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March 31, 2011

Academic Psychologists Create Hostile Climate for Non-Liberals

(p. D1) SAN ANTONIO -- Some of the world's pre-eminent experts on bias discovered an unexpected form of it at their annual meeting.

Discrimination is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology's conference, where psychologists discuss their research on racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. But the most talked-about speech at this year's meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new "outgroup."

It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

"This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity," Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a "tribal-moral community" united by "sacred values" that hinder research and damage their credibility -- and blind them to the hostile climate they've created for non-liberals.

. . .

(p. D3) The politics of the professoriate has been studied by the economists Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein and the sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. They've independently found that Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences. In a 2007 study of both elite and non-elite universities, Dr. Gross and Dr. Simmons reported that nearly 80 percent of psychology professors are Democrats, outnumbering Republicans by nearly 12 to 1.

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN TIERNEY. "Findings; Social Scientist Sees Bias Within." The New York Times (Tues., February 8, 2011): D1 & D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 7, 2011.)

To listen to Prof. Haidt's speech and view his PowerPoints, follow this link:

Haidt, Jonathan. "The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology." Presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Antonio, TX on Jan. 27, 2011.

The Cardiff and Klein research mentioned in the commentary:

Cardiff, Christopher F., and Daniel B. Klein. "Faculty Partisan Affiliations in All Disciplines: A Voter Registration Study." Critical Review 17, no. 3-4 (Dec. 2005): 237-55.

March 30, 2011

In Greece It Is Illegal for Brewers to Produce Tea

PolitopooulosDemetriGreekEntrepreneur2011-03-09.jpg "Demetri Politopoulos at his microbrewery in northern Greece. He says Greek leaders need to do more to make the country an easier place to do business." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) DEMETRI POLITOPOULOS says he has suffered countless indignities in his 12-year battle to build a microbrewery and wrest a sliver of the Greek beer market from the Dutch colossus, Heineken.

His tires have been slashed and his products vandalized by unknown parties, he says, and his brewery has received threatening phone calls. And he says he has had to endure regular taunts -- you left Manhattan to start up a beer factory in northern Greece? -- not to mention the pain of losing 5.3 million euros.

Bad as all that has been, nothing prepared him for this reality: He would be breaking the law if he tried to fulfill his latest -- and, he thinks, greatest -- entrepreneurial dream. It is to have his brewery produce and export bottles of a Snapple-like beverage made from herbal tea, which he is cultivating in the mountains that surround this lush pocket of the country.

An obscure edict requires that brewers in Greece produce beer -- and nothing else. Mr. Politopoulos has spent the better part of the last year trying fruitlessly to persuade the Greek government to strike it. "It's probably a law that goes back to King Otto," said Mr. Politopoulos with a grim chuckle, referring to the Bavarian-born king of Greece who introduced beer to the country around 1850.

Sitting in his office, Mr. Politopoulos took a long pull from a glass of his premium Vergina wheat beer and said it was absurd that he had to lobby Greek politicians to repeal a 19th-century law so that he could deliver the exports that Greece urgently needed. And, he said, his predicament was even worse than that: it was emblematic of the web of restrictions, monopolies and other distortions that have made many Greek companies uncompetitive, and pushed the country close to bankruptcy.

For the full story, see:

LANDON THOMAS Jr. "What's Broken in Greece? Ask an Entrepreneur." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., January 30, 2011): 1 & 5.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 29, 2011.)

March 29, 2011

Cars Bring Convenience, Freedom, and Personal Security

(p. 16) Two generations ago in the United States,most families lacked a car; by our parents' generation, most families had one car while the two-car lifestyle was a much-sought ideal; today a third of America's families own three cars or more. The United States now contains just shy of one automobile per licensed driver, and is on track to having more cars than licensed drivers. Cars are a mixed blessing, as a future chapter will detail: But there is no doubt they represent convenience, freedom, and, for women, personal security, when compared to standing on street corners waiting for buses or lingering on dark subway platforms. Cars would not he so infuriatingly popular if the did not make our lives easier. Today all but the bottom-most fraction of the impoverished in the United States do most of their routine traveling by car: 100 auto trips in the United States for every one trip on a bus or the subway, according to the American Public Transit Association. The portion of routine trips made in private cars is rising toward overwhelming in the European Union, too. Two generations ago, people dreamed of possessing their own cars. Now almost everyone in the Western world who desires a car has one--and vehicles that are more comfortable, better-equipped, lower-polluting, and much safer than those available only a short time ago.


Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Paperback ed. New York: Random House, 2004.

March 28, 2011

"The Really Good People Want Autonomy"


"Gordon M. Bethune, chief executive of Continental Airlines from 1994 to 2004, says that "being good at your job is predicated pretty much on how the people working for you feel."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Gordon Bethune is usually given credit for introducing marginal cost pricing to the airline industry, and thereby bringing Continental Airlines back from bankruptcy.

His views on how to hire and manage employees are worth serious consideration:

(p. 2) Q. How do you hire people?

A. The really good people want autonomy -- you let me do it, and I'll do it. So I told the people I recruited: "You come in here and you've got to keep me informed, but you're the guy, and you'll make these decisions. It won't be me second-guessing you. But everybody's going to win together. We're part of a team, but you're going to run your part." That's all they want. They want a chance to do it.

