Main


November 24, 2014

Affordable Care Act Reduces GDP, Employment and Labor Income



(p. A17) Whether the Affordable Care Act lives up to its name depends on how, or whether, you consider its consequences for the wider economy.


. . .


I estimate that the ACA's long-term impact will include about 3% less weekly employment, 3% fewer aggregate work hours, 2% less GDP and 2% less labor income. These effects will be visible and obvious by 2017, if not before. The employment and hours estimates are based on the combined amount of the law's new taxes and disincentives and on historical research on the aggregate effects of each dollar of taxation. The GDP and income estimates reflect lower amounts of labor as well as the law's effects on the productivity of each hour of labor.


. . .


The Affordable Care Act is weakening the economy. And for the large number of families and individuals who continue to pay for their own health care, health care is now less affordable.



For the full commentary, see:

CASEY B. MULLIGAN. "OPINION; The Myth of ObamaCare's Affordability; The law's perverse incentives will have the nation working fewer hours, and working those hours less productively." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., SEPTEMBER 9, 2014): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPTEMBER 8, 2014.)


Mulligan's research on the effects of Obamacare is detailed in his Kindle e-book:

Mulligan, Casey B. Side Effects: The Economic Consequences of the Health Reform. Flossmoor, IL: JMJ Economics, 2014.






October 6, 2014

Shellshock Bug Shows Low Quality of Open Source Software



(p. B1) Long before the commercial success of the Internet, Brian J. Fox invented one of its most widely used tools.

In 1987, Mr. Fox, then a young programmer, wrote Bash, short for Bourne-Again Shell, a free piece of software that is now built into more than 70 percent of the machines that connect to the Internet. That includes servers, computers, routers, some mobile phones and even everyday items like refrigerators and cameras.

On Thursday [Sept. 25, 2014], security experts warned that Bash contained a particularly alarming software bug that could be used to take control of hundreds of millions of machines around the world, potentially including Macintosh computers and smartphones that use the Android operating system.

The bug, named "Shellshock," drew comparisons to the Heartbleed bug that was discovered in a crucial piece of software last spring.

But Shellshock could be a bigger threat. While Heartbleed could be used to do things like steal passwords from a server, Shellshock can be used to take over the entire machine. And Heartbleed went unnoticed for two years and affected an estimated 500,000 machines, but Shellshock was not discovered for 22 years.


. . .


Mr. Fox maintained Bash -- which serves as a sort of software interpreter for different commands from a user -- for five years before handing over the reins to Chet Ramey, a 49-year-old programmer who, for the last 22 years, has maintained the software as an unpaid hobby. That is, when he is not working at his day job as a senior technology architect at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.


. . .


(p. 2) The mantra of open source was perhaps best articulated by Eric S. Raymond, one of the elders of the open-source movement, who wrote in 1997 that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." But, in this case, Steven M. Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University, said, those eyeballs are more consumed with new features than quality. "Quality takes work, design, review and testing and those are not nearly as much fun as coding," Mr. Bellovin said. "If the open-source community does not develop those skills, it's going to fall further behind in the quality race."



For the full story, see:

NICOLE PERLROTH. "Flaw in Code Puts Millions At Big Risk." The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 26, 2014): B1-B2.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 25, 2014, and has the title "Security Experts Expect 'Shellshock' Software Bug in Bash to Be Significant.")






March 2, 2014

Incentives Limit Collusion



(p. 476) Carnegie's business strategy was the one he had followed twenty years earlier: keep production steady by accepting orders at any price. In early (p. 477) October, he notified Frick that the time had come to leave the rail pool. "I confess I can see nothing so good for us as a 'free hand'" in setting prices. He was willing to lower his prices and profit margin on rails if that was the only way to get the orders he needed to keep his works running. "By this policy we shall keep our men at work." Carnegie had never been entirely happy as a member of the rail pool, especially after Illinois Steel was allocated a greater share than Carnegie Steel. "For my part," he now declared, "I do not wish to play second fiddle in the rail business any longer. I get no sweet dividend out of second fiddle business, and I do know that the way to make more money dividends is to lead.... I am sure that The Carnegie Steel Co. can make more dollars, even next year, and certainly in future years, by managing its own business in its own way, free from all understandings with competitors, than by continuing in any combination that possibly can be formed. Now having made my speech, which I trust you will read to all my partners, I take my seat and imagine the loud applause with which my sentiments are greeted."


Source:

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: underlines and ellipsis in original.)

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)






December 24, 2013

Carnegie's Uncle Aitkin Expected to Make a Good Profit Starting a Private Lending Library




Shortly after arriving in Allegheny City (near Pittsburgh) Andrew Carnegie's Uncle Aitkin had complained in a letter:


(p. 42) "There is no possibility of getting papers or periodicals to read here for a small sum--most of the people being in the habit of purchasing them for their own use. This has been to me a great deprivation. I really find that books here are as dear as in the old country everything considered."

Uncle Aitkin hoped to remedy this flaw in American cultural life--and make a profit at it--by starting up his own lending library. "I am now convinced that for any one to keep a library and to give works out at a cheaper rate would pay very well & I think I will be engaged in this business in a short time,--after I make a little money by lecturing etc." Regrettably--for Uncle Aitkin and for Allegheny City's starved readers--he never got around to setting up his business.



Source:

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)






November 11, 2013

Creating Parking Spaces by Variable Meter Pricing Saves Time and Reduces Air Pollution and Double-Parking



SanFranciscoStreetParking2013-10-25.jpg "San Francisco is a city chronically plagued with a shortage of street parking. On a recent night in the North Beach neighborhood, the slow chase for a parking space was well under way." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. A1) SAN FRANCISCO -- The maddening quest for street parking is not just a tribulation for drivers, but a trial for cities. As much as a third of the traffic in some areas has been attributed to drivers circling as they hunt for spaces. The wearying tradition takes a toll in lost time, polluted air and, when drivers despair, double-parked cars that clog traffic even more.

But San Francisco is trying to shorten the hunt with an ambitious experiment that aims to make sure that there is always at least one empty parking spot available on every block that has meters. The program, which uses new technology and the law of supply and demand, raises the price of parking on the city's most crowded blocks and lowers it on its emptiest blocks. While the new prices are still being phased in -- the most expensive spots have risen to $4.50 an hour, but could reach $6 -- preliminary data suggests that the change may be having a positive effect in some areas.



For the full commentary, see:

MICHAEL COOPER and JO CRAVEN McGINTY. "A Meter So Expensive, It Creates Parking Spots." The New York Times (Fri., March 16, 2012): A1 & A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 15, 2012.)



MetersWithVariablePricing2013-10-25.jpg "San Francisco has installed sensors and new meters on some blocks to track where cars are parked and set prices accordingly." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






June 12, 2013

Patents Turned Steam from Toy to Engine



TheMostPowerfulIdeaInTheWorldBK2013-05-13.JPG

















Source of book image: http://img2.imagesbn.com/p/9781400067053_p0_v1_s260x420.JPG



(p. 20) The obvious audience for Rosen's book consists of those who hunger to know what it took to go from Heron of Alexandria's toy engine, created in the first century A.D., to practical and brawny beasts like George and Robert Stephenson's Rocket, which kicked off the age of steam locomotion in 1829. But Rosen is aiming for more than a fan club of steam geeks. The "most powerful idea" of his title is not an early locomotive: "The Industrial Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolution in invention," he writes, "a radical transformation in the process of invention itself." The road to Rocket was built with hundreds of innovations large and small that helped drain the mines, run the mills, and move coal and then people over rails.


. . .


Underlying it all, Rosen argues, was the recognition that ideas themselves have economic value, which is to say, this book isn't just gearhead wonkery, it's legal wonkery too. Abraham Lincoln, wondering why Heron's steam engine languished, claimed that the patent system "added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Rosen agrees, offering a forceful argument in the debate, which has gone on for centuries, over whether patents promote innovation or retard it.

Those who believe passionately, as Thomas Jefferson did, that inventions "cannot, in nature, be a subject of property," are unlikely to be convinced. Those who agree with the inventors James Watt and Richard Arkwright, who wrote in a manuscript that "an engineer's life without patent is not worthwhile," will cheer. Either way, Rosen's presentation of this highly intellectual debate will reward even those readers who never wondered how the up-and-down chugging of a piston is converted into consistent rotary motion.



For the full review, see:

JOHN SCHWARTZ. "Steam-Driven Dreams." The New York Times (Sun., August 29, 2010): 20.

(Note: ellipsis added; italicized words in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 26, 2010.)


The book under review, is:

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






June 10, 2013

After Failing to Enslave Indians, Starving Jamestown Colonists Ate 14-Year-Old Girl



JamestownFourteenYearOldCannibalized2013-05-14.jpg








"A facial reconstruction of a 14-year-old girl whose skull shows signs that her remains were used for food after her death and burial." Source of caption and image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



Acemoglu and Robinson in the long, but thought-provoking, opening chapter of their Why Nations Fail book, discuss starvation at the Jamestown colony. Only they don't mainly attribute it to a harsh winter or a slow rescue from England, as does the article quoted below (it is from the New York Times, after all).

Economists Acemoglu and Robinson (p. 23) instead criticize the colony's initial plan to thrive by enslaving natives to bring them gold and food. Eventually John Smith made the bold suggestion that the colonists should try to work to produce something to eat or to trade. The rulers of the colony ignored Smith, resulting in starvation and cannibalism.



(p. A11) Archaeologists excavating a trash pit at the Jamestown colony site in Virginia have found the first physical evidence of cannibalism among the desperate population, corroborating written accounts left behind by witnesses. Cut marks on the skull and skeleton of a 14-year-old girl show that her flesh and brain were removed, presumably to be eaten by the starving colonists during the harsh winter of 1609.

The remains were excavated by archaeologists led by William Kelso of Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit group, and analyzed by Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The skull bears tentative cuts to the forehead, followed by four strikes to the back of the head, one of which split the skull open, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine, where the find was reported Wednesday.

It is unclear how the girl died, but she was almost certainly dead and buried before her remains were butchered. According to a letter written in 1625 by George Percy, president of Jamestown during the starvation period, the famine was so intense "thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them."



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Girl's Bones Bear Signs of Cannibalism by Starving Virginia Colonists." The New York Times (Thurs., May 2, 2013): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 1, 2013.)



The Acemoglu book mentioned above is:

Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. New York: Crown Business, 2012.



JamestownBonesShowCannibalism2013-05-14.jpg "Human remains from the Jamestown colony site in Virginia bearing evidence of cannibalism." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






May 13, 2013

Chinese Couples Divorce to Avoid Government Regulations and Taxes



ShanghaiRealEstateMob2013-05-04.jpg "A police officer attempted to stop residents from rushing into a real estate trading center in Shanghai after new restrictions were announced." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A4) SHANGHAI -- When the Chinese government announced new curbs on property prices this month, homeowners bombarded social networking sites with complaints. They formed long lines at property bureaus to register to sell their homes before the restrictions went into effect.

And some couples went even further: they filed for divorce.

Divorce filings shot up here and in other big cities across China this past week after rumors spread that one way to avoid the new 20 percent tax on profits from housing sales was to separate from a spouse, at least on paper.

The surge in divorce filings is the latest indication of how volatile an issue real estate has become in China in the past decade and how resistant people are to additional taxes.


. . .


On Friday, at a marriage registration center in the Pudong district, a 33-year-old woman named Frances Tao arrived with her husband. She acknowledged that they were filing for divorce, not to avoid the 20 percent capital gains tax on second homes, but to get around another restriction, which requires home buyers to put down a much higher deposit on a second home than on a primary residence.

Ms. Tao said that by divorcing, one of them would be able to purchase a first home and put down less money and get a better interest rate.

"We don't have other choices," Ms. Tao said. "But the government and developers continue to make a lot of money."



For the full story, see:

DAVID BARBOZA. "In China, Checklist for a Home Seller: First, Get a Divorce." The New York Times (Sat., March 9, 2012): A4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 8, 2012.)






March 19, 2013

Real Entrepreneurs Do Not Launch a Startup in Order to Cash In and Move On




The following passage is Steve Jobs speaking, as quoted by Walter Isaacson.

I agree with the part about real entrepreneurs not going public quick in order to cash in. But I disagree that the real entrepreneurs are mainly interested in building a lasting company. I think that often they are mainly interested in getting a project, or a series of projects, done (and done reasonably well). Recall that when Walt Disney couldn't convince Roy Disney to pursue the Disneyland project, Walt left the main Disney company to pursue the project through a secondary rump Disney company.


(p. 569) I hate it when people call themselves "entrepreneurs" when what they're really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They're unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That's how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now. That's what Walt Disney did, and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That's what I want Apple to be.


Source:

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.






March 3, 2013

Profits Allow You to Make Great Products, But the Products, Not the Profits, Are the Motivation




The following passage is Steve Jobs speaking, as quoted by Walter Isaacson.


(p. 567) My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It's a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings.


Source:

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.







January 20, 2013

Socialism Failed in Jamestown



(p. 226) Stephen Slivinski discusses "Economic History: The Lessons of Jamestown." In the years after the Jamestown settlement of 1607, the settlers often lacked food. "The company sent Sir Thomas Dale, a British naval commander, to take over the office of colony governor in 1611. Yet, upon arrival in May--a time when the farmers should have been tending to their fields--Dale found virtually no planting activity. Instead, the workers were devoted mainly to leisure and 'playing bowls.' . . . All land was owned by the company and farmed collectively. . . . The workers would not hope to reap more compensation from a productive farming of the land any more than the farmers would be motivated by an interest in making their farming operations more efficient and, hence, more profitable. Seeing this, Dale decided to change the labor arrangements: When the seven-year contracts of most of the original surviving settlers were about to expire in 1614, he assigned private allotments of land to them. Each got three acres, 12 acres if he had a family. The only obligation was that they needed to provide two and a half barrels of corn annually to the company so it could be distributed to the newcomers to tide them over during their first year. Dale left Jamestown for good in 1616. By then, however, the new land grants had unleashed a vast increase in agricultural productivity. In fact, upon returning to England with Dale, John Rolfe--one of the colony's former leaders--reported to the Virginia Company that the Powhatans were now asking the colonists to give them corn instead of vice versa."


As quoted in:

Taylor, Timothy. "Recommendations for Further Reading." Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 219-26.

(Note: ellipses added by Taylor.)


The Slivinski article is:

Slivinski, Stephen. "The Lessons of Jamestown." Region Focus 14, no. 1 (First Quarter 2010): 27-29.






December 11, 2012

Health Care Costs Can Be Lowered by Less Waste and More Cost-Reducing Innovation



(p. 234) Melinda Beeuwkes Buntin and David Cutler discuss "The Two Trillion Dollar Solution: Saving Money by Modernizing the Health Care System." "Two sorts of savings are possible in health care. The first is eliminating waste and inefficiency. The most commonly cited estimate is that 30 percent of the money spent on medical care does not buy care worth its cost. Medicare costs per capita in Minneapolis, for example, are about half those in Miami, yet Miami does not have better health outcomes. International comparisons yield the same conclusion. . . . Second, reform might stimulate cost-reducing innovation instead of the continuous cost increases that accompany current innovation. For nearly 20 years, scholars have argued that generous reimbursement policies for medical care have led to innovations that almost always increase health care costs. Changing that dynamic by investing in research about what works and rewarding health care providers who choose efficient treatments could have a dramatic effect on cost growth. . . . Reducing costs by 30 percent will take time and effort, but it is not inconceivable over the long term. Experience in the health care sector and other industries suggests that cost reductions on the order of 1.5-to-2.0 percentage points per year are within reach."


Buntin and Cutler as quoted in:

Taylor, Timothy. "Recommendations for Further Reading." Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 231-38.

(Note: ellipses in original.)


The Buntin and Cutler report is:

Buntin, Melinda Beeuwkes, and David Cutler. "The Two Trillion Dollar Solution: Saving Money by Modernizing the Health Care System." Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, 2009.






November 30, 2012

DaVita Threw Out Medicine and Billed Taxpayer: Huge Medicare Fraud



DaVitaMedicareFraudDrewGriffin2012-11-29.jpg



























I saw this clip broadcast on Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" broadcast on 11/29/12 (if memory serves--it might have been the day before).

The clip shows the magnitude of the fraud, but also emphasizes that there were significant incentives for those who knew about the fraud to keep their mouths shut.

This is one huge case of over-billing, but over-billing happens all the time. Taxpayers could have used that money for other purposes. The opportunity cost is huge.



A link to the clip posted on CNN, is:

http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2012/11/29/company-accused-of-giant-medicare-fraud/?iref=allsearch

(Note: I believe the November 29, 2012 date in the image above is the date that Drew Griffin posted the clip to the CNN blog, not necessarily the date of the broadcast.)






November 18, 2012

"The Bulk of New Yorkers Do Not Have an Unlimited Appetite for Growing Their Own Kale"



McPhersonEnaUrbanGardener2012-11-11.jpg












". . . , Ena K. McPherson holds the key to three different community gardens." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. D1) There is some evidence, . . . , that the bulk of New Yorkers do not have an unlimited appetite for growing their own kale. Official counts of New York gardens are fragmentary. But John Ameroso, the Johnny Appleseed of the New York community garden movement, suspects that the number of present-day gardens -- around 800 -- may be half what it was in the mid-1980s.

In his long career as an urban extension agent for Cornell University, Mr. Ameroso, 67, kept a log with ratings of all the plots he visited. "I remember that there were a lot of gardens that were not in use or minimally used," he said. "Into the later '80s, a lot of these disappeared or were abandoned. Or maybe there was one person working them. If nothing was developed on them, they just got overgrown."

The truth, Ms. Stone said, is that at any giv-(p. D6)en time, perhaps 10 percent of the city's current stock of almost 600 registered GreenThumb gardens is growing mostly weeds. "In East New York, I can tell you that there are basically many gardens that are barely functioning now."


. . .


An honest census would reveal that many gardens (perhaps most) depend on just one or two tireless souls, said Ena K. McPherson, a Brooklyn garden organizer. She would know because she's one of them.

Ms. McPherson holds the keys to three community gardens in Bedford-Stuyvesant. (Ms. Stone appreciatively refers to these blocks as "the Greater Ena McPherson Zone.") And she serves on the operations committee for the nonprofit Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, which holds the deeds to 32 garden plots.

"In an ideal situation, we would have gardens with everyone in the community participating," Ms. McPherson said. "But in fact, a few die-hard people end up carrying the flag."


. . .


The original gardens followed the city's vacant lots, which by 1978 numbered 32,000. Mr. Ameroso, though trained in agronomy, pitched them as an instrument for community renewal. "How did you take back your block?" he said. "Put in a community garden and stop that dumping."

Ms. Stone, who laughingly (and earnestly) describes herself as a socialist, continues to embrace something of this mission. "All the people who are marginal in society -- and I'm not using that as a judgmental term, it's children, senior citizens, people on disability, the 47 percent -- these people are the main power people in the garden," she said.

These days, Mr. Ameroso espouses more of what he calls an "urban agriculture" model: a food garden with a dedicated farmers' market or a C.S.A. These amenities make stakeholders out of neighbors who may not like dirt under their nails and rural farmers who drive in every weekend.

"The urban-agriculture ones are flourishing," he said. "There's a lot of excitement. They're active eight days a week." But "community gardens, as such, where people come in to take care of their own boxes -- those are not flourishing."

It's almost a cliché to point out that this new green model seems to have attracted tillers with a different skin tone. "Back then," Mr. Ameroso said of his earlier career, "when we worked in Bronx or Bed-Stuy, it was mostly communities of color. Now when we talk about the urban agriculture stuff, it's white people in their 30s."

What explains this demographic shift?

"I have no idea," he said. "I'm still baffled by it, and I'm involved in it!"



For the full story, see:

MICHAEL TORTORELLO. "IN THE GARDEN; Growing Everything but Gardeners." The New York Times (Sat., November 1, 2012): D1 & D6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated October 31, 2012.)






September 22, 2012

Incentives Matter, Even in Refereeing Articles for Journals



(p. 678) A natural experiment in an economics fleld journal afforded time-series observations on payments to referees for on-time reviews. The natural experiment yielded 15 months' worth of data with no payments and about two subsequent years of data with payments. Using referee and manuscript-specific measures as covariates, hazard models were used to gauge the effects of payments on individual referee's review times. All models indicate statistically significant reductions in review times owing to referee payments. Reductions in review times translate into significant reductions in first-response time (FRT). Median FRT was reduced from 90 to 70 days, a 22% reduction in the presence of payments. With payments, only 1% of the FRTs exceeded six months; without payments, 16% of the FRTs exceeded six months.


For the full article, from which the above abstract is quoted, see:

Thompson, Gary D., Satheesh V. Aradhyula, George Frisvold, and Russell Tronstad. "Does Paying Referees Expedite Reviews?: Results of a Natural Experiment." Southern Economic Journal 76, no. 3 (Jan. 2010): 678-92.






September 8, 2012

People "Reward the Providers of Dangerously Misleading Information"



(p. 262) As Nassim Taleb has argued, inadequate appreciation of the uncertainty of the environment inevitably leads economic agents to take risks they should avoid. However, optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers. One of the lessons of the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession is that there are periods in which competition, among experts and among organizations, creates powerful forces that favor a collective blindness to risk and uncertainty.

The social and economic pressures that favor overconfidence are not (p. 263) restricted to financial forecasting. Other professionals must deal with the fact that an expert worthy of the name is expected to display high confidence. Philip Tetlock observed that the most overconfident experts were the most likely to be invited to strut their stuff in news shows. Overconfidence also appears to be endemic in medicine. A study of patients who died in the ICU compared autopsy results with the diagnosis that physicians had provided while the patients were still alive. Physicians also reported their confidence. The result: "clinicians who were 'completely certain' of the diagnosis antemortem were wrong 40% of the time." Here again, expert overconfidence is encouraged by their clients: "Generally, it is considered a weakness and a sign of vulnerability for clinicians to appear unsure. Confidence is valued over uncertainty and there is a prevailing censure against disclosing uncertainty to patients." Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality--but it is not what people and organizations want. Extreme uncertainty is paralyzing under dangerous circumstances, and the admission that one is merely guessing is especially unacceptable when the stakes are high. Acting on pretended knowledge is often the preferred solution.



Source:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.





March 9, 2012

Web Sites Expose Petty Corruption



RamanathanSwatiBribeSite2012-03-07.jpg "Swati Ramanathan, a founder of the site I Paid a Bribe, in India." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. B1) The cost of claiming a legitimate income tax refund in Hyderabad, India? 10,000 rupees.

The going rate to get a child who has already passed the entrance requirements into high school in Nairobi, Kenya? 20,000 shillings.

The expense of obtaining a driver's license after having passed the test in Karachi, Pakistan? 3,000 rupees.

Such is the price of what Swati Ramanathan calls "retail corruption," the sort of nickel-and-dime bribery, as opposed to large-scale graft, that infects everyday life in so many parts of the world.

Ms. Ramanathan and her husband, Ramesh, along with Sridar Iyengar, set out to change all that in August 2010 when they started ipaidabribe.com, a site that collects anonymous reports of bribes paid, bribes requested but not paid and requests that were expected but not forthcoming.

About 80 percent of the more than 400,000 reports to the site tell stories like the ones above of officials and bureaucrats seeking illicit payments to provide routine services or process paperwork and forms.

"I was asked to pay a bribe to get a birth certificate for my daughter," someone in Bangalore, India, wrote in to the Web site on Feb. 29, recording payment of a 120-rupee bribe in Bangalore. "The guy in charge called it 'fees' " -- except there are no fees charged for birth certificates, Ms. Ramanathan said.

Now, similar sites are spreading like kudzu around the globe, vexing petty bureaucrats the world over. Ms. Ramanathan said nongovernmental organizations and government agencies from at least 17 countries had contacted Janaagraha, the nonprofit organization in Bangalore that operates I Paid a Bribe, to ask about obtaining the source code and setting up a site of their own.



For the full story, see:

STEPHANIE STROM. "Web Sites Shine Light on Petty Bribery Worldwide." The New York Times (Weds., March 7, 2012): B1 & B4.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date March 6, 2012.)



RaguiAntonyBribeSite2012-03-07.jpg











"Antony Ragui started an I Paid a Bribe site in Kenya." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.








February 17, 2012

"What Success Had Brought Him, . . . , Was Freedom"



(p. 5) The success of Pixar's films had brought him something exceedingly rare in Hollywood: not the house with the obligatory pool in the backyard and the Oscar statuettes on the fireplace mantel, or the country estate, or the vintage Jaguar roadster--although he had all of those things, too. It wasn't that he could afford to indulge his affinity for model railroads by acquiring a full-size 1901 steam locomotive, with plans to run it on the future site of his twenty-thousand-square-foot mansion in Sonoma Valley wine country. (Even Walt Dìsney's backyard train had been a mere one-eighth-scale replica.)

None of these was the truly important fruit of Lasseter's achievements. What success had brought him, most meaningfully, was freedom. Having created a new genre of film with his colleagues at Pixar, he had been able to make the films he wanted to make, and he was coming back to Disney on his own terms.



Source:

Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

(Note: ellipsis in title was added.)

(Note: my strong impression is that the pagination is the same for the 2008 hardback and the 2009 paperback editions, except for part of the epilogue, which is revised and expanded in the paperback. I believe the passage above has the same page number in both editions.)





November 4, 2011

"Whatsoever a Man Soweth, That Shall He Also Reap"



PlantThiefSign2011-08-07.jpg "A gardener's recipe for vengeance at the Sixth Street and Avenue B Community Garden in Manhattan." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 20) At the 700 community gardens sprinkled through the city like little Edens, the first commandment should be obvious: Thou shalt not covet, much less steal, thy neighbor's tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers. But people do.

