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June 30, 2008

The Inefficiency of a Labor Safety Net


"Government milk is sold mostly through curbside milk stalls. Some customers don't find the milk stands appealing since they can be dingy and the milk sometimes bad." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) MUMBAI -- Every workday morning, milkman D.T. Walkar faithfully comes to Worli Dairy to not deliver milk.

Most days, he and his fellow drivers at the government dairy sign in, then move to the rest area. While others read the paper, nap or play rummy, Mr. Walkar likes to do the Sudoku puzzle in the Maharashtra Times, unless someone else has gotten to it first. He then wanders around the complex and talks to friends. The last delivery trucks were sold last year. "The trucks are all gone so we just sit around and talk," says Mr. Walkar, 50 years old. "We are bored."

Once respected civil servants, Mr. Walkar and his 300-odd fellow drivers have been left in a strange limbo. Milk sales at their dairy have plummeted as the state government lost its monopoly on milk and consumer tastes changed. But because Indian work rules strictly protect government workers from layoffs, the delivery men show up for work each morning for eight-hour shifts, as they always did, then proceed to do nothing all day. They rarely, if ever, leave the plant.

. . .

(p. A5) In 2001, the Indian government started opening the dairy market in Maharashtra to competition. Private carriers with higher quality milk swiftly won customers by delivering milk to doorsteps. The government milkmen have always been restricted to delivering mostly to curbside milk stalls so they could cover a greater area.

Customers swiftly deserted. Many switched to heat-treated milk in sealed packages that resist spoiling. Some ditched the government's former best sellers of sweet Pineapple milk and spicy Masala milk for Coca-Cola and Sprite as Indian tastes westernized. Others never found the milk stands appealing -- they can be dingy and the milk sometimes bad.

For the full story, see:

ERIC BELLMAN. "Out to Pasture: India's Milkmen Bide Their Time; No Work, Secure Job Put Them in Limbo; Where's the Sudoku?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 29, 2008): A1 & A5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

IndiaMilkmenSleepingOnJob.jpg "Because Indian work rules protect government workers from layoffs, 300-odd former milk truck drivers show up at the Worli Dairy for work each morning just as they always did, then do nothing all day. To pass the time, the men do puzzles, yoga or just sleep off the hours. Once, they tried planting a garden." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

June 29, 2008

Higher Oil Prices Are an Incentive for More Oil Drilling

(p. B5) Even natural-gas companies can't resist the draw of $100 oil. Though prices for both natural gas and oil have risen steeply, oil fetches nearly twice the price of gas per unit of energy and brings fatter profits.

That is prompting even the most natural-gas-focused companies to step up their oil drilling in the U.S. With the biggest, easiest-to-get deposits of domestic crude oil drained long ago, U.S. energy companies in recent years have concentrated most of their domestic production efforts on natural gas. Some companies, such as Chesapeake Energy Corp. and EOG Resources Inc. devoted nearly their entire production to natural gas.

EOG recently announced it had begun drilling for oil in Colorado and Texas, including in the Barnett Shale, a vast hydrocarbon reserve that had previously been known for gas, not oil. With prices rising faster for oil than natural gas, "you're probably better off searching for oil," said EOG Chief Executive Mark Papa.

For the full story, see:

BEN CASSELMAN. "Prices Prompt Natural-Gas Firms To Drill for Oil in U.S." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., April 7, 2008): B5.

June 28, 2008

Raúl Castro Decrees that Cubans May Now Buy DVD Players, Computers, and Cell Phones

HavanaDVDplayer.jpg "Cubans in Havana recently bought DVD players, among newly available appliances." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) HAVANA -- Can a rice maker possibly be revolutionary?

There they were, piled up one atop another, Chinese-made rice makers selling for $70 each. Beside them, sleek DVD players. Across the well-stocked electronics store were computers and televisions and other household appliances that President Raúl Castro recently decreed ought to be made available to average Cubans, or at least those who could afford them.

Since finally succeeding his ailing 81-year-old brother, Fidel, in February, Mr. Castro, 76, who appeared before hundreds of thousands of Cubans at a May Day rally on Thursday here in the capital, has been busy with a flurry of changes. In the last eight weeks he has also opened access to cellphones, lifted the ban on Cubans using tourist hotels and granted farmers the right to manage unused land for profit.

More is on the horizon, government officials say, like easing restrictions on traveling abroad and the possibility of allowing Cubans to buy and sell their own cars, and perhaps even their homes. Each of these changes may be microscopic in contrast to the outsize problems facing Cuba. But taken together, they are shaking up this stoic, time-warped place.

For the full story, see:

MARC LACEY. "Stores Hint at Change Under New Castro." The New York Times (Fri., May 2, 2008): A1 & A8.

June 27, 2008

The Role of the Irish Potato Famine in the Repeal of the Corn Laws

In one of his more famous, and outrageous, essays, George Stigler argued that economists do not matter, because changes in policy do not arise from changes in ideas, but from changing circumstances and special interests.

One of the cases that he briefly mentions is the repeal of the English Corn Laws that had restricted the importation of wheat (in England "corn" is what we call "wheat) into Britain. The usual account is that the free market arguments of Cobden and Bright made the difference.

