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April 30, 2006

Seeing How Life Has Improved Since the Days of the Cowboys

cowboyPBS.jpg A cowboy on "Texas Ranch House."   Source of image:  the WSJ article cited below.


"Texas Ranch House" -- circa 1867 -- is the latest PBS experiment in transporting a group of people back to another era so we can watch them live and struggle the way our ancestors did.  (Part one of eight begins Monday, 8-9 p.m. ET, but check local listings.)  As with past series such as "Colonial House," everything -- clothing, tools, food, housing and all-around deprivation -- is authentic.  Once again, though, stuffing 21st-century mentalities into period costumes and situations is a tough fit. And once again, it's the folks wearing the bodices that chafe the most.

The Western setting is fascinating for two reasons:  What seems familiar from movies and TV takes on fresh significance when there are real people -- not pampered actors -- trying to scratch out an existence on the frontier 24/7, with no plot to guide them.  There is also the fact, as one of the participants points out early on, that many of us exist today only because a forebear actually did make the real journey West and manage to survive there long enough to bear children.  What luck, we are reminded more than once during this series, that those ancestors were so different from contemporary Americans.

. . .

The trouble that threatens to sabotage the entire experiment develops in the widening gap between the cowboys and the Cooke family.  The first time one of the employees disses boss man Mr. Cooke, yelling "Don't let your wife run your life," we react with disgust at the insult.  As one of the women in the household explains to the camera, all the cowboys "are sexist bastards."  Besides, instead of rising early to ride the range in search of mavericks for 10 hours, the cowboys -- mostly young Americans plus one frisky British boarding-school boy playing the part of 19th-century remittance man -- indulge in long naps during the 100-degree days and often wake up in the morning with hangovers after nights of hard drinking.

At some point, though, certain facts begin to sink in:  Mr. Cooke does have management shortcomings and Mrs. Cooke is far more involved in running the business side of the ranch than a frontier wife would have been.  The ladies, in general, don't enjoy the roles or status that historical reality would dictate, and some act out in defiant, liberated ways.  A fatal flaw, if not the only one, for the success of the ranch enterprise.  In 1867, spending days making cornhusk dolls while the house filled with flies and vegetables rotted in the garden wasn't an option for folks who wanted to stay alive.  And, like it or not, keeping the ranch hands happy, as obnoxious as they might be, was more important than maintaining marital bliss.

This being a made-for-television environment, no one perishes, but there are no happy endings here, either.  When one of the Cooke daughters says to the camera, "I feel lost and dazed and hurt," you feel genuinely sorry for her.  At the same time, it's clearer than ever that emotional pampering, navel-gazing and gender warfare are modern luxuries.  Like it or not, if these had been features of daily life in the West 100 years ago, many of the people reading this would never have been born.


For the full review, see:

Nancy deWolf  Smith.  "TV REVIEW; The West That Never Was."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., April 28, 2006):   W10.

April 29, 2006

Near Ancient Babylon in Iraq, "the streets pulsate with life"

BabylonMap.jpg Source of map:  http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/18/world/middleeast/18babylon.html?_r=1&oref=slogin


(p. A1) Ancient Babylon, celebrated as a fount of law, writing and urban living, sits just outside the modern-day city of Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.  Hilla is neither haunted by Sunni insurgents nor overwhelmed by Shiite militias.  And though it has a mix of Shiites and Sunnis, it has not been afflicted by the sectarian violence that has paralyzed so many other heterogeneous parts of Iraq.

Factories are churning, Iraqi security forces are patrolling and the streets pulsate with life — children bounding to school, crowds wading into markets, taxis gliding by.

. . .

(p. A6) The American military still maintains bases near Babylon, but next month, in a sign of how relatively stable the area has become, most troops will pull out and head north to Baghdad, where they are needed more.


For the full story, see: 

Gentleman, Jeffrey.  "Babylon Awaits an Iraq Without Fighting."   The New York Times (Tues., April 18, 2006):  A1 & A6.

April 28, 2006

"Damn it Fidel! What are you going to do about this lousy, piece-of-**** island of yours?"


   Source of image of book:  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1586483242/qid=1145298612/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/104-9985403-1047968?s=books&v=glance&n=283155


Fernando Cardosa is the former Brazilian President who is best known for having temporarily tamed Brazil's runaway inflation.  Although not a principled believer in the free market, Cardoso made some efforts to reduce the damage the Brazilian government was doing to the economy.  The following startling passage is from a useful review of a new memoir by Cardoso:


. . . ,  Mr. Cardoso mentions a telling moment at a 1999 summit meeting in Havana.  When the heads of state were alone at a luncheon, one said to Castro:  "Damn it Fidel!  What are you going to do about this lousy, piece-of-**** island of yours?   We're sick of apologizing for you all the time, Fidel.  It's getting embarrassing."   The anecdote shows how disingenuous Latin governments can be when they remain silent about the Cuban dictatorship.


For the full review, see:

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY.  "A Leader Who Got Real."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., April 6, 2006):  D8.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


Here is the full reference to Cardoso's memoir:

Cardoso, Fernando Henrique.  The Accidental President of Brazil:  A Memoir.  PublicAffairs, 2006.  [with Brian Winter;  291 pages;  $26.95]


April 27, 2006

Chernobyl Accident Cannot Occur In U.S. Type Reactors

Twenty years ago (April 25, 1986), the Chernobyl nuclear accident sent a plume of radiation into the air above Ukraine.  The word "Chernobyl" remains the most emotionally charged argument used by the opponents of nuclear energy.  But if examined carefully, the main lesson from Chernobyl may be that what happened there cannot occur in the better designed light water reactors used in the United States, and most of the rest of the world.  William Sweet, the author of the commentary below, has also authored Kicking the Carbon Habit:  Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy.


