Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 60 Years


The excerpt below is from a WSJ summary of a May 11, 2007 Slate article.


A serving of Coca-Cola cost a nickel for 60 years — an example that illustrates the disadvantages of price stability, Tim Harford writes. 

. . .   Prices won’t accurately reflect a product’s demand and the cost of producing it.  If, for example, the relative price of a car "can’t fall when demand does, sales will collapse."  If wages can’t fall in a recession, unemployment will rise.

The case of Coke, Mr. Harford says, is an example of the main reason companies choose to keep prices constant in the face of dramatic rises and falls in costs: the hassle of changing a product’s price can be very high.  Coke kept its price constant from 1886 through the mid-1940s, even as the price of sugar tripled after World War I and then fell slightly, and after the product went from being taxed as a medicine to taxed as a soft drink.  Part of Coke’s problem was that it sold many of its bottles in vending machines that accepted only nickels.  A price increase would have meant either building new vending machines or doubling the price of Coke, neither of which made financial sense.


For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; ECONOMICS; The Cost of Raising Prices Can Prove Too High to Pay."  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., May 14, 2007):  B7.


“I Fly with Leslie”


FlyWithLesliePoster.jpg  A poster that is displayed in some Wall Street Journal offices in solidarity with a Bancroft family member who has openly expressed doubts about Rupert Murdoch’s proposed purchase of the Journal.  Source of the image:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


A lot of the news media imitate each other in viewpoint and content.  The Wall Street Journal is fresh and innovative, and frequently gives us important news that is new.

And there have been times throughout recent decades when the editorial page of the Journal was one of the few voices for truth, justice and freedom.  It would be a great loss for that voice to be silenced.

On the other hand, I have noted in an earlier entry, that the business side of the Journal is in need of improvement. 

I do not know if in the end, the Murdoch bid is the best chance for the long-run survival of what is good about the Journal.  But I do wish the Journal, and the Journal‘s journalists, well. 


(p. C1)  On May 14, more than 100 reporters, editors and executives clustered in The Wall Street Journal’s main newsroom to mark the retirement of Peter R. Kann, the longtime leader of their corporate parent, Dow Jones & Company.

Mr. Kann, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, was typically self-effacing about his own contributions to the company. But the celebration of the past was muted by worry about The Journal’s future. A few weeks earlier, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation had offered $5 billion to buy Dow Jones. The Bancroft family, owners of a controlling stake in the company, rebuffed the offer at first, but there were signs that some of them were wavering.

Mr. Kann, who had been advising the family against selling, expressed hope that Mr. Murdoch would not prevail, using an image of The Journal as a citadel trying to repel an invasion by tabloid barbarians.

“The drawbridge is up,” Mr. Kann told the group. “So far, so good.”

For employees at Dow Jones, the 11 weeks since they learned of the Murdoch offer have been a wrenching time, raising the prospect of fundamental changes at an organization that had already had its fill of big changes in the last couple of years — with Mr. Kann being replaced by Richard F. Zannino as chief executive, with Marcus W. Brauchli taking over from Paul E. Steiger as top editor; and with a shift of its mission, by adding a Saturday paper and more lifestyle articles to appeal to new advertisers, and investing heavily in its digital properties.

. . .  

(p. C12)  The anti-Murdoch forces enjoyed one of their brief lifts on June 29 when The Journal reported that Leslie Hill, a Bancroft family member, had grave reservations about selling to Mr. Murdoch. Someone enlarged The Journal’s dot drawing of Ms. Hill, a retired airline pilot, adding the words “I Fly with Leslie” above her face. Copies of the makeshift poster appeared in Journal offices around the country.

. . .  

As the chances of an alternative have appeared to wane, more reporters and editors have polished their résumés and approached rival publications about jobs. Some have even talked of starting their own business news Web site.

Many voiced disappointment in the Bancrofts, the family that has owned the company for more than a century and taken great pride in it, for not playing a leading role in running it for more than 70 years.

