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October 31, 2010

"Small-Business Marketplace at a Standstill"




WetzelDavidHardware2010-10-23.jpg"David Wetzel tried for two years to sell his New Jersey hardware store." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. B1) Small-business owners banking on a big payoff when they sell their establishments may have to settle for a lot less than planned.

A combination of tight credit, skittish buyers and business owners unwilling to sell at rock-bottom prices--factors similarly affecting home sellers--has left the small-business marketplace at a standstill.


. . .

(p. B4) "Owners still think their businesses are worth what they used to be," says Thomas Coffey, a partner in Malvern, Pa., with B2BCFO, a provider of outsourced chief financial officers to small businesses. In reality, many "small companies just aren't earning what they used to earn," he says.



For the full story, see:

SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN. "Businesses Put Up for Sale Smack Into Harsh Reality." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., OCTOBER 14, 2010): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





October 30, 2010

All He "Could See Was Cows and Farms" in "Virginia's High Tech Corner"




(p. A18) . . . government attempts to rejuvenate regional economies have a mixed track record, in the U.K. and elsewhere.

Stuart S. Rosenthal, an economics professor at Syracuse University, remembers driving through Virginia in 1997 and seeing a sign saying, "You are entering southwest Virginia's high tech corner."

"And all I could see was cows and farms," he said. Recent employment data shows that aside from one pocket, little has changed.



For the full story, see:

ALISTAIR MACDONALD. "U-Turn in the U.K.: Big Spending Cuts." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 15, 2010): A18.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 14, 2010.)





October 29, 2010

History Forgets Those Who Leave Little Paper Trail




JohnBarryAnAmericanHeroBK2010-10-06.jpg
















Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.



Like most of his fellow students, Barry stayed on just long enough get a grasp on the three Rs without abandoning his Catholic faith. One result of this abbreviated education was a lifelong tendency to keep all correspondence as short and simple as possible. Thus this brave, able man of action left only a minimal paper trail for future historians and biographers. John Paul Jones--an eloquent, prolific and unabashedly self-promoting letter writer--has inspired at least three major biographies in the past few years alone. It has been 72 years since the appearance of the last reliable biography of his rival, William Bell Clark's "Gallant John Barry."


For the full review, see:

ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.. "BOOKSHELF; The Revolutionary War's Other Naval Hero." The New York Times (Sat., JUNE 5, 2010).


The book under review is:

McGrath, Tim. John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2010.





October 28, 2010

Home Depot Co-Founder Asks Obama to Stop Blocking Startups




Below I quote from the comments that Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone addressed to President Obama:


(p. A21) A little more than 30 years ago, Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Pat Farrah and I got together and founded The Home Depot. Our dream was to create (memo to DNC activists: that's build, not take or coerce) a new kind of home-improvement center catering to do-it-yourselfers. The concept was to have a wide assortment, a high level of service, and the lowest pricing possible.

We opened the front door in 1979, also a time of severe economic slowdown. Yet today, Home Depot is staffed by more than 325,000 dedicated, well-trained, and highly motivated people offering outstanding service and knowledge to millions of consumers.

If we tried to start Home Depot today, under the kind of onerous regulatory controls that you have advocated, it's a stone cold certainty that our business would never get off the ground, much less thrive. Rules against providing stock options would have prevented us from incentivizing worthy employees in the start-up phase--never mind the incredibly high cost of regulatory compliance overall and mandatory health insurance. Still worse are the ever-rapacious trial lawyers.

Meantime, you seem obsessed with repealing tax cuts for "millionaires and billionaires." Contrary to what you might assume, I didn't start with any advantages and neither did most of the successful people I know. I am the grandson of immigrants who came to this country seeking basic economic and personal liberty. My parents worked tirelessly to build on that opportunity. My first job was as a day laborer on the construction of the Long Island Expressway more than 50 years ago. The wealth that was created by my investments wasn't put into a giant swimming pool as so many elected demagogues seem to imagine. Instead it benefitted our employees, their families and our community at large.



For the full commentary, see:

KEN LANGONE. "Stop Bashing Business, Mr. President; If we tried to start The Home Depot today, it's a stone cold certainty that it would never have gotten off the ground." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 15, 2010): A21.





October 27, 2010

Manuel "Muso" Ayau, RIP




AyauManual2010-10-23.jpg





Manuel "Muso" Ayau. Source of image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.




(p. A21) Lago Amatitlán, Guatemala

High on a hill overlooking this picturesque volcanic lake, Manuel "Muso" Ayau--arguably Latin America's most influential champion of liberty in the second half of the 20th century--was laid to rest last month.


. . .


Ayau and his colleagues read voraciously and debated vociferously. "All of us were self-taught in these subjects, which would come to absorb much of our time," he recalled. Over the next half century CEES would publish over 900 pamphlets in defense of the market. Ayau's many contributions (98) had titles like "On the Morality of Government," "Planning: Rational or Absurd," and "Robinson and Friday Invent the Common Market." In October 1978 he wrote an essay in a CEES pamphlet called "Price Controls," while Milton Friedman penned "In Defense of Dumping" in the same publication.

Those pamphlets went all over the region. Peruvian Enrique Ghersi, one of the co-authors of the 1986 best-seller "The Other Path," says that one called "Ten Lessons for Underdevelopment" was "key to awakening in me the vocation and commitment to defend liberty." CEES brought to Guatemala such intellectual giants as Ludwig von Mises (1964), Friedrich Hayek (1965) and Ludwig Erhard (1968).



For the full commentary, see:

MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY. "Manuel Ayau: Champion of Liberty; He opened Latin America's eyes to the true source of prosperity." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., SEPTEMBER 20, 2010): A21.

(Note: italics in original; ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated SEPTEMBER 19, 2010.)



