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September 30, 2006

"An Image Was Worth a 1,000 Statistical Tables"



HandWithGerms.jpg  Artistic vision of germ-laden hand.  (This is not the photographic image mentioned below, and used as a hospital screen-saver.)  Source of image:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

(p. 22)  Leon Bender noticed something interesting: passengers who went ashore weren’t allowed to reboard the ship until they had some Purell squirted on their hands.  The crew even dispensed Purell to passengers lined up at the buffet tables.  Was it possible, Bender wondered, that a cruise ship was more diligent about killing germs than his own hospital?

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where Bender has been practicing for 37 years, is in fact an excellent hospital.  But even excellent hospitals often pass along bacterial infections, thereby sickening or even killing the very people they aim to heal.  In its 2000 report “To Err Is Human,” the Institute of Medicine estimated that anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 Americans die each year because of hospital errors — more deaths than from either motor-vehicle crashes or breast cancer — and that one of the leading errors was the spread of bacterial infections.

. . .

. . . the hospital needed to devise some kind of incentive scheme that would increase compliance without alienating its doctors.  In the beginning, the administrators gently cajoled the doctors with e-mail, (p. 23) faxes and posters.  But none of that seemed to work.  (The hospital had enlisted a crew of nurses to surreptitiously report on the staff’s hand-washing.)  “Then we started a campaign that really took the word to the physicians where they live, which is on the wards,” Silka recalls.  “And, most importantly, in the physicians’ parking lot, which in L.A. is a big deal.”

For the next six weeks, Silka and roughly a dozen other senior personnel manned the parking-lot entrance, handing out bottles of Purell to the arriving doctors.  They started a Hand Hygiene Safety Posse that roamed the wards and let it be known that this posse preferred using carrots to sticks:  rather than searching for doctors who weren’t compliant, they’d try to “catch” a doctor who was washing up, giving him a $10 Starbucks card as reward.  You might think that the highest earners in a hospital wouldn’t much care about a $10 incentive — “but none of them turned down the card,” Silka says.

When the nurse spies reported back the latest data, it was clear that the hospital’s efforts were working — but not nearly enough.  Compliance had risen to about 80 percent from 65 percent, but the Joint Commission required 90 percent compliance.

These results were delivered to the hospital’s leadership by Rekha Murthy, the hospital’s epidemiologist, during a meeting of the Chief of Staff Advisory Committee.  The committee’s roughly 20 members, mostly top doctors, were openly discouraged by Murthy’s report.  Then, after they finished their lunch, Murthy handed each of them an agar plate — a sterile petri dish loaded with a spongy layer of agar.  “I would love to culture your hand,” she told them.

They pressed their palms into the plates, and Murthy sent them to the lab to be cultured and photographed.  The resulting images, Silka says, “were disgusting and striking, with gobs of colonies of bacteria.”

The administration then decided to harness the power of such a disgusting image.  One photograph was made into a screen saver that haunted every computer in Cedars-Sinai.  Whatever reasons the doctors may have had for not complying in the past, they vanished in the face of such vivid evidence.  “With people who have been in practice 25 or 30 or 40 years, it’s hard to change their behavior,” Leon Bender says.  “But when you present them with good data, they change their behavior very rapidly.”  Some forms of data, of course, are more compelling than others, and in this case an image was worth 1,000 statistical tables.  Hand-hygiene compliance shot up to nearly 100 percent and, according to the hospital, it has pretty much remained there ever since.

 

For the full commentary, see:

STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT.  "FREAKONOMICS; Selling Soap."  The New York Times Magazine (Section 6)  (Sunday, September 24, 2006):  22-23.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

      The screen-saver at Cedars Sinai Hospital.  Source of image:  http://freakonomics.com/pdf/CedarsSinaiScreenSaver.jpg




September 29, 2006

Turkey Farmer Ben Nelson Avoids Taxes


  Source of image:  screen capture from the campaign ad cited below.

 

Early in the 2006 senate campaign, the supporters of Democrat Ben Nelson made fun of Republican candidate Pete Ricketts for challenging the property assessment on his house.  (They ran newspaper ads with ridiculing poetry, written in the manner of Dr. Seuss, and wore hats associated with the cat in Seuss's famous Cat in the Hat book.)

Well, they say what goes around, comes around.  Nelson was himself getting a significant tax break on vacation land he owned, based on its being classified as being used primarily for agricultural purposes ("green-belt" status).  The only agricultural use that could be found was that each year, a few turkeys were released on the land.

Now the Rickett's campaign has released a funny video ad satirizing "Farmer Nelson." 

 

To download, or watch, the ad, go to:  http://www.petericketts.com/comm_092506.asp




September 28, 2006

A Tale of Two Churches: Russia Has an Entrepreneurial Tradition Too


 

Two old and exotic churches, St. Basil's in Moscow and Kizhi in the Russian north, survived the Soviet era and are invariably depicted in brochures and books to suggest the distinctiveness of Russian culture.  Both feature the tent roofs and onion domes that dominated the skyline of medieval Russia.  But each bears mute witness to a very different tradition:  one, imperial centralism; the other, entrepreneurial regionalism.  Both are embedded in Russia's history; the conflict between them may well determine Russia's destiny.

St. Basil's, looming over Red Square, is an enduring symbol of theatrical autocracy; the Kizhi church, of frontier inventiveness.  Authoritarian centralism has been growing recently under President Putin.  But he also is fond of Kizhi and brought its new priest with him on his last trip to New York.

. . .

Tolerance was implicit in the northern tradition of dvoeveria:  the simultaneous belief in both the old pagan spirits and the new Christian God.  Medieval petroglyphs of the Kizhi region freely intermixed symbols of both.  Peasants in the region were not enserfed.  The northern region lost much of its independent power when Moscow sacked and subdued Novgorod.

. . .

Many more people have seen St. Basil's on Red Square than Kizhi on an island in Lake Onega -- and most see Russian history in terms of autocratic power in Moscow rather than creativity amid adversity in the regions.  Kizhi is the supreme monument to this forgotten tradition that continued to unfold as the vast Russian domain spread north to the Arctic Ocean and across the Pacific to Alaska in the 17th and 18th centuries.

