« August 2007 | Main | October 2007 »


September 30, 2007

"A Payment System that Rewards Everybody for Staying Busy"


 

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

 

(p. H6) WHY does health care for the average Medicare patient cost nearly twice as much a year in New Jersey, at $8,076, as it does in Hawaii, at $4,529?

The differences are one example of perplexing geographic variations in medical expenses and quality. And in a study that has important implications for the nation’s $2 trillion health care tab, researchers have found that more intensive and expensive care does not necessarily mean better outcomes. In fact, the opposite may be true.

The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, a research group that studies variations and costs in medical care, sums it up like this: Geography is destiny. It means that your chances of undergoing certain surgical procedures, visiting the doctor often or even dying in a hospital or at home are related to where you live.

For example, Medicare patients living in Rhode Island undergo knee replacements at a rate of 5 in 1,000 people. In Nebraska, the number rises to 10 in 1,000. Female Medicare enrollees who receive a diagnosis of breast cancer have nearly seven times the chance of having a mastectomy in South Dakota, where the rate is 2 in 1,000, as they do in Vermont, where the rate is .3 in 1,000.

. . .

In communities with surplus hospital beds, research shows, patients do not necessarily get more elective surgery, but they have more hospital stays, more frequent doctor’s visits and are more likely to be referred to specialists.

Dr. Elliott S. Fisher, who studies health care economics and is a member of the Dartmouth research group, said that part of the problem was the way doctors and hospitals were paid.

“In a payment system that rewards everybody for staying busy, every bit of capacity you have, whether it’s the number of specialists or the number of intensive care beds or the M.R.I. scanner, has to stay fully occupied because they bought them already and they have to keep paying for them,” Dr. Fisher said in a telephone interview.

. . .

Paradoxically, the Dartmouth research, which confirms some similar studies, shows that patients in high-cost areas are not necessarily getting better care. Dr. Fisher said that he and his colleagues found higher mortality rates in higher-spending regions.

. . .

Extra care without better outcomes translates into waste in the health care system. Some experts say that waste accounts for as much as if not more than 30 percent of the national spending on health care. Such spending now totals 16 percent of the gross domestic product.  

 

For full story, see: 

STEPHANIE SAUL.  "TREATMENTS; Need a Knee Replaced? Check Your ZIP Code."  The New York Times  (Mon., June 11, 2007):  H6.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

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

 




September 29, 2007

An Innovative Way to Reduce Global Warming, If We Need One


 

(p. B1) What if we wait too long to act on global warming? What if nothing we do is enough? Already, scientists are working up plans of last resort: stratospheric sprays of sulfur, trillions of orbiting mirrors and thousands of huge off-shore saltwater fountains.

Each is designed to counteract global warming by deliberately deflecting sunlight, rather than by retooling the world's economy to eliminate carbon-rich oil, coal and natural gas.

Some scientists argue that such actions might be easier and relatively cheaper. Until recently though, whenever University of Maryland economist Thomas Schelling, recipient of a 2005 Nobel Prize, raised such geo-engineering ideas, "half the audience thought I was crazy and the other half thought I was dangerous," he said. As global temperatures rise and greenhouse-gas emissions accelerate, however, even wild ideas are becoming respectable.

. . .

Earlier this month, researchers at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., released the most precise computer studies yet evaluating the controversial sunshade idea. Their findings, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that a last-ditch engineering effort to block sunlight could reverse global warming -- at least temporarily. Indeed, it could lower average temperatures to levels not seen since 1900. "Every study we do seems to indicate it would work," said Carnegie climate modeler Ken Caldeira.

. . .

For Nobel laureate Schelling, the political advantages of geo-engineering outweigh its technical risks. It may be easier to launch a climate-control project than to persuade people all over the world to stop using fossil fuels. "It drastically converts the whole subject of climate change from one of regulation involving six billion people to a simple matter of a budgetary agreement about how to manage the modest cost," Prof. Schelling said. "I think geo-engineering is going to be the deus ex machina that will save the day."

 

For the full story, see: 

ROBERT LEE HOTZ.  "SCIENCE JOURNAL; In Case We Can't Give Up the Cars -- Try 16 Trillion Mirrors."  The Wall Street Journal   (Fri., June 22, 2007):  B1.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




September 28, 2007

"We're Not Looking to Achieve Incremental Advances"


 

LevinsonArthurGenentechCEO.jpg   Genentech CEO Dr. Arthur D. Levinson.  Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

(p. B1)  WSJ: You have multiple blockbuster biotech drugs on the market and more on the way. In such an uncertain business, how do you manage scientists to achieve that kind of success?

Dr. Levinson: We are first and foremost committed to doing great science. If a drug can't be the first in class or the best in class, we're just not interested. We're not looking to achieve incremental advances or extend patents or do X, Y, Z unless it is going to really matter for patients. That allows us to bring in phenomenal scientists and encourage them to do the basic and translational research.

We decided 15 years ago that we would be committing (p. B2) to oncology, which at the time for us was new. We are now the leading producer of anticancer drugs in the United States. We took a lot of risks. In many cases, those risks paid off. We are now also in immunology. Again, the role of management here is to set the broad direction and then hire absolutely the best scientists and bring them in and say, 'Do your stuff.'

 

For the full interview, see:

MARILYN CHASE. The Wall Street Journal "How Genentech Wins At Blockbuster Drugs CEO to Critics of Prices: 'Give Me a Break'."   The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., June 5, 2007):  B1 & B2.

 

 GenentechStockPrices.gif   Source of graph:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 




September 27, 2007

A Competent, Caring, Ultimate Authority Needed for Open Source to Work: Linux and Wikipedia


 

The excerpt below is from a WSJ summary of an article from the Summer issue of the journal Strategy + Business.