IMG_2452-2.JPGOn the left is a photo autographed by Ayau and Hayek. On the right is a bust of Hayek. Source of photo: taken by Art Diamond on April 4, 2009 at the APEE meetings held at Francisco Marroquín University (UFM) in Guatemala City.





October 26, 2010

Stimulus Money Sent to the Jailed and the Dead




(p. A8) The Social Security Administration sent about 89,000 stimulus payments of $250 each to dead and incarcerated people--but almost half of them were returned, a new inspector-general's report found.


. . .


. . . 17,000 payments went to recipients who were in prison at the time the payment was made in May 2009. However, not all of those payments were necessarily against the letter of the law. While lawmakers intended to prevent payments to people in prison, the law included only a provision prohibiting payments to people incarcerated in the three months before the plan was passed--from November 2008 through January 2009.


. . .


. . . : The SSA says that the stimulus package didn't include a provision allowing it to try to retrieve funds that were mistakenly sent out, so it can't try to retrieve the rest of the money. Money transferred electronically may be sitting untouched in bank accounts of dead people.

The combined total of the mistaken payments is $22.3 million. About $12 million hasn't been returned.



For the full story, see:

LOUISE RADNOFSKY. "Stimulus Checks Sent to Dead, Incarcerated." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., OCTOBER 8, 2010): A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated OCTOBER 7, 2010.)





October 25, 2010

Entrepreneurial Improvisation is Like "Jumping Rock to Rock Up a Stream"




HoppingCreekStones2010-10-04.jpg"Crossing the Sulphurous River." Source of caption and photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33506763@N00/211985842#/photos/sparlingo/211985842/lightbox/


In The Venturesome Economy book, and later (pp. 129 and 142) in the book quoted below, Bhidé describes the entrepreneur's decision process as "improvisation."


(p. 18) Entrepreneurs who start uncertain businesses with limited funds have little reason to devote much effort to prior planning and research. They cannot afford to spend much time or money on the research; the modest likely profit doesn't merit much; and the high uncertainty of the business limits its value.

Sketchy planning and high uncertainty require entrepreneurs to adapt to many unanticipated problems and opportunities. One entrepreneur likens the process of starting a new business to jumping from rock to rock up a stream rather than constructing the Golden Gate Bridge from a detailed blueprint. Often, to borrow a term from Elster's discussion of biological evolution, entrepreneurs adapt to unexpected circumstances in an "opportunistic" fashion: Their response derives from a spur-of-the- moment calculation made to maximize immediate cash flow. Capital-constrained entrepreneurs cannot afford to sacrifice short-term cash for long-term profits. They have to play rapid-fire pinball rather than a strategic game of chess.


Source:

Bhidé, Amar. The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[Note to self: the search phrase "jumping rock stream" seems most productive of relevant images]



Chris_and_Andrea_Jumping_from_Rock_to_Rock_Up_a_Stream.JPG"Chris and Andrea Jumping from Rock to Rock Up a Stream." Source of caption and photo: http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/Q-FvMT8GFG7kZdvUm8d_Jw


JumpingRiverRocks2010-10-04cropped.jpg

























"Girl (10-12) jumping on rocks in river." Source of caption and photo: http://cache4.asset-cache.net/xc/200447463-001.jpg?v=1&c=NewsMaker&k=2&d=B3B7071D257FC0393BFC8E309AE4811E35B7CE0CF91BE8709437A3EAE6A5D3E800123AA3B5A18ED0





October 24, 2010

Wilderness Act Makes Wilderness Inaccessible and Dangerous




(p. A19) ONE day in early 1970, a cross-country skier got lost along the 46-mile Kekekabic Trail, which winds through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Unable to make his way out, he died of exposure.

In response, the Forest Service installed markers along the trail. But when, years later, it became time to replace them, the agency refused, claiming that the 1964 Wilderness Act banned signage in the nation's wilderness areas.


. . .


Over the decades an obvious contradiction has emerged between preservation and access. As the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management -- each of which claims jurisdiction over different wilderness areas -- adopted stricter interpretations of the act, they forbade signs, baby strollers, certain climbing tools and carts that hunters use to carry game.

As a result, the agencies have made these supposedly open recreational areas inaccessible and even dangerous, putting themselves in opposition to healthy and environmentally sound human-powered activities, the very thing Congress intended the Wilderness Act to promote.



For the full commentary, see:

TED STROLL. "Aw, Wilderness!." The New York Times (Fri., August 27, 2010): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated August 26, 2010.)






October 23, 2010

Arne Duncan on "Waiting for Superman" and Teachers' Unions




DuncanArne2010-10-02.jpg




Arne Duncan. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 26) Have you seen the new film "Waiting for Superman," a documentary opening this week that makes public education in this country seem totally dysfunctional?
I did. I think it's going to help the country to understand the tremendous sense of urgency that I feel. We have parents who know their child is getting a subpar education. That is devastating to them and ultimately it's devastating to our country.

The film blames teachers' unions for the failure of public schools because the unions have made it almost impossible to fire lazy teachers. Are you against teachers' unions?
Of course not. I'm a big fan of Randi's.



Randi Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers? The film depicts her as a villain.
I think Randi is providing some courageous leadership and is actually taking some heat internally in the union because she said publicly that the union shouldn't be protecting bad teachers.


For the full interview, see:

DEBORAH SOLOMON. "Questions for Arne Duncan; The School of Hard Drives." The New York Times, Magazine Section (Sun., September 17, 2010): 26.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 16, 2010.)





October 22, 2010

Competitors Have "Incentive to Misuse the Government to Obtain an Advantage"




(p. A15) Today's technology behemoth risks becoming tomorrow's dinosaur, and competitors sometimes plead for government intervention to obtain what they fail to achieve in the market. As a former head of a competition agency, I offer . . . principles to guide competition policy toward successful innovators.