No one knows who was the architect of either monument.  But Russian popular folklore suggests that the creator of St. Basil's was forcefully either blinded or drowned to assure that it could never be duplicated.  In contrast, the creator of Kizhi is said to have simply thrown his ax into the lake and lived on peacefully as a holy man in the northern forests.

During that time, Moscow autocrats looked out from the closed front porch of St. Basil's to see the enemies of central power drawn and quartered publicly in Red Square.  By contrast, the Kizhi church was wider and open to the sky -- and where local people gathered to solve practical problems, facing a vista of lakes and forests.

Much of the renewed vitality in Russia today is coming from young people in the regions.  Their hopes for a more participatory and accountable political and economic future depend on the kind of open community that created Kizhi -- not the closed circles that cling to St. Basil's.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

JAMES H. BILLINGTON.  "MASTERPIECE; Two Churches, Two Russias; One born of authoritarian centralism, the other of entrepreneurial regionalism."  Wall Street Journal   (Sat., September 16, 2006):  P18.

 




September 27, 2006

"Crystal Fire" Gives Insights on Birth of the Transistor


  Source of book image:  http://www.etedeschi.ndirect.co.uk/homecompbiblio.htm

 

Crystal Fire is a well-written book which highlights many important aspects of the birth of computers.  Not a perfect book---I could have done with a few less details about personal information, like who liked to play bridge and poker, and whose mother was a frustrated artist, and the like.

On the good side, they note how transistors were originally designed to replace vacuum tubes.  The eventual main applications, as memory and processor chips in computers, only came later.  (Another application of Fubini's Law.)

They have a nice discussion of how American science was applied, versus the pure theory of the Germans.  (E.g., to the Germans, some key phenomena leading to transistors, were dismissed as "dirt effects" (pp. 74 & 78).)  The whole episode is a good example of the claim (see Terence Kealey) that very good science can come out of 'industrial' labs. 

They also have a good example of serendipity, in the discussion of the strange chunk of silicon with unusual conductivity properties (circa p. 95).  Reading this episode, it occurred to me that one key enabler of serendipitous discoveries is a scientist or engineer who is carrying around a problem, to which the serendipitous discovery is a solution.  Buddhists need not apply---to carry around problems, you need to be dissatisfied--a milder version of what Tom Peters describes as 'innovation coming from pissed-off people'  (see his Re-Imagine!)

 

Citation to the book:

Riordan, Michael, and Lillian Hoddeson.  Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age, Sloan Technology Series: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

 




September 26, 2006

Utilities Propose to Build 27 New Nuclear Reactors


W tours one of Constellation Energy's current nuclear power plants.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 

 

(p. C1)  BALTIMORE — Nobody in the United States has started building a nuclear power plant in more than three decades.  Mayo A. Shattuck III could be the first.

As the chief executive of Constellation Energy, a utility holding company in Baltimore that already operates five nuclear reactors, Mr. Shattuck is convinced that nuclear power is on the verge of a renaissance, ready to provide reliable electricity at a competitive price.  He has already taken the first steps toward achieving that, moving recently to order critical parts for a new reactor.

 

The full story is strongly biased in favor of the standard politically correct environmentalist antagonism toward nuclear energy.  But if you want to read it anyway, see:

MATTHEW L. WALD.  "Slow Start for Revival of Nuclear Reactors."  The New York Times  (Tues., August 22, 2006):  C1 & C4. 

 

  Source of map graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above. 

 




September 25, 2006

Gym Classes Promote Sports, Not Healthy Exercise


 

Here is more evidence that public school physical education classes should be turned over to private sector firms like "24 Hour Fitness."  

Ms. Jackie Lund, who is quoted below, is the President of NASPE, which the article identifies as "an association of fitness educators and professionals.  Note well that she as much as admits that fitness is not the purpose of gym classes.

 

Researchers report that in the typical high-school gym class students are active for an average of 16 minutes.

The report by Cornell University researchers also found that adding 200 minutes more of physical-education time a week had little effect. (See the report.)

"What's actually going on in gym classes?  Is it a joke?" asked John Cawley, lead author of the study and a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell.

. . .

The rest of the extra gym time is likely spent being idle -- most likely standing around while playing sports like softball or volleyball that don't require constant movement, Mr. Cawley said.

. . .

. . . , Ms. Lund says merely counting how many minutes students are moving may not be a fair measure of a gym class.  "It's not supposed to be aerobics class.  The activity level is going to vary depending on the sport they're learning," she said.

 

For the full story, see: 

"High-Schoolers Get Scant Exercise in Gym Class."   Wall Street Journal  (Weds., September 20, 2006):  D4.

(Note:  the online version of the article has the title:  "Is High-School Gym Class An Exercise in Futility?")

(Note:  ellipses are added.)

 




September 24, 2006

Life Is Better, But Could Be Better Still


  November 9, 1952 NYT ad announcing the introduction of the snowblower.  Source of image:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

(p. C1)  When the first snow falls on the North Shore of Chicago this winter, Robert Gordon will take his Toro snow blower out of the garage and think about how lucky he is not to be using a shovel.  Mr. Gordon is 66 years old and evidently quite healthy, but his doctor has told him that he should never clear his driveway with his own hands.  “People can die from shoveling snow,” Mr. Gordon said.  “I bet a lot of lives have been saved by snow blowers.”

If so, most of them have been saved in the last few decades.  A Canadian teenager named Arthur Sicard came up with the idea for the snow blower in the late 1800’s, while watching the blades on a piece of farm equipment, but he didn’t sell any until 1927.  For the next 30 years or so, snow blowers were hulking machines typically bought by cities and schools.  Only recently have they become a suburban staple.

Yet the benefits of the snow blower, namely more free time and less health risk, are largely missing from the government’s attempts to determine Americans’ economic well-being.  The same goes for dozens of other inventions, be they air-conditioners, cellphones or medical devices.  The reasons are a little technical — they involve the measurement of inflation — but they’re important to understand, because the implications are so large.

. . .

(p. C10)  In the early 1950’s, Toro began selling mass-market snow blowers, which weighed up to 500 pounds and cost at least $150.  As far as the Bureau of the Labor Statistics was concerned, however, snow blowers did not exist until 1978.  That was the year when the machines began to be counted in the Consumer Price Index, the source of the official inflation rate.  By then, the cheapest model sold for about $100.

