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July 21, 2014

How De Rerum Natura Aided the Early Italian Renaissance



I am interested in how the dominant ideas in a culture change. Greenblatt's The Swerve discusses how some early Renaissance Italians sought lost and forgotten works from antiquity to broaden their ideas. In particular it emphasizes the rediscovery of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura.

I am not as unreservedly enthusiastic about Lucretius as Greenblatt is, but The Swerve includes much that is thought-provoking about a place and time that I need to better understand.

In the next few weeks I will quote a few of the passages that were especially memorable, important or amusing.

Book discussed:

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.






September 5, 2012

Renaissance Florence: "A Really Vibrant, Flexible, and Free-Market City"



the-economy-of-renaissance-florenceBK2012-08-29.jpg
















Source of book image: http://covers.booktopia.com.au/big/9781421400594/the-economy-of-renaissance-florence.jpg



(p. 176) Chapters 4 and 5 deal with manufacturing, by far the main source of employment in the city. The Florentine textile industry had developed thanks to the Arno River, which provided water and power, and had become a market leader in Europe for high-quality products. Production was based, as everywhere in Europe, on a putting-out system--but strictly confined to the city. The author describes the organization and its changes over time, stressing, as for international banking, the flexibility of firms and their high turnover. Workers were organized in guilds, but the author stresses their nature as political associations rather than their economic role. Florentine guilds did not restrict the access to profession nor stifle innovation. Chapter 6 describes the banks catering for urban market--including local branches of international banks as well as smaller local firms, plus pawnbrokers, both Catholic and Jews. Local banks appeared thoroughly modern in their business and the resort to banking services was quite widespread. Artisans and workers were routinely paid with checks and had bank accounts. And the whole system worked well with almost no state intervention, at least until the late sixteenth century.


. . .


. . . , the author argues that Florentine society was very upwardly mobile, at least for the standard of the time and that the distribution of wealth by household according to the 1427 Catasto was fairly equal (although inequality increased in the next century).

(p. 177) As a whole, at the end of the book one has the impression of a really vibrant, flexible, and free-market city. The standard of living was undoubtedly high and not only for the wealthy, as witnessed by the art treasures of the city, but also for the working class. Literacy and numeracy was very common, and the majority of children attended a primary school.



For the full review, see:

Federico, Giovanni. "Review of: The Economy of Renaissance Florence." Journal of Economic Literature 48, no. 1 (2010): 175-77.


Book under review:

Goldthwaite, Richard A. The Economy of Renaissance Florence. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.





April 11, 2012

"A Greek, an Italian and a Spaniard Walk into a Bar"



(p. A15) A joke making the rounds: A Greek, an Italian and a Spaniard walk into a bar. Each orders a drink. Who pays? The German.


For the full commentary, see:

DAVID WESSEL. "CAPITAL; For Europe, a Lehman Moment." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., December 1, 2011): A15.





July 3, 2011

Italian "Legal System Barely Functions"



(p. B4) The Italy that Mr. Severgnini describes seethes with frustration. Government works poorly. The legal system barely functions. Too many Italians are crowded into too little space. Fear of failure stymies innovation. Mr. Severgnini is dismayed at the national genius for enjoyment and the Italian inability to plan for the future. "Our sun is setting in installments," he writes. "It's festive and flamboyant, but it's still a sunset."


For the full review, see:

WILLIAM GRIMES. "BOOKS OF THE TIMES; An Insider Explains Italy, Land of Cheery Dysfunction." The New York Times (Weds., August 23, 2006): B1 & B4.


Book under review:

Severgnini, Beppe. La Bella Figura; a Field Guide to the Italian Mind. Translated by Giles Watson. pb ed. New York: Broadway Books, 2006.






April 15, 2011

Italy's Dynastic Capitalism "Is Built Around Loyalty, Not Performance"



AltomonteCarloItalianEconomist2011-03-12.jpg"Carlo Altomonte, an economist, says that "Italy's problem isn't that we have a lot of debt. It's that we don't grow."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 6) "I know that in the States, all Mediterranean countries get lumped together," says Carlo Altomonte, an economist with Bocconi University in Milan. "But Italy's problem isn't that we have a lot of debt. It's that we don't grow."