. . . , be wary of competitor complaints. When a competitor tells government that its rival acts unfairly, the complaint should be viewed with great suspicion. Competitor complaints are driving recent EU investigations into companies that include Qualcomm, Google, Oracle and IBM. Competitors can provide valuable information about marketplace realities, but they have every incentive to misuse the government to obtain an advantage that is otherwise unattainable.


. . .


. . . , don't create disincentives for innovation. Complaining competitors often want innovators to be forced to share the source of their success, regardless of intellectual property rights. Nothing could be more destructive to the incentives for future innovation than rules that prevent innovators from reaping the full benefits of their work. As a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court said in its 2004 Verizon v. Trinko decision, "[f]irms may acquire monopoly power by establishing an infrastructure that renders them uniquely suited to serve their customers."



For the full commentary, see:

TIMOTHY J. MURIS. "Antitrust in a High-Tech World; The first rule of regulators should be to be wary of complaints from competitors.." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., August 12, 2010): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)






October 21, 2010

Joe Ricketts Stands Tall Against Earmarks




RickettsJoe2010-10-01.jpg







Entrepreneur Joe Ricketts. Source of photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.



I used to teach an Economics of Technology course in the UNO EMBA program (until a curriculum committee axed the course). As a long-shot I once invited Joe Ricketts to speak to the class. I was surprised that he accepted, and maybe also surprised that he clearly invested some time and thought in his presentation. The class was riveted not only by the story of his own entrepreneurial challenges, but also of his views of the policy issues of the day. I remember his good-natured persistence in arguing with one student who challenged him on his view of the importance of tort-reform.

From his manner, and some of the stories he told, he seemed to be the sort of entrepreneur who exemplified George Gilder's view that great entrepreneurs have a kind of humility that leaves them open to learning, at least in key areas related to their business goals. By all accounts, Sam Walton was another example. And I heard Charles Koch speak this summer and saw him interact with some of his executives; he also gave the impression of being down-to-earth, and open to learning.

(Of course, then there's Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison---generalizations on entrepreneurship are hard to come by!)

Ricketts and Koch also share another trait---this one too rare among successful entrepreneurs. They are both willing to invest a considerable part of their hard-earned wealth in order to preserve and protect the institutions of limited government that will make it possible for future entrepreneurs to succeed. In Ricketts' case, for example:


(p. 7A) WASHINGTON -- Joe Ricketts wants to bring down at least one Capitol Hill lawmaker who seeks earmarks so he can get the rest of Congress' attention.

The founder and former CEO of what is now TD Ameritrade has started a new organization called Taxpayers Against Earmarks, which will seek to highlight what he describes as the evils of legislators setting aside money for pet projects back home.


. . .


Ricketts said that while some earmarks support worthy projects, he is against them all because the process is flawed. He compared those who support earmarks to addicts and criminals.

"I'm sure that all over the country there are people that like earmarks and people come to defend earmarks, and those are the people that are on the dope," he said.

Ricketts said those who seek earmarks are asking legislators to spend other people's money for their purposes.

"That's theft," he said. "As Tom Coburn says, that's intergenerational theft. So those people that like earmarks, you can consider thieves."


. . .


Ricketts said . . . the process encourages lawmakers to throw their support behind other spending bills to gain other lawmakers' support for their earmarks.

"A lot of elected officials like the earmarks, but they've never had anybody like me or anybody else push back. ... So now the scales are going to balance a little bit," he said. "I'm going to spend as many years and as many dollars as it takes to be successful."



For the full story, see:

Joseph Morton. "Joe Ricketts Will Put Up Big Bucks to Fight Earmarks." Omaha World-Herald (Friday, October 1, 2010): 7A.

(Note: all ellipses added, except for the last one which was in the original.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Joe Ricketts will help fight earmarks.")





October 20, 2010

Wind Energy Produces Warm Fuzzy Feelings, But Little Energy and No Reduction in Carbon Dioxide




(p. A15) Because wind blows intermittently, electric utilities must either keep their conventional power plants running all the time to make sure the lights don't go dark, or continually ramp up and down the output from conventional coal- or gas-fired generators (called "cycling"). But coal-fired and gas-fired generators are designed to run continuously, and if they don't, fuel consumption and emissions generally increase. A car analogy helps explain: An automobile that operates at a constant speed--say, 55 miles per hour--will have better fuel efficiency, and emit less pollution per mile traveled, than one that is stuck in stop-and-go traffic.

Recent research strongly suggests how this problem defeats the alleged carbon-reducing virtues of wind power. In April, Bentek Energy, a Colorado-based energy analytics firm, looked at power plant records in Colorado and Texas. (It was commissioned by the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States.) Bentek concluded that despite huge investments, wind-generated electricity "has had minimal, if any, impact on carbon dioxide" emissions.

Bentek found that thanks to the cycling of Colorado's coal-fired plants in 2009, at least 94,000 more pounds of carbon dioxide were generated because of the repeated cycling. In Texas, Bentek estimated that the cycling of power plants due to increased use of wind energy resulted in a slight savings of carbon dioxide (about 600 tons) in 2008 and a slight increase (of about 1,000 tons) in 2009.


. . .


Perhaps it comes down to what Kevin Forbes, the director of the Center for the Study of Energy and Environmental Stewardship at Catholic University, told me: "Wind energy gives people a nice warm fuzzy feeling that we're taking action on climate change." Yet when it comes to CO2 emissions, "the reality is that it's not doing much of anything."



For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT BRYCE. "Wind Power Won't Cool Down the Planet; Often enough it leads to higher carbon emissions." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., August 24, 2010): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated August 23, 2010.)