"This was an inside job," Holland Haiis-Aguirre, a key-holder at the West Side Community Garden, said after she arrived at her plot on July 24 to pick a "big, beautiful, full-sized cucumber" that she and her husband had tended from infancy. Instead, she found a denuded vine; her prize cuke apparently was in someone else's salad. "So frustrating," she wailed.


. . .


Sally Young shrouds her 18 heirloom tomato plants in bird netting, but it is not birds she is trying to outwit. Claude Bastide, who grows aromatic herbs, had his spearmint and rosemary plants stolen early in the season. He responded with a sign: "Dear Plant Thief: If I catch you stealing my plants, I will boil you alive in a cauldron filled with poison ivy and stinging nettles until your flesh falls off your bones!"



For the full story, see:

ROBIN FINN. "Peck of Pilfered Peppers in City Gardens; Tomatoes, Too." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., August 7, 2011): 20.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was dated August 5, 2011, and had the title "Pilfered Peppers in City Gardens; Tomatoes, Too.")



Source of the title of this blog entry: The Bible, Galatians 6:7-9 (King James Version).







October 2, 2011

Kiewit Corporation Earned Bonus from Los Angeles for Avoiding "Carmageddon"



MulhollandBridgeEndedEarly2011-08-10.jpg

"Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, at left of group, and other officials celebrate the demolition of two lanes of the Mulholland Drive bridge over Interstate 405 ahead of schedule last weekend. The event that many feared would result in epic traffic jams ended early and calmly." Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.


(p. 6A) They paid Kiewit to build the Mulholland Bridge.

Now they're paying Kiewit to tear it down.

And they'll pay Kiewit to build it again.

It's all part of the billion-dol­lar Interstate 405 improvement project in Los Angeles, which caught national attention last weekend when the busy freeway shut down for 36 hours so work­ers could remove the first chunk of the bridge that spans the Sepulveda Pass.

Omaha-based Kiewit Corp.'s Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. is the main contractor for the project.

Traffic officials in Southern California, who had predicted "Carmageddon" and warned motorists to stay away, were relieved when the closure of one of the nation's busiest freeways -- the stretch is traveled by an estimated 500,000 vehicles on a typical weekend -- ended on 11:30 a.m. Sunday instead of 5 a.m. Monday as originally planned.

Kiewit reportedly got a (p. 7A) $300,000 bonus for beating the deadline.



For the full story, see:

STEVE JORDON. "KIEWIT WORK ON 'CARMAGEDDON' BRIDGE; IT'S UP, DOWN AND UP." Omaha World-Herald (Sat., July 23, 2011): 6A-7A.






July 12, 2011

In Medicine, as Elsewhere, What Pays Is Usually What Gets Done



LevinDonaldPsychiatrist2011-06-05.jpg ""I had to train myself not to get too interested in their problems, and not to get sidetracked trying to be a semi-therapist." Dr. Donald Levin, a psychiatrist whose practice no longer includes talk therapy." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) DOYLESTOWN, Pa. -- Alone with his psychiatrist, the patient confided that his newborn had serious health problems, his distraught wife was screaming at him and he had started drinking again. With his life and second marriage falling apart, the man said he needed help.

But the psychiatrist, Dr. Donald Levin, stopped him and said: "Hold it. I'm not your therapist. I could adjust your medications, but I don't think that's appropriate."

Like many of the nation's 48,000 psychiatrists, Dr. Levin, in large part because of changes in how much insurance will pay, no longer provides talk therapy, the form of psychiatry popularized by Sigmund Freud that dominated the profession for decades. Instead, he prescribes medication, usually after a brief consultation with each patient. So Dr. Levin sent the man away with a referral to a less costly therapist and a personal crisis unexplored and unresolved.



For the full story, see:

GARDINER HARRIS. "Talk Doesn't Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., March 6, 2011): A1 & A21.

(Note: the online version of the story is dated March 5, 2011.)





July 2, 2011

Partage Provides Incentives to Recover Antiquities and the Means to Preserve Them



WhoOwnsAntiquityBK2011-06-05.gif
















Source of book image: http://press.princeton.edu/images/k8602.gif





(p. D1) In some cases, it makes aesthetic or archaeological sense to keep artifacts grouped together where they were found, but it can also be risky to leave everything in one place, particularly if the country is in turmoil or can't afford to excavate or guard all its treasures. After the Metropolitan Museum was pressured to hand over a collection called the Lydian Hoard, one of the most valuable (p. D2) pieces was stolen several years ago from its new home in Turkey.


. . .


(p. D2) In his book "Who Owns Antiquity?", James Cuno argues that scholars have betrayed their principles by acquiescing to politicians who have exploited antiquities to legitimize themselves and their governments. Saddam Hussein was the most blatant, turning Iraqi archeology museums into propaganda for himself as the modern Nebuchadnezzar, but other leaders have been just as cynical in using antiquities to bolster their claims of sovereignty.

Dr. Cuno advocates the revival of partage, the traditional system in which archeologists digging in foreign countries would give some of their discoveries to the host country and take others home. That way both sides benefit, and both sides have incentives to recover antiquities before looters beat them to it. . . .

As the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dr. Cuno has his own obvious motives for acquiring foreign antiquities, and he makes no apology for wanting to display Middle Eastern statues to Midwesterners.

"It is in the nature of our species to connect and exchange," Dr. Cuno writes. "And the result is a common culture in which we all have a stake. It is not, and can never be, the property of one modern nation or another."

Some of the most culturally protectionist nations today, like Egypt, Italy and Turkey, are trying to hoard treasures that couldn't have been created without the inspiration provided by imported works of art. (Imagine the Renaissance without the influence of "looted" Greek antiquities.) And the current political rulers of those countries often have little in common culturally with the creators of the artifacts they claim to own.



For the full commentary, see:

JOHN TIERNEY. "FINDINGS; A Case in Antiquities for 'Finders Keepers'." The New York Times (Tues., November 17, 2009): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated November 16, 2009.)


The Cuno book discussed above, is:

Cuno, James. Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.






June 27, 2011

"A Tax on Air and Light"



(p. 11) Paxton was very lucky in his timing, for just at the moment of the Great Exhibition glass suddenly became available in a way it never had before. Glass had always been a tricky material. It was not particularly easy to make, and really hard to make well, which is why for so much of its history it was a luxury Item. Happily, two recent technological breakthroughs had changed that. First, the French invented plate glass--so called because the molten glass was spread across tables known as plates. This allowed for the first time the creation of really large panes of glass, which made shop windows possible. Plate glass, however, had to be cooled for ten days after being rolled out, which meant that each table was unproductively occupied most of the time, and then each sheet required a lot of grinding and polishing. This naturally made it expensive. In 1838, a cheaper refinement was developed--sheet glass. This had most of the virtues of plate glass, but ¡t cooled faster and needed less polishing, and so could be made much more cheaply. Suddenly glass of a good size could be produced economically In limitless volumes.

Allied with this was the timely abolition of two long-standing taxes: the window tax and glass tax (which, strictly speaking, was an excise duty). The window tax dated from 1696 and was sufficiently punishing that (p. 12) people really did avoid putting windows in buildings where they could. The bricked-up window openings that are such a feature of man period
buildings in Britain today were once usually painted to look like windows. (It Is sometimes rather a shame that they aren't still.) The tax, sorely resented as "a tax on air and light," meant that many servants and others of constrained means were condemned to live In airless rooms.



Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.





May 22, 2011

College Does Not Improve Thinking or Writing for 36% of Graduates



(p. 10) In a typical semester, . . . , 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying -- about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.

Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.


. . .


Too many institutions, . . . , rely primarily on student course evaluations to assess teaching. This creates perverse incentives for professors to demand little and give out good grades. (Indeed, the 36 percent of students in our study who reported spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone still had an average G.P.A. of 3.16.) On those commendable occasions when professors and academic departments do maintain rigor, they risk declines in student enrollments. And since resources are typically distributed based on enrollments, rigorous classes are likely to be canceled and rigorous programs shrunk.



For the full commentary, see:

RICHARD ARUM and JOSIPA ROKSA. "Your So-Called Education." The New York Times, Week in Review Section (Sun., May 15, 2011): 10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story is dated May 14, 2011.)


Arum and Roska's book is:

Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.





May 10, 2011

Mexican Universal Health Care: "There Are No Doctors, No Medicine, No Hospital Beds"



(p. 6) A decade ago, half of all Mexicans had no health insurance at all. Then the country's Congress passed a bill to ensure health care for every Mexican without access to it. The goal was explicit: universal coverage.

By September, the government expects to have enrolled about 51 million people in the insurance plan it created six years ago -- effectively reaching the target, at least on paper.

The big question, critics contend, is whether all those people actually get the health care the government has promised.


. . .


The money goes from the federal government to state governments, depending on how many people each state enrolls. From there, it is up to state governments to spend the money properly so that patients get the promised care.

That, critics say, is the plan's biggest weakness. State governments have every incentive to register large numbers, but they do not face any accountability for how they spend the money.

"You have people signed up on paper, but there are no doctors, no medicine, no hospital beds," said Miguel Pulido, the executive director of Fundar, a Mexican watchdog group that has studied the poor southern states of Guerrero and Chiapas.

Mr. Chertorivski acknowledges that getting some states to do their work properly is a problem. "You can't do a hostile takeover," he said.

The result is that how Mexicans are treated is very much a function of where they live. Lucila Rivera Díaz, 36, comes from one of the poorest regions in Guerrero. She said doctors there told her to take her mother, who they suspected had liver cancer, for tests in the neighboring state of Morelos.



For the full story, see:

ELISABETH MALKIN. "Mexico Struggles to Realize the Promise of Universal Health Care." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., January 30, 2011): 6.

(Note: the online version of the story is dated January 29, 2011 and has the title "Mexico's Universal Health Care Is Work in Progress.")

(Note: ellipsis added.)





April 26, 2011

The Elite Feel More Important, and Receive More Funding, During Crises



(p. 103) Claims of disastrous decline will he praised in the elite parts of society. Since many crave recognition or rewards from elites, people oblige by producing claims of disastrous decline. More generally, when things really are bad we naturally turn to eminent or powerful people for their advice and succor; when things are fine, the elite classes are of diminished importance to society. Important people like to feel important, and thus are biased toward viewing events in bleak terms. Consider that, during the 1990s, when nearly everything in the United States was trending positive, left-wing leaders as exemplified by the Manhattan chardonnay circuit, and right-wing leaders as exemplified by the Heritage Foundation circuit, slugged it out as though the world was ending: the left claiming religious fanatics were taking over the country, the right claiming the left was destroying the family and opposed to reading of the classics, to name a few totally cooked-up charges of that period. As Orlando Patterson, a Harvard University sociologist, noted in 1998, "It's astonish-(p. 104)ing how the Washington and New York elites, who benefit so much from the improvement of the United States, are so out of sync with it, endlessly talking about how things are getting worse when the country is clearly improving."

To those who benefit from bad news, either by fund-raising or increased self-importance, problems are not just problems but crises--the health care crisis, the farm-bill crisis, the tax crisis, the welfare crisis, the litigation crisis, the postage-rate crisis.



Source:

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








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.)





February 28, 2011

Kappos Says Private Company Would Have Run Patent Office Better



KapposDavidPatent2011-02-27.jpg "David Kappos of the Patent Office, with an Edison bulb." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) "There is no company I know of that would have permitted its information technology to get into the state we're in," David J. Kappos, who 18 months ago became director of the Patent and Trademark Office and undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property, said in a recent interview. "If it had, the C.E.O. would have been fired, the board would have been thrown out, and you would have had shareholder lawsuits."

Once patent applications are in the system, they sit -- for years. The patent office's pipeline is so clogged it takes two years for an inventor to get an initial ruling, and an additional year or more before a patent is finally issued.

The delays and inefficiencies are more than a nuisance for inventors. Patentable ideas are the basis for many start-up companies and small businesses. Venture capitalists often require start-ups to have a patent before offering financing. That means that patent delays cost jobs, slow the economy and threaten the ability of American companies to compete with foreign businesses.



For the full story, see:

EDWARD WYATT. "U.S. Sets 21st-Century Goal: Building a Better Patent Office." The New York Times (Mon., February 21, 2011): A1 & A3.

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





February 27, 2011

Patent Importance Survives the Results of Moser's Worlds Fairs Data Analysis



(p. 264) Petra Moser, now a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, spent four years examining more than 15,000 different inventions exhibited at nineteenth-century worlds fairs, and their equivalents, and discovered a fact that seems at first glance to discredit the idea that patent protection was essential for innovation: Nations without patent laws were in many cases just as inventive as those with them. Or even more inventive; some of the nations best represented at those industrial fairs actively discouraged the patenting of inventions.

The reason seems to be that whether or not they enforced a patent law, smaller nations or domains, such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, were vulnerable to the theft of their innovations by competitors in larger nations. The bargain of patent protection runs two ways: The state, in return for making an idea public, offers legal recourse to its creator should someone within the state steal the idea. Since making one's invention public in a nation with patent protection offered protection against theft only up to its own borders, only a large nation offered a large enough market to make the deal a good one, and (in Moser's words) the small nations "would have been silly to patent [their] innovations."

This logic inhibited investment in entire categories of innovation. Those nations that relied on secrecy rather than patent tended to specialize in the sort of inventions that cannot be easily reverse--engineered, such as chemicals or dyes.



Source:

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

(Note: italics and bracketed word in original.)





February 22, 2011

Luther Burbank's Income Suffered Because His Inventions Could Not Be Patented



BurbankLuther2011-02-05.jpg












"Luther Burbank pollinating poppies in Santa Rosa, Calif." Source of book image: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.



(p. C4) There is a particular type of potato at the heart of Jane S. Smith's book about Luther Burbank, a man who described himself as an "evoluter of new plants." Ms. Smith nicknames that potato "the lucky spud." That turn of phrase is one of many reasons to appreciate "The Garden of Invention," her colorful, far-reaching book about the genetic, agricultural, economic and legal issues raised by Burbank's life and legend.


. . .


This book takes more than a passing interest in Burbank's income, insofar as it reflected his legal ability to protect his scientific advances. In his early professional years he grappled with the doctrine that held that while a gold mine was real property and a machine to extract gold was intellectual property, the actual mineral belonged to anyone who could find it; ditto with potatoes. Throughout his career, even as he developed friendships with tycoons like Ford and Thomas Edison, Burbank lived under constant financial pressure to keep creating new plant products. "His income was entirely dependent on his latest marvel," Ms. Smith writes

.

For the full review, see:

JANET MASLIN. "Books of The Times; The Curious Man Lucky Enough to Create 'the Lucky Spud'." The New York Times (Mon., May 4, 2009): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated May 3, 2009.)


The book being reviewed, is:

Smith, Jane S. The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009.





January 21, 2011

Those Who Paid Attention to Risk, Did Better in Crisis



DownsideRiskCROcentralityGraph2010-1.jpgSource of graph: screen capture from p. 43 of NBER paper referenced below.



At the American Economic Association meetings in Denver from January 6-9, I attended several sessions dealing the causes and cures of the economic crisis of the last few years.

One issue that came up more than once was whether, and to what extent, various decision makers were blameworthy in what happened. Was this a crisis that well-trained, hard-working and prudent managers, regulators and legislators should have seen coming? Or was it a once in 100 year storm that nobody should be expected to have foreseen?

One compelling bit of evidence was presented in a talk on January 8th by Charles Calomiris in which he presented a graph from a 2010 NBER paper by Ellul and Yerramilli. The graph, shown above, indicates that firms that took risk seriously, as proxied by their giving an important pre-crisis role to a Chief Risk Officer (CRO), tended to suffer less downside volatility during the crisis.


Source:

Ellul, Andrew, and Vijay Yerramilli. "Stronger Risk Controls, Lower Risk: Evidence from U.S. Bank Holding Companies." NBER Working Paper # 16178, July 2010.






January 19, 2011

What Motivated Paterno to Win 400 Games---"Gettin' Paid"



Paterno400WinsGettinPaidClip.jpgSource of image: screen capture from YouTube clip referenced below.


What motivates employees? Economists have emphasized pay as the primary incentive, while recognizing that there may be "compensating differentials" for aspects of the work that are pleasant or unpleasant.

In recent years many non-economists, such as Daniel Pink in Drive, have emphasized non-pecuniary incentives.

Joe Paterno entered the debate at age 83, after he became the first major college coach to win 400 games on November 6, 2010.

Right after the victory, he was interviewed on the field by "Heather" of ESPN. Starting at 1:33 seconds into the clip referenced below, here is the key dialogue:

Heather: "Coach Paterno, what has motivated you to get to this point?"

Paterno: "Oh geez, I don't know---gettin' paid."




Source: YouTube clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQzdVeYtm5w

(Note: the clip was posted on 11/6/10 by shellymic and has the title "Joe Pa FIRST to 400 Wins!")





January 14, 2011

Taking Away Patents Would Be "Cutting Off the Hopes of Ingenious Men"



(p. 208) For Watt, the theft (as he saw it) of his work was a deeply personal violation. In (p. 209) 1790, just before realizing the extent of what he perceived as Hornblower's theft of his own work he wrote,

if patentees are to be regarded by the public, as . . . monopolists, and their patents considered as nuisances & encroachments on the natural liberties of his Majesty's other subjects, wou'd it not be just to make a law at once, taking away the power of granting patents for new inventions & by cutting off' the hopes of ingenious men oblige them either to go on in the way of their fathers & not spend their time which would be devoted to the encrease [sic] of their own fortunes in making improvements for an ungrateful public, or else to emigrate to some other Country that will afford to their inventions the protections they may merit?


Source:

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

(Note: italics and ellipsis in original.)





December 17, 2010

Financial Gain an Important Motive for Invention



(p. 121) In 1930, Joseph Rossman, who had served for decades as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office, polled more than seven hundred patentees. producing a remarkable picture of the mind of the inventor. Some of the results were predictable; the three biggest motivators were "love of inventing," "desire to improve." and "financial gain," the ranking for each of which was statistically identical. and each at least twice as important as those appearing (p. 122) down the list, such as "desire to achieve," "prestige," or "altruism" (and certainly not the old saw, "laziness," which was named roughly one-thirtieth as frequently as "financial gain"). A century after Rocket, the world of technology had changed immensely: electric power, automobiles, telephones. But the motivations of individual inventors were indistinguishable from those inaugurated by the Industrial Revolution.


. . .


In the same vein, Rossman's survey revealed that the greatest obstacle perceived by his patentee universe was not lack of knowledge, legal difficulties, lack of time, or even prejudice against the innovation under consideration. Overwhelmingly, the largest obstacle faced by early twentieth-century inventors (and, almost certainly, their ancestors in the eighteenth century) was "lack of capital." Inventors need investors.



Source:

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

(Note: ellipsis added.)





August 12, 2010

Inventors Should Work Alone, Even If They Have to Moonlight



(p. 291) If you're that rare engineer who's an inventor and also an artist, I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone.

When you're working for a large, structured company, there's much less leeway to turn clever ideas into revolutionary new products or product features by yourself. Money is, unfortunately, a god in our society, and those who finance your efforts are businesspeople with lots of experience at organizing contracts that define who owns what and what you can do on your own.

But you probably have little business experience, know-how, or acumen, and it'll be hard to protect your work or deal with all that corporate nonsense. I mean, those who provide the funding and tools and environment are often perceived as taking the credit for inventions. If you're a young inventor who wants to change the world, a corporate environment is the wrong place for you.

(p. 292) You're going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you're working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team. That means you're probably going to have to do what I did. Do your projects as moonlighting, with limited money and limited resources. But man, it'll be worth it in the end. It'll be worth it if this is really, truly what you want to do--invent things. If you want to invent things that can change the world, and not just work at a corporation working on other people's inventions, you're going to have to work on your own projects.

When you're working as your own boss, making decisions about what you're going to build and how you're going to go about it, making trade-offs as to features and qualities, it becomes a part of you. Like a child you love and want to support. You have huge motivation to create the best possible inventions--and you care about them with a passion you could never feel about an invention someone else ordered you to come up with.

And if you don't enjoy working on stuff for yourself--with your own money and your own resources, after work if you have to-- then you definitely shouldn't be doing it!

. . .


It's so easy to doubt yourself, and it's especially easy to doubt yourself when what you're working on is at odds with everyone else in the world who thinks they know the right way to do things. Sometimes you can't prove whether you're right or wrong. Only time can tell that. But if you believe in your own power to objectively reason, that's a key to happiness. And a key to confidence. Another key I found to happiness was to realize that I didn't have to disagree with someone and let it get all intense. If you believe in your own power to reason, you can just relax. You don't have to feel the pressure to set out and convince anyone. So don't sweat it! You have to trust your own designs, your own intuition, and your own understanding of what your invention needs to be.



Source:

Wozniak, Steve, and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.

(Note: Italics and centered ellipsis in original.)





July 21, 2010

Defenders of Climategate Benefit from Global Warming Fears



(p. A15) Last November there was a world-wide outcry when a trove of emails were released suggesting some of the world's leading climate scientists engaged in professional misconduct, data manipulation and jiggering of both the scientific literature and climatic data to paint what scientist Keith Briffa called "a nice, tidy story" of climate history. The scandal became known as Climategate.

Now a supposedly independent review of the evidence says, in effect, "nothing to see here."


. . .


One of the panel's four members, Prof. Geoffrey Boulton, was on the faculty of East Anglia's School of Environmental Sciences for 18 years. At the beginning of his tenure, the Climatic Research Unit (CRU)--the source of the Climategate emails--was established in Mr. Boulton's school at East Anglia. Last December, Mr. Boulton signed a petition declaring that the scientists who established the global climate records at East Anglia "adhere to the highest levels of professional integrity."

This purportedly independent review comes on the heels of two others--one by the University of East Anglia itself and the other by Penn State University, both completed in the spring, concerning its own employee, Prof. Michael Mann. Mr. Mann was one of the Climategate principals who proposed a plan, which was clearly laid out in emails whose veracity Mr. Mann has not challenged, to destroy a scientific journal that dared to publish three papers with which he and his East Anglia friends disagreed. These two reviews also saw no evil. For example, Penn State "determined that Dr. Michael E. Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community."

Readers of both earlier reports need to know that both institutions receive tens of millions in federal global warming research funding (which can be confirmed by perusing the grant histories of Messrs. Jones or Mann, compiled from public sources, that are available online at freerepublic.com). Any admission of substantial scientific misbehavior would likely result in a significant loss of funding.

It's impossible to find anything wrong if you really aren't looking.



For the full commentary, see

PATRICK J. MICHAELS. "The Climategate Whitewash Continues; Global warming alarmists claim vindication after last year's data manipulation scandal. Don't believe the 'independent' reviews.." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., JULY 12, 2010): A15.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated JULY 10, 2010.)

(Note: ellipsis added.)





July 15, 2010

"Fun" and "Profits" as Motives for Entrepreneurship



(p. 184) After we started selling the boards to Paul Terrell--working day and night to get them to him on time--we had profits like I never imagined. Suddenly our little business was making more than I was making at HP. That wasn't very much, admittedly. But still, it was a lot. We were building the boxes for $220 and selling them wholesale to Paul Terrell for $500.

And, of course, we didn't need a ton of money to operate. I had a day job, so I looked at it as, Hey, cool. Extra money for pizza! As for Steve, he was living at home. I was twenty-five and he was only twenty-one at the time, so what expenses could we have, really? Apple didn't have to make that much to sustain itself and be ongoing. We weren't paying ourselves salaries or paying rent, after all. We didn't have any patents to pay for. Or lawyers. It was a small-time business, and we weren't worried that much about anything.

My dad, watching this, pointed out that we weren't actually making money because we weren't paying ourselves anything. But we didn't care, we were having too much fun.




But note, only several pages later:

(p. 194) Like I said before, we needed money. Steve knew it and I knew it.

So by that summer of 1976, we started talking to potential money people about Apple, showing them the Apple II working in color in Steve's garage.



Source:

Wozniak, Steve, and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.





June 25, 2010

Wozniak on the Motives and Rewards of Inventor and Innovator



(p. 147) The whole thing used forty-five chips, and Steve paid me half the seven hundred bucks he said they paid him for it. (They were paying us based on how few chips I could do it. in.) Later I found out he got paid a bit (p. 148) more for it--like a few thousand dollars--than he said at the time, but we were kids, you know. He got paid one amount, and told me he got paid another. He wasn't honest with me, and I was hurt. But I didn't make a big deal about it or anything.

Ethics always mattered to me, and I still don't really understand why he would've gotten paid one thing and told me he'd gotten paid another. But, you know, people are different. And in no way do I regret the experience at Atari with Steve Jobs. He was my best friend and I still feel extremely linked with him. I wish him well. And it was a great project that was so fun. Anyway, in the long run of money--Steve and I ended up getting very comfortable money-wise from our work founding Apple just a few years later--it certainly didn't add up to much.

Steve and I were the best of friends for a very, very long time. We had the same goals for a while. They jelled perfectly at forming Apple. But we were always different people, different people right from the start.

You know, it's strange, hut right around the time I started working on what later became the Apple I board, this idea popped into my mind about two guys who die on the same day. One guy is really successful, and he's spending all his time running companies, managing them, making sure they are profitable, and making sales goals all the time. And the other guy, all he does is lounge around, doesn't have much money, really likes to tell jokes and follow gadgets and technology and other things he finds interesting in the world, and he just spends his life laughing.