. . .


"There is no sense of what a market economy is in this country," says Professor Altomonte. "What you see here is an incredible fear of competition."


. . .


FIVE years ago, Francesco Giavazzi needed a taxi. Cabs are relatively scarce in Milan, especially at 5 a.m., when he wanted to head to the airport, so he called a company at 4:30 to schedule a pickup. But when he climbed into the cab half an hour later, he discovered that the meter had been running for more than 20 minutes, because the taxi driver had arrived soon after the call and started charging for (p. 7) his time. Allowed by the rules, but to Mr. Giavazzi, utterly unfair.

"So it was 20 euros before we started the trip to the airport," recalls Mr. Giavazzi, who is an economics professor at Bocconi University. "I said, 'This is impossible.' "

Professor Giavazzi later wrote an op-ed article denouncing this episode as another example of the toll exacted by Italy's innumerable guilds, known by several names here, including "associazioni di categoria." (These are different from unions, another force here, in that guilds are made up of independent players in a trade or profession who have joined to keep outsiders out and maintain standards, as opposed to representing employees in negotiations with management, as a union might.) Even baby sitters have associations in Italy.

The op-ed did not endear Professor Giavazzi to the city's cab drivers. They pinned leaflets with his name and address at taxi stands around Milan and for the next five nights, cabs drove around his home, honking their horns.

"This is a country with a lot of rents," says Professor Giavazzi, sitting in his office one recent afternoon, . . . "You need a notary public, it's like 1,000 euros before you even open your mouth. If you're a notary public in this country, you live like a king."

For Mr. Barbera, as is true with every entrepreneur here, the prevalence and power of Italy's guilds explains much of what is driving up costs. He says he must overspend for accountants, lawyers, truckers and other members of guilds on a list that goes on and on: "Everything has a tariff, and you have to pay."


. . .


Italians, notes Professor Altomonte, are among the world's heaviest consumers of bottled water. "Do you know why? Because the water in the tap comes from the government."

The suspicion of Italians when it comes to extra-familial institutions explains why many here care more about protecting what they have than enhancing their wealth. Most Italians live less than a mile or two from their parents and stay there, often for financial benefits like cash and in-kind services like day care. It's an insularity that runs all the way up to the corporate suites. The first goal of many entrepreneurs here isn't growth, so much as keeping the business in the family. For a company to really expand, it needs capital, but that means giving up at least some control. So thousands of companies here remain stubbornly small -- all of which means Italy is a haven for artisans but is in a lousy position to play the global domination game.

"The prevailing management style in this country is built around loyalty, not performance," says Tito Boeri, scientific director at Fondazione Rodolfo Debenedetti, who has written about Italy's dynastic capitalism.



For the full story, see:

DAVID SEGAL. "Is Italy Too Italian?" The New York Times (Sun., August 1, 2010): 1 & 6-7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 31, 2010.)


BarberaSpaForYarn2011-03-12.jpg"The clothier Luciano Barbera in his family's "spa for yarn," where crates of thread rest for months. Economists fear that such small-scale artisanship cannot sustain Italy's economy forever." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





December 28, 2010

Environmentalist Antiglobalization "Vandals" Destroy Giorgio's Corn



FidenatoGiorgioItalianFarmer2010-12-21.jpg "Last week, Giorgio Fidenato, who had planted genetically modified corn, stood amid stalks that had been trampled by antiglobalization activists." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A4) VIVARO, Italy -- Giorgio Fidenato declared war on the Italian government and environmental groups in April with a news conference and a YouTube video, which showed him poking six genetically modified corn seeds into Italian soil.

In fact, said Mr. Fidenato, 49, an agronomist, he planted two fields of genetically modified corn. But since "corn looks like corn," as he put it, it took his opponents weeks to find his crop.

