each player involved. When some players determine another's contributions to be unworthy, they deny their efforts as collaboration and deny the need to reapportion the spoils.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


I have an identical twin brother. The two of us have attended the same schools and for the most part, had identical schedules. Our understanding of each course's content had also, in all practicality, overlapped. Even within niches, economics (my own) and biology/anatomy (his), knowledge of the other's respective specialties were not lacking; it was more of a matter of which brother was able to recall and translate information faster and sometimes, with more detail or the speed with which he recognized the nature of a question or transfer elements to another topic. His understanding of economic models or the structure of a nerve cell did not differ. From our extracurricular activities to our athletic ability, we were close to exact substitutes for most any tasks either of us received.

Not surprisingly, we have always been asked things such as "Do you take each other's tests?" or "Do you ever copy each other's homework?" and I could proudly say that, despite the numerous chances presented every year, we never took advantage of our circumstances in such a way. To this day, the strongest motivation as to why was an overwhelming sense of pride and integrity when it comes to work. Overwhelming in the sense that should the name of a strongly dishonest peer be mentioned around our friends or household, there were odds one of us may lapse into a remorseless critique of their habits, work ethic, trustworthiness, motives, and personality, invoking his/her past transgressions and skeptical practices. That tends to be an extreme reaction, a merciless tirade reserved for the most repulsive classmates, however, as we often opt for snarky one-liners of slight disapproval. So whether our sense of justice is extreme or whether we are simply blunt and socially inept, I often confuse myself. Whatever the case, we prided ourselves on this integrity because it distinguished ourselves even further from the general populace, whether they were aware of it or not.

Another reason for not taking advantage of our twin status was a firm belief that doing our own share of work was for our own good and critical to enduring understanding of subject material. We knew, should we lose out on practice by passing off homework or unit tests, it would come further down the line, as cumulative knowledge or in a final exam. A practical reason for not engaging in opportunism was maintaining a zone of neutrality between the two of us to what extent would one brother lean on the other? There would almost certainly be an imbalance in the amount of work one brother does for the other, and should one of us fall into the habit of relying on the other for a course, having to do any amount of extra work could serve as friction during times of stress.

I don't believe these reasons amount to the same thing. They may stem from the same feelings of justice and integrity, but the reasons for which one acts upon those feelings may be different. Some people may take altruistic pleasure from acting the "good citizen" for that reason and that reason alone. Others believe luck and opportunity to be karmic, and this is in its own sense, self-serving  there is altruistic pleasure derived in the present and belief that materialistic pleasure is due their way. In the case of my brother and I, the reasons for acting upon our sense of morality were self-serving, but in a still different sense. We did not expect our habits to qualify us for future encounters with luck, nor did we (for the most part) hold ourselves as upstanding citizens nor as benefactors of justice. Chiefly, we behaved this way so that we may fuel our vicious arrogance, taking from it all a twisted pleasure in not only sweeping academic scores and displaying unflagging dedication in athletics, but doing so in a manner that could not be denied or countered. Our sense of integrity is largely a social reaction to our peers we saw dishonesty as weaknesses in others, a handicap they allow themselves to keep up with competition. In this, we derived confidence and for having refrained from such activities, viewed ourselves as superior as we, in spite of handicaps, remained forerunners in several degrees of measure. Separate from those feelings, there was also a practical and realistic reason for not engaging in opportunism, being that between two hypothetical cheaters collaborating, who would bear the higher cost? For the two of us, this would become problematic extremely quickly. And at a crossroad between practicality and morality, there was fear that engaging in opportunism would hinder us in the future. This sounds entirely a practical reason, but from our point of view, we generally attributed most of our learning to textbooks, lectures, and notes, more so than homework and tests. However, we put our faith into our instructors that these were critical components to learning, and so, felt morally obligated to meet the objectives laid out by our teachers, with the practical goal of learning for the future in mind.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Organizational Structure in a High School Track Team

My experience with organizations manifests itself mostly as extracurricular activities in high school. Primarily, my school's track & field team, which I had been a member of for three straight years, serves as the bulk of that experience. Compared to other activities around the school, we were one of the largest, generally sporting between 75 to 100 registered members and three or four coaches. The team itself, however, was composed of three divisions, generally: short distance sprinters, medium/long distance endurance runners, and strong armed fielders (shotput and discus), each managed by separate coaches during practice and meets. A fourth division, comprised of members from some or all of the previous divisions, would assemble, at the discretion of the coaches, to work on field events such as the high jump, long jump, and triple jump, or to practice hurdle sprints. Sometimes, some boys would find an affinity for two divisions and undertake a hectic schedule moving between the two, attempting to balance important practices and recovery days that may or may not be concurrent between both divisions, and sometimes, members would make full transitions to a different division, even after two years with another. However, for most of the team, members only mingled, on a daily basis, with 20-25 other boys from his single division, and said division's coach.