The account quoted below, might be taken as support for Stigler's position. But it might also be evidence for the more optimistic position of Stigler's buddy, Milton Friedman. Friedman held that on major issues, economists' policy proposals go ignored until some crisis occurs that sends the politicians looking for policy alternatives. (Friedman thought that this is what occurred in the case of his own proposal for floating exchange rates.)

(p. A23) THE feast of Ireland's patron saint has always been an occasion for saluting the beautiful land "where the praties grow," but it's also a time to look again at the disaster that established around the world the Irish communities that today celebrate St. Patrick's Day: the Great Potato Famine of 1845-6. In its wake, the Irish left the old country, with more than half a million settling in United States. The famine and the migrations changed Irish and American history, of course, but they drastically changed Britain too.

. . .

The first intimations of Ireland's looming calamity reached the British government in August 1845. Although Britain was responsible for the social and economic iniquities which had made Ireland so susceptible, the government of the day deserves some credit for its efforts to avert mass starvation. There were political as well as logistical difficulties.

. . .

To Peel it was obvious that the Corn Laws would have to go, but his electorate of large landowners was vehemently opposed to their abolition. The Duke of Wellington, leader of the House of Lords, complained that Ireland's "rotten potatoes have done it all -- they put Peel in his damned fright." Peel drew heavily on the news from Ireland as he urged Parliament to vote for abolition:

"Are you to hesitate in averting famine which may come, because it possibly may not come? Are you to look to and depend upon chance in such an extremity? Or, good God! are you to sit in cabinet, and consider and calculate how much diarrhea, and bloody flux, and dysentery, a people can bear before it becomes necessary for you to provide them with food?"

The bill abolishing the Corn Laws was passed in May 1846 in the House of Commons, with two-thirds of Peel's party voting against it and the entire opposition voting in favor. A month later, Peel was out of office.

. . .

. . . Ireland's famine, by ending the Corn Laws, prompted the beginning of the free trade that established the success of Britain's industrial economy.

For the full commentary, see the article referenced immediately below, or see his forthcoming book Propitious Esculent: The Potato in World History:

JOHN READER. "The Fungus That Conquered Europe." The New York Times (Mon., March 17, 2008): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The Stigler essay mentioned above is:

Stigler, George J. "Do Economists Matter?" Southern Economic Journal 42, no. 3 (1976): 347-54.

(I will try to dig out a reference for the Friedman position when I have more time.)

June 26, 2008

Pollution from Refinery Producing "Earth-Friendly Fuel"


"Nelson Brooke, the executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper, walked along an area of the river near Moundville, Ala." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A12) MOUNDVILLE, Ala. -- After residents of the Riverbend Farms subdivision noticed that an oily, fetid substance had begun fouling the Black Warrior River, which runs through their backyards, Mark Storey, a retired petroleum plant worker, hopped into his boat to follow it upstream to its source.

It turned out to be an old chemical factory that had been converted into Alabama's first biodiesel plant, a refinery that intended to turn soybean oil into earth-friendly fuel.

"I'm all for the plant," Mr. Storey said. "But I was really amazed that a plant like that would produce anything that could get into the river without taking the necessary precautions."

But the oily sheen on the water returned again and again, and a laboratory analysis of a sample taken in March 2007 revealed that the ribbon of oil and grease being released by the plant -- it resembled Italian salad dressing -- was 450 times higher than permit levels typically allow, and that it had drifted at least two miles downstream.

The spills, at the Alabama Biodiesel Corporation plant outside this city about 17 miles from Tuscaloosa, are similar to others that have come from biofuel plants in the Midwest. The discharges, which can be hazardous to birds and fish, have many people scratching their heads over the seeming incongruity of pollution from an industry that sells products with the promise of blue skies and clear streams.

. . .

"They're environmental Jimmy Swaggarts, in my opinion," said Representative Brian P. Bilbray, Republican of California, who spoke out against the $18 billion energy package recently passed by Congress that provides tax credits for biofuels.

For the full story, see:

BRENDA GOODMAN. "Pollution Is Called a Byproduct of a 'Clean' Fuel." The New York Times (Tues., March 11, 2008): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: At one point, the online version of the article, as quoted above, was very slightly different (and clearer) than the print version.)

BlackWarriorRiverPollution.jpg "Oil and grease from a biodiesel plant had been released." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 25, 2008

Robust Dialogue Fosters Creativity and Innovation

Omaha culture puts a huge emphasis on surface politeness. (When I first arrived here, I was sometimes thought to be from New York, a thought that I took as a complement, although that was not how it was intended.)

Bossidy and Charan emphasize that harmony is an over-rated virtue--that what they call "robust dialogue" is important for getting things done.

(p. 102) You cannot have an execution culture without robust dialogue---one that brings reality to the surface through openness, candor, and informality. Robust dialogue makes an organization effective in gathering information, understanding the information, and reshaping it to produce decisions. It fosters creativity---most innovations and inventions are incubated through robust dialogue. Ultimately, it creates more competitive advantage and shareholder value.