To request a full copy of the Bentek Energy report, or to download a PDF executive summary of the report, you can visit:

http://www.bentekenergy.com/WindCoalandGasStudy.aspx



Robert Bryce's recent book on energy issues is:

Bryce, Robert. Power Hungry; the Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future. New York: PublicAffairs, 2010.


power_hungry_robert_bryce.jpg











Source of book image: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_4ify7vDXrDs/S98Go4-H9WI/AAAAAAAAFt0/pZ7rYtV1YbE/s1600/power_hungry_robert_bryce.jpg







October 19, 2010

"I Just Love Economics"




RyanPaul2010-08-29.jpg





Paul Ryan. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.






(p. 16) Your once-quiet life as a congressman from Wisconsin was forever altered at the House Republican retreat in Baltimore last month, when President Obama singled you out as a "pretty sincere guy" and gave a shout-out to your "Road Map for America's Future 2.0," your plan to balance the federal budget.
He brought up my plan and I thought for a moment, Wow, this could be a sincere olive branch.





As the ranking Republican member of the House Budget Committee, you are seen within your party as a policy wonk.
I've been working on the federal budget most of my adult life, which is kind of a pretty sad thing to admit to. I just love economics.

Your "Road Map," we should explain, is a somewhat alarming document that proposes, in 600-plus pages, erasing the federal deficit by radically restricting the government's role in social programs like Social Security and Medicare. The president described it as "a serious proposal."
Right. And then the next day his budget director starts ripping me and then the day after that the entire Democratic National Committee political machine starts launching demagogic attacks on me and my plan. So when you hear the word "bipartisanship" come from the president and then you see his political machine get in full-force attack mode, it comes across as very insincere.



For the full interview, see:

DEBORAH SOLOMON. "Questions for Paul Ryan; The Big Cheese." The New York Times, Magazine Section (Sun., February 21, 2010): 16.

(Note: bold in original versions, to indicate questions by Deborah Solomon.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 19, 2010.)





October 18, 2010

Charlie Munger: Capitalist Ventures Do Good, While Philanthropies Are a Source of "So Much Folly and Stupidity"





We'd all be better off if Warren Buffett listened a little more to his old friend Charlie Munger, and a little less to his new friend, Bill Gates.


(p. 6A) Charlie Munger, the business partner of billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett, said private investment may advance society more than charity.

"I believe Costco does more for civilization than the Rockefeller Foundation," Munger, 86, told students in a discussion at the University of Michigan on Tuesday, according to a video posted on the Internet. "I think it's a better place. You get a bunch of very intelligent people sitting around trying to do good, I immediately get kind of suspicious and squirm in my seat."

Munger is a director at Costco Wholesale Corp., the largest U.S. warehouse-club chain, and has served as vice chairman of Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. for more than three decades. Munger's stake in Omaha-based Berkshire's Class A shares is valued at more than $1.6 billion.


. . .


"I've seen so much folly and stupidity on the part of our major philanthropic groups, including the World Bank," Munger said. "I really have more confidence in building up the more capitalistic ventures like Costco."




For the full story, see:

Bloomberg News. "Costco beats charity, Munger Says." Omaha World-Herald (Sat., September 16, 2010): 6A-7A.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Munger: Costco beats charity.")

Munger's comments can be viewed online at: http://rossmedia.bus.umich.edu/rossmedia/SilverlightPlayer/Default.aspx?peid=4d215177cbe44b1e8e94d0dd68f5058f





October 17, 2010

The Dirt on Government Detergent Laws




JonesEliseDirtyDishes2010-09-19.jpg "Elise Jones has noticed "a white dusty film" on her dishes and attributes it to reduced phosphates in dishwasher detergent." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 1) Some longtime users were furious.

"My dishes were dirtier than before they were washed," one wrote last week in the review section of the Web site for the Cascade line of dishwasher detergents. "It was horrible, and I won't buy it again."

"This is the worst product ever made for use as a dishwashing detergent!" another consumer wrote.

Like every other major detergent for automatic dishwashers, Procter & Gamble's Cascade line recently underwent a makeover. Responding to laws that went into effect in 17 states in July, the nation's detergent makers reformulated their products to reduce what had been the crucial ingredient, phosphates, to just a trace.


. . .


(p. 4) Phosphorus in the form of phosphates suspends particles so they do not stick to dishes and softens water to allow suds to form.

Now that the content in dishwasher detergent has plummeted to 0.5 percent from as high as 8.7 percent, many consumers are just noticing the change in the wash cycle as they run out of the old product.

"Low-phosphate dish detergents are a waste of my money," said Thena Reynolds, a 55-year-old homemaker from Van Zandt County, Tex., who said she ran her dishwasher twice a day for a family of five. Now she has to do a quick wash of the dishes before she puts them in the dishwasher to make sure they come out clean, she said. "If I'm using more water and detergent, is that saving anything?" Ms. Reynolds said. "There has to be a happy medium somewhere."


. . .


. . . Jessica Fischburg, a commerce manager in Norwich, Conn., for CleaningProductsWorld.com, which sells janitorial supplies in bulk, said she was not surprised that many of her clients rejected products marketed as environmentally friendly.

"The reality of any green product is that they generally don't work as well," she said. "Our customers really don't like them."


. . .


. . . in its September issue, Consumer Reports reported that of 24 low- or phosphate-free dishwasher detergents it tested, including those from environmentally friendly product lines that have been on the market for years, none matched the performance of products with phosphates.




For the full story, see:

MIREYA NAVARRO. "Cleaner for the Environment, But the Dishes? Not So Shiny." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., September 19, 2010): 1 & 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated September 18, 2010, and had the title "Cleaner for the Environment, Not for the Dishes.")





October 16, 2010

Long and Unknown Incubation Time Sometimes Needed for Innovation




(p. 118) The incubation stage is the most mysterious of the three stages of divergent thinking. Sometimes it appears as if the problem-solving process has stopped altogether.

