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May 31, 2014

When Labor Markets Are Flexible, Workers Need Not Fear New Technology




(p. 6) Driverless vehicles and drone aircraft are no longer science fiction, and over time, they may eliminate millions of transportation jobs. Many other examples of automatable jobs are discussed in "The Second Machine Age," a book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, and in my own book, "Average Is Over." The upshot is that machines are often filling in for our smarts, not just for our brawn -- and this trend is likely to grow.

How afraid should workers be of these new technologies? There is reason to be skeptical of the assumption that machines will leave humanity without jobs. After all, history has seen many waves of innovation and automation, and yet as recently as 2000, the rate of unemployment was a mere 4 percent. There are unlimited human wants, so there is always more work to be done. The economic theory of comparative advantage suggests that even unskilled workers can gain from selling their services, thereby liberating the more skilled workers for more productive tasks.


. . .


Labor markets just aren't as flexible these days for workers, especially for men at the bottom end of the skills distribution.


. . .


Across the economy, a college degree is often demanded where a high school degree used to suffice.


. . .


The law is yet another source of labor market inflexibility: The number of jobs covered by occupational licensing continues to rise and is almost one-third of the work force. We don't need such laws for, say, barbers or interior designers, although they are commonly on the books.


. . .


Many . . . labor market problems were brought on by the financial crisis and the collapse of market demand. But it would be a mistake to place all the blame on the business cycle. Before the crisis, for example, business executives and owners didn't always know who their worst workers were, or didn't want to engage in the disruptive act of rooting out and firing them. So long as sales were brisk, it was easier to let matters lie. But when money ran out, many businesses had to make the tough decisions -- and the axes fell. The financial crisis thus accelerated what would have been a much slower process.

Subsequently, some would-be employers seem to have discriminated against workers who were laid off in the crash. These judgments weren't always fair, but that stigma isn't easily overcome, because a lot of employers in fact had reason to identify and fire their less productive workers.



For the full commentary, see:

TYLER COWEN. "Economic View; Automation Alone Isn't Killing Jobs." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., APRIL 6, 2014): 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date APRIL 5, 2014.)



The Brynjolfsson and McAfee book mentioned is:

Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.


The Cowen book that Cowen mentions is:

Cowen, Tyler. Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. New York: Dutton Adult, 2013.






May 30, 2014

Young Inca Woman Was Probably Murdered




MurderedIncanYoungWoman2014-04-28.jpg "The Incan mummy." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


Hobbes famously wrote that for most of human existence, life has been "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Further evidence:


(p. D4) Scientists who have examined the mummy of a young Inca say that her death was most likely a homicide and that it was not because of Chagas disease, the tropical parasitic infection that she had.


For the full story, see:

"Observatory; A Verdict of Murder." The New York Times (Tues., MARCH 4, 2014): D4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 3, 2014.)




The famous Hobbes quote can be found on p. 70 of:

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Dover Philosophical Classics. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006 [first published 1651].






May 29, 2014

In Bringing Us Electricity, Westinghouse Rejected the Precautionary Principle




(p. 180) The defensive position that Westinghouse found himself in is illustrated by the way he contradicted himself as he tried to defend overhead wires. The wires that were supposedly safe were also the same wires that he had to admit, yes, posed dangers, yes, but dangers of various kinds had to be accepted throughout the modern city. Westinghouse said, "If all things involving the use of power were to be prohibited because of the danger to life, then the cable cars, which have already killed and maimed a number of people, would have to be abolished." Say good-bye to trains, too, he added, because of accidents at road crossings.


Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.






May 28, 2014

Psychological Theorizing Based on False Facts




KittyGenoveseBK2014-04-29.jpg

















Source of book image:
http://media.npr.org/assets/bakertaylor/covers/k/kitty-genovese/9780393239287_custom-113f9b45a7b76ac664f82c62c6604fd07d7ad5f9-s6-c30.jpg



(p. C7) The Kitty Genovese myth has turned out to be as enduring an urban legend as the tale of alligators prowling the New York sewers. In March 1964 the young Queens bar manager was stabbed to death at three in the morning outside her Kew Gardens apartment while 38 neighbors watched from their windows and did nothing to save her--or so the tale has gone for the past half-century.

In fact, hardly anything about the Genovese story is what it first appeared to be, although it has calcified into a metaphor of urban alienation and prompted research into a psychological phenomenon that has come to be known as the "Genovese syndrome." As Kevin Cook writes in his heavily padded but provocative new book, "Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America," the tale is as much about the alchemy of journalism as urban pathology.


. . .


. . . , as it turns out, only a few neighbors understood the attack for what it was and failed to respond.


. . .


Journalism is a blunt instrument, and allowances must be made. Even so, it's plain that the original story was more hype than first draft of history.



For the full review, see:

EDWARD KOSNER. "BOOKS; What the Neighbors Didn't See; A woman was stabbed and raped steps from her door. Did no one call the police?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 1, 2014): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 28, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Kitty Genovese' by Kevin Cook; A woman was stabbed and raped steps from her door. Did no one call the police?")


The book under review is:

Cook, Kevin. Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.






May 27, 2014

Warren Buffett Lately Low on Alpha




(p. 3) Warren Buffett is probably the most famous investor of his generation, and for good reason: His track record over the long term is a thing of beauty.

He has beaten the market by a wide margin over 49 years, a record so impressive that it's used in finance classes as a textbook example of "alpha."

Alpha is an elusive quality. Very simply put, it is the ability to beat an index fund without adding risk to a portfolio. Investment managers are always seeking it. If it exists, Warren Buffett surely has had it.

A new statistical analysis of Mr. Buffett's long-term record at Berkshire Hathaway has just been done, and it's come up with some fascinating insights about his abilities, past and present, and about the chances that the rest of us have for beating the market. Using a series of statistical measures, the study suggests that Mr. Buffett has indeed been blessed with an impressively big dose of alpha over a very long career.

But it also reveals something that isn't impressive at all: For four of the last five years, Mr. Buffett has been doing worse than the typical, no-frills Standard & Poor's 500-stock index fund -- so much worse that it's unlikely to be a matter of a string of bad luck. Mr. Buffett has begun to behave like an investor with no alpha at all.


. . .


A vast majority of individuals, including most people now working in finance, do not have alpha, Mr. Mehta says. It doesn't matter whether they have studied finance or have prodigious math skills; the statistics show that they are unlikely to have the ability to beat the market.

That has a serious implication for individual investors, he says: True investing skill is so rare that the rest of us shouldn't even try to emulate those who have it. In addition, he says, we probably shouldn't bother trying to hire the few outperformers to invest our money. Why? Because we aren't likely to be able to identify them.



