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October 31, 2007

Testing Incentives


When W. became president, he had two major education initiatives:  vouchers, and "no child left behind."  It is unfortunate that in the face of formidable Democratic opposition, he abandoned vouchers, and stuck with "no child left behind."  The latter policy's intent is noble, but some of its unintended consequences are perverse. 

Mandatory testing results in educational inefficiency:  teachers teach to the tests, and as the commentary quoted below reports, tests get jiggered to show good results.

The main harm though, is that some of the most important results of good education, like resilience, self-discipline, and creativity, are not readily measured in standardized multiple choice tests.  So programs, such as Montessori, that encourage such results, end up under-appreciated and under-rewarded.

What we most need is for parents to be free to choose in education.  That would result in far greater innovation and improvement in education than the current "no child left behind" standardized testing.


(p. A31) If teachers, administrators, politicians and others have a stake in raising the test scores of students — as opposed to improving student learning, which is not the same thing — there are all kinds of incentives to raise those scores by any means necessary.

. . .

A study released last week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association found that “improvements in passing rates on state tests can largely be explained by declines in the difficulty of those tests.”

The people in charge of most school districts would rather jump from the roof of a tall building than allow an unfettered study of their test practices. But that kind of analysis is exactly what’s needed if we’re to get any real sense of how well students are doing.


For the full commentary, see: 

BOB HERBERT.    " High-Stakes Flimflam."  The New York Times   (Tues.,  October 9, 2007):  A31.


 HerbertBob.jpg  Columnist Bob Herbert.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT column quoted and cited above.


October 30, 2007

United States Cotton Subsidies Hurt Poor African Farmers


Dan Sumner did his dissertation many years ago under T.W. Schultz, a great economist, and a great human being.  (Dan was a friend of mine in grad school--we were members of a club that gathered once a month to discuss the works of Bertrand Russell.) 


Eliminating billions of dollars in federal subsidies to American cotton growers each year would reduce American cotton production and exports, raise world prices by about 10 percent and modestly improve the incomes of millions of poor cotton farmers in Africa, according to a new study by Oxfam, the aid group.

Agricultural economists at the University of California, Davis, who conducted the study for Oxfam, found that a typical farm family of 10 in Chad, Benin, Burkina Faso or Mali — Africa’s major cotton producers — that now earns $2,000 a year would have an extra $46 to $114 a year to spend if American subsidies were removed.

“Fifty to a hundred bucks is a lot of money to these people,” said Daniel Sumner, chairman of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the university. “It’s not right to think that changing U.S. subsidies will turn very poor people into middle-class households by our standards. That’s a generational process. But it’s money in their pocket.”

. . .

Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard who is skeptical of the importance of reduced agricultural subsidies, said he found Oxfam’s new estimates credible, but said the gains forecast were relatively small.  . . .

. . .

But the authors of the report said that removing American subsidies would permanently shift the price of cotton upward, with prices subsequently fluctuating around a higher average. 


For the full story, see: 

CELIA W. DUGGER.  "Oxfam Suggests Benefit in Africa if U.S. Cuts Cotton Subsidies."  The New York Times  (Thurs., June 21, 2007):  A12.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


October 29, 2007

Johnston Book to Expose More Government Subsidies to Wealthy


  Source of book image:  http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51Zc90x8GDL._SS500_.jpg


Several days ago, I ran an entry that quoted a revealing and upsetting article showing how a lot of tax dollars are being used to susidize golf holidays for wealthy businessmen. The author of the article was New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston.

In response to my entry, Johnston emailed me to let me know that he has a forthcoming book that will expand on the subject of his NYT piece.

If Johnston's article is any guide, his book should be of interest. Clicking on the reference below, will take you to the the Amazon page where the book can be pre-ordered in advance to its expected December 27, 2007 release:

Johnston, David Cay. Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill).  Portfolio, 2007.


October 28, 2007

Most New Jobs Are Good Jobs (High-Skill and High-Pay)


Stephen J. Rose, the author of the commentary quoted below, was previously an advisor to Democratic President Clinton's former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.  He is currently a senior economic fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute.  The commentary is based on Rose's report "The Truth About Middle Class Jobs."


Economic change is a messy process. New technologies open up many opportunities for those prepared to take advantage of them. At the same time, old firms and their workers are displaced and forced to start over. In 1900, for example, 40% of the U.S. work force was involved in agriculture. Today, that figure is less than 2%, and no serious observer would argue that we are worse off as a result of this transformation.

Yet many of today's most prominent politicians and pundits are making an updated version of precisely this argument. They claim that the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs has led to the replacement of good middle-class jobs by low-skill, low-pay "hamburger-flipping" service jobs.

. . .

 Let us look at the distribution of earnings in 1979, compared with the distribution of earnings of the net new jobs created since that year.  . . .

. . .

Here's the bottom line: For three-quarters of the workforce (women and the top half of male earners), economic growth translated into earnings gains. But for male workers in the bottom half of the earnings distribution, the decline of unionized manufacturing employment has led to the drying up of some middle-class jobs for those with no post-secondary education.

For the clear majority of the workforce, then, the job market has become more welcoming, not less so. But where are these jobs?

Using a framework that I developed in the 1990s, I find that most of the employment gains over the last 30 years have been in business-management activities (administration, sales, finance and business services) as well as in professional services such as health care and education. While the percentage of U.S. jobs derived from manual work in agriculture, mining, timber and manufacturing has declined, the share of jobs related to low-skilled retail and personal/food services has remained steady.


For the full commentary, see: 

STEPHEN J. ROSE.  "The Myth of Middle-Class Job Loss."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., October 24, 2007):  A21.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


October 27, 2007

Academic Entrepreneurs in a Toxic Wasteland


   The Berkeley Pit was once a copper mine, and now holds a lake of toxic waste.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


Here are a few paragraphs from a fascinating story about a couple of people who seem to be practicing what Taleb is preaching in The Black Swan:


BUTTE, Mont. — Death sits on the east side of this city, a 40-billion-gallon pit filled with corrosive water the color of a scab. On the opposite side sits the small laboratory of Don and Andrea Stierle, whose stacks of plastic Petri dishes are smeared with organisms pulled from the pit. Early tests indicate that some of those organisms may help produce the next generation of cancer drugs.

From death’s soup, the Stierles hope to coax life.

“I love the idea of looking at toxic waste and finding something of value,” said Ms. Stierle, 52, a chemistry researcher at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.

For decades, scientists assumed that nothing could live in the Berkeley Pit, a hole 1,780 feet deep and a mile and a half wide that was one of the world’s largest copper mines until 1982, when the Atlantic Richfield Company suspended work there. The pit filled with water that turned as acidic as vinegar, laced with high concentrations of arsenic, aluminum, cadmium and zinc.

. . .

Mr. Stierle is a tenured professor at Montana Tech, but his wife gets paid only for teaching an occasional class or if there is a grant to finance her research. From 1996 to 2001 they applied for dozens of grants, but received only rejection letters. So they financed their own research, using personal savings and $12,000 in annual patent royalty payments. In 2001, they won a six-year, $800,000 grant from the United States Geological Survey.