Incubation is the absolute opposite of the normal business processes of the operating organization. It is often totally unpredictable. But since it is also the heart of the creative process, it creates a dilemma for the business executive who wants to support innovation but has little patience for unfocused activity. In the incubation period, observations stew on the edge of consciousness until something clarifies. As Newton observed, "I keep the subject constantly before me, and wait until the first dawnings open slowly, little by little, into the full and clear light."

There is no way to plan "enough" incubation time. What, then, can one do to improve the productivity of this period of incubation? One useful tool is what psychologists call "suspending disbelief--suspending judgment on data or observations that seem to make no sense. It allows time for the rearrangement of data, allowing one time to find new images that explain or illustrate how things might work. Suspending disbelief (p.119) is essential to avoiding premature closure on an issue, or entrenchment in existing ideas and approaches. Suspending disbelief helps to improve one's chances of finding a fresh view of the universe. It is an unnatural act for an operating organization, but an essential trait for an innovative organization.

A second useful tool is to deconstruct the problem so that you can recombine elements of it and gain fresh insight. Sir James Black, Nobel Prize winner for the discovery of histamine antagonists, suggests that one "turn the question around." Dr. Black prefers an "oblique attack" to a problem rather than a direct one.

One way to change context, Csikszentmihalyi observes, is to position yourself at the intersection of different cultures or disciplines: "where beliefs, lifestyles, and knowledge mingle and allow individuals to see new combinations of ideas with greater ease. In cultures that are uniform and rigid it takes a greater investment of attention to achieve new ways of thinking. In other words, creativity is more likely in places where new ideas require less effort to be perceived."




Source:

Foster, Richard N., and Sarah Kaplan. Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market---and How to Successfully Transform Them. New York: Currency Books, 2001.





October 15, 2010

What Cuba Must Do to Welcome Entrepreneurs




BlancoSerafinCuban2010-0.jpg"Serafin Blanco is the owner of Ñooo! ¡Que Barato!, a huge discount store in Hialeah, Fla., where recent arrivals stock up on $1.99 flip-flops and other items for relatives to resell in Cuba." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A6) "Things move very slowly in Cuba be-(p. A9)cause they are very, very concerned about breaking the balance of power with economic reforms," said Jorge Sanguinetty, president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, a research group. "This is the reality. They don't want to emulate Gorbachev when he started making reforms in Russia and the whole thing came down."

Mr. Sanguinetty, who served as a senior economic official with the Cuban government until he resigned in June 1966, said that Cuba might be just beginning the long, painstaking process of rebuilding the most basic economic relationships. He noted that Cuba even eliminated accounting schools in the first decade after the 1959 revolution because officials thought money would be unnecessary, and that many Cubans had no experience with credit cards, banks or checks. Now, he said, the government must move forward -- with import-export licenses, with clearer communication about rules -- if it hopes to make entrepreneurs a vital element of the economy.



For the full story, see:

DAMIEN CAVE. "Near to Cuba, Wary Kin Wait for Proof of a New Path." The New York Times (Weds., September 22, 2010): A6 & A9.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 21, 2010 and has the slightly different title "Near Cuba, Wary Kin Wait for Proof of a New Path.")





October 14, 2010

"A Novel Way to Extract CO2 from the Atmosphere"




(p. 96) UNDERSTANDING how the oceans absorb carbon dioxide is crucial to understanding the role of that gas in the climate. It is rather worrying, then, that something profound may be missing from that understanding. But if Jiao Nianzhi of Xiamen University in China is right, it is. For he suggests there is a lot of carbon floating in the oceans that has not previously been noticed. It is in the form of what is known as refractory dissolved organic matter and it has been put there by a hitherto little-regarded group of creatures called aerobic anoxygenic photoheterotrophic bacteria (AAPB). If Dr Jiao is right, a whole new "sink" for carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has been discovered.


. . .


. . . , Dr Jiao and his (p. 97) colleagues propose that AAPB, and possibly other, similar microbes, have a predominant role in pumping carbon into a pool of compounds that cannot be turned back into carbon dioxide by living creatures, thereby building up a large reservoir that keeps carbon out of the atmosphere. If that idea is confirmed, it will need to be incorporated into the computer models used to understand the Earth's carbon cycle and its effect on the climate. But it also raises a more radical thought. The newly discovered microbial carbon pump could provide a novel way to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, should that ever be deemed necessary to combat climate change.



For the full story, see:

"Bacteria and climate change; Invisible carbon pumps; A group of oceanic micro-organisms just might prove a surprising ally in the fight against climate change." The Economist (September 11, 2010): 96-97.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 9, 2010.)





October 13, 2010

Athiests Score Highest on Test of Religious Knowledge




ReligionTestGraphf2010-10-01.jpg






















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




(p. A17) Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

"Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey," said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

"I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people," Mr. Silverman said. "Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That's how you make atheists."



For the full story, see:

LAURIE GOODSTEIN. "Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans." The New York Times (Tues., September 28, 2010): A17.





October 12, 2010

Forecasting Errors Increase in Complex Environments





(p. 54) There is a great deal of evidence that suggests that when people-- for example, investors and managers--are taken out of a familiar environment--an environment of continuity--their ability to deal with the future deteriorates rapidly. John Sterman, J. Spencer Standish professor of management and director of the System Dynamics Group of MIT, who has studied the ability of managers to learn over long periods of time, says that in complex environments, the more experience people have the more poorly they perform. Here is a distillation of Sterman's findings:


• "Even in perfectly functioning markets, modest levels of complexity cause large and systematic deviations from rational behavior."
• "There is little evidence of adaptation of one's 'rules' as the complexity of the task increases." When the environment is complex, people seem to revert to simple rules that ignore time delays and feedback, leading to lowered performance.
• Individuals "forecast by averaging past values and extrapolating past trends. [They] actually spend less time making their decisions in the complex markets than in the simple ones."
• The lowered performance people exhibit as a result of greater com-(p. 55)plexity does not improve with experience. People become "less responsive to critical variables and more vulnerable to forecasting errors--their learning hurts their ability to perform well in the complex conditions."
• Most individuals do not learn how to improve their performance in complex conditions. In relatively simple conditions--without time delays or feedback--people "dramatically outperform the 'do nothing' rule, but in complex situations many people are bested by the 'do nothing' rule." Attempts individuals make to control the system are counterproductive.