In practical terms, this was an enormous price decline compared with the 1950’s, because incomes had risen enormously over this period.  Yet the price index completely missed it and, by doing so, overstated inflation.  It counted the rising cost of cars and groceries but not the falling cost of snow blowers.

. . .

Mr. Gordon, besides being a fan of snow blowers, also happens to be one of the country’s leading macroeconomists.  A decade ago he served on a government-appointed group known as the Boskin Commission.  It argued, as Mr. Gordon still does, that the government exaggerated inflation by more than one percentage point every year.

. . .

. . .  Mr. Gordon’s adjustments show that men actually got a 27 percent raise in this period and women 65 percent.  The gains are not as big as those of the 1950’s and 60’s, but they do sound far more realistic than the official numbers.  Think about it:  we live longer than people did in the 1970’s, we’re healthier while alive, we graduate from college in much greater numbers, we’re surrounded by new gadgets and we live in bigger houses.  Is it really plausible, as some Democrats claim, that the middle class has made only marginal progress?

 

For the full commentary, see: 

DAVID LEONHARDT.  "Economix; Life Is Better; It Isn’t Better. Which Is It?"  The New York Times  (Weds., September 20, 2006):  C1 & C10.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

 PayTwoViewsGraph.gif  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above.




September 23, 2006

Higher Oil Prices Provide Incentive to Seek Deeper Oil



Source of map:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

(p. C1) The successful production of oil from the five-mile-deep Jack well in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to spur more deep-water exploration around the world -- and that prospect is helping calm overheated crude-oil markets anxious about future supplies.

. . .

The successful Jack test underscores what a group of economists and oil-industry executives have been arguing for a while:  High prices will encourage energy companies to find and pump oil in deep, dark places around the world that otherwise would have been uneconomical.

 

For the full story, see:

RUSSELL GOLD.  "More Companies May Dig Deeper In Search for Oil Gulf of Mexico Discovery Fuels Prospects of Finding New Supplies; Lack of Resources Could Slow Push."   Wall Street Journal  (Tues., September 19, 2006):  C1.





September 22, 2006

"Free to Choose" Turns Estonia into "Boomtown"



  Source of book image:  http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/imageviewer.asp?ean=9780156334600

 

If, like Mr. Laar, you are only going to read one book in economics, Milton Friedman's Free to Choose, is not too bad a choice:

(p. A23) Philippe Benoit du Rey is not one of those gloomy Frenchmen who frets about the threat to Gallic civilization from McDonald's and Microsoft.  He thinks international competition is good for his countrymen.  He's confident France will flourish in a global economy -- eventually.

But for now, he has left the Loire Valley for Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and the economic model for New Europe.  It's a boomtown with a beautifully preserved medieval quarter along with new skyscrapers, gleaming malls and sprawling housing developments:  Prague meets Houston, except that Houston's economy is cool by comparison.

Economists call Estonia the Baltic tiger, the sequel to the Celtic tiger as Europe's success story, and its policies are more radical than Ireland's.  On this year's State of World Liberty Index, a ranking of countries by their economic and political freedom, Estonia is in first place, just ahead of Ireland and seven places ahead of the U.S. (North Korea comes in last at 159th.)

It transformed itself from an isolated, impoverished part of the Soviet Union thanks to a former prime minister, Mart Laar, a history teacher who took office not long after Estonia was liberated.  He was 32 years old and had read just one book on economics:  ''Free to Choose,'' by Milton Friedman, which he liked especially because he knew Friedman was despised by the Soviets.

Laar was politically naïve enough to put the theories into practice.  Instead of worrying about winning trade wars, he unilaterally disarmed by abolishing almost all tariffs.  He welcomed foreign investors and privatized most government functions (with the help of a privatization czar who had formerly been the manager of the Swedish pop group Abba).  He drastically cut taxes on businesses and individuals, instituting a simple flat income tax of 26 percent.

 

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN TIERNEY.  "New Europe's Boomtown."  The New York Times  (Tues., September 5, 2006):  A23.

 




September 21, 2006

"Responsible Biotechnology is Not the Enemy: Starvation Is"


  Source of the book image:   http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?z=y&EAN=9781930754904&itm=1

 

 

Who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970?  You may be forgiven for not remembering, given some of the prize's dubious recipients over the years (e.g., Yasser Arafat).  Well, then:  Who has saved perhaps more lives than anyone else in history?  The answer to both questions is, of course, Norman Borlaug.

Who?  Norman Borlaug, 92, is the father of the "Green Revolution," the dramatic improvement in agricultural productivity that swept the globe in the 1960s.  He is now the subject of an admiring biography by Leon Hesser, a former State Department official who first met Mr. Borlaug 40 years ago in Pakistan, where they worked together to boost that country's grain production.  "The Man Who Fed the World" describes, in a workmanlike way, how a poor Iowa farm boy trained in forestry and plant pathology came to be one of humanity's greatest benefactors.

. . .

Mr. Borlaug is still tirelessly working to keep hunger at bay.  He remains a consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico and president of a private Japanese foundation working to spread the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.  He believes that biotechnology will be crucial to boosting world food supplies in the coming decades and decries the underfunding of the world's network of nonprofit agricultural research centers.

He also laments the unnecessary suspicion with which biotech is treated these days.  "Activists have resisted research," he notes, "and governments have overregulated it."  They both miss the point. "Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy:  starvation is."

 

For the full review, see:

RONALD BAILEY.  "Bookshelf; Going With the Grain."   Wall Street Journal  (Tues., September 5, 2006):  D8. 

 

The reference to the book is:

Hesser, Leon.  The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger (Durban House Publishing: Dallas, 2006) ISBN: 1-930754-90-6; Hardback $24.95




September 20, 2006

Wal-Mart Really Does Benefit Consumers by Lowering Prices


 

Scholarly studies show Wal-Mart's price reductions to be sizable.  Economist Emek Basker of the University of Missouri found long-term reductions of 7 to 13 percent on items such as toothpaste, shampoo and detergent.  Other companies are forced to reduce their prices.  On food, Wal-Mart produces consumer savings that average 20 percent, estimate Jerry Hausman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ephraim Leibtag of the Agriculture Department.