The seeds, known as MON810, are modified so that the corn produces a chemical that kills the larvae of the corn borer, a devastating pest. Yet while European Union rules allow this particular seed to be planted, Italy requires farmers to get special permission for any genetically modified, or G.M., crop -- and the Agriculture Ministry never said yes.

"We had no choice but to engage in civil disobedience -- these seeds are legal in Europe," said Mr. Fidenato, who has repeatedly applied for permission, adding that he drew more inspiration from Ron Paul than Gandhi.


. . .


After Mr. Fidenato's provocation, investigators did genetic testing to identify the locations of the offending stalks in the sea of cornfields that surround this tiny town. Officials seized two suspect fields -- about 12 acres -- and declared the plantings illegal. Greenpeace activists surreptitiously snipped off the stalks' tassels in the hope of preventing pollen from being disseminated.

On Aug. 9, 100 machete-wielding environmental activists from an antiglobalization group called Ya Basta descended on Vivaro and trampled the field before local police officers could intervene. They left behind placards with a skull and crossbones reading: "Danger -- Contaminated -- G.M.O."

Giancarlo Galan, who became agriculture minister in April, called the protesters "vandals," although he did not say he would allow genetically modified crops. But Luca Zaia, the previous agriculture minister and president of the nearby Veneto region, applauded the rampage, saying: "There is a need to show multinationals that they can't introduce Frankenstein crops into our country without authorization."

Over the past decade, genetically modified crops have been a major (p. A8) source of trade friction between Europe and the United States.

Both the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Agency say that there is no scientific evidence that eating MON810 corn is dangerous.


. . .


. . . it is not clear that the battle of Vivaro will have a quick victor. Jail time or at least fines are expected for Mr. Fidenato (illegal planting) and Mr. Tornatore (trespassing and destroying private property).



For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL. "In the Fields of Italy, a Conflict Over Corn." The New York Times (Tues., August 24, 2010): A4 & A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 23, 2010.)



CornBorer2010-12-21.jpg"An ear of corn infested with corn borers. A modified variety is meant to counteract the pest." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





November 11, 2010

Toricelli Experiment Dispoved Aristotlelian Theory that a Vacuum Was Impossible



(p. 8) Florence, in the year 1641, had been essentially the private fief of the Medici family for two centuries. The city, ground zero for both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, was also where Galileo Galilei had chosen to live out the sentence imposed by the Inquisition for his heretical writings that argued that the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo was seventy years old and living in a villa in Arcetri, in the hills above the city, (p. 9) when he read a book on the physics of movement titled De motu (sometimes Trattato del Moto) and summoned its author, Evangelista Torricelli, a mathematician then living in Rome. Torricelli, whose admiration for Galileo was practically without limit, decamped in time not only to spend the last three months of the great man's life at his side, but to succeed him as professor of mathematics at the Florentine Academy.


. . .


(p. 9) . . . , Torricelli used a tool even more powerful than his well--cultivated talent for mathematical logic: He did experiments. At the behest of one of his patrons, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, whose engineers were unable to build a sufficiently powerful pump, Torricelli designed a series of apparatuses to test the limits of the action of contemporary water pumps. In spring of 1644, Torricelli filled a narrow, four-foot-long glass tube with mercury--a far heavier fluid than water--inverted it in a basin of mercury, sealing the tube's top. and documented that while the mercury did not pour out, it did leave a space at the closed top of the tube. He reasoned that since nothing could have slipped past the mercury in the tube, what occupied the top of the tube must, therefore, be nothing: a vacuum.


. . .


(p. 10) Torricelli was not, even by the standards of his day, a terribly ambitious inventor. When faced with hostility from religious authorities and other traditionalists who believed, correctly, that his discovery was a direct shot at the Aristotelian world, he happily returned to his beloved cycloids, the latest traveler to find himself on the wrong side of the boundary line between science and technology

But by then it no longer mattered if Torricelli was willing to leave the messiness of physics for the perfection of mathematics: vacuum would keep mercury in the bottle, hut the genie was already out. Nature might have found vacuum repugnant for two thousand years, but Europe was about to embrace it.