(p. A23) . . . , though it went unnoticed at the time and has been inadequately appreciated since, Chernobyl also cast into relief the positive features of the reactors used in the United States and most other advanced industrial countries.

The reactor at Chernobyl belonged to a class that was especially vulnerable to runaway reactions.  When operating at low power, if such reactors lost water, their reactivity could suddenly take off and very rapidly reach a threshold beyond which they could only explode.  Making matters worse, surprisingly little more pressure than normal in the machine's water channels would lift its lid, snapping the vital control rods and fuel channels that entered the reactor's core.

On the night of April 25, 1986, poorly trained and supervised plant operators conducted an ill-conceived experiment, putting the machine into the very state in which reactivity was most likely to spike.  Within a fraction of a second, the reactor went from being barely on to power levels many times higher than the maximum intended.

This kind of accident cannot happen in the so-called light water reactors used in the United States and most of Western Europe and Asia.  In these reactors, the water functions not only as a coolant but as a "moderator": self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions cannot take place in its absence.  This is a very useful passive safety feature.  If coolant runs low, there is still a danger of a core meltdown, because the fuel retains heat; but the reactor will have automatically and immediately turned itself off.


For the full commentary, see:

WILLIAM SWEET.  "The Nuclear Option."  The New York Times  (Weds., April 26, 2006):  A23.


The reference to Sweet's related book is:

Sweet, William.  Kicking the Carbon Habit:  Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy.  Columbia University Press, 2006.

Source of book image:  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0231137109/sr=8-1/qid=1146071688/ref=sr_1_1/104-5668094-9083929?%5Fencoding=UTF8

April 26, 2006

Founder of Greenpeace Endorses New Nuclear Reactors

MoorePatrick.jpg   Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace.   Source of image:    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/25/us/25nuke.html?_r=1&oref=slogin


(p. A24) WASHINGTON, April 24 — The nuclear industry has hired Christie Whitman, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, the environmental organization, to lead a public relations campaign for new reactors.

Nuclear power is "environmentally friendly, affordable, clean, dependable and safe," Mrs. Whitman said at a news conference on Monday.  She said that as the E.P.A. leader for two and a half years, ending in June 2003, and as governor of New Jersey for seven years, she had promoted various means to reduce the emission of gases that cause global warming and pollution.

But Mrs. Whitman said that "none of them will have as great a positive impact on our environment as will increasing our ability to generate electricity from nuclear power."

. . .

Mr. Moore said he favored efficiency and renewable energy, but added that solar cells, which produce electricity from sunlight, were "being given too much emphasis and taking too much money."  A dollar spent on geothermal energy, he said, was "10 to 12 times more effective in reducing greenhouse emissions."

Mr. Moore is the director of a company that distributes geothermal systems in Canada.  He is also a supporter of what he called "sustainable forestry" because, he said, building with wood avoided the use of materials whose manufacture releases greenhouse gases, like steel and concrete.

Mr. Moore, who left Greenpeace in 1986, favors many technologies that some environmentalists oppose, including the genetic engineering of crops, and has referred to his former colleagues as "environmental extremists" and "anti-human."

. . .

Representatives of the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Teamsters also spoke in favor of new reactors.

For the full story, see:

MATTHEW L. WALD.  "Ex-Environmental Leaders Tout Nuclear Energy."  The New York Times (Tues., April 25, 2006): A24.


April 25, 2006

Hurricanes Not Caused by Human-Induced Climate Change: More on Why Crichton is Right

The Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT analyzes the case for human-induced global warming:

(p. A14) There have been repeated claims that this past year's hurricane activity was another sign of human-induced climate change. Everything from the heat wave in Paris to heavy snows in Buffalo has been blamed on people burning gasoline to fuel their cars, and coal and natural gas to heat, cool and electrify their homes. Yet how can a barely discernible, one-degree increase in the recorded global mean temperature since the late 19th century possibly gain public acceptance as the source of recent weather catastrophes? And how can it translate into unlikely claims about future catastrophes?

The answer has much to do with misunderstanding the science of climate, plus a willingness to debase climate science into a triangle of alarmism.

. . .

To understand the misconceptions perpetuated about climate science and the climate of intimidation, one needs to grasp some of the complex underlying scientific issues. First, let's start where there is agreement. The public, press and policy makers have been repeatedly told that three claims have widespread scientific support: Global temperature has risen about a degree since the late 19th century; levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have increased by about 30% over the same period; and CO2 should contribute to future warming. These claims are true. However, what the public fails to grasp is that the claims neither constitute support for alarm nor establish man's responsibility for the small amount of warming that has occurred. In fact, those who make the most outlandish claims of alarm are actually demonstrating skepticism of the very science they say supports them. It isn't just that the alarmists are trumpeting model results that we know must be wrong. It is that they are trumpeting catastrophes that couldn't happen even if the models were right as justifying costly policies to try to prevent global warming.