In my head, the guy who'd rather laugh than control things is going to be the one who has the happier life. That's just my opinion. I figure happiness is the most important thing in life, just how much you laugh. The guy whose head kind of floats, he's so happy. That's who I am, who I want to be and have always wanted to be.

(p. 149) And that's why I never let stuff like what happened with Breakout bother me. Though you can disagree--you can even split from a relationship--you don't have to hold it against the other. You're just different. That's the best way to live life and be happy

And I figured this all out even before Steve and I started Apple.



Source:

Wozniak, Steve, and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.





June 21, 2010

Electronics Projects Were Wozniak's "Passion" and "Pastime" and "Reward"



(p. 127) I think most people with day jobs like to do something totally different when they get home. Some people like to come home and watch TV. But my thing was electronics projects. It was my passion and it was my pastime.

Working on projects was something I did on my own time to reward myself, even though I wasn't getting rewarded on the outside, with money or other visible signs of success.



Source:

Wozniak, Steve, and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.





April 19, 2010

Underwater Power Cables Maximize Profits and Improve Environment



TransBayCableSanFrancisco2010-04-17.jpg"Laying line in San Francisco for the Trans Bay Cable project, which submerged 33 miles of cable." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. B1) Generating 20 percent of America's electricity with wind, as recent studies proposed, would require building up to 22,000 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines. But the huge towers and unsightly tree-cutting that these projects require have provoked intense public opposition.

Recently, though, some companies are finding a remarkably simple answer to that political problem. They are putting power lines under water, in a string of projects that has so far provoked only token opposition from environmentalists and virtually no reaction from the larger public.


. . .


(p. B7) . . . , the underwater approach solves some intractable problems. In San Francisco, for example, old power plants that burn natural gas are about to be retired because a new transmission company has succeeded in running a line 33 miles across the San Francisco Bay.

Mr. Stern said his company's Neptune Cable, which runs from Sayreville, N.J., to Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, now carries 22 percent of Long Island's electricity. His company is trying to complete a deal for a cable that would run from Ridgefield, N.J., to a Consolidated Edison substation on West 49th Street in Manhattan.

Those two cables were not motivated primarily by environmental goals -- they are meant to connect cheap generation to areas where power prices are high. Mr. Stern's company, PowerBridge, is now considering two renewable energy projects, however. One cable would connect proposed wind farms on the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Lanai to the urban center on Oahu, and another would bring wind power from Maine along the Atlantic coast to Boston.




For the full story, see:

MATTHEW L. WALD. "A Power Line Runs Through It; Underwater Cable an Alternative to Electrical Towers." The New York Times (Weds., March 17, 2010): B1 & B7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version is dated March 16, 2010 and has the shorter title "Underwater Cable an Alternative to Electrical Towers.")





March 16, 2010

Myhrvold Innovates in Financing Innovation



MyhrvoldNathanIntellectualVentures2010-03-01.jpg "Nathan Myhrvold, chief of Intellectual Ventures, says patent holders are being treated unfairly." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


When Nathan Myhrvold was at Microsoft, he helped Bill Gates write The Road Ahead, a well-written book full of realistically optimistic speculation, forecast and analysis.

Besides his main initiative, discussed below, he has recently been in the news due to his bold and controversial suggestion for how to cheaply solve global warming.


(p. B1) BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Nathan Myhrvold wants to shake up the marketplace for ideas. His mission and the activities of the company he heads, Intellectual Ventures, a secretive $5 billion investment firm that has scooped up 30,000 patents, inspire admiration and angst.

Admirers of Mr. Myhrvold, the scientist who led Microsoft's technology development in the 1990s, see an innovator seeking to elevate the economic role and financial rewards for inventors whose patented ideas are often used without compensation by big technology companies. His detractors see a cynical operator deploying his bulging patent trove as a powerful bargaining chip, along with the implied threat of costly litigation, to prod high-tech companies to pay him lucrative fees. They call his company "Intellectual Vultures."

White hat or black hat, Intellectual Ventures is growing rapidly and becoming a major force in the marketplace for intellectual capital. Its rise comes as Congress is considering legislation, championed by large technology companies, that would make it more difficult for patent holders to win large damage awards in court -- changes that Mr. Myhrvold has opposed in Congressional testimony and that his company has lobbied against.


. . .


(p. B10) The issues surrounding Intellectual Ventures, viewed broadly, are the ground rules and incentives for innovation. "How this plays out will be crucial to the American economy," said Josh Lerner, an economist and patent expert at the Harvard Business School.

Mr. Myhrvold certainly thinks so. He says he is trying to build a robust, efficient market for "invention capital," much as private equity and venture capital developed in recent decades. "They started from nothing, were deeply misunderstood and were trashed by people threatened by new business models," he said in his offices here.

Mr. Myhrvold presents his case at length in a 7,000-word article published on Thursday in the Harvard Business Review. "If we and firms like us succeed," he writes, "the invention capital system will turbocharge technological progress, create many more new businesses, and change the world for the better."

In the article and in conversation, Mr. Myhrvold describes the patent world as a vastly underdeveloped market, starved for private capital and too dependent on federal financing for universities and government agencies, which is mainly aimed at scientific discovery anyway. Eventually, he foresees patents being valued as a separate asset class, like real estate or securities.

His antagonists, he says, are the "cozy oligarchy" of big technology companies like I.B.M., Hewlett-Packard and others that typically reach cross-licensing agreements with each other, and then refuse to deal with or acknowledge the work of inventors or smaller companies.


. . .


Mr. Myhrvold personifies the term polymath. He is a prolific patent producer himself, with more than 100 held or applied for. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton and did postdoctorate research on quantum field theory under Stephen Hawking, before founding a start-up that Microsoft acquired.

He is an accomplished French chef, who has also won a national barbecue contest in Tennessee. He is an avid wildlife photographer, and he has dabbled in paleontology, working on research projects digging for dinosaur remains in the Rockies.





For the full story, see:

STEVE LOHR. "Turning Patents Into 'Invention Capital'." The New York Times (Thur., February 18, 2010): B1 & B10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 17, 2010.)


The Bill Gates book is:

Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995.


Myhrvold's Harvard Business Review essay is:

Myhrvold, Nathan. "The Big Idea: Funding Eureka!" Harvard Business Review 88, no. 2 (March 2010): 40-50.



MyhrvoldNathanFreezeDryMachine2010-03-01.jpg "Nathan Myhrvold with a machine that freeze-dries food. Intellectual Ventures so far has paid $315 million to individual inventors." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





December 24, 2009

Heretics to the Religion of Global Warming



SuperFreakonomicsBK.jpg















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



(p. A19) Suppose for a minute--. . . --that global warming poses an imminent threat to the survival of our species. Suppose, too, that the best solution involves a helium balloon, several miles of garden hose and a harmless stream of sulfur dioxide being pumped into the upper atmosphere, all at a cost of a single F-22 fighter jet.


. . .


The hose-in-the-sky approach to global warming is the brainchild of Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm founded by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. The basic idea is to engineer effects similar to those of the 1991 mega-eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which spewed so much sulfuric ash into the stratosphere that it cooled the earth by about one degree Fahrenheit for a couple of years.

Could it work? Mr. Myhrvold and his associates think it might, and they're a smart bunch. Also smart are University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner, whose delightful "SuperFreakonomics"--the sequel to their runaway 2005 bestseller "Freakonomics"--gives Myhrvold and Co. pride of place in their lengthy chapter on global warming. Not surprisingly, global warming fanatics are experiencing a Pinatubo-like eruption of their own.


. . .


. . . , Messrs. Levitt and Dubner show every sign of being careful researchers, going so far as to send chapter drafts to their interviewees for comment prior to publication. Nor are they global warming "deniers," insofar as they acknowledge that temperatures have risen by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century.

But when it comes to the religion of global warming--the First Commandment of which is Thou Shalt Not Call It A Religion--Messrs. Levitt and Dubner are grievous sinners. They point out that belching, flatulent cows are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than all SUVs combined. They note that sea levels will probably not rise much more than 18 inches by 2100, "less than the twice-daily tidal variation in most coastal locations." They observe that "not only is carbon plainly not poisonous, but changes in carbon-dioxide levels don't necessarily mirror human activity." They quote Mr. Myhrvold as saying that Mr. Gore's doomsday scenarios "don't have any basis in physical reality in any reasonable time frame."

More subversively, they suggest that climatologists, like everyone else, respond to incentives in a way that shapes their conclusions. "The economic reality of research funding, rather than a disinterested and uncoordinated scientific consensus, leads the [climate] models to approximately match one another." In other words, the herd-of-independent-minds phenomenon happens to scientists too and isn't the sole province of painters, politicians and news anchors

.


For the full commentary, see:

BRET STEPHENS. "Freaked Out Over SuperFreakonomics; Global warming might be solved with a helium balloon and a few miles of garden hose." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., OCTOBER 27, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





November 11, 2009

"A Foolish Faith in Authority Is the Worst Enemy of Truth"



(p. A21) Several years ago I grew concerned about my postmenopausal mother's risk of osteoporosis. I tried to convince her to initiate hormone replacement therapy. She didn't listen to me. Instead, she spoke with her gynecologist, who--contrary to best medical evidence at the time--recommended against such treatment. I would eventually be thankful my mother listened to the gynecologist who had known her for decades instead of me and the published medical reviews I was relying on. Some years later my mother was diagnosed with early breast cancer. Had she been on estrogen replacement, it is likely that her tumor would have progressed more rapidly. The gynecologist likely saved my mother's life.

Studies published in the medical literature are mostly produced by academics who face an imperative to publish or watch their careers perish. These academics aren't basing their careers on their clinical skills and experiences. Paradoxically, if we allow the academic literature to set guidelines for accepted practices, we are allowing those who are often academics first and clinicians second to determine what clinical care is appropriate.

Consciously or not, those who provide the peer review for medical journals are influenced by whether the work they are reviewing will impact their standing in the medical community. This is a dilemma. The experts who serve as reviewers compete with the work they are reviewing. Leaders in every community, therefore, exert disproportional influence on what gets published. We expect reviewers to be objective and free of conflicts, but in truth, only rarely is that the case.

Albert Einstein once noted that "a foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth."



For the full commentary, see:

NORBERT GLEICHER. "'Expert Panels' Won't Improve Health Care; Government reliance on medical studies will make it harder to discard false prophecies and dogmas." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., October 19, 2009): A21.

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated Sun., Oct. 18.)





October 26, 2009

Health Care Incentives and Information Improve When Patients Are Payers



Nobel Prize winning economist Vernon Smith sees that the current health care system is an incentive and information "nightmare." The third parties, who pay, have neither the incentive nor the information to reward the providers who do a good job. And patients, who have the information, do not have the power or incentives to reward those who do a good job. And since providers are not being rewarded for doing a good job, they will only avoid becoming cynical bureaucrats as long as they are mission-driven saints.

A better system, that goes a long way toward Smith's "solution," has been suggested by Susan Feigenbaum, who suggests that third parties provide payments directly to patients, who then may choose what services to buy from which providers.

Here is the core of Smith's analysis:


(p. A11) The health-care provider, A, is in the position of recommending to the patient, B, what B should buy from A. A third party--the insurance company or the government--is paying A for it.

This structure defines an incentive nightmare.


. . .

I don't know whether this problem has a solution. If it does, I think it requires us to find mechanisms whereby third-party payment is made to the patient, B, who in turn pays A, supplemented with any co-payment from B for services. Hence, from the moment B seeks services from A both know who is going to be paying A for what is delivered. A and B each has need for what the other brings to the table, and this structure carries the potential for nurturing the relationship between A and B. B is empowered to become better informed about the services recommended by various A's that he might choose among, and the A's might find it particularly important to build good reputations with B's.



For the full commentary, see:

VERNON L. SMITH. "The ABC Dilemma of Health Reform; Third-party payment creates a big incentive problem." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., OCTOBER 16, 2009): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


Feigenbaum's prescient suggestion for reform can be found in:

Feigenbaum, Susan. "Body Shop' Economics: What's Good for Our Cars May Be Good for Our Health." Regulation 15, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 26-27.





August 13, 2009

Amazon Rebels Against Hawaii Tax



After Amazon's rebellion, summarized in the quote below, the Governor of Hawaii vetoed the tax, and Amazon has now invited its former affiliates to rejoin the program.

Lesson: sometimes entrepreneurial enterprise can fight the government, and win.


(p. B7) Amazon.com Inc. has informed its marketing affiliates in Hawaii that it is ending its business with them to avoid collecting sales tax in the state.

Lawmakers in Hawaii, following in the footsteps of North Carolina and Rhode Island, have passed legislation that would require companies to collect sales tax if they have marketing affiliates in the state. Affiliate marketers run blogs or Web sites and get a sales commission by featuring links to outside e-commerce sites.



For the full story, see:

GEOFFREY A. FOWLER. "Amazon Cuts Ties to Affiliates in Hawaii." Wall Street Journal (Weds., JULY 1, 2009): B7.





August 9, 2009

Democrats Continue Earmarks for Those Who Donated to Their Campaigns



(p. A5) WASHINGTON -- A House panel approved a big Pentagon spending bill this week that included nearly 150 items tucked in by lawmakers on behalf of companies and other entities whose employees donated to their campaigns.

The Democratic Congress and President Barack Obama swept into power on a promise to reform the process of lawmakers trying to dictate in detail how funds are spent, known as "earmarks." When Mr. Obama signed a spending bill for the current fiscal year in March, he said the earmark-laden legislation should be an "end to the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability."

But as lawmakers work their way through spending bills for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, earmarks appear alive and well -- including those written for companies, foundations, and universities whose employees and political-action committees gave money to the campaigns of congressmen doing the earmarking.

The $636.3 billion 2010 defense-spending bill passed Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee includes more than 1,100 earmarks, totaling more than $2.7 billion.

Members of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee -- the 18 members of Congress who wrote the bill -- secured a total of 148 earmarks worth $461 million for entities whose employees have given $822,765 in campaign donations to those lawmakers since 2007. The data were compiled by the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, which analyzed nearly 400 earmarks.



For the full story, see:

JAKE SHERMAN. "Bill Shows Earmarks Are Alive and Well." Wall Street Journal (Sat., JULY 25, 2009): A5.





July 14, 2009

The Case for Patent System Reform



(p. A13) The Patent Office now gets some 500 million applications a year, leading to litigation costs of over $10 billion a year to define who has what rights. As Judge Richard Posner has written, patents for ideas create the risk of "enormous monopoly power (imagine if the first person to think up the auction had been able to patent it)." Studies indicate that aside from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the cost of litigation now exceeds the profits companies generate from licensing patents.


For the full commentary, see:

L. GORDON CROVITZ. "OPINION: INFORMATION AGE; Why Technologists Want Fewer Patents." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., JUNE 15, 2009): A13.






July 6, 2009

Our "Patently Absurd" Patent System



(p. A15) The Founders might have used quill pens, but they would roll their eyes at how, in this supposedly technology-minded era, we're undermining their intention to encourage innovation. The U.S. is stumbling in the transition from their Industrial Age to our Information Age, despite the charge in the Constitution that Congress "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."


. . .

Both sides may be right. New empirical research by Boston University law professors James Bessen and Michael Meurer, reported in their book, "Patent Failure," found that the value of pharmaceutical patents outweighed the costs of pharmaceutical-patent litigation. But for all other industries combined, they estimate that since the mid-1990s, the cost of U.S. patent litigation to alleged infringers ($12 billion in legal and business costs in 1999) is greater than the global profits that companies earn from patents (less than $4 billion in 1999). Since the 1980s, patent litigation has tripled and the probability that a particular patent is litigated within four years has more than doubled. Small inventors feel the brunt of the uncertainty costs, since bigger companies only pay for rights they think the system will protect.

These are shocking findings, but they point to the solution. New drugs require great specificity to earn a patent, whereas patents are often granted to broad, thus vague, innovations in software, communications and other technologies. Ironically, the aggregate value of these technology patents is then wiped out through litigation costs.

Our patent system for most innovations has become patently absurd. It's a disincentive at a time when we expect software and other technology companies to be the growth engine of the economy. Imagine how much more productive our information-driven economy would be if the patent system lived up to the intention of the Founders, by encouraging progress instead of suppressing it.



For the full commentary, see:

L. GORDON CROVITZ. "OPINION: INFORMATION AGE; Patent Gridlock Suppresses Innovation." Wall Street Journal (Mon., JULY 14, 2008): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





June 24, 2009

"Clear Relationship in Rice Farming Between Effort and Reward"



(p. 236) What redeemed the life of a rice farmer, however, was the nature of that work. It was a lot like the garment work done by the Jewish immigrants to New York. It was meaningful. First of all, there is a clear relationship in rice farming between effort and reward. The harder you work a rice field, the more it yields. Second, it's complex work. The rice farmer isn't simply planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall. He or she effectively runs a small business, juggling a family workforce, hedging uncertainty through seed selection, building and managing a sophisticated irrigation system, and coordinating the complicated process of harvesting the first crop while simultaneously preparing the second crop.

And, most of all, it's autonomous. The peasants of Europe worked essentially as low-paid slaves of an aristocratic landlord, with little control over their own destinies. But China and Japan never developed that kind of oppressive feudal system, because feudalism simply can't work in a rice economy. Growing rice is too complicated and intricate for a system that requires farmers to be coerced and bullied into going out into the fields each morning. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, landlords in central and Southern China had an almost completely hands-off relationship with their tenants: they would collect a fixed rent and let farmers go about their business.

"The thing about wet-rice farming is, not only do you (p. 237) need phenomenal amounts of labor, but it's very exacting," says the historian Kenneth Pomerantz. "You have to care. It really matters that the field is perfectly leveled before you flood it. Getting it close to level but not quite right makes a big difference in terms of your yield. It really matters that the water is in the fields for just the right amount of time. There's a big difference between lining up the seedlings at exactly the right distance and doing it sloppily. It's not like you put the corn in the ground in mid-March and as long as rain comes by the end of the month, you're okay. You're controlling all the inputs in a very direct way. And when you have something that requires that much care, the overlord has to have a system that gives the actual laborer some set of incentives, where if the harvest comes out well, the farmer gets a bigger share. That's why you get fixed rents, where the landlord says, I get twenty bushels, regardless of the harvest, and if it's really good, you get the extra. It's a crop that doesn't do very well with something like slavery or wage labor. It would just be too easy to leave the gate that controls the irrigation water open a few seconds too long and there goes your field."




Source:

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Co., 2008.

(Note: italics in original.)





February 21, 2009

Democratic 1997 Tax Break Fed Housing Bubble


HomeSalesSurgeAfter1997TaxBreakGraph.jpg















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


(p. A1) "Tonight, I propose a new tax cut for homeownership that says to every middle-income working family in this country, if you sell your home, you will not have to pay a capital gains tax on it ever -- not ever."

-- President Bill Clinton, at the 1996 Democratic National Convention


Ryan J. Wampler had never made much money selling his own homes.

Starting in 1999, however, he began to do very well. Three times in eight years, Mr. Wampler -- himself a home builder and developer -- sold his home in the Phoenix area, always for a nice profit. With prices in Phoenix soaring, he made almost $700,000 on the three sales.

And thanks to a tax break proposed by President Bill Clinton and approved by Congress in 1997, he did not have to pay tax on most of that profit. It was a break that had not been available to generations of Americans before him. The benefits also did not apply to other investments, be they stocks, bonds or stakes in a small business. Those gains were all taxed at rates of up to 20 percent.

The different tax treatments gave people a new incentive to plow ever more money into real estate, and they did so. "When you give that big an incentive for people to buy and sell homes," said Mr. Wampler, 44, a mild-mannered native of Phoenix who has two children, "they are going to buy and sell homes."

By itself, the change in the tax law did not cause the housing bubble, economists say. Several other factors -- a relaxation of lending standards, a failure by regulators to intervene, a sharp decline in interest rates and a collective belief that house prices could never fall -- probably played larger roles.

But many economists say that (p. A22) the law had a noticeable impact, allowing home sales to become tax-free windfalls. A recent study of the provision by an economist at the Federal Reserve suggests that the number of homes sold was almost 17 percent higher over the last decade than it would have been without the law.

Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate and economics professor at George Mason University, has said the tax law change was responsible for "fueling the mother of all housing bubbles."



For the full story, see:

VIKAS BAJAJ and DAVID LEONHARDT. "1997 Tax Break on Home Sales May Have Helped Inflate Bubble." The New York Times (Fri., December 19, 2008): A1 & A22.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 18, and has the somewhat different title: "The Reckoning; Tax Break May Have Helped Cause Housing Bubble.")


WamplerRyan.jpg "Ryan J. Wampler made nearly $700,000 on three sales of his own homes in eight years." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




January 28, 2009

Even Dogs "Have a Sense of Fairness"


DogsTreats1.jpg DogsTreats2.jpg DogsTreats3.jpg "This series of photos from the National Academy of Sciences shows a dog being asked for its paw and obeying, left. In the second photo, the dog watches its partner in the experiment receive a food reward that it didn't receive. In the third photo, the dog refuses to give its paw and avoids looking at the experimenter." Source of caption and photos: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

(p. 2A) Ask them to do a trick, and they'll give it a try. For a reward, they'll happily keep at it.

But if one dog gets no reward and then sees another dog get a treat for doing the same trick, just try to get the first one to do it again.

Indeed, the animal may turn away and refuse to look at you.

Dogs, like people and monkeys, seem to have a sense of fairness.

. . .

In the experiments described in today's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Range and colleagues experimented with dogs that understood the command "paw'' to place a paw in the hand of a researcher. It's the same game as teaching a dog to "shake hands.''

. . .

The dogs sat side by side with an experimenter in front of them. In front of the experimenter was a divided food bowl with pieces of sausage on one side and brown bread on the other.

The dogs were asked to shake hands and could see what reward the other dog received.

When one dog got a reward and the other didn't, the unrewarded animal stopped playing.



For the full story, see:

Associated Press. "It's a Dog's Life Only When Someone Else Gets Treat." Omaha World-Herald (Tues., Dec. 9, 2008): 2A.

(Note: ellipses added.)




January 13, 2009

Inability to Patent Sulfa, Delayed Its Marketing


When new uses of old, unpatentable drugs are discovered, there seems to be inadequate incentive to publicize them, and bring them to market. (For example, I think I have seen research suggesting that aspirin and fish oil capsules, are as effective in fighting heart disease as some newer drugs, but are nonoptimally utilized because of perverse incentives.) Maybe a revision of the patent law should be considered that permits some patenting of new uses of old drugs and substances?

(p. 172) It was wonderful that this powerful, inexpensive medicine was now available, but for a year after the Pasteur Institute announcement, no one marketed it seriously in its pure form as a medicine. Because it was not patentable, it was difficult for major chemical or drug firms to see a way to make much of a profit from it. It was not until months after the Pasteur group's first publication on sulfa that the president of Rhône-Poulenc, an industrial supporter of Fourneau's laboratory, visited the Pasteur Institute to hear about it. After talking with the researchers he decided to launch Septazine, a variation on pure sulfa that he felt was different enough to allow patenting---and hence profits. Septazine reached the marketplace in May 1936.


Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.




January 9, 2009

French Entrepreneur Fourneau Was Against Law, But Used It


The existence and details of patent laws can matter for creating incentives for invention and innovation. The patent laws in Germany and France in the 1930s reduced the incentives for inventing new drugs.

(p. 141) German chemical patents were often small masterpieces of mumbo jumbo. It was a market necessity. Patents in Germany were issued to protect processes used to make a new chemical, not, as in America, the new chemical itself; German law protected the means, not the end.   . . .

. . .

(p. 166) Fourneau decided that if the French were going to compete, the nation's scientists would either have to discover their own new drugs and get them into production before the Germans could or find ways to make French versions of German compounds before the Germans had earned back their research and production costs---in other words, get French versions of new German drugs into the market before the Germans could lower their prices. French patent laws, like those in Germany, did not protect the final product. "I was always against the French law and I thought it was shocking that one could not patent one's invention," Fourneau said, "but the law was what it was, and there was no reasons not to use it."



Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipses added.)




December 11, 2008

"The Authorities Were Shocked" at Private Airport Success



DomodedovoAirportMoscow.jpg "Investors renovated a terminal at Domodedovo and oversaw construction of a train line to Moscow." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. B9) MOSCOW -- A heated battle for passengers between the Russian capital's main airports offers an unlikely model of competition for the aviation industry.

In most cities, airports are monopolies. Even in cities that have more than one, including New York, Paris and Tokyo, airports are usually owned by the same operator. That means airlines can rarely make the kind of choices passengers take for granted, such as choosing an airport for its efficiency, shopping or lounges.

Not so in Moscow, where two international airports, Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo, owned by rival organizations, battle for business. The result is lower fees, better service and fast-improving facilities all around.

Domodedovo Airport, for example, recently convinced several top airlines to make it their Russian base, thanks to a major modernization that added more than 20 new restaurants, jewelry boutiques and a shop where passengers can rent DVDs to watch in booths.

Sheremetyevo Airport responded by building a fast rail link to Moscow, complete with a Starbucks at the airport station.

Moscow's airport rivalry highlights a paradox of the global aviation industry: Airlines compete fiercely with each other for customers, but they face many monopolist suppliers, such as air-traffic control systems, fuel distributors and airports. Resulting costs and poor services get passed on to travelers.


. . .


During Russia's privatization drive of the 1990s, local investors bought Domodedovo, which was previously Moscow's airport serving Soviet Central Asia. The investors, grouped into an upstart charter-airline operator, East Line Group, renovated a terminal at Domodedovo and oversaw construction of a train line to Moscow.