All told, these cuts have significantly raised living standards.  How much is unclear.  A study by the economic consulting firm Global Insight found that from 1985 to 2004, Wal-Mart's expansion lowered the consumer price index by a cumulative 3.1 percent from what it would have been.  That produced savings of $263 billion in 2004, equal to $2,329 for each U.S. household.  Because Wal-Mart financed this study, its results have been criticized as too high.  But even if price savings are only half as much ($132 billion and $1,165 per household), they'd dwarf the benefits of all but the biggest government programs. 

 

For the full commentary, see:

Robert J. Samuelson.  "Wal-Mart as Red Herring."  The Washington Post  (Wednesday, August 30, 2006):  A19.

 




September 19, 2006

New Concert Halls Reduce Money for Other Activities


''A new theater is not automatically simply great news,'' said Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, an organization serving opera companies nationwide.  When a hall is added, he said, it may just divert audiences and their dollars from other performance and cultural institutions.

''This is all redistributing people's expenditures from one activity to another,'' said David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago who focuses on the arts.

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University and the author of ''Good and Plenty:  The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding,'' said there was little solid research measuring the economic impact of arts centers on a city, although there was for sports stadiums.  Such research shows no benefit for a city's growth, he said, adding that he was skeptical about economic claims for new concert halls.

''The glorious tales are typically exaggerations,'' said Mr. Cowen, who also contributes a monthly economics column to The New York Times.

 

For the full story, see: 

DANIEL J. WAKIN.  "This Season's Must-Have Urban Accessory."  The New York Times, Section 2  (Sun., September 3, 2006):  1 & 17.




September 18, 2006

Daley Shows Chicago is Still the "City of the Outstuck Neck"


I think it was the poet Gwendolyn Brooks who once described Chicago as the "city of the out-stuck neck."  Chicago's current Mayor Daley did himself and the city proud recently when he had the guts to stick his neck out by vetoing the proposed Chicago minimum wage. He deserves a salute from Chicago's consumers and poor.  Democrat Daley is the mayor of the out-stuck neck.

 

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley used the first veto of his 17-year tenure to reject a living-wage ordinance aimed at forcing big retailers to pay wages of $10 an hour and health benefits equivalent to $3 an hour by 2010.

The veto is important to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which plans to open its first store in Chicago late this month in the economically depressed 37th ward.

. . .

In vetoing the ordinance, Mayor Daley cited a potential loss of jobs.  In recent weeks, several big retailers had written to his office to oppose the ordinance.  "I understand and share a desire to ensure that everyone who works in the city of Chicago earns a decent wage," the mayor wrote to the aldermen yesterday.  "But I do not believe that this ordinance, well intentioned as it may be, would achieve that end.  Rather, I believe that it would drive jobs and business from our city."

 

For the full story, see: 

KRIS HUDSON.  "Chicago's Daley Vetoes Bill Aimed At Big Retailers."   Wall Street Journal  (Thurs.,   September 12, 2006):  A4.

 

(Note:  I can't find the exact source of the out-stuck neck quote, but one reference on the web is:  http://starbulletin.com/97/05/22/sports/fitzgerald.html )

 




September 17, 2006

World Health Organization (WHO?) Endorses DDT


MalariaGraphic.gif  Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

The World Health Organization, in a sign that widely used methods of fighting malaria have failed to bring the catastrophic disease under control, plans to announce today that it will encourage the use of DDT, even though the pesticide is banned or tightly restricted in much of the world.

The new guidelines from the United Nations public-health agency support the spraying of small amounts of DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, on walls and other surfaces inside homes in areas at highest risk of malaria.  The mosquito-borne disease infects as many as 500 million people a year and kills about a million.  Most victims are in sub-Saharan Africa and under the age of 5.

 

For the full story, see:

BETSY MCKAY.  "WHO Calls for Spraying Controversial DDT To Fight Malaria." Wall Street Journal  (Fri., September 15, 2006):  B1.




September 16, 2006

Case for Wind Power is "Absolute Baloney"


I once heard a top MidAmerican Energy executive express considerable, articulate, scepticism about the economics of wind power.  (Wind power is unreliable, so that electric companies still must stand ready to provide the electricity by other means.)  If wind power made economic sense, you wouldn't need subsidies to promote it---profit maximizing power companies would pursue it on their own.  MidAmerican now invests in wind power, not because it has become an efficient energy source, but because wasteful government subsidies, make wind power profitable for MidAmerican.

Glen Schleede, a retired power company executive, has nothing to lose by speaking the truth: 

 

(p. 1B) The turbines do bother some folks, including Glenn R. Schleede, a retired power company executive from Round Hill, Va., who said the wind power industry puts out "absolute baloney" to justify its existence.

"I'm tired of subsidizing Warren Buffett companies," Schleede said, referring to federal tax subsidies that go to MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a division of Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. that is headed by Buffett.  Those are MidAmerican's turbines in the fields around Schaller.

Schleede's criticisms, mostly in academic-style papers he writes, concentrate on the economics of wind power and what he called "false claims about how this is good for an energy system."

"In fact, these things, because they're intermittent and volatile and unpredictable, they don't really add a lot of capacity to an electric grid," he said.  "When you see these things advertised, they talk about how many megawatts of capacity, the number of homes served and all that garbage.

"I would maintain that they don't serve any homes."

 

For the full story, see: 

Jordon,  Steve.  "Harvesting Wind;Farmers like payout, but critics of wind power point to costs."  Omaha World-Herald  (Sunday September 3, 2006):  1D-2D. 




September 15, 2006

Added Evidence for Weidenbaum's 'Birth Dearth'


 

BirthDearthBK.gif Source of book image:  http://www.aei.org/books/bookID.497,filter.all/book_detail.asp

 

Ben Wattenberg had already been predicting a world population decline for years, when he published The Birth Dearth in 1987.  Back then, scepticism was widespread.  Governments and philanthropists spent billions promoting birth control to restrain population growth.  Many were still convinced of the wisdom of Isaac Ehrlich, darling of the environmentalist enemies of economic growth, who had predicted disaster in his Population Bomb.

(Note that the plausibility of many environmentalist disaster scenerios is based on the assumption of continuous population growth.) 