“We understand that for the Bancrofts this is a choice between getting much richer, and holding onto something because they believe in it,” a reporter said. “What they may not realize is that many of us in the newsroom have made the same choice. There are a lot of people here who could be traders or lawyers, people with M.B.A.’s, who could be making a lot more money. To us, this is not an abstract choice.” 


For the full story, see: 

RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA. "At The Gates; Murdoch’s Arrival Worries Journal Employees." The New York Times  (Thurs., July 19, 2007):  C1 & C12. 


MurdochRupert.jpg Rupert Murdoch.  Note that the image is a tribute, or humorous small jab at, the hallmark image style of the Wall Street Journal, in which photographs are re-done by artists into an example of something like pointillism.  (True also of the poster image above.)  Source of the image:  online version of the NYT article cited above.


A Public Choice Theory of “Taxonomic Inflation”


The excerpt below is from a WSJ summary of an article that appeared in The Economist on May 19, 2007.


Scientists have taken to upgrading animals once thought to be subspecies into full-fledged species, in what the Economist says is an overzealous attempt to boost conservation of seemingly rare animals.

Sometimes, the reclassification of animals into their own species category is warranted, as new research reveals once-obscured markers that differentiate certain beasts. But lately, the weekly says, primatologists have been suffering from "taxonomic inflation."

. . .

. . .   One reason is that by fragmenting animal groups, the number of rare species increases, boosting animal-conservation claims.  At the same time, having a greater number of species boosts the chances that a habitat can pursue a legal designation as a protected area.


For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; NATURE; Species Inflation May Infect Over-Eager Conservationists."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., May 19, 2007):  A6.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


We Should Not Be Forced to Fluoresce


Source of lighting table:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


I’ve been using some of the compact fluorescent light bulbs for a few years.  They’re very slightly slower to turn on, and I don’t like the quality of light quite as well, but the money I figure I save is enough, for me, to outweigh the minor disadvantages.  But I can easily imagine a rational person viewing the trade-offs differently.  So it galls me that some environmentalists want to force us to fluoresce. 

If enough people are willing to pay the higher energy costs of incandescent light, then we should let private enterprise build more nuclear power plants to provide consumers what they should be free to buy.


(p. A1)  WASHINGTON — Manufacturers and environmentalists are hammering out a nationwide energy-saving lighting standard that, if enacted by Congress, would effectively phase out the common household light bulb in about 10 years. That in turn could produce major cuts in the nation’s electricity costs and greenhouse-gas emissions.

The new standard is expected to compel a huge shift by American consumers and businesses away from incandescent bulbs to more efficient — but also more expensive — fluorescent models, by requiring more light per energy unit than is yielded by most incandescents in use. The winner, at least in the near term, likely would be the compact fluorescent light bulb, or CFL.


For the full story, see:

JOHN J. FIALKA and KATHRYN KRANHOLD.  "Households Would Need New Bulbs To Meet Lighting-Efficiency Rule."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., May 5, 2007):  A1 & A5. 


 FluorescentBulb.gif   The bulb I like, but don’t want to be forced to use.  Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.


A Salute to Underappreciated Amateur Historians


On a bright Saturday afternoon earlier this month, 30 or so of us gathered to give James O. Hall the send-off he deserved. Appropriately enough, the memorial service was held in the James O. Hall Research Center of the Surratt House museum, in Clinton, Md., 12 miles south of Washington. Mr. Hall died in February at the age of 95, leaving no immediate survivors. The 30 who showed up were instead neighbors, friends, a pair of nieces and random hangers-on who, like me, had known him only slightly but who honored him as a giant in a long and noble and underappreciated line.

I don’t think there’s a good word for what Mr. Hall did: "researcher" is too dry, "historical investigator" carries hints of melodrama, and "archivist" suggests a dutiful drudge, which Mr. Hall was not. "Amateur historian" probably fits best, though it sounds vaguely derivative and second-tier. Following a career with the Labor Department — he retired in the early 1970s — Mr. Hall turned himself into the world’s foremost authority on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Historians, pros and amateurs alike, sought him out for his knowledge and access to his exhaustive files. As one of them put it, James O. Hall knew more about Lincoln’s murder than anyone who ever lived, including John Wilkes Booth.