East Line charged airlines landing and operating fees that undercut Sheremetyevo by around 30%. For passengers, Domodedovo's rail link guaranteed a 40-minute trip to downtown Moscow. Private Russian carriers, largely frozen out of Aeroflot's base at Sheremetyevo, expanded quickly at the spacious Domodedovo.

East Line's big break came in 2003, when British Airways announced it would switch from Sheremetyevo to Domodedovo.

"The authorities were shocked that a major airline would leave the government airport," recalls Daniel Burkard, BA's former country manager for Russia.



For the full story, see:

DANIEL MICHAELS. "Moscow Points the Way With Airport Competition; While Most Nations Sport Monopolies, Rivalry Between Two Russian Gateways Ushers in Improvements for Carriers, Travelers." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., DECEMBER 1, 2008): B9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


MoscowAirportTrafficGraph.gif
















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








November 11, 2008

Good Laws Protect the Innovator


James Burke writes well, and what he writes is often stimulating, and thought-provoking. On the other hand, some of what he writes is exasperating---he writes in sweeping generalities, and often his 'connections' are exaggerations, giving no weight (or even mention) to alternative, equally plausible accounts.

But on balance, I enjoy listening to him. Here is one of the bits I especially liked:

(p. 19) Because the rule of law exists, and above all because it encourages and protects acts of innovation with patent legislation, we in the modern world expect that tomorrow will be better than today. Our view of the universe is essentially optimistic because of the marriage between law and innovation. Law gives an individual the confidence to explore, to risk, to venture into the unknown, in the knowledge that he, as an innovator, will be protected by society.


Source:

Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo's Telescope Changed the Truth and Other Events in History That Dramatically Altered Our Understanding of the World. Back Bay Books, 1995.




November 2, 2008

Obama's Tax Policies Would Be "a Significant Step Towards" Another "Great Depression"


Lee Ohanian is the co-author of a much-cited article in the highly-ranked Journal of Political Economy on the economics of the Great Depression. Below is a paragraph from his recent analysis of our current situation:


(p. A17) I am particularly concerned about bad policies because significantly higher taxes have been proposed by Barack Obama. His plan would raise the marginal tax rate on the most productive workers more than 10 percentage points -- an increase that would bring us near Western European levels. His plan would also raise capital income taxes, taxing capital gains and dividends at 20%, compared to a 15% rate under Sen. John McCain's plan. A five percentage-point difference might strike you as small, but it is not. I have calculated that a five percentage-point difference in overall capital income taxation over the long haul is equal to a difference in the nation's capital stock of about 18%. This means a 6% difference in GDP and a 6% difference in the average wage rate. This means that real GDP and the average wage would fall, gradually but persistently declining about 6% after 25 years. That's not quite a Great Depression, but a significant step towards one.


For the full commentary, see:

LEE E. OHANIAN. "Good Policies Can Save the Economy; Why we need lower tax rates and more skilled immigrants." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., OCTOBER 8, 2008): A17.

The academic article co-authored by Ohanian is:

Cole, Harold L., and Lee E. Ohanian. "New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis." Journal of Political Economy 112, no. 4 (August 2004): 779-816.




October 30, 2008

Fewer Jobs Under Obama's High-Cost Health Plan


RatnerDavePetStore.jpg "Dave Ratner, owner of four pet stores in Western Massachusetts, is worried about being able to pay into a state health benefits plan." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A16) AGAWAM, Mass. -- Dave Ratner, owner of Dave's Soda and Pet City, is pretty sure he is about to get "whacked" by the new state law that requires employers to contribute to health care benefits for their workers or pay a $295-per-employee penalty. In order to avoid thousands of dollars in fines, Mr. Ratner is considering not adding part-time workers at his four pet supply stores in Western Massachusetts.

But the penalty in Massachusetts is picayune compared with what some health experts believe Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, might impose as part of his plan to provide affordable coverage for the uninsured. Though Mr. Obama has not released details, economists believe he might require large and medium companies to contribute as much as 6 percent of their payrolls.

That, Mr. Ratner said, would be catastrophic to a low-margin business like his, which has 90 employees, 29 of them full-time workers who are offered health benefits.

"To all of a sudden whack 6 to 7 percent of payroll costs, forget it," he said. "If they do that, prices go up and employment goes down because nobody can absorb that."



For the full story, see:

KEVIN SACK. "Businesses Wary of Details in Obama Health Plan." The New York Times (Mon., October 27, 2008): A16.





September 4, 2008

McCain Proposes Prize to "Leapfrog" Battery Technology


McCainBatteryPrize.jpg "Campaigning Monday in Fresno, Calif., Senator John McCain said, if elected, he would offer $300 million to anyone who could build a more efficient car battery." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) FRESNO, Calif. -- In the 18th century the British offered a £20,000 prize to anyone who figured out how to calculate longitude. More recently, Netflix offered a million dollars for improving movie recommendations on its Web site. Now Senator John McCain is suggesting a new national prize: He said here Monday that if elected president he would offer $300 million to anyone who could build a better car battery.

. . .

"I further propose we inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people," Mr. McCain said, "by offering a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars."

He said the winner should deliver power at 30 percent of current costs. "That's one dollar, one dollar, for every man, woman and child in the U.S. -- a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency," he said.



For the full story, see:

MICHAEL COOPER. "McCain Proposes a $300 Million Prize for a Next-Generation Car Battery." The New York Times (Tues., June 24, 2008): A15 & A20
.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




August 15, 2008

How to Save a Species by Eating It


RenewingAmericasFoodTraditionsBK.jpg








Source of book image:
http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/61cDbDl665L._SS500_.jpg

(p. D1) SOME people would just as soon ignore the culinary potential of the Carolina flying squirrel or the Waldoboro green neck rutabaga. To them, the creamy Hutterite soup bean is too obscure and the Tennessee fainting goat, which keels over when startled, sounds more like a sideshow act than the centerpiece of a barbecue.

But not Gary Paul Nabhan. He has spent most of the past four years compiling a list of endangered plants and animals that were once fairly commonplace in American kitchens but are now threatened, endangered or essentially extinct in the marketplace. He has set out to save them, which often involves urging people to eat them.

Mr. Nabhan's list, 1,080 items and growing, forms the basis of his new book, an engaging journey through the nooks and crannies of American culinary history titled "Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods" (Chelsea Green Publishing, $35).

. . .

(p. C5) Some of the items on the list, like Ojai pixie tangerines and Sonoma County Gravenstein apples, were well on their way back before Mr. Nabhan came along. But other foods are enjoying a renaissance largely as a result of the coalition's work.

The Makah ozette potato, a nutty fingerling with such a rich, creamy texture that it needs only a whisper of oil, is one of the success stories. It is named after the Makah Indians, who live at the northwest tip of Washington state and have been growing the potatoes for more than 200 years.

The Seattle chapters of Slow Food and the Chefs Collaborative adopted the rare potato. In 2006, Slow Food passed out seed potatoes to a handful of local farmers and gardeners, and chefs like Seth Caswell at the Stumbling Goat Bistro in Seattle began putting them on the menu.

Mr. Caswell says they are delicious roasted with a little hazelnut oil for salads or cut into wedges to go with burgers made with wagyu beef and Washington State black truffle oil.

There have been other revivals, the moon and stars watermelon and the tepary bean among them. The effort to reintroduce heritage turkeys to the American table was a precursor to the work of Mr. Nabhan and his collaborators.

The meaty Buckeye chicken, with its long legs suitable for ranging around, is considered one of five most endangered chicken breeds. Last year over 1,000 chicks were hatched and delivered to breeders, Mr. Nabhan said.

Justin Pitts, whose family has raised Pineywoods cattle in southern Mississippi for generations, credits the coalition with saving those animals. The small, lean cattle that provide milk, meat and labor spent centuries adapting to the pine barrens of the deep south, raised by families who can trace their herds back as far as anyone can remember. There are less than a dozen of those families left, and at one point the number of pure Pineywoods breeding animals fell to under 200. In the past few years, it has grown to nearly 1,000.

Mr. Pitts, who has "90 head if I can find them all," sells New York strips and other cuts at the New Orleans farmers' market and to chefs.

"I can't raise cattle fast as they eat them," he said.

He supports the notion that you've got to eat something to save it.

"If you're keeping them for a museum piece," he said, "you've just signed their death warrant."



For the full story, see:

KIM SEVERSON. "An Unlikely Way to Save a Species: Serve It for Dinner." The New York Times (Weds., April 30, 2008): D1 & D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Reference to book:

Nabhan, Gary Paul. Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2008.

WatermelonMoonAndStar.jpg







Moon and stars watermelon. Source of image: http://bp0.blogger.com/_Tyq14YRMHCI/SBlWLE9tynI/AAAAAAAAAD8/gphhc3wgK-4/s1600/purplewatermelon266.jpg




August 13, 2008

High Prices Provide Incentive to Innovate


MonsantoCornResearcher.jpg





"A Monsanto researcher, Mohammadreza Ghaffarzadeh, monitored drought-resistant corn technology in Davis, Calif." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 4) CORN prices are at record high levels. Costs for other agricultural essentials, from wheat to coffee to rice, have surged, too. And many people are stunned, even frightened, by all the increases.

But some entrepreneurs and analysts -- recognizing that relative price increases in specific goods always encourage innovators to find ways around the problem -- say they see an opportunity for creative solutions.

"When something becomes dear, you invent around it as much as you can," says David Warsh, editor of Economicprincipals.com, a newsletter on trends in economic thinking.

Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, adds, "All of a sudden, some things that didn't look profitable now do."

. . .

A study in the 1950s by the economist Zvi Griliches of American farmers' adoption of more productive varieties of corn showed how higher prices reduced the cost of adopting new technologies.

. . .

Ultimately, higher food prices give innovators room to cover the cost of protecting human health. But prices are a democratic signal: when all innovators see them, their ability to sneak up on an opportunity, while others nap, vanishes.

"The bigger the prize people are chasing, the more people go after it," says Paul Romer, a theorist on sources of economic growth. "As people pile into an area, the expected return to any one innovator goes down."

Yet, fortunately, the return to society goes up.



For the full commentary, see:

G. PASCAL ZACHARY. "Ping; A Brighter Side of High Prices." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., May 18, 2008): 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)


For more on Zvi Griliches's contributions to the economics of innovation, see:

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




July 16, 2008

Argentine Taxes "Killing Their Incentives"


ArgentinaMarchettiPresidentCigraGroup.jpg "Marcelo Marchetti, president of Cigra group." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 6) WENCESLAO ESCALANTE, Argentina -- When the government decided in March to raise taxes on farmers' profits, it set off a rural revolt in Argentina. For three weeks enraged farmers blocked roads nationwide, paralyzing grain and meat sales and causing food shortages.

. . .

The farmers say they are concerned not only about profits, though the steeper taxes have cut into them. They also say Mrs. Kirchner's policies are threatening to reverse one of the great agricultural booms in Argentina's history and to snuff out a technological and entrepreneurial revolution that has made the country a leading food source in a world racked by hunger and rising food prices.

"We have an enormous historic opportunity to grow as a country, but the government wants to punish a sector that should continue to be an engine of growth," said Marcelo Marchetti, 39. "The world has opened its doors to us, and here we are fighting among ourselves."

. . .

An emergency law passed in 2002, in the midst of an economic crisis, has allowed the Kirchner government to create export taxes and keep the revenues away from governors and mayors. The Kirchners have used the doling out of those revenues to maintain political control over the provinces, which were critical to Mrs. Kirchner's election.

. . .

In Wenceslao Escalante, the Marchetti brothers, who both studied accounting in college, said the government's policies were killing their incentives to produce more. A decade ago they formed their company, Cigra, investing in the latest seed technology and farm equipment, and later buying $400,000 grain harvesters with global positioning systems.

Seven years ago the brothers expanded north into Chaco and Santiago del Estero, provinces where the land was thought to be too dry to support corn and soybeans. Today, with more advanced seeds and better crop rotation, it is considered the frontier for Argentine agriculture. But production there is threatened by declining profitability.

As the government has taken more from the farmers, international prices for the supplies to produce their crops, including fertilizers and seeds, have been rising faster than the prices of the commodities, Marcelo Marchetti said. The price of phosphorus, for example, has nearly tripled since last year, he said.

Suddenly the future seems cloudier. The brothers have decided not to make any investments over the next year.

"Everything is on hold," Mr. Marchetti said.



For the full story, see:

ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO. "In Argentina's Grain Belt, Farmers Revolt Over Taxes." The New York Times, Section 1 (Sun., April 27, 2008): 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

ArgentinaButcherShop.jpg "At a butcher shop in Buenos Aires, supplies were down during strikes by farmers in rural towns like Wenceslao Escalante." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




July 4, 2008

The Role of Private Enterprise in Sequencing the Human Genome


GenomeWarBK.jpg










Source of book image: http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/2004/02/20/genome_war.php

The race to decode the genome always seemed like an appealing test case of the relative efficiency of government versus private enterprise. But the results seem muddy because sometimes in the media the outcome has been described as a win for Craig Venter's private Celera corporation, and other times, as a tie.

For years I have wanted to learn more, and now I have finally done so by reading James Shreeve's fascinating The Genome War.

It is clear from the book that the entrance of Celera, greatly accelerated the government's own efforts to sequence the human genome. So one important lesson is that, no matter who "won the race, the consumer benefited from the entrance of a private competitor.

Also clear, is that Venter's group took advantage of public resources and results. Their primary zeal was for sequencing the genome, rather than for promoting private enterprise.

Regrettably, this is a common case: many entrepreneurs take the institutions of their economy as given, and make use of government when it suits their short-run objectives.

Officially the results were announced as a tie. But the main bone of contention had been over Celera's advocacy and use of the "whole genome shotgun" technique for sequencing the gene. The government group had attacked the method as impractical and unreliable.

The proof of who "won" in a deeper sense, was that after the contest was over, everyone, including the government, was using the "whole genome shotgun" technique.

Another lesson is that the usual scientific goal of immediately releasing findings, may actually reduce the information available to the public. If, as with the genome, the information is costly to obtain, allowing a period of proprietary ownership of the information, provides private entrepreneurs with the incentive to discover the information in the first place. Another case of unintended consequences: if we fully follow the alleged idealism of academic scientists, we will end up with less scientific knowledge, not more.

Reference to book:

Shreeve, James. The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

(Note: My comments are based on the whole book. A paragraph on pp. 366-367 is especially important.)




June 30, 2008

The Inefficiency of a Labor Safety Net


IndiaMilkStall.jpg


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


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

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

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

. . .

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

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


For the full story, see:

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

(Note: ellipsis added.)


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




June 29, 2008

Higher Oil Prices Are an Incentive for More Oil Drilling


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

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

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



For the full story, see:

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




May 20, 2008

Great Example of Stigler-Kolko Capture Theory of Regulatory Agencies


George Stigler and Gabriel Kolko are associated with the theory that eventually, govenment regulatory agencies come to be captured by the industry that the agency is charged with regulating.

At the time of the exchange documented below, Wendell Willkie was the head of an electric utility, and Lilienthal was one of the heads of the TVA, which was in the process of taking customers away from Willkie's utility. Willkie's argument to Lilienthal is consistent with the capture theory. (But that Lilienthal pushed ahead with his plans, might be seen as inconsistent with the theory.)

(p. 182) Lilienthal set up a meeting in early October 1933 at the Cosmos Club in Washington, the club being, in Lilienthal's words, "about as neutral a ground as we could think of."

. . .

(p. 183) Willkie tried yet another tack. No one, he argued to Lilienthal, went into government without the intention of going into the private sector later. The private sector, after all, was where the business lived. If Lilienthal was too nasty, then he was not likely to find work at private utilities companies. Lilienthal was, by his own admission, "pretty badly scared" by the time he left the Cosmos.


Source:

Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.




March 7, 2008

Incentives Matter: Capital Punishment Deters Murders


CapitalPunishmentGraph.gif






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


(p. A13) Recent high-profile events have reopened the debate about the value of capital punishment in a just society. This is an important discussion, because the taking of a human life is always a serious matter.

Most commentators who oppose capital punishment assert that an execution has no deterrent effect on future crimes. Recent evidence, however, suggests that the death penalty, when carried out, has an enormous deterrent effect on the number of murders. More precisely, our recent research shows that each execution carried out is correlated with about 74 fewer murders the following year.

For any society concerned about human life, that type of evidence is something that should be taken very seriously.

The study examined the relationship between the number of executions and the number of murders in the U.S. for the 26-year period from 1979 to 2004, using data from publicly available FBI sources. The chart nearby shows the number of executions and murders by year.


For the full commentary, see:

ROY D. ADLER and MICHAEL SUMMERS. "Capital Punishment Works." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., November 2, 2007): A13.





February 6, 2008

Bill Gates Misreads Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments

 

GatesDavos2008.jpgBill Gates speaking at the Davos meetings in Switzerland on January 24, 2008.  Source of the photo: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/blogs/dealbook/davos2008/gates600.jpg

 

The German scholars used to call it "Das Adam Smith Problem":  how to reconcile the Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments with his later Wealth of Nations.  One alleged inconsistency is the advocacy of altruism in the former, and the advocacy of self-interest in the latter.  

But a closer reading of The Theory of Moral Sentiments solves the problem.  Smith thought a case could be made for altruism, but only toward those we know really well, which primarily meant one's own family, and maybe also others in one's community who one knows well.  The reason is that altruism works only when we know very well the situation and values of those who we propose to help.  Otherwise, we may end up doing more harm than good.

So when Gates embarks on global altruism, he should be careful in citing Smith for support.

 

The passage quoted below discusses Bill Gates's interpretation of Adam Smith:

(p. A15)  Key to Mr. Gates's plan will be for businesses to dedicate their top people to poor issues -- an approach he feels is more powerful than traditional corporate donations and volunteer work. Governments should set policies and disburse funds to create financial incentives for businesses to improve the lives of the poor, he plans to say today. "If we can spend the early decades of the 21st century finding approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce poverty in the world," Mr. Gates plans to say.

In the interview, Mr. Gates was emphatic that he's not calling for a fundamental change in how capitalism works. He cited Adam Smith, whose treatise, "The Wealth of Nations," lays out the rationale for the self-interest that drives capitalism and companies like Microsoft. That shouldn't change, "one iota," Mr. Gates said.

But there's more to Adam Smith, he added. "This was written before 'Wealth of Nations,'" Mr. Gates said, flipping through a copy of Adam Smith's 1759 book, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments." It argues that humans gain pleasure from taking an interest in the "fortunes of others." Mr. Gates will quote from that book in his speech today.

Talk of "moral sentiments" may seem surprising from a man whose competitive drive is so fierce that it drew legal challenges from antitrust authorities. But Mr. Gates said his thinking about capitalism has been evolving for years. He outlined part of his evolution from software titan to philanthropist in a speech last June to Harvard's graduating class, recounting how when he left Harvard in 1975 he knew little of the inequities in the world. A range of experiences including trips to Africa and India have helped raise that awareness.

In the Harvard speech, Mr. Gates floated the idea of "creative capitalism." But at the time he had only a "fuzzy" sense of what he meant. To clarify his thinking, he decided to prepare the Davos speech.


For the full story, see:

ROBERT A. GUTH.  "Bill Gates Issues Call For Kinder Capitalism; Famously Competitive, Billionaire Now Urges Business to Aid the Poor."  The Wall Street Journal   (Thurs., January 24, 2008):  A1 & A15.

 

One good article that discusses some of the issues in my initial commentary is:

Coase, Ronald H.  "Adam Smith's View of Man."  In Essays on Economics and Economists.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1995.


 

CharitableFoundationsTop10.gif



 






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

 




January 27, 2008

Raghuram Rajan on the Current Economic Downturn and the Subprime Mortgage Mess

 

       "Traders in the oil futures pit of the New York Mercantile Exchange on Tuesday" (January 22. 2008).  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT commentary quoted and cited below. 

 

Raghuram Rajan is mentioned in the article quoted below.  I first ran across him as the co-author of a book that was billed as applying Schumpeterian ideas of creative destruction to issues of economic growth and development. 

Then, at the American Economic Association meetings in New Orleans in early January, I was on my way to a History of Economics Society reception, when I stumbled by chance into a modest reception in which Rajan was giving an informal speech on the subprime mortgage crisis.

It was such an interesting presentation, that I ended up totally missing the History of Economics Society reception.  Rajan argued that the main problem was one of misguided incentives.  Bonuses at top investment firms like Merrrill Lynch and JPMorgan Chase, are supposed to go to those whose investments produce high returns, with modest risks.  The problem with the complicated securities based on the subprime mortgages was that they produced high returns, but the risks were actually also fairly high.  The high-flying investors probably had some knowledge of this, but the public did not.  In most years the investors could invest in the high return, but high risk, securities, and collect huge bonuses.  But now the chickens have come home to roost.

Rajan suggested that the answer would be a change in the way in which the traders are given bonuses.  Instead of handing them out annually, let them become vested only after observing the investment's track record for several years.  If the investment goes south before the bonus is vested, the trader does not get the bonus.  This would provide an incentive and reward for those who accurately accessed the risk of their investments. 

 

(p. A1)  . . . , Wall Street hasn't yet come clean. Even after last week, when JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo announced big losses in their consumer credit businesses, financial service firms have still probably gone public with less than half of their mortgage-related losses, according to Moody's Economy.com. They're not being dishonest; they just haven't untangled all of their complex investments.

"Part of the big uncertainty," Raghuram G. Rajan, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, said, "is where the bodies are buried."

As Mr. Rajan pointed out, this situation is more severe than the crisis involving Long Term Capital Management in the late 1990s. That was a case in which a limited set of bad investments, largely at one firm, had the potential to drive down the value of other firms' holdings in the short term. Those firms then might have stopped lending money because they no longer had the capital to do so. But their own balance sheets were largely healthy.

This time, the firms are facing real losses, which will almost certainly curtail lending, and economic growth, this year.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

DAVID LEONHARDT.  "ECONOMIC SCENE; Worries That the Good Times Were Mostly a Mirage."  The New York Times  (Weds., January 23, 2008):  A1 & A23.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

The Schumpeterian book co-authored by Rajan, is:

Rajan, Raghuram G., and Luigi Zingales.  Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists:  Unleashing the Power of Financial Markets to Create Wealth and Spread Opportunity.  New York:  Crown, 2003.

 




January 24, 2008

Perverse Incentives Undemine Air-Travel Efficiency

 

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

 

Why not solve the problem discussed below by privatizing airports, which would then have a profit-maximizing incentive to reduce congestion by charging more for landing rights?  And if the prices were bid high enough, that, in turn would provide an incentive to build more airports. 

 

(p. A1)  The nation's air-travel system approached gridlock early this summer, with more than 30% of June flights late, by an average of 62 minutes. The mess revved up a perennial debate about whether billions of dollars should be spent to modernize the air-traffic control system. But one cause of airport crowding and flight delays is receiving scant attention. Airlines increasingly bring passengers into jammed airports on smaller airplanes. That means using more flights -- and increasing the congestion at airports and in the skies around them.

At La Guardia, half of all flights now involve smaller planes: regional jets and turboprops. It's the same at Chicago's O'Hare, which is spending billions to expand runways. At New Jersey's Newark Liberty and New York's John F. Kennedy, 40% of traffic involves smaller planes, according to Eclat Consulting in Reston, Va. Aircraft numbers tell the tale: U.S. airlines grounded a net 385 large planes from 2000 through 2006 -- but they added 1,029 regional jets -- says data firm Airline Monitor.

As air-travel woes have spread, some aviation officials and regulators, including the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, have begun saying delays could be eased if airlines would consolidate some of their numerous flights on larger planes.

Just two problems with that. One is that airlines like having more flights with smaller jets. The other is that passengers like it, too.

. . .

Former American Airlines boss Robert Crandall says Congress should let the FAA go back to controlling slots, matching scheduling to capacity. Airport overcrowding is "fixable, but it's not fixable without major policy change," the former AMR Corp. CEO said at a recent conference.

Another proposal: Change the structure of landing fees. Airports now set them by weight. A small jet pays a smaller landing fee than a large plane, even though its use of the runway is the same. Why not charge a flat fee per landing, suggest some economists -- or even charge the small jets more, to encourage airlines to shift to fewer flights on larger jets?

Yet another idea is to tie landing fees to the level of demand through the day, so they'd cost more at peak hours. This would encourage airlines to spread out flights and use bigger planes, says Dorothy Robyn, a consultant at Brattle Group and former aviation adviser in the Clinton administration. She says the current system "guarantees overuse of the air-traffic-control system because airlines aren't charged the true cost."

 

For the full story, see: 

SCOTT MCCARTNEY.  "FREQUENT FLYING; Small Jets, More Trips Worsen Airport Delays FAA Likes Bigger Craft But Passengers, Airlines Prefer Busy Schedules."  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., August 13, 2007):  A1 & A13.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 




January 2, 2008

Schumer Defends Rich Hedge Fund Democratic Donors, While Criticizing Selfish Republican "Plutocrats"

 

   Hedge fund defender, and recipient of hedge fund donations, Democratic Senator Charles E. Schumer.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

The story quoted below, reminds me of a story I told earlier about the famous democratic economist John Kenneth Galbraith ridiculing the wealth of Republicans.

Schumer's behavior exemplifies the "public choice" theory of economics that suggests that the motives of politicians will generally be similar to the motives of the rest of us.  In other words, incentives often matter. 

 

(p. A1)  WASHINGTON, July 29 — June was a busy month for Senator Charles E. Schumer. On the phone, at large parties and small gatherings around the nation, he raised more than $1 million from the booming private equity and hedge fund industries for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, of which he is chairman.

