“Eventually You Run Out of Other People’s Money”

(p. A19) Conspicuous by its absence in much of the mainstream news coverage of Venezuela’s political crisis is the word “socialism.” Yes, every sensible observer agrees that Latin America’s once-richest country, sitting atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is an economic basket case, a humanitarian disaster, and a dictatorship whose demise cannot come soon enough.
But … socialist? Perish the thought.
Or so goes a line of argument that insists socialism’s good name shouldn’t be tarred by the results of experience.
. . .
Government overspending created catastrophic deficits when oil prices plummeted. Worker co-ops wound up in the hands of incompetent and corrupt political cronies. The government responded to its budgetary problems by printing money, leading to inflation. Inflation led to price controls, leading to shortages. Shortages led to protests, leading to repression and the destruction of democracy. Thence to widespread starvation, critical medical shortages, an explosion in crime, and a refugee crisis to rival Syria’s.
All of this used to be obvious enough, but in the age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez it has to be explained all over again. Why does socialism never work? Because, as Margaret Thatcher explained, “eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
. . .
. . . , the larger lesson of Venezuela’s catastrophe should be learned. Twenty years of socialism, cheered by Corbyn, Klein, Chomsky and Co., led to the ruin of a nation. They may not be much embarrassed, much less personally harmed, by what they helped do. It’s for the rest of us to take care that it never be done to us.

For the full commentary, see:
Stephens, Bret. “Yes, Venezuela Is a Socialist Catastrophe; In the age of A.O.C., the lesson must be learned again.” The New York Times (Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019): A19.
(Note: ellipsis internal to a sentence, in original; other ellipses, added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Jan. 25, 2019.)

David R. Henderson Offers Advance Praise for Openness to Creative Destruction

In Openness to Creative Destruction, Art Diamond tells amazing story after story of entrepreneurs who have made our lives better. Read it and pinch yourself at your luck in being alive in the 21st century. And learn about how, as a citizen, to keep the innovations coming. Hint: Don’t give government too much power over us.

David R. Henderson, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution.

Henderson’s advance praise is for:
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming June 2019.

Neuroscience Maverick Funds His Own Research

(p. B4) Mr. Hawkins has been following his own, all-encompassing idea for how the brain works. It is a step beyond the projects of most neuroscientists, like understanding the brain of a fruit fly or exploring the particulars of human sight.
His theory starts with cortical columns. Cortical columns are a crucial part of the neocortex, the part of the brain that handles sight, hearing, language and reason. Neuro-(p. B4)scientists don’t agree on how the neocortex works.
Mr. Hawkins says cortical columns handle every task in the same way, a sort of computer algorithm that is repeated over and over again. It is a logical approach to the brain for a man who spent decades building new kinds of computing devices.
All he has to do is figure out the algorithm.
A number of neuroscientists like the idea, and some are pursuing similar ideas. They also praise Mr. Hawkins for his willingness to think so broadly. Being a maverick is not easily done in academia and the world of traditional research. But it’s a little easier when you can fund your own work, as Mr. Hawkins has.
. . .
In 1979, with an article in Scientific American, Francis Crick, a Nobel Prize winner for his DNA research, called for an all-encompassing theory of the brain, something that could explain this “profoundly mysterious” organ.
Mr. Hawkins graduated from Cornell in 1979 with a degree in electrical engineering. Over the next several years, he worked at Intel, the computer chip giant, and Grid Systems, an early laptop company. But after reading that magazine article, he decided the brain would be his life’s work.
He proposed a neuroscience lab inside Intel. After the idea was rejected, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. His doctoral thesis proposal was rejected, too. He was, suffice to say, an outlier.
. . .
U.S. Robotics acquired Palm in 1996 for $44 million. About two years later, Mr. Hawkins and Ms. Dubinksy left to start Handspring. Palm, which became an independent company again in 2000, acquired Handspring for $192 million in stock in 2003.
Around the time of the second sale, Mr. Hawkins built his own neuroscience lab. But it was short-lived. He could not get a lab full of academics focused on his neocortical theory. So, along with Ms. Dubinsky and an A.I. researcher named Dileep George, he founded Numenta.
The company spent years trying to build and sell software, but eventually, after Mr. George left, it settled into a single project. Funded mostly by Mr. Hawkins — he won’t say how much he has spent on it — the company’s sole purpose has been explaining the neocortex and then reverse engineering it.