For the full commentary, see:

JEFF SOMMER. "Strategies; The Oracle of Omaha, Lately Looking a Bit Ordinary." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., APRIL 6, 2014): 3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date APRIL 5, 2014.)






May 26, 2014

Crispr Molecular System Allows Scientists to Edit Genes




CrisprEditsGenes2014-04-28.jpgSource of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. D1) In the late 1980s, scientists at Osaka University in Japan noticed unusual repeated DNA sequences next to a gene they were studying in a common bacterium. They mentioned them in the final paragraph of a paper: "The biological significance of these sequences is not known."

Now their significance is known, and it has set off a scientific frenzy.

The sequences, it turns out, are part of a sophisticated immune system that bacteria use to fight viruses. And that system, whose very existence was unknown until about seven years ago, may provide scientists with unprecedented power to rewrite the code of life.

In the past year or so, researchers have discovered that the bacterial system can be harnessed to make precise changes to the DNA of humans, as well as other animals and plants.

This means a genome can be edited, much as a writer might change words or fix spelling errors. It allows "customizing the genome of any cell or any species at will," said Charles Gersbach, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University.



For the full story, see:

ANDREW POLLACK. "A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA." The New York Times (Tues., MARCH 4, 2014): D1 & D5.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 3, 2014.)







May 25, 2014

Entrepreneurial Consumer J.P. Morgan "Handled Setbacks with Equanimity"





Schumpeter wrote that the entrepreneur is the one who overcomes obstacles to get the job done (1950, p. 132). Obstacles come in many forms. One of them is consumer resistance to change. So one key contributor to the technological progress is the "entrepreneurial consumer" who is willing to invest in new, buggy, possibly dangerous technologies at an early stage. (Paul Nodskov, a student in my spring 2014 Economics of Technology seminar suggested using the phrase "entrepreneurial consumer.")

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in contrast to Europeans, Americans were "restless in the midst of their prosperity" (2000 [first published 1835], Ch. 13). Perhaps even that early, America had more entrepreneurial consumers?


(p. 131) Morgan prized being ahead of everyone else, and the next year was concerned that his plant was already less than state of the art, a suspicion that was confirmed when he persuaded Edison to send Edward Johnson to the house for an evaluation. Johnson was instructed to upgrade the equipment and also to devise a way to provide an electric light that would sit on Morgan's desk in his library. At a time when the very concept of an electrical outlet and detachable electrical appliances had yet to appear, this posed a significant challenge. Johnson's solution was to run wires beneath the floor to metal plates that were installed in different places beneath the rugs. One of the legs of the desk was equipped with sharp metal prongs, designed to make contact with one of the plates when moved about the room.

In conception, it was clever; in implementation, it fell short of ideal. On the first evening when the light was turned on, there was a flash, followed by a fire that quickly engulfed the desk and spread across the rug before being put out. When Johnson was summoned to the house the next morning, he was shown into the library, where charred debris was piled in a heap. He expected that when Morgan appeared, he would angrily announce that the services of Edison Electric were no longer needed.

(p. 132) "Well?" Morgan stood in the doorway, with Mrs. Morgan standing behind him, signaling Johnson with a finger across her lips not to launch into elaborate explanations. Johnson cast a doleful eye at the disaster in the room and remained silent.

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" Morgan asked. Johnson said the fault was his own and that he would personally reinstall everything, ensuring that it would be done properly.

"All right. See that you do." Morgan turned and left. The eager purchaser of first-generation technology handled setbacks with equanimity. "I hope that the Edison Company appreciates the value of my house as an experimental station," he would later say. A new installation with second-generation equipment worked well, and Morgan held a reception for four hundred guests to show off his electric lights. The event led some guests to place their own orders for similar installations. Morgan also donated entire systems to St. George's Church and to a private school, dispatching Johnson to oversee the installation as a surprise to the headmistress. The family biographer compared Morgan's gifts of electrical power plants to his sending friends baskets of choice fruit.



Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.



Schumpeter's book is:

Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. 3rd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1950.

The other book I mention, is:

de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 [first published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840].






May 24, 2014

"A Libertarian Celebration of Hustling, Hacking and Free-Form Development"




TheBrightContinentBK2014-04-28.jpg















Source of book image: http://www.hmhco.com/shop/books/the-bright-continent/9780547678313#



(p. 21) Africa's gains have come not because of Western largess or painful structural adjustment programs set out by the likes of the International Monetary Fund, Olopade argues, nor are they the work of governments. They are largely the fruit of Africans' efforts to help themselves, through creative means that sometimes involve breaking the rules.


. . .


She excavates a hopeful narrative about a continent on the rise, "a libertarian celebration of hustling, hacking and free-form development."

The best solutions, according to Olopade, are local, developed by people closest to the problem, not bureaucrats in Washington or Brussels: the South African gynecologist who operates out of two shipping containers stacked together, the Kenyan family who take over an abandoned plot of land to grow vegetables to eat and sell.

Central to Olopade's thesis is the concept of kanju, a term that describes "the specific creativity born from African difficulty." It is the rule-bending ethos that makes it possible to get things done in the face of headaches like crumbling infrastructure, corrupt bureaucracy and tightfisted banks unwilling to make loans to people without political connections.

Many countries have these kinds of hacks and workarounds. In India, the term is jugaad, and it has had its moment in the sun as a business school concept. India runs on this informal hacking of the system that makes life and business ­possible.



For the full review, see:

LYDIA POLGREEN. "Home Improvement." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., APRIL 13, 2014): 21.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date APRIL 11, 2014, and has the title "Home Improvement; 'The Bright Continent,' by Dayo Olopade.")


The book under review is:

Olopade, Dayo. The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2014.






May 23, 2014

30,000 Year Old Virus Revived from Permafrost




(p. D5) From Siberian permafrost more than 30,000 years old, [French and Russian researchers] have revived a virus that's new to science.

"To pull out a virus that's 30,000 years old and actually grow it, that's pretty impressive," said Scott O. Rogers of Bowling Green State University who was not involved in the research. "This goes well beyond what anyone else has done."


. . .


Measuring 1.5 micrometers long, the viruses are 25 percent bigger than any virus previously found.


. . .


"Sixty percent of its gene content doesn't resemble anything on earth," Dr. Abergel said. She and her colleagues suspect that pithoviruses may be parasitic survivors of life forms that were very common early in the history of life.


. . .


"Its potential implications for evolutionary theory and health are quite astonishing," said Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen.



For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. "Out of Siberian Ice, a Virus Revived." The New York Times (Tues., MARCH 4, 2014): D5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed words, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 3, 2014.)







