# Conjugate variables, in thermodynamics and elsewhere

When I wrote an explanation of cap and trade, I had a strong temptation to make a physics analogy, to an idea in thermodynamics. The trouble is nobody would understand the analogy, and I would be obliged to explain the physics instead of the economics. Well I’d still like to explain the physics, but in a separate article.

There are certain thermodynamic quantities that are considered to be paired with one another. For example, pressure and volume, or temperature and entropy. These pairs are called thermodynamic conjugate variables.

The concept of conjugate variables can be challenging for physics students to understand because the examples we use are unintuitive. The connection between pressure and volume is unclear, and most people don’t wholly understand what temperature or entropy even are. Therefore, I’d like to use a more down-to-earth example.

So, let’s consider a pool of water. The pool is described by two conjugate variables: the volume of water, and the height of the water.

In my series discussing capitalism and socialism, a commenter said that both frameworks have problems with externalized costs.  According to the internet, “Externalized costs are costs generated by producers but carried by society as a whole.”  For example, pollution.

I want to discuss externalized costs through the lens of a specific concrete example: cap and trade policies in California.  I choose this example because I have a friend willing to explain it to me because I live in California and know all about it.

Generally speaking, cap and trade is a policy to reduce carbon emissions (or greenhouse gasses).  The government auctions off “allowances” that give companies permission to produce a certain amount of carbon emissions.  There are a fixed number of allowances available (that’s the “cap” part), and further carbon emissions are restricted.  The companies are free to buy and sell the allowances at prices of their own choosing (that’s the “trade” part).  The number of allowances decrease over time in order to meet the government’s pollution reduction goals.

# Exploitation of labor, part 2

This article is part of a series discussing capitalism and socialism.  Remember, the point isn’t to conclude that socialism or capitalism is good or bad.  The point is to discuss which aspects are good or bad, and why.  Don’t treat me as an authority, tell me how wrong I am, discuss.

Last time, I introduced the idea that labor has a certain maintenance cost, and creates a certain amount of value.  The “surplus” is the difference between the value output and maintenance cost.  In the discussion, we agreed that it’s difficult to define the productivity of each worker.  Usually, many workers are cooperating to make the final product, and you may even have workers who are there to improve the efficiency of other workers.

There are two responses to this.  One response is, even if we can’t define it on an individual basis, we can look at worker productivity and worker pay on a macro scale, and see that workers are getting paid less and less of the surplus.

Another response, is a question.  In the current capitalist system, how do we evaluate worker productivity for the purposes of determining their wages?  The answer lies in the idea of marginal productivity.

Image mine. Use with permission.

# Exploitation of labor

When asked about my economic politics, I say I’m “socialist, kinda”. I owe a lot of that to listening to The Barefoot Bum over many years talking directly about how economic systems work, and the problems with capitalism. By comparison, I find a lot of other socialist arguments on the internet unsatisfying. It’s all “overthrow capitalism” and “seize the memes of production”, and I wish we could talk about specifics more often.

So, I’d like to lead a discussion about the problems with capitalism, much like what I did with health insurance years ago. Don’t treat me as an authority, tell me how wrong I am, discuss.

My first subject of discussion, is exploitation of labor. This is a Marxist concept, but I’m not interested in exploring what exactly Marx did or did not believe. I’m interested in exploring (and improving upon) the concept as I understand it. So here goes:

# Weird accounting

Something I now feel comfortable venting about, now that my PhD is over a year behind me, is their timekeeping practices.

At some point in the middle of my PhD, they started requiring that we record hours.  I (and other students) were pissed off about this, because we weren’t being paid by the hour, we were on fixed salaries.  Being salaried has the disadvantage that your employer pressures you to work long hours, because they know they don’t have to pay you overtime.  Being paid by the hour is better, but has the disadvantage that you have to record hours.  By making us record hours, while keeping us on fixed salaries, we were getting the worst of both worlds.

Once we actually started recording hours, it was even more ridiculous than we initially thought.  It was not possible to record accurate hours–the maximum number of hours I could record was about 20 hours per week.  This was supposedly because I had a “50% appointment”, meaning that half of my time was devoted to my position as a research assistant, and the other half devoted to being a student.  Which was not accurate by the way.  I wasn’t taking any more classes at this point.

# Why video games are so flammable

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2013.  I was reminded of this post because I recently wrote about a queer theory paper about video game economics.  Wow, some of my references are quite dated!  And this predates gamergate!  Also, LOL at “I don’t intend to make a habit out of discussing economics”.

With Black Friday upon us, the flame wars over next-gen gaming consoles have really been heating up.  Which will win: the Wii U, XBox One, or PlayStation 4?  No one truly knows, but gamers everywhere agree that everyone else is wrong and should feel bad about being so stupid.

While I don’t intend to make a habit out of discussing economics, I do think that video game flame wars can be understood within economics.  The problem is twofold:

1. There is limited space for video games and video game consoles, and everyone knows it.
2. Video games are in a state of monopolistic competition.

Video game producers are most efficient when they make fewer, larger games, for many reasons.  Developing a game is a one-time cost, while actually manufacturing the game is cheap.  Selling more copies of a game is not a matter of paying for more manufacture, but paying for better advertisement and development so that more people want to play.1  Note that it’s much easier to advertise one big game than to advertise many little ones.  The main reason to have more smaller games is to better cater to different tastes (e.g. see the indie game industry).

# Paper: Gaming’s Queer Economy

In my last link roundup, I pointed to a paper called “Coin of Another Realm: Gaming’s Queer Economy“, by Christopher Goetz. I’m all over this, because I’m really interested in the economics of video games, and what this means for people with minority tastes. That’s not the direction Goetz takes, but still.

But I must warn you, you may find this paper infuriating. It shows some of the most frustrating tendencies of critical theory and queer theory. For example, in queer theory, “queer” often does not refer to sexuality, but instead means something like, “against norms”, “relating to oppressed groups”, or “in opposition to reproductive futurism”. Frustrating, as an activist, but also frustratingly standard!  And it’s not really much of an economic analysis–the paper quite literally uses a child’s understanding of economics. It’s a “literary” view of economics: myths, not maths.

But my purpose is neither to attack nor defend the paper (although I may do either incidentally), but to engage with it in good faith. The reader is welcome to quit in frustration at any point, and tell me about it in the comment section.