But there is another way Mr. Schumer has been busy with hedge fund and private equity managers, an important part of his constituency in New York. He has been reassuring them that he will resist an effort led by members of his own party to single out the industry with a plan that would more than double the taxes on the enormous profits reaped by its executives.

Mr. Schumer has considerable say on the issue. In addition to being the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate leadership, he is the only Democrat serving on both of the major committees, Banking and Finance, that have jurisdiction in the matter.

He has long been a pro-business Democrat and a fund-raising machine for the party, as well as a vociferous supporter of Wall Street issues in Washington, much the way Michigan lawmakers defend the auto industry and Iowa politicians work on behalf of corn farmers.

But in the case of the tax proposals, the strategy behind Mr. Schumer’s efforts is putting to the test another set of principles he is known for. He has regularly portrayed himself as a progressive politician who identifies with the struggles of the middle class and is sharply critical of the selfish “plutocrats” who he says control the Republican Party.

 

For the full story, see: 

RAYMOND HERNANDEZ and STEPHEN LABATON.  "In Opposing Tax Plan, Schumer Breaks With Party."  The New York Times  (Mon., July 30, 2007 ):  A1 & A14. 

 




January 1, 2008

Prominent Transplant Surgeon Endorses Market for Kidneys

 

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

 

(p. A1)  Amid a severe kidney-donor shortage, an idea long considered anathema in the medical community is gaining new currency: payments for people willing to give up a kidney. 

One of the most outspoken voices on the topic isn't a free-market libertarian, but a prominent transplant surgeon named Arthur Matas.

Dr. Matas, 59 years old, is a Canadian-born physician best known for his research at the University of Minnesota. Lately, he's been traveling the country trying to make the case that barring kidney sales is tantamount to sentencing some patients to death.

"There's one clear argument for sales," Dr. Matas told a gathering of surgeons earlier this year. The practice, currently illegal in the U.S., "would increase the supply of kidneys, save lives and improve the quality of life for those with end-stage renal disease."

The doctor supports a regulated market only for kidneys, since live donors can give one up and survive without excessive health risks. (Transplants of other organs, such as livers and lungs, pose greater complications to a living donor.) And Dr. Matas doesn't rule out financial incentives for the families of deceased donors.

 

For the full story, see:

LAURA MECKLER.  "Kidney Shortage Inspires A Radical Idea: Organ Sales As Waiting List Grows, Some Seek to Lift Ban; Exploiting the Poor?"  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., November 13, 2007):  A1 & A22.

 

MatasArthurTransplantSurgeon.jpg  Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

 




December 23, 2007

Unwashed Hospital Worker Hands Often Spread Disease

 

   "A special light reveals deadly bacteria."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

If health care in the U.S. were a free market, with unregulated entry, and real consumer choice, it is hard to believe that some Wal-Mart-of-health-care wouldn't come along that would gain huge market share and profits by providing its employees incentives to wash their hands.

 

(p. A1)  PITTSBURGH — At a veterans’ hospital here, nurses swab the nasal passages of every arriving patient to test them for drug-resistant bacteria. Those found positive are housed in isolation rooms behind red painted lines that warn workers not to approach without wearing gowns and gloves.

Every room and corridor is equipped with dispensers of foamy hand sanitizer. Blood pressure cuffs are discarded after use, and each room is assigned its own stethoscope to prevent the transfer of microorganisms. Using these and other relatively inexpensive measures, the hospital has significantly reduced the number of patients who develop deadly drug-resistant infections, long an unaddressed problem in American hospitals.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected this year that one of every 22 patients would get an infection while hospitalized — 1.7 million cases a year — and that 99,000 would die, often from what began as a routine procedure. The cost of treating the infections amounts to tens of billions of dollars, experts say.

But in the past two years, a few hospitals have demonstrated that simple screening and isolation of patients, along with a relentless focus on hygiene, can reduce the number of dangerous infections. By doing so, they have fueled a national debate about whether hospitals are doing all they can to protect patients from infections, which are now linked to more deaths than diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease.

. . .

(p. A16)  Dr. Richard P. Shannon, who championed a program to reduce catheter infections at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, was able to show administrators that the average infection cost the hospital $27,000. He demonstrated that reimbursement payments for weeks of extended treatment were not keeping pace with actual costs. “I think it was assumed that hospitals didn’t mind treating these infections because they were getting paid for it,” Dr. Shannon said.

A major emphasis at the Pittsburgh hospitals has been hand hygiene. Studies have consistently shown that busy hospital workers disregard basic standards more than half the time. At the veterans hospital, where nurses have taken to pushing elevator buttons with their knuckles, annual spending on hand cleaner has doubled.

 

For the full story, see:

KEVIN SACK.  "Swabs in Hand, Hospital Cuts Deadly Infections."  The New York Times   (Fri., July 27, 2007):   A1 & A16.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

 InfectionsDropGraph.jpg CunninghamBillNurse.jpg  In the photo on the right, Pittsburgh nurse Bill Cunningham, "puts on a gown and gloves before approaching patients with infections."  Source of graph, caption, and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 




December 4, 2007

Cuba's Best Doctors Not Blind to Incentives Offered by "Communist" Government

 

   "Patients at the Ramón Pando Ferrer eye hospital in Havana."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. A4)  Cuban doctors abroad receive much better pay than in Cuba, along with other benefits from the state, like the right to buy a car and get a relatively luxurious house when they return. As a result, many of the finest physicians have taken posts abroad.

The doctors and nurses left in Cuba are stretched thin and overworked, resulting in a decline in the quality of care for Cubans, some doctors and patients said.

 

For the full story, see:   

JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.  "Havana Journal;  A Health System’s ‘Miracles’ Come With Hidden Costs."  The New York Times   (Tues., November 20, 2007):  A4. 

 




December 1, 2007

Von Hippel Promotes User-Driven Innovation

 

     "Eric von Hippel of M.I.T., left, and Dr. Nathaniel Sims, with hospital devices Dr. Sims has modified. Mr. von Hippel says users can improve on products."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

Some innovation is done by the devoted for free.  But in his books, and in the article excerpted below, I think von Hippel puts too little emphasis on the entrepreneur and the entrepreneur's profit motive, as drivers of innovation. 

One example is the Moveable Type free program that underlies this, and many other blogs.  It is often described as one of the best blog platforms, but it is hard to use for a non-techie, kludgey, and very limited in some obvious ways.  For example, there apparently is no way that I can make comments to the most recent 10 entries visible on the main blog page.  And there is only limited backup capabilities.  And the spell-checker does not have "blog" in its dictionary, and asks me if I really meant to type "bog."

You can bet that if Moveable Type was produced for profit, they would have provided users these obvious capabilities.  And I would rather pay for a more capable program, rather than get a less capable program for free.

 

(p. 5) DR. NATHANIEL SIMS, an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has figured out a few ways to help save patients’ lives. 

In doing so, he also represents a significant untapped vein of innovation for companies.

Dr. Sims has picked up more than 10 patents for medical devices over his career. He ginned up a way to more easily shuttle around the dozen or more monitors and drug-delivery devices attached to any cardiac patient after surgery, with a device known around the hospital as the “Nat Rack.”

. . .

What Dr. Sims did is called user-driven innovation by Eric von Hippel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. Mr. von Hippel is the leading advocate of the value of letting users of products modify them or improve them, because they may come up with changes that manufacturers never considered. He thinks that this could help companies develop products more quickly and inexpensively than with their internal design teams.

“It could drive manufacturers out of the design space,” Mr. von Hippel says.

It is a difficult idea for research and development departments to accept, but one of his studies found that 82 percent of new capabilities for scientific instruments like electron microscopes were developed by users.

. . .

One problem with the user-innovation model is that it can run into intellectual property rights protections.  . . .

. . .

. . . , Mr. von Hippel’s ideas are up against more conventional forms of user-aided design, such as sending anthropologists to study how people use products in their daily lives. Companies then translate their research into new designs.

Even some of Mr. von Hippel’s acolytes remain cautious. “A lot of this is still in the category of, ‘You could imagine this working out really well,’ ” says Saul T. Griffith, who as an M.I.T. engineering student was part of a group of kite-surfers who developed products for their sport that have since become commercialized. Mr. von Hippel wrote about Mr. Griffith in his 2005 book, “Democratizing Innovation.

 

For the full story, see:

MICHAEL FITZGERALD.  "Prototype How to Improve It? Ask Those Who Use It."  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., March 25, 2007):  5.

(Note:  ellipses added.) 

 

von Hippel has two main books in which he defends his user-driven innovation ideas:

von Hippel, Eric. The Sources of Innovation. New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

von Hippel, Eric. Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2005.

 




November 19, 2007

Incentives for Organ Donations Would Save Lives

 

SatelSally.jpg    Sally Satel is a medical doctor and a resident scholar at the Amerrican Enterprise Institute.  Source of photo:  http://www.aei.org/publications/filter.all,pubID.25785/pub_detail.asp

 

(p. A12)  At the annual meeting of The American Society of Transplant Surgeons this winter a straw poll revealed that 80 to 85% were in favor of studying incentives for living donors, according to society president Arthur Matas. In 2003, the American Medical Association testified on behalf of legislation that would have permitted pilot studies of incentives for deceased organs.

The public seems receptive as well, according to a new Gallup poll on attitudes toward donation of organs after death. The most striking results were among 18 to 34 year olds wherein an impressive 34% said that incentives would make them "more likely" to donate while 6% said less likely.  . . .

. . .

The idea of combining organ donation with material gain can make people queasy. Yet the mix of financial and humanitarian motives is commonplace. No one objects, for example, to a tax credit for charitable contributions--a financial incentive to complement the "pure" motive of giving to others. The great teachers who enlighten us and the doctors who heal us inspire no less gratitude because they are paid. An increase in the supply of kidneys will ameliorate suffering and prevent needless death. This is more important than whether an organ has been given freely or for material gain.  . . .

 

For the full commentary, see: 

Satel, Sally.  "Doing Well By Doing Good."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri, March 16 2007):  A12.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




October 31, 2007

Testing Incentives

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

. . .

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

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

 

For the full commentary, see: 

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

 

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

 




October 20, 2007

Incentives, and Unintended Consequences, in Medicine

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

 

For the full story, see: 

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

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

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

 




September 26, 2007

Perverse Incentives in Medicine

 

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

 

(p. A1)  Stark evidence that high medical payments do not necessarily buy high-quality patient care is presented in a hospital study set for release today.

In a Pennsylvania government survey of the state’s 60 hospitals that perform heart bypass surgery, the best-paid hospital received nearly $100,000, on average, for the operation while the least-paid got less than $20,000. At both, patients had comparable lengths of stay and death rates.

And among the 20 hospitals serving metropolitan Philadelphia, two of the highest paid actually had higher-than-expected death rates, the survey found.

Hospitals say there are numerous reasons for some of the high payments, including the fact that a single very expensive case can push up the averages.

Still, the Pennsylvania findings support a growing national consensus that as consumers, insurers and employers pay more for care, they are not necessarily getting better care. Expensive medicine may, in fact, be poor medicine.

“For most consumers, the fact that there is no connection between quality and cost is one of the dirty secrets of medicine,” said Peter V. Lee, the chief executive of the Pacific Business Group on Health, a California group of employers that provide health care coverage for workers.

. . .

(p. C4)  And the survey found that good care can go unrewarded. One Philadelphia area hospital, Main Line Health’s Lankenau center, which performs a large number of bypass surgeries and has a high success rate, according to the survey, was paid an average of $33,549 by private insurers. That was less than half the nearly $80,000 in average payments received by the other hospitals, with poorer track records.

. . .

“The current reimbursement paradigm is fundamentally broken,” said Dr. Ronald Paulus, an executive with Geisinger, who says there is no current financial incentive for a hospital to provide the kind of care that leads to better outcomes and lower payments.

. . .

The problem, according to some health policy experts, is that the hospitals may, in fact, be rewarded for poor care:  keeping patients too long because they caught an infrection or had a complication.  That, they say, could be the main lesson of the Pennsylvania survey.

"What this highlights is the assumption that more money means better care is flat-out wrong," said Mr. Lee, the chief executive of the California employer group.  "It's easy to pay for bad quality, and we pay for it every day."

 

For the full story, see: 

REED ABELSON.  "In Health Care, Cost Isn’t Proof of High Quality." The New York Times  (Thurs., June 14, 2007):  A1 & C4. 

(Note:  The last three paragraphs, and the last sentence of the fourth from the last paragraph, of the print version of the article, are missing from the online version.)

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




September 21, 2007

The Case for Patent Law Reform

 

The author of the commentary quoted below is the head lawyer for Intel.  I believe that the evidence is strong that patents can provide strong incentives for innovation.  But the devil is in the details.  I have not studied the Patent Reform Act of 2007, so I am not sure whether, overall, it is an improvement over the current rules.  But the case for reform is strong, and the topic is one that highly deserves further research. 

 

(p. A15) The U.S. patent system is beginning to show its age; outpaced by the swift evolution of technology and commerce, it increasingly favors speculators over innovators, impeding innovation and economic growth. Fortunately, the bipartisan "Patent Reform Act of 2007," introduced in both the House and Senate, would improve the process for granting patents, and rebalance court rules and procedures to ensure fair treatment when patents wind up in litigation. The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up S.1145 today.

Congress needs to pass this bill, during this session, as the need for reform is clear. Nationwide, the number of patent lawsuits nearly tripled between 1991 and 2004, and the number of cases between 2001 and 2005 grew nearly 20%. Until 1990, only one patent damages award exceeded $100 million; more than 10 judgments and settlements were entered in the last five years, and at least four topped $500 million. One recent decision topped $1.5 billion.

The number of questionable, loosely defined patents, moreover, is rising. One company holds patents that it claims broadly cover current technologies that allow people to make phone calls over the Internet. Another has staked a claim on streaming video over the Internet generally and has pursued colleges for royalties on their distance-learning programs. In 2002, a five-year-old boy patented a method of swinging on a swing.

Unfortunately, under current law, parties that want to innovate in areas covered by questionable patents have only two options, both of them bad: an ineffective, rarely used re-examination process, or litigation -- the average cost of which is, by some estimates, $4.5 million. This impedes innovation, as the FTC noted: "One firm's questionable patent may lead its competitor to forgo R&D in the areas that the patent improperly covers."

 

For the full commentary, see: 

BRUCE SEWELL.  "Patent Nonsense."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., July 12, 2007):  A15. 

 




September 18, 2007

Doctor and Patient Incentives, and Lack of Competition, Fuel High Health Costs

 

HealthCostsGraphCBO.gif  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

Why are so many lumbar fusions done, in spite of the absence of evidence for their efficacy?  Well, doctors find the procedure lucrative.  Patients do not pay for it themselves, so they have little incentive to look hard at the effectiveness.  And health care providers, through licensing and government regulations, have largely insulated themselves from competition from low cost providers.

 

(p. C1)  In Idaho Falls, Idaho, anyone suffering from the sort of lower back pain that may conceivably be helped by the fusing of two vertebrae is quite likely to have the surgery.  It’s known as lumbar fusion, and the rate at which it is performed in Idaho Falls is almost five times the national average.  The rate in Idaho Falls is 20 times that in Bangor, Me., where lumbar fusion is less common than anywhere else.

These numbers come from the wonderful Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care.  The Dartmouth researchers adjust the numbers to take into account age, race and sex, which is another way of saying that there is no good explanation for the huge variations they find.  Doctors in the Idaho Falls area are probably just being more aggressive than doctors elsewhere.

But it’s not clear that their patients are any better off.  The evidence for lumbar fusion is incredibly mixed.  It seems to help people with certain kinds of pain, but many others recover just as well without the surgery. Of course, doctors are almost always better off if the surgery is done:  The typical hospital bill for lumbar fusion is roughly $50,000.

This is about as good an example as you can find of the health care mess.  The number of lumbar fusions performed in this country has more than tripled since the early 1990s, and Medicare now spends more than $600 million a year on the procedure.  It’s one reason your health insurance bill has gone up.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

DAVID LEONHARDT.  "ECONOMIX; Health Care As if Costs Didn't Matter."  The New York Times  (Weds., June 6, 2007):  C1 & C8.

 




September 13, 2007

With Right Incentives, Workers Make Better Tech Purchases Than Managers

 

(p. A7)  Corporate technology managers usually pick laptops, software and other technology for employees. Now some tech managers are finding workers can do a better job when they choose and buy the equipment themselves.

At KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, a unit of Air France-KLM SA, employees had expressed frustration at the company's policy of providing and supporting only one type of laptop, the Lenovo A30 (formerly IBM), and one smartphone, the Nokia 6021. Last November, Martien van Deth, a senior technology officer in the Amsterdam office, tried a new system: He gave 50 information-technology staffers an allowance of $203, covering two years, to buy cellphones for corporate use. Those who picked more expensive phones paid the extra. Those who chose cheaper phones kept the change. As long as the phone ran Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Mobile version 5 or 6 operating system, KLM guaranteed access to corporate email. The catch: Users had to deal with technical problems themselves and replace phones that broke.

Not only did the program cost less than the $231 the company paid (p. A9) for phones and support over the same period, it was a hit with employees -- some of whom bought phones with fancy ringtones and video players. Now "no one can complain that their corporate phone doesn't have a camera," says Mr. van Deth, who plans to offer a tech allowance to KLM's entire 1,000-person IT department later this summer, and wants to take the program companywide. He's also about to start a tech-allowance program for laptops.

 

For the full story, see: 

BEN WORTHEN.  "Office Tech's Next Step:  Do It Yourself."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., July 3, 2007):  A7 & A9.

 




August 27, 2007

Creating Incentives for Quality Health Care

 

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

 

The experiment described in the article excerpted below sounds promising. Such experiments would be easier, and more common, if health care were not so highly regulated, and if the government did not create such large barriers to entry in the practice of medicine.

 

(p. A1)  What if medical care came with a 90-day warranty? 

That is what a hospital group in central Pennsylvania is trying to learn in an experiment that some experts say is a radically new way to encourage hospitals and doctors to provide high-quality care that can avoid costly mistakes.

The group, Geisinger Health System, has overhauled its approach to surgery. And taking a cue from the makers of television sets, washing machines and consumer products, Geisinger essentially guarantees its workmanship, charging a flat fee that includes 90 days of follow-up treatment.

Even if a patient suffers complications or has to come back to the hospital, Geisinger promises not to send the insurer another bill.

Geisinger is by no means the only hospital system currently rethinking ways to better deliver care that might also reduce costs. But Geisinger’s effort is noteworthy as a distinct departure from the typical medical reimbursement system in this country, under which doctors and hospitals are paid mainly for delivering more care — not necessarily better care. 

. . .

Under the typical system, missing an antibiotic or giving poor instructions when a patient is released from the hospital results in a perverse reward: the chance to bill the patient again if more treatment is necessary. As a result, doctors and hospi-(p. C4)tals have little incentive to ensure they consistently provide the treatments that medical research has shown to produce the best results.

Researchers estimate that roughly half of American patients never get the most basic recommended treatments — like an aspirin after a heart attack, for example, or antibiotics before hip surgery.

The wide variation in treatments can translate to big differences in death rates and surgical complications. In Pennsylvania alone, the mortality rate during a hospital stay for heart surgery varies from zero in the best-performing hospitals to nearly 10 percent at the worst performer, according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, a state agency.

 

For the full story, see: 

REED ABELSON.  "In Bid for Better Care, Surgery With a Warranty."  The New York Times  (Thurs., May 17, 2007):  A1 & C4.

 

    Providing a warranty provides the hospital to provide higher quality care, as evidenced, for example, in this nurse counting sponges to make sure that none have been left behind in the patient.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 




August 17, 2007

Why CEOs Are Paid So Much More than Other Near-Top Execs

 

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

 

(p. A1)  Like most companies, Office Depot has long made sure that its chief executive was the highest-paid employee. Ten years ago, the $2.2 million pay package of its chief was more than double that of his No. 2. The fifth-ranked executive received less than one-third.

But the incentive for reaching the very top of the company is now far greater. Steve Odland, who runs Office Depot today, made almost $12 million last year, more than four times the compensation of the second-highest-paid executive and over six times that of the fifth-ranking executive in the current hierarchy.

As executive pay has surged in most American companies, attention has focused on the growing gap between the earnings of top executives and the average wage of workers in cubicles or on the shop floor. Little noticed, though, is how much the gap has also widened between the summit and the next few echelons down.

. . .

The pay of chief executives, analysts say, is being driven by superstar dynamics similar to those that determine the inordinate rewards for pop stars and athletes — a phenomenon first explained by Sherwin Rosen of the University of Chicago in (p. C7) 1981 and underlined more than a decade ago by the economists Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook in their book “The Winner-Take-All Society” (Free Press, 1995).

As American companies, American hedge funds — and even American lawsuits — have grown in size, it has become ever more valuable to get the “best” chief executive or fund manager or litigator. This has fueled a fierce competition for talent at the top, which has pushed economic rewards farther up the ladder of success, concentrating the richest pay levels even more.

“There is an interaction between technology and scale which is true in all these businesses,” said Steven N. Kaplan, a finance professor at the Graduate School of Business of the University of Chicago. “One person can oversee more assets, and this translates into more money.”

. . .

As companies grow and expand globally, the value of the top executive can grow exponentially. In a study last year, two economists, Xavier Gabaix of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Augustin Landier of New York University, argued that the fast rise in pay of corporate C.E.O.’s mostly reflected the growing size of American corporations.

Processing reams of data, the economists estimated that hiring the most effective chief executive in the country would, statistically, increase the stock value of a company by only 0.016 percent, compared with hiring the 250th chief executive. But at a company like General Electric, which is worth about $380 billion, that tiny difference would amount to $60 million.

This, the economists argued, helps explain why that top chief executive earned five times as much as the 250th. “Substantial firm size leads to the economics of superstars, translating small differences in ability to very large deviations in pay,” the economists wrote.

 

For the full story, see: 

EDUARDO PORTER.  "More Than Ever, It Pays to Be the Top Executive."  The New York Times  (Fri., May 25, 2007):  A1 & C7.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




August 13, 2007

Ethanol Subsidies Reduce Incentives to Build New Oil Refineries


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

 

(p. A1)  “If the national policy of the country is to push for dramatic increases in the biofuels industry, this is a disincentive for those making investment decisions on expanding capacity in oil products and refining,” said John D. Hofmeister, the president of the Shell Oil Company. “Industrywide, this will have an impact.”

The concerns were echoed in a recent report by Barclays Capital, which said the uncertainty about the ethanol growth “will do little to accelerate desperately needed investment in complex United States refining units.”

“Indeed, it is likely to deter and further delay investment, if not rule out many refinery investments completely.”

. . .

(p. A15)  As a result of the push for biofuels, and encouraged by federal subsidies and grants, dozens of ethanol distilleries are being planned. These investments should double the annual production of ethanol from corn to 15 billion gallons by 2012 from about 6 billion gallons today.

But given farmland constraints and the need to use corn for food, that is as much ethanol as can possibly be produced from corn, according to the ethanol industry’s own calculations. Ethanol producers recognize that it is not clear how an additional 20 billion gallons of ethanol — President Bush has called for 35 billion gallons of biofuels by 2017 — would be produced from cellulose or biomass.

“The current thinking is that based on today’s technology, we suspect corn-based ethanol will generate at least 15 billion gallons,” said Brian Jennings, the executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, an association of ethanol and corn producers. “Beyond that, it’s uncertain. The marketplace will make that determination on where it will come from.”

Yet some members of Congress would like to make the president’s goal for biofuels a mandatory target — the equivalent of 2.3 million barrels a day that would, in effect, create an ethanol industry roughly the size of world-class oil producers like Kuwait or Nigeria.

The economics of cellulosic ethanol, made from nonfood crops and agricultural waste, are also unclear. Since cellulosic ethanol, still at an experimental stage, is twice as expensive as corn-based ethanol, there are currently no commercial-scale cellulosic plants.

Lawrence Goldstein, an energy analyst at the Energy Policy Research Foundation, an industry-financed group, has been warning for nearly a year that the government’s twin goals of encouraging refiners to increase production and promoting increased supplies of biofuels work against each other.

“These two policies are not complementary,” Mr. Goldstein said. “These policies are in conflict.”

In addition, Mr. Goldstein said, an emphasis on ethanol might lead to increased volatility in fuel prices.

“If we get a bad corn crop, we will end up paying for it at the pump and on the food shelves,” he said. “We are not buying security. We are increasing volatility.”

 

For the full story, see: 

JAD MOUAWAD.  "Oil Industry Says Biofuel Push May Hurt at Pump."  The New York Times  (Thurs., May 24, 2007):  A1 & A15.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

    A trucker getting ready to fill his tanker at a Mississippi refinery.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





July 24, 2007

Incentives Matter in Medicine, But Profit is Not the Problem


AnemiaEPOdoseGraph.gif      Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

In the article excerpted below, the profit motive in medicine is painted as the villain of the piece.  But the problem is not the profit motive.  The problem is that government occupational licensing and regulation in medicine raises barriers to entry for low-cost competitors to enter, innovate, and compete. 

 

(p. A1)  Two of the world’s largest drug companies are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to doctors every year in return for giving their patients anemia medicines, which regulators now say may be unsafe at commonly used doses.

The payments are legal, but very few people outside of the doctors who receive them are aware of their size. Critics, including prominent cancer and kidney doctors, say the payments give physicians an incentive to prescribe the medicines at levels that might increase patients’ risks of heart attacks or strokes.