May 22, 2014

In France "'Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité' Means that What's Yours Should Be Mine"




SantacruzGuillaumeFrenchEntrepreneurInLondon2014-04-27.jpgGuillaume Santacruz is among many French entrepreneurs now using London as their base. He said of his native France, "The economy is not going well, and if you want to get ahead or run your own business, the environment is not good." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 1) Guillaume Santacruz, an aspiring French entrepreneur, brushed the rain from his black sweater and skinny jeans and headed down to a cavernous basement inside Campus London, a seven-story hive run by Google in the city's East End.


. . .


A year earlier, Mr. Santacruz, who has two degrees in finance, was living in Paris near the Place de la Madeleine, working in a boutique finance firm. He had taken that job after his attempt to start a business in Marseille foundered under a pile of government regulations and a seemingly endless parade of taxes. The episode left him wary of starting any new projects in France. Yet he still hungered to be his own boss.

He decided that he would try again. Just not in his own country.

"A lot of people are like, 'Why would you ever leave France?' " Mr. Santacruz said. "I'll tell you. France has a lot of problems. There's a feeling of gloom that seems to be growing deeper. The economy is not going well, and if you want to get ahead or run your own business, the environment is not good."


. . .


(p. 5) "Making it" is almost never easy, but Mr. Santacruz found the French bureaucracy to be an unbridgeable moat around his ambitions. Having received his master's in finance at the University of Nottingham in England, he returned to France to work with a friend's father to open dental clinics in Marseille. "But the French administration turned it into a herculean effort," he said.

A one-month wait for a license turned into three months, then six. They tried simplifying the corporate structure but were stymied by regulatory hurdles. Hiring was delayed, partly because of social taxes that companies pay on salaries. In France, the share of nonwage costs for employers to fund unemployment benefits, education, health care and pensions is more than 33 percent. In Britain, it is around 20 percent.

"Every week, more tax letters would come," Mr. Santacruz recalled.


. . .


Diane Segalen, an executive recruiter for many of France's biggest companies who recently moved most of her practice, Segalen & Associés, to London from Paris, says the competitiveness gap is easy to see just by reading the newspapers. "In Britain, you read about all the deals going on here," Ms. Segalen said. "In the French papers, you read about taxes, more taxes, economic problems and the state's involvement in everything."


. . .


"It is a French cultural characteristic that goes back to almost the revolution and Robespierre, where there's a deep-rooted feeling that you don't show that you make money," Ms. Segalen, the recruiter, said. "There is this sense that 'liberté, égalité, fraternité' means that what's yours should be mine. It's more like, if someone has something I can't have, I'd rather deprive this person from having it than trying to work hard to get it myself. That's a very French state of mind. But it's a race to the bottom."



For the full story, see:

LIZ ALDERMAN. "Au Revoir, Entrepreneurs." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., MARCH 23, 2014): 1 & 5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 22, 2014.)




SegalenDianeFrenchEntrepreneurInLondon2014-04-27.jpg 'Diane Segalen moved most of her executive recruiting practice to London from Paris. In France, she says, "there is this sense that 'liberté, égalité, fraternité' means that what's yours should be mine."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






May 21, 2014

Edison Genuinely Believed that AC Was More Dangerous than DC




(p. 174) In Edison's view, . . . , Westinghouse did not pose a serious threat in the power-and-light business because he used the relatively more dangerous alternating current, certain to kill one of his own customers within six months.

Edison's conviction that direct current was less dangerous than alternating current was based on hunch, however, not empirical scientific research. He, like others at the time, focused solely on voltage (the force that pushes electricity through a wire) without paying attention to amperage (the rate of flow of electricity), and thought it would be best to stay at 1,200 volts or less. Even he was not certain that his own system was completely safe--after all, he had elected to place wires in underground conduits, which was more expensive than stringing wires overhead but reduced the likelihood of electrical current touching a passerby. Burying the wires could not give him complete peace of mind, however. Privately, he told Edward Johnson that "we must look out for crosses [i.e., short-circuited wires] for if we ever kill a customer it would be a bad blow to the business."



Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis added, bracketed words in original.)






May 20, 2014

G.D.P. Is a Useful, But Biased Downward, Measure of Growth




GDPBK2014-04-28.jpg















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






(p. 6) Dr. Coyle concludes that while imperfect, the G.D.P. is good enough as a measure of how fast the economy is growing and better than any alternative. It is closely correlated with things that do contribute to happiness. (Nobody is happy in a recession.)

"We should not be in a rush to ditch G.D.P.," Dr. Coyle writes. "Yet it is a measure of the economy best suited to an earlier era."

For one thing, it fails to count the value of the staggering growth in consumer choice. Where once we had three television networks, we now have 1,000 channels; greater choice equals greater freedom, she declares. It does poorly in measuring the Internet economy, in which so many benefits -- like Google searches -- are offered free. It badly lags behind the headlong pace of innovation and creativity. It struggles with the true value of a host of products or services that didn't exist before. To the degree that it misses those new benefits to consumers, it understates the pace of economic growth.



For the full review, see:

FRED ANDREWS. "Off the Shelf; An Economic Gauge, Imperfect but Vital." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., APRIL 6, 2014): 6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date APRIL 5, 2014.)


The book under review is:

Coyle, Diane. GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.






May 19, 2014

Open Source Heartbleed Bug Sends Internet "into a Panic"





Opponents of patents often point to the open source movement as an alternative. The Heartbleed bug illustrates a big downside to open source:


(p. B1) The encryption flaw that punctured the heart of the Internet this week underscores a weakness in Internet security: A good chunk of it is managed by four European coders and a former military consultant in Maryland.

Most of the 11-member team are volunteers; only one works full time. Their budget is less than $1 million a year. The Heartbleed bug, revealed Monday, was the product of a fluke introduced by a young German researcher.


. . .


The OpenSSL Project was founded in 1998 to create a free set of encryption tools that has since been adopted by two-thirds of Web servers. Websites, network-equipment companies and governments use OpenSSL tools to protect personal and other sensitive information online.

So when researchers at Google Inc. and Codenomicon on Monday stated that Heartbleed could allow hackers to steal such data, the Internet went into a panic.


. . .


(p. B3) Earlier in the day, a German volunteer coder admitted that he had unintentionally introduced the bug on New Year's Eve 2011 while working on bug fixes for OpenSSL. . . .

Errors in complex code are inevitable--Microsoft Corp., Apple Inc. and Google announce flaws monthly. But people close to OpenSSL, which relies in part on donations, say a lack of funding and manpower exacerbated the problem and allowed it to go unnoticed for two years.