If the models are correct, global warming reduces the temperature differences between the poles and the equator. When you have less difference in temperature, you have less excitation of extratropical storms, not more. And, in fact, model runs support this conclusion. Alarmists have drawn some support for increased claims of tropical storminess from a casual claim by Sir John Houghton of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that a warmer world would have more evaporation, with latent heat providing more energy for disturbances. The problem with this is that the ability of evaporation to drive tropical storms relies not only on temperature but humidity as well, and calls for drier, less humid air. Claims for starkly higher temperatures are based upon there being more humidity, not less -- hardly a case for more storminess with global warming.

. . .

In Europe, Henk Tennekes was dismissed as research director of the Royal Dutch Meteorological Society after questioning the scientific underpinnings of global warming. Aksel Winn-Nielsen, former director of the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization, was tarred by Bert Bolin, first head of the IPCC, as a tool of the coal industry for questioning climate alarmism. Respected Italian professors Alfonso Sutera and Antonio Speranza disappeared from the debate in 1991, apparently losing climate-research funding for raising questions.

And then there are the peculiar standards in place in scientific journals for articles submitted by those who raise questions about accepted climate wisdom. At Science and Nature, such papers are commonly refused without review as being without interest. However, even when such papers are published, standards shift. When I, with some colleagues at NASA, attempted to determine how clouds behave under varying temperatures, we discovered what we called an "Iris Effect," wherein upper-level cirrus clouds contracted with increased temperature, providing a very strong negative climate feedback sufficient to greatly reduce the response to increasing CO2. Normally, criticism of papers appears in the form of letters to the journal to which the original authors can respond immediately. However, in this case (and others) a flurry of hastily prepared papers appeared, claiming errors in our study, with our responses delayed months and longer. The delay permitted our paper to be commonly referred to as "discredited." Indeed, there is a strange reluctance to actually find out how climate really behaves. In 2003, when the draft of the U.S. National Climate Plan urged a high priority for improving our knowledge of climate sensitivity, the National Research Council instead urged support to look at the impacts of the warming -- not whether it would actually happen.

Alarm rather than genuine scientific curiosity, it appears, is essential to maintaining funding. And only the most senior scientists today can stand up against this alarmist gale, and defy the iron triangle of climate scientists, advocates and policymakers.

For the full commentary, see:

RICHARD LINDZEN. "Climate of Fear." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., April 12, 2006): A14.

April 24, 2006

State Colleges and Universities "suffer from all the inefficiency and poor decision-making of Soviet-style factories"

In its public meetings, panelists from Wall Street and elsewhere in the business world have criticized academia as failing to meet the educational needs of working adults, stem a slide in the literacy of college graduates and rein in rising costs.

During a February meeting in San Diego, Trace Urdan, a senior research analyst for the investment banking firm Robert W. Baird & Company, said state colleges and universities "amount to state-run enterprises and suffer from all the inefficiency and poor decision-making of Soviet-style factories."

For the full story, see:

SAM DILLON. "Panel Considers Revamping College Aid and Accrediting." The New York Times (Weds., April 12, 2006): A14.

April 23, 2006

Common Measures Aid Transparent Transactions

Source of book image: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/0743216768/ref=cm_cr_dp_2_1/104-9985403-1047968?%5Fencoding=UTF8&customer-reviews.sort%5Fby=-SubmissionDate&n=283155

The Measure of All Things is an interesting book for several reasons. It shows how hard it is to stay focused on noble pursuits in the face of revolution, war, disease, and peasant ignorance. It raises questions about where common standards of measurement should and do come from; and makes useful points about the value of common standards of measurement for free trade. It tells us how hard it was to do science 200 years ago, and tells us of the devotion of those who tried.

Here is a useful passage on why common standards of measurement matter for the free market:

(p. 137) Prieur believed that uniform measures would make France a great nation, smoothly administered from the center and united through trade. The metric system would transform France into "a vast market, each part exchanging its surplus." It would make exchanges "direct, healthy, and rapid," diminishing the "frictions" which impeded the wheels of commerce. These frictions included anything that masked the true price of an item, such as the variable measures of the Ancien Regime. The price of an item, Prieur argued, necessarily depended on many factors: its scarcity, the work necessary to produce it, the quality of the product. But in the final analysis, price was whatever people agreed it should be. This meant that when people agreed on a price they needed to know what they were getting, not be baffled by secret shifts in the quantity being exchanged. Those who claimed that differences in measures aided commerce were just talking about their personal profits. "The French Republic," he wrote, "can no longer tolerate men who earn their living by mystery." Worse, those who profited from the diversity of measures, said Prieur, corrupted those who tried to conduct honest and transparent exchanges by "complicating commerce, spoiling good faith, and sowing error and fraud among the nations." Until commerce was carried out with complete probity, the common people would doubt the advantages of free trade. Only if price were the sole variable in exchange would these exchanges be based on clear understanding between parties.

Alder, Ken. The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World. Paperback Reprint ed: Free Press, 2003.

April 22, 2006

Evidence for Darwin's Claim that Small Changes Can Accumulate Into Bigger Changes

By reconstructing ancient genes from long-extinct animals, scientists have for the first time demonstrated the step-by-step progression of how evolution created a new piece of molecular machinery by reusing and modifying existing parts.

The researchers say the findings, published today in the journal Science, offer a counterargument to doubters of evolution who question how a progression of small changes could produce the intricate mechanisms found in living cells.

. . .

The researchers found the modern equivalent of the stress hormone receptor in lampreys and hagfish, two surviving jawless primitive species. The team also found two modern equivalents of the receptor in skate, a fish related to sharks.