. . .

(p. 103) . . ., harmony---sought by many leaders who wish to offend no one---can be the enemy of truth.


Bossidy, Larry, Ram Charan, and Charles Burck. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. New York: Crown Business, 2002.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 24, 2008

Private Athenaeum Libraries Where Members Are "Proprietors"

"TRADITION; Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, R.I., dates back to 1747." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D1) A GROUP of first-time visitors to the Providence Athenaeum climbed the steep stones steps to the imposing front door. One pried open the door tentatively, peered inside and exclaimed, "Oh, this is what a library is supposed to look like!"

This scene was observed by Alison Maxell, executive director of the athenaeum, who said that time and again, she has seen this same reaction: curiosity followed by wonderment.

. . .

(p. D4) THE New England athenaeums I visited on a recent trip maintain not only active memberships, but also some peculiar terminology. Members are commonly called proprietors; some athenaeums distinguish share-holding proprietors from a second tier of members, called subscribers. At the Portsmouth Athenaeum, the director is called the keeper.

Many athenaeums maintain lists of rules that spell out consequences for offenses like writing in books. Some prohibit pens and provide pencils for notation, as well as cotton gloves for handling aged materials. Large or old books often must be rested on wedge-shaped foam cradles to protect brittle spines.

Surprisingly, the Boston Athenaeum permits dogs -- those that behave, a staff member was quick to add.

These athenaeums also provide, in those areas where talking aloud is encouraged, lively opportunities for exchanging ideas with other devotees of literature, arts and sciences.

"In addition to having access to our book stock, members find intellectual stimulation in our exhibitions and by being part of discussion groups," said Richard Wendorf, director and librarian of the Boston Athenaeum and the editor of "America's Membership Libraries" (Oak Knoll Press, 2007), which details histories of 16 of the largest membership libraries.

For the full story, see:

ROGER MUMMERT. "Where Greek Ideals Meet New England Charm." The New York Times (Fri., March 7, 2008): D1 & D4-D5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

AthenaeumBoston.jpg "While roaming through stacks of the Boston Athenaeum, one encounters books from completely different eras, making for random discoveries." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 23, 2008

Resveratrol May Extend Life, Even at Lower Doses

(p. A1) Red wine may be much more potent than was thought in extending human lifespan, researchers say in a new report that is likely to give impetus to the rapidly growing search for longevity drugs.

The study is based on dosing mice with resveratrol, an ingredient of some red wines. Some scientists are already taking resveratrol in capsule form, but others believe it is far too early to take the drug, especially using wine as its source, until there is better data on its safety and effectiveness.

The report is part of a new wave of interest in drugs that may enhance longevity. On Monday, Sirtris, a startup founded in 2004 to develop drugs with the same effects as resveratrol, completed its sale to GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million.

. . .

(p. A16) Separately from Sirtris's investigations, a research team led by Tomas A. Prolla and Richard Weindruch, of the University of Wisconsin, reports in the journal PLoS One on Wednesday that resveratrol may be effective in mice and people in much lower doses than previously thought necessary. In earlier studies, like Dr. Auwerx's of mice on treadmills, the animals were fed such large amounts of resveratrol that to gain equivalent dosages people would have to drink more than 100 bottles of red wine a day.

The Wisconsin scientists used a dose on mice equivalent to just 35 bottles a day. But red wine contains many other resveratrol-like compounds that may also be beneficial. Taking these into account, as well as mice's higher metabolic rate, a mere four, five-ounce glasses of wine "starts getting close" to the amount of resveratrol they found effective, Dr. Weindruch said.

Resveratrol can also be obtained in the form of capsules marketed by several companies. Those made by one company, Longevinex, include extracts of red wine and of a Chinese plant called giant knotweed. The Wisconsin researchers conclude that resveratrol can mimic many of the effects of a caloric-restricted diet "at doses that can readily be achieved in humans."

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "New Hints Seen That Red Wine May Slow Aging." The New York Times (Weds., June 4, 2008): A1 & A16.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

June 22, 2008

Reducing the Cost of Hotels: Prefab Rooms from China

ChinesePrefabHotelRooms.jpg "The Travelodge chain in Britain is building two hotels from stackable metal containers imported from China. One of the hotels, in Uxbridge in West London, is shown under construction at right and in a rendering at left." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 23) TRAVELODGE, one of the largest budget hotel chains in Britain, is a company in a hurry.

. . .

Once the company finds a location, it turns to a construction partner with equally aggressive plans: Verbus Systems, a London-based company that builds rooms in metal containers in factories near Shenzhen, China, and delivers them ready to be stacked into buildings up to 16 stories tall.

Verbus Systems' commercial director, Paul Rollett, said his company "can build a 300-room hotel anywhere on the planet in 20 weeks."

. . .

When they arrive at Heathrow, the containers will be hoisted into place by crane. The containers, which are as large as 12 by 47 feet, will support one another just as they do when they are crossing the ocean by ship, Mr. Rollett said. No additional structure is necessary.

. . .