“Their work is considered a very high-risk approach,” said Matthew D. Kane, a program director at the National Science Foundation. “It takes a long time to get funding, and some luck to find active compounds.”

Unlike scientists at large research universities, who commonly teach only one class a year and employ graduate students to run their laboratories, Mr. Stierle teaches four classes each semester at a college with 2,000 undergraduates and no major research presence.

. . .

The couple said they were negotiating privately with a pharmaceutical company to test some of the compounds they have discovered and possibly turn them into drugs. As they wait, they open another Mason jar filled with murky pit water, draw a sample and return to work.

“The pit very easily could have been a complete waste of time,” Mr. Stierle said. “We just had luck and worked our butts off. We take that first walk into the dark.”


For the full story, see:

CHRISTOPHER MAAG.  "In the Battle Against Cancer, Researchers Find Hope in a Toxic Wasteland."   The New York Times  (Tues., October 9, 2007):  A21.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


BerkeleyPitMap.gif   In the photo immediately above, Don and Andrea Steirle work in their lab.  The map to the left shows the location of the Berkeley Pit.  Source of the photo and map:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.


October 26, 2007

Entrepreneurial Capitalism is the Good Kind


   Source of book image:  http://ec1.images-amazon.com/images/I/41WVH9PAR3L._SS500_.jpg


. . .  capitalism as practiced in the U.S. is different from the capitalism practiced in, say, Singapore or Saudi Arabia. "Capitalism...takes many forms, which differ substantially...in their implications for economic growth and elimination of poverty," three economists write in "Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism." The book identifies four strains of modern capitalism and argues the U.S. version is particularly well-suited to creating and exploiting innovations that boost living standards.

. . .

The book was written by William Baumol, an eclectic New York University economist impressively energetic at 85 years old; Carl Schramm, president and research director of the Kauffman Foundation and a recovering health economist and insurance executive; and Robert Litan, an economist-lawyer who was a budget and antitrust official in the Clinton administration. (Disclosure: I recently spoke at Kauffman's Kansas City, Mo., headquarters.)

. . .

Along the way, the economists make a point often missed in the romanticism about "small business." They aren't talking about all small businesses -- the corner dry cleaner, for instance -- or all the self-employed. Their entrepreneurs are entities that provide a new product or service or develop methods to produce or deliver existing goods and services at lower cost.  . . .

It all sounds great -- and compelling. A capitalism that cannot spur innovation and/or display flexibility to reorganize itself cannot be a model. In their book, though, the three touch too lightly on an issue about which Mr. Litan has written previously. As he puts it in an interview: "An entrepreneurial society is going to be more of a high-risk society."

The strengths of U.S.-style capitalism are apparent. No place in the past quarter century has better mixed the ingredients of talent, imagination, education, science and capital. But the risks are apparent, too: workers who lose jobs and find new ones that pay far less and lack health insurance, widening disparities between economic winners and losers, challenges posed by stiffening competition from low-wage, increasingly skilled workers abroad, and schools that aren't improving as fast as the economy is changing.

Preserving the strengths of American capitalism requires finding a way to reduce the anxiety and harm posed by such risks without losing the entrepreneurial vigor. That's the hard part.


For the full commentary/review, see:

DAVID WESSEL. "CAPITAL; By Capitalism's Vigor May Hinge On Confronting Its Risks."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., May 10, 2007):  A2. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)


October 25, 2007

Creative Entrepreneurship Helps U.S. Thrive in Globalization's "Invisible Competition"


The passage below is an excerpt of a WSJ summary of an article in the  Autumn 2007 issue of The Wilson Quarterly.


Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, says many U.S. accomplishments stem from Americans' ability to thrive in competitive environments.  . . .

Mr. Cowen believes that the U.S. is particularly well-suited to the type of competition fostered by globalization, which he calls "invisible competition." Rivals in business, romance and life now compete anonymously and from a distance. Programmers compete with computer professionals across the ocean. Dating Web sites pit anonymous strangers against one other. Many American qualities suit the distinct challenges posed by invisible competition, says Mr. Cowen. A tradition of creative entrepreneurship is especially useful, since invisible competitors don't have the same motivating power as rivals in the next cubicle or on the next block.


For the full summary, see:

"Informed Reader; ECONOMICS Divergent Views on Competition in the U.S."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., October 9, 2007):  B14.   

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


October 24, 2007

A Nuts and Bolts Example of Economies of Scale (or the Lack Thereof)


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


Mr. Bair said Boeing is working closely with its primary fastener supplier, Alcoa Inc., to get enough high-quality titanium bolts to put the plane together in a logical fashion. Nevertheless, major components, such as the wings, arrived from Japan and other locations such as Italy and South Carolina held together by thousands of temporary fasteners.

The unexpected lack of fasteners marks the sort of test Boeing will face in coming years as it moves to fill a press of orders for the 787 and other aircraft amid an aerospace boom.  . . .

. . .

Unlike previous airplanes, the Dreamliner is made largely of futuristic composites, which can't be held together with traditional aluminum rivets. Instead, the major sections are bolted together with specially coated bolts that fit into brackets at each joint. Each bolt must be individually made on a lathe -- a process that can't be hurried. Because it takes time to set up the lathe, Alcoa would prefer to make thousands of one type of fastener before breaking the machine down and resetting it.

"Problem is, we don't need thousands of bolts right now. We might need 10 of one kind," Mr. Bair said. 


For the full story, see: 

J. LYNN LUNSFORD and PAUL GLADER.  "Boeing's Nuts-and-Bolts Problem Shortage of Fasteners Tests Ability to Finish Dreamliners."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., June 19, 2007):  A8. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)


October 23, 2007

Human Capital and Rule of Law Are "Largest Share of Wealth"


Two years ago the World Bank's environmental economics department set out to assess the relative contributions of various kinds of capital to economic development. Its study, "Where is the Wealth of Nations?: Measuring Capital for the 21st Century," began by defining natural capital as the sum of nonrenewable resources (including oil, natural gas, coal and mineral resources), cropland, pasture land, forested areas and protected areas. Produced, or built, capital is what many of us think of when we think of capital: the sum of machinery, equipment, and structures (including infrastructure) and urban land.

But once the value of all these are added up, the economists found something big was still missing: the vast majority of world's wealth! If one simply adds up the current value of a country's natural resources and produced, or built, capital, there's no way that can account for that country's level of income.

The rest is the result of "intangible" factors -- such as the trust among people in a society, an efficient judicial system, clear property rights and effective government. All this intangible capital also boosts the productivity of labor and results in higher total wealth. In fact, the World Bank finds, "Human capital and the value of institutions (as measured by rule of law) constitute the largest share of wealth in virtually all countries."

Once one takes into account all of the world's natural resources and produced capital, 80% of the wealth of rich countries and 60% of the wealth of poor countries is of this intangible type. The bottom line: "Rich countries are largely rich because of the skills of their populations and the quality of the institutions supporting economic activity."