Industry analysts estimate that such payments — to cancer doctors and the other big users of the drugs, kidney dialysis centers — total hundreds of millions of dollars a year and are an important source of profit for doctors and the centers.

 

For the full story, see: 

ALEX BERENSON and ANDREW POLLACK.  "Doctors Reap Millions for Anemia Drugs."  The New York Times  (Weds., May 9, 2007):  A1 & C4. 

 

   Bernice Wilson's kidney dialysis treatment includes the anti-anemia drug Epogen.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





June 24, 2007

The Mexicans Are Not What Is Wrong with Mexico

Gerardo on the left; me in the middle; and Jenny in the right lower corner.  Photo by Jeanette (who you can just barely see in the mirror over Gerardo's shoulder).

 

In downtown Cancun we dined at a wonderful restaurant called Labná.  The food was authentic, varied, and delicious.  The service, from Gerardo (above) was attentive and replete with gracious good-will. 

The restaurant itself was an oasis of order in a milieu of disorder and decay.

As one tours Mexico, one has the sense of an enormous waste of human time and talent.  The incentive to act and the ability to get things done, is sucked away by an enormous cadre of parasitical rent-seeking hangers-on, who are either part of the government or who are privileged by government rules and regulations.

When the roof of our home in Nebraska was damaged by hail several years ago, it was replaced by a crew of Mexican workers. 

Our retired neighbor Howard had the habit of carefully monitoring all of our outdoor contractors.  Old, reliable, helpful, curmudgeony Howard (may he rest in peace) was much more likely to offer complaint than praise.  But Howard told me, with genuine respect and admiration in his voice, how impressed he was with how hard the Mexican crew had worked, especially through the oppressive heat of the summer days. 

The Mexicans are not what is wrong with Mexico.  What is wrong with Mexico is the Mexican government. 

In most areas of government activity, the Mexicans would benefit from a lot more of what Edmund Burke called "salutary neglect."

 

(Note:  Leonard Liggio reminded me of the wonderful phrase "salutary neglect" at the April 2007 meetings of the Association of Private Enterprise Education in Cancun.)

(Another note: The address of the Labná restaurant is Margaritas 29.  It is near a run-down park, where I purchased an OK cup of flan from a vendor for 10 pesos--the best flan I ever had for less than a dollar!)





June 17, 2007

Nordhaus Critiques Stern's Case for Environmental Disaster


My only major disagreement with the commentary below, is that I have much more confidence that, given free market institutions, our descendants will have the incentives, energy, and ingenuity, to solve the problems that they will face.

 

The Stern Review’s most influential critic has probably been William Nordhaus, a 65-year-old Yale professor who is as mainstream as economists come.  Jeffrey D. Sachs, the anti-poverty advocate, calls Mr. Nordhaus “about the most reasonable man I know.”

He was the first speaker after lunch, and, of course, he had some very nice things to say about Sir Nicholas. The report “was presented here very eloquently by a distinguished scholar,” Mr. Nordhaus said. But then came the juicy stuff: the Stern Review “commits cruel and unusual punishment on the English language,” Mr. Nordhaus said, and the British government’s opinion on climate change is no more infallible than was its prewar view about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

This was fairly tame compared with the comments of another Yale economist, Robert O. Mendelsohn. “I was awestruck,” he said, comparing Sir Nicholas to “The Wizard of Oz.” But “my job is to be Toto,” he added, in the same good-humored tone Mr. Nordhaus used. “Is it in fact The Wizard of Oz, or is it nothing at all?”

The two professors raised some questions about the science in the Stern Review. Mr. Nordhaus wondered if carbon emissions and temperatures would rise as quickly as the report suggests, and Mr. Mendelsohn predicted that people would learn to adapt to climate change, reducing its ultimate cost.

But their main objection revolved around something called the discount rate. The Stern Review assumed that a dollar of economic damage prevented a century from now (adjusted for inflation) is roughly as valuable as a dollar spent reducing emissions today. In effect, the report argues for spending the money to cut emissions because future generations have as much claim on resources as current generations. “I’ve still not heard a decent ethical argument” for believing otherwise, Sir Nicholas said at the debate.

I’m guessing that your instinct is to agree with him. Mine certainly was. The problem is that none of us actually behave this way. If we really thought that our great-grandchild deserved our money as much as we do, we would never go out to dinner again. Instead, we would invest the $50 we would have spent on dinner, confident that it would grow over time and become perhaps $1,000 for our great-grandchild to put toward health care, education or a supercomputer. Any of that is preferable to our measly dinner.

But a dollar today truly is more valuable than a dollar a century from now. For one thing, your great-grandchild will almost certainly be richer than you are and won’t need your money as much as you do. So spending a dollar on carbon reduction today to avoid a dollar’s worth of economic damage in 2107 doesn’t make sense. We would be better off putting the money toward something likely to have a higher return than alternative energy, like education.

Technically, then, Sir Nicholas’s opponents win the debate. But in practical terms, their argument has a weak link. They are assuming that the economic gains from, say, education will make future generations rich enough to make up for any damage caused by climate change. Sea walls will be able to protect cities; technology can allow crops to grow in new ways; better medicines can stop the spread of disease.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

DAVID LEONHARDT.  "Economix; A Battle Over the Costs of Global Warming."  The New York Times  (Weds., February 21, 2007):  C1 & C5.





April 26, 2007

Concrete Used in Pyramids


T.W. Schultz used to emphasize that the level of technology in an economy depended more on the incentives and institutions for adoption and diffusion, and less on the invention of the technology, which he thought was a shorter hurdle than usually thought.  The Antikythera Mechanism is one historical technology that dramatically supports Schultz's view.  If it survives scrutiny, the following article would provide an additional example supporting Schultz. 


(p. A18) Reporting the results of his study, Michel W. Barsoum, a professor of materials engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, concluded that the use of limestone concrete could explain in part how the Egyptians were able to complete such massive monuments, beginning around 2550 B.C. They used concrete blocks, he said, on the outer and inner casings and probably on the upper levels, where it would have been difficult to hoist carved stone.

''The sophistication and endurance of this ancient concrete technology is simply astounding,'' Dr. Barsoum wrote in a report in the December issue of The Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

Dr. Barsoum and his co-workers, Adrish Ganguly of Drexel and Gilles Hug of the National Center for Scientific Research in France, analyzed the mineralogy of samples from several parts of the Khufu pyramid, and said they found mineral ratios that did not exist in any known limestone sources. From the geochemical mix of lime, sand and clay, they concluded, ''the simplest explanation'' is that it was cast concrete.


For the full story, see: 

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD.  "Study Says That Egypt's Pyramids May Include Early Use of Concrete."  The New York Times  (Fri., December 1, 2006):  A18.





April 3, 2007

For Better Jobs, Immigrants Voluntarily Line Up to Learn English


          In Mount Vernon, New York, Maria de Oliveira (center) waited three months for an opening in this English class.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

In the United States, other things equal, those who speak English earn more than those who do not.  So there is a substantial incentive for immigrants to learn English, even in the absence of the much-debated proposed laws to mandate English in various ways.  Consider the evidence in the article excerpted below: 

 

(p. A1)  MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. — Two weeks after she moved here from her native Brazil, Maria de Oliveira signed up for free English classes at a squat storefront in this working-class suburb, figuring that with an associate’s degree and three years as an administrative assistant, she could find a good job in America so long as she spoke the language.

The woman who runs the classes at Mount Vernon’s Workforce and Career Preparation Center added Ms. Oliveira’s name to her pink binder, at the bottom of a 90-person waiting list that stretched across seven pages. That was in October. Ms. Oliveira, 26, finally got a seat in the class on Jan. 16.

“I keep wondering how much more I’d know if I hadn’t had to wait so long,” she said in Portuguese.

. . .

Luis Sanchez, 47, a Peruvian truck driver for a beer distributor in New Brunswick, has been in this country (p. C14) 10 years — and on the waiting list for English classes in Perth Amboy five months. “You live from day to day, waiting to get the call that you can come to class,” Mr. Sanchez said in Spanish, explaining that he knew a little English but wanted to improve his writing skills so he could apply for better jobs. “I keep on waiting.”

. . .

In Newburgh, N.Y., an Orange County town where one in five of the 29,000 residents are immigrants, Blanca Saravia has amassed an impressive portfolio of odd jobs since arriving from Honduras in 2004: gas station attendant, office janitor, cook’s helper, and, for the last 14 months, packager at a local nail-polish factory. Speaking in her native Spanish, Ms. Saravia said that she has been able to get by with co-workers’ translating, but that “when the boss gives orders, I don’t understand.”

. . .

. . .   Ahmed Al Saidi, 49, who works at a gas station and moved from Yemen in 1994, said in halting English that he wants to learn the language “for better work and to talk to people when I go to the store.”

Ms. Oliveira, the immigrant from Brazil, said she still knows too little English to venture into the marketplace; her husband, who is American born and supports the couple financially, encouraged her to enroll in the classes, held five mornings a week.

“I hope that when I’m speaking a little better, I’ll be able to find a job where I can use the English I learned here and the skills I have from back home,” she said in Portuguese. “When I was on the waiting list, there were times I thought this time would never come.” 

 

For the full story, see: 

FERNANDA SANTOS.  "Demand for English Lessons Outstrips Supply."  The New York Times  (Tues., February 27, 2007):  A1 & C14.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

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





February 19, 2007

A Case Against "Network Neutrality"


Today there is much praise for YouTube, MySpace, blogs and all the other democratic digital technologies that are allowing you and me to transform media and commerce. But these infant Internet applications are at risk, thanks to the regulatory implications of "network neutrality." Proponents of this concept -- including Democratic Reps. John Dingell and John Conyers, and Sen. Daniel Inouye, who have ascended to key committee chairs -- are obsessed with divvying up the existing network, but oblivious to the need to build more capacity.

To understand, let's take a step back. In 1999, Yahoo acquired Broadcast.com for $5 billion. Broadcast.com had little revenue, and although its intent was to stream sports and entertainment video to consumers over the Internet, two-thirds of its sales at the time came from hosting corporate video conferences. Yahoo absorbed the start-up -- and little more was heard of Broadcast.com or Yahoo's video ambitions.

. . .

. . .   Broadcast.com failed precisely because the FCC's "neutral" telecom price controls and sharing mandates effectively prohibited investments in broadband networks and crashed thousands of Silicon Valley business plans and dot-com dreams. Hoping to create "competition" out of thin air, the Clinton-Gore FCC forced telecom providers to lease their wires and switches at below-market rates. By guaranteeing a negative rate of return on infrastructure investments, the FCC destroyed incentives to build new broadband networks -- the kind that might have allowed Broadcast.com to flourish.

. . .

Messrs. Lessig, Dingell and Conyers, and Google, now want to repeat all the investment-killing mistakes of the late 1990s, in the form of new legislation and FCC regulation to ensure "net neutrality." This ignores the experience of the recent past -- and worse, the needs of the future.

. . .

Without many tens of billions of dollars worth of new fiber optic networks, thousands of new business plans in communications, medicine, education, security, remote sensing, computing, the military and every mundane task that could soon move to the Internet will be frustrated. All the innovations on the edge will die. Only an explosion of risky network investment and new network technology can accommodate these millions of ideas.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

BRET SWANSON.  "COMMENTARY; The Coming Exaflood."  The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 20, 2007):  A11.

(Note:  ellipses added.)





February 9, 2007

Real-Time Pricing Results in More Efficient Electricity Generation


   Real-time electricity meters in a building in Central Park West behind resident Peter Funk, Jr.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

The article excerpted below gets some of the story right.  It should emphasize more that the main benefit from real-time pricing would be that it would reduce the peak load.  Generation plants need to be built to handle peak-load.  The last generating plants to go on line are the least efficient.  if the need for such inefficient, peak-load, plants can be reduced, the costs of generating electricity can be enormously reduced.

There is talk of market competition in the states that have deregulated their electric utility industries.  But it should be remembered that even where most deregulated, the result is a long way from a paradigmatic free market.  The main point is hinted at in the article below.  The ultimate suppliers of electricity to the home remain government-protected monopolies. 

If we wanted a truly free market, maybe we should actually allow multple companies to connect to homes, the way we allow multiple television and internet companies to connect their cables to the home.  Then some low-cost Wal-Mart of electricty would arise, and blow the stick-in-the-muds away.

 

(p A1)  Ten times last year, Judi Kinch, a geologist, got e-mail messages telling her that the next afternoon any electricity used at her Chicago apartment would be particularly expensive because hot, steamy weather was increasing demand for power.

Each time, she and her husband would turn down the air-conditioners — sometimes shutting one of them off — and let the dinner dishes sit in the washer until prices fell back late at night.

Most people are not aware that electricity prices fluctuate widely throughout the day, let alone exactly how much they pay at the moment they flip a switch. But Ms. Kinch and her husband are among the 1,100 Chicago residents who belong to the Community Energy Cooperative, a pilot project to encourage energy conservation, and this puts them among the rare few who are able to save money by shifting their use of power.

Just as cellphone customers delay personal calls until they become free at night and on weekends, and just as millions of people fly at less popular times because air fares are lower, people who know the price of electricity at any given moment can cut back when prices are high and use more when prices are low. Partici-(p. A14)pants in the Community Energy Cooperative program, for example, can check a Web site that tells them, hour by hour, how much their electricity costs; they get e-mail alerts when the price is set to rise above 20 cents a kilowatt-hour.

If just a fraction of all Americans had this information and could adjust their power use accordingly, the savings would be huge. Consumers would save nearly $23 billion a year if they shifted just 7 percent of their usage during peak periods to less costly times, research at Carnegie Mellon University indicates. That is the equivalent of the entire nation getting a free month of power every year.

. . .

Under either the traditional system of utility regulation, with prices set by government, or in the competitive business now in half the states, companies that generate and distribute power have little or no incentive to supply customers with hourly meters, which can cut into their profits.

Meters that encourage people to reduce demand at peak hours will translate to less need for power plants — particularly ones that are only called into service during streaks of hot or cold weather.

In states where rates are still regulated, utilities earn a virtually guaranteed profit on their generating stations. Even if a power plant runs only one hour a year, the utility earns a healthy return on its cost.

In a competitive market, it is the spikes in demand that cause prices to soar for brief periods. Flattening out the peaks would be disastrous for some power plant owners, which could go bankrupt if the profit they get from peak prices were to ebb significantly.

. . .

The smart metering programs are not new, but their continued rarity speaks in part to the success of power-generating companies in protecting their profit models. Some utilities did install meters in a small number of homes as early as three decades ago, pushed by the environmental movement and a spike in energy prices.

 

For the full story, see: 

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON.  "Taking Control Of Electric Bill, Hour by Hour."  The New York Times  (Mon., January 8, 2007):  A1 & A14. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

PowerRateGraphic.jpg   Graph showing the range of variation in hourly electricity rates in different months.  Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited above.





January 10, 2007

The Mere Threat of "Hillary-Care" Reduced Investment in Drug R&D


TaurelSidneyCEOEliLilly.jpg   CEO of drug company Eli Lilly.  Source of image:  online version of WSJ artcle cited below.

 

NEW YORK -- Is the future of your health riding on what happens in Washington?  Sidney Taurel thinks it might be.  The Eli Lilly CEO ticks off a list of former "death sentences" being cured or turned into chronic conditions -- "AIDS, leukemia, Hodgkins, hopefully solid tumors within the next few years.  The potential for medical research is unlimited.  We just need to make sure we don't interdict it by the wrong policies."

And what might those "wrong policies" be?  Anything, it would appear, that reduces the financial incentives for drug companies to invest in research and development.  Mr. Taurel points without hesitation to the mere threat of HillaryCare in the early 1990s as an episode that reduced investment in R&D, as drug makers, including his own, redirected money toward the purchase of pharmacy benefit management companies.  As another example, he offers the anti-drug industry crusade of Sen. Estes Kefauver in the late 1950s and early '60s:

"At that point companies started to diversify.  We bought Elizabeth Arden, we went into animal health and agricultural chemical products, later on in medical instruments and so forth.  All other companies did similar things.  And for a while after that we saw fewer new products.  When this threat subsided the companies focused again on R&D and we saw a golden era in the '80s and '90s with a lot of new products and breakthroughs."

 

For the full interview, see:

ROBERT L. POLLOCK.  "THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW with Sidney Taurel; Of Politics and Pills."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., December 2, 2006):  A8. 





December 28, 2006

Incentives Influence Doctors' Choice of Prostate Therapy


(p. A1)  The nearly 240,000 men in the United States who will learn they have prostate cancer this year have one more thing to worry about:  Are their doctors making treatment decisions on the basis of money as much as medicine?

Among several widely used treatments for prostate cancer, one stands out for its profit potential.  The approach, a radiation therapy known as I.M.R.T., can mean reimbursement of $47,000 or more a patient.

That is many times the fees that urologists make on other accepted treatments for the disease, which include surgery and radioactive seed implants.  And it may help explain why urologists have started buying multimillion-dollar I.M.R.T. equipment and software, and why many more are investigating it as a way to increase their incomes.

. . .

(p. C7)  The one certainty about I.M.R.T. is that for doctors who own the technology, it can be much more lucrative than alternative treatments.  Medicare and other insurers typically pay urologists only $2,000 or less for performing surgery to remove the prostate or for implanting radioactive seeds.  The insurers say the much higher I.M.R.T. payments, which in some cases exceed $50,000, are based on the technology's cost.  

 

For the full story, see: 

STEPHANIE SAUL.  "Profit and Questions as Doctors Offer Prostate Cancer Therapy."  The New York Times  (Fri., December 1, 2006):  A1 & C7.





December 10, 2006

"Atlas May Actually Decide to Shrug"


(p. A16) During the recent off-year elections, the president repeatedly pointed to the booming economy and noted that his tax cuts were responsible.  With growth strong and unemployment low despite the ending of the stock-market bubble, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq, he had every reason to be proud.  Moreover, both economic theory and the actual timing of the economic revival support his claims regarding the tax cuts.

That is why it is so odd that rumors swarm around Washington that the president may be willing to raise taxes as part of a "deal" on entitlement reform.  In particular, the rumors suggest the president might be willing to get rid of the provision that caps the income level used to compute Social Security taxes and benefits.  These rumors aren't without substance; last year the president would not rule out raising the cap when asked.

Doing so would raise the marginal tax rate on the entrepreneurs that Mr. Bush credits for having led the economic recovery by more than 10 percentage points.  The new effective rate would be five percentage points above the level when he took office.  Moreover, in 2011, the rate would go up a further 4.3 percentage points to an effective 53% marginal rate on entrepreneurial income.  The president would thus be not just raising taxes on entrepreneurs to well above the levels that prevailed in the Clinton administration, but to a rate higher than that which prevailed in the Carter administration.  Most of the improved incentives for entrepreneurship and work brought about under Reagan would be repealed.

. . .

Last year an entrepreneur similar to me would have paid federal taxes equal to 33.9% of total income.

. . .

Don't make it too tough on him, or Atlas may actually decide to shrug.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

LAWRENCE B. LINDSEY.  "Compromised."  Wall Street Journal  (Mon., November 20, 2006):  A16.

(Note:  the ellipses are added.) 

 

The last line of the commentary is a not-so-veiled allusion to: 

Rand, Ayn.  Atlas Shrugged.  New York:  Random House, 1957.





November 29, 2006

Without Incentives, the Energetic become Lazy


Wise words from Frederick W. Taylor, who is known as the father of scientific management:


(p. B1) "When a naturally energetic man works for a few days beside a lazy one," Mr. Taylor wrote, "the logic of the situation is unanswerable.  'Why should I work hard when that lazy fellow gets the same pay I do and does only half the work?' "


As quoted in: 

CYNTHIA CROSSEN.  "DEJA VU; Early Industry Expert Soon Realized a Staff Has Its Own Efficiency."  Wall Street Journal  (Mon., November 6, 2006):  B1.





November 18, 2006

For Major Changes, CEOs Need to Change Who "Calls the Shots"


Some of the best advice in Gerstner's book concern 'execution' issues of rewards, incentives, and who has the power to make which decisions.  Consider:

(p. 249)  If a CEO thinks he or she is redirecting or reintegrating an enterprise but doesn't distribute the basic levels of power (in effect, redefining who "calls the shots"), the CEO is trying to push string up a hill.  (p. 250)  The media companies are a good example.  If a CEO wants to build a truly integrated platform for digital services in the home, he or she cannot let the music division or movie division cling to its existing technology or industry structure---despite the fact that these traditional approaches maximize short-term profits.

. . .

I knew we could not get the integration we needed at IBM without introducing massive changes to the measurement and compensation system.  I've already explained that the group executives who ran IBM's operating businesses were not paid bonuses based on the unit's performance.  All their pay was derived from IBM's total results.

When a CEO tells me that he or she is considering a major reintegration of his or her company, I try to say, politely, "If you are not pre-(p. 251)pared to manage your compensation this way, you probably should not proceed."

 

The reference for the book is:

Gerstner, Louis V., Jr.  Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? Leading a Great Enterprise through Dramatic Change.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2002.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 




October 25, 2006

The Missing Pillow: A Lack of Incentives Leaves an Obvious 'Job' Undone


In late July, I had an appointment for a treadmill stress-test at Omaha's Methodist Hospital.  They told me the process would be over in an hour, but it took about two hours, due to another patient having some sort of crisis during their stress-test. 

They had me put on a gown, they stuck an I-V "dye" drip in back of my hand, and they pasted about six electrodes to my chest, after shaving and applying something like sand paper to the parts of the chest where the electrodes were attached.  Then they had me lie on my side on a hard table, to wait.  It was very uncomfortable.  The first nurse said that there was supposed to be a pillow on the table, but did nothing to obtain one.  Every several minutes some technician or nurse would stop in to ask if I was ready for them.  (I was always ready.)  But it turned out that someone needed to do something to me first, and that person was, I guess, taking care of the crisis next door.  At least one of these visitors also mentioned that I was supposed to have a pillow, but did nothing to acquire one.  If memory serves, the first nurse came back in, and again mentioned that I was supposed to have a pillow, but again did nothing to obtain one.

These people were all pleasant and friendly.  For example, they had a lot of friendly chats amongst themselves, that I could not help but over-hear.  (One of them was pregnant with twins, but did not know the genders of the babes-to-be, and so had not yet spent the time to come up with names.)

But two hours later, when the whole process was over, I still did not have a pillow.

A week or two after the test, I received a several page survey from Methodist Hospital asking a bunch of questions about how I thought they had done during the test.  You see they really "care" about my opinion.  (They also run frequent, slick TV ads about how much they "care.")

Marketers, and management gurus, say that organizations need to invest in surveys and the like to figure out what the customer wants and needs.  And Clayton Christensen advocates spending resources to figure out what "job" the customer needs to have done.  And maybe, sometimes, it does take surveys and research.

But sometimes it is obvious that the customer needs a pillow.

What is missing is not a survey, or statistical analysis.

What is missing is the incentive for someone to go get the pillow. 

 

P.S.  You may wonder, then, if it is simply a mistake for the hospital to send out the survey?  I suspect that those who send out the survey are not making a mistake, but are trying to get a different job done than the one that appears to be intended.  It appears that they are trying to find out what customers want and need.  But maybe they already know that.  Maybe they are mainly sending out the survey so that if anyone asks if they are "customer-oriented" they can whip out the survey to prove that yes-indeed, they sure are.  In other words, the point of the survey is not to learn about customers; it is to cover rear-ends.





October 23, 2006

United States Cardiologists Fail to Prescribe Fish Oil, Despite Low Cost, Safety, and Evidence of Efficacy


  Source of graphic:  online verison of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


United States cardiologists are reluctant to prescribe fish oil, wanting more definitive data on efficacy.  But a lack of definitive data on efficacy doesn't stop them from performing costly and risky procedures such as the application of stents.  Possibly relevant:  installing stents is much more lucrative for cardiologists, than prescribing fish oil.  Doctors are not bad people, but like most of us, they respond to financial incentives.


(p. D5) ROME — Every patient in the cardiac care unit at the San Filippo Neri Hospital who survives a heart attack goes home with a prescription for purified fish oil, or omega-3 fatty acids.

“It is clearly recommended in international guidelines,” said Dr. Massimo Santini, the hospital’s chief of cardiology, who added that it would be considered tantamount to malpractice in Italy to omit the drug.

In a large number of studies, prescription fish oil has been shown to improve survival after heart attacks and to reduce fatal heart rhythms.  The American College of Cardiology recently strengthened its position on the medical benefit of fish oil, although some critics say that studies have not defined the magnitude of the effect.

But in the United States, heart attack victims are not generally given omega-3 fatty acids, even as they are routinely offered more expensive and invasive treatments, like pills to lower cholesterol or implantable defibrillators.  Prescription fish oil, sold under the brand name Omacor, is not even approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in heart patients.

“Most cardiologists here are not giving omega-3’s even though the data supports it — there’s a real disconnect,” said Dr. Terry Jacobson, a preventive cardiologist at Emory University in Atlanta.  “They have been very slow to incorporate the therapy.”


For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL  "In Europe It’ s Fish Oil After Heart Attacks, but Not in U.S."  The New York Times  (Tues., October 3, 2006):  D5.