. . .


The OpenSSL Project counts a sole full-time developer: Stephen Henson, a 46-year-old British cryptographer with a Ph.D. in mathematics. Two other U.K. residents and a developer in Germany fill out the project's management team.

Associates describe Mr. Henson as brilliant but standoffish and overloaded with work.


. . .


Geoffrey Thorpe, an OpenSSL volunteer on the development team, said he has little time to spend on the project because of his day job at a hardware technology company.



For the full story, see:

DANNY YADRON. "Internet Security Relies on Very Few." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., April 12, 2014): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 11, 2014, and has the title "TECHNOLOGY; Heartbleed Bug's 'Voluntary' Origins; Internet Security Relies on a Small Team of Coders, Most of Them Volunteers; Flaw Was a Fluke.")






May 18, 2014

Russia and China Redistributed Wealth "to Disastrous Effect"




SmithShane2014-04-26.jpg







Shane Smith, entrepreneur behind VICE media company. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.












(p. 10) You believe that young people worldwide are disenfranchised. Do you think popular uprisings will fix things? No. I'm actually worried, because I believe that it's going to get worse. Look, economic disparity is bad. But we've already tried having governments redistribute wealth. We tried it in Russia and China to disastrous effect.

News Corp. bought a 5 percent stake in Vice, and now James Murdoch is on the board. Why did you sell to them? I've said that I want to be the next MTV, the next CNN, the next ESPN. Cue everyone rolling their eyes. MTV went to Viacom, ESPN went to Disney and Hearst, CNN went to Time Warner. Why? Because to build a global media brand, it's almost impossible to do it alone. James has been involved in one of the largest media companies in the world since he was in short pants.

Do you ever fear that Vice will become legacy media itself? It's our time now. Then, I don't know, it'll be holograms next, and some kid will come up and eat our lunch.



For the full interview, see:

Staley, Willy, interviewer. " 'Have We Unleashed a Monster?': The Vice C.E.O. Shane Smith on His New Kind of News." The New York Times Magazine (Sun., MARCH 23, 2014): 12.

(Note: ellipsis added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date MARCH 21, 2014, and has the title "Vice's Shane Smith: 'Have We Unleashed a Monster?'.")






May 17, 2014

Edison's Magnetic Low-Grade Iron Ore Processing Inventions Might Have Succeeded




(p. 193) Edison took great pleasure in the novelty of the technical challenges and in the opportunity to redeem his reputation as a savvy businessperson, even though redemption never came. The low-grade iron ore in New Jersey did not have a competitive chance once huge reserves of high-grade ore were discovered in the Mesabi Range of northeastern Minnesota; the Mesabi ore was easily mined near the surface and close to economical shipping on Lake Superior. Well after the first Mesabi mine opened in 1890, Edison remained pitiably hopeful about his Ogden mine, even when objective facts made the future of its business appear bleak to anyone else. In 1897, when failure was inevitable, he refused to acknowledge the facts. Edison wrote a colleague, "My Wall Street friends think I cannot make another success, and that I am a back number, hence I cannot raise even $10,000 from them, but I am going to show them that they are very much mistaken. I am full of vinegar yet."


Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.






May 16, 2014

"The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong and the Oddballs Keep Getting It Right"




HydraulicFracturingOperationInColorado2014-04-25.jpg "A worker at a hydraulic fracturing and extraction operation in western Colorado on March 29[, 2014]." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. C3) The experts keep getting it wrong. And the oddballs keep getting it right.

Over the past five years of business history, two events have shocked and transformed the nation. In 2007 and 2008, the housing market crumbled and the financial system collapsed, causing trillions of dollars of losses. Around the same time, a few little-known wildcatters began pumping meaningful amounts of oil and gas from U.S. shale formations. A country that once was running out of energy now is on track to become the world's leading producer.

What's most surprising about both events is how few experts saw them coming--and that a group of unlikely outsiders somehow did.


. . .


Less well known, but no less dramatic, is the story of America's energy transformation, which took the industry's giants almost completely by surprise. In the early 1990s, an ambitious Chevron executive named Ray Galvin started a group to drill compressed, challenging formations of shale in the U.S. His team was mocked and undermined by dubious colleagues. Eventually, Chevron pulled the plug on the effort and shifted its resources abroad.

Exxon Mobil also failed to focus on this rock--even though its corporate headquarters in Irving, Texas, were directly above a huge shale formation that eventually would flow with gas. Later, it would pay $31 billion to buy a smaller shale pioneer.

"I would be less than honest if I were to say to you [that] we saw it all coming, because we did not, quite frankly," Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil's chairman and CEO said last year in an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations.


. . .


The resurgence in U.S. energy came from a group of brash wildcatters who discovered techniques to hydraulically fracture--or frack--and horizontally drill shale and other rock. Many of these men operated on the fringes of the oil industry, some without college degrees or much background in drilling, geology or engineering.



For the full commentary, see:

GREGORY ZUCKERMAN. "ESSAY; The Little Guys Who Saw Our Economic Future; Corporate Caution and Complacency Come at a Cost." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Nov. 2, 2013): C3.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year in caption, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated Nov. 3, 2013, and has the title "ESSAY; The Outsiders Who Saw Our Economic Future; In both America's energy transformation and the financial crisis, it took a group of amateurs to see what was coming." )


Zuckerman's commentary, quoted above, is partly based on his book:

Zuckerman, Gregory. The Frackers: The Outrageous inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2013.






May 15, 2014

Koch Industries Was Only Major Ethanol Producer to Oppose Ethanol Tax Credits




(p. A17) I have devoted most of my life to understanding the principles that enable people to improve their lives. It is those principles--the principles of a free society--that have shaped my life, my family, our company and America itself.

Unfortunately, the fundamental concepts of dignity, respect, equality before the law and personal freedom are under attack by the nation's own government. That's why, if we want to restore a free society and create greater well-being and opportunity for all Americans, we have no choice but to fight for those principles.


. . .


Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs--even when we benefit from them. I believe that cronyism is nothing more than welfare for the rich and powerful, and should be abolished.

Koch Industries was the only major producer in the ethanol industry to argue for the demise of the ethanol tax credit in 2011. That government handout (which cost taxpayers billions) needlessly drove up food and fuel prices as well as other costs for consumers--many of whom were poor or otherwise disadvantaged. Now the mandate needs to go, so that consumers and the marketplace are the ones who decide the future of ethanol.