For the full commentary, see: 

RONALD BAILEY.  "Secrets of Intangible Wealth."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 29, 2007):  A9.


October 22, 2007

Helping Russians Remember the Truth About Communism


BalabanovAlexeiRussianDirector.jpg  Some of the crew of Gruz 200, including the director Alexei Balabanov, who is second from the left.  Source of the photo:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


(p. B1)  The film is named "Gruz 200" (Cargo 200) after the zinc-lined coffins in which dead Soviet soldiers were shipped home from the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan. Messrs. Balabanov and Selyanov say they made the movie as an antidote to what they describe as rising nostalgia in Russia for the Soviet period.

"I show what filth we lived in," said Mr. Balabanov, a director sometimes described as Russia's Quentin Tarantino. "Society was sick from 1917 onwards," he added, referring to the year the Bolsheviks took power.

The film -- a graphically violent story of the sexual abuse of a teenage girl at the hands of a sadistic Soviet policeman -- paints a relentlessly negative picture of a time that many Russians recall with warm nostalgia. The filmmakers hope to release the movie overseas but haven't yet signed up a foreign distributor.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who restored Russia's Soviet-era national anthem, has called the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," and polls show a majority of Russians regard the period as one of relative prosperity, stability and national pride. 

. . .

(p. B2)  Mr. Balabanov says "Gruz 200" is based on his own experiences while traveling across the Soviet Union in the 1980s, as well as on stories he heard second-hand.

Mr. Selyanov says he believes it is his "duty" to remind people of what the Soviet Union was really like and combat the rising warmth for the period. "We have to fight this nostalgia," the producer says.

But the film has been dogged by controversy since even before it opened. Mr. Balabanov says three prominent actors who had played in his previous films refused parts once they read the script. "They were scared," he said. The director was forced to use largely unknown actors.

. . .

Russian TV networks, controlled by the state, have balked at even late-night showings -- critical to financial success for Russian movies.

"We don't have the courage to put something like this on the air," said Vladimir Kulistikov, head of the No. 3 NTV network, in a statement.  


For the full story, see: 

ANDREW OSBORN.  "From Russia, Without Love: New Movie Slams Soviet Union."  The Wall Street Journal By  (Thurs., June 21, 2007):  B1 & B2.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


Gruz200PoliceCaptain.jpg   The sadistic police captain is portrayed by Alexei Poluyan.  Source of the photo:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.


October 21, 2007

Labor Unions Endorse Hillary and Edwards


   Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article excerpted and cited below.


Union endorsements could provide a big boost with next year's early, front-loaded primary calendar. Half of all 15.4 million union members live in six states -- California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- and all but Pennsylvania will have voted by Feb. 5.

Major unions have already split their endorsements between three Democratic candidates: Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Christopher Dodd, and former Sen. John Edwards. Union leaders are loath to repeat the division of support that marred the 2004 election, where major unions endorsed Richard Gephardt and Howard Dean, wasting resources on losing candidates. Only one Republican candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has picked up a major union endorsement.


For the full story, see: 

NICK TIMIRAOS.  "HOT TOPIC; U.S. Unions: Still a Political Power?"  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 29, 2007):  A7.


October 20, 2007

Incentives, and Unintended Consequences, in Medicine


  A clever image, but is it apt, since the article claims doctors are extracting money, rather than injecting it?  Source of image:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


If patients paid for their own care, doctors would have a greater incentive to improve overall care that is valued by patients.  The perverse incentives of the current government Medicare reimbursement rules would be gone.

One main lesson from the article below is to show how fundamentally hard it is for the government to get the incentives right:  they tried to re-jigger the reimbursement rules, but the law of unintended consequences once again bit them in their collective ass (or more accurately, alas, it bit us). 


(p. C1)  When Medicare cracked down two years ago on profits that doctors made on drugs they administered to patients in their offices, it ended a windfall worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for each physician.

The change, which mainly affected drugs to treat cancer and its side effects, had an immediate effect. In all, cancer doctors billed about $4.4 billion for chemotherapy and anemia medications in 2005, down from $5.6 billion in 2004, with Medicare covering 80 percent of the bills in each year. The difference mostly represented profit that doctors had made on the drugs.

But the change did not reduce overall federal spending on cancer care, which increased slightly. And cancer doctors say the change did nothing to reduce a larger problem in cancer treatment.

Some physicians say that cancer doctors responded to Medicare’s change by performing additional treatments that got them the best reimbursements, whether or not the treatments benefited patients. Those doctors also say that Medicare’s reimbursement policies are responsible.

“The system doesn’t value the time we spend with patients,” said Dr. Peter Eisenberg, a cancer doctor in Greenbrae, Calif., and a former director of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “The system values procedures.”

The ballooning cost of cancer treatment, one of Medicare’s most expensive categories, offers a vivid example of how difficult it may be to rein in the nation’s runaway health care spending without fundamentally changing the way doctors are paid.

. . .

(p. C6)   Now, oncologists are lobbying Medicare officials and members of Congress to reverse some of the changes and again raise the prices the government pays for drugs.

But Dr. Robert Geller, who worked as an oncologist in private practice from 1996 to 2005 before leaving to become senior medical director at Alexion, a biotechnology company, said that increasing drug reimbursement might raise oncologists’ profits but would not relieve the system’s deeper flaws.

As long as oncologists continue to be paid by the procedure instead of for spending time with patients, they will find ways to game the system, however much money they make or lose on prescribing drugs, he said.

“People go where the money is, and you’d like to believe it’s different in medicine, but it’s really no different in medicine,” Dr. Geller said. “When you start thinking of oncology as a business, then all these decisions make sense.”


For the full story, see: 

ALEX BERENSON.  "A Stubborn Case Of Spending On Cancer Care."  The New York Times (Tues., June 12, 2007):  C1 & C6.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


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


October 19, 2007

Business Should Stop Apologizing for Creating Wealth


   Source of book image:  http://hoeiboei.web-log.nl/photos/uncategorized/atlasshrugged.jpg


David Kelley's op-ed piece, excerpted below, was published in the WSJ on October 10, 2007, the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand's greatest novel.


Fifty years ago today Ayn Rand published her magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged." It's an enduringly popular novel -- all 1,168 pages of it -- with some 150,000 new copies still sold each year in bookstores alone. And it's always had a special appeal for people in business. The reasons, at least on the surface, are obvious enough.

Businessmen are favorite villains in popular media, routinely featured as polluters, crooks and murderers in network TV dramas and first-run movies, not to mention novels. Oil company CEOs are hauled before congressional committees whenever fuel prices rise, to be harangued and publicly shamed for the sin of high profits. Genuine cases of wrongdoing like Enron set off witch hunts that drag in prominent achievers like Frank Quattrone and Martha Stewart.

By contrast, the heroes in "Atlas Shrugged" are businessmen -- and women. Rand imbues them with heroic, larger-than-life stature in the Romantic mold, for their courage, integrity and ability to create wealth. They are not the exploiters but the exploited: victims of parasites and predators who want to wrap the producers in regulatory chains and expropriate their wealth.