After looking at the genes that produced them, and comparing the genes' similarities and differences among the genes, the scientists concluded that all descended from a single common gene 450 million years ago, before animals emerged from oceans onto land, before the evolution of bones.

The team recreated the ancestral receptor in the laboratory and found that it could bind to the kidney regulating hormone, aldosterone and the stress hormone, cortisol.

Thus, it turned out that the receptor for aldosterone existed before aldosterone. Aldosterone is found just in land animals, which appeared tens of millions of years later.

For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Study, in a First, Explains Evolution's Molecular Advance." The New York Times (Fri., April 7, 2006): A19.

April 21, 2006

Teachers' Unions Fight Innovation, Customization, and Variety

(p. A27) Washington - A Wisconsin court rejected a high-profile lawsuit by the state's largest teachers' union last month seeking to close a public charter school that offers all its courses online on the ground that it violated state law by depending on parents rather than on certified teachers to educate children. The case is part of a national trend that goes well beyond virtual schooling: teachers' unions are turning to the courts to fight virtually any deviation from uniformity in public schools.

. . .

There is a universal American desire for customization and variety in goods and services, and education must respond to that demand, whether the unions like it or not.

. . .

This debate, like the ones over many other education issues, is fundamentally about who gets to have power. Yet the power the teachers' unions now wield will be fleeting if public schools do not become more responsive to parents.

An industry cannot survive by rushing to court every time a new idea threatens even a small slice of its market share. Instead, maintaining, and even broadening, support for public schools means embracing more diversity in how we provide public education and who provides it.

For the full commentary, see:

Andrew J. Rotherham. "Virtual Schools, Real Innovation." The New York Times (Friday, April 7, 2006): A27.

(Note: ellipses added.)

April 20, 2006

Labor Market Churn

Source of graph: Siems, Thomas F. "Beyond the Outsourcing Angst: Making America More Productive." Economic Letter 1, no. 2 (2006): 1-8.

Although the United States media focus on job loss and insecurity, the secular trend for the last 25 years has been one of greater number of jobs, lower levels of unemployment, and higher levels of productivity.

April 19, 2006

World Bank Fights Fraud in Antipoverty Projects

The World Bank president, Paul D. Wolfowitz, laid out a broad strategy yesterday to help developing countries combat rampant corruption, as well as to halt fraud in antipoverty projects supported by billions of dollars in World Bank money.

In a speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, Mr. Wolfowitz described for the first time his plans to make fighting corruption a pervasive issue in the bank's operations. The new efforts will range from intensified monitoring of projects in the field to an increased focus on reforming institutions that can hold governments accountable.

Mr. Wolfowitz also seems to be trying to change the culture of the bank. In remarks after the speech, he said he wanted bank managers to understand that they would be rewarded "as much for saying no to a bad loan as for getting a good one out the door."

For the full story, see:

CELIA W. DUGGER. "World Bank Chief Outlines a War on Fraud." The New York Times (Weds., April 12, 2006): A7.

April 18, 2006

Successful Society Requires Moral Courage to Sanction Others

Sociologists have long known that communes and other cooperative groups usually collapse into bickering and disband if they do not have clear methods of punishing members who become selfish or exploitative. Now an experiment by a team of German economists has found one reason punishment is so important: Groups that allow it can be more profitable than those that do not.

. . .

''The bottom line of the paper is that when you have people with shared standards, and some who have the moral courage to sanction others, informally, then this kind of society manages very successfully,'' said the study's senior author, Bettina Rockenbach, who was joined in the research by Bernd Irlenbusch, now at the London School of Economics, and Ozgur Gurek.

Switching groups frequently prompted remarkable behavioral changes in the students. Many of those who had been free riders in the laissez-faire group eagerly began penalizing other selfish players upon switching. Dr. Rockenbach compares these people to heavy smokers who are insistent on their right to light up, until they quit. ''Then they become the most militant of the antismokers,'' she said.

Being exploited appeared to cause deep frustration and anger in most students, she said.

For the full story, see:

BENEDICT CAREY. "Study Links Punishment To an Ability To Profit." The New York Times (Friday, April 7, 2006): A22.

April 17, 2006

Becker on Goals of Economics: Understand the World, and Improve It


Becker.jpg   Gary Becker at April 7, 2006 tribute dinner.  Source of image:  online press release cited below.


Gary Becker has made enormous contributions to economic theory, most notably in convincing the profession of the importance of human capital and the family.  A new center has been established at the University of Chicago in Gary Becker's honor.


Becker's brief remarks concluded the evening.  Economics will change over time, but one constant—whatever the tools or techniques—is the goal of economics, he said.   “It is judged ultimately by how well it helps us understand the world, and how well we can help improve it.”


For the full story, see:

Goddu, Jenn Q.  "Gift Names the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory, Founded by Richard O. Ryan."  University of Chicago News Office, 2006.


April 16, 2006

J.K. Rowling on What Matters

Writing on her Web site after reading a magazine featuring photographs of a thin woman who was ''either seriously ill or suffering from an eating disorder,'' Ms. Rowling expressed concern that her daughters, Jessica, 12, and Mackenzie, 1, might become overly conscious about their weight, Agence France-Presse reported. ''I don't want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones,'' she said. ''I'd rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, funny -- a thousand things, before 'thin.' ''

LAWRENCE VAN GELDER. "Arts, Briefly; J. K. Rowling Speaks Out." The New York Times (Friday, April 7, 2006): B5.