For the full commentary, see:

CHARLES G. KOCH. "OPINION; I'm Fighting to Restore a Free Society; Instead of welcoming free debate, collectivists engage in character assassination." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., April 3, 2014): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated April 2, 2014, and has the title "OPINION; Charles Koch: I'm Fighting to Restore a Free Society; Instead of welcoming free debate, collectivists engage in character assassination." )


Koch's philosophy of the free market is more fully elaborated in:

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






May 14, 2014

Delta Overcomes Obstacles that Ground Other Airlines




DeltaOvercomesObstaclesToKeepFlyingGraphic.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


Cancellations due to mechanical failures, piliot illness and government regulations are often announced as though they were acts of God, outside the possible control of airlines, for which the airline is blameless. But airlines can take actions, and improve processes, to reduce the frequency and consequences of such cancellations. In airlines, and in other firms, there is not a sharp line between what can and what cannot be under the firm's control.


(p. D3) Atlanta

The crew of Delta Air Lines Flight 55 last Thursday couldn't legally fly from Lagos, Nigeria, to Atlanta unless they waited a day due to new limits on how much pilots can fly in a rolling 28-day period. The trip would have to be canceled.

Instead, Delta headquarters told the captain to fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, which they could reach within their duty limits. There, two new pilots would be waiting to take the Boeing 767 on to Atlanta. The plane arrived in San Juan at 2:44 a.m., quickly took on fuel and pilots, and landed in Atlanta only 40 minutes late.

The episode, unorthodox in the airline industry, illustrates the fanaticism Delta now has for avoiding cancellations. Last year, Delta canceled just 0.3% of its flights, according to flight-tracking service FlightStats.com. That was twice as good as the next-best airlines, Southwest and Alaska, and five times better than the industry average of 1.7%.


. . .


Managers in Delta operations centers move planes, crews and parts around hourly trying to avoid canceling flights. How well an airline maintains its fleet and how smartly it stashes spare parts and planes at airports affect whether your flight goes or not.

Delta thinks it has come up with new analytical software and instruments that can help monitor the health of airplanes and predict which parts will soon fail. Empty planes are ferried to replace crippled jets rather than waiting for overnight repairs.

Mechanics developed a vibration monitor to install on cooling fans for cockpit instruments. A plane can't be sent out on a new trip with a broken fan.

Now when vibration starts to increase, indicating that a bearing may be wearing down and getting close to failing, a new fan is swapped in. The wobbly fan goes to the shop for new bearings. That has reduced canceled flights.

So has spending $2 million to have spare starters for Boeing 767 engines at all 767 stations abroad. Starters last about five years. While each plane has two and both engines can be started with one, you can't send a plane out on a long trip over oceans with only one working.



For the full story, see:

SCOTT MCCARTNEY. "THE MIDDLE SEAT; A World Where Flights Aren't Canceled; How Smartly an Airline Stashes Spare Parts and Planes at Airports Affects Whether or Not Your Flight Takes Off." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., April 3, 2014): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 2, 2014, and has the title "THE MIDDLE SEAT; A World Where Flights Aren't Canceled; Inside Delta's new strategies to avoid stranding fliers.")






May 13, 2014

In the End Edison Said "I Am Not Business Man Enough to Spend Time" in the Electricity Business




(p. 186) In early 1892, the deal was done: Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston merged as nominal equals. The organization chart, however, reflected a different understanding among the principals. Thomson-Houston's chief executive, Charles Coffin, became the new head and other Thomson-Houston executives filled out the other positions. Insull was the only manager from the Edison side invited to stay, which he did only briefly. From the outside, it appeared that Thomas (p. 187) Edison and his coterie had arranged the combination from a position of abject surrender. Edison did not want this to be the impression left in the public mind, however. When the press asked him about the announcement, he said he had been one of the first to urge the merger. This was not close to the truth, and is especially amusing when placed in juxtaposition to Alfred Tate's account of the moment when Tate, hearing news of the merger first, had been the one to convey the news to Edison.

I always have regretted the abruptness with which I broke the news to Edison but I am not sure that a milder manner and less precipitate delivery would have cushioned the shock. I never before had seen him change color. His complexion naturally was pale, a clear healthy paleness, but following my announcement it turned as white as his collar.

"Send for Insull," was all he said as he left me standing in his library.

Having collected himself before meeting with the reporters, Edison could say with sincerity that he was too busy to "waste my time" on the electric light. For the past three years, since he first realized that his direct-current system would ultimately be driven to the margins by alternating current, he had been carting his affections elsewhere. The occasion of the merger did shake him into a rare disclosure of personal shortcoming: He allowed that "I am not business man enough to spend time" in the power-and-light business.



Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.






May 12, 2014

Heart Pioneer Bailey Kept Moving from Hospital to Hospital Due to His Failures




ExtemeMedicineBK2014-04-25.jpg

















Source of book image:
http://media.npr.org/assets/bakertaylor/covers/e/extreme-medicine/9781594204708_custom-14713d8588e54f066a6abf7b5a13e4c9de832ea1-s6-c30.jpg



(p. C8) In "Extreme Medicine," physician Kevin Fong reminds us that virtually everything we take for granted in lifesaving medical intervention was once unthinkable. Over the past century, as technology has allowed man to conquer hostile environments and modernize warfare, medical pioneers have been on a parallel journey, confronting what had once been fatal in man's boldest pursuits and making it survivable.


. . .


As Dr. Fong notes, many of today's commonplace treatments were once dangerously experimental. One pioneer in the early postwar years, a Philadelphia surgeon named Charles Bailey, killed several patients while trying to repair problems of the mitral valve, which if damaged can cause blood to flow backward into the hear chamber, decreasing flow to the rest of the body. Bailey moved from hospital to hospital to avoid scrutiny of his successive failures.



For the full review, see:

LAURA LANDRO. "BOOKS; They Died So We Might Live; Hypothermia, which killed explorers like Scott, is now induced in heart patients to allow time for surgery." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Feb. 15, 2014): C8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 14, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Extreme Medicine' by Kevin Fong; Explorers, astronauts and soldiers all pushed the limits of doctors' abilities to heal and repair.")


The book under review is:

Swidey, Neil. Trapped under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles into the Darkness. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014.






May 11, 2014

Fair Use Doctrine Allows Copying for Educational Purposes




(p. 23) I am a public-school teacher with a limited budget for supplies. Is it unethical to illegally download copyrighted instructional materials for use in my class? BEN L., BROOKLYN

It is not. In fact, it's sometimes not even illegal. In 1976, Congress created copyright exceptions for educational purposes. Copyright law allows "face-to-face" exhibition and presentation of a copyrighted work, assuming the purpose is academic. There is also the doctrine of fair use, which states that copies "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research, is not an infringement of copyright."