. . .  

. . .   At a crucial point in the novel, the industrialist Hank Rearden is on trial for violating an arbitrary economic regulation. Instead of apologizing for his pursuit of profit or seeking mercy on the basis of philanthropy, he says, "I work for nothing but my own profit -- which I make by selling a product they need to men who are willing and able to buy it. I do not produce it for their benefit at the expense of mine, and they do not buy it for my benefit at the expense of theirs; I do not sacrifice my interests to them nor do they sacrifice theirs to me; we deal as equals by mutual consent to mutual advantage -- and I am proud of every penny that I have earned in this manner…"

We will know the lesson of "Atlas Shrugged" has been learned when business people, facing accusers in Congress or the media, stand up like Rearden for their right to produce and trade freely, when they take pride in their profits and stop apologizing for creating wealth.


For the full commentary/review, see: 

DAVID KELLEY. "Capitalist Heroes."   The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., October 10, 2007):  A21. 

(Note:  ellipsis in Rearden quote was in original; the other two ellipses were added.)


October 18, 2007

Good Democracies and Bad Democracies


  A street demonstration in Ukraine's December 2004 democratic revolution.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


Democracy is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient, condition for having free markets.  At best, we can argue that in the long run, liberal democracies may be more likely to sustain free market economies.


. . . , as the free market and autocrats gained power in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Latin America and Russia, the initial optimism about democracy’s sure-footed march faltered. Some scholars pointed out that the American experience, where democracy and capitalism arose at the same time, was not so much a model for the rest of the world as an anomaly. “Capitalism came before democracy essentially everywhere, except in this country, where they started at the same time,” said Bruce R. Scott, an economist at Harvard Business School who is finishing a book titled “Capitalism, Democracy and Development.”

“In the rest of the world, it took 100, 200, 300 years before they got to where they could manage a democracy,” Mr. Scott said. A big mistake, he said, was assuming that “all you had to have was a constitution and an election and you had a democracy; that was really stupid.” 

Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate now at Columbia University, agrees that one of the biggest changes since the early 1990s is an appreciation of the complexity and limits of democracy.

As more fledgling democracies fail, various theories have surfaced to explain the appearance of democracy and elections without real freedom.  


For the full commentary, see:

PATRICIA COHEN.  "POLITICAL MEMO; An Unexpected Odd Couple: Free Markets and Freedom."  The New York Times   (Thurs., June 14, 2007):  A4.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


October 17, 2007

UNO Protects Students from Cupcakes (Whether They Want to Be Protected, or Not)


Many years ago, I went along with a group of Exec MBA students to Germany.  Among them was Bill Swanson.  Bill had a sense of humor.

At some point in the trip, I spilled ketchup on my tie.  Bill's response was that normally a ruined tie would be sad, but given my tie, the ketchup was an improvement.

Yes, Bill has a sense of humor; so I'm hoping the story below is a joke.

That's what I hope, but what I fear is that the story below is one more example of the inefficient, sometimes painful (like when an 8th grader can't take aspirin to middle school), and sometimes funny, things that we are driven to do to protect ourselves from being sued, in an economy where congress has empowered personal injury lawyers to frequently sue for huge and unpredictable compensatory and punitive damages.  (When Joe Ricketts, Ameritrade founder, spoke to my Exec MBA class a few years ago, he said that the biggest threat facing the U.S. economy was the proliferation of tort law suits.)

So it's either a bad joke; or (most likely) it's UNO protecting itself against every potential law suit; or it's a third, and worse, alternative---which would be if the story below is to be taken at face value. 

In that case we would have to conclude that some UNO staff have nothing better to do with their time than to paternalistically 'protect' young adults from a minuscule risk of illness from freely choosing to purchase and eat cupcakes being sold by fellow students to raise money for good causes.


Here is an excerpt from the page one, lead story, of the Sat., Oct. 6, 2007, Omaha World-Herald:


(p. 1A)  Guns. Drugs. Bake sales.

What do these things have in common?

All have been banned at the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.

Citing safety and health concerns, UNO last week prohibited selling homemade food items at campus fundraisers.

Officials said the prevalence of serious food allergies and the potential for contaminated food — either by accident or deliberately — led UNO to adopt the policy, which then drew complaints from student groups.

"The primary issue is the health of the students and the safety of the students," said Bill Swanson, assistant to the vice chancellor in the Career Exploration and Outreach Office.

No one on the UNO campus has reported problems with contaminated food purchased at a bake sale, Swanson said.

But there have been incidents around the country, he said, and those were enough to prompt a discussion among officials.

The decision has come under fire from students who say the restriction cuts off small student (p. 2A) groups from their primary fundraising source.

The Public Relations Student Society of America traditionally held bake sales once a month to raise money for national conferences, local business luncheons and volunteer work, said the group's president, Katie Dowd.

The group raised about $1,500 a year hawking homemade baked goods donated by members.

"It's a big blow to us," said Dowd, who called the potential for food contamination from her group's offerings "very unlikely."


For the full story, see: 

ELIZABETH AHLIN.  "Goodies ban half-baked, UNO students say." Omaha World-Herald  (Saturday, October 6, 2007):  1A & 2A.


October 16, 2007

How the Congo Government 'Inspires' Technology Entrepreneurs: More on Why Africa is Poor


KapingaMichelineCellPhone.jpg  "Micheline Kapinga of Kamponde, Congo, uses a cellphone on the only site in the village that is sometimes able to capture a signal."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 


I AM just back from Tanzania in East Africa.

In the mornings, disregarding the protests of the armed guards at my lodge near Arusha, I jogged along muddy footpaths. After the heavy rains, and under a low, misty sky, the fields looked as ruined as a battlefield. Very poor farmers and their children stared curiously at me as I passed.

In the afternoons, I attended the TEDGlobal 2007 conference, held by the Technology, Entertainment and Design organization in the modern Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge. The contrast between the two experiences troubled me.

TED conferences, mostly held in Monterey, Calif., are invitation-only affairs, are attended by the aristocracy of Silicon Valley and are known for their adventurousness in drawing together wildly disparate trends in technology, business and the arts.

On this occasion, Bono, the Irish rock star and champion of African causes, had persuaded the conference’s organizer, Chris Anderson, to invite the usual crowd, as well as African entrepreneurs, activists, health care professionals and artists to this tropical, leafy region midway between the Serengeti Plain and Mount Kilimanjaro.

. . .

At least one of the African attendees of the conference was representative of the kind of technological entrepreneurialism that the show advocated.

Alieu Conteh, the chairman of Vodacom Congo, was born in Gambia, in West Africa, 55 years ago and moved to Congo in 1981. For years, he was a successful coffee buyer and exporter.

Congo is about the size of Western Europe and has an estimated population of 65 million people. It is one of the least-developed nations in the world, with less than 300 miles of roads, most of them in poor condition.