DON CARLSON, the editor and publisher of Automated Builder, a trade magazine based in Ventura, Calif., said that in hotels, "modular is definitely the wave of the future." Modular buildings, he said, are stronger, and more soundproof, because stacking units -- each a fully enclosed room -- "gives you double walls, double floors, double everything."

Mr. Rollett agreed, saying that with the steel shipping container approach, "You could have a party in your room, and people in the next room wouldn't hear a thing."

. . .

He is working with his British clients, which, he said, include a Travelodge competitor, Premier Inn, to make the best possible use of the assembly-line method. "We're increasing the degree of modularity," he said, noting that the latest units come with fully fitted bathrooms and "even the paint on the walls."

The only thing they don't have, he said, "is the girl to put a chocolate on your pillow."

For the full article, see:

FRED A. BERNSTEIN. "CHECKING IN; Arriving in London: Hotels Made in China." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., May 11, 2008): 23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 21, 2008

"The Nature of Freedom of Choice"

Former Senator George McGovern was the Democratic candidate for president in 1972. In the commentary below, he defends our freedom of choice:

(p. A15) Economic paternalism takes its newest form with the campaign against short-term small loans, commonly known as "payday lending."

With payday lending, people in need of immediate money can borrow against their future paychecks, allowing emergency purchases or bill payments they could not otherwise make. The service comes at the cost of a significant fee -- usually $15 for every $100 borrowed for two weeks. But the cost seems reasonable when all your other options, such as bounced checks or skipped credit-card payments, are obviously more expensive and play havoc with your credit rating.

Anguished at the fact that payday lending isn't perfect, some people would outlaw the service entirely, or cap fees at such low levels that no lender will provide the service. Anyone who's familiar with the law of unintended consequences should be able to guess what happens next.

Researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York went one step further and laid the data out: Payday lending bans simply push low-income borrowers into less pleasant options, including increased rates of bankruptcy. Net result: After a lending ban, the consumer has the same amount of debt but fewer ways to manage it.

Since leaving office I've written about public policy from a new perspective: outside looking in. I've come to realize that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society.

. . .

The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.

For the full commentary, see:

GEORGE MCGOVERN. "Freedom Means Responsibility." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., March 7, 2008): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

June 20, 2008

Price Ceilings Also Hurt Those Who Mow Lawns

GasStationLine1974.jpg "Arjun Murti at Goldman Sachs studied the 1970s' oil spikes. One had drivers lined up at a gas station in San Jose, Calif., in 1974." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article cited below.

The best part of the article below was the photo above of a gas line caused by the government's imposing price ceilings on the price of gas. I've seen other photos of gas lines, but this is the first one I remember with someone waiting to fill up a lawn mower.

For the full story, see:

LOUISE STORY. "An Oracle of Oil Predicts $200-a-Barrel Crude." The New York Times (Weds., May 21, 2008): C1 & C4.

June 19, 2008

In Many Capitalist Companies "People Think They're Involved in Socialism"

Empirical comparisons between capitalism and socialism are in some ways unfair to capitalism, because many capitalism managers act as though they believed in socialist ideas. The difference in productivity and economic growth would be even greater, if capitalist managers consistently acted as though they believed in capitalism. Consider the following, from a portion of Execution written by Larry Bossidy:

(p. 73) Larry: When I see companies that don't execute, the chances are that they don't measure, don't reward, and don't promote people who know how to get things done. Salary increases in terms of percentage are too close between top performers and those who are not. There's not enough differentiation in bonus, or in stock options, or in stock grants. Leaders need the confidence to explain to a direct report why he got a lower than expected reward.

A good leader ensures that the organization makes these distinctions and that they become a way of life, down throughout the organization. Otherwise people think they're involved in socialism. That isn't what you want when you strive for a culture of execution. You have to make it clear to everybody that rewards and respect are based on performance.


Bossidy, Larry, Ram Charan, and Charles Burck. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. New York: Crown Business, 2002.

(Note: in the book, the quotation is presented as being Bossidy's.)

June 18, 2008

Government Fails to Elevate

NewYorkBrokenEscalator.jpg "Charles Sterrazza, left, and Matthew Benzinger, both in hard hats, worked on an escalator under the watchful eyes of passengers." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A18) New York City Transit has spent close to $1 billion to install more than 200 new elevators and escalators in the subway system since the early 1990s, and it plans to spend almost that much again for dozens more machines through the end of the next decade. It is an investment of historic dimensions, aimed at better serving millions of riders and opening more of the subway to the disabled.

. . .

These are the results:

¶One of every six elevators and escalators in the subway system was out of service for more than a month last year, according to the transit agency's data.

¶The 169 escalators in the subway averaged 68 breakdowns or repair calls each last year, with the worst machines logging more than double that number. And some of the least reliable escalators in the system are also some of the newest, accumulating thousands of hours out of service for what officials described as a litany of mechanical flaws.

¶Two-thirds of the subway elevators -- many of which travel all of 15 feet -- had at least one breakdown last year in which passengers were trapped inside.

. . .