April 15, 2006

Jhontelle Johnson on public schools: "you can't make me go"

Fransoir William. Source of image: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/06/education/06voucher.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5094&en=d2a47406ed1f9127&hp&ex=1144382400&partner=homepage

(p. A1) WASHINGTON, April 5 - As a student at Shaw Junior High School here, Amie Fuwa strained to shut out the distractions of friends cutting up. She struggled through math, and used photocopies or the library when textbooks were scarce.

Now Amie, 14, a child of immigrants from Nigeria and the Dominican Republic, attends Archbishop Carroll High School, a Catholic school near a verdant hill of churches nicknamed the Little Vatican. When algebra confounds Amie, her teacher stays with her after school to help, and a mentor keeps her on course.

''It's a lot of people behind my back now,'' Amie said.

Before, she said, she ''felt like it didn't really matter to different people I know, like my teachers, if I failed.''

Amie is one of about 1,700 low-income, mostly minority students in Washington who at taxpayer expense are attending 58 private and parochial schools through the nation's first federal voucher program, now in its second year.

Last year, parents appeared lukewarm toward the program, which was put in place by Congressional Republicans as a five-year pilot program, But this year, it is attracting more participation, illustrating how school-choice programs are winning over minority parents, traditionally a Democratic constituency.

Washington's African-American mayor, Anthony A. Williams, joined Republicans in supporting the program, prompted in part by a concession from Congress that pumped more money into public and charter schools. In doing so, Mr. Williams ig- (p. A16) nored the ire of fellow Democrats, labor unions and advocates of public schools.

. . .

Like many other voucher students, Breanna Walton, 8, rises before dawn for the long bus ride from Northeast Washington, ''amongst the crime and drugs and all that,'' in the words of her mother, April Cole Walton, to Rock Creek International, near Georgetown University. There, she learns Spanish with the children of lawyers and diplomats.

Ms. Walton said that her neighborhood school ''has broken down,'' and that she would have done just about anything to keep Breanna from going there. ''Every child here should be able to say I'm going to set my sights high,'' she said. ''I refuse to let my child be cheated.''

Patricia William, a single mother, said that at first she liked her son Fransoir's public school, John Quincy Adams Elementary School, a tall sprawling building in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Teachers seemed good, but overwhelmed. It was other parents, not teachers, Ms. William said, who told her that Fransoir was hyperactive. ''I was not getting quality information from them on time,'' she said. ''For some reason, it was not working.''

Fransoir is one of 62 students with vouchers attending Sacred Heart Elementary, a Catholic school of 210 students, where he learns prayers along with five-digit multiplication and long division. He takes medication for his hyperactivity. Last year, he teamed up with another child to research the sinking of the Titanic. This year, he is interested in reptiles. Ms. William said her son today has nothing in common with the boy who once lay on the floor, turning in circles like a clock wound too tight. Now she is learning from him, about more than just math or reading or a sinking ship.

''All the effort he's making every night makes me want to sit with him and study,'' said Ms. William, a high-school dropout. ''I'm learning academically, but also about making an effort.''

. . .

. . . the pressure of competition is inescapable. In one sixth-grade classroom, two of six students said they would probably go to charter schools next year, unless Adams could get its seventh grade started.

''I'll probably go to Washington Latin,'' said Jhontelle Johnson, setting her sights on a new charter school opening in August. If not, she said, ''I'd probably be home-schooled.''

A teacher's aide, Sheonna Griffin, looked askance. ''You don't like public schools?'' she asked the child.

Jhontelle turned back, her young eyes flashing. ''You can't make me go,'' she said.

For the full story, see:

DIANA JEAN SCHEMO. "Federal Program on Vouchers Draws Strong Minority Support." The New York Times (Thurs., April 6, 2006): A1 & A16.

Fransoir William. Source of image: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/06/education/06voucher.html?pagewanted=2&ei=5094&en=d2a47406ed1f9127&hp&ex=1144382400&partner=homepage

April 14, 2006

Labor Market Flexibility Increases Employment and Prosperity

"France is definitely behind," says William Keylor, professor of International Relations and history at Boston University. "If France were to create a more-flexible labor market it would eventually increase productivity and prosperity, but the short-term transition would be difficult and people just aren't thinking long term."

There have been labor changes across continental Europe recently. Denmark's measures to liberalize hiring and firing have helped the country cut its unemployment rate in half from about 10% in the early 1990s to under 5%. Spain, too, has introduced short-term employment contracts which have helped cut its unemployment rate by more than half from 20% a decade ago.

But elsewhere, attempts at change have met with staunch opposition, often resulting in watered-down measures. Italy passed changes to its labor laws in 2004, introducing an extension of temporary-work contracts that were introduced in 1997 and were credited with helping cut Italy's overall unemployment rate to 7.1% from 12% when the contracts began. Yet many economists say Italy, which recorded zero growth last year, hasn't gone far enough.

In Germany, where unemployment stands at 11%, a coalition government headed by conservative leader Angela Merkel has promised to reduce unemployment by introducing similar measures to those hotly debated in France. The government had to settle on compromise measures that can extend a current probation period for workers to 24 months, from the current six. But companies don't have the right to terminate contracts within those two years without giving just cause. Other, more difficult, provisions, are still on hold.