In 1997, Mr. Conteh recalled in an interview, he heard Laurent D. Kabila, then the country’s president, deliver a speech in which he called upon his countrymen to rebuild Congo’s infrastructure after the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. Mr. Conteh, who had no experience in telecommunications, said he was inspired. He decided to build the nation’s first GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) digital network.

At the time, according to Mr. Conteh, fewer than 10,000 people living in Congo — mainly business people, foreigners and government employees — had mobile handsets. They paid $7 to $10 a minute to make a call, using an older technology. Less than 15,000 homes had a telephone landline.

Mr. Conteh said he went, cap in hand, to the minister of communications to ask for the country’s first GSM license. In January 1998 he got it — but he first had to pay the government a license fee of $100,000. Over the years, and with little explanation, he said, the government, which is often terribly short of money, increased the license fee, first to $400,000, then $2 million.


For more of the commentary, see: 

JASON PONTIN.  "SLIPSTREAM; What Does Africa Need Most: Technology or Aid?"  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., June 17, 2007):  3. 

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


October 15, 2007

Online Job Sites Grow and Evolve


   Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article excerpted and cited below.


Among the hottest Web sites of the past few years were job-search sites such as CareerBuilder.com and Monster.com. Helped by lavish advertising, they became household names. Newspapers, eager to tap the fast-growing online-ad market, teamed up with them.

Now, the hottest names in online recruitment are increasingly specialized job sites. That poses a threat to the growth prospects of the broad-based online job boards and their newspaper partners, analysts said.

In August, the number of unique visitors to CareerBuilder -- which is jointly owned by Gannett, Tribune, McClatchy and Microsoft -- dropped 2% to 20.2 million, while Monster.com's traffic rose 4% to 16.3 million visitors.

By contrast, technology-focused Dice.com saw its traffic jump 34% to 998,000. At Healthcaresource.com, which posts health-care jobs, traffic rose 36%. 


For the full story, see: 

EMILY STEEL.  "ADVERTISING; Job-Search Sites Face a Nimble Threat Online Boards Become Specialized, Threatening Web-Print Partnerships."   The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., October 9, 2007):  B10.


October 14, 2007

A Toast to the Feisty Old Lady Entrepreneur Who Fought the Government, and Won

(p. B10) When Virginia-based vintner Juanita Swedenburg discovered Prohibition-vintage laws prevented her from mailing cases of wine to customers in New York, she decided to make a federal case of it.

"I was furious, never so cross, as cross as I can get," Ms. Swedenburg told the Washington Post in April 2005. A month later, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Swedenburg v. Kelly that a New York law preventing wine sales across state lines was unconstitutional.

. . .

To Ms. Swedenburg, it was a matter of principle, not peddling more vino, says her son, Marc Swedenburg. She shut down her mail-order business when she filed suit in 2000, to ensure she wasn't violating the law. The family winery still does very little mail-order sales.

Ms. Swedenburg's day before the nation's high court was set in motion in the early 1990s, when lawyer Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, a Washington D.C.-based libertarian law firm, stopped by her Middleburg, Va., tasting room. There, he discovered "a chardonnay with the toastiest nose I can remember," Mr. Bolick wrote in his book "David's Hammer" (2007), which includes Ms. Swedenburg's story in an anthology of David vs. Goliath tales. Mr. Bolick and Ms. Swedenburg got to talking, he writes, "When I told her that, among other things, I challenged regulatory barriers to entrepreneurship, she exclaimed, 'Have I got a regulation for you!' "

. . .

Ms. Swedenburg expressed regret that her husband didn't see her constitutional arguments prevail. "He never made fun of me for doing something as foolish as this. Some men would say, 'What are you getting into all this foolishness for?' Not him," she told the Washington Post. "He would always be very quiet when I'd go off on my rampage about the situation." The decision in her favor was rendered on May 16, 2005, the first anniversary of his death. Ms. Swedenburg was still bouncing around on her tractor days before her death at age 82 on June 9 in Middleburg.


For the full story, see:

STEPHEN MILLER.  "REMEMBRANCES; Juanita Swedenburg (1925 - 2007); Passionate Winemaker Won Fight To Sell Product Across State Lines." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 16, 2007):  A6.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


The reference for the Bolick book, is:

Bolick, Clint. David's Hammer: The Case for an Activist Judiciary. Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2007.


  Source of book image:   http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/12270000/12274961.jpg


October 13, 2007

Water Problems from Ethanol Reported by National Academy of Sciences


Greater cultivation of crops to produce ethanol could harm water quality and leave some regions of the country with water shortages, a panel of experts is reporting.  . . .

. . .

But increased production could greatly increase pressure on water supplies for drinking, industry, hydropower, fish habitat and recreation, the report said.  . . .

The research council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, issued the report yesterday. It is available at the academy’s Web site, nas.edu. It was financed by the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies and foundations.

The report noted that additional use of fertilizers and pesticides could pollute water supplies and contribute to the overgrowth of aquatic plant life that produces “dead zones” like those in the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. 


For the full story, see: 

CORNELIA DEAN.  "Panel Sees Problems in Ethanol Production."  The New York Times (Thurs., October 11, 2007):  A18.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


October 12, 2007

Government Subsidies Support Wealthy Golfers


Wealthy greeting card executive Mike Keiser created and owns the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which caters to wealthy corporate executives who fly to the course in small private corporate jets.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


(p. C1)  BANDON, Ore. — Mike Keiser, who made a fortune selling greeting cards on recycled paper, turned this remote spot on the southern Oregon coast into a golfing mecca that attracts wealthy people in private jets from around the world. 

To many in this hard-luck town of 3,000, Mr. Keiser is an economic hero. Work became scarce after the timber and fishing industries collapsed a quarter-century ago, and his Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, a few miles north of town, has created 325 full-time jobs, plus hundreds more part-time jobs. Mr. Keiser earns millions of dollars in profits each year.

But beneath this model of enterprise, largely hidden subsidies from airline passengers, state-lottery players, taxpayers and company shareholders support the benefits that the owner, workers and visitors at Bandon Dunes enjoy.

Airline passengers and lottery players are paying for a $31 million airport expansion to serve the 5,000 business jets that arrive each year, filled almost entirely with golfers. Many of them are executives of publicly traded companies flying at a small fraction of the real cost of their trips; taxpayers and shareholders bear nearly all of these costs.

Much controversy swirls around the subsidies and tax exemptions state and local governments offer expressly to attract businesses to a community. But far less attention has been focused on the many kinds of indirect favors that are showered on places like Bandon Dunes through government policies (p. C6) that influence the flow of money from the public to private interests and often serve to reinforce benefits for those who are already successful.

. . .

No official tally of business subsidies exists, but in separate studies Peter S. Fisher of the University of Iowa and Kenneth F. Thomas of the University of Missouri estimated that state and local subsidies aimed at creating jobs total about $50 billion annually. More subtle subsidies like those that benefit Bandon Dunes are not counted in those figures and may be even larger.

Such government subsidies have been challenged as inefficient by a broad spectrum of critics, from the libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative Heritage Foundation to liberal groups like Good Jobs First.