. . . the cost of all this goes beyond the hefty capital investment and the roughly $25 million spent each year on maintenance and repair. It can be calculated in terms of people delayed on their way to work, people injured in accidents, people forced to alter their travel routines. And for the disabled, it means that many areas of the subway system still cannot be reliably navigated.

For the full story, see:

WILLIAM NEUMAN. "$1 Billion Later, Subway Elevators Still Fail." The New York Times (Mon., May 19, 2008): A1 & A18-A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

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

June 17, 2008

Optimal Size of a Firm Depends on Trial and Error and Changing Circumstances

Rosenberg and Birdzell give an uncommon reason for economies of scale. This illustrated that the common list of reasons is not written in stone. As trial and error yields new ways of organizing business, the optimal size firm will shift back and forth.

(p. 157) The increase in both size and complexity of ironworks that followed throughout the nineteenth century was motivated by a desire to achieve economies in the use of fuel. As to size, within the practical limits of construction, large furnaces lose less heat by radiation than small furnaces and so are more fuel-efficient.


Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

June 16, 2008

Uncommon Common Sense: Bossidy Execution Book


Source of book image: http://a1055.g.akamai.net/f/1055/1401/5h/images.barnesandnoble.com/images/8280000/8285699.jpg

Bossidy and Charan's book is not exactly a page-turner of unexpected insights, but the authors say some things that need saying.

Business gurus often forget that success depends on more than vision and inspiration. It depends on courage (to face brutal facts, and to fire the lazy or incompetent), and it requires persistent attention to enough of the details to know what needs to be done, and to know who is doing it.

Much of their practical advice is way easier said than done, but maybe it's still worth saying.

It occurred to me while reading this book, that I sometimes write and speak as though innovation and economic growth are inevitable with the right institutions. But that is not so.

Even under the best institutions, progress still requires entrepreneurs and managers who work very hard, demonstrate courage, and who care about getting the job done.

Reference to book:

Bossidy, Larry, Ram Charan, and Charles Burck. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. New York: Crown Business, 2002.

June 15, 2008

Over-generalizing from Our Recent Experience

Rosenberg and Birdzell (1986) mention that Marx over-emphasized the centrality of factories to capitalism, because of the prominence of factories in the period of capitalism during Marx's adulthood. They suggest that factories are only one phase, albeit an important one, in the development of capitalism.

And Schumpeter and Rosenberg may have done the same in his believe that large corporate labs would be able to routinize innovative entrepreneurial activity.

One relevant passage:

It is understandable that Marx, writing in 1848, should speak of modern industry as already a century old, for many of the institutions of industry in 1848 were already that old. Yet the greatest advances in the output of the capitalist engine of production, and the greatest changes in its modes of organization, still lay ahead. (1986, p. 184.)

Also relevant is the earlier:

In all Western countries, the inventory of physical facilities for economic production changes. The inventory at any given moment is unquestionably important, but it is like a single frame of a movie; taken alone, it misses all the action, and it is the action that we need to understand and that holds the promise of economic advance to non-Western countries. (1986, p. 144.)


Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

June 14, 2008

California's Unreliable Power Supply

(p. A11) . . . consider the story of the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station. Opened in 1975, it was capable of generating over 900 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power upward of 900,000 homes. Fourteen years after powering up, the nuclear reactor shut down, thanks to fierce antinuclear opposition. Eventually, the facility was converted to solar power, and today generates a measly four MW of electricity. After millions of dollars in subsidies and other support, the entire state has less than 250 MW of solar capacity.

. . .

. . . : California now imports lots of energy from neighboring states to make up for having too few power plants. Up to 20% of the state's power comes from coal-burning plants in Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Montana. Another significant portion comes from large-scale hydropower in Oregon, Washington State and the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas.

"California practices a sort of energy colonialism," says James Lucier of Capital Alpha Partners, a Washington, D.C.-area investment group. "They leave those states to deal with the resulting pollution."

. . .

The unreliable power grid is starting to rattle some Silicon Valley heavyweights. Intel CEO Craig Barrett, for instance, vowed in 2001 not to build a chip-making facility in California until power supplies became more reliable. This October, Intel opened a $3 billion factory near Phoenix for mass production of its new 45-nanometer microprocessors. Google has chosen to build the massive server farms that will fuel its expansion anywhere but in California.

For the full commentary, see:

MAX SCHULZ. "California's Energy Colonialism." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 3, 2008): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 13, 2008

Innovation More Likely When Society Open to Forming New Enterprises

(p. 258) It is entirely safe to generalize: innovation is more likely to occur in a society that is open to the formation of new enterprises than in a society that relies on its existing organizations for innovation.


Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

June 12, 2008

Competition in an Ice Cream Duopoly

GoodHumorIceCreamTruck.jpg "Jose Martinez parked his Good Humor truck Tuesday at an Upper West Side corner that is said to be Mister Softee territory." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C13) On Tuesday afternoon, new battle lines were drawn on the Upper West Side at the corner of Columbus Avenue and 83rd Street, where Ceasar Ruiz, 50, the Mister Softee man, said he had been selling ice cream without any competition for more than eight years.