The current decline in birth rates is not a total puzzle.  Nobel-prize winner Gary Becker long-ago claimed that quality of children is what economists call a 'normal' good, which means that families invest more in quality as their incomes rise.  As families invest more in quality, they invest less in quantity.

Whatever the reasons, the evidence continues to accumulate that Wattenberg was right:

 

After a long decline, birthrates in European countries have reached a historic low, as potential parents increasingly opt for few or no children.  European women, better educated and integrated into the labor market than ever before, say there is no time for motherhood and that children are too expensive anyway.

The result is a continent of lopsided societies where the number of elderly increasingly exceeds the number of young -- a demographic pattern that is straining pension plans and depleting the work force in many countries.

 

For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL.  "European Union's Plunging Birthrates Spread Eastward."  The New York Times   (Mon., September 4, 2006):  A3.

 

 EuropeanBirthratesGraph.gif  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




September 14, 2006

Iranian Cartoon Exhibit Ridicules Jews


  "Visitors to the Palestinian Contemporary Art Museum in Tehran Thursday viewed entries in a contest for cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust." Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

I believe in free speech, which includes freedom of expression in cartoons, and art, even when that freedom produces results that I find distasteful, outrageous, or evil. 

What is strange, is the hypocrisy of some radical Islamists, who cause death and destruction in rioting over Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad, but who only smile at cartoons attacking Jews.

 

The Iranian cartoon exhibition attacking Jews, is documented in:

MICHAEL SLACKMAN.  "Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art as Reply to Danish Cartoons."   The New York Times   (Fri., August 25, 2006):  A1 & A8.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art.")







September 13, 2006

Salt Lake Mayor Violates "Ridiculous" Zoning Law


Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, whose "xeriscape" yard violates a Salt Lake City zoning ordinance.  Source of photo:  scan from a paper copy of the NYT article cited below.

 

SALT LAKE CITY, Aug. 21 — Covered as it is by red bark and dotted with ornamental grasses and purple sage shrubs, the front yard of Salt Lake City’s mayor stands out in contrast against the other, uniformly green lawns on the tree-lined street.

Not only is Mayor Rocky Anderson’s yard distinctive, though.  It is also illegal, one of hundreds of drought-friendly yards and gardens here that are in violation of zoning ordinances.

In light of a five-year drought that meteorologists say ended last year, Mr. Anderson is one of a growing number of homeowners in desert cities across the West who have traded in their manicured lawns and colorful flower beds for ground cover and gardens that require little water.

In Salt Lake City, though, all front yards must be completely covered with flat green grass, which needs to be watered often to keep it from turning brown and strawlike.  Although the zoning ordinance is rarely enforced, some Salt Lake City leaders — including the mayor — want to bring the letter of law in line with current landscaping trends.

“I think the zoning ordinance is ridiculous,’’ Mr. Anderson said.  “It clearly needs to be changed.” 

 

For the full story, see:

MELISSA SANFORD.  "Salt Lake City Moving Toward Less Thirsty Lawns."  The New York Times (Fri., August 25, 2006):  A12.

 




September 12, 2006

Planners Attack Cul-de-Sacs


CulDeSacs1.jpg A cul-de-sac in Eagan, Minnesota.  Source of photo:  the online version of the NYT article cited below.

City planners think they know how other people should live their lives, and the planners believe that they have the right to impose their "knowledge" on others.  I believe that there are pros and cons to living in a subdivision with cul-de-sacs, and on balance, I don't like them.  But I understand why others might decide differently, and I think they have a right to use their own money to buy into the kind of neighborhood they prefer. 

The New York Times ran an interesting article that focused on the debate on cul-de-sacs in Northfield, Minnesota:

. . .  here and in other areas across the country, this staple of suburban development is drawing criticism from a growing number of planners and government officials, who say it should become an endangered species.

Highly popular after World War II, the cul-de-sac is essentially a dead-end residential street, often but not always ending with a large circular patch of pavement allowing vehicles to turn around.  The form was initially embraced as something that promoted security, neighborliness and efficient transportation.

Homeowners found that the cul-de-sac limited traffic, creating a sense of privacy, while encouraging ties among neighbors, who could hardly avoid one another.  Developers liked the cul-de-sac because it made it possible to build on land unsuited to a grid street pattern and because home buyers were willing to pay a premium to live on one.

. . .

Don Mitchell, professor of geography at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, grew up on a cul-de-sac in Moraga, Calif., and has seen both sides of the debate.  “It’s a quiet street that all us kids could play on without too much fear of traffic,” he said.  “And there was pretty good surveillance by our parents when we were out in the street.”

But those advantages can also be disadvantages.  “They’re quite insular,” he said.  “They tend to almost induce a circle-the-wagons sort of atmosphere, so anybody becomes a stranger who’s on the street.  They don’t often act like public streets.  We always knew when there was someone who wasn’t a regular on our street, and yet they had every right to be there.”

. . .

Although planners may be turning away from cul-de-sacs, people who actually live on them are willing to fight for them.

 

For the full story, see: 

CARLA BARANAUCKAS.  "NATIONAL PERSPECTIVES; Why Some Towns Place Roadblocks on Cul-de-Sacs."  The New York Time, Section 8  (Sun., August 27, 2006):  20.

 

  A cul-de-sac in Eagan, Minnesota.  Source of photo:  the online version of the NYT article cited above.




September 11, 2006

Obama Says Africa Needs Less, and Better, Government: More on Why Africa is Poor


  Senator Obama in Kenya.  For the source of the photo, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/26/world/africa/26obama.html

 

NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug. 28 — Barack Obama strode into a packed auditorium in Nairobi on Monday and attacked an issue that notoriously bedevils Kenyan society:  corruption.

He urged people to reject “the insulting idea that corruption is somehow part of Kenyan culture” and “to stand up and speak out against injustices.”

. . .

During his speech on Monday, he laid out a tough prescription for Africa’s ills, calling for government cutbacks, more openness and less ethnic politics.

Kenya is one of the more developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the closest to the West, but it is consistently ranked by international organizations as one of the most corrupt.  Mr. Obama said this corroded its ability to attract investment, fight terrorism and provide security for its own people.