To be sure, said Martin S. Feldstein, a Harvard University economics professor and a former chief economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan, some government subsidies can be beneficial for society.

“A subsidy for flu vaccines is good,” he said, “because if you are vaccinated I am less likely to get flu by contagion.” But job subsidies are a drag on the economy, he added, “unless the local gain exceeds the loss in the rest of the nation.”


For the full story, see: 

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON.  "Assisting the Good Life."  The New York Times  (Fri., June 15, 2007):  C1 & C6.

(Note:  ellipses added.) 


  A few of the roughly 5,000 business jets that carry executive golfers to the public airport, built and expanded partly with fees from middle-class airline travelers.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.


October 11, 2007

Ehrlich Won Genius Award; Simon Won No Award, But Simon Was Right


SimonJulianL.gif    Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article cited below. 


A new United Nations report called "State of the Future" concludes: "People around the world are becoming healthier, wealthier, better educated, more peaceful, more connected, and they are living longer."

. . .  

To what do we owe this improvement? Capitalism, according to the U.N. Free trade is rightly recognized as the engine of global prosperity in recent years. In 1981, 40% of the world's population lived on less than $1 a day. Now that percentage is only 25%, adjusted for inflation. And at current rates of growth, "world poverty will be cut in half between 2000 and 2015" -- which is arguably one of the greatest triumphs in human history. Trade and technology are closing the global "digital divide," and the report notes hopefully that soon laptop computers will cost $100 and almost every schoolchild will be a mouse click away from the Internet (and, regrettably, those interminable computer games).

It also turns out that the Malthusians (who worried that we would overpopulate the planet) got the story wrong. Human beings aren't reproducing like Norwegian field mice. Demographers now say that in the second half of this century, the human population will stabilize and then fall. If we use the same absurd extrapolation techniques demographers used in the 1970s, Japan, with its current low birth rate, will have only a few thousand citizens left in 300 years.

I take special pleasure in reciting all of this global betterment because my first professional job was working with the "doom-slaying" economist Julian Simon. Starting 30 years ago, Simon (who died in 1998) told anyone who would listen -- which wasn't many people -- that the faddish declinism of that era was bunk. He called the "Global 2000" report "globaloney." Armed with an arsenal of factual missiles, he showed that life on Earth was getting better, and that the combination of free markets and human ingenuity was the recipe for solving environmental and economic problems. Mr. Ehrlich, in response, said Simon proved that the one thing the world isn't running out of "is lunatics."

Mr. Ehrlich, whose every prediction turned out wrong, won a MacArthur Foundation "genius award"; Simon, who got the story right, never won so much as a McDonald's hamburger. But now who looks like the lunatic? This latest survey of the planet is certainly sweet vindication of Simon and others, like Herman Kahn, who in the 1970s dared challenge the "settled science." (Are you listening, global-warming alarmists?)

The media's collective yawn over "State of the Future" is typical of the reaction to just about any good news. When 2006 was declared the hottest year on record, there were thousands of news stories. But last month's revised data, indicating that 1934 was actually warmer, barely warranted a paragraph-long correction in most papers.


For the full commentary, see:  

STEPHEN MOORE.  "DE GUSTIBUS; Clear-Eyed Optimists."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., October 5, 2007):  W11.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


October 10, 2007

Strong, But Slower, Growth in Online Sales


OnlineSalesGrowthGraph.gif   Source of graph:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


(p. 1)  SAN FRANCISCO, June 16 — Has online retailing entered the Dot Calm era?

Since the inception of the Web, online commerce has enjoyed hypergrowth, with annual sales increasing more than 25 percent over all, and far more rapidly in many categories. But in the last year, growth has slowed sharply in major sectors like books, tickets and office supplies.

Growth in online sales has also dropped dramatically in diverse categories like health and beauty products, computer peripherals and pet supplies. Analysts say it is a turning point and growth will continue to slow through the decade.

. . .

Forrester Research, a market research company, projects that online book sales will rise 11 percent this (p. 16) year, compared with nearly 40 percent last year. Apparel sales, which increased 61 percent last year, are expected to slow to 21 percent. And sales of pet supplies are on pace to rise 30 percent this year after climbing 81 percent last year.

Growth rates for online sales are slowing down in numerous other segments as well, including appliances, sporting goods, auto parts, computer peripherals, and even music and videos. Forrester says that sales growth is pulling back in 18 of the 24 categories it measures.

. . .

The turning point comes as most adult Americans, and many of their children, are already shopping online.  That means Internet stores are not getting a flurry of new shoppers to spur the kind of growth tht the industry is accustomed to.  There is a boom in the number of foreigners coming online, but shipping items overseas can limit that market as a source of growth. 

. . .

John Morgan, an economics professor from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, said he expected online commerce to continue to increase, partly because it remains less than 1 percent of the overall economy.  “There’s still a lot of head room for people to grow,” he said.


For the full story, see: 

MATT RICHTEL and BOB TEDESCHI. "As Some Grow Weary of Web, Online Sales Lose Momentum."  The New York Times, Section 1  (Sun., June 17, 2007):  1 & 16. 

(Note:  ellipses were added.  The online version of the article had the slightlly different title:  "Online Sales Lose Steam as Buyers Grow Web-Weary."  The bold has been added to indicate a couple of sentences in the above excerpts, that were in the print version, but had been dropped from the online version.)


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


October 9, 2007

Latin America Discourages Entrepreneurs


LatinAmericanCompetitivenessGraph.gif   Source of table:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


(p. A18) Economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) may be best known for his innovative work showing the link between entrepreneurial discovery and economic progress.

But as Carl Schramm, president of the Kauffman Foundation of Entrepreneurship has pointed out, Schumpeter's insights about risk-takers didn't make him an optimist.

In a speech last year to European finance ministers in Vienna, Mr. Schramm explained Schumpeter's fears: He "worried that entrepreneurial capitalism would not flourish because the bureaucracies of modern government and big corporations would dampen innovation -- the process of 'creative destruction' would be too ungovernable for a modern, Keynesian-regulated economy to tolerate." As a result, Mr. Schramm said, Schumpeter thought that "the importance of entrepreneurs would fade over time as capitalism sought predictability from governments who would plan economic activity as well as order social benefits."

Mr. Schramm's comments caught my attention because they so accurately describe Latin America. There the entrepreneur has been all but run out of town by the bureaucracies that Schumpeter feared. Growth has suffered accordingly.

The World Bank's annual "Doing Business" survey, released last week, demonstrates the point. The 2008 survey, which evaluates the regulatory climate for entrepreneurs in 178 countries, finds that Latin America and the Caribbean was the slowest reforming region this year and that it "is falling further behind other regions in the pace" of reform.

. . .

The most important lesson for Latin America from the World Bank's report is that its competitors around the world are working to unleash entrepreneurial spirits, and doing nothing is not an option. As Mr. Schramm told his Vienna audience, "Schumpeter saw what a century of evidence would prove: Socialism has not sustained economic growth." Now, if only more Latin American policy makers would catch on.