 

Linux's success isn't as egalitarian as it seems, says Mr. Carr. In 1997, Mr. Raymond praised Linux's founder, Linus Torvalds, for realizing that "given enough eyeballs, all [software] bugs are shallow." However, Linux has always had a central authority -- originally, Mr. Torvalds himself; later, a small group of engineers -- that synthesized the work of the volunteers.

Similarly, the expansiveness of Wikipedia's entries lies in its contributors' wide range of interests. However, the encyclopedia is slowly putting together a management team to identify and improve poorly written articles and correct imbalances like the one where the "Flintstones" entry is twice as long as the one on "Homer."

 

For the full summary, see:

"Informed Reader; TECHNOLOGY; Small Teams Advance Open-Source Effort."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., June 6, 2007):  B5. 

 




September 26, 2007

Perverse Incentives in Medicine


 

   Source of graph:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. A1)  Stark evidence that high medical payments do not necessarily buy high-quality patient care is presented in a hospital study set for release today.

In a Pennsylvania government survey of the state’s 60 hospitals that perform heart bypass surgery, the best-paid hospital received nearly $100,000, on average, for the operation while the least-paid got less than $20,000. At both, patients had comparable lengths of stay and death rates.

And among the 20 hospitals serving metropolitan Philadelphia, two of the highest paid actually had higher-than-expected death rates, the survey found.

Hospitals say there are numerous reasons for some of the high payments, including the fact that a single very expensive case can push up the averages.

Still, the Pennsylvania findings support a growing national consensus that as consumers, insurers and employers pay more for care, they are not necessarily getting better care. Expensive medicine may, in fact, be poor medicine.

“For most consumers, the fact that there is no connection between quality and cost is one of the dirty secrets of medicine,” said Peter V. Lee, the chief executive of the Pacific Business Group on Health, a California group of employers that provide health care coverage for workers.

. . .

(p. C4)  And the survey found that good care can go unrewarded. One Philadelphia area hospital, Main Line Health’s Lankenau center, which performs a large number of bypass surgeries and has a high success rate, according to the survey, was paid an average of $33,549 by private insurers. That was less than half the nearly $80,000 in average payments received by the other hospitals, with poorer track records.

. . .

“The current reimbursement paradigm is fundamentally broken,” said Dr. Ronald Paulus, an executive with Geisinger, who says there is no current financial incentive for a hospital to provide the kind of care that leads to better outcomes and lower payments.

. . .

The problem, according to some health policy experts, is that the hospitals may, in fact, be rewarded for poor care:  keeping patients too long because they caught an infrection or had a complication.  That, they say, could be the main lesson of the Pennsylvania survey.

"What this highlights is the assumption that more money means better care is flat-out wrong," said Mr. Lee, the chief executive of the California employer group.  "It's easy to pay for bad quality, and we pay for it every day."

 

For the full story, see: 

REED ABELSON.  "In Health Care, Cost Isn’t Proof of High Quality." The New York Times  (Thurs., June 14, 2007):  A1 & C4. 

(Note:  The last three paragraphs, and the last sentence of the fourth from the last paragraph, of the print version of the article, are missing from the online version.)

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




September 25, 2007

Hugh Laurie's Wonderful Protest Song


 

   Source of image:  screen capture from the first link below.

 

Hugh Laurie hosted Saturday Night Live (SNL) on a show re-broadcast on Sat., Aug. 11, 2007.  (I am not sure if the original broadcast was in 2006, or earlier in 2007.)

In one hilarious bit, Laurie announces he is going to sing a "protest song" and proceeds to sing one of those earnest-sounding, pompous, self-righteous save-the-world-with-a-cliché songs that were so common in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

The hilarious bit: whenever Laurie gets to the part of the song where he is going to tell us the "answer"---- he mumbles. 

After showing the clip to my principles students, I told them that to fill in the mumbling with something effective, you need to know some economics.

 

Here is a link to the SNL version:

http://myspacetv.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=3591518

 

The song was apparently first performed as part of a show called "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" that was broadcast in the early 1990s in Britain. Here is a link to the earlier version of the song:

http://myspacetv.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=14405597

 




September 24, 2007

Arctic Species Readily Adjust to Big Climate Swings


 

  "White arctic bell-heather (Cassiope tetragona) in the remote Svalbard archipelago of Norway."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. A12) Many Arctic plant species have readily adjusted to big climate changes, repeatedly recolonizing the rugged islands of the remote Svalbard archipelago off Norway’s coast through 20,000 years of warm and cool spells since the frigid peak of the last ice age, researchers report in today’s issue of the journal Science.

Their finding implies that, in the Arctic at least, plants may be able to shift long distances to follow the climate conditions for which they are best adapted as those conditions move under the influence of human-caused global warming, the researchers and some independent experts said.

Some experts on climate and biology who were not involved with the study, which was led by scientists from the University of Oslo, said it provided a glimmer of optimism in the face of generally bleak scientific assessments of the vulnerability of ecosystems to the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases.

Terry L. Root, a biologist at Stanford who has been involved with many studies concluding that plants and animals are measurably feeling the effects of human-driven warming, described the Svalbard research as “great news.”

. . .

Norwegian and French scientists analyzed the DNA of more than 4,000 samples of nine flowering plant species from Svalbard, a group of islands between the Scandinavian mainland and the North Pole. They said they found genetic patterns that could be explained only by the repeated re-establishment of plant communities after the arrival of seeds or plant fragments from Russia, Greenland or other Arctic regions hundreds of miles away.

 

For the full story, see: 

ANDREW C. REVKIN.  "Many Arctic Plants Have Adjusted to Big Climate Changes, Study Finds."   The New York Times  (Fri., June 15, 2007):  A12. 