Most of all, he told Kenyans to stop complaining about the injustices of the colonial past and to accept responsibility.  “It’s more than just history and outside influence that explain why Kenya is lagging behind,” he said.

He ended by telling the crowd, “I want you all to know that as your ally, your friend and your brother, I will be there in every way I can.”

Many in the audience left in high spirits.

“He’s inspiring,” said Miriam Musonye, a literature professor.  “He really seems to believe what he says.”

 

For the full story, see:

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN.  "Obama Urges Kenyans to Get Tough on Corruption."  The New York Times  (Tues., August 29, 2006):  A10.

 




September 10, 2006

Against Malaria "DDT Works in Weeks or Months"


Recently I highlighted hedge fund philanthropist Lance Laifer's efforts to fight malaria in Africa.  Here is a letter-to-the-editor of the Wall Street Journal, in which a distinguished physician strongly endorses Laifer's advocacy of the use of DDT against malaria:

Impoverished Africans should be grateful to philanthropist Lance Laifer for his effective outreach to reduce the tragic, needless toll of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa ("Malaria's Toll" by Jason Riley, editorial page, Aug. 21).  For his attempt to focus complacent Americans, Mr. Riley also deserves thanks -- such clarity is obviously desperately needed, as even with all the publicity accorded to the ravages of malaria, someone as educated and intelligent as Mr. Laifer remained blithely unaware of this scourge until last year.

Both Mr. Laifer and Mr. Riley note the lack of attention given by official organizations to the more widespread use of DDT as a malaria control method, despite its long and honorable history for this use.  Even with his money and other resources, Mr. Laifer has been unable to persuade Africans to utilize DDT.  African exporters legitimately fear economic repercussions from wealthy Western trading partners, who continue to demonize this lifesaving insecticide despite the lack of evidence of DDT's adverse health effects in humans.

And where is the Gates Foundation's massive resources in this ongoing struggle to save a half-billion from sickness and millions from death?  This organization asserts its devotion to reducing the toll of TB, AIDS and malaria -- yet none of its funding is aimed toward the cheapest and most effective way to deal with malaria:  increased indoor spraying with DDT.  Maybe Warren Buffett can persuade his friends Bill and Melinda to target their contributions where they will do the most good, in the shortest time, for the most people.  Malaria vaccines are many years away -- DDT works in weeks or months.

Gilbert Ross M.D.
Executive and Medical Director
American Council on Science and Health
New York

 

For the source of the letter, and for other letters, see: 

"Malaria Kills Millions -- We Have the Cure."  Wall Street Journal  (Mon., August 28, 2006):  A13.




September 9, 2006

Feds Slowed DSL by Forcing "Open Access"


Here is the background.  From the earliest days of broadband service, controversy raged over whether the physical networks used to transport data should be allowed to control content.  Thus open access rules, which forced telcos to allow broadband company rivals to use their networks at regulated rates.  Cable TV systems, meanwhile, also provided Internet connections via cable modems, but without any obligation to share their facilities.  If an independent Internet Service Provider (ISP) like Covad or Earthlink wanted to connect customers via Comcast's lines, they could negotiate a deal but had no legal club -- as they did under open access.

There was a vigorous campaign to mandate open access on cable similar to DSL; regulators under both Presidents Clinton and Bush refused.  The inevitable litigation ensued; but the Supreme Court set the matter to rest in FCC v. Brand X (2005).  Its 6-3 decision upheld the FCC's classification of cable broadband as an "information service," placing it beyond the scope of common carrier regulation.

For a number of years, therefore, DSL service was subject to open access while cable was not.  Unsurprisingly, DSL providers were blown away early in the race for market share.  By the end of 2002, cable-modem subscribers numbered 11 million and DSL just 6.1 million, according to Leichtman Research.

Then DSL began its deregulatory trek.  The first critical reform was a surprise FCC decision in February 2003 to end "line sharing" rules.  This dramatically raised the prices which ISPs would have to pay to use phone company facilities to provide retail DSL service, dealing a severe blow to companies like Covad.  Echoing conventional wisdom, the New York Times news story forecast a consumer defeat: "High-Speed Service May Cost More."

It hasn't.  Average DSL rates, according to Kagan Research, dropped from $39.51 per month in 2002 to $34.72 in 2003.  Telcos also expanded the scope, capacity and quality of advanced networks, even improving its endemic customer relations problems.

Consumers responded.  DSL, holding just 35% market share in 2002, pulled even with cable among new subscribers in 2004.  Leichtman Research reports that "DSL providers have added more broadband subscribers than cable providers in each of the last six quarters," and that overall, "the first quarter of 2006 was the best ever for both DSL and cable broadband providers."  Unleashed from open access, DSL is attracting customers like never before -- and the overall growth of broadband subscribers (DSL and cable) is notably higher.

 

For the full commentary, see:

THOMAS W. HAZLETT.  "RULE OF LAW; Broadbandits."  Wall Street Journal  (Sat., August 12, 2006):  A9.




September 8, 2006

Vinod Gupta: the Democrat's Ken Lay?


Much has been made of the good will between the Bushes and the late Enron CEO Ken Lay.  But not all of those who fall short of sainthood are friends of Republicans.  During the Clinton administration, Vinod Gupta slept at the White House.  He is a major donor to Democrats, and has been a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.  Yet Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times suggests that Gupta may not be an exemplar of sound management practices:

(p. 1)  ANYONE who says that the Midwest is dull and monochromatic has obviously never been to Omaha.  The city of Warren E. Buffett, the investing great who has generated huge gains for his shareholders over the years, is also home to Vinod Gupta, the colorful chief executive of infoUSA, who has destroyed enormous value for outside shareholders in recent years.  Now that’s diversity.

Unfortunately for the shareholders of infoUSA, a database marketing concern, much of its story is a throwback to the pre-Enron days of cozy boards and entitled executives.  Mr. Gupta, who founded infoUSA in 1972 and owns 38 percent of its shares, doesn’t seem to recognize that he is running a public company and needs to look out for his non-Gupta shareholders.  His board has done little to help him see the light.

InfoUSA shares hit a 52-week low Friday, closing at $7.98.  They are down 27 percent for the period.