He said his routine was the same every season. He arrives at the corner by about 2:30 each afternoon, mostly to catch the students getting out of Public School 9 and the Anderson School, just a few yards from the corner. He stays for about an hour and a half, then moves to his next location, he said.

But Tuesday afternoon was different. When he arrived, there sat the freshly painted Good Humor truck and Mr. Martinez, decked out in a crisp uniform, ringing his bell.

"I sell Good Humor, too," Mr. Ruiz said. "But his is more cheap. I sell bar for $2. He might sell for $1.50. Not good. Not good."

Over the din of children clamoring for Dora the Explorer ice cream bars and Mega Missile Pops (red, white and blue rocket-shaped popsicles), Mr. Martinez rang his bell louder, openly competing for customers.

"I'm trying to make a dollar just like he is," said Mr. Martinez, his voice rising loud enough for the other driver to hear. "He's telling me I have to go. But he doesn't own this spot."

. . .

About five minutes before 4 o'clock, Mr. Ruiz leaned out of his Mister Softee truck, looking over at Mr. Martinez.

"Tomorrow, I'm going to beat him here," he said. "I'll be the first one here."

For the full story, see:

TRYMAINE LEE. "It's Still Spring, but the Ice Cream Truck War Revs Up." The New York Times (Weds., May 14, 2008): C13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

June 11, 2008

Innovation More Likely When There Are Many Decision Centers

The dry wit of Rosenberg and Birdzell is illustrated in this justified jab at the idea that technology can be centrally planned:

(p. 258) The advantage of having proposals for innovations considered by many decision centers is illustrated by the microcomputer, which was not undertaken by any of the leading American computer manufacturers, nor by the Soviet Union, nor by the French Commissariat du Plan, nor by MITI in Japan, but which has nevertheless proved widely useful.


Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

(Note: italics in original.)

June 10, 2008

Stark Artistic Depiction of Chinese Communism

BloodlineTheBigFamily.jpg "Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) BEIJING -- Sotheby's sold $51.77 million worth of Chinese contemporary art in three auctions in Hong Kong on Wednesday, allaying concerns that the global economic slowdown would depress the prices.

. . .

The star of that auction was a 1995 painting by Zhang Xiaogang, one of China's most prominent artists, which sold for just over $6 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting by a Chinese contemporary artist.

That oil on canvas, "Bloodline: Big Family No. 3," depicts a family of three during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution in China, when children were sometimes led to denounce their parents. Three collectors bid feverishly for the piece, which sold for far above its high estimate, about $3.4 million.

For the full story, see:

DAVID BARBOZA. "Chinese Art Continues To Soar at Sotheby's." The New York Times (Thurs., April 10, 2008): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

June 9, 2008

How Chemists Improved the Rails

The following passage provides some evidence of the importance of information from science (viz., chemistry) in process improvement. Speaking of chemists:

(p. 247) . . ., with their aid, the life of a rail increased from two years to ten, and the car weight it could bear from eight tons to seventy in the forty years between the Civil War and 1905. Only a very few new technologies have had equal significance.


Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

June 8, 2008

Key to Government Revenue is Economic Growth, Not High Tax Rates


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

(p. A23) Kurt Hauser is a San Francisco investment economist who, 15 years ago, published fresh and eye-opening data about the federal tax system. His findings imply that there are draconian constraints on the ability of tax-rate increases to generate fresh revenues. I think his discovery deserves to be called Hauser's Law, because it is as central to the economics of taxation as Boyle's Law is to the physics of gases. Yet economists and policy makers are barely aware of it.

. . .

The data show that the tax yield has been independent of marginal tax rates over this period, but tax revenue is directly proportional to GDP. So if we want to increase tax revenue, we need to increase GDP.

. . .

What makes Hauser's Law work? For supply-siders there is no mystery. As Mr. Hauser said: "Raising taxes encourages taxpayers to shift, hide and underreport income. . . . Higher taxes reduce the incentives to work, produce, invest and save, thereby dampening overall economic activity and job creation."

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID RANSON. "You Can't Soak the Rich." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 20, 2008): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

June 7, 2008

Andrew Carnegie on the Value of a Chemist in Making Steel

(p. 246) We found . . . a learned German, Dr. Fricke, and great secrets did the doctor open up to us. [Ore] from mines that had a high reputation was now found to contain ten, fifteen, and even twenty per cent less iron than it had been credited with. Mines that hitherto had a poor reputation we found to be now yielding superior ore. The good was bad and the bad was good, and everything was topsy-turvy. Nine-tenths of all the uncertainties of pig iron making were dispelled under the burning sun of chemical knowledge.

What fools we had been! But there was this consolation: we were not as great fools as our competitors . . . Years after we had taken chemistry to guide (p. 247) us [they] said they could not afford to employ a chemist. Had they known the truth then, they would have known they could not afford to be without one.

Andrew Carnegie as quoted in:

Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

(Note: brackets and ellipses were in the original.)

June 6, 2008

Economist of Science Babbage Invented a Computer


"Modern construction, Difference Engine No. 2, 2005"   Source of caption and photo: http://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/overview/

Charles Babbage is best known as the inventor of an early computer, but he also made some early, stimulating contributions to the economics of science.