Markets that are undergoing rapid or discontinuous change are extremely complex. Economic systems are highly networked and involve substantial feedback. Given Professor Sterman's findings, it is not surprising that forecasting deteriorates in the face of rapid change.



Source:

Foster, Richard N., and Sarah Kaplan. Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market---and How to Successfully Transform Them. New York: Currency Books, 2001.





October 11, 2010

Obamacare Is Increasing Health Costs




HealthOutlays2010-10-01.gif





































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



(p. A7) The health-care overhaul enacted last spring won't significantly change national health spending over the next decade compared with projections before the law was passed, according to government figures released Thursday.

The report by federal number-crunchers casts fresh doubt on Democrats' argument that the health-care law would curb the sharp increase in costs over the long term, the second setback this week for one of the party's biggest legislative achievements.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that insurance companies have proposed rate increases ranging from 1% to 9% nationwide that they attribute specifically to new health-law coverage mandates.



For the full story, see:

JANET ADAMY. "Health Outlays Still Seen Rising ." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., SEPTEMBER 9, 2010): A7.

(Note: the online version of the graph has the date SEPTEMBER 8, 2010.)





October 10, 2010

Frank Sliney Defends His Lexus and His Big House




(p. D8) Frank Sliney, 75, former marine and chief executive of the 25-year-old Franmar Chemical (motto: "solutions from soybeans"), in Bloomington, Ill., which originally manufactured nontoxic soy-based cleaning products for industrial workers and has now expanded into green cleaning products for home use, replies: "My house is 4,800 square feet. I'm a rich guy. We lived in a little apartment, I worked for 20-plus years building this company. I drive a Lexus 460. I worked like hell all my life and paid my bills and never was on public aid."

But isn't your house too big for two people?

"Right," he answered. "Why don't we go out and bring in a family of 12 and adopt them? There are those who would prefer to plow golf courses under because of the water and chemicals they use. There's no end to it. On a daily basis, I do more to save the earth than 10 people -- I replace 32 tanker cars of mineral spirit with one tanker of soy. The soy will biodegrade in 28 days, the mineral spirits will go on a long time."

Oops, Sorry, We Appear to Have Put Mr. Sliney in the Wrong Section

"People who say, 'We could grow our own fuel?' that is really silly," Mr. Sliney continues. "Call the American Soy Bean Board -- you know how many gallons of fuel they'll tell you you can get out of an acre of land? Three or four gallons per bushel per year. How many gallons of gasoline do we use in a day? Twenty-two million."

Make That the Wrong Story

Mr. Sliney: "You know what I think? If you wake up in the morning and your biggest concern is trash cans or what kind of window sprays you're using, you are having it good. There are people who wake up and their biggest concern is getting fed."



For the full story, see:

JOYCE WADLER. "Green Guilt." The New York Times (Thurs., September 30, 2010): D1 & D8.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 29, 2010 and has the title "Green, but Still Feeling Guilty.")

(Note: sub-heads in original and bolded in original.)





October 9, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Risks Her Life to Speak Freely about Islam




AliAyaanHirsi2010-08-29.jpg





Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.







(p. 14) As a Somali native who was raised as a Muslim and grew up to become one of the most outspoken critics of Islam, you fled to Amsterdam and served in the Dutch Parliament before fleeing again, to America. What kind of security do you have here? "
I don't go from A to B without being escorted by people who are armed. But please, let's not talk about my security.







In your new book, "Nomad: From Islam to America," you urge American Christians to try to talk to American Muslims about the limitations of their faith.
We who don't want radical Islam to spread must compete with the agents of radical Islam. I want to see what would happen if Christians, feminists and Enlightenment thinkers were to start proselytizing in the Muslim community.

That could be dangerous for the proselytizers. .
It may be, but in the United States we have a police force and the rule of law; we can't just say something is dangerous and abstain from competing in the marketplace of ideas.



For the full interview, see:

DEBORAH SOLOMON. "Questions for Ayaan Hirsi Ali; The Feminist." The New York Times, Magazine Section (Sun., May 23, 2010): 14.

(Note: bold in original versions, to indicate questions by Deborah Solomon.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated May 21, 2010.)





October 8, 2010

Budgetless California Legislature Votes to Create "Motorcycle Awareness Month"




(p. A1) SACRAMENTO, Calif.--On the brink of insolvency, California may have to pay its bills with IOUs soon. A budget was due three months ago, and the legislature hasn't passed one.

The lawmakers can, however, point to a list of other achievements this year. Awaiting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature, for example, is a bill that would bar the state from filming cows in New Zealand. It's the fruit of five committee votes and eight legislative analyses.

California lawmakers also voted to form a lobster commission. They created "Motorcycle Awareness Month," not to mention a "Cuss Free Week."



For the full story, see:

STU WOO. "There's No Budget, but California Is All Over the Foreign-Cow Issue; As Deficit Looms, Lawmakers Promulgate 'Cuss Free Week,' Defend the State Rock." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., SEPTEMBER 28, 2010): A1 & A18.