The new measures that will be introduced in Parliament as early as today are targeted at "disadvantaged" youths, which refer to people between 18 and 25 who have left school without any qualifications and who are unemployed. The provisions include increasing financial incentives to employers to hire people under 26 who face the most difficulties.

It would apply to some 160,000 young people currently hired under government-subsidized job contracts, according to an interview with Employment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo in an interview with Le Monde newspaper. The cost to the government would be around €150 million ($180 million) in the second half of 2006, Mr. Borloo was quoted as saying.

But economists said the change of tack was a bad signal. "The real problem is that the results obtained by opponents of the new law...show that it is very difficult to introduce reforms in France," Dominique Barbet, economist at BNP Paribas, wrote in a research note. "This will give opponents of reform confidence for future actions."

For the full story, see:

ALESSANDRA GALLONI. "Bowing to Protesters, Chirac Abandons Youth-Labor Law; Reversal Highlights Europe's Difficulties With Painful Reforms." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., April 11, 2006): A3 & A10.

(Note: the title and version of the article quoted here are from the online version. The title and content of the version in the printed paper was a little different in a couple of places.)

April 13, 2006

Wage Security Inversely Related to GDP Per Capita

Source of graph: Siems, Thomas F. "Beyond the Outsourcing Angst: Making America More Productive." Economic Letter 1, no. 2 (2006): 1-8.

Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction implies that more flexible labor markets will result in greater productivity per worker. The above recently published evidence, supports the implication.

April 12, 2006

Studies Show Economic Freedom Boosts Economic Growth

A trio of European economists have just published a meta-analysis on the effects of economic freedom (EF) on economic growth. After many pages, here is their bottom-line conclusion:

(p. 182) Most studies reviewed in this paper have serious drawbacks, including lacking senstitivity analysis and poor specifications of the growth model used. However, studies that have applied some kind of sensitivity analysis and sensible specfications generally find support for a positive relationship between changes in EF and growth. This suggests that liberalization will indeed boost economic growth.

For the full article, see:

De Haan, Jakob, Susanna Lundström, and Jan-Egbert Sturm. "Market-Oriented Institutions and Policies and Economic Growth: A Critical Survey." Journal of Economic Surveys 20, no. 2 (2006): 157-91.

April 11, 2006

Private Enterprise "computer-chip makers have better hand-cleaning standards than most hospitals"

With rising alarm over hospital infections, which cause 90,000 deaths annually, a growing number of hospitals are adopting aggressive hand-hygiene surveillance and monitoring programs, and in some cases imposing penalties for doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers who don't follow the rules.

. . .

Despite strict guidelines issued by the CDC to stop the spread of bacteria on contaminated hands, and wide adoption of alcohol-based hand-rub dispensers in patient rooms and hospital corridors to make it easier for harried health-care workers to disinfect between patients, compliance rates remain mired at 40% to 50% nationwide, studies show.

The IHI program recommends a far more activist approach that holds hospital administrators and staffers accountable for failure.

"It no longer is tolerable to accept noncompliance rates of more than 50% when we are dealing with critically ill patients," says Don Goldmann, a senior vice president of IHI and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, who notes that computer-chip makers have better hand-cleaning standards than most hospitals. While the IHI program emphasizes education and positive feedback, "repeated violations in health-care, or any industry, need to have consequences," Dr. Goldmann says.

For the full story, see:

LAURA LANDRO. "THE INFORMED PATIENT; Hospitals Get Aggressive About Hand Washing; Staff Surveillance Programs, New Penalties Aim to Boost Sagging Compliance Rates." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., April 5, 2006): D3.

April 10, 2006

Ernie Chambers Right in Supporting Parents' Role in Education

For several months, the Omaha community has been roiled by the hostile efforts of the Omaha Public School (OPS) district to seize the schools and territory of long-established suburban school districts. Here ia an email that I sent to my representative in the Nebraska unicam on Sun., 4/9/06:

Dear Mr. Brashear:

I have appreciated your hard work as my representative in the legislature, and I have always voted for your re-election.

We believe strongly in giving our 11 year-old daughter a Montessori education. The Millard School District is the only area district that has had the entrepreneurial initiative to offer such a program, so we filled out the paperwork to option Jenny into the Millard District.

I strongly resent the implication of OPS that those who choose other school districts necessarily do so for racial reasons. We would have been very happy to stay in OPS (and it would have been more logistically convenient), but OPS does not support the diversity of educational options that Millard does.

Ernie Chambers is often wrong, but he is not always wrong. Dividing OPS into three districts would be a modest step toward increasing parental choice. Parents of all races want to be free to choose.

Tomorrow, I hope your vote will be to support freedom and competition.

Thank you for considering my views.


Art Diamond

April 9, 2006

A Salute to Villepin is Still in Order

VillepinSalute.jpg Source of image: http://www.lesoir.be/rubriques/monde/page_5715_419028.shtml

PARIS, April 4 — Waves of demonstrations, strikes and violence hit France again on Tuesday as Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, weakened but defiant, refused to bend to the demand that the government scrap a disputed youth labor law.

It was the fifth nationwide protest since February against a modest initiative that was aimed at encouraging the hiring of young people but that has provoked an improvised, open-ended campaign against the French government itself.

. . .