For the full story, see:
Cade Metz. “A New View of How We Think.” The New York Times (Monday, Oct. 15, 2018): B1 & B4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 14, 2018, and has the title “Jeff Hawkins Is Finally Ready to Explain His Brain Research.”)

Tariffs Evaded by Misclassification and Transshipment

(p. A1) One day in June [2018] , seven months after the U.S. imposed stiff tariffs on plywood from China, a wood importer in Oregon got a call from a supplier asking if he would like to get some Chinese plywood tariff-free.
How would that work, asked importer David Visse. The products carry an identification code that is checked by U.S. Customs agents.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mr. Visse says the supplier told him. The plywood would be stripped of its Chinese markings, and “we’ll ship it under some other code.”
Every product imported into the U.S. carries a 10-digit designation called an HTS code, of which there are 18,927 in all. Like a taxonomic version of Noah’s Ark, the code provides a common language to bridge disparate markets and identify products in all their variety.
In a world of increasing tariffs, the code has another function: evading those levies. The business of code-fudging is expanding in step with tariff increases, undermining U.S. efforts to shield American business from foreign competition, according to importers, customs officials, trade attorneys and shipping brokers.
As trade conflict grows between the two largest economies, these professionals say, code misclassification is starting to compete (p. A10) with transshipment–the rerouting of goods through third countries–as a way to duck tariffs.

For the full story, see:
Chuin-Wei Yap. “Trade Fight Spurs Tariff Dodges, With 18,927 Options.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018): A1 & A10.
(Note: bracketed year added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 8, 2018, and has the title “The U.S.-China Trade Battle Spawns a New Era of Tariff Dodges.”)

PNAS Article Argues Renewable Energy Cannot Fully Replace Traditional Energy by 2050

(p. B1) Democrats in both the United States Senate and in the California Assembly have proposed legislation this year calling for a full transition to renewable energy sources.
They are relying on what looks like a watertight scholarly analysis to support their call: the work of a prominent energy systems engineer from Stanford University, Mark Z. Jacobson. With three co-authors, he published a widely heralded article two years ago asserting that it would be eminently feasible to power the American economy by midcentury almost entirely with energy from the wind, the sun and water. What’s more, it would be cheaper than running it on fossil fuels.
And yet the proposition is hardly as solid as Professor Jacobson asserts.
In a long-awaited article published this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — the same journal in which Professor Jacobson’s manifesto appeared — a group of 21 prominent scholars, including physicists and engineers, climate scientists and sociologists, took a fine comb to the Jacobson paper and dismantled its conclusions bit by bit.
. . .
(p. B5) The conclusion of the critique is damning: Professor Jacobson relied on “invalid modeling tools,” committed “modeling errors” and made “implausible and inadequately supported assumptions,” the scholars wrote. “Our paper is pretty devastating,” said Varun Sivaram from the Council on Foreign Relations, a co-author of the new critique.
. . .
The weakness of energy systems powered by the sun and the wind is their intermittency. Where will the energy come from when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing? Professor Jacobson addresses this in two ways, vastly increasing the nation’s peak hydroelectricity capacity and deploying energy storage at a vast scale.
“To repower the world, we need to expand a lot of things to a large scale,” Professor Jacobson told me. “But there is no reason we can’t scale up.”
Actually, there are reasons. The main energy storage technologies he proposes — hydrogen and heat stored in rocks buried underground — have never been put in place at anywhere near the scale required to power a nation, or even a large city.
His system requires storing seven weeks’ worth of energy consumption. Today, the 10 biggest storage systems in the United States combined store some 43 minutes. Hydrogen production would have to be scaled up by a factor of 100,000 or more to meet the requirements in Professor Jacobson’s analysis, according to his critics.

For the full commentary, see:
Eduardo Porter. “ECONOMIC SCENE; Traditional Sources of Energy Have Role in Renewable Future.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 21, 2017): B1.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 20, 2017, and has the title “ECONOMIC SCENE; Fisticuffs Over the Route to a Clean-Energy Future.”)