October 12, 2006

Sulfa: First Antibiotic Was Pursued for Profit


  Source of the book image:  http://ec1.images-amazon.com/images/P/1400082137.01._SS500_SCLZZZZZZZ_V52133117_.jpg

 


Economists have debated whether patents mainly provide incentives, or obstacles, to innovation.  In the story of the development of sulfa, the first powerful antibiotic, the desire for profit, through patents, was one motive that drove an important part of the development process; this, even though, in the end, sulfa turned out not to be patentable:


(p. P9) Mr. Hager follows a group of doctors into postwar German industry -- specifically into the dye conglomerate IG Farben.  These men, having witnessed horrible deaths by infection on the battlefield, picked up on Ehrlich's hypothesis by trying to synthesize a dye that specifically stained and killed bacteria.  Led by the physician-scientist Gerhard Domagk, they brought German know-how, regimentation and industry to the enterprise.

Year after year the team infected mice with streptococci, the bacteria responsible for so many deadly infections in humans.  The researchers then treated the mice with various dyes but had to watch as thousands upon thousands of them died despite such treatment.  Nothing seemed to work.  The 1920s turned into the '30s, and still Domagk and his team held to Ehrlich's idea.  There was simply no better idea around.

Then one of the old hands at IG Farben mentioned that he could get dyes to stick to wool and to fade less by attaching molecular side-chains containing sulfur to them.  Maybe what worked for wool would work for bacteria by making the dye adhere to the bacteria long enough to kill it.

. . .

The IG Farben conglomerate expected huge profits from Prontosil.  But then French scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris dashed these dreams.  The German scientists -- all of them Ehrlich disciples -- thought that the power to cure infection rested in the dye, with the sulfa side-chain merely holding the killer dye to the bacteria.  The scientists at the Pasteur Institute, though, showed that the sulfa side-chain alone worked against infection just as well as the Prontosil compound.  In fact, the dye fraction of the compound was useless.  You could have Ehrlich's magic bullet without Ehrlich's big idea!  This bombshell rendered the German patents worthless.  The life-saver "drug" turned out to be a simple, unpatentable chemical available in bulk everywhere.

 

For the full review, see: 

PAUL MCHUGH.  "BOOKS; Medicine's First Miracle Drug."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 30, 2006):  P9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

 

The reference for the book is: 

Thomas Hager.  The Demon Under The Microscope.  Harmony, 340 pages, $24.95






September 30, 2006

"An Image Was Worth a 1,000 Statistical Tables"


HandWithGerms.jpg  Artistic vision of germ-laden hand.  (This is not the photographic image mentioned below, and used as a hospital screen-saver.)  Source of image:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

(p. 22)  Leon Bender noticed something interesting: passengers who went ashore weren’t allowed to reboard the ship until they had some Purell squirted on their hands.  The crew even dispensed Purell to passengers lined up at the buffet tables.  Was it possible, Bender wondered, that a cruise ship was more diligent about killing germs than his own hospital?

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where Bender has been practicing for 37 years, is in fact an excellent hospital.  But even excellent hospitals often pass along bacterial infections, thereby sickening or even killing the very people they aim to heal.  In its 2000 report “To Err Is Human,” the Institute of Medicine estimated that anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 Americans die each year because of hospital errors — more deaths than from either motor-vehicle crashes or breast cancer — and that one of the leading errors was the spread of bacterial infections.

. . .

. . . the hospital needed to devise some kind of incentive scheme that would increase compliance without alienating its doctors.  In the beginning, the administrators gently cajoled the doctors with e-mail, (p. 23) faxes and posters.  But none of that seemed to work.  (The hospital had enlisted a crew of nurses to surreptitiously report on the staff’s hand-washing.)  “Then we started a campaign that really took the word to the physicians where they live, which is on the wards,” Silka recalls.  “And, most importantly, in the physicians’ parking lot, which in L.A. is a big deal.”

For the next six weeks, Silka and roughly a dozen other senior personnel manned the parking-lot entrance, handing out bottles of Purell to the arriving doctors.  They started a Hand Hygiene Safety Posse that roamed the wards and let it be known that this posse preferred using carrots to sticks:  rather than searching for doctors who weren’t compliant, they’d try to “catch” a doctor who was washing up, giving him a $10 Starbucks card as reward.  You might think that the highest earners in a hospital wouldn’t much care about a $10 incentive — “but none of them turned down the card,” Silka says.

When the nurse spies reported back the latest data, it was clear that the hospital’s efforts were working — but not nearly enough.  Compliance had risen to about 80 percent from 65 percent, but the Joint Commission required 90 percent compliance.

These results were delivered to the hospital’s leadership by Rekha Murthy, the hospital’s epidemiologist, during a meeting of the Chief of Staff Advisory Committee.  The committee’s roughly 20 members, mostly top doctors, were openly discouraged by Murthy’s report.  Then, after they finished their lunch, Murthy handed each of them an agar plate — a sterile petri dish loaded with a spongy layer of agar.  “I would love to culture your hand,” she told them.

They pressed their palms into the plates, and Murthy sent them to the lab to be cultured and photographed.  The resulting images, Silka says, “were disgusting and striking, with gobs of colonies of bacteria.”

The administration then decided to harness the power of such a disgusting image.  One photograph was made into a screen saver that haunted every computer in Cedars-Sinai.  Whatever reasons the doctors may have had for not complying in the past, they vanished in the face of such vivid evidence.  “With people who have been in practice 25 or 30 or 40 years, it’s hard to change their behavior,” Leon Bender says.  “But when you present them with good data, they change their behavior very rapidly.”  Some forms of data, of course, are more compelling than others, and in this case an image was worth 1,000 statistical tables.  Hand-hygiene compliance shot up to nearly 100 percent and, according to the hospital, it has pretty much remained there ever since.

 

For the full commentary, see:

STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT.  "FREAKONOMICS; Selling Soap."  The New York Times Magazine (Section 6)  (Sunday, September 24, 2006):  22-23.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

      The screen-saver at Cedars Sinai Hospital.  Source of image:  http://freakonomics.com/pdf/CedarsSinaiScreenSaver.jpg




September 23, 2006

Higher Oil Prices Provide Incentive to Seek Deeper Oil


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

 

(p. C1) The successful production of oil from the five-mile-deep Jack well in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to spur more deep-water exploration around the world -- and that prospect is helping calm overheated crude-oil markets anxious about future supplies.

. . .

The successful Jack test underscores what a group of economists and oil-industry executives have been arguing for a while:  High prices will encourage energy companies to find and pump oil in deep, dark places around the world that otherwise would have been uneconomical.

 

For the full story, see:

RUSSELL GOLD.  "More Companies May Dig Deeper In Search for Oil Gulf of Mexico Discovery Fuels Prospects of Finding New Supplies; Lack of Resources Could Slow Push."   Wall Street Journal  (Tues., September 19, 2006):  C1.





August 30, 2006

Distorted Incentives in Medicine


  Source of book image:  http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061130298/The_End_of_Medicine/index.aspx

 

The problem right now, as Mr. Kessler sees it, is that we fight the "big three" -- cancer, stroke and heart attack -- with treatment rather than early detection.  Cancer cells and blood-vessel plaque can be handled much more easily in the early stages, but we spend most of our money on the later ones.  More than 80% of health-care dollars are paid by insurance companies and the government, and neither is especially interested in detecting disease when it first appears.  Doctors, regulators, researchers and payers of all kinds are locked into what Mr. Kessler calls -- a bit ungenerously -- the "cholesterol and cancer conspiracies."

A complicated system of mutual dependency distorts the incentives.  "The FDA is like the FCC and Big Pharma is like the regional Bells" is what Mr. Kessler hears from Don Listwin, a former Cisco executive who now heads the Canary Foundation, a Silicon Valley-based effort to promote preventive medicine.  In other words, in medicine as in telecom, the big players end up exploiting regulations more than opposing them, if only to preserve their monopolies.  The Food and Drug Administration -- understandably but narrow-mindedly -- wants "cures" for cancer and other diseases.  Thus tens of thousands of chemicals are screened, only a handful make it even to Phase I trials, and by the time a new drug is approved a billion dollars has been spent.  Even then the new drug may help only 10% of patients.

Yet if someone were to invent a device with a wide, preventive usefulness -- say, a nanotech implant that would spot the proteins that indicate the first minute presence of cancer -- it would have to go through the same process of billion-dollar testing.  Since the government and insurance companies are reluctant to add anything to their repertoire of coverage -- and since such a device would be targeted at the much broader pool of people who are not sick -- research might well stall in its earliest phases for lack of reimbursement-funding.

 

For the full review, see:

WILLIAM TUCKER.  "Bookshelf; The Art of Navigating Arteries."  Wall Street Journal (Tues., July 18, 2006):  D6.

 

A full reference to the book reviewed, is:

Kessler, Andy.  The End of Medicine:  How Silicon Valley (and Naked Mice) Will Reboot Your Doctor. HarperCollins, 2006.

 




August 24, 2006

"Financial Incentives Can Change the Way Medicine is Practiced"


        An angioplasty being performed in Eyria, Ohio.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

Medicare patients in Elyria receive angioplasties at a rate nearly four times the national average . . .

. . .

. . . some outside experts say they are concerned that Elyria is an example, albeit an extreme one, of how medical decisions in this country can be influenced by financial incentives and professional training more than by solid evidence of what works best for a particular patient.

“People are rewarded for erring on the side of an aggressive, highly expensive intervention,” said Dr. Elliott S. Fisher, a researcher at Dartmouth Medical School, which analyzed Medicare data and found Elyria to be an outlier.

Medicare pays Elyria’s community hospital, EMH Regional Medical Center, about $11,000 for an angioplasty involving use of a drug-coated stent.

The cardiologist might be paid an additional $800 for the work.  That is well above the fees for seeing patients in the office.  And with the North Ohio doctors performing thousands of angioplasties a year — about 3,400 in 2004, for example — the dollars can quickly add up.

Some medical experts say Elyria’s high rate of angioplasties — three times the rate of Cleveland, just 30 miles away — raises the question of whether some patients may be getting procedures they do not need or whether some could have been treated just as effectively and at lower cost and less risk through heart drugs that may cost only several hundred dollars a year.

. . .

Experts know that changing the financial incentives can change the way medicine is practiced.

For example, Kaiser Permanente, the big health system that employs its own doctors, says its patients in Ohio, including some in Elyria, are slightly less likely than the national average to undergo the type of cardiac procedures the North Ohio Heart Center doctors perform so prolifically.

Kaiser’s cardiologists, who work on salary instead of being paid by the procedure, typically treat patients in that region at the Cleveland Clinic, where they have hospital privileges.  And they follow established protocols about when a patient should undergo an angioplasty, when drugs might suffice and when bypass surgery might be the best resort.

“It’s not just individual doctors making up their minds,” explained Dr. Ronald L. Copeland, the executive medical director for Kaiser’s medical group in Ohio.  With no financial reason to perform expensive procedures, the Kaiser doctors frequently choose to manage the patients’ heart disease with drugs only.  “Our doctors have no disincentive to do that,” Dr. Copeland said.

. . .

For many cardiologists, the natural tendency when they see a patient with heart disease is to perform a procedure to try to clear arterial blockages.  And patients, cardiologists say, tend to rely on their doctors’ judgment.

“It’s sort of like, you go to a barber and ask if you need a haircut,” said Dr. David D. Waters, chief of cardiology at San Francisco General Hospital, who is currently studying the effectiveness of different kinds of treatment for heart disease.  “He’s likely to say you do.”

. . .

Experts say it can be difficult to detect cases in which doctors cross a medical line and are clearly performing unnecessary treatments.

“A lot of decisions are discretionary,” said Dr. Harlan M. Krumholz, a cardiologist and professor at Yale.

“It’s about where the thermostat is set,” he said, arguing that doctors in a particular geographic area tend to be unaware if the way they are treating their patients is markedly different from the practices of their peers in other areas.

Traditional measures of medical quality are not set up to detect whether patients are being treated too much, he said, unlike the kinds of safeguards that prompt credit card companies to call their customers to discuss unusual spending activity.  “Right now there are no ‘smart’ systems in place,” Dr. Krumholz said.

In the absence of any real monitoring or oversight, doctors in most places, including Elyria, have few incentives not to favor the treatments that provide them the most reimbursement.  Dr. Waters, the San Francisco cardiologist, said that the way physicians are typically paid — more money for more procedures — results in too many decisions to give a patient a stent.

“You can’t be paying people large sums of money to do things without checks and balances,” he said.

 

For the full story, see:

REED ABELSON.  "In Ohio City, a Heart Procedure Is Off the Charts; SIDE EFFECTS; A Stent Epidemic."  The New York Times  (Fri., August 18, 2006):  A1 & C4.

 

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




August 20, 2006

Perverse Incentives Lead to Useless Heart Surgeries


The old idea was this:  Coronary disease is akin to sludge building up in a pipe.  Plaque accumulates slowly, over decades, and once it is there it is pretty much there for good.  Every year, the narrowing grows more severe until one day no blood can get through and the patient has a heart attack.  Bypass surgery or angioplasty -- opening arteries by pushing plaque back with a tiny balloon and then, often, holding it there with a stent -- can open up a narrowed artery before it closes completely.  And so, it was assumed, heart attacks could be averted.

But, researchers say, most heart attacks do not occur because an artery is narrowed by plaque.  Instead, they say, heart attacks occur when an area of plaque bursts, a clot forms over the area and blood flow is abruptly blocked.  In 75 to 80 percent of cases, the plaque that erupts was not obstructing an artery and would not be stented or bypassed.  The dangerous plaque is soft and fragile, produces no symptoms and would not be seen as an obstruction to blood flow.

That is why, heart experts say, so many heart attacks are unexpected -- a person will be out jogging one day, feeling fine, and struck with a heart attack the next.  If a narrowed artery were the culprit, exercise would have caused severe chest pain.

Heart patients may have hundreds of vulnerable plaques, so preventing heart attacks means going after all their arteries, not one narrowed section, by attacking the disease itself.  That is what happens when patients take drugs to aggressively lower their cholesterol levels, to get their blood pressure under control and to prevent blood clots.

Yet, researchers say, old notions persist.

''There is just this embedded belief that fixing an artery is a good thing,'' said Dr. Eric Topol, an interventional cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

In particular, Dr. Topol said, more and more people with no symptoms are now getting stents.  According to an analysis by Merrill Lynch, based on sales figures, there will be more than a million stent operations this year, nearly double the number performed five years ago.

Some doctors still adhere to the old model.  Others say that they know it no longer holds but that they sometimes end up opening blocked arteries anyway, even when patients have no symptoms.

Dr. David Hillis, an interventional cardiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, explained:  ''If you're an invasive cardiologist and Joe Smith, the local internist, is sending you patients, and if you tell them they don't need the procedure, pretty soon Joe Smith doesn't send patients anymore.  Sometimes you can talk yourself into doing it even though in your heart of hearts you don't think it's right.''

Dr. Topol said a patient typically goes to a cardiologist with a vague complaint like indigestion or shortness of breath, or because a scan of the heart indicated calcium deposits -- a sign of atherosclerosis, or buildup of plaque.  The cardiologist puts the patient in the cardiac catheterization room, examining the arteries with an angiogram.  Since most people who are middle-aged and older have atherosclerosis, the angiogram will more often than not show a narrowing.  Inevitably, the patient gets a stent.

''It's this train where you can't get off at any station along the way,'' Dr. Topol said.  ''Once you get on the train, you're getting the stents.  Once you get in the cath lab, it's pretty likely that something will get done.''

 

For the full story, see: 

GINA KOLATA.   "New Heart Studies Question the Value of Opening Arteries."  The New York Times   (Sun., March 21, 2004). 





August 16, 2006

Doctors Face Perverse Incentives and Constraints


Kevin MD's blog provides an illuminating discussion of how hard we make it for good people to practice medicine.  The case discussed involves an MD who is successfully sued for not performing a heart cath on a patient, even though two previous treadmill tests did not reveal any problems.  (The heart cath procedure itself has a nontrivial risk of death and other serious complications.)   

The discussion in the Kevin MD illustrates the difficult incentives and constraints faced by the conscientious physician. In terms of a patient's health, a cost/benefit analysis may imply that a medical test should not be performed, but in terms of an MD's income, and legal liability, a cost/benefit analysis may imply that a medical test should be performed. 

Something is wrong with our reward structure and legal institutions, when MD's who make the right medical call for the patient, are "rewarded" by earning less, and by increasing their chances of being sued.

 

Read the full discussion at:

http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2006/06/liable-for-not-doing-heart-cath-on-49.html

 

For convenience, here is the opening entry in the discussion:


Continue reading "Doctors Face Perverse Incentives and Constraints" »




August 10, 2006

Static Assumptions Undermine Economic Policy Analysis


Over 50 years ago, Schumpeter emphasized that static models of capitalism miss what is most important in capitalism.  Yet static analysis still dominates most policy discussions.  But there is hope:


(p. A14) A bit of background:  Most official analysis of tax policy is based on what economists call "static assumptions."  While many microeconomic behavioral responses are included, the future path of macroeconomic variables such as the capital stock and GNP are assumed to stay the same, regardless of tax policy.  This approach is not realistic, but it has been the tradition in tax analysis mainly because it is simple and convenient.

In his 2007 budget, President Bush directed the Treasury staff to develop a dynamic analysis of tax policy, and we are now reaping the fruits of those efforts.  The staff uses a model that does not consider the short-run effects of tax policy on the business cycle, but instead focuses on its longer run effects on economic growth through the incentives to work, save and invest, and to allocate capital among competing uses.

 

For the full story, see:

ROBERT CARROLL and N. GREGORY MANKIW.  "Dynamic Analysis."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., July 26, 2006):  A14.





August 5, 2006

Road Opens a Year Early: Contract Included Incentives


OmahaExpresswaySmall.jpg With monetary incentives to finish early, Hawkins Construction Company finishes westbound lanes a year ahead of schedule.   Source of photo:
http://www.omaha.com/index.php?u_pg=1636&u_sid=2214442&u_rnd=7720251

 

The long delays, and lack of visible progress in expanding 132nd, near our house, became a running joke---but the wasted travel time was not funny.  Similar road construction delays were occuring all over town, to the point where it looked as though the issue might threaten the mayor's re-election.  So he got serious, and in new road contracts, included substantial monetary incentives for finishing the job ontime, and even more incentives to finish it early.  The expressway pictured above is one of those built under the new contract.  Maybe incentives really do matter?

 

(p. 1A)  An electronic sign above West Dodge lured drivers with a simple message:  "Expressway Open."

The real draw was the quicker commute drivers encountered Thursday evening during the first rush hour after the opening of the West Dodge Road Expressway.

After two years of construction, the expressway's westbound bridge opened to traffic at 10:35 a.m. Thursday, more than a year ahead of schedule.

A steady flow of traffic streamed across the bridge Thursday evening.

"It was wonderful," said commuter Jean Crouchley.

 

For the full article, see:

MICHAEL O'CONNOR AND RICK RUGGLES.  "A Concrete Example of Progress; Motorists Expect Daily Drives to be Quicker with New Route."  Omaha World-Herald (Friday, July 28, 2006):  1-2.

(Note: The online version of the article had the title: "Making quick work of commute on Expressway.")





July 28, 2006

Medication Errors Harm 1.5 Million a Year


The report described below documents an incredibly high rate of errors in the administration of medications.  Notice that one of the recommended practices is for patients to bring with them to each doctor's visit, a complete listing of all of their medicines.  It reminded me of accompanying my mother and father while my father was being treated for melanoma at one of the top cancer hospitals in the country.  We were shuttled from doctor to doctor.  And at each stop we were asked to give a full account of the medicines that Dad was taking.  It gradually sunk in to me that the doctors at this prestigious hospital did not even know which drugs Dad had been prescribed, from within the hospital itself

The Institute of Medicine has identified a problem, but has not identified a cure.  If we really want to reduce medical errors, the key is not just to push isolated practices.  The key is to change the system so that medical practitioners and institutions are rewarded when they do a better job of reducing errors.  If the system provided the right incentives, then the practitioners themselves would be competing to invent and learn the practices that would be most efficient at improving patient health and well-being.

(p. A12) WASHINGTON, July 20 — Medication errors harm 1.5 million people and kill several thousand each year in the United States, costing the nation at least $3.5 billion annually, the Institute of Medicine concluded in a report released on Thursday.

Drug errors are so widespread that hospital patients should expect to suffer one every day they remain hospitalized, although error rates vary by hospital and most do not lead to injury, the report concluded.

The report, “Preventing Medication Errors,” cited the death of Betsy Lehman, a 39-year-old mother of two and a health reporter for The Boston Globe, as a classic fatal drug mix-up.  Ms. Lehman died in 1993 after a doctor mistakenly gave her four times the appropriate dose of a toxic drug to treat her breast cancer.

Recommendations to correct these problems include systemic changes like electronic prescribing and tips for consumers like advising patients to carry complete listings of their prescriptions to every doctor’s visit, the report said.

. . .

Drug computer-entry systems, which are supposed to ensure that hospital patients get the right drugs at the right dose, are used in just 6 percent of the nation’s hospitals, said Charles B. Inlander, president of the People’s Medical Society, a consumer advocacy group, and an author of the report released Thursday.

Electronic medical records can help ensure that patients do not receive toxic drug combinations.  The 1999 report urged widespread adoption of these systems.  Thursday’s report called for all prescriptions to be written electronically by 2010.

Just 3 percent of hospitals have electronic patient records, said Henri Manasse, chief executive of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.  Few doctors prescribe drugs electronically.

Even simple medication safety recommendations — block printing on hand-written prescription forms — are widely ignored.

. . .

Thursday’s report said that in any given week, four out of five adults in the United States took at least one medication.  A third take at least five different medications.  As the use of medications has soared, so, too have medication errors, Dr. Manasse said.

Effective strategies to prevent such errors have, however, been known for years, Mr. Inlander said.

“This is not rocket science,” Mr. Inlander said.  “It’s simple.  The key is having the will to make these changes in an organized and uniform way.  And it’s not that expensive.”

 

For the full story, see: 

GARDINER HARRIS. "Report Finds a Heavy Toll From Medication Errors." The New York Times  (Fri., July 21, 2006): A12.

For a link to the full "Preventing Medication Errors" report from the Institute of Medicine, see:  http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11623.html#toc





July 23, 2006

Environmental Bureaucrats Ignore Local Knowledge


  Source of book image:  http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=0300106211

 

From a useful review of a book on environmental policy:


(p. D8) The striking aspect of his new book is the story he tells of his own journey from supporter to critic of the Spaceship Earth theory of environmental law.  His first step toward disenchantment was seeing, as an NRDC lawyer, the EPA's personnel up close.  "The EPA had not come from Starfleet Academy," he notes, "but rather was an amalgam of the federal government's preexisting environmental programs," then part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.  In short, the bureaucrats were real people with real incentives, just like politicians and voters—but unanswerable to the public.

The next educational step, for him, was the decision to buy a farm in upstate New York.  Mr. Schoenbrod was surprised by the wisdom of his rural neighbors.  He movingly describes how a local logger changed his mind about forestry practices by showing him, among much else, that sometimes cutting down particular trees can benefit the forest.  (It sounds like a simple observation, but it is the kind of thing that bureaucrats, with their sweeping mandates, often don't allow for.)  Mr. Schoenbrod also looks at the local reaction to a number of environmental decisions, such as the EPA's ordered dredging of the Hudson River because of the small risk of PCBs.  The intent was to protect the health of local communities, but upstate landowners opposed the dredging by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.


For the full review, see: 

John Berlau.  "Bookshelf; A Law Unto Themselves."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs.,  August 18, 2005):  D8.

 

The full reference to the Schoenbrod book:

Schoenbrod, David.  Saving Our Environment from Washington:  How Congress Grabs Power, Shirks Responsibility, and Shortchanges the People. Yale University Press, 2005.





May 17, 2006

Incentives and Constraints Matter, But Sometimes Values Do, Too


 Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson.  Source of image:
http://www.iadb.org/idbamerica/index.cfm?thisid=681

 

Cambridge, Mass. - Several recent studies have garnered wide attention for reconfirming the tragic disconnection of millions of black youths from the American mainstream. But they also highlighted another crisis: the failure of social scientists to adequately explain the problem, and their inability to come up with any effective strategy to deal with it.

The main cause for this shortcoming is a deep-seated dogma that has prevailed in social science and policy circles since the mid-1960's: the rejection of any explanation that invokes a group's cultural attributes -- its distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions, and the resulting behavior of its members -- and the relentless preference for relying on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools and bad housing.

Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and a co-author of one of the recent studies, typifies this attitude. Joblessness, he feels, is due to largely weak schooling, a lack of reading and math skills at a time when such skills are increasingly required even for blue-collar jobs, and the poverty of black neighborhoods. Unable to find jobs, he claims, black males turn to illegal activities, especially the drug trade and chronic drug use, and often end up in prison. He also criticizes the practice of withholding child-support payments from the wages of absentee fathers who do find jobs, telling The Times that to these men, such levies ''amount to a tax on earnings.''

His conclusions are shared by scholars like Ronald B. Mincy of Columbia, the author of a study called ''Black Males Left Behind,'' and Gary Orfield of Harvard, who asserts that America is ''pumping out boys with no honest alternative.''

This is all standard explanatory fare. And, as usual, it fails to answer the important questions. Why are young black men doing so poorly in school that they lack basic literacy and math skills? These scholars must know that countless studies by educational experts, going all the way back to the landmark report by James Coleman of Johns Hopkins University in 1966, have found that poor schools, per se, do not explain why after 10 years of education a young man remains illiterate.

Nor have studies explained why, if someone cannot get a job, he turns to crime and drug abuse. One does not imply the other. Joblessness is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the populations does not turn to crime.

And why do so many young unemployed black men have children -- several of them -- which they have no resources or intention to support? And why, finally, do they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?

. . .  