Naturally, authority within the organization rest with the coaches. At our school, the distance coach, who also happened to coach hurdles, was the team's head coach. However, the boys answered primarily to their division's specific coach, and would only need to see the head coach in regards to event placement for meets or long term issues regarding attendance, grade eligibility, or deficiencies regarding motivation and effort in practice.

Further moving down the hierarchy, each division's coaches delegated leadership to select upperclassmen; depending on the batch of boys, it was often two boys who led the rest, sometimes four or five. These select leaders were usually identified by the coach's judgement on their capacity to lead, by spirit or by example, and generally bridged by that member's initiative, as leadership was extended as optional hours after practice to learn the training that is to be led by these upperclassmen and introduced to the rest of the team at a later time. When the divisions came together during practice or meets, it was the student leaders' responsibility to lead stretches, call for warm-up laps, and organize team chants for the 4x400m relay.

Unfortunately, even within the small branches of the boys, incentives often clashed. The objectives of the leaders often coincided with that of the coaches, and that is to generate winning performances at meets through rigorous training of the entire team. Although the coaches are still very active and present during practices, taking times, signalling when to move to the next exercise, offering criticism, and cracking down on shirkers, a noticeable amount of responsibility is transferred upon the leaders, who are expected to identify the appropriate times to be serious and to be lazy, generally trying to keep the other boys in line before the coach points it out. A very powerful source of motivation, as upperclassmen, stems from the "ticking hourglass" that signals the leaders' graduation from both the school and the team. A saying that our head coach has always passed around was "to leave everything on the track," meaning to walk away from high school track & field without having to ever regret the time and sweat that was or wasn't invested. With each passing year, this sentiment becomes ever more important to the upperclassmen, who wish to see their final year go out in a series of wins and record setting. The abrupt grounding of reality to upperclassmen directly clashes with the freshmen and sophomores, many of whom carry lofty ambitions of making it big on the track or in another sport, banking on some sort of "untapped potential," to only realize that the time for their potential to blossom had been squandered away once they themselves attain the leadership position in the following years.

It should be noted that the transaction costs of having to repeatedly monitor and enforce attendance and honest commitment to practice could be observed in many organizations around the school. I dare say that I am so confident as to say if it were not for these costs of time, we had the capabilities of entering more than a few runners or a handful of clubs to state level competitions, and winning.

Friday, September 4, 2015

About Joan Robinson

Joan Robinson (1903-1983)

Joan Robinson was a distinguished economist, academic, and teacher of the 20th century, and was responsible for her contributions to microeconomics models, price theory, monetary policy, and Keynesian economics. One of her earliest books, The Economics of Imperfect Competition, Robinson was noted to have been the first to coin the term "monopsony" in print, and the text, in conjunction with Edward Chamberlain's Theory of Monopolistic Competition, sparked discussion of imperfect competition, its implications for the market, firms, and equilibrium, as well as eliciting a focus on firms as opposed to markets. Her time as a Cambridge professor acquainted her with the prominent economist John Maynard Keynes, and in the decades following, she became a leading interpreter of Keynesian theories while simultaneously pushing for his analysis to be extended outside of its original scope. Late into her career, she would further observe, analyze, and expound the socialist economies of North Korea and most notably, China, following up on her experiences during WWII where she would visit the Soviet Union as part of her work with the British wartime government and her notable essay on Marxian economics in 1942, which had, at that time, renewed debate over his ideas.

Before taking this course, I had never heard of Robinson, being unfamiliar with Keynesian theories and completely unaware of her significant contributions to the contemporary microeconomics models taught in high school. I think her work with imperfect competition, especially monopsonies, and the resulting focus on the firm as opposed to the market will very much be relevant for this course's discussion of organizations and the extrinsic incentives that shape the relationships among employees and employers within an organization.

"Joan Robinson." Econ Wikis-MBorg. 2010. 4 Sep. 2015 <>.
"Joan Robinson.New World Encyclopedia. 2008. 4 Sep. 2015 <>.
"Joan Robinson.Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. 2014. 4 Sep. 2015 <>.
"Joan Violet Maurice Robinson.Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. 4 Sep. 2015 <>.