October 7, 2010

Creative Destruction Book Is Useful for Documenting Dynamism of U.S. Firms




CreativeDestructionBK.jpg












Source of book image: http://www.innovation-creative.com/IMAGES/Livres_innovation_2/Foster_&_Kaplan/Foster_&_Kaplan-(US).jpg



The first couple of chapters of Creative Destruction are useful at providing some statistics on the degree of dynamism in U.S. companies over the past century or so.

In the rest of the book the authors present some interesting examples and refer to some useful research, but too often fall into the too-quick and too-easy management fad-advice mode---and Christensen and Raynor make a sound point in claiming that Foster and Kaplan sometimes oversell their main point.

Still there is some thought-provoking material here and there. I will be quoting a couple of the neater insights in the next couple of weeks.


Book discussed:

Foster, Richard N., and Sarah Kaplan. Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market---and How to Successfully Transform Them. New York: Currency Books, 2001.





October 6, 2010

China's Continued Growth Requires Reliance on Private Enterprise




(p. A21) No country in the modern world has managed persistent economic growth without considerable reliance on private enterprise and decentralized private markets. All centrally planned economies failed to achieve sustained development, including the Soviet Union before its collapse, China before market reforms began in the late 1970s, and Cuba since Castro's revolution in the late 1950s.

China's private sector has led its dominance in textiles, electronics, and other consumer and producer goods. It's followed the model of the "Asian Tigers"--Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan--and relied heavily on exports produced with cheap labor. In the process, China has accumulated enormous reserves, as Taiwan, Japan and other rapidly growing Asian economies did in past decades.

Poorer countries like China need not get everything "right" to grow rapidly through exports to richer countries. They need only have some strong sectors that use world markets to fuel overall growth. Japan's rapid growth from the 1960s-1980s was led by a highly efficient manufacturing sector. Yet at the same time Japan also had a large and inefficient service sector, and an agricultural sector that was riddled with subsidies and inefficient incentives.

Similarly, China's economy still has a glut of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with excessive employment and low productivity. Their importance has fallen over time, but Chinese economists estimate that they still control about half of nonagricultural GDP. One crucial example is the state-controlled financial sector that makes cheap loans to other large, inefficient and unprofitable state enterprises. China's economy also suffers from extensive price controls, restrictions on migration, and many other structural barriers to efficient growth.



For the full commentary, see:

GARY S. BECKER. "China's Next Leap Forward; The jump from middle-income to rich status is much harder to achieve than the ascent from poverty. But there are plenty of reasons to believe China's growth prospects remain strong." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., SEPTEMBER 29, 2010): A21.






October 5, 2010

Cuban Communists to Fire Half a Million Workers, But Will Allow Them to Become Piñata Salesmen




CubanStateStreetSweeperInHavana2010-10-01.jpg"A Cuban State worker (center) sweeps the streets in Havana." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) Cuba will lay off more than half a million state workers and try to create hundreds of thousands of private-sector jobs, a dramatic attempt by the hemisphere's only Communist country to shift its nearly bankrupt economy toward a more market-oriented system.

The mass layoffs will take place between now and the end of March, according to a statement issued Monday by the Cuban Workers Federation, the island nation's only official labor union. Workers will be encouraged to find jobs in Cuba's tiny private sector instead.

"Our state can't keep maintaining...bloated payrolls," the union's statement said. More than 85% of Cuba's 5.5 million workers are employed by the state.


. . .


(p. A15) Cubans who decide to go into business for themselves will find a series of obstacles, including very high taxes, lack of access to credit and foreign exchange, bans on advertising, limits on the number of people they can hire, and a litany of small-print government regulations, experts say.

Cuba's government has a list of 124 "authorized" activities for people who want to employ themselves. Among them: Toy repairman, music teacher, piñata salesman and carpenter. Carpenters are allowed only to "repair existing furniture or make new furniture upon the direct request of a customer." They cannot make "furniture to sell to the general public."



For the full story, see:

José de Córdoba and Nicholas Casey. "Cuba Unveils Huge Layoffs in Tilt Toward Free Market." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., SEPTEMBER 14, 2010): A1 & A15.

(Note: ellipsis added between paragraphs; ellipsis internal to paragraph was in original.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Cuba to Cut State Jobs in Tilt Toward Free Market.")



CastroPinata2010-10-01.jpg














This particular piñata model is expected to be a hot seller for the new piñata salesmen. Source of photo: http://cdn.smosh.com/smosh-pit/4/pinata-7.jpg






October 4, 2010

Country Data on Light Intensity at Night May Be More Accurate than Official GDP




(p. 63) In a new working paper, Vernon Henderson, Adam Storeygard and David Weil of Brown University suggest an alternative source of data: outer space. In particular they track changes in the intensity of artificial light over a country at night, which should increase with incomes. American military weather satellites collect these data every night for the entire world.

It is hard to know exactly how much weight to put on extraterrestrial brightness. Changes in the efficiency of electricity transmission, for example, may cause countries to look brighter from outer space, even if economic activity has not increased much. But errors in its measurement are unlikely to be correlated with errors in the calculation of official GDP, since they arise for different reasons. A weighted average of the growth implied by changes in the intensity of artificial light and official GDP growth rates ought to improve the accuracy of estimates of economic growth. Poor countries in particular may have dodgy GDP numbers but their night-light data are as reliable as anyone else's.



For the full story, see:

"Measuring growth from outer space; Light relief; Data about light emitted into space may help improve growth estimates." The Economist (Aug. 6, 2009): 63.


The working paper referenced is:

Henderson, J. Vernon, Adam Storeygard, and David N. Weil. "Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space." NBER Working Paper No. 15199, July 2009.