Source:

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

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)





September 11, 2010

Vatican Made Bellarmine a Saint in 1930, but Still Says Galileo Erred



GalileoBust2010-09-01.jpg "A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A9) As a heretic he could not be given a proper church burial. But for years after his death, his followers in the circle of the grand dukes of Tuscany pushed to give him an honorable resting place.

Nearly a century later, in 1737, members of Florence's cultural and scientific elite unearthed the scientist's remains in a peculiar Masonic rite. Freemasonry was growing as a counterweight to church power in those years and even today looms large in the Italian popular imagination as an anticlerical force.

According to a notary who recorded the strange proceedings, the historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti used a knife to slice off several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra from Galileo's body as souvenirs but refrained, it appears, from taking his brain. The scientist was then reburied in a ceremony, "symmetrical to a beatification," said Mr. Galluzzi.

After taking their macabre souvenirs, the group placed Galileo's remains in an elegant marble tomb in Florence's Santa Croce church, a pointed statement from Tuscany's powers that they were outside the Vatican's control. The church has long been a shrine to humanism as much as to religion, and Galileo's permanent neighbors include Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini.


. . .


Even today, centuries after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the pope's theological watchdog, had Galileo arrested for preaching Copernicanism, the church has never quite managed to acknowledge that his heliocentric theory is correct. (For his part, Cardinal Bellarmine was made a saint in 1930.)

Pope John Paul II reopened the Galileo case in 1981, and in 1992 issued his committee's findings: that the judges who condemned Galileo had erred but that the scientist had also erred in his arrogance in thinking that his theory would be accepted with no physical evidence.


. . .


. . . as recently as last fall, at a news conference introducing an exhibition of historic telescopic instruments at the Vatican Museums, the director of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, referred without blinking to "the errors committed by both sides" -- indicating both the church and Galileo.




For the full story, see:

RACHEL DONADIO. "Florence Journal; A Museum Display of Galileo Has a Saintly Feel." The New York Times (Fri., July 23, 2010): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated July 22, 2010.)





December 29, 2009

Intel's Computer-on-a-Chip "Was Achieved Largely by Immigrants from Hungary, Italy, Israel, and Japan"



(p. 111) By launching the computer-on-a-chip, Intel gave America an enduring advantage in this key product in information technology--an edge no less significant because it was achieved largely by immigrants from Hungary, Italy, Israel, and Japan. Intel's three innovations of 1971--plus the silicon gate process that made them the smallest, fastest, and best-selling devices in the industry--nearly twenty years later remain in newer versions the most powerful force in electronics.




Source:

Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.





July 2, 2009

If the Medici Had Not Intervened, Galileo "Would Have Been Killed"



(p. D7) The Franklin Institute and its aspiring blockbuster, "Galileo, the Medici & the Age of Astronomy," are something of an odd couple -- a circumstance explained, like so much else, by history.


. . .

Meanwhile, the exhibition leaves provocative questions -- about the nexus of church and state, as well as science and faith -- unanswered. If Galileo was still a court favorite, and science was so revered in Florence, why weren't the powerful dukes able to prevent his 1633 trial, heresy conviction, and sentence of house arrest?

Galileo's patrons did, in fact, intervene on his behalf, Filippo Camerota, vice director of the Institute and Museum for the History of Science and one of the exhibition curators, said in an interview. "If the Medici were not there," Mr. Camerota said, "he would have been killed." Good to know.



For the full commentary, see:

JULIA M. KLEIN. "Exhibition; What Galileo Saw." Wall Street Journal (Tues., APRIL 28, 2009): D7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





July 20, 2008

More Europeans Leading Stagnant, Stunted Lives


RomeFamilyAngst.jpg "Gianluca Pompei, Francesca Di Pietro and son, Mario, 2, shopping in Rome. They have cut spending on entertainment." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C1) LES ULIS, France -- When their local bakery in this town south of Paris raised the price of a baguette for the third time in six months, Anne-Laure Renard and Guy Talpot bought a bread maker. When gasoline became their biggest single expense, they sold one of their two cars.