The PNAS “devastating” critique of a total switch to renewable energy, is:
Clack, Christopher T. M., Staffan A. Qvist, Jay Apt, Morgan Bazilian, Adam R. Brandt, Ken Caldeira, Steven J. Davis, Victor Diakov, Mark A. Handschy, Paul D. H. Hines, Paulina Jaramillo, Daniel M. Kammen, Jane C. S. Long, M. Granger Morgan, Adam Reed, Varun Sivaram, James Sweeney, George R. Tynan, David G. Victor, John P. Weyant, and Jay F. Whitacre. “Evaluation of a Proposal for Reliable Low-Cost Grid Power with 100% Wind, Water, and Solar.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 26 (June 27, 2017): 6722-27.

Medtronic Founded in Garage

(p. A1) In the mid-1950s, heart pacemakers were bulky devices that had to be wheeled around on carts and plugged into a wall socket. A heart surgeon in Minneapolis asked Earl Bakken if he could make something better. After consulting a back issue of Popular Electronics, Mr. Bakken within a few weeks fashioned a wearable pacemaker powered by a battery.
. . .
Mr. Bakken, who died Oct. 21 [2018] at the age of 94, had no inkling he was creating anything more than a local repair shop when he and a brother-in-law, Palmer Hermundslie, set up Medtronic. “We didn’t analyze or study the market,” he wrote in “One Man’s Full Life,” a 1999 memoir. “We just did it.”
Medtronic’s inventions eventually sustained him physically as well as financially. “I’m on my second pacemaker, and I’m on about my third or fourth insulin pump,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2010. “So I’m glad I invented the company, or I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
. . .
Noting his talents, university medical personnel sometimes asked Mr. Bakken to fix their equipment. He noticed that few hospitals had technical staffs to maintain their electrical gear. A chat with his brother-in-law, Mr. Hermundslie, prompted them to fill that niche by setting up a repair shop inside a garage.
. . .
In 1957, a power outage was blamed for the death of a baby dependent on a plug-in pacemaker. A University of Minnesota heart surgeon, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, asked for alternative technology. Mr. Bakken found a design for an electronic metronome in Popular Electronics and used that as the model for a circuit. He housed the circuitry in a metal box small enough to be taped to a patient’s chest. After a successful test on a dog, Dr. Lillehei began using the device. Articles he wrote about it created a stir, and soon Medtronic was receiving orders from around the world.

For the full obituary, see:
James R. Hagerty. “Founder Started Medtronic as a Local Repair Shop.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2018): A6.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Oct. 26, 2018, and has the title “Medtronic Founder Earl Bakken Turned a Tiny Repair Shop Into a Giant of Medical Technology.”)

The autobiography mentioned above, is:
Bakken, Earl E. One Man’s Full Life. Fridley, MN: Medtronic, Inc., 1999.

Bureaucratic FDA Delays Approvals for Fear “We’ll Be Toast”

(p. A21) Oct. 30 [2018] marks the 36th anniversary of the FDA’s approval of human insulin synthesized in genetically engineered bacteria, the first product made with “gene splicing” techniques. As the head of the FDA’s evaluation team, I had a front-row seat.
. . .
My team and I were ready to recommend approval after four months’ review. But when I took the packet to my supervisor, he said, “Four months? No way! If anything goes wrong with this product down the road, people will say we rushed it, and we’ll be toast.” That’s the bureaucratic mind-set. I don’t know how long he would have delayed it, but when he went on vacation a month later, I took the packet to his boss, the division director, who signed off.
That anecdote is an example of Milton Friedman’s observation that to understand the motivation of an individual or organization, you need to “follow the self-interest.” A large part of regulators’ self-interest lies in staying out of trouble. One way to do that, my supervisor understood, is not to approve in record time products that might experience unanticipated problems.

For the full commentary, see:
Miller, Henry I. “Follow the FDA’s Self-Interest; While approving a new form of insulin, I saw how regulators protect themselves.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Oct. 29, 2018: A21.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Oct. 28, 2018.)