For the full interview Adam Bryant conducted with Gordon Bethune, see:

Gordon M. Bethune. "Corner Office; Remember to Share the Stage." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., January 3, 2010): 2.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 2, 2010.)

March 27, 2011

One in Three Students Lie on Professor Evaluations Mainly "to Punish Professors They Don't Like"

(p. 6B) CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) -- Students aren't always truthful on teacher evaluations, according to a study done by researchers at the University of Northern Iowa and Oklahoma State University.

About one-third of students surveyed at both schools said they stretched the truth on anonymous teacher assessments distributed at the end of a semester, The Des Moines Register reported. Fifty-six percent said they know other students who have done the same.

In some cases, students stretch the truth to make their instructors look good. But more often than not they lie to punish professors they don't like.

. . . the study . . . will be published next year in the education journal, Marketing Education Review.

. . .

Clayson spent several years evaluating teacher evaluations, which ask students to grade their instructor on a number of topics, such as how much they learned in class to how accessible the instructor was. The evaluations can play a role in pay raises, promotions and tenure decisions.

Some instructors dumb down their classes or inflate grades to increase the odds students will like them -- a practice widely known among professors and studied by researchers, including at Duke University, where researchers found professors who gave higher grades received better evaluations.

For the full story, see:

AP. "Professor Evaluations Can Be Tool or Weapon." Omaha World-Herald (Tues., December 14, 2010): 6B.

(Note: ellipses added.)

March 26, 2011

Kilimanjaro Snow Has "Come and Gone Over Centuries"

KilimanjaroSnow2011-03-09.jpg "Mount Kilimanjaro's top, shown in June, has lost 26 percent of its ice since 2000, a study says." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A6) The ice atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania has continued to retreat rapidly, declining 26 percent since 2000, scientists say in a new report.

Yet the authors of the study, to be published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reached no consensus on whether the melting could be attributed mainly to humanity's role in warming the global climate.

Eighty-five percent of the ice cover that was present in 1912 has vanished, the scientists said.

To measure the recent pace of the retreat, researchers relied on data from aerial photographs taken of Kilimanjaro over time and from stakes and instruments installed on the mountaintop in 2000, said Douglas R. Hardy, a geologist at the University of Massachusetts and one of the study's authors.

. . .

. . . Georg Kaser, a glaciologist at the Institute for Geography of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, said that the ice measured was only a few hundred years old and that it had come and gone over centuries.

What is more, he suggested that the recent melting had more to do with a decline in moisture levels than with a warming atmosphere.

"Our understanding is that it is due to the slow drying out of ice," Dr. Kaser said. "It's about moisture fluctuation."

For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "Mt. Kilimanjaro's Ice Cap Continues Its Rapid Retreat, but the Cause Is Debated." The New York Times (Tues., November 3, 2009): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated November 2, 2009 and has the title "Mt. Kilimanjaro Ice Cap Continues Rapid Retreat.")

March 25, 2011

State Universities Are "Byzantine Mazes, Sometimes with No Obvious Exit"

(p. A20) . . . in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker proposed on Tuesday to separate the main Madison campus from the rest of the state university system, and make it a public authority. Last week, Madison's chancellor, Carolyn A. Martin, told the Wisconsin Board of Regents that she was hamstrung by state control.

"The accumulated layers of bureaucracy and the control of our mission from a distance make our institutions byzantine mazes, sometimes with no obvious exit," she said. "It's hard to be more responsible or more responsive if we spend all our time trying to comprehend and then follow 25 steps to get approval for one purchase."

For the full story, see:

TAMAR LEWIN. "Public Universities Seek More Autonomy as Financing From States Shrinks." The New York Times (Thurs., March 3, 2011): A20.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated March 2, 2011.)

March 24, 2011

The Progress Paradox Documents How Life Is Better Here and Now


Source of book image: http://grigr.com/

Greg Easterbrook's book has been out for several years, but I am a slow reader and have a long "to read" list. I enjoyed the first half or so of the book very much, and also enjoyed some parts of the second half. Roughly speaking, the first half is devoted to illustrating how much better life is now than before, and here (the West) than there (the less-developed countries). Roughly speaking, the second half of the book asks why we aren't happier, and complains about areas of life where Easterbrook sees room for improvement.

Some of the part I like has now been updated, or written with better argument or more panache, by Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist. But even so, Easterbrook often gives examples, or arguments, that complement Ridley's case.

And even though Ridley is on average more eloquent than Easterbrook, the latter is eloquent plenty often enough to be worth reading. (And maybe my judgment about eloquence is colored by my agreeing with Ridley 90% of the time, and only agreeing with Easterbrook 75% of the time.)

On the less-satisfying second half of the book: worthwhile questions are often asked, but the answers are few and not very satisfying.

In the next few weeks, I'll occasionally be quoting a few of the more illuminating or edifying passages in the Easterbrook book.

Easterbrook's book:

Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Paperback ed. New York: Random House, 2004.