But, in a sure sign that this was not a country paralyzed, the Paris Métro and bus system ran on a normal schedule. Mail and many newspapers were delivered. Only 18 percent of railroad workers were on strike, compared with 28 percent a week ago. Fifteen percent of domestic flights were canceled, half the percentage of last week. The Education Ministry reported that 23 percent of its workers were absent, compared with 36 percent last week.

In the National Assembly, Mr. de Villepin faced savage criticism from the opposition.

"Mr. Prime Minister, who is governing France today?" asked Jean-Marc Ayrault, the leader of the Socialist party bloc in the Assembly. At another point he said: "You govern no more. You hold the appearance of power, but you no longer exercise it."

Mr. Ayrault said France was mired in a "crisis of regime with two prime ministers," apparently referring to the active role that Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has played in trying to open a dialogue with the unions.

In reply, Mr. de Villepin vowed, "The government will not give in." Despite predictions that the law is doomed, he insisted: "What we want is a victory against unemployment. This is a victory for France."

For the full story, see:

ELAINE SCIOLINO and CRAIG S. SMITH. "French Premier Refuses to Bow to Protests by Angry Youths." The New York Times (Weds., April 5, 2006): A8.

April 8, 2006

Jack Welch's Version of Christensen's "emergent strategy"

(p. 390) Business success is less a function of grandiose predictions than it is a result of being able to respond rapidly to real changes as they occur.

Welch, Jack. Jack: Straight from the Gut. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

April 7, 2006

Wildcatters Find 80% of Oil in U.S.

FindleyRichardL.gif Source of image: WSJ article cited below.

(p. A1) David F. Morehouse, senior geologist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, contends there is more new oil to be found in the continental U.S. Finding it, he says, will "depend on people doing the data analysis and, quite frankly, people going in and drilling enough in the right places."

Mr. Findley, who is 54 years old, did just that. Now production in this part of eastern Montana is growing, and new investors are arriving to explore the potential. At least one midsized firm, Marathon Oil Co., has begun buying leases. Halliburton Co., the big Houston-based oil-services company, has invested with Mr. Findley. The state says the proven oil find in the area will likely be in the range of 150 million barrels, hardly what oil-patch hands call an "elephant," but nevertheless boosting the nation's proven oil reserves by about 1%.

. . .

(p. A14) While many people associate big oil finds with big companies, over the years about 80% of the oil found in the U.S. has been brought in by wildcatters such as Mr. Findley, says Larry Nation, spokesman for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Wildcatters search for oil, nail down drilling rights, then seek money from banks or bigger companies to extract it.

Mr. Findley grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, the son of an accountant for a chain of grocery stores. A brother-in-law, a geologist, hired him as a field assistant to hunt for oil in west Texas. "I just fell in love with geology," he recalls. He graduated from Texas A&M University in 1975 and got a job as a geologist with Tenneco Oil Co. In 1983 he left to found his own Montana-based consulting and exploration company, a one-man operation.

Three years later, world oil prices crashed, and fluctuating prices dogged Mr. Findley as he tried to stay in the business. In the 1990s, the majors left the area in the belief that it was played out. Mr. Findley felt there was more oil to be found and began putting together small exploration deals.

His income had dropped by more than half to $45,000 a year, and he wasn't sure how much longer that would last. "Many times, my wife and I sat down at the kitchen table and said, 'What are we going to do next?' We always came to the same conclusion. [Geology] is what I know. This is what I love. So we just kept going."

For the full story, see:

JOHN J. FIALKA. "Second Look; Wildcat Producer Sparks Oil Boom On Montana Plains After Majors Pulled Out, Mr. Findley Drilled Anew; Size of Find Still Unclear; A Rival Counts Tanker Trucks." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., April 5, 2006): A1 & A14.

Source of map: WSJ article cited above.

April 6, 2006

Solution to Problems in Health Care and Higher Education: Change the Incentive Structures

Vernon Smith, one of the 2002 recipients of the Nobel Prize in economics, advocates fundamental institutional reform:

Physicians and medical organizations face escalating administrative costs of complying with ever more detailed regulations. The system is overwhelmed by the administrative cost of attempting to control the cost of medical service delivery. In education, university budget requests are denied by the states who also limit the freedom of universities to raise tuition.

If there is a solution to this problem, it will take the form of changing the incentive structure: empowering the consumer by channeling third-party payment allowances through the patients or students who are choosing and consuming the service. Each pays the difference between the price of the service and the insurance or subsidy allowance. Since he who pays the physician or college calls the tune, we have a better chance of disciplining cost and tailoring services to the customer's willingness to pay.

Many will say that neither the patients nor the students are competent to make choices. If that is true today, it is mostly due to the fact that they cannot choose and have no reason to become competent! Service providers are oriented to whoever pays: physicians to the insurance companies and the government; universities to their legislatures. Both should pay more heed to their customers -- which they will if that is where they collect their fees.

For the full commentary, see:

VERNON L. SMITH. "Trust the Customer!" The Wall Street Journal (Weds., March 8, 2006): A20.

April 5, 2006

United States Still Has Vitality in Research and Innovation

Has the United States lost its vitality? No. Americans remain the hardest working people on the face of the earth and the most productive. As William W. Lewis, the founding director of the McKinsey Global Institute, wrote, ''The United States is the productivity leader in virtually every industry.'' And productivity rates are surging faster now than they did even in the 1990's.

Has the United States stopped investing in the future? No. The U.S. accounts for roughly 40 percent of the world's R. & D. spending. More money was invested in research and development in this country than in the other G-7 nations combined.