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

For the original Science article, see: 

Alsos, Inger Greve, Pernille Bronken Eidesen, Dorothee Ehrich, Inger Skrede, Kristine Westergaard, Gro Hilde Jacobsen, Jon Y. Landvik, Pierre Taberlet, and Christian Brochmann.  "Frequent Long-Distance Plant Colonization in the Changing Arctic."  Science 316, no. 5831 (2007):  1606-09.

 




September 23, 2007

More Live Longer and Better, Due to Ag Biotechnology


 

The author of the commentary excerpted below, 93 year-old Norman Borlaug, received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Tues., July 18, 2007. 

 

Agricultural science and technology, including the indispensable tools of biotechnology, will be critical to meeting the growing demands for food, feed, fiber and biofuels. Plant breeders will be challenged to produce seeds that are equipped to better handle saline conditions, resist disease and insects, droughts and waterlogging, and that can protect or increase yields, whether in distressed climates or the breadbaskets of the world. This flourishing new branch of science extends to food crops, fuels, fibers, livestock and even forest products.

. . .

Consider these examples:

 Since 1996, the planting of genetically modified crops developed through biotechnology has spread to about 250 million acres from about five million acres around the world, with half of that area in Latin America and Asia. This has increased global farm income by $27 billion annually.
 
 Ag biotechnology has reduced pesticide applications by nearly 500 million pounds since 1996. In each of the last six years, biotech cotton saved U.S. farmers from using 93 million gallons of water in water-scarce areas, 2.4 million gallons of fuel, and 41,000 person-days to apply the pesticides they formerly used.
 
 Herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans have enabled greater adoption of minimum-tillage practices. No-till farming has increased 35% in the U.S. since 1996, saving millions of gallons of fuel, perhaps one billion tons of soil each year from running into waterways, and significantly improving moisture conservation as well.
 
 Improvements in crop yields and processing through biotechnology can accelerate the availability of biofuels. While the current emphasis is on using corn and soybeans to produce ethanol, the long-term solution will be cellulosic ethanol made from forest industry by-products and products.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

NORMAN E. BORLAUG.  "Continuing the Green Revolution."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., By  July 18, 2007):  A15.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




September 22, 2007

Florence in Its Prime: Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise"


In my work on the labor economics of the process of creative destruction, I make use of the competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi over who would do the bronze door panels.  Brunelleschi withdrew, after a "tie" decision from the judges.  He then retooled, and bult the marvelous dome that is still one of the world's architectural marvels.

 

If Michelangelo's "David" heads the "must see" list of Renaissance masterpieces for most visitors to Florence, then I suspect "The Gates of Paradise," Lorenzo Ghiberti's monumental doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, rank a close second. The 20-foot-tall portal -- 10 exquisitely articulated gilt bronze reliefs of Old Testament scenes, framed by standing prophets, foliage and projecting heads -- has mesmerized viewers since its completion in 1452. Michelangelo himself is supposed to have given the doors the name by which they are still known.

. . .

Next year, visitors to Florence will again see "The Gates" restored to their full splendor, permanently installed in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.  

 

For the full commentary, see: 

KAREN WILKIN.  "Ghiberti's Doors Are Heavenly Again."   The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., June 5, 2007):  D5.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 




September 21, 2007

The Case for Patent Law Reform


 

The author of the commentary quoted below is the head lawyer for Intel.  I believe that the evidence is strong that patents can provide strong incentives for innovation.  But the devil is in the details.  I have not studied the Patent Reform Act of 2007, so I am not sure whether, overall, it is an improvement over the current rules.  But the case for reform is strong, and the topic is one that highly deserves further research. 

 

(p. A15) The U.S. patent system is beginning to show its age; outpaced by the swift evolution of technology and commerce, it increasingly favors speculators over innovators, impeding innovation and economic growth. Fortunately, the bipartisan "Patent Reform Act of 2007," introduced in both the House and Senate, would improve the process for granting patents, and rebalance court rules and procedures to ensure fair treatment when patents wind up in litigation. The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up S.1145 today.

Congress needs to pass this bill, during this session, as the need for reform is clear. Nationwide, the number of patent lawsuits nearly tripled between 1991 and 2004, and the number of cases between 2001 and 2005 grew nearly 20%. Until 1990, only one patent damages award exceeded $100 million; more than 10 judgments and settlements were entered in the last five years, and at least four topped $500 million. One recent decision topped $1.5 billion.

The number of questionable, loosely defined patents, moreover, is rising. One company holds patents that it claims broadly cover current technologies that allow people to make phone calls over the Internet. Another has staked a claim on streaming video over the Internet generally and has pursued colleges for royalties on their distance-learning programs. In 2002, a five-year-old boy patented a method of swinging on a swing.

Unfortunately, under current law, parties that want to innovate in areas covered by questionable patents have only two options, both of them bad: an ineffective, rarely used re-examination process, or litigation -- the average cost of which is, by some estimates, $4.5 million. This impedes innovation, as the FTC noted: "One firm's questionable patent may lead its competitor to forgo R&D in the areas that the patent improperly covers."

 

For the full commentary, see: 

BRUCE SEWELL.  "Patent Nonsense."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., July 12, 2007):  A15. 

 




September 20, 2007

Think "Passports" When You Hear a Call to Grow the Government


 

     In an earlier blog entry, I expressed my own personal outrage at the passport debacle. 

 

HOUSTON, June 6 — With government phone lines jammed by record numbers of passport-seekers, Veronica Alvarez and three anxious friends hoping to travel to Cancun next week showed up at the federal building here on Wednesday at 3 a.m.

There were 11 people in line ahead of them.