The Ridley book that I mention:

Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

March 23, 2011

Estonia Re-Elects "Government that Continued to Embrace Laissez-Faire Capitalism"

(p. A5) MOSCOW -- Early results in Estonia's parliamentary election on Sunday showed the ruling coalition headed for a victory, in a remarkable show of support for a government that has imposed harsh austerity measures to lift the country out of recession.

. . .

The vote reflects approval for a government that continued to embrace laissez-faire capitalism during the painful months after the global downturn. After Estonia's economy shrank nearly 15 percent, the state reduced its budget by the equivalent of 9 percent of gross domestic product. Demand fell steeply, and unemployment crept up, early in 2010, to 19.8 percent.

But in contrast to their neighbors in Latvia, where economic troubles led to riots and the government's collapse, Estonians stoically absorbed the suffering. These sacrifices allowed Estonia to join the euro zone in January, a move its leaders hailed as a sign that the country was on its way to achieving Western European standards of living. Meanwhile, the economy has been projected to grow by 4 percent this year, and unemployment has dropped to around 10 percent, according to the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund.

For the full story, see:

ELLEN BARRY. "After Cuts, Voters Back Ruling Bloc in Estonia." The New York Times (Mon., March 7, 2011): A5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated March 6, 2011.)

March 22, 2011

Scots Fear London May Delay the Dawn


"Inverness, Scotland, at 8 a.m. Thursday. A change to year-round daylight time in Britain would make winter sunrise as late as 10 a.m. in the north." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A7) INVERNESS, Scotland -- The question was time, and whether to support legislative efforts in London to move it around in order to bring more light to the afternoons. The answer was no, said Jean Kaka, 67, a resident of this city far to the north.

. . .

"They're trying to tamper with our time," she said. "England is a different country than we are, and they're imposing this on us."

. . .

The problem is that while a clock change might bring afternoon joy to London, it would condemn Inverness in the far reaches of Scotland -- in relative terms, about 700 miles north of Montreal -- to long, dark winter mornings with sunrises as late as 10 a.m.

Even worse, many Scots feel, it would mean giving in to English politicians. Though the devolution of British politics has given Scotland its own legislature and responsibility for many of its own affairs, the clock is still controlled by Parliament in London.

"Certainly the people in London don't have any real concept of the effects further north," said Anthony Billington, 64, who was strolling through town recently. "I'm much more of a morning person, anyway."

. . .

Robin MacDonald, 63, who owns a television store in downtown Inverness, said that while Parliament's efforts to jump time ahead hardly mean that time is literally being stolen from him, he could do without having to set and reset his clocks twice a year.

When he was a child in the rural north, he said, he traveled to and from school in conditions "as dark as the inside of your hat." So he doesn't care what time legislators decide it is, as long as they decide something.

"They should make up their mind," Mr. MacDonald said, "and then they should leave it alone."

For the full story, see:

SARAH LYALL. "Inverness Journal; Scots Tell London, Hands Off Our Clocks." The New York Times (Fri., January 21, 2011): A7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 20, 2011.)

MacDonaldRobinAndClock2011-03-09.jpg "Robin MacDonald would rather not have to reset his clocks twice a year." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

March 21, 2011

"Enough Is Enough with the Ineffective Theatrical Security Measures"

(p. B6) "DOES he bite?" the screener at the checkpoint asked warily.

"She doesn't bite," I said.

"Because we have to check under the wings," he said.

"In that case," I said, "she might bite."

At issue was our chatty little African Grey parrot, Rosie, who was watching the scene from inside her travel cage at the security checkpoint at the Newark airport. This was last week, a few days after a suspected terrorist tried to blow up an international flight on its descent into Detroit by igniting some explosives hidden in his underwear.

While the explosion fizzled, it threw airport security into a tizzy.

. . .

We were very anxious at the checkpoint. My wife solved the problem, though. One of Rosie's tricks is to spread her wings and lower her beak if you ask her to imitate an eagle.

"Rosie, do an eagle," my wife said. Inside her cage with the screener's face framed in the open door, the bird promptly spread her wings wide.

The screener had his look under the wings and lowered his wand. Merriment ensued all around -- but it had to look pretty silly.

. . .

On a more serious note, an airline pilot who did not want his name used, asked, "When will passengers say enough is enough with the ineffective theatrical security measures?"

For the full commentary, see:

JOE SHARKEY. "On the Road; Please Take Off Your Shoes, and Is the Parrot Loaded?" The Wall Street Journal (Tues., January 5, 2010): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 4, 2010, and has the title "On the Road; Take Off Your Shoes, and Is the Parrot Loaded?")

March 20, 2011

"The Adventurous, Pioneering Spirit"


Source of book image: http://www.jetagebook.com/

(p. 30) "Jet Age" is ostensibly about the race between two companies and nations to commercialize a military technology and define a new era of air travel. There's Boeing with its back to the wall and its military contracts drying up, betting everything on passenger jets, pitted against de Havilland and the government-subsidized project meant to reclaim some of Britain's lost glory. . . .

. . .

But the book is really about the risk-taking essential for making any extreme endeavor common­place. "Jet Age" celebrates the managers, pilots, engineers, flight attendants and, yes, even passengers (for without passengers there is no business) who gambled everything so that we might cross oceans and continents in hours rather than days.