Now, it's worth acknowledging that these guidelines were implemented before downloading a textbook was even possible. And even in an educational setting, using an entire copyrighted work, and thereby diminishing its market potential, might constitute a violation of fair use. But in my opinion, the principles are the same, even if you do violate copyright law: If your sole motive for downloading material is educational (and there is no free or low-cost equivalent that serves your purposes equally well), there should be no problem.



For the full commentary, see:

Chuck Klosterman. "THE ETHICIST; Piracy 101." The New York Times Magazine (Sun., MARCH 30, 2014): 23.

(Note: italics and bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date MARCH 28, 2014.)






May 10, 2014

Television Improved Test Scores




GentzkowMatthewChicagoBatesClark2014-04-26.jpg "Economist Matthew Gentzkow found media slant to be a function of audience preference." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A2) An economist known for pioneering work on slanted coverage in the news media won the John Bates Clark Medal, one of the profession's most prestigious honors.

Matthew Gentzkow, a professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, on Thursday was awarded the Clark medal by the American Economic Association, which every year honors the nation's most promising economist under age 40.


. . .


A big theme in Mr. Gentzkow's work is finding innovative ways to tackle questions that expand economists' tool kits.

. . . , in 2008, he and Mr. Shapiro examined the fact that different parts of the U.S. got access to television at different times to gauge TV's effects on high-school students in the 1960s.

The economists found that children who lived in cities that gave them more exposure to TV in early childhood performed better on tests than those with less exposure. The work also suggested TV helped American children in non-English-speaking households do better in school.



For the full story, see:

NEIL SHAH. "Economist Honored for Work on Media Slant." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., April 18, 2014): 12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 17, 2014.)


The Gentzkow and Shapiro paper on the effects of television, is:

Gentzkow, Matthew, and Jesse M. Shapiro. "Preschool Television Viewing and Adolescent Test Scores: Historical Evidence from the Coleman Study." Quarterly Journal of Economics 123, no. 1 (Feb. 2008): 279-323.






May 9, 2014

Managing Engaged Edison Only Half as Much as Inventing




(p. 146) In 1885, three years after the start of service at Pearl Street, a director of the company who chose to remain anonymous complained to the Philadelphia Press that Edison insisted on taking an active part in the management of the company "although he is not a bit of a business man." He gave an example of Edison's poor judgment: Edison had proposed installing a new cable in Manhattan that would cost nearly $30,000 a mile, oblivious to the fact that Western Union had one with similar capacity in operation that had only cost $500 a mile. "If he would leave it to practical business men to make money out of it and stick to his inventions," the director said, "the company would in time become very rich."

For Edison, "sticking to his inventions" full-time would mean relinquishing control of Edison Electric, which was anathema. Managing his company did not engage him half as much as creating it, but he could not bring himself to let go of the captain's chair. Edison's intellectual interests, however, wandered from one minor project to the next. He had always done best when attempting something both entirely new and gargantuan in scale, but in the mid-1880s he could not find a suitable project.



Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

(Note: italics in original.)






May 8, 2014

Government Pushed Kiewit to Ignore Worker Safety




TrappedUnderTheSeaBK2014-04-25.jpg

















Source of book image: http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1369819962l/17934699.jpg



(p. C9) Boston Harbor's filth is legendary. It was mock-celebrated in the 1966 song "Dirty Water." The city's water-treatment plants were hopelessly inadequate, and barely treated sewage had been pouring into the harbor for decades.


. . .


The Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant was supposed to solve these problems. Begun in 1990, the $3.8 billion facility would process human and industrial waste on a small island in Boston Harbor and then send it through a 9.5-mile tunnel into the deep waters of the Atlantic. Fifty-five vertical pipes called risers spurred off the tunnel's final section to further diffuse waste before releasing it into the sea. Temporary safety plugs, likened to giant salad bowls, had been placed near the bottom of each riser to keep water from seeping in before construction was complete.

These plugs were a source of conflict between the tunnel's owner, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), and the company they hired to build it, Kiewit, "the Omaha-based construction giant" that, Mr. Swidey notes, "had built more miles of the U.S. highway system than any other contractor." The director of MWRA, Doug MacDonald, had left a job as a partner in a Boston law firm to take over the authority, a behemoth of 1,700 employees and, at the peak of harbor cleanup, an additional 3,000 construction workers. Mr. MacDonald's job included mollifying various parties who disagreed about how the Deer Island project would reach completion: Kiewit; the tunnel's designers, mostly out of the picture by 1998; ICF Kaiser Engineers, hired by MWRA to protect its interests and act as Mr. MacDonald's eyes and ears; the union "sandhogs" who bored out 2.4 million tons of rock to create the tunnel; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, ostensibly looking out for worker safety but seeming more interested in handing out fines; and, though federal funds for harbor cleanup had long since dried up, "a bow-tied federal judge who served as the cleanup project's robed referee, threatening stiff fines or worse if the deadlines he imposed were not met."


. . .


The problem weighed most heavily on Kiewit. The firm was contractually obligated to deliver on time, subject to late-fee penalties of $30,000 a day, and to cover cost overruns. More, Kiewit had fronted the construction costs and would only be paid by selling the tunnel, piece by piece, to MWRA. The contract further obligated Kiewit to provide "lighting and ventilation (or breathing apparatus) for the personnel" that pulled the plugs but, in what seemed a senseless conflict, mandated that the plugs "could be removed only after the tunnel was completed," writes Mr. Swidey, "meaning after the sandhogs had cleared out, taking their extensive ventilation, transportation, and electrical systems with them."

Kiewit protested that clearing the tunnel of its life-sustaining infrastructure would make "the risk of catastrophe [to the workers pulling the plugs] . . . exponentially higher !" They offered several sound alternatives. In response, ICF Kaiser accused them of just wanting their payday. After a "year-long memo war," Kiewit capitulated, cleared the tunnel and hired a commercial dive team to go into a pitch-black airless tube.



For the full review, see:

NANCY ROMMELMANN. "BOOKS; One Mile Down, Ten Miles Out; Their oxygen was starting to get thin. On the verge of passing out, Hoss radioed back to the Humvees. The reply was an expletive, and the line went dead." The Wall Street Journal (Sat.,March 15, 2014): C9.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs, added; ellipsis inside last paragraph, in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 14, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Trapped Under the Sea' by Neil Swidey; In 1999, five deep-sea welders had to traverse a tunnel beneath Boston Harbor with no breathable air, no light and no chance for rescue should things go horribly wrong." )


The book under review is:

Swidey, Neil. Trapped under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles into the Darkness. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014.