. . .

"I had to teach myself genealogy," he said. "Not because I liked genealogy, but because it’s how you find things that have been lost." Over the years, he tried to trace the descendants of everyone even remotely tied to the assassination. When he found a new great-granddaughter or the grandson of a nephew, he politely peppered that person with letters and phone calls, asking the descendant to rummage through attics — or offering, even better, to do it himself. His industry never flagged, and it led him to some of his greatest discoveries. In a dusty cubby in a forgotten archive, Mr. Hall made one of the major Lincoln finds of the past 50 years: a letter of self-justification Booth wrote the morning of the murder.

Typically, in 1977, Mr. Hall chose to publish this astonishing find in the Lincoln Log, a newsletter for buffs. Its circulation was minuscule compared with the slick magazines — National Geographic or American Heritage — that would have loved to showcase such a find and maybe make its discoverer famous. But Mr. Hall was without professional vanity; that’s what it means to be an amateur, after all.

At the end of his life, Mr. Hall treated his vast archives with the same modesty and discretion. At least two well-endowed universities made a play for the contents of his file cabinets. Instead, he gave them to the small, homespun Surratt House museum, once the country home of the Lincoln conspirator Mary Surratt and a favorite gathering place for buffs. With a single stroke, he transformed the museum into the Alexandrian library of assassination studies. It was a gesture of confidence and fellow feeling, made to all amateur historians from the best of their kind.


For the full commentary, see: 

ANDREW FERGUSON.  "TASTE; A History Hobby."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., May 25, 2007):  W13.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


Hispanic Immigrants May Help Rejuvinate Aging Workforce


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


The article excerpted below sketches one solution to the "problem" of the aging boomer workforce.  Michael Milken has suggested that the problem itself may be bogus, because aging, healthy, boomers will just keep on trucking a lot longer and stronger than is usually believed. 


The quality of life for some 80 million graying baby boomers in the U.S. may depend in large part on the fortunes of another high-profile demographic group: millions of mostly Hispanic immigrants and their children.

With a major part of the nation’s population entering its retirement years and birth rates falling domestically, the shortfall in the work force will be filled by immigrants and their offspring, experts say. How that group fares economically in the years ahead could have a big impact on everything from the kind of medical services baby boomers receive to the prices they can get for their homes.

Immigrants and baby boomers are two groups whose destinies are converging in the next 20 years," says Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California. "Baby boomers will surrender their economic role to this generation of immigrants and their children," who will evolve into a critical pool of laborers and taxpayers, he says.

Prof. Myers, author of the recent book "Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America," is among a crop of academics studying the link between the giant generation born between 1946 and 1964 and newcomers to the U.S., mainly Latin American immigrants.


For the full commentary, see: 

MIRIAM JORDAN. "Boomers’ Good Life Tied To Better Life for Immigrants." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., May 7, 2007):  A2.


FDA Rejects Long-Lasting Disappearance of Disease as a “Theoretical Construct”


Consider the FDA’s handling of Genasense, a new drug for melanoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), two often terminal forms of cancer. The drug is being developed by Genta, a small, innovative company with only one approved drug and limited financial resources. Despite compelling evidence that Genasense is making progress in fighting both diseases, the FDA appears determined to kill the drug.

In the case of the melanoma application, instead of reviewing the clinical-trial data in accordance with usual methods (which showed positive results), the FDA chose a nonstandard statistical approach aimed at discrediting the results. The agency used this analysis in its briefing to its advisory committee, claiming that the drug might not be effective. The committee then relied on that information to vote against approval.

. . .

The FDA’s inane answer to the CLL experts was that the long-lasting disappearance of disease in patients taking Genasense was a "theoretical construct" and not grounds for approval.