Their combined annual income of 40,000 euros, about $62,500, lands Ms. Renard, a teacher, and Mr. Talpot, a postal worker, smack in the middle of France's middle class. And over the last year, prices in France have risen four times as fast as their salaries.

At the end of every month, they blow past their bank account's $900 overdraft limit, plunging themselves deeper into a spiral of greater resourcefulness and regret.

"In France, when you can't afford a baguette anymore, you know you're in trouble," Ms. Renard said one recent evening in her kitchen, as her partner measured powdered milk for their 13-month-old son, Vincent. "The French Revolution started with bread riots."

The European dream is under assault, as the wave of inflation sweeping the globe mixes with this continent's long-stagnant wages. Families that once enjoyed Europe's vaunted quality of life are pinching pennies to buy necessities, and cutting back on extras like movies and vacations abroad.

Potentially more disturbing -- especially to the political and social order -- are the millions across the continent grappling with the realization that they may have lives worse, not better, than their parents.



For the full story, see:

CARTER DOUGHERTY and KATRIN BENNHOLD. "Squeezed in Europe; For Middle-Class, Stagnant Wages and a Stunted Lifestyle." The New York Times (Thurs., May 1, 2008): C1 & C8.

(Note: the online version of the title is "For Europe's Middle-Class, Stagnant Wages Stunt Lifestyle." )


TalptRenardFrenchFamily.jpg



"Anne-Laure Renard, a teacher, and Guy Talpot, a postal worker, sold one car and bought a bread maker to cut expenses. Prices have risen four times as fast as salaries in France in the last year." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




February 2, 2008

Unhappy Italians: "More Fear than Hope"

 

    "A priest passes an abandoned garage covered with graffiti in Milan. Italy's malaise, an economic, political, and social funk, was summed up in a recent poll: Italians report themselves to be the least happy people in Western Europe."  Source of caption and photo:  online verison of the NYT article quoted and cited below. 

 

(p. A1)  ROME — All the world loves Italy because it is old but still glamorous. Because it eats and drinks well but is rarely fat or drunk.  Because it is the place in a hyper-regulated Europe where people still debate with perfect intelligence what, really, the red in a stoplight might mean.

But these days, for all the outside adoration and all of its innate strengths, Italy seems not to love itself.   The word here is “malessere,” or “malaise”; it implies a collective funk — economic, political and social — summed up in a recent poll: Italians, despite their claim to have mastered the art of living, say they are the least happy people in Western Europe.

“It’s a country that has lost a little of its will for the future,” said Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome and a possible future center-left prime minister.  “There is more fear than hope.”

. . .

. . .   In 1987, Italy celebrated its economic parity with Britain.  Now Spain, which joined the European Union only a year earlier, may soon overtake it, and Italy has fallen behind Britain.

Italy’s low-tech way of life may enthrall tourists, but Internet use and commerce here are among the lowest in Europe, as are wages, foreign investment and growth. Pensions, public debt and the cost of government are among the highest.

. . .

(p. A18)  . . .  entrepreneurs complain that they are alone. Politicians offered little help making Italy competitive, and this remains a major impediment to making their gains grow. Businesses want less bureaucracy, more flexible labor laws and large investments in infrastructure to make moving goods around easier.

. . .  

. . .   Many worry . . . that Italy may share the same fate as the Republic of Venice, based in what many say is the most beautiful of cities, but whose domination of trade with the Near East died with no culminating event. Napoleon’s conquest in 1797 only made it official.

Now it is essentially an exquisite corpse, trampled over by millions of tourists.  If Italy does not shed its comforts for change, many say, a similar fate awaits it: blocked by past greatness, with aging tourists the questionable source of life, the Florida of Europe.