May 7, 2014

A&P Case Shows that Size Can Bring Economies of Scope and Scale




(p. A9) The claim that large, profit-driven firms are harmful to society has a venerable history in the United States. Perhaps no company was ever more vilified for its bigness than the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., which from 1920 to the 1960s was the largest retailer in the world. From the 1910s to the 1950s, as it cut out wholesalers and demanded volume discounts from food manufacturers, A&P was criticized for destroying the local merchants that formed the backbone of small-town America and the satisfying jobs they provided. Federal and state governments tried to cripple its business by prohibiting discounting; the Justice Department even won an antitrust case claiming that the company was selling food too cheaply. The fact that A&P's economies of scope and scale saved shoppers 15% or 20% on groceries didn't get much respect, just as Ms. Heffernan doesn't much value the role that big businesses play in lowering costs today.

Yes, competition drives many companies to act in socially harmful ways, and competition within firms can get in the way of collaboration. But the fact that competition can be dysfunctional does not mean that scope and scale are economists' fictions. Size does matter, and competition, while no panacea, does force people to find better ways of doing business.



For the full commentary, see:

MARC LEVINSON. "BOOKSHELF; When Size Does Matter; We glorify the local, but smallness didn't stop the country's savings and loans from needing a federal bailout in the 1980s." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., April 18, 2014): A9.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 17, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'A Bigger Prize' by Margaret Heffernan; We glorify the local, but smallness didn't stop the country's savings and loans from needing a federal bailout in the 1980s.")


Levinson's own book (not the one he is reviewing in the passages quoted above), is:

Levinson, Marc. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.






May 6, 2014

Aloysius Siow's Obituary for Gary Becker




My friend Aloysius Siow and I were graduate students at the University of Chicago in the mid to late 1970s, where we took courses from Gary Becker, and attended his workshop. In the past, I have posted several entries on Becker on this blog that appear under the Category "Becker, Gary." I expect to write some thoughts on his passing, but am not ready to do so yet. Aloysius drafted an obituary without delay, and kindly said it was OK for me to post it as an entry on this blog.



Obituary: Gary Becker
The Father of Economics Imperialism


By Aloysius Siow, Professor of Economics
University of Toronto
May 4, 2014


Gary Becker, an American economist, died on May 3 at the age of 83.

His major contribution was the systematic application of economics to the analysis of social issues. Before his work, economists primarily studied how markets and market economies worked. He used economics to study discrimination, criminal behavior, human capital, marriage, fertility and other social issues.

He won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1992. He also won the John Bates Clark medal, awarded to the best American economist under 40, in 1967; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor award by the US president to a civilian, in 2007.

Becker's father, Louis William Becker, migrated from Montreal to the United States at age sixteen and moved several times before settling down in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Becker's mother was Anna Siskind. He was born in Pottsville in 1930. At age five, Gary and his family moved to Brooklyn. He studied in Princeton University as an undergraduate. He did his PhD at the University of Chicago where he met Milton Friedman who would have an enormous influence on his intellectual development. After he obtained his PhD, Becker spent a few years as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and then moved to Columbia University.

His path breaking 1955 dissertation was on the economics of discrimination. It was the first systematic study of a non-traditional economic topic using economics. In it, he argued that the difference in wages between a majority and a minority group can be used to measure the extent of discrimination in the labor market. When one points out today that it is unfair that women earn 80 percent of what men make, they are channeling Becker. His thesis analyzed how the South African system of apartheid benefited Whites at the expense of Blacks in South Africa. This analysis predated the Anti-apartheid Boycott Movement of the West which started in 1959.

The methodology and concern of his thesis previewed his research career. At the time of the publication of his thesis in 1957, economics was a conservative discipline, restricting itself to the study of the behavior of markets and market economies. Becker set for himself the task of systematically applying the tools of economics to the study of social issues. At the beginning, his work was generally ignored if not actually denigrated within the profession. Economists were supposed to study more important concerns.

After studying discrimination, he provided a modern economic theory of criminal behavior. Together with his study on discrimination, this work inspired the development of the law and economics movement.

At Columbia University, he began a systematic study of human capital, the study of the allocation of time and other topics in labor economics. Together with his colleague Jacob Mincer, they wrote many of the important papers in labor economics and also produced many successful graduate students. For example, their graduate student, Michael Grossman, wrote his thesis on health economics where he applied economics to the study of individual maintenance of health. Today, health economics is a major field of study and a central pillar of health policy. Due to the topics they worked on, they also attracted and successfully supervised many female PhD students. Claudia Goldin of Harvard University is perhaps his most illustrious female PhD student.

In 1970, Becker returned to the University of Chicago where he remained as a professor until his death. He continue to apply his economics to the study of the family, including the behavior of marriage markets, allocation of resources within the family and fertility behavior. The discussion of how economics can affect fertility anticipated government policies which seek to increase their native fertility rates. For example, Singapore has over 30 programs which seeks to increase her fertility rate.

Today, Becker's approach is known as the rational choice approach in the social sciences. As the economics profession grew to appreciate his contributions, other social sciences have mixed feelings about his influence. On the one hand, they appreciate how he led economists to study different social issues. On the other hand, other social scientists often feel threatened by the invasion of economists.

Economists systematically use mathematical methods, statistical analysis and often large data sets. They prioritize cost benefit calculus over other factors which may also affect individual behavior. They had little patience with qualitative studies. Thus some social scientists felt that their contributions were unfairly ignored and so resisted the application of economics to their fields. For example, the Critical Legal Studies movement was developed in the 1970s in part in reaction to the success of the law and economics movement in law schools. In political science, rational choice theory is now a core field of study. Yet there are many political scientists who reject this approach.

Interestingly, motivated by the work of psychologists, economists have also begun to reject the purely rational calculus model of Becker as too narrow. Rather, these behavioral economics researchers argue that individuals have bounded rationality and are subject to systematic biases in their behavior. For example, Robert Shiller, a Nobel economist, has argued that bubbles occur in asset markets due to psychological biases. Thus the success of Becker has led to qualifications which is a hallmark of progress in science.

Contrary to many successful economists, Becker did not spend much time consulting for either the government or business. He was a conservative but unlike his mentor Milton Friedman, his direct influence on policy was minimal. Rather, the various economic fields which he instigated have had and continue to have significant influence on public policy. For example, every politician who wants to spend more resources on public education says that they are investing in the human capital of their society. Today, economists systematically contribute to policy discussions on maternity leaves, subsidies for child care and other social issues.