“We’ve been calling for a week every day,” said Ms. Alvarez, 29, a bank clerk, who joined about 1,200 people who have been besieging the downtown office here daily for word on their passports, some of which were requested in February.

The State Department has acknowledged long delays from “unprecedented demand” after new rules requiring passports for travelers returning from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. It expects to announce new measures soon to ease the nationwide crush.

. . .

Much of the spike in applications is attributed to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect Jan. 23 and requires passports, merchant mariner documents or frequent-traveler Nexus cards for air travelers returning from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda. Next January, the requirement is likely to be extended to ship, rail and road travelers.

But somehow, the government seemed caught by surprise when crowds began besieging passport offices this spring.

. . .

“Basically, they’ve taken my money,” said Kevin Owens, 39, an oil industry employee, who sent in an expedited application April 20 and, with a June 14 trip to Jamaica looming, was still passportless. “The whole process is —” he searched for a word — “lacking.”

. . .

 A nervous Brianna Pollinger, 35, of suburban Katy, Tex., arrived at the passport office on Tuesday not knowing whether she would be able to leave Friday on a 10-year anniversary trip to Mexico with her husband. But after waiting nearly eight hours, she emerged with a prized blue-covered booklet. Was she mollified? “Oh, no,” she said. “I definitely minded.”

 

For the full story, see: 

RALPH BLUMENTHAL.  "Travelers Face Frustrations With Passport Rule Changes."  The New York Times   (Thurs., June 7, 2007):  A20.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

  Notice how excited those in line seem to be at hearing what passport official Eric Botts ist telling them.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




September 19, 2007

Pyramids Can Take Many Forms: More on Why Africa is Poor


 

My Wabash economics prof Ben Rogge used to say that rulers have always liked to spend the people's money to build pyramids intended to proclaim the glory of the ruler.  But in modern times the rulers have to be a tad more subtle than the Egyptians, so, for instance, in Brazil they build Brazilia, instead of actual pyramids. 

And according to the story below, summarized from the May 2007 IEEE Spectrum, in Africa, they build large dams.

 

Small dams could help deliver electricity to much of Africa's population, but since they lack the prestige of larger-scale projects, few of them get built.

. . .

In Uganda, which has plenty of rivers and streams to supply power, Mr. Zachary describes how a small water-power generator, supplied by a small nearby dam, delivers 60 kilowatts of energy to a nearby hospital. The generator would barely be enough to run a single magnetic-resonance imaging machine, a staple in Western hospitals. But it does provide enough power to light the hospital and keep basic equipment running for the 100 nurses and doctors who work there. The entire generation system cost $15,000 to build.

Still, Africa's leaders are unlikely to abandon their preference for big public works, says Mr. Zachary, since they create thousands of construction jobs and reinforce the political might of the central government. 

 

For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; ENERGY; Small Dams Might Help to Electrify Africa."  The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 8, 2007):  B10. 

(Note:  ellipsis added; the original article in IEEE Spectrum is by G. Pascal Zachary.)

 




September 18, 2007

Doctor and Patient Incentives, and Lack of Competition, Fuel High Health Costs


 

HealthCostsGraphCBO.gif  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

Why are so many lumbar fusions done, in spite of the absence of evidence for their efficacy?  Well, doctors find the procedure lucrative.  Patients do not pay for it themselves, so they have little incentive to look hard at the effectiveness.  And health care providers, through licensing and government regulations, have largely insulated themselves from competition from low cost providers.

 

(p. C1)  In Idaho Falls, Idaho, anyone suffering from the sort of lower back pain that may conceivably be helped by the fusing of two vertebrae is quite likely to have the surgery.  It’s known as lumbar fusion, and the rate at which it is performed in Idaho Falls is almost five times the national average.  The rate in Idaho Falls is 20 times that in Bangor, Me., where lumbar fusion is less common than anywhere else.

These numbers come from the wonderful Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care.  The Dartmouth researchers adjust the numbers to take into account age, race and sex, which is another way of saying that there is no good explanation for the huge variations they find.  Doctors in the Idaho Falls area are probably just being more aggressive than doctors elsewhere.

But it’s not clear that their patients are any better off.  The evidence for lumbar fusion is incredibly mixed.  It seems to help people with certain kinds of pain, but many others recover just as well without the surgery. Of course, doctors are almost always better off if the surgery is done:  The typical hospital bill for lumbar fusion is roughly $50,000.

This is about as good an example as you can find of the health care mess.  The number of lumbar fusions performed in this country has more than tripled since the early 1990s, and Medicare now spends more than $600 million a year on the procedure.  It’s one reason your health insurance bill has gone up.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

DAVID LEONHARDT.  "ECONOMIX; Health Care As if Costs Didn't Matter."  The New York Times  (Weds., June 6, 2007):  C1 & C8.

 




September 17, 2007

How to Protect Against Bad Drugs: "Don't Take Them"


 

The FDA's major problem is not laxity, but zealotry.  Its current get-tough view on conflict of interest only aggravates the fundamental flaw in its institutional design. Transfixed on the harms drugs can cause, the FDA remains largely oblivious to the harms they can prevent. Any delay in the use of a successful drug is costly: The delay matters little to the FDA, but a great deal to the thousands who plea for compassionate exemptions to try a drug that has not met with FDA approval.  Nor is the FDA sensitive, as individual physicians surely are, to the simple fact that a drug which cannot be tolerated by one person works wonders in another.

. . .