It is easy to forget, in this time of overcrowded flights, demoralizing security checks, embattled flight attendants and dwindling service, that risk was once embraced as a necessary, even desirable, part of flying. Quoted in the book, the celebrated aviator Lord Brabazon summed it up in post-accident testimony: "You know, and I know, the cause of this accident. It is due to the adventurous, pioneering spirit of our race. It has been like that in the past, it is like that in the present, and I hope it will be in the future."

For the full review, see:

MICHAEL BELFIORE. "Fatal Flaws." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., February 6, 2011): 30.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 4, 2011.)

The book under review is:

Verhovek, Sam Howe. Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World. New York: Avery, 2010.

March 19, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's Defence of the Patent System

William Rosen quotes a key passage from Abraham Lincoln's speech on "Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements":

(p. 323) The advantageous use of Steam-power is, unquestionably, a modern discovery. And yet, as much as two thousand years ago the power of steam was not only observed, but an ingenious toy was actually made and put in motion by it, at Alexandria in Egypt. What appears strange is that neither the inventor of the toy, nor any one else, for so long a time afterwards, should perceive that steam would move useful machinery as well as a toy. . . . . . . in the days before Edward Coke's original Statute on Monopolies, any man could instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. . . . The (p. 324) patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery of new and useful things.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics and ellipses in original.)

March 18, 2011

Roy E. Disney as a "Real-life Jiminy Cricket"

DisneyRoyE2011-03-08.jpg"Roy E. Disney, shown in 1996, was considered a tough and outspoken critic of top executives at the Walt Disney Company." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B18) LOS ANGELES -- Roy E. Disney, who helped revitalize the famed animation division of the company founded by his uncle, Walt Disney, and who at times publicly feuded with top Disney executives, died on Wednesday in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 79.

His death, at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, was caused by stomach cancer, a spokeswoman for the Walt Disney Company said. Mr. Disney, who had homes in Newport Beach and the Toluca Lake district of Los Angeles, was the last member of the Disney family to work at the entertainment conglomerate built by his uncle and his father, Roy O. Disney.

As a boy the younger Roy would play in the halls of his uncle's studio, where animators often used him as a test audience as they toiled on movies like "Pinocchio." As an adult he helped bring the animation studio back from the brink, overseeing a creative renaissance that led to "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."

But the soft-spoken Mr. Disney was primarily known for a willingness to question the company's top managers, aggressively and publicly, when he felt they were mishandling the family empire. Some people in the company referred to him as its real-life Jiminy Cricket: a living conscience who was at times intensely disliked by management for speaking out.

. . .

Returning to the company in 1984, Mr. Disney set about revitalizing the floundering animation division. He obtained financing, for instance, for a computerized postproduction facility, helping to make possible the revolving ballroom scene in "Beauty and the Beast."

For the full obituary, see:

BROOKS BARNES. "Roy E. Disney Dies at 79; Rejuvenated Animation." The New York Times (Thurs., December 17, 2009): B18.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

March 17, 2011

Koch Does Not Run with the Antelope

If you were standing amongst a herd of antelope when a dangerous predator arrived, you would not see the antelope defending themselves against the predator. What you would see would be their white rear ends disappearing in the distance.

Last July in Wichita I heard some executives from Koch Industries talking about Market-Based Management. A couple of them mentioned Koch's stands in defense of the free market. As a result of these efforts, Koch Industries has become the target of many agencies of the government and of groups opposed to the free market. Once or twice I heard an executive say something like: 'it would have been a lot easier if we had just painted our butts white and run with the antelope.'

Schumpeter thought that those in business would not defend the fortress of capitalism (CSD, p. 142). And the evidence suggests that Schumpeter was mainly right. But we can hope that there are enough exceptions, in unpretentious places like Wichita, to keep the fortress standing.

(p.A15) Years of tremendous overspending by federal, state and local governments have brought us face-to-face with an economic crisis. Federal spending will total at least $3.8 trillion this year--double what it was 10 years ago. And unlike in 2001, when there was a small federal surplus, this year's projected budget deficit is more than $1.6 trillion.

Several trillions more in debt have been accumulated by state and local governments. States are looking at a combined total of more than $130 billion in budget shortfalls this year. Next year, they will be in even worse shape as most so-called stimulus payments end.

For many years, I, my family and our company have contributed to a variety of intellectual and political causes working to solve these problems. Because of our activism, we've been vilified by various groups. Despite this criticism, we're determined to keep contributing and standing up for those politicians, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who are taking these challenges seriously.

For the full commentary, see:

CHARLES G. KOCH. "Why Koch Industries Is Speaking Out; Crony capitalism and bloated government prevent entrepreneurs from producing the products and services that make people's lives better." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., MARCH 1, 2011): A15.

Koch's book is:

Koch, Charles G. The Science of Success: How Market-Based Management Built the World's Largest Private Company. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007.

March 16, 2011

Unclear Regulations Reduce Energy Innovation Investment


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

(p. R3) Bill Gates reshaped the computer industry by pumping out new versions of Microsoft Windows software every few years, fixing and fine tuning it as he went along.

He's now betting that he can reshape the energy industry with a project akin to shipping Windows once and having it work, bug-free, for 50 years.