On a personal note, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late seventies where I met Gary Becker. I was interested in social issues. But because he was so intimidating as a scholar, I did not write my thesis under him nor was it on those concerns. Ten years after I obtained my PhD, and after I had moved to the University of Toronto, I wrote my first paper on the economics of the family motivated by a discussion in evolutionary psychology. Our interest on the economics of the family overlapped and we subsequently have had many professional interactions. I also began to realize that he did not know everything and that it is fine to work on topics which he had worked on.

Later in his life, he would sometimes introduce me as a former PhD student. At first I would correct him. But later I did not because perhaps he was right.








May 5, 2014

Edison Was "the World's Greatest Inventor and World's Worst Businessman"




(p. 165) BY THE EARLY twentieth century, Edison had earned a reputation as "the world's greatest inventor and world's worst businessman." The phrasing, attributed to Henry Ford, is memorable, even if both characterizations as greatest and worst are too extreme to be accepted literally.


Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.






May 4, 2014

Gilder's Information Theory of Capitalism Will Boost Morale of Innovative Entrepreneurs




KnowledgeAndPowerBK2014-04-24.jpg











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







(p. A13) Individuals like Ford and Jobs are key figures in the economic paradigm that George Gilder lays out in "Knowledge and Power." He calls for an "information theory of capitalism" in which the economy is driven by a dynamic marketplace, with information widely (and freely) distributed. The most important feature of such an economy, Mr. Gilder writes, is the overthrow of "equilibrium," and the most important actors are inventors and entrepreneurs whose breakthrough ideas are responsible for "everything useful or interesting" in commercial life.


. . .


Aspiring owners shouldn't look to "Knowledge and Power" for practical advice on starting a company, but Mr. Gilder's case for the central role of entrepreneurship might boost their morale. Certainly his argument could not be more timely. Census Bureau data show that startups were responsible for nearly all new job creation from 1996 to 2009. Yet entrepreneurship itself (as measured by new business formation) has been stagnant for about two decades. Thus the important question for America's future may well be, as Mr. Gilder says, "how we treat our entrepreneurs." He persuasively shows that creating a more supportive climate for entrepreneurs--by clearing away burdensome regulations and freeing information from its current imprisonment--will result in a more prosperous and vigorous society, creating not only more jobs but more Jobs.



For the full review, see:

MATTHEW REES. "BOOKSHELF; The Real Market-Maters; Economists as far back as Adam Smith have undervalued entrepreneurs--the restless, inventive, job-creating engines of the economy." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., March 18, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 17, 2014, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Knowledge and Power' by George Gilder
Economists as far back as Adam Smith have undervalued entrepreneurs--the restless, inventive, job-creating engines of the economy.")


The book under review is:

Gilder, George. Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How It Is Revolutionizing Our World. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2013.






May 3, 2014

Sweden Shows ObamaCare Will Cause Health Care Delays and Rationing




(p. A11) President Obama has declared the Affordable Care Act a success--a reform that is "here to stay." The question remains, however: What should we expect to come out of it, and do we want the effects to stay? If the experiences of Sweden and other countries with universal health care are any indication, patients will soon start to see very long wait times and difficulty getting access to care.


. . .


Rationing is an obvious effect of economic planning in place of free-market competition. Free markets allow companies and entrepreneurs to respond to demand by offering people what they want and need at a better price. Effective and affordable health care comes from decentralized innovation and risk-taking as well as freedom in pricing and product development. The Affordable Care Act does the opposite by centralizing health care, minimizing or prohibiting differentiation in pricing and offerings, and mandating consumers to purchase insurance. It effectively overrides the market and the signals it sends about supply and demand.

Stories of people in Sweden suffering stroke, heart failure and other serious medical conditions who were denied or unable to receive urgent care are frequently reported in Swedish media. Recent examples include a one-month-old infant with cerebral hemorrhage for whom no ambulance was made available, and an 80-year-old woman with suspected stroke who had to wait four hours for an ambulance.

Other stories include people waiting many hours before a nurse or anyone talked to them after they arrived in emergency rooms and then suffering for long periods of time before receiving needed care. A 42-year-old woman in Karlstad seeking care for meningitis died in the ER after a three-hour wait. A woman with colon cancer spent 12 years contesting a money-saving decision to deny an abdominal scan that would have found the cancer earlier. The denial-of-care decision was not made by an insurance company, but by the government health-care system and its policies.



For the full commentary, see:

PER BYLUND. "OPINION; What Sweden Can Teach Us About ObamaCare; Universal public health care means the average Swede with 'high risk' prostate cancer waits 220 days for treatment." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., April 18, 2014): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 17, 2014.)






May 2, 2014

"If You Do the Right Thing and Lose, You Still Did the Right Thing"




CoburnTom2014-04-25.jpg







Senator Tom Coburn. Source of photo: online version of the NYT interview quoted and cited below.











(p. 12) You recently learned you have prostate cancer and announced that you'll be leaving the Senate next January two years before the scheduled end of your term. How are you feeling? I'm feeling good. I'm not cured of the disease, but I'm on my way to marked improvement. And they may potentially have a cure. But I've got 5 or 10 years in front of me even if they don't cure it.


. . .


Do you really think the problem in Washington is that people don't listen to one another? My philosophy is different than most of the people up here. I think if you do the right thing and lose, you still did the right thing. I think if you do less than the right thing and win, it's morally reprehensible.



For the full interview, see:

Leibovich, Mark, interviewer. "Power Is a Tool'." The New York Times Magazine (Sun., MARCH 16, 2014): 12.

(Note: ellipsis added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date MARCH 13, 2014, and has the title "Senator Tom Coburn: 'Power Is a Tool'.")






May 1, 2014

Edison's Goal Was Not Philanthropy, But to Make Useful Inventions that Sold




(p. 163) . . . , Edison had declared publicly that his inventions should be judged only on the basis of commercial success. This had come about when a reporter for the New York World had asked him a battery of questions that threw him off balance: "What is your object in life? What are you living for? (p. 164) What do you want?" Edison reacted as if he'd been punched in the stomach, or so the writer described the effect with exaggerated drama. First, Edison scanned the ceiling of the room for answers, then looked out the window through the rain. Finally, he said he had never thought of these questions "just that way." He paused again, then said he could not give an exact answer other than this: "I guess all I want now is to have a big laboratory" for making useful inventions. "There isn't a bit of philanthropy in it," he explained. "Anything that won't sell I don't want to invent, because anything that won't sell hasn't reached the acme of success. Its sale is proof of its utility, and utility is success."

He had been put on the spot by the reporter, and had reflexively given the marketplace the power to define the meaning of his own life.



Source:

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)






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