Right now, we all have a simple expedient to protect ourselves against dangerous drugs that make it to the market: Don't take them. But we have no protection at all when the FDA denies us that choice in the first place. Right now the pace of drug approval is too slow.  We don't need the FDA to slow it up still further.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

Richard A. Epstein.  “Drug Crazy.”  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., March 26, 2007):  A12.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 




September 16, 2007

Congestion Pricing in NYC Will Reduce Traffic and Pollution


 

   Traffic congestion on Ninth Avenue in New York City.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

(p. A1)  ALBANY, June 7 — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to reduce traffic by charging people who drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan received significant support on Thursday as Gov. Eliot Spitzer endorsed the idea and the Bush administration indicated that New York stood to gain hundreds of millions of dollars if the plan were enacted.

If the measure is approved by the Legislature, New York will become the first city in the United States to impose a broad system of congestion pricing, which was introduced in London in 2003 and has been credited with reducing traffic there.

Governor Spitzer said he would work to ensure passage of the plan, which is a major part of the mayor’s blueprint for improving air quality and traffic flow for the next several decades. The Bloomberg administration has estimated that it could put the program into effect within 18 months of legislative approval.

 

For the full story, see:

DANNY HAKIM and RAY RIVERA.  "New York Bid on Traffic Pricing Draws State and U.S. Support." The New York Times  (Fri., June 8, 2007): A1 & A29.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "City Traffic Pricing Wins U.S. and Spitzer’s Favor.")

 




September 15, 2007

More Millionaires


 

The ranks of the richest Americans expanded last year at an increased pace, driven by a strong economy, but that growth is expected to moderate in coming years, according to a new study.

The 11th annual World Wealth Report, compiled by Merrill Lynch & Co. and Capgemini Group, shows that in 2006, the U.S. population of high-net-worth individuals -- those with at least $1 million in investible assets, excluding their primary residences -- rose 9.4% to 2.92 million. In 2005, the same population increased 6.8% to 2.67 million.

Robert McCann, president of Merrill Lynch Global Private Client Group, attributed the increased pace of wealth generation to gains in economic output and continued growth in the world's stock markets, two primary drivers of wealth creation.

 

For the full story, see:

DAISY MAXEY.  "Ranks of Rich in U.S. Grow at Faster Pace."   The Wall Street Journal   (June 28, 2007):  D6. 

 




September 14, 2007

Searching for Schumpeter in Amazon


 

Econ Journal Watch, a fresh innovative online journal, just published a paper of mine where I document the large number of books included in Amazon.com's "Search Within the Book" feature, that mention Schumpeter.  The nature of the mentions vary, but many relate to Schumpeter's process of creative destruction.  The focus on creative destruction is especially pronounced in business books. 

The fact that many business practitioners find "creative destruction" to be a fruitful concept in understanding capitalism, speaks well of the concept, and speaks well of Schumpeter.

 

The citation for my paper is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Thriving at Amazon: How Schumpeter Lives in Books Today." Econ Journal Watch 4, no. 3 (September 2007): 338-44.

 

My paper has been highlighted at: 

http://organizationsandmarkets.com/2007/09/10/content-analysis-using-amazoncom/

(Thanks to Kevin Rollins for alerting me to this blog entry.)

 




September 13, 2007

With Right Incentives, Workers Make Better Tech Purchases Than Managers


 

(p. A7)  Corporate technology managers usually pick laptops, software and other technology for employees. Now some tech managers are finding workers can do a better job when they choose and buy the equipment themselves.

At KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, a unit of Air France-KLM SA, employees had expressed frustration at the company's policy of providing and supporting only one type of laptop, the Lenovo A30 (formerly IBM), and one smartphone, the Nokia 6021. Last November, Martien van Deth, a senior technology officer in the Amsterdam office, tried a new system: He gave 50 information-technology staffers an allowance of $203, covering two years, to buy cellphones for corporate use. Those who picked more expensive phones paid the extra. Those who chose cheaper phones kept the change. As long as the phone ran Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Mobile version 5 or 6 operating system, KLM guaranteed access to corporate email. The catch: Users had to deal with technical problems themselves and replace phones that broke.

Not only did the program cost less than the $231 the company paid (p. A9) for phones and support over the same period, it was a hit with employees -- some of whom bought phones with fancy ringtones and video players. Now "no one can complain that their corporate phone doesn't have a camera," says Mr. van Deth, who plans to offer a tech allowance to KLM's entire 1,000-person IT department later this summer, and wants to take the program companywide. He's also about to start a tech-allowance program for laptops.

 

For the full story, see: 

BEN WORTHEN.  "Office Tech's Next Step:  Do It Yourself."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., July 3, 2007):  A7 & A9.

 




September 12, 2007

For-Sale-By-Owner Web Site Beats Real Estate Agents


 

Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

(p. A1)  It sounds like the setup for a dull economist’s joke. Who gets the better deal: the cautious economist who sells his house through a real estate agent, or his risk-taking colleague who finds a buyer on his own?

But the question — debated by two Northwestern University economists who chose different methods to sell their homes — and the research it helped prompt are serious. And the answer will be of interest to anyone who has paused to consider whether paying a real estate agent’s commission, typically 5 to 6 percent of the sale price, is worth it.

The conclusion, in a study to be released today based on home-sales data from 1998 to 2004 in Madison, Wis., is that people in that city who sold their homes through real estate agents typically did not get a higher sale price than people who sold their homes themselves. When the agent’s commission is factored in, the for-sale-by-owner people came out ahead financially.

 

For the full story, see:

JEFF BAILEY.  "One City’s Home Sellers Do Better on Their Own."  The New York Times  (Fri., June 8, 2007):  A1 & C7. 

 

Economist Handel (left) sold his home by himself, while economist Nevo (right) used a real estate agent.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




September 11, 2007

London Mayor: Congestion-Pricing Works


 

In 2003, London put in place a £5 (about $9) a day congestion charge for all cars that entered the center city (the charge is now £8). This led to an immediate drop of 70,000 cars a day in the affected zone. Traffic congestion fell by almost 20 percent. Emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide were cut by more than 15 percent.