Thanks to his role funding and guiding a start-up called TerraPower LLC, where he serves as chairman, Mr. Gates has become a player in a field of inventors whose goal is to make nuclear reactors smaller, cheaper and safer than today's nuclear energy sources. The 30-person company recently completed a basic design for a reactor that theoretically could run untouched for decades on spent nuclear fuel. Now the company is seeking a partner to help build the experimental reactor, and a country willing to host it.

It's a long-term, risky endeavor for Mr. Gates and his fellow investors. The idea will require years to test, billions of dollars (not all from him) and changes in U.S. nuclear regulations if the reactor is to be built here. Current U.S. rules don't even cover the type of technology TerraPower hopes to use.

"A cheaper reactor design that can burn waste and doesn't run into fuel limitations would be a big thing," Mr. Gates says. He adds that in general "capitalism underinvests in innovation," particularly in areas with "long time horizons and where government regulations are unclear."

. . .

The company has made pitches in France and Japan, Mr. Myrhvold says; both have big nuclear-power industries. He's also made the rounds in Russia, China and India, he says. So far, there have been no takers.

One country he is certain won't be a customer anytime soon is the U.S., which doesn't yet have a certification process for reactors like TerraPower's. It would likely be a decade or more before the reactor could be tested on U.S. soil. "I don't think the U.S. has the willpower or desire to build new kinds of nuclear reactors," Mr. Myrhvold says. "Right now there's a long, drawn-out process."

. . .

Mr. Myrhvold says he hopes the process will speed up and spark innovation to meet the world's growing energy demand. "Let's try 20 ideas," he says. "Maybe five of them work. That's the only way to invent our way out of the pickle we're in."

For the full story, see:

ROBERT A. GUTH. "A Window Into the Nuclear Future; TerraPower--with the backing of Bill Gates--has a radical vision for the reactors of tomorrow." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., FEBRUARY 28, 2011): R3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

March 15, 2011

Lincoln's Popular Speech on "Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements"

(p. 322) Lincoln, the only American president ever awarded a patent, had a long and passionate love for things mechanical. He made his living for many years as a railroad lawyer and appears to have absorbed something of the fascination with machines, and with steam, of the engineers with whom he worked. . . .     . . . , in 1859, after his loss in the Illinois senatorial race against Stephen Douglas, he was much in demand for a speech entitled "Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements" that he gave at agricultural fairs, schools, and self-improvement societies.

The speech--decidedly not one of Lincoln's best--nonetheless revealed an enthusiasm for mechanical innovation that resonates (p. 323) powerfully even today. "Man," Lincoln said, "is not the only animal who labors, but he is the only one who improves his workmanship . . . by Discoveries and Inventions."


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics and last ellipsis in original; other ellipses added.)

March 14, 2011

"The Information in a Message Is Inversely Proportional to Its Probability"


Source of book image: http://www.umcs.maine.edu/~chaitin/

(p. A13) What, exactly, is information? Prior to Shannon, Mr. Gleick notes, the term seemed as hopelessly subjective as "beauty" or "truth." But in 1948 Shannon, then working for Bell Laboratories, gave information an almost magically precise, quantitative definition: The information in a message is inversely proportional to its probability. Random "noise" is quite uniform; the more surprising a message, the more information it contains. Shannon reduced information to a basic unit called a "bit," short for binary digit. A bit is a message that represents one of two choices: yes or no, heads or tails, one or zero.

For the full review, see:

JOHN HORGAN. "Little Bits Go a Long Way; The more surprising a message, the more information it contains." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., March 1, 2011): A13.

Book being reviewed:

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.

March 13, 2011

Defending the Right to Bear Arms

(p. 20) State Representative Jack Harper, who introduced a bill allowing professors to carry guns, said an Arizona State University professor, whom he has refused to identify, first raised the issue with him. "When law-abiding, responsible adults are able to defend themselves, crime is deterred," Mr. Harper said in a statement.

That is the philosophy in Arizona as a whole, where gun laws are among the least restrictive in the country. If law-abiding people can carry guns one step outside the campus to keep criminals at bay, supporters ask, why not allow them to enter a university with their firearms? That is already permitted in Utah, alone so far in allowing guns to be carried on all state campuses.

"I think that every person has the right to bear arms no matter what the circumstances," said Ashlyn Lucero, a political science student at Arizona State University who has served in the Marine Corps, is the daughter of a sheriff and grew up hunting.

Ms. Lucero carries her Glock pistol whenever possible and would carry it on campus if she could. "If I'm going out to eat somewhere, I usually have a gun with me always," she said. "It's just one of those things that you never know what's going to happen."

Thor Mikesell, a senior majoring in music who grew up hunting, is also a backer of allowing guns on campus. "There's no magic line, there's no magic barrier that makes me more safe on the campus than it is when I'm being a real person in the real world outside of the school," he said.

. . .

"This is not the 1890s' O.K. Corral shoot 'em up, bang 'em up," he said. "These are not vigilante kind of people. Their interest is their personal security and the security of their family."

The State Senate president, Russell Pearce, who recently said he would not prevent senators from taking guns into the Senate chamber despite rules against it, is an advocate for loosening as many gun restrictions as possible.

. . .