So what are some of the cultural factors that explain the sorry state of young black men? They aren't always obvious. Sociological investigation has found, in fact, that one popular explanation -- that black children who do well are derided by fellow blacks for ''acting white'' -- turns out to be largely false, except for those attending a minority of mixed-race schools.

An anecdote helps explain why: Several years ago, one of my students went back to her high school to find out why it was that almost all the black girls graduated and went to college whereas nearly all the black boys either failed to graduate or did not go on to college. Distressingly, she found that all the black boys knew the consequences of not graduating and going on to college (''We're not stupid!'' they told her indignantly).

So why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the ''cool-pose culture'' of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation's best entertainers were black.

Not only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling, the boys said, it also brought them a great deal of respect from white youths. This also explains the otherwise puzzling finding by social psychologists that young black men and women tend to have the highest levels of self-esteem of all ethnic groups, and that their self-image is independent of how badly they were doing in school.

I call this the Dionysian trap for young black men. The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America's largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book.

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is -- or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.

 

For the full commentary, see:

ORLANDO PATTERSON. "A Poverty of the Mind."  The New York Times, Section 4 (Sunday, March 26, 2006):  13.  






May 1, 2006

Remembrances of Galbraith (and Buckley and Demsetz and Drucker)


John Kenneth Galbraith passed away a couple of days ago, on Sat., April 29, 2006 at the age of 97.   (see:  "Economist, Writer Galbraith Dies at 97."  Omaha World-Herald (Sun., April 30, 2006):  11A)

I remember at a Republican Convention in Miami (1968 I think) when one of the networks had the late Frank Reynolds sitting with Galbraith and William F. Buckley, Jr., to provide occasional commentary on the scene.  On this occasion, Galbraith was going on and on about how all of the Republicans had arrived at the convention in their yachts.  Buckley sat by, nodding, in uncharacteristic silence.  Finally, with a few seconds until they needed to break away, Buckley slowly and deliberately drawled at Galbraith something like the following:  'And John, when you visit your friends in Hyannis Port, I trust that you find the accommodations adequate?'   As they cut to commercial, you could hear Reynolds, and others in the background, convulsed in laughter.

Actually Buckley and Galbraith were friends, for several years skiing together in Europe.  Apparently Galbraith was an indifferent and very slow skier, leading Buckley to observe that Galbraith looked as though he was skiing up the slope backwards.   (I read this many years ago, but, alas, do not remember where.)

 

David Levy and I once wrote a paper in which we measured the writing quality of articles by many important economists.  When we presented the paper to the meetings of the American Economic Association, Galbraith was the discussant of our paper.  For his comments, he basically recycled an old paper he had written on writing economics, and showed no signs of having read our paper.  But he did seem to enjoy our mentioning that by our measures, he turned out to be one of the best writers in the profession.  My memory is that at one point, just before or just after the formal proceedings, he actually patted me on the back.

 

Galbraith wrote many books.  One that I enjoyed, and learned from, was his account of the stock market crash of 1929.

 

Perhaps his most famous book was The New Industrial State, in which he argues that some of the larger firms in the United States form what he called the "technostructure."  The technostructure firms were widely held, by many stock owners, few of whom had the incentive or power, to closely monitor whether the firms' managers were serving the stock owners by maximizing profits.  As a result, the technostructure firms' managers were free to pursue other goals, such as their own power.  (Galbraith was OK with the assumption that firms outside the technostructure were maximizing profits.)  

Harold Demsetz tested this hypothesis by comparing the rate of profit of firms in and out of the technostructure, reasoning that if technostructure firms were not maximizing profits, we would expect their profits to be lower than those of other firms.  He found that there was no difference between the rate of profits of the so-called 'technostructure' firms, and the non-technostructure firms.  Demsetz's conclusion was that there was no distinguishable technostructure, and no new industrial state. 

I tell my classes that if we don't throw entrepreneurs such as Michael Milken in prison, they can provide us with the means to keep CEOs pursuing shareholder value (profits) as their goal.  The way it would work would be that if CEOs start pursuing something else, their firm's stock price falls, and the firm becomes an attractive take-over target for someone like Milken.

I also point out that if firms maximize profits, a lot of rich people benefit, but that a lot of average people benefit too---Drucker emphasized that roughly half of the value of stock equity in the United States is held by worker pension funds.

 

I did not agree with Galbraith's efforts to grow the government, but he was witty, and urbane, and intelligent.  The intellectual scene was more interesting, and fun, with him than without him.  He will be missed. 

 

Some references to publications mentioned in, or supporting, the discussion above:

Demsetz, Harold. "Where Is the New Industrial State?" Economic Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1974): 1-12.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr., and David M. Levy. "The Metrics of Style: Adam Smith Teaches Efficient Rhetoric." Economic Inquiry 32, no. 1 (1994): 138-45.

Drucker, Peter Ferdinand. The Unseen Revolution:  How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America. 1st ed: Harpercollins, 1976.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Great Crash 1929. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. The New Industrial State. Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

Kornbluth, Jesse. Highly Confident: The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken. William Morrow & Co., 1992.

 

 NewIndustrialStateBK.jpg     Source of book image: http://www.whatihaveread.net/biblio/book_1458.html





April 14, 2006

Labor Market Flexibility Increases Employment and Prosperity



"France is definitely behind," says William Keylor, professor of International Relations and history at Boston University. "If France were to create a more-flexible labor market it would eventually increase productivity and prosperity, but the short-term transition would be difficult and people just aren't thinking long term."

There have been labor changes across continental Europe recently. Denmark's measures to liberalize hiring and firing have helped the country cut its unemployment rate in half from about 10% in the early 1990s to under 5%. Spain, too, has introduced short-term employment contracts which have helped cut its unemployment rate by more than half from 20% a decade ago.

But elsewhere, attempts at change have met with staunch opposition, often resulting in watered-down measures. Italy passed changes to its labor laws in 2004, introducing an extension of temporary-work contracts that were introduced in 1997 and were credited with helping cut Italy's overall unemployment rate to 7.1% from 12% when the contracts began. Yet many economists say Italy, which recorded zero growth last year, hasn't gone far enough.

In Germany, where unemployment stands at 11%, a coalition government headed by conservative leader Angela Merkel has promised to reduce unemployment by introducing similar measures to those hotly debated in France. The government had to settle on compromise measures that can extend a current probation period for workers to 24 months, from the current six. But companies don't have the right to terminate contracts within those two years without giving just cause. Other, more difficult, provisions, are still on hold.

The new measures that will be introduced in Parliament as early as today are targeted at "disadvantaged" youths, which refer to people between 18 and 25 who have left school without any qualifications and who are unemployed. The provisions include increasing financial incentives to employers to hire people under 26 who face the most difficulties.

It would apply to some 160,000 young people currently hired under government-subsidized job contracts, according to an interview with Employment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo in an interview with Le Monde newspaper. The cost to the government would be around €150 million ($180 million) in the second half of 2006, Mr. Borloo was quoted as saying.

But economists said the change of tack was a bad signal. "The real problem is that the results obtained by opponents of the new law...show that it is very difficult to introduce reforms in France," Dominique Barbet, economist at BNP Paribas, wrote in a research note. "This will give opponents of reform confidence for future actions."



For the full story, see:

ALESSANDRA GALLONI. "Bowing to Protesters, Chirac Abandons Youth-Labor Law; Reversal Highlights Europe's Difficulties With Painful Reforms." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., April 11, 2006): A3 & A10.

(Note: the title and version of the article quoted here are from the online version. The title and content of the version in the printed paper was a little different in a couple of places.)





April 6, 2006

Solution to Problems in Health Care and Higher Education: Change the Incentive Structures


Vernon Smith, one of the 2002 recipients of the Nobel Prize in economics, advocates fundamental institutional reform:

Physicians and medical organizations face escalating administrative costs of complying with ever more detailed regulations. The system is overwhelmed by the administrative cost of attempting to control the cost of medical service delivery. In education, university budget requests are denied by the states who also limit the freedom of universities to raise tuition.

If there is a solution to this problem, it will take the form of changing the incentive structure: empowering the consumer by channeling third-party payment allowances through the patients or students who are choosing and consuming the service. Each pays the difference between the price of the service and the insurance or subsidy allowance. Since he who pays the physician or college calls the tune, we have a better chance of disciplining cost and tailoring services to the customer's willingness to pay.

Many will say that neither the patients nor the students are competent to make choices. If that is true today, it is mostly due to the fact that they cannot choose and have no reason to become competent! Service providers are oriented to whoever pays: physicians to the insurance companies and the government; universities to their legislatures. Both should pay more heed to their customers -- which they will if that is where they collect their fees.


For the full commentary, see:

VERNON L. SMITH. "Trust the Customer!" The Wall Street Journal (Weds., March 8, 2006): A20.




March 29, 2006

Contrasting Planners with Searchers in Economic Development



Source of book image: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1594200378/sr=8-1/qid=1143511279/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-0403843-7507349?%5Fencoding=UTF8


A professor at New York University and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, Easterly spent most of his career as an economist at the World Bank. He had to leave that job after publishing his iconoclastic 2001 book, "The Elusive Quest for Growth," which skillfully combined a history of economists' growth theories with a devastating empirical analysis of the failure of international efforts to spur third world development. The book's theme was "incentives matter."

In "The White Man's Burden," Easterly turns from incentives to the subtler problems of knowledge. If we truly want to help the poor, rather than just congratulate ourselves for generosity, he argues, we rich Westerners have to give up our grand ambitions. Piecemeal problem-solving has the best chance of success.

He contrasts the traditional "Planner" approach of most aid projects with the "Searcher" approach that works so well in the markets and democracies of the West. Searchers treat problem-solving as an incremental discovery process, relying on competition and feedback to figure out what works.

. . .

"The White Man's Burden" does not match "The Elusive Quest for Growth" as a tour de force. Easterly is doing something harder here: not merely cataloging past failures but trying to suggest a more promising approach. Unfortunately, his alternative is still underdeveloped, devolving at times into slogans.

After all, Searchers plan, too. The question is not whether to plan, but who makes the plans, how they are changed and where feedback comes from. "The White Man's Burden" underplays the essential role of competition, not only in markets but between political jurisdictions.


For the full review, see:

VIRGINIA POSTREL. "The Poverty Puzzle." The New York Times, Section 7 (Sun., March 19, 2006): 12.


For Easterly's latest book, see:

Easterly, William. The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The Penguin Press, 2006. 436 pp. $27.95.




March 10, 2006

"Unlike Pilots, Doctors Don't Go Down with Their Planes"


(p. C1) With all the tools available to modern medicine -- the blood tests and M.R.I.'s and endoscopes -- you might think that misdiagnosis has become a rare thing. But you would be wrong. Studies of autopsies have shown that doctors seriously misdiagnose fatal illnesses about 20 percent of the time. So millions of patients are being treated for the wrong disease.

As shocking as that is, the more astonishing fact may be that the rate has not really changed since the 1930's. "No improvement!" was how an article in the normally exclamation-free Journal of the American Medical Association summarized the situation.

. . .

But we still could be doing a lot better. Under the current medical system, doctors, nurses, lab technicians and hospital executives are not actually paid to come up with the right diagnosis. They are paid to perform tests and to do surgery and to dispense drugs.

There is no bonus for curing someone and no penalty for failing, except when the mistakes rise to the level of malpractice. So even though doctors can have the best intentions, they have little economic incentive to spend time double-checking their instincts, and hospitals have little incentive to give them the tools to do so.

. . .

(p. C4) Joseph Britto, a former intensive-care doctor, likes to compare medicine's attitude toward mistakes with the airline industry's. At the insistence of pilots, who have the ultimate incentive not to mess up, airlines have studied their errors and nearly eliminated crashes.

"Unlike pilots," Dr. Britto said, "doctors don't go down with their planes."


For the full story, see:

DAVID LEONHARDT. "Why Doctors So Often Get It Wrong." The New York Times (Weds., February 22, 2006): C1 & C4.




March 6, 2006

Lazear, New Chair of Council of Economic Advisors, Emphasizes Labor Market Flexibility


Ed Lazear was a labor economist at the University of Chicago during the time that I was a graduate student there, circa 1975-81. Sometimes in collaboration with the late Sherwin Rosen, he created models of the labor market that suggest ways of understanding otherwise puzzling labor market phenomena, for example in suggesting that CEOs might be highly paid to provide an incentive for all those who participate in the 'rank-order tournament' that results in the choice of CEO (see the Lazear-Rosen paper cited below).

Here is a brief excerpt from remarks by Ed Lazear following his being sworn in as Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisors on 3/6/06:

Healthy productivity growth over the past few years has been followed by impressive job creation and reductions in unemployment rates to levels that are low by historical standards. And we continue to improve. Much of the strength of the U.S. economy results from flexibility in labor and capital markets, and from keeping tax rates low.

For the full remarks, see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/03/20060306.html (Thanks to Gary Blank for providing me this link.)


One of Lazear's most interesting papers:

Lazear, Edward, and Sherwin Rosen. "Rank-Order Tournaments as Optimum Labor Contracts." Journal of Political Economy 89, no. 5 (1981): 841-864.





February 10, 2006

Solzhenitsyn Endures: The Return of "The First Circle"


    Source of book image:   Amazon.com.


I remember Ben Rogge recommending The First Circle, decades ago when it first appeared in English. It is a powerful, courageous, wise work, bearing many lessons. As you read the book, you keep hoping you can find someone to blame for the evil that is happening. But as Solzhenitsyn works his way up the bureaucracy, each bureaucrat has a plausible motive for his part in evil; one motive, for example, is the protection of the bureaucrat's family. Only when you reach Stalin, do you find someone who you can really despise. But he seems borderline crazy, so even he is not a totally satisfying villian.

The book can be seen as illustrating a point that Rogge often made: socialism is not bad because it is run by bad people; it is bad because it provides ordinary people incentives to do bad things. (These are not his words, but I believe they capture his point.)



Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1) MOSCOW, Feb. 8 -- A grandfatherly figure, his bearded face wrinkled into a smile, peers down from billboards around town.

It is surprise enough that the man is Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the once-exiled writer, Nobel Prize winner and, of late, octogenarian scold. It is even more so that the billboards advertise his adaptation -- broadcast on state television, no less -- of one of his fiercely anti-Soviet novels, "The First Circle."

Solzhenitsyn has been called the conscience of the nation, but his reputation has risen and fallen as tumultuously as Russia itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "First Circle" has once again placed him on the national stage, reaching an audience that would have been inconceivable to him four decades ago, when he smuggled the book out of the Soviet Union.


For the full article, see:

STEVEN LEE MYERS "Toast of the TV in Russian Eyes: It's Solzhenitsyn." The New York Times (Thurs., February 9, 2006): A1 & A3.



A scene from the Russian mini-series version of The First Circle. Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




January 24, 2006

"Sachs Aid Model Has Financed Tyranny": More on Why Aftrica is Poor


Famine in Niger is no surprise -- desert wastes, locusts and decades of Marxist rule keep it second-to-last on the world poverty list. Famine in the fertile climes of southern and eastern Africa, however, seems more shocking. But there's a common thread: centralized state rule -- incompetent at best -- marked by corruption and sustained by aid. These are the shackles that keep Africans poor: It would be nice if EU and U.S. trade barriers were removed at trade talks in Hong Kong this week, but exports are a distant notion to the 75% of Africans who live off the land.

Niger is little-blessed by nature, but it has also spent its postcolonial era trying various forms of failed government, with Marxism reigning longest. A quarter of the population -- 2.5 million people -- faces starvation. Yet more temperate southern and eastern African countries are on the edge of famine, too, with 10 million affected in southern Africa alone. Again, we find the same economic profile: Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho all lack economic freedom and property rights; all have economies mismanaged by the state; all depend on aid. All these countries have a history of utopian schemes that failed to produce everlasting manna. State farms, marketing boards, land redistribution, price controls and huge regional tariffs left few incentives or opportunities for subsistence farmers to expand. Despite torrents of aid, these cruel social experiments could not turn sands verdant or prevent the granaries of southern and eastern Africa from rotting.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi believes that allowing Ethiopians to own their land would make them sell out to multinationals. He seems to have overlooked a basic market principle: It demands a willing seller and a willing buyer at an agreed price. If that price is worth selling for, the farmer might have some money to reinvest elsewhere; if that price is worth buying for, the purchaser must have plans to make the land profitable. If there is no sale, owners might have an incentive to invest in their own land and future, having, at last, the collateral of the land on which to get a loan. After decades of socialism, Ethiopia's agricultural sector -- the mainstay of the economy -- is less productive per capita than 20 years ago when Band Aid tried to defeat famine. Although 60% of the country is arable, only 10% has been cultivated. Ethiopia is entirely dependent on donations; but instead of grasping reality, Mr. Zenawi, a member of Tony Blair's "Commission for Africa," is forcing resettlement on 2.2 million people.

In Zimbabwe, the murderous kleptocrats of Robert Mugabe's regime deny that land seizure has pushed their rich and fertile country into famine: Some three million people face starvation today.

. . .

African leaders must be pushed to reduce economic intervention, free financial markets, remove bureaucratic obstacles to setting up businesses, establish property rights and enforce contract law. These are the forces that release entrepreneurial energy. But the ruling cliques will do none of these unless forced to do so as a condition of aid. The Sachs aid model has financed tyranny and corruption for 40 years, leaving Africans destitute. The world trade meeting in Hong Kong will hear cries for "Trade Justice" for Africa, representing more protectionism and more state-run, aid-fueled schemes. What we really need is economic freedom and the rule of law at home: We are perfectly capable of improving our own lot if only allowed to do so.


For the full commentary, see:

FRANKLIN CUDJOE. "The Terms of Trade: Africa Needs Freer Markets -- and Fewer Tyrants." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., December 14, 2005): A20.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: The WSJ identifies Mr. Cudjoe as "director of Imani, a policy think tank in Ghana.")




January 23, 2006

Good Rules Encourage Entrepreneurship, Resulting in Vibrant Economy



Some useful observations from the 2004 co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Edward Prescott:

Good tax rates, . . . , need be high enough to generate sufficient revenues, but not so high that they choke off growth and, perversely, decrease tax revenues.  This, of course, is the tricky part, and brings us to the task at hand:  Should Congress extend the 15% rate on capital gains and dividends?  Wrong question.  Should Congress make the 15% rate permanent?  Yes.  (This assumes that a lower rate is politically impossible.)

These taxes are particularly cumbersome because they hit a market economy right in its collective heart, which is its entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit.  What makes this country's economy so vibrant is its participants' willingness to take chances, innovate, acquire financing, hire new people and break old molds.  Every increase in capital gains taxes and dividends is a direct tax on this vitality.

Americans aren't risk-takers by nature any more than Germans are intrinsically less willing to work than Americans.  The reason the U.S. economy is so much more vibrant than Germany's is that people in each country are playing by different rules.  But we shouldn't take our vibrancy for granted.  Tax rates matter.  A shift back to higher rates will have negative consequences.

And this isn't about giving tax breaks to the rich.  The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece by former Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, who noted that "nearly 60% of those paying capital gains taxes earn less than $50,000 a year, and 85% of capital gains taxpayers earn less than $100,000."  In addition, he wrote that lower tax rates on savings and investment benefited 24 million families to the tune of about $950 on their 2004 taxes.

Do wealthier citizens realize greater savings?  Of course -- this is true by definition.  But that doesn't make it wrong.  Let's look at two examples:    First, there are those entrepreneurs who have been working their tails off for years with little or no compensation and who, if they are lucky, finally realize a relatively big gain.  What kind of Scrooge would snatch away this entrepreneurial carrot?  As mentioned earlier, under a good system you have to provide for these rewards or you will discourage the risk taking that is the lifeblood of our economy.  Additionally, those entrepreneurs create huge social surpluses in the form of new jobs and spin-off businesses.   Entrepreneurs capture a small portion of the social surpluses that they create, but a small percentage of something big is, well, big.

Congratulations, I say.  Another group of wealthier individuals includes those who, for a variety of reasons, earn more money than the rest of us.  Again, I tip my hat.  Does it make sense to try to capture more of those folks' money by raising rates on everyone?  To persecute the few, should we punish the many?  We need to remember that many so-called wealthy families are those with two wage-earners who are doing nothing more than trying to raise their children and pursue their careers.  Research has shown that much of America's economic growth in recent decades is owing to this phenomenon -- we should encourage this dynamic, not squelch it.



For the full commentary, see:

EDWARD C. PRESCOTT. "'Stop Messing With Federal Tax Rates'." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., December 20, 2005): A14.





November 19, 2005

Some Evidence Patents Matter


Apparently the evidence is mixed on the importance of patents as an incentive to innovation, though it always seemed intuitive to me that patents should matter. Petra Moser has just published research from his dissertation, that seems to add evidence on the side of patents mattering:

How Do Patent Laws Influence Innovation? Evidence from Nineteenth-Century World's Fairs

Petra Moser

Abstract: Studies of innovation have focused on the effects of patent laws on the number of innovations, but have ignored effects on the direction of technological change. This paper introduces a new dataset of close to fifteen thousand innovations at the Crystal Palace World's Fair in 1851 and at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 to examine the effects of patent laws on the direction of innovation. The paper tests the following argument: if innovative activity is motivated by expected profits, and if the effectiveness of patent protection varies across industries, then innovation in countries without patent laws should focus on industries where alternative mechanisms to protect intellectual property are effective. Analyses of exhibition data for 12 countries in 1851 and 10 countries in 1876 indicate that inventors in countries without patent laws focused on a small set of industries where patents were less important, while innovation in countries with patent laws appears to be much more diversified. These findings suggest that patents help to determine the direction of technical change and that the adoption of patent laws in countries without such laws may alter existing patterns of comparative advantage across countries. (JEL D2, K11, L51, N0, O14)



Source:

Moser, Petra. "How Do Patent Laws Influence Innovation? Evidence from Nineteenth-Century World Fairs." The American Economic Review 95, no. 4 (2005): 1214-1236.




November 14, 2005

Incentives Matter


    Traffic congestion on 7th Avenue near Times Square. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below, downloaded at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/11/nyregion/11traffic.html



(p. A23) It is an idea that has been successful in London, and is now being whispered in the ears of City Hall officials after months of behind-the-scenes work by the Partnership for New York City, the city's major business association: congestion pricing.

The idea is to charge drivers for entering the most heavily trafficked parts of Manhattan at the busiest times of the day. By creating a financial incentive to carpool or use mass transit, congestion pricing could smooth the flow of traffic, reduce delays, improve air quality and raise the speed of crawling buses.



Source:

SEWELL CHAN. "Driving Around in Busy Manhattan? You Pay, Under Idea to Relieve Car Congestion." The New York Times (Friday, November 11, 2005): A23.




October 26, 2005

British Inventions Taken Up and Exploited in the United States



They_Made_AmericaBK.jpg   Source of book image: http://www.mikemilken.com/fincareer.taf?page=they_made_america


Was it a difference in "innovative energies" that mattered, or was it a difference in institutions and incentives?

(p. 11) This crucial difference between invention and innovation was borne in on me on my return to England in 1957. As a young science reporter, I visited the government-funded National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, and they showed where their senior researcher Robert Watson Watt had in 1935 invented the radar system that was to help the Royal Air Force win the battle of Britain. His former colleagues remarked with chagrin on how swiftly this British invention had been taken up and exploited in the United States after 1939, laying the foundation for the great electronics industry. It was the same story with antibiotics, following Alexander Fleming's 1928 discovery of penicillin; with Maurice Wilkes's pioneering efforts in developing the first commercial application of the computer at the offices of J. Lyons and Company in 1951 and with the jet engine. All of these British inventions were superseded by the innovative energies of America.

Source:

Evans, Harold. They Made America: Two Centuries of Innovators from the Steam Engine to the Search Engine. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2004.






September 29, 2005

When People Change


(p. 462) People don't change when you tell them they should. They change when they tell themselves they must. Or as Johns Hopkins foreign affairs professor Michael Mandelbaum puts it, "People don't change when you tell them there is a better option. They change when they conclude that they have no other option."

Source:

Friedman, Thomas L. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.


Thomas Friedman's claim here is plausible, but I find it surprising, given his strong push for a worker safety net when the worker loses a job to creative destruction. The safety net Friedman proposes, in this book anyway, is one that does incorporate some incentives to find a job, but sounds like it could be 'gamed' to delay the tough decisions that might need to be made. Hayek had some useful observations on this issue way back in his Road to Serfdom.




August 28, 2005

Incentives Matter: Piracy Will End Big-Event Films


KingKongPiracy.gif Source of image: the online version of the The New York Times article quoted and cited below.


Peter Jackson was the director of the financially risky "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy, and is currently directing a remake of "King Kong." Property rights protection is primarily a moral issue. But it also has economic consequences. Property rights permit those who take risks to make money, which provides an incentive for them and others to take risks in the future. It also makes it more likely that large amounts of capital will be in the hands of those who have shown they know how to use it.

(p. 1) "Piracy has the very real potential of tipping movies into becoming an unprofitable industry, especially big-event films. If that happens, they will stop being made," said Mr. Jackson in an e-mail message from New Zealand, where he is putting the final touches on his version of "King Kong." "No studio is going to finance a film if the point is reached where their possible profit margin goes straight into criminals' pockets."


For the full story, see:

O'Brien, Timothy L. "King Kong vs. the Pirates of the Multiplex." The New York Times, Section 3 (Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005): p. 1 & 7.




HP3D5006CropSmall.jpg


















The StatCounter number above reports the number of "page loads" since the counter was installed late on 2/26/08. Page loads are defined on the site as "The number of times your page has been visited."


View My Stats