The negative side effects predicted by opponents never materialized. The retail sector in the zone has seen increases in sales that have significantly exceeded the national average. London’s theater district, which largely falls within the zone, has been enjoying record audiences. People are still flocking to London — they’re simply doing so in more efficient and less polluting ways.

. . .

Is London’s success a guarantee that congestion charging will work in New York? Of course not. But it is an indicator that properly executed congestion pricing works, and works well. Singapore and Stockholm already operate such programs and other cities are examining them. Given the success of congestion charging in London, this is not surprising.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

KEN LIVINGSTONE.  "OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR; Clear Up the Congestion-Pricing Gridlock."  The New York Times   (Mon., July 2, 2007):  A21.

 




September 10, 2007

When You Need to Know the Difference Between Glacier Creek and Big Thompson River


 

  Is it Glacier Creek, or Big Thompson River?  Source of photo:  me. 

 

On May 17, 2007, in Estes Park, Colorado, I was the co-leader of a "two hour" hike with 15 Montessori middle-schoolers from Omaha, Nebraska.  At some point what we were seeing didn't seem to correspond with what our roughly drawn YMCA map told us we should be seeing--we worried that we had taken a wrong turn and were lost.

II we were on course, then the water beside us should be Glacier Creek.  If we were lost, then it was probably Big Thompson River.  (It's appearance didn't help--it looked a bit larger than a creek, but a lot smaller than a 'big river.')

The first person I found to ask was a tourist who admitted upfront that she was extremely uncertain about where we were.  She pulled out a modest map, and pointed to where she thought we might be, which was along the Big Thompson River.

Seeking confirmation, I apologetically interrupted a fellow teaching his girl-friend how to fly fish.  This fellow was dressed as an outdoors-man, and exuded confidence.  He talked about hiking on a glacier the day before.  He helpfully strode back to his SUV with me and pulled a detailed, authoritative-looking map.  With no doubt, he pointed on the map to where we were, on Glacier Creek, as I had hoped.  As we walked back to where he had been fishing, he pointed in the direction that we had been hiking, and said that without question, we should continue to hike in that direction.

The scenery was fantastic, but Cindy began to worry whether we were going in the right direction, pointing out that there didn't seem to be any opening in the mountains in the direction in which we were supposing the YMCA camp should be.  I agreed with her observation, but said that there must be some non-obvious route, because the fellow who pointed us in this direction had exuded credibility.

We finally got to a small museum.  There, an old park service employee asked where we were from.  When I said "Omaha" he jokingly asked if knew his old friend Warren Buffet?  He told us that he had lived in this area all his life, and that we were definitely walking along Big Thompson River.  Then he tried to draw a map to show us how to get back.  He scratched his head, discarded his first attempt, and started trying again.  Then he asked us (again) where we were from?  At this point, I was really worried.

But his second attempt at a map was a good one--it got us back to the YMCA camp.

Maybe we should look for advice from those who are self-critical, as the old man was, rather than from those who exude undoubting self-confidence, as the fly fisherman did?  (Or maybe the key was local credentials?)

Maybe, I made a mistake that Christensen and Raynor warn against in their The Innovator's Solution:  looking at charisma and confidence as signs of who to follow.  (In fairness to myself, at the time, I didn't have much else to go on.)

 




September 9, 2007

Majority of iPod Value-Added is from the United States


 

Who makes the Apple iPod? Here's a hint: It is not Apple. The company outsources the entire manufacture of the device to a number of Asian enterprises, among them Asustek, Inventec Appliances and Foxconn.

But this list of companies isn't a satisfactory answer either: They only do final assembly. What about the 451 parts that go into the iPod? Where are they made and by whom?

 

Three researchers at the University of California, Irvine -- Greg Linden, Kenneth L. Kraemer and Jason Dedrick -- applied some investigative cost accounting to this question, using a report from Portelligent Inc. that examined all the parts that went into the iPod.

. . .

Continuing in this way, the researchers examined the major components of the iPod and tried to calculate the value added at different stages of the production process and then assigned that value added to the country where the value was created. This isn't an easy task, but even based on their initial examination, it is quite clear that the largest share of the value added in the iPod goes to enterprises in the United States, particularly for units sold here.

The researchers estimated that $163 of the iPod's $299 retail value in the United States was captured by American companies and workers, breaking it down to $75 for distribution and retail costs, $80 to Apple, and $8 to various domestic component makers. Japan contributed about $26 to the value added (mostly via the Toshiba disk drive), while Korea contributed less than $1.

. . .

The real value of the iPod doesn't lie in its parts or even in putting those parts together. The bulk of the iPod's value is in the conception and design of the iPod. That is why Apple gets $80 for each of these video iPods it sells, which is by far the largest piece of value added in the entire supply chain.

Those clever folks at Apple figured out how to combine 451 mostly generic parts into a valuable product. They may not make the iPod, but they created it. In the end, that's what really matters.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

VARIAN, HAL R.  "ECONOMIC SCENE; An iPod Has Global Value. Ask the (Many) Countries That Make It."  The New York Times  (Thurs.,  June 28, 2007):  C3.

 

The working paper that is the main source for Varian's commentary, is: 

Linden, Greg, Kenneth Kraemer, and Jason Dedrick. "Who Captures Value in a Global Innovation System? The Case of Apple's Ipod." UC Irvine, June 2007.

The link is:   http://pcic.merage.uci.edu/papers/2007/AppleiPod.pdf

 




September 8, 2007

James Buchanan Convinced Harry Johnson to Over-Rule the Referees


 

  James Buchanan (center) flanked by economics graduate students at the the closing dinner of the 2007 Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economics, held at George Mason University.  (Source of photo:  me.)