"Guns save lives, and it's a constitutional right of our citizens," Mr. Pearce said of the guns-on-campus proposal. Speaking of the Tucson shooting, which took place at a shopping center and not on a university campus, Mr. Pearce, a former sheriff's deputy, said, "If somebody had been there prepared to take action, they could have saved lives."

For the full story, see:

MARC LACEY. "Lawmakers Debate Effect of Weapons on Campus." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., February 27, 2011): 14 & 20.

(Note: ellipses added.)

March 12, 2011

The Dangers from Disease Are Much Greater than the Dangers from Vaccines


Source of book image:

Sometime during the weekend of Feb. 26-27, 2011, I saw several minutes of a C-Span book TV presentation by Paul Offit on his Deadly Choices book. He made a strong case that based on casual and unsound evidence, many parents are putting their children at risk by delaying or even foregoing having their children vaccinated.

As a result children are dying from diseases that they easily could have been protected against.

Book discussed:

Offit, Paul A. Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

March 11, 2011

"Rocket" Showed the Motive Power of the Industrial Revolution

Stephenson's steam locomotive, called "Rocket," won the Rainhill Trials in 1829. Rosen uses this as the culminating event in his history of the development of steam power.

(p. 310) The reason for ending with Stephenson's triumph . . . seems persuasive. Rainhill was a victory not merely for George and Robert Stephenson, but for Thomas Saverv and Thomas Newcomen, for James Watt and Matthew Boulton, for Oliver Evans and Richard Trevithick. It was a triumph for the iron mongers of the Severn Valley, the weavers of Lancashire, the colliers of Newcastle, and the miners of Cornwall. It was even a triumph for John Locke and Edward Coke, whose ideas ignited the Rocket just as much as its firebox did.

When the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson met Stephenson in 1847, he remarked, "he had the lives of many men in him."

Perhaps that's what he meant.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipsis added.)

March 10, 2011

Egypt's Urban Decline as Cause (or Symptom) of Slow Growth


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

We all know that correlation is not the same as causation. The main cause of Egypt's slow growth is its lack of institutions and policies supporting entrepreneurial capitalism, and not the decline of Egyptian cities. (But the decline of Egyptian cities does not help.)

(p. B1) Since then, the cities of Asia have expanded rapidly, drawing in millions of peasant farmers looking for a better life -- and, more often than not, finding it. Almost 50 percent of East Asians now live in cities. And Egypt? It is the only large country to have become less urban in the last 30 years, according to the World Bank. About 43 percent of Egyptians are city dwellers today.

This urban stagnation helps explain Egypt's broader stagnation. As tough as city life in poor countries can be, it's also fertile ground for economic growth. Nearly everything can be done more efficiently in a well-run city, be it plumbing, transportation or the generation of new ideas and businesses. "Being around other people," says Paul Romer, the economist and growth expert, "helps make us smarter."

Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist (and weekly contributor to the Times's Economix blog), has just published a book, "The Triumph of the City, making the case that cities are humanity's greatest invention. Countries that become more urban tend to become far more productive, Mr. Glaeser writes. The effect is even bigger for poor countries than rich ones.

. . .

Three researchers -- Michael Clemens, Lant Pritchett and Claudio Montenegro -- recently found a novel way to measure how well various countries use the workers they have. The three compared the wages of immigrants to the United States with the wages of similar workers from the same country who remained home.

A 35-year-old urban Egyptian man with a high school education who moves to the United States can expect an incredible eightfold increase in living standards, the researchers found. Immigrants from only two countries, Yemen and Nigeria, receive a larger boost. In effect, these are the countries with the biggest gap between what their workers can produce in a different environment and what they are actually producing at home.

No wonder 19 percent of Egyptians told Gallup (well before the protests) that they would move to another country if they could. Mr. Clemens says that for every green card the United States awarded in a recent immigration lottery, 146 Egyptians had applied.

For the full commentary, see:

DAVID LEONHARDT. "Economic Scene; For Egypt, a Fresh Start, With Cities." The New York Times (Weds., February 16, 2011): B1 & B11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated February 15, 2011.)

The scholarly article summarized is:

Clemens, Michael, Claudio Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett. "The Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Workers across the Us Border." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series # RWP09-004, January 2009.

The Glaeser book is:

Glaeser, Edward L. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

March 9, 2011

Warren Buffett Says "the American System" Unleashes "Human Potential"

(p. 16) Mr. Buffett said Berkshire last year spent more than $5 billion on property and equipment in the United States - more than 90 percent of the company's total expenditure - and that the overwhelming part of the company's future investment will be at home.

"The prophets of doom have overlooked the all-important factor that is certain: Human potential is far from exhausted, and the American system for unleashing that potential - a system that has worked wonders for over two centuries despite frequent interruptions for recessions and even a Civil War - remains alive and effective," he wrote.

"Now, as in 1776, 1861, 1932 and 1941, America's best days lie ahead."

For the full story, see:

PETER LATTMAN. "Buffett Plans to Buy Local, Investing Mostly in the U.S." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., February 27, 2011): 16.

(Note: the online version of the article was dated February 26, 2011 and has the title "As Berkshire Improves, Buffett Sings Praises of U.S.")