(p. C6) The oldest computer has landed in Silicon Valley, where they design the newest computers.

The Science Museum in London has built two replicas from Charles Babbage's original design for the Difference Engine No. 2. Planned from 1847 to 1849, the five-ton, 8,000-part system for calculating the mathematical expressions known as polynomials was finally built in 2002 by a team of engineers that took 17 years to complete the entire project. The machine includes a remarkable printing component that almost certainly would have been the world's first automated typesetter had Babbage built one from his original design during his lifetime.

The all-mechanical Difference Engine can handle numbers to 31 digits of accuracy. The printer produces an ink printout but also has the capability of making a mold for a printing plate. It automatically typesets results in columns and employs two separate font sizes.

For the full story, see:

JOHN MARKOFF. "BITS; 1800s-Style Computer Comes to U.S." The New York Times (Mon., May 5, 2008): C6.

June 5, 2008

Factory Work Was Better than the "Abysmal" Alternatives

Levy and Murnane show that the computer has, on average, benefitted the situation of labor. After I presented a similar example at the Summer Institute in 2007, Dave Mitch asked me if this was in general true of advances in technology, or if it might be an exceptional case.

If computers represent one example of creative destruction, another example, in the process variety, would be the advent of factory production. In the following passage, Rosenberg and Birdzell suggest that factories also benefitted the situation of labor:

The low wages, long hours, and oppressive discipline of the early factories are shocking in that the willingness of the inarticulate poor to work on such terms bespeaks, more forcefully than the most eloquent words, the even more abysmal character of the alternatives they had endured in the past. But this was not the way the romantics of the nineteenth century read the message of the factories. (R & B 1986, p. 173)

In the above passage, Rosenberg and Birdzell suggest that the abysmal alternatives to factory work, that the poor faced, may partly have been the result of the enclosure movement having worsened the situation of the lowest agricultural workers, by denying them access to the fallow lands for animal grazing. But, in the passage below, they also imply that to some extent it may just have been due to the secularly persistent suffering that had long characterized much rural life.

Neither the entrepreneurs who built the factories nor anyone else supposed that they were engaged in a work of charity or an exercise of social conscience. But whatever the moral quality of their intentions, their actions advanced the interests of a down-trodden subproletariat---a subproletariat in part, perhaps, characteristic of pre-industrial societies and, in part, drawn from an agricultural work force hard pressed by the enclosure movement and a high rate of growth in agricultural productivity. (R & B 1986, p. 174)

They further point out that, although everyone was supposed to be compensated for losses from enclosure, the interests of the poorest were not well-represented in the decision-making bodies:

In theory, the acts compensated the cottagers for the loss of their common rights by giving them some of the enclosed land. But the cottagers were not effectively represented in Parliament, and there is much reason to believe that the compensation was in practice inadequate. (R & B 1986, p. 171)

DeLong and Summers note enclosure as one of the major institutional/policy actions that enabled a past episode of creative destruction to create a past 'new economy.' But the fact (if it is a fact) that a majority of farm labor was hurt by the enclosure, does not imply that this had to have been the case. It may in fact illustrate one of the major pints of DeLong and Summers, namely that it is extremely important to try to get institutions and policies right.

Sources mentioned above:

DeLong, J. Bradford, and Lawrence H. Summers. "The "New Economy": Background, Questions and Speculations." Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Review (2001): 29-59.

Levy, Frank, and Richard J. Murnane. The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

June 4, 2008

Which Economic System Protects Us from 'Natural' Disasters?

CommunistPartyBossOnKnees.jpg "Jiang Guohua, the Communist Party boss of Mianzhu, knelt Sunday to ask parents of earthquake victims to abandon their protest." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A10) One man shouted, "Was this a natural disaster or a man-made disaster?" In unison, the parents shouted back: "Man-made!"

For the full story, see:

JAMES T. AREDDY. "Reporter's Notebook; Tears and Anger Flow as Parents Cast Blame in Children's Deaths." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 20, 2008): A10.

(p. A1) DUJIANGYAN, China -- Bereaved parents whose children were crushed to death in their classrooms during the earthquake in Sichuan Province have turned mourning ceremonies into protests in recent days, forcing officials to address growing political repercussions over shoddy construction of public schools.

Parents of the estimated 10,000 children who lost their lives in the quake have grown so enraged about collapsed schools that they have overcome their usual caution about confronting Communist Party officials. Many say they are especially upset that some schools for poor students crumbled into rubble even though government offices and more elite schools not far away survived the May 12 quake largely intact.

On Tuesday, an informal gathering of parents at Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan to commemorate their children gave way to unbridled fury. One of the fathers in attendance, a quarry worker named Liu Lifu, grabbed the microphone and began calling for justice. His 15-year-old daughter, Liu Li, was killed along with her entire class during a biology lesson.

"We demand that the government severely punish the killers who caused the collapse of the school building," he shouted. "Please, everyone sign the petition so we can find out the truth."

The crowd grew more agitated. Some parents said local officials had known for years that the school was unsafe but refused to take action. Others recalled that two hours passed before rescue workers showed up; even then, they stopped working at 10 p.m. on the night of the earthquake and did not resume the search until 9 a.m. the next day.