Mr. Gupta is, shall we say, a piece of work.  He often prevents large shareholders from asking questions on conference calls.  He has received compensation that was not earned under the terms of the company’s executive compensation program, according to a lawsuit that Cardinal Value Equity Partners, infoUSA’s largest outside holder, filed against the company.  And, the suit alleges, his board has given him free rein to dispense stock options to whomever he likes.

Related-party transactions are also routine at infoUSA.  The Cardinal lawsuit contends that infoUSA paid a company owned by Mr. Gupta about $608,000 in 2003 to buy his interest in a skybox at the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium.  The university is Mr. Gupta’s alma mater and home of the Cornhuskers football team.  In June 2005, the suit says, infoUSA paid $2.2 million for a long-term lease of his yacht.  The yacht, named American Princess, is 80 feet long and has an all-female crew, according to a report in The Triton, a monthly publication for boat captains and crews.

Leases on an H2 Hummer, a gold Honda Odys-(p. 8)sey, a Glacier Bay Catamaran, a Mini Cooper, a Lexus 330, a Mercedes SL500 — all used by the Gupta clan — as well as rent on a Gupta family condominium on Maui have also been financed by infoUSA shareholders, the suit said.

Shareholders also paid a company owned by Mr. Gupta’s wife $64,200 for consulting services in 2003 and 2004.  Shareholders have also covered the Gupta family’s personal use of a corporate jet — leased by infoUSA from a company owned by the family — to have fun in the sun in Hawaii and the Bahamas.  Mr. Gupta apparently wasn’t in a mood to return the favor:  during a four-year period ending in 2004, infoUSA paid $13.5 million to Mr. Gupta’s private company for use of the aircraft.

What to make of all of this?  The Cardinal lawsuit contends that the carnivalesque spending amounts to unregulated perquisites and evidence of a somnambulant board.  Sleepy, perhaps,  but always on the move.  Some 15 directors have spun through infoUSA’s boardroom door over the last decade; five of them stayed less than a year.

 

For the full story, see: 

Gretchen Morgenson. "That Other Guy From Omaha." The New York Times, Section 3 (Sun., August 27, 2006): 1 & 8.

 

 Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.




September 7, 2006

Needed to Save New Orleans: Less Local Government Corruption and More Local Capitalism


HurricaneKatrinaSpending.gif  Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ editorial cited below.

 

New Orleans' plight is not the result of federal underspending.  Uncle Sam has spent some five times more on Katrina relief than any other natural disaster in the past 50 years.  Both parties in Congress and the White House opted for the status quo by relying on federal bureaucracies to oversee the rebuilding effort.  If Uncle Sam were deliberately trying to waste these funds, it is hard to imagine a better way than to funnel the money through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Both HUD and the SBA have been on the chopping block back to the early Reagan years.

The post-Katrina spend-fest in Louisiana will be remembered as one of the greatest taxpayer wastes in U.S. history.  First came the FEMA $2,000 debit-cards fiasco intended to pay for necessities that were used for things like flat-panel TVs and tattoos.  Then came the purchase of thousands of mobile homes that cost as much as $400,000 per family housed; the $200 million for renting the Carnival Cruise Ship  millions more in payments that went for season football tickets, luxury vacation resorts, even divorce lawyers.  Federal flood insurance policies surely will encourage many to rebuild in the same flood plains and at the same height as before.

. . .

After the hurricane, newspapers around the world showed photos of New Orleans under headlines that shouted:  "America's shame."  In truth, New Orleans was America's shame long before Katrina.  In large part the residents of the Big Easy were victims of the predatory behavior of their own politicians.  Louisiana already ranked among the bottom five of all the states in crime, poverty, health care and school performance; the murder rate in New Orleans today is 10 times the national average.

For all the finger-pointing this week, Congress hasn't spent much more than a dime to clear away the debris of corruption, patronage, welfare dependency, high taxes and racial division of decimated neighborhoods.  What is still lacking in the life of New Orleans is the vital architecture of local capitalism.

 

For the full editorial, see: 

"The Tragedy of New Orleans."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., August 29, 2006):  A14.

 




September 6, 2006

Unintended Consequences of Sending Food: More on Why Africa is Poor


  Millet in bowl.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

NIAMEY, Niger, Sept. 21 - The images coming out of this impoverished, West African nation have been unrelentingly grim:  hungry children with stick-thin arms and swollen bellies, mothers carrying babies hundreds of miles to look for food after a poor harvest and high prices put local staples out of reach.  A few months ago, those images prompted a torrent of food aid from Western donors.

But now, after a season of good rains, Niger's farmers are producing a bumper crop of millet, the national staple.  This should be a cause for rejoicing, yet in one of the twists that mark life in the world's poorest countries, the aid that was intended to save lives could ruin the harvest for many of Niger's farmers by driving down prices.

The newly harvested millet and the donated food will reach market stalls at the same time, and with prices depressed, poor farming families may be forced to sell crops normally set aside for their own use and use the money to pay off debts.  The effect would be a new cycle of hunger and poverty.

 

For the full story, see:

Burley, Natasha C.  "In Place Where the Hungry Are Fed, Farmers May Starve."  The New York Times  (Thurs., September 22, 2005):  A3.

 

NigerMap.jpg  Source of map:  online version of the NYT article cited above.



September 5, 2006

Chilean Socialist Praises American Melting Pot


ChileanPresidentMichelleBachelet.jpg  Michelle Bachelet.  Souce of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

SANTIAGO, Chile, June 7 — Michelle Bachelet has lived in the United States twice, first as a child and then as a single mother studying military affairs at the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington.  On Thursday, she will return to the capital, but this time on her first official visit as president of Chile.

Elected with a comfortable majority in January, Ms. Bachelet, 54, is her country's first female president, a pediatrician and, like her predecessor Ricardo Lagos, a Socialist.   . . .

. . .

Ms. Bachelet also plans to visit the middle school she attended while living in Bethesda, Md., in 1962 and 1963, when her father was a military attaché at the Chilean Embassy in Washington.  That was the first time she had been outside Chile, and the exposure to American society helped mold her intellectually, she said.

"It was a lovely experience, because I found a society with a democratic history, a rich diversity of thought, and which offered opportunities to its citizens," she said.  "The idea of the melting pot was the biggest novelty to me, and I would say that all of that allowed me to acquire a political and cultural foundation that has been quite positive to my political performance."