March 8, 2011

Russia Boldly Seeks Oil in Arctic

RussianArcticOilPlatform2011-02-27.jpg"The Prirazlomnaya oil platform was brought to the Arctic seaport of Murmansk, 906 miles north of Moscow, to be adjusted." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) MOSCOW -- The Arctic Ocean is a forbidding place for oil drillers. But that is not stopping Russia from jumping in -- or Western oil companies from eagerly following.

Russia, where onshore oil reserves are slowly dwindling, last month signed an Arctic exploration deal with the British petroleum giant BP, whose offshore drilling prospects in the United States were dimmed by the Gulf of Mexico disaster last year. Other Western oil companies, recognizing Moscow's openness to new ocean drilling, are now having similar discussions with Russia.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW E. KRAMER and CLIFFORD KRAUSS. "Russia Embraces Arctic Drilling." The New York Times (Weds., February 16, 2011): B1-B2.

(Note: the online version of the article was dated February 15, 2011 and had the title "Russia Embraces Offshore Arctic Drilling.")


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

March 7, 2011

Better Rails Were Needed Before Train Would "Work"

(p. 300) The other weight problem was the one that licked Trevithick at Penydarren: The tracks on which the locomotive ran were just not able to survive the tonnage traveling over them. Driving a five-ton steam locomotive over rails designed for horse-drawn carts was only slightly more sensible than driving a school bus over a bridge made of wet ice cubes. In both cases, it's a close call whether the vehicle will skid before or after the surface collapses.

. . .

(p. 301) Two years later, Stephenson, in collaboration with the ironmonger William Losh of Newcastle, produced, and in September 1816 jointly patented, a series of' improvements in wheels, suspension, and--most important--the method by which the rails and "chairs" connected one piece of track to another. Stephenson's rails seem mundane next to better-known eureka moments, but as much as any other innovation of the day they underline the importance of such micro-inventions in the making of a revolution. For it was the rails that finally made the entire network of devices--engine, linkage, wheel, and track--work.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

March 6, 2011

What a Picture Is Worth

AppleLaptopEgyptianYouths2011-02-28.jpg"In Cairo, Egyptian youths used laptops to post video they had shot earlier Tuesday in Tahir Square. The group has been collecting accounts of the demonstrations and voices of the protesters, putting them on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The photo above was at the top of the first page of the New York Times on Weds., Feb. 9, 2011. You have a group of lively, engaged, young people intoxicated with the idea that they may be helping to bring their country freedom. And in the center of the dark picture, amidst the conversations, is one youth looking with concentration at an Apple laptop, the sole source of color and illumination.

If I was Steve Jobs, I would value this one photo at more than a whole hour's worth of Superbowl ads.

The photo above was placed above the following story on the front page of the NYT:

DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK. "As Egypt Protest Swells, U.S. Sends Specific Demands." The New York Times (Weds., February 9, 2011): A1 & A12.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 8, 2011.)

March 5, 2011

Caballero Worries about the Relevance of Mainstream Macro Modeling

In the past, I have found some of MIT economist Ricardo Caballero's research useful because he takes Schumpeter's process of creative destruction seriously.

In a recent paper, he joins a growing number of mainstream economists who worry that the recent and continuing economic crisis has implications for the methodology of economics:

In this paper I argue that the current core of macroeconomics--by which I mainly mean the so-called dynamic stochastic general equilibrium approach--has become so mesmerized with its own internal logic that it has begun to confuse the precision it has achieved about its own world with the precision that it has about the real one. This is dangerous for both methodological and policy reasons. On the methodology front, macroeconomic research has been in "fine-tuning" mode within the local-maximum of the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium world, when we should be in "broad-exploration" mode. We are too far from absolute truth to be so specialized and to make the kind of confident quantitative claims that often emerge from the core. On the policy front, this confused precision creates the illusion that a minor adjustment in the standard policy framework will prevent future crises, and by doing so it leaves us overly exposed to the new and unexpected.


Caballero, Ricardo J. "Macroeconomics after the Crisis: Time to Deal with the Pretense-of-Knowledge Syndrome." NBER Working Paper # w16429, October 2010.

The paper has been published as:

Caballero, Ricardo J. "Macroeconomics after the Crisis: Time to Deal with the Pretense-of-Knowledge Syndrome." Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 85-102.

March 4, 2011

The "Golden Age" When Enemy Blood Was Sipped from Skull-Cups

SkullCupPaleolithicEngland2011-02-27.jpg "Skull-cups found in Somerset, England, were worked with flint tools 14,700 years ago." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

If you are one of those who longs nostalgically for the "Golden Age" of our hunter-gatherer paleolithic past, read on:

(p. D3) The three human braincases, two from adults and one from a child, were carefully skinned and cleaned with flint tools. The soft tissue was removed and probably consumed, leaving a well-shaped cup, perhaps made for use in some sort of ritual.

This is not a scene from a horror film. British paleoanthropologists report the discovery of these 14,700-year-old skull-cups in the journal PLoS One. They were found in Gough's Cave in Somerset, England, and are the oldest directly dated skull-cups known, based on radiocarbon analysis.

. . .