. . .  

. . .   “We have reached a point where hoping for some kind of white knight coming in saying, ‘We’ll sort you out,’ is over.”

“We Italians have our destiny in our hands more than ever before,” he said.

 

For the full story, see: 

IAN FISHER  "In a Funk, Italy Sings an Aria of Disappointment."  The New York Times  (Thurs., December 13, 2007):  A1 & A18.

(Note:  ellipses added.) 

 




November 12, 2007

Strong Global Support for Free Markets

 

FreeMarketsPositiveViewTable.gif   Source of table:  "World Publics Welcome Global Trade -- But Not Immigration." Pew Global Attitudes Project, a project of the PewResearchCenter. Released: 10.04.07 dowloaded from: http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=258

 

(p. A10) WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 — Buoyed and battered by globalization, people around the world strongly view international trade as a good thing but harbor growing concerns about its side effects: threats to their cultures, damage to the environment and the challenges posed by immigration, a new survey indicates.

In the Pew Global Attitudes Project survey of people in 46 countries and the Palestinian territories, large majorities everywhere said that trade was a good thing. In countries like Argentina, which recently experienced trade-based growth, the attitude toward trade has become more positive.

But support for trade has decreased in recent years in advanced Western countries, including Germany, Britain, France and Italy — and most sharply in the United States. The number of Americans saying trade is good for the country has dropped by 19 percentage points since 2002, to 59 percent.

“G.D.P. growth hasn’t been as dramatic in these places as in Latin America or Eastern Europe,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, referring to gross domestic product, the total value of the goods and services produced in a country. “But worldwide, even though some people are rich and some are poor, support for the basic tenet of capitalism is pretty strong.”

 

For the full story, see: 

BRIAN KNOWLTON. "Globalization, According to the World, Is a Good Thing. Sort Of."  The New York Times   (Fri., October 5, 2007):  A10. 

 




September 22, 2007

Florence in Its Prime: Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise"

In my work on the labor economics of the process of creative destruction, I make use of the competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi over who would do the bronze door panels.  Brunelleschi withdrew, after a "tie" decision from the judges.  He then retooled, and bult the marvelous dome that is still one of the world's architectural marvels.

 

If Michelangelo's "David" heads the "must see" list of Renaissance masterpieces for most visitors to Florence, then I suspect "The Gates of Paradise," Lorenzo Ghiberti's monumental doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, rank a close second. The 20-foot-tall portal -- 10 exquisitely articulated gilt bronze reliefs of Old Testament scenes, framed by standing prophets, foliage and projecting heads -- has mesmerized viewers since its completion in 1452. Michelangelo himself is supposed to have given the doors the name by which they are still known.

. . .

Next year, visitors to Florence will again see "The Gates" restored to their full splendor, permanently installed in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.  

 

For the full commentary, see: 

KAREN WILKIN.  "Ghiberti's Doors Are Heavenly Again."   The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., June 5, 2007):  D5.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 




October 30, 2006

Italy Suffers from a "Growing Spirit of Cynicism and Escapism"

  Source of book image:  http://ec3.images-amazon.com/images/P/0767914392.01._SS500_SCLZZZZZZZ_V57219494_.jpg

 

As anyone can attest who has lived in Italy even briefly, its domestic life can be gracious and sweet.  The question is whether this way of life can survive the many urgent challenges enumerated by Mr. Severgnini:  an abysmal fertility rate, crushing pension obligations, marginal economic growth, a sclerotic legal system, the flight abroad of the most creative young minds, and a growing spirit of cynicism and escapism.

 

For the full review, see:

FRANCIS X. ROCCA.  "BOOKS; An Italian Challenge; Keeping la dolce vita as modernity spreads."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 9, 2006):  P8.

 

The reference to the book:

Beppe Severgnini.  La Bella Figura. Broadway, 2006.  217 pages, $23.95.




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.





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.)





March 20, 2006

Fascism's "Most Notable Achievement Was that It Survived as Long as it Did"





Source of image of book cover: Amazon.com.