For the full commentary, see: 

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY.  "THE AMERICAS; No Room for Entrepreneurs."  The Wall Street Journal   (Mon., October 8, 2007):  A18.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


October 8, 2007

Suing the Pants Off Private Enterprise: Illustrating the Case for Tort Reform


  The Dry Cleaners that was sued for $67.3 million dollars, to compensate a Washington, D.C. judge for a lost pair of pants.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 


WASHINGTON, June 12 — Roy L. Pearson Jr. wanted to dress sharply for his new job as an administrative law judge here. So when his neighborhood dry cleaner misplaced a pair of expensive pants he had planned to wear his first week on the bench, Judge Pearson was annoyed.

So annoyed that he sued — for $67.3 million.

The case of the judge’s pants, which opened for trial in a packed courtroom here on Tuesday, has been lampooned on talk radio and in the blogosphere as an example of American legal excess. And it has spurred complaints to the District of Columbia Bar and city officials from national tort reform and trial lawyer groups worried about its effect on public trust in the legal system.

“I don’t know of any other cases that have been quite this ridiculous,” said Paul Rothstein, a professor of law at Georgetown University.

. . .

“You are not a we, you are an I,” Judge Bartnoff said in one of several testy exchanges with Judge Pearson, 57, who is representing himself. “You are seeking damages on your own behalf, and that is all.”

Later, while recounting the day he says the cleaners tried to pass off a cheaper pair of pants as his, Judge Pearson began to cry, asking for a break and dabbing tears as he left the courtroom.


For the full story, see: 

ARIEL SABAR and SUEVON LEE.  "Judge Tries Suing Pants Off Dry Cleaners."  The New York Times (Weds., June 13, 2007):  A13.  


 ChungsDryCleaners.jpg  The Korean immigrant owners of the dry cleaners who were being sued for $67.3 million dollars.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 


October 7, 2007

Thales of Miletus Lives


   Source of book image:  http://store.43folders.com/books-3-1400063515-The_Black_Swan_The_Impact_of_the_Highly_Improbable


This is part entertaining rant and part serious epistemology.  I've finished 9 of 19 chapters so far--almost all of my reading time spent smiling. 

Historians of Greek philosophy used to tell the story of one of the first philosophers, Thales of Miletus, that he once was watching the stars, and fell into a well.  The citizens of Miletus made fun of him being an impractical philosopher.  To prove them wrong, he used his knowledge to corner the market in something, and made a fortune. 

Not a very plausible story, but appealing to us philosophers.  (Like Thales, we like to think we could all be rich, if we didn't have higher goals.)

Well apparently Taleb is the real Thales.  He wanted to be a philosopher, got rich on Wall Street using his epistemological insights, and is now using his wealth to finance his musings on whatever he cares to muse on.



Here's an amusing sentence that broadened my grin.  (It was even more amusing, and profound, in context, but I don't have time to type in the context for you.)

(p. 87)  If you are a researcher, you will have to publish inconsequential articles in "prestigious" publications so that others say hello to you once in a while when you run into them at conferences.


Reference for the book:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.


October 6, 2007

Buchanan on Hayek, Rawls and Nozick


  Sandy Peart talking to James Buchanan.  Source of photo:  me. 


In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned a comment on disagreeing with journal referees, made by  James Buchanan in conversation at the closing dinner of the 2007 Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economics.

Hayek also came up at the dinner with Buchanan. Buchanan mentioned that he was not as enthused about Hayek’s later work, including The Fatal Conceit, and Law, Legislation and Liberty—he thought the best might have been The Constitution of Liberty.

He mentioned that some foundation had funded a couple of conferences in Europe of top free market scholars to offer advice to Hayek.  They told Hayek that his manuscript was a mess, and that it would be an embarrassment to him to publish it. But he said he was already under contract. (I think this comment referred to The Fatal Conceit.) So someone (Bruce Bartlett?) helped Hayek clean it up.

Buchanan also spoke highly about Rawls.  I think I mentioned that Hayek had said that his approach was similar to Rawls.  I think Buchanan said he did not think that comment was surprising.

I also believe I remember Buchanan saying that he thought more highly of Rawls than of Nozick.


October 5, 2007

Sherwin Rosen Approves a Positive Review of Rosenberg's Book


Another of Sherwin Rosen’s minor acts of methodological delinquency, this time in his role as co-editor of the Journal of Political Economy, was his asking me to review Alexander Rosenberg’s criticism of the economics profession for drifting further and further into irrelevant mathematical puzzle-solving.  My review was basically favorable to Rosenberg, and my memory is that Rosen was quite content with my review.


The reference to my review is:

"Review of:  Alexander Rosenberg's Economics--Mathematical Politics or Science of Diminishing Returns?."  Journal of Political Economy 104, no. 3 (June 1996):  655-659.


October 4, 2007

Global Warming is No Threat to North Atlantic Current


   A view of part of the Greenland ice sheet.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. D3) OSLO — Mainstream climatologists who have feared that global warming could have the paradoxical effect of cooling northwestern Europe or even plunging it into a small ice age have stopped worrying about that particular disaster, although it retains a vivid hold on the public imagination.

The idea, which held climate theorists in its icy grip for years, was that the North Atlantic Current, an extension of the Gulf Stream that cuts northeast across the Atlantic Ocean to bathe the high latitudes of Europe with warmish equatorial water, could shut down in a greenhouse world.

Without that warm-water current, Americans on the Eastern Seaboard would most likely feel a chill, but the suffering would be greater in Europe, where major cities lie far to the north. Britain, northern France, the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway could in theory take on Arctic aspects that only a Greenlander could love, even as the rest of the world sweltered.

All that has now been removed from the forecast. Not only is northern Europe warming, but every major climate model produced by scientists worldwide in recent years has also shown that the warming will almost certainly continue.

“The concern had previously been that we were close to a threshold where the Atlantic circulation system would stop,” said Susan Solomon, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We now believe we are much farther from that threshold, thanks to improved modeling and ocean measurements. The Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Current are more stable than previously thought.”

. . .

“The ocean circulation is a robust feature, and you really need to hit it hard to make it stop,” said Eystein Jansen, a paleoclimatologist who directs the Bjerknes Center for Climate Research, also in Bergen. “The Greenland ice sheet would not only have to melt, but to dynamically disintegrate on a huge scale across the entire sheet.”

The worst imaginable collapse would likely take centuries to play out, he said. Any disruption to the North Atlantic Current — whose volume is 30 times greater than all the rivers in the world combined — would thus occur beyond the time horizon of the United Nations climate panel.


For the full story, see: 

WALTER GIBBS.  "Scientists Back Off Theory of a Colder Europe in a Warming World."  The New York Times  (Tues., May 15, 2007):  D3. 

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


 AtlanticWarmWaterCirculationMap.jpg  Source of the map:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.