October 3, 2010

First Castro on "The Simpsons" Repudiated Communism; Now the Real Castro Does the Same







The clip is from the "embed" option of YouTube, and is apparently from The Simpsons episode "The Trouble with Trillions" which Wikipedia says ". . . is the twentieth episode of the ninth season of the animated television series The Simpsons, which originally aired April 5, 1998."


After viewing the above clip from YouTube, and reading the quote below from the NYT, you may be excused for concluding that the best way to learn what Castro is really thinking is to watch the Simpsons:


(p. A6) Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in his blog for Atlantic magazine that he asked Mr. Castro, . . . , last week if Cuba's model of Soviet-style Communism was still worth exporting to other countries. "The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore," Mr. Castro said, according to the report. Mr. Goldberg said that Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, thought Mr. Castro's answer was an acknowledgment that the state played too big a role in the economy. The comment appeared to reflect Mr. Castro's support for the economic reforms instituted by his younger brother, President Raúl Castro.


For the full story, see:

REUTERS. "Cuba: Communist Economic Model Loses a Stalwart Defender." The New York Times (Thurs., September 9, 2010): A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date September 8, 2010.)


I ran across the Simpson Castro clip on ("The Lede; Blogging the News With Robert Mackey.")





October 2, 2010

CFOs Are Bad at Forecasting, and Don't Realize They Are Bad




(p. 5) . . . , three financial economists -- Itzhak Ben-David of Ohio State University and John R. Graham and Campbell R. Harvey of Duke -- found that chief financial officers of major American corporations are not very good at forecasting the future. The authors' investigation used a quarterly survey of C.F.O.'s that Duke has been running since 2001. Among other things, the C.F.O.'s were asked about their expectations for the return of the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index for the next year -- both their best guess and their 80 percent confidence limit. This means that in the example above, there would be a 10 percent chance that the return would be higher than the upper bound, and a 10 percent chance that it would be less than the lower one.

It turns out that C.F.O.'s, as a group, display terrible calibration. The actual market return over the next year fell between their 80 percent confidence limits only a third of the time, so these executives weren't particularly good at forecasting the stock market. In fact, their predictions were negatively correlated with actual returns. For example, in the survey conducted on Feb. 26, 2009, the C.F.O.'s made their most pessimistic predictions, expecting a market return of just 2.0 percent, with a lower bound of minus 10.2 percent. In fact, the market soared 42.6 percent over the next year.

It may be neither troubling nor surprising that C.F.O.'s can't accurately predict the stock market's path. If they could, they'd be running hedge funds and making billions. What is troubling, though, is that as a group, many of these executives apparently don't realize that they lack forecasting ability. And, just as important, they don't seem to be aware of how volatile the market can be, even in "normal" times.



For the full commentary, see:

RICHARD H. THALER: "Economic View; Often Wrong, But Never in Doubt." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., August 22, 2010): 5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 21, 2010 and has the somewhat shorter title "Economic View; The Overconfidence Problem in Forecasting.")


The Ben-David et al article is:

Ben-David, Itzhak, John R. Graham, and Campbell Harvey. "Managerial Miscalibration." Fisher College of Business Working Paper No.2010-03-012, July 2010.





October 1, 2010

Japanese "Longevity" Due Partly to Government Over-Counting Centenarians




WataseMitsueJapanCentenerian2010-09-10.jpg"A Kobe city official, left, visited Mitsue Watase, 100, at her home last week as Japanese officials started a survey on the whereabouts of centenarians." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


Oskar Morgenstern is mainly known as the co-author with John von Neumann of the book that started game theory. But it may be that his most important contribution to economics is a little known book called On the Accuracy of Economic Observations. In that book he gave examples of social scientists theorizing to explain 'facts' that turned out not to be true (such as the case of the 14 year-old male widowers).

The point is that truth would be served by economists spending a higher percent of their time in improving the quality of data.

One can imagine Morgenstern sadly smiling at the case of the missing Japanese centenarians:


(p. 1) TOKYO -- Japan has long boasted of having many of the world's oldest people -- testament, many here say, to a society with a superior diet and a commitment to its elderly that is unrivaled in the West.

That was before the police found the body of a man thought to be one of Japan's oldest, at 111 years, mummified in his bed, dead for more than three decades. His daughter, now 81, hid his death to continue collecting his monthly pension payments, the police said.

Alarmed, local governments began sending teams to check on other elderly residents. What they found so far has been anything but encouraging.

A woman thought to be Tokyo's oldest, who would be 113, was last seen in the 1980s. Another woman, who would be the oldest in the world at 125, is also missing, and probably has been for a long time. When city officials tried to visit her at her registered address, they discovered that the site had been turned into a city park, in 1981.

To date, the authorities have been unable to find more than 281 Japanese who had been listed in records as 100 years old or older. Facing a growing public outcry, the (p. 6) country's health minister, Akira Nagatsuma, said officials would meet with every person listed as 110 or older to verify that they are alive; Tokyo officials made the same promise for the 3,000 or so residents listed as 100 and up.

The national hand-wringing over the revelations has reached such proportions that the rising toll of people missing has merited daily, and mournful, media coverage. "Is this the reality of a longevity nation?" lamented an editorial last week in The Mainichi newspaper, one of Japan's biggest dailies.


. . .


. . . officials admit that Japan may have far fewer centenarians than it thought.

"Living until 150 years old is impossible in the natural world," said Akira Nemoto, director of the elderly services section of the Adachi ward office. "But it is not impossible in the world of Japanese public administration."



For the full story, see:

MARTIN FACKLER. "Japan, Checking on Its Oldest People, Finds Many Gone, Some Long Gone." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., August 15, 2010): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 14, 2010 and has the somewhat shorter title "Japan, Checking on Its Oldest, Finds Many Gone"; the words "To date" appear in the online, but not the print, version of the article.)


The Morgenstern book is:

Morgenstern, Oskar. On the Accuracy of Economic Observations. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.





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