 

On the evening of Thursday, June 7, 2007, Nobel-prize-winner James Buchanan joined participants for their final dinner-gathering at George Mason's Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economics.

As a young economist, you are advised that it is never productive to dispute the decisions of journal editors. 

But Buchanan, in conversation during the dinner, mentioned that he had only once disputed a journal rejection--of an article submitted to the JPE during Harry Johnson's editorship.  Buchanan said that he wrote Johnson a letter explaining that the referees had totally misunderstood his paper; Johnson read the paper himself, agreed with Buchanan, and published it.

This tells us something about Buchanan, but also something about Johnson.  I never took a class from Johnson, but had a conversation with him at a party or reception once, in the last year or two before his death.  All I remember about the conversation was that he was polite and respectful to an unknown graduate student, and that somehow we got onto the topic of car advertising.

I remember hearing that sometimes Harry Johnson whittled on wood carving projects during committee meetings.  Someone asked him why he did that, and he is reputed to have responded that at the end of the meeting he liked to feel as though something at been accomplished.

 




September 7, 2007

Reagan's "Crazy" Speech Inspired Lessig to Pursue the "Impossible"


 

Mr. Lessig has become the standard-bearer for those who see copyright law as too protective of original creators and too stifling of the artists who follow them. That position has made him the darling of those who want a relatively unfettered Internet, whether it be music sharers or online poem reprinters.

But it has also made him an opponent of many big media companies, including the Walt Disney Company, whose signature creation, Mickey Mouse, would have passed into the public domain years ago if not for a series of well-timed extensions to the law.

. . .

. . . , it might surprise many of Mr. Lessig’s supporters to find that his inspiration for his copyright work was Ronald Reagan.

“I heard George Shultz give a talk in Berlin on the 20th anniversary of Reagan’s ‘tear down this wall’ speech,” Mr. Lessig said. “It was very moving to be at this event. Many of the Germans in the audience were moved to tears. They said that at the time this happened, it was impossible to see this change happening.”

In recalling his thoughts on the possibility of communism falling, he said, “When I heard Reagan’s speech, I remember thinking, ‘boy, he is crazy,’ ” he said.

It is fair to say you can quote him on that.

 

For the full story, see: 

NOAM COHEN.  "LINK BY LINK; Taking the Copyright Fight Into a New Arena."  The New York Times   (Mon., July 2, 2007):  C3.

 




September 6, 2007

Cambridge Ignorant of Schumpeter


 

  The house in Cambridge, Mass. where Schumpeter lived for many years.  Source of photo:  F.M. "Mike" Scherer, posted with his permission.

 

On his way from his home to his Harvard Office, Mike Scherer walks near the homes in which Joseph Schumpeter lived over 50 years ago.

Scherer reports that the streets of Cambridge are replete with historical markers documenting the significance in intellectual history of various houses and locales.

Across the street from the impressive house in which Schumpeter lived for over 15 years, for instance, there is a sign indicating where the poet T.S. Elliot had lived for a year during a sabbatical.

But there is no sign in front of either of the homes in which Joseph Schumpeter lived (or in front of the home in which Nobel-prize-winner Wassily Leontief lived).

Scherer thinks the lesson is that economists should be more humble.  I think that the lesson is that the citizens and officials of Cambridge should be less ignorant.

 

The above account is partly from my memory of Scherer's oral remarks in June at George Mason at the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economics.  Here is a briefer version he sent me in an email dated 12/20/2006:

Since moving back to Harvard, I often walk to my home in West Cambridge. The shortest route is via Ash Street, right by Schumpeter's first own home in Cambridge. The neighborhood is full of houses with historical plaques, but I looked in vain for Schumpy's. However, across the street is a house in which T. S. Eliot lived for two years. It has a plaque! That's a profound statement on the relative value of what we academics do.

 

    From top to bottom, for the four photos at the bottom of the entry:  The first is of the house in which Schumpeter lived for many years.  The second is of a house where Schumpeter lived for a short time.  The third is of the street signs at the corner near one of Schumpeter's houses.  The fourth is one of the many plaques that Cambridge installs to honor those who the Cambridge community deems worthy of honor.  All of the photos above were taken on or about May 27, 2007 by F.M. "Mike" Scherer, who kindly gave them to me and gave me permission to post them.

 




September 5, 2007

Europeans Have More Leisure, But Not More Happiness


 

Perhaps the commentary excerpted below goes a bit too far.  I do not believe that paid work is necessary for happiness.  But I do think that a life mainly of leisure can wear thin.  A few months ago I heard Deirdre McCloskey say that we need "projects" to keep us moving forward.  I think that is right, and the best work involves challenging, meaningful projects.

 

By almost every measure, Europeans do work less and relax more than Americans. According to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Americans work 25% more hours each year than the Norwegians or the Dutch. The average retirement age for European men is 60.5, and it's even lower for European women. Our vacations are pathetically short by comparison: The average U.S. worker takes 16 days of vacation each year, less than half that typically taken by the Germans (35 days), the French (37 days) or the Italians (42 days).

. . .

For most Americans, work is a rock-solid source of life happiness. Happy people work more hours each week than unhappy people, and work more in their free time as well. Even more tellingly, people with more hours per day to relax outside their jobs are not any happier than those who have less non-work time. In short, the idea that our heavy workloads are lowering our happiness is twaddle.

. . .