October 3, 2007

When Sherwin Rosen Stunned the Fifth World Congress of the Econometric Society


I remember hearing Sherwin Rosen speak to a good-sized auditorium of technical economists at a plenary session of the Fifth World Congress of the Econometric Society in 1985.[i]  Rosen was proceeding in his typically bemused style, when he suggested to the stunned audience that they might benefit from re-reading Alfred Marshall.  I remember him saying that there are some things in Marshall that we don’t talk about any more, but that we should still talk about.  I specifically remember him mentioning that Marshall had said that the success of the institution of contract depended on the correct expectation of a certain level of ethical behavior among the participants in the economy.  I wish I could remember the specifics better, but Rosen’s auditors were visibly dismayed, and I supposed that they were thinking something like:  ‘read Marshall?, here was the sad sight of a once proud theoretician, going soft and senile.’

[i]I remember a large auditorium-like venue for the session, but could not remember any other session details, so I dug out a copy of the program for the meetings.  The only plenary session participation listed for Rosen, was his serving as a discussant for Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom’s “Theory of Contracts” paper, which was delivered on August 19, 1985 (see:  “Program . . .,” 1986, p. 471).  In searching through Rosen’s publications, I cannot find any evidence that his comment was ever published.  In an email response (email dated Nov. 19, 2006) to my inquiry, Bengt Holmstrom has replied:  “I know that his comment was not published.”

"Program of the Fifth World Congress of the Econometric Society.”  Econometrica 54, no. 2 (March 1986):  459-505.


October 2, 2007

David Warsh on Paul Romer's 'Triumph of Formalism'


  David Warsh prepares to speak as Sandra Peart introduces him at the HES meetings at George Mason.  Source of photo:  me. 


David Warsh in his plenary address to the History of Economics Society on June 9, 2007, recounted a version of the account that he gives in his 2006 book Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. (A key part of this story was also told in an article in the Sunday magazine section of The New York Times.)

Here I concentrate on the plenary lecture presentation.

Warsh said that he is the first to give Romer his due; that Romer has managed to alienate the economists both at Chicago and at MIT. (Well, maybe, but Tom Friedman sure gives Romer a lot of attention and praise in his best-selling The World is Flat.) Warsh also said that he (Warsh) has been accused of writing a hagiography of Romer.

Warsh identifies the key contribution of Romer as being that he identifies the key properties of knowledge, namely that it is nonrivalrous and nonexcludible. He claims that Romer was the first to see this, and so is responsible for beginning the crucial field of the economics of knowledge.

Further, Warsh claims that the economics profession only achieved this insight when Romer found a way to incorporate knowledge in his formal models.

This story, Warsh says, is a triumph of formalism; only through formalism could such an important advance have been made.

At this point in the presentation, I became rather annoyed---I had my hand up during most of the question session, but Warsh chose not to call on me.  (In fairness, I was seated on his far left, though at the front, so it is possible that he did not see me.)

What I told Warsh afterwards was that the lesson from this episode is the exact opposite of the one he claims---it is not an example of the triumph of formalism, but rather an example of the shame of formalism.

Long before Romer, others had pointed out the nonrivalry and nonexcludibility of knowledge. E.g., Arrow briefly in a famous essay (1962), and Harry Johnson at greater length in an obscure essay (1972).

The requirement that serious knowledge requires formalization before it is taken seriously, meant that economists ignored for several decades, what had been nonformally known. It is to the shame of formalism that for decades useful issues were ignored.

And even more strongly, to say that Romer is responsible for founding the economics of knowledge is to add insult to injury to the economists who had actually founded this field: economists such as Richard Nelson, Nathan Rosenberg, Zvi Griliches and Edwin Mansfield.

Not only was their work largely ignored for decades, but a leading advocate and exemplar of the formalist methodology responsible for the ignorance, is himself given credit for their achievements.


The reference to Warsh's book, is:

Warsh, David. Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.


For further information on the founders of the economics of science and technology, one could consult:

"Economics of Science." In Steven  N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume, The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd ed., forthcoming, 2008, Basingstoke and New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. This article is taken from the author's original manuscript and has not been reviewed or edited. The definitive published version of this extract may be found in the complete New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics in print and online, forthcoming, 2008. 

"The Economics of Science."  Knowledge and Policy 9, nos. 2/3 (Summer/Fall 1996): 6-49.

"Edwin Mansfield's Contributions to the Economics of Technology."  Research Policy  32, no. 9 (Oct. 2003):  1607-1617.

"Zvi Griliches's Contributions to the Economics of Technology and Growth."  Economics of Innovation and New Technology 13, no. 4 (June 2004):  365-397.


The full reference on the Arrow article, is: 

Arrow, Kenneth J.  "Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Inventions."  In Richard R. Nelson, ed., (National Bureau of Economic Research), The Rate and Direction of Inventive Activity:  Economic and Social Factors.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1962, pp. 609-625.


The full reference on the Harry Johnson article, is: 

Johnson, Harry G.  "Some Economic Aspects of Science."  Minerva 10, no. 1 (January 1972):  10-18.


October 1, 2007

Mugabe Driven by Quest for Power, More than from Paranoia, or Marxism: More on Why Africa is Poor


No one outside of Mr. Mugabe’s inner circle, of course, can say with certainty why he has pursued policies since 2000 that have produced economic and social bedlam. For his part, Mr. Mugabe says Zimbabwe’s chaos is the product of a Western plot to reassert colonial rule, while he is simply taking steps to fight that off.

Among many outside that circle, however, the growing conviction is that Zimbabwe’s descent is neither the result of paranoia nor the product of Mr. Mugabe’s longstanding belief in Marxist economic theory. Instead, they say, Zimbabwe is fast becoming a kleptocracy, and the government’s seemingly inexplicable policies are in fact preserving and expanding it.

. . .

Mr. Mugabe’s government declares currency trading illegal, but regularly dumps vast stacks of new bills on the black market, still wrapped in plastic, to raise foreign exchange for its own needs, business leaders and economists say.

The nation’s extraordinary hyperinflation, last pegged by analysts at 10,000 percent a year, is an economic disaster that, by all accounts, the government needs to address. Yet after it ordered merchants in July to slash their prices, cadres of policemen and soldiers moved into shops to enforce the new controls, scoop up bargains and give friends and political heavyweights preferential access to cheap goods.

. . .

Mr. Mugabe’s 25-bedroom mansion in Borrowdale, the gated high-end suburb of Harare, the capital, is the locus of a boomlet that has spawned luxury homes for government and party officials. (Mr. Mugabe said his mansion was built with goods and labor donated by foreign governments.)

Mr. Mugabe arrived to open Zimbabwe’s Parliament this month in a Rolls-Royce. Equally telling, the legislature’s parking lot was crammed with luxury cars.

Such riches have been accompanied by a steep decline in living standards for just about everyone else. The death rate for Zimbabweans under the age of 5 grew by 65 percent from 1990 to 2005, even as the rate for the world’s poorest nations dropped. Average life expectancy here is among the world’s lowest, according to the United Nations.


For the full commentary, see: 

MICHAEL WINES.  "News Analysis; Zimbabwe’s Chaos: The Powerful Thrive."  The New York Times (Fri., August 3, 2007):  A8. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)



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