 

LARRY ROHTER.  "Visit to U.S. Not a First for Chile's First Female President."   The New York Times   (Thurs., June 8, 2006):  A3.




September 4, 2006

Chinese Learn "a Way of Life" from U.S. TV Shows


  Shanghai friends watch downloaded, subtitled, episode of "Friends."  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

SHANGHAI, Aug. 8 — For the past year and a half, said Ding Chengtai, a recent university graduate, friends have wondered why he seems to have disappeared.

Mr. Ding, 23, an Internet technology expert for a large Chinese bank, chuckled at the thought.  He has kept himself in virtual seclusion during his off hours, consumed with American television programs like “Lost,” “C.S.I.” and “Close to Home.”

He is no ordinary fan, though; none of the shows he watches can be seen on Chinese television.  Instead, he spends night after night creating Chinese subtitles for American sitcoms and dramas for a mushrooming audience of Chinese viewers who download them from the Internet free through services like BitTorrent.

. . .

To a person, the adapters say they are willing to devote long hours to this effort out of a love for American popular culture.  Many, including Mr. Ding, say they learned English by obsessively watching American movies and television programs.

Others say they pick up useful knowledge about everything from changing fashion and mores to medical science.

“It provides cultural background relating to every aspect of our lives:  politics,  history and human culture,” Mr. Ding said.  “These are the things that make American TV special.  When I first started watching ‘Friends,’ I found the show was full of information about American history and showed how America had rapidly developed.  It’s more interesting than textbooks or other ways of learning.”

On an Internet forum about the downloaded television shows, a poster who used the name Plum Blossom put it another way.

“After watching these shows for some time, I felt the attitudes of some of the characters were beginning to influence me,” the poster wrote.  “It’s hard to describe,  but I think I learned a way of life from some of them.  They are good at simplifying complex problems, which I think has something to do with American culture.”

 

For the full story, see: 

HOWARD W. FRENCH.  "Chinese Tech Buffs Slake Thirst for U.S. TV Shows."  The New York Times  (Weds., August 9, 2006):   A6.

 




September 3, 2006

"If Ethanol Made Economic Sense, It Wouldn't Need a Subsidy"


 

  Source of graphics:  online version of the World-Herald article cited below.

 

(p. 1D)  LINCOLN - David Pimentel, a Cornell University researcher, has been criticized repeatedly since he questioned the energy value of ethanol in 1980.

In a government-funded report, he suggested that ethanol provides less energy than is used to produce it.  Even though that report has been disputed and rejected by other analysts, Pimentel has not backed down.

He said last week that rural developers, farmers and investors will rue the day they put their money, hopes and dreams into the corn-based alternative fuel.

"It is too bad," he said in an interview, "because it would be a tremendous asset to agriculture if this were a true winner."

Pimentel is among the public critics who raise red flags as momentum gathers for dramatic increases in production, especially in the nation's top two ethanol-producing states:  Iowa and Nebraska.

While Pimentel is perhaps the expert most often quoted - in part because he presented his analysis more than 25 years ago - others also raise questions about the energy value of ethanol and its economic benefits and environmental effects.

Ethanol backers defend the fuel as a viable way to help stabilize the nation's fuel supply.  But they haven't convinced Jerry Taylor, an energy policy specialist for the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

"If ethanol made economic sense, it wouldn't need a subsidy," Taylor said.

 

For the full story, see:

BILL HORD.  "High-octane Clash."  Omaha World-Herald  (Sunday, August 6, 2006):  1D-2D.

 

  Source of graphics:  online version of the World-Herald article cited above.

 




September 2, 2006

Entrepreneur's $100 Million Rocket Destroyed


Lesson one:  entreprepreneurship is risky, and often fails.  Lesson two:  when an entreprepreneur's rocket is destroyed, his $100 million goes up in smoke; when NASA's rocket is destroyed, your $100 million goes up in smoke. 

Government and industry efforts to develop innovative, less costly rockets suffered a high-profile setback Friday, when the initial flight of a satellite launcher bankrolled by outspoken entrepreneur Elon Musk ended in failure.

After Mr. Musk spent nearly four years and well over $100 million of his personal fortune to create a rocket company from scratch, his Falcon project became the best-known and most aggressive entrant in the fledgling small-rocket segment.  But according to preliminary assessments, a fuel leak and resulting fire during last week's inaugural launch shut down the main engines less than 30 seconds after blastoff from a Pacific atoll.  The rocket and a research satellite built by Air Force Academy students were destroyed.

 

For the full story, see:

Pasztor, Andy.  "Entrepreneur's Rocket Suffers Setback During Maiden Launch."  Wall Street Journal (Monday, March 27, 2006):  A14.




September 1, 2006

Internet Reduces Elite Universities' Competitive Edge


With professors spending so much time blogging for no payment, universities might wonder whether this detracts from their value.  Although there is no evidence of a direct link between blogging and publishing productivity, a new study* by E. Han Kim and Adair Morse, of the University of Michigan, and Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, shows that the internet's ability to spread knowledge beyond university classrooms has diminished the competitive edge that elite schools once held.

Top universities once benefited from having clusters of star professors.  The study showed that during the 1970s, an economics professor from a random university, outside the top 25 programmes, would double his research productivity by moving to Harvard.  The strong relationship between individual output and that of one's colleagues weakened in the 1980s, and vanished by the end of the 1990s.

The faster flow of information and the waning importance of location—which blogs exemplify—have made it easier for economists from any university to have access to the best brains in their field.  That anyone with an internet connection can sit in on a virtual lecture from Mr DeLong means that his ideas move freely beyond the boundaries of Berkeley, creating a welfare gain for professors and the public.  

For the full story, see:

"FINANCE & ECONOMICS: Economists' blogs; The invisible hand on the keyboard; Why do economists spend valuable time blogging?"  The Economist 380, no. 8489 (Aug. 3, 2006):  67. 

 

The full reference to the paper by Kim et al, is:

* “Are Elite Universities Losing Their Competitive Edge?” by E. Han Kim, Adair Morse and Luigi Zingales. NBER working paper 12245, May 2006.

(Thanks to Carolyn Diamond for giving me a copy of the article from The Economist.) 

 




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