Is the United States becoming a less important player in the world economy? Not yet. In 1971, the U.S. economy accounted for 30.52 percent of the world's G.D.P. Since then, we've seen the rise of Japan, China, India and the Asian tigers. The U.S. now accounts for 30.74 percent of world G.D.P., a slightly higher figure.

What about the shortage of scientists and engineers? Vastly overblown. According to Duke School of Engineering researchers, the U.S. produces more engineers per capita than China or India. According to The Wall Street Journal, firms with engineering openings find themselves flooded with résumés. Unemployment rates for scientists and engineers are no lower than for other professions, and in some specialties, such as electrical engineering, they are notably higher.

Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation told The Wall Street Journal last November, ''No one I know who has looked at the data with an open mind has been able to find any sign of a current shortage.'' The G.A.O., the RAND Corporation and many other researchers have picked apart the quickie studies that warn of a science and engineering gap. ''We did not find evidence that such shortages have existed at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon,'' the RAND report concluded.

. . .

. . . , the American workplace is so competitive, companies are compelled to promote lifelong learning. A U.N. report this year ranked the U.S. third in the world in ease of doing business, after New Zealand and Singapore. The U.S. has the second most competitive economy on earth, after Finland, according the latest Global Competitiveness Report. As Michael Porter of Harvard told The National Journal, ''The U.S. is second to none in terms of innovation and an innovative environment.''

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID BROOKS. "The Nation of the Future." The New York Times (Thursday, February 2, 2006): A23.

April 4, 2006

Getting the Job Done: "Monk" and "House" Celebrate Quirky, Intelligent Competence

Source of image: http://www.usanetwork.com/series/monk/theshow/characterprofiles/tony/index.html#

"Monk" and "House" on the USA Network present suspenseful plots, and intelligent dialogue. But, more importantly, they present unusual "characters" for television: Monk and House are primarily concerned, not with their social standing or sex life, but with getting important jobs done--for Monk, solving murders, for House, curing diseases. One possible moral: maybe it's OK to be intense in the service of a good cause?

An episode of ''Monk,'' in which the title character -- an obsessive-compulsive private eye played by Tony Shalhoub, below -- suffered amnesia after a blow to the head, was the most-watched show on advertiser-supported cable for the week that ended Jan. 22, with an audience of 6 million. USA Network, where ''Monk'' lives, was again the No. 1 basic-cable channel in prime time for that week. USA is also benefiting from reruns of the Fox medical show ''House,'' which it began broadcasting earlier in the month: the ''House'' that ran after ''Monk'' on Jan. 20 attracted 3.79 million viewers.


KATE AURTHUR. (sic) "Arts, Briefly; 'Monk' Strong on Cable." The New York Times (Mon., January 30, 2006): E2.

April 3, 2006

Private Health Care Taking Root in Canada

TORONTO, Feb. 19 - The cracks are still small in Canada's vaunted public health insurance system, but several of its largest provinces are beginning to open the way for private health care eventually to take root around the country.

Last week Quebec proposed to lift a ban on private health insurance for several elective surgical procedures, and announced that it would pay for such surgeries at private clinics when waiting times at public facilities were unreasonable.

The proposal, by Premier Jean Charest, who called for ''a new era for health care in Quebec,'' came in response to a Supreme Court decision last June that struck down a provincial law that banned private medical insurance and ordered the province to initiate a reform program within a year.

The Supreme Court decision ruled that long waits for various medical procedures in the province had violated patients' ''life and personal security, inviolability and freedom,'' and that prohibition of private health insurance was unconstitutional when the public health system did not deliver ''reasonable services.''

For the full story, see:

CLIFFORD KRAUSS. "Ruling Has Canada Planting Seeds of Private Health Care." The New York Times (Mon., February 20, 2006): A4.

April 2, 2006

The Market Solution to Email Spam

A COMPANY called Goodmail Systems thinks it has come up with a potential (and partial) solution to the problem of spam and fraud on the Internet. According to Goodmail, market forces are the answer, rather than the kinds of ineffective regulations that have so far failed to solve the problems.

. . .

What shocks me most about the opposition to Goodmail is that people who claim to believe in the free and open Internet, with its welcome attitude to innovation, want to shut down an idea. That's wrong.

If people like those little stamps that mark their mail as safe and wanted or as commercial transactions, then let the customers have them. And let other companies compete with Goodmail to offer better and less expensive service.

Goodmail isn't good because it's new, but neither is it bad because it's new. If it's a good model, it will succeed and improve over time. If it's a bad model, it will fail. Why not let the customers decide?

For the full commentary, see:

ESTHER DYSON. "You've Got Goodmail. The New York Times (Fri., March 17, 2006): A23.

April 1, 2006

86% Agree that Government Should Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide

A junior high school student in Idaho, Nathan Zohner, demonstrated in a 1997 science fair project how easy it was to hoodwink a scientifically uninformed public. As described in "The Frankenfood Myth," 86 percent of the 50 students he surveyed thought dihydrogen monoxide should be banned after they were told that prolonged exposure to its solid form caused severe tissue damage, that exposure to its gaseous form caused severe burns and that it had been found in tumors from terminal cancer patients. Only one student recognized the substance as water, H2O.

For the full commentary, see:

JANE E. BRODY. " PERSONAL HEALTH; Facing Biotech Foods Without the Fear Factor." The New York Times (Tues., January 11, 2005): D7.


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