Some experts on National Socialism have concluded that its economy was not as efficient as usually believed. According to a recent expert, facism also was not a very efficient economic system (in spite of its oft-mentioned reputation for the trains running on time):


(p. B36) Yet for all the personality cult, the regime's most notable achievement, as Mr. Bosworth sees it, was that it survived as long as it did. Virtually irrespective of where it set its sights -- culture, science, economics, let alone the military -- its performance persistently fell short of its discredited Liberal predecessor's.




Note: in the review, "liberal" refers to 19th-century liberals. E.g.:


(p. B36) Like their 19th-century peers from Belgium to Romania, Italian Liberals yearned for a common flag, parliament, economy, identity, even empire. To a point, the truths held to be self-evident north of the Alps worked in Italy, too. But the transition to constitutional government was a work in progress, where progress needed all the help it could get.

By 1914, it was clear that it would take more than a constitutional monarchy, a railroad, a gold-based currency and African colonies to overcome the limits imposed by geography, culture and history. Eager to play with the big powers, Italians were not only poor, illiterate and economically underdeveloped, they were also allergic to any state, modern or otherwise. This would include dictatorship.



For the full review, see:

DAVID SCHOENBAUM. "Books of The Times | 'Mussolini's Italy'; Where Fascism Was Stylish and Vicious, if Ineffectual." The New York Times (Fri., March 3, 2006): B36.


The book is:

R. J. B. Bosworth. MUSSOLINI'S ITALY: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945. Penguin Press, 2006. Illustrated. 692 pages. $35. ISBN: 1594200785


BosworthJB.jpg R.J.B. Bosworth. Source of image: NYT book review quoted and cited above.





March 14, 2006

EU Free Market Undermined by National Protectionism



BRUSSELS -- After French and Dutch voters killed the EU constitution last year, its framers fretted that Europe couldn't function without their bloated document. That was always laughable. But driven by economic insecurity, those failed referendums, particularly in France, ended up calling into question the very foundation of the EU, a common and free market.

It didn't take politicians long to take this message to heart. In recent weeks, the idea and reality of a single European market has come under threat. From France to Spain, from Luxembourg to Italy and even newcomer Poland, economic nationalism is gaining strength, evoking memories that the European project was created expressly to bury. Neelie Kroes, the EU's competition commissioner, told me that these developments "risk taking Europe into a 1930s-style downward spiral of tit-for-tat protectionism." This sensible Dutchwoman is not prone to hyperbole, and hardly alone in voicing the concern.

This winter, France made 11 sectors, from data security to (bizarrely) casinos, off limits to foreign buyers. And together with Luxembourg, Paris opposed a mooted merger between the world's biggest steel companies, Mittal and Arcelor. (The protectionist furies so far haven't managed to sink Mittal's hostile bid.)

Prime Minister José Louis Rodríguez Zapatero also wants to keep the energy sector in Spanish hands. When Germany's E.On moved to trump a rival Spanish bid from Gas Natural for the utility Endesa, Mr. Zapatero gave the regulator wider powers to block the takeover.

The most audacious national block was yet to come. Two weeks ago, France stepped in to stop Italy's Enel from acquiring Suez by forcing through a shotgun wedding between the publicly owned Suez and state-owned Gaz de France. This tie-up epitomized Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's notion of "economic patriotism." The Italians saw only economic protectionism, which the country's central bank governor, Mario Draghi, said was "doomed to failure." But Rome can't easily claim the moral high ground, having shielded its banking sector for more than a decade.

The single market isn't doing well on other fronts either. Last month, the European Parliament, with lawmakers following orders from their capitals, emasculated legislation that would have freed up the EU's services market. A free market for services, by some estimates, would have added 0.7% to Europe's GDP and created some 600,000 jobs.



For the full commentary, see:

DANIEL SCHWAMMENTHAL. "Common Market? Think Again!" The Wall Street Journal (Mon., March 13, 2006): A19.





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