This may be one reason why Americans tend to score better than Europeans on most happiness surveys. For example, according to the 2002 International Social Survey Programme across 35 countries, 56% of Americans are "completely happy" or "very happy" with their lives, versus 44% of Danes (often cited in surveys as the happiest Europeans), 35% of the French and 31% of Germans. Those sweet five-week vacations and 35-hour workweeks don't seem to be stimulating all that much félicité. A good old-fashioned 50-hour week might be a better option.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

ARTHUR C. BROOKS.  "Happy for the Work."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., June 20, 2007):  A16. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




September 4, 2007

Astronauts (and the Rest of Us) Would Benefit from More Unscripted Time


 

Noctilucent clouds.  Source of photo:  http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/image/9907/noctilucent_pp.jpg

 

The excerpt below is from a WSJ summary of an article from the  June 2007 issue of Seed.

 

Many other scientific discoveries have come from astronauts puzzling over strange sights around them. Most of what is known about so-called noctilucent clouds -- thin, beautiful wisps that hover at the edge of the Earth's atmosphere -- comes from 30 years of astronauts sketching and trying to photograph them in their spare time. The strength of a certain type of cosmic ray was first recognized in 1969 when Buzz Aldrin asked fellow astronauts if they, like him, were seeing occasional streaks of light when their eyes were closed.

Such discoveries off the beaten path of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's research agenda prompt the question attributed to an Apollo program geologist: "If human beings can do much better science than robots, why does NASA make its astronauts do science like robots?"

 

For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; SCIENCE; Why Astronauts Need Down Time in Space."  The Wall Street Journal (Weds., May 9, 2007):  B15.

 




September 3, 2007

The U.S. has Exceled at Turning Information Technology into Greater Productivity


 

To explain the experience in the United States, one would have to believe that Americans have some better way of translating the new technology into productivity than other countries. And that is precisely what Professor Van Reenen's research suggests.

His paper ''Americans Do I.T. Better: U.S. Multinationals and the Productivity Miracle,'' (with Nick Bloom of Stanford University and Raffaella Sadun of the London School of Economics) looked at the experience of companies in Britain that were taken over by multinational companies with headquarters in other countries. They wanted to know if there was any evidence that the American genius with information technology transfers to locations outside the United States. If American companies turn computers into productivity better than anyone else, can businesses in Britain do the same when they are taken over by Americans?

And in the huge service sectors -- financial services, retail trade, wholesale trade -- they found compelling evidence of exactly that. American takeovers caused a tremendous productivity advantage over a non-American alternative.

When Americans take over a business in Britain, the business becomes significantly better at translating technology spending into productivity than a comparable business taken over by someone else. It is as if the invisible hand of the American marketplace were somehow passing along a secret handshake to these firms.

. . .

But there is a chance that the 1990s represent a fundamental shift in the global economy. Perhaps the greater amount of uncertainty and churn in the world economy in the 1990s is the new norm. Perhaps the 21st century will continually favor those who adjust best to changes. As Professor Van Reenen put it, ''If the world has become one in which everyone is trying to hit a moving target, it certainly helps to be the best at changing one's aim.''

But that is, of course, the paradox of the American position. We hate experiencing major adjustments and industry transformations that force people to look for new jobs. That experience has made many skeptical about the future of the United States in the world economy. Yet the evidence seems to show that for all our dissatisfaction, we are the most flexible economy around and may be best poised to take advantage of the coming changes on a global scale precisely because we are so good at adjusting. 

 

For the full commentary, see: 

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE. "ECONOMIC SCENE; How the U.S. Has Kept the Productivity Playing Field Tilted to Its Advantage."  The New York Times  (Thurs., June 21, 2007)  C3.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

(Note:  I thank Aaron Brown for calling the above article to my attention.)

 




September 2, 2007

The End of "the Road to Socialism"


 

     The frenetic pace of productive work at a Chavez socialist farm cooperative in Santa Barbara, Venezuela.  Souce of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. 

 

(p. A1)  Mr. Chávez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners.  Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain.  Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”

. . .

(p. A10)  But while some of the newly settled farming communities are euphoric, landowners are jittery.  Economists say the land reform may have the opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more dependent on imported food than before.

The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to lower investment by some farmers.  Production of some foods has been relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists say.  

 

For the full story, see: 

SIMON ROMERO.  "Clash of Hope and Fear As Venezuela Seizes Land."  The New York Times  (Thurs., May 17, 2007):  A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

 




September 1, 2007

How to End Poverty


 

To find policies that are likely to alleviate poverty, it is best to look at actual successes and failures. In recent decades, the biggest single accomplishment is the post-1979 (post-Mao) economic growth in China. Xavier Sala-i-Martin ("The World Distribution of Income," Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2006) finds that the number of persons below a standard poverty line fell in China by about 250 million from 1970 to 2000. This massive poverty reduction occurred despite an increase in the Chinese population of more than 400 million and rising income inequality within China. The second-best story is the economic growth in India, where the poverty count fell by around 140 million people from 1970 to 2000.

Also illuminating is the greatest tragedy for world poverty -- the low economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa. In this case, the number of people in poverty rose by around 200 million from 1970 to 2000.

These examples suggest that the key question for poverty alleviation is how to get Africa to grow like China and India. An important clue is that the triumphs in China and India derive mainly from improvements in governance, notably in the opening up to markets and capitalism. Similarly, the African tragedy derives primarily from government failure. Another clue is that foreign aid had nothing to do with the successes and did not prevent the African tragedy.

One reason for this is that foreign aid is typically run through governments and, thereby, tends to promote public sectors that are large, corrupt and unresponsive to market forces.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

ROBERT BARRO.  "COMMENTARY; Bill Gates's Charitable Vistas." The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., June 19, 2007):  A17.

 




HP3D5006CropSmall.jpg


















The StatCounter number above reports the number of "page loads" since the counter was installed late on 2/26/08. Page loads are defined on the site as "The number of times your page has been visited."


View My Stats