Historical accounts hold that other human societies, like the Scythians, nomadic Indo-European warriors, used skull-cups to sip the blood of enemies. And as late as the 19th century, skull-cups were reportedly used in Fiji and other islands in Oceania.

For the full story, see:

Bhanoo, Sindya N. "Observatory; Skull-Cups in British Cave Conjure an Ancient Rite." The New York Times (Tues., February 22, 2011): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated February 16 (sic), 2011.)

The scholarly article summarized is:

Bello, Silvia M., Simon A. Parfitt, and Chris B. Stringer. "Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups." PLoS ONE 6, no. 2 e17026 (Feb. 2011).

March 3, 2011

France Lacked Good Patent Laws; Great French Inventors "Died Penniless"

(p. 367) If one secret to sustaining an inventive culture was making inventors into national heroes, it was a secret that didn't translate well into French. Between 1740 and 1780, the French inclination to reward inventors not by enforcing a natural right but by the grant of pensions and prizes resulted in the award of nearly 7 million livres--approximately $600 million today--to inventors of largely forgot-(p. 268)ten devices, but Claude-François Jouffroy d'Abbans (inventor of one of the first working steamboats), Barthélemy Thimonnier (creator of the first sewing machine), and Airné Argand (a partner of Boulton and friend of Watt whose oil lamp became the world's standard) all died penniless.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

March 2, 2011

Occupational Licensing Adds Billions a Year to Cost of Services


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

(p. A1) . . . economists--and workers shut out of fields by educational requirements or difficult exams--say licensing mostly serves as a form of protectionism, allowing veterans of the trade to box out competitors who might undercut them on price or offer new services.

"Occupations prefer to be li-(p. A16)censed because they can restrict competition and obtain higher wages," said Morris Kleiner, a labor professor at the University of Minnesota. "If you go to any statehouse, you'll see a line of occupations out the door wanting to be licensed."

While some states have long required licensing for workers who handle food or touch others--caterers and hair stylists, for example--economists say such regulation is spreading to more states for more industries. The most recent study, from 2008, found 23% of U.S. workers were required to obtain state licenses, up from just 5% in 1950, according to data from Mr. Kleiner. In the mid-1980s, about 800 professions were licensed in at least one state. Today, at least 1,100 are, according to the Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation, a trade group for regulatory bodies. Among the professions licensed by one or more states: florists, interior designers, private detectives, hearing-aid fitters, conveyor-belt operators and retailers of frozen desserts.

. . .

Mr. Kleiner, of the University of Minnesota, looked at census data covering several occupations that are regulated in some states but not others, including librarians, nutritionists and respiratory therapists. He found that employment growth in those professions was about 20% greater, on average, in the unregulated states between 1990 and 2000.

Licensing can also drive up costs to consumers. Licensed workers earn, on average, 15% more than their unlicensed counterparts in other states--a premium that may be reflected in their prices, according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and conducted by Mr. Kleiner and Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton University.

Mr. Kleiner estimates that across the U.S. economy, occupational licensing adds at least $116 billion a year to the cost of services, which amounts to about 1% of total consumer spending. In a look at dentistry, Mr. Kleiner found that the average price of dental services rose 11% when a state made it more difficult to get a dental license.

For the full story, see:

STEPHANIE SIMON. "A License to Shampoo: Jobs Needing State Approval Rise." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., February 7, 2011): A1 & A16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

JobsNeedingStateLicenseTable2011-02-27cropped.jpg"Some of the jobs that require licensing in one or more states." Source of caption and table: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

March 1, 2011

Property Rights Arise When Labor Creates Scarce Value

Marking snow-cleared parking spaces is a wonderful example of Demsetz's theory of how property rights tend to emerge when the efficiency gains are large enough.

I remember when I was a graduate student in Chicago sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s, there were a couple of very snowy winters in which Chicagoans would similarly claim spaces from which they had cleared the snow.

I remember, but alas did not save, an article (probably in the Chicago Tribune) documenting how someone "stole" a marked space, and later returned to find that a garden hose had been used to cover their car in a considerable layer of ice.

(p. 8A) CHICAGO (AP) -- A blizzard that dumped nearly 2 feet of snow on Chicago last week has revived a city tradition: Break out the patio furniture. Or, if none is available, suitcases, gar­bage cans, strollers, bar stools and milk crates work, too.

Chicagoans use all these items in a time-honored yet controver­sial system of preserving park­ing spots, a system known as "dibs."

. . .

Actually, a city ordinance makes the practice illegal.

. . .

Even the city's top police offi­cer sympathizes with those who do it.

"Think about it, you spend a couple hours clearing a spot, and somebody from another block takes it?" Superintendent Jody Weis said Friday.

. . .

"This is my spot because I worked hard to dig my car out," said Max Rosario, 27, just be­fore he put his patio chair on the street. It joined 16 chairs, one slab of plywood, a plastic kids table, three bar stools and a TV dinner tray, among other things.

For the full story, see:

AP. "Chicagoans calling dibs after digging out; Chairs and other objects save precious parking spots that have been shoveled." Omaha World-Herald (Sun., FEBRUARY 6, 2011): 8A.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The Demsetz paper is:

Demsetz, Harold. "Toward a Theory of Property Rights." American Economic Review 57, no. 2 (May 1967): 347-59.


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