Although there is no official casualty count, only 13 of the school's 900 students came out alive, parents said. "The people responsible for this should be brought here and have a bullet put in their head," said Luo Guanmin, a farmer who was cradling a photo of his 16-year-old daughter, Luo Dan.

Sharp confrontations between protesters and officials began over the weekend in several towns in northern Sichuan. Hundreds of parents whose children died at the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in the city of Mianzhu staged an impromptu rally on Saturday. They surrounded an official who tried to assure them that their complaints were being taken seriously, screaming and yelling in her face until she fainted.

The next day, the Communist (p. A10) Party's top official in Mianzhu came out to talk with the parents and to try to stop them from marching to Chengdu, the provincial capital, where they sought to prevail on higher-level authorities to investigate. The local party boss, Jiang Guohua, dropped to his knees and pleaded with them to abandon the protest, but the parents shouted in his face and continued their march.

Later, as the crowd surged into the hundreds, some parents clashed with the police, leaving several bleeding and trembling with emotion.

The protests threaten to undermine the government's attempts to promote its response to the quake as effective and to highlight heroic rescue efforts by the People's Liberation Army, which has dispatched 150,000 soldiers to the region. Censors have blocked detailed reporting of the schools controversy by the state-run media, but a photo of Mr. Jiang kneeling before protesters has become a sensation on some Web forums, bringing national attention to the incident.

. . .

. . . all at once the women doubled over in agony, a chorus of 100 mothers wailing over the loss of sons and daughters who, because of China's population control policy, were their only children. The husbands wept in silence, paralyzed by the storm of emotion.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW JACOBS. "Parents' Grief Turns to Rage at Chinese Officials." The New York Times (Weds., May 28, 2008): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

"A memorial service for hundreds of students of Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan, where a mother held a picture of her son, turned into an angry protest." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 3, 2008

Capital Accumulation Did Not Require Cutbacks in Consumption

(p. 166) Of course, the capital that supplied the Industrial Revolution was not created out of thin air. But neither was it painfully accumulated by the frugal habits of Protestant burghers, expropriated from labor by massive reductions of wages, or squeezed out of reduced consumption. No reduction in the real income of workers or landowners nor in their rate of consumption, no national resolve to increase the rate of saving, was needed to fund the new machines and the new forms of factory organization. Rather, the increase in output that was generated by the factories was more than sufficient to pay their capital costs over a short period of time, for the increase was large and the capital costs were modest.


Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

June 2, 2008

Haley Barbour Proves the Economic Benefits of Tort Reform

BarbourHaleyToyota.jpg "Haley Barbour, left, with Toyota officials in February 2007 moments after announcing Toyota Motor Corp. will build a $1.3 billion assembly plant in northeast Mississippi." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) Jackson, Miss. Shortly after winning election in 2003 by running on a tort-reform platform, Mr. Barbour stitched together a coalition of doctors, business groups, taxpayers and even unions to roll back the trial lawyer lobby.

"It was not just a battle," recalls Charlie Ross, the Senate sponsor of the reform bill, "it was a five-year war." The law that eventually passed was every trial lawyers' worst nightmare. It capped awards for noneconomic damages, and prevented the popular practice whereby a plaintiff attorney seeking to bring a class-action shops around for a court where he'll be likely to get a favorable ruling or judgment.

Almost overnight, the flow of lawsuits began to dry up and businesses started to trickle in. Federal Express invested $1 billion in a new facility in the state. Toyota chose Mississippi over about a dozen other states for a new $1.2 billion, 2,000-worker auto plant. The auto maker has stipulated that the company would pull up stakes if the tort reforms were overturned by the legislature or activist judges.

That hasn't happened. About 60,000 new jobs have arrived in four years - not a small number in a workforce of about 1.3 million - and a sharp improvement from the 30,000 jobs lost in the four years before Mr. Barbour took office. Since the law took effect, the number of medical malpractice lawsuits has fallen by nearly 90%, which in turn has cut malpractice insurance costs by 30% to 45%, depending on the county.

Another encouraging sign: Fewer Mississippians are heading to law school and more are looking at business school as the best way to get rich. Many in the younger generation are pursuing a career path that will make them wealth creators, not wealth redistributors.

. . .

Thanks to Mr. Barbour, the state's unemployment rate is down to about 6% from nearly 9%. Last year, Mississippi's per capita income growth was 6.7%, third highest of the 50 states and well above the national average of 5.2%. Mississippi tort reform is making the poor richer, and the rich lawyers less fabulously rich. Now that's a good way to close the income gap.

For the full commentary, see:

STEPHEN MOORE. "CROSS COUNTRY; Mississippi's Tort Reform Triumph." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 10, 2008): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

June 1, 2008

Successful Entrepreneurs are Not Always Remembered

(p. 161) They made their profits not from their skill in manufacture, but from their skill in the design of machines that could spin and weave better and more cheaply than those of their predecessors and contemporary rivals. They were highly successful, though their names are all but forgotten.


Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.


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