The experts explained to the FDA that complete responses in advanced CLL patients are the medical equivalent of the Holy Grail. The FDA finally agreed, but was unimpressed with emerging data showing responders to Genasense living longer than responders in the control group.

The experts were unanimous in advising that Genasense should be approved, but the FDA was unmoved. The agency’s Dr. Pazdur suggested that Genta could make the drug available as an unapproved treatment through an expanded access program — this from a regulator fond of stating that the best way to get a drug to patients in need is through approval! In this case the agency was saying to Genta: We are not going to approve your drug, but any patient who needs it can have it so long as you give it away.

. . .

The FDA’s handling of Genasense lays bare the all too common, aggressive incompetence of the FDA’s cancer-drug division and should lead to an immediate examination of its policies and leadership, followed by swift corrective action.

As for the FDA’s belief that their power to control us and even deny us the pursuit of life itself is unlimited under the Constitution, we can only hope the appeals court disagrees. An agency that blocks progress against deadly diseases — while arguing that its power to do so is above challenge — is in dire need of a court supervised review.


For the full commentary, see: 

STEVEN WALKER.  "Drug Czars."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., May 4, 2007):  A15.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


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.

Biodiversity Can Survive Rain Forest Logging


The passage below is excerpted from a WSJ summary of a New Scientist article dated May 12, 2007.


While rain forests are being burned and cut down by loggers and farmers at a rapid rate, the damage is far from irreversible, say Helene Muller-Landau of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Joseph Wright of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Many tropical species can survive in isolated patches of forest after a mass clearing and then flourish once trees regrow. What’s more, they say, as people continue to abandon rural areas and migrate to cities, forests are likely to regrow in their wake.

They predict that extinction threatens less than 20% of the tropical Americas’ forest species, 21% to 24% of Asia’s and 16% to 35% of Africa’s, far below the 80% figure predicted by other studies.


For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; ENVIRONMENT; If Trees Fall in Rain Forest, Biodiversity Can Survive."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., May 11, 2007):  B5.


Sweden’s Welfare State Destroys Work Ethic


SicknessBenefitsGraph.gif   Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


(p. A1)  LULEA, Sweden — Lotta Landström is allergic to electricity — so says her doctor. Along with hundreds of other Swedes diagnosed with the condition in recent years, she came to rely on state-funded sick pay.

But last year, Sweden’s famously generous welfare system cut off Ms. Landström, a 35-year-old former teacher. Electro-hypersensitivity isn’t widely recognized elsewhere in the world as a medical diagnosis. The decision to end her two years of benefits was part of a broad effort to crack down on sickness and disability benefits, according to Swedish welfare officials.

Swedes are among the healthiest people in the world according to the World Health Organization. And yet 13% of working-age Swedes live on some type of disability benefit — the highest proportion on the globe. To explain this, many Swedish policy makers, doctors and economists blame a welfare system that is too lax and does little to verify individual claims.

At a time when low-cost competition from Asia is clobbering Europe’s markets and straining its generous welfare states, governments from Finland to Portugal are trying to cut back and get more people to work. Sweden’s bloated sick bay, which includes (p. A15) roughly 744,000 people on extended leave, has caused soul-searching about whether the system coddles Swedes and encourages them to feel sick.

"If we don’t look out, we will end up with only two-thirds [of the labor force] in work, and one-third out, living on different kinds of subsidies," said Sweden’s new prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, in an interview earlier this year.

At a time when low-cost competition from Asia is clobbering Europe’s markets and straining its generous welfare states, governments from Finland to Portugal are trying to cut back and get more people to work. Sweden’s bloated sick bay, which includes roughly 744,000 people on extended leave, has caused soul-searching about whether the system coddles Swedes and encourages them to feel sick.

"If we don’t look out, we will end up with only two-thirds [of the labor force] in work, and one-third out, living on different kinds of subsidies," said Sweden’s new prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, in an interview earlier this year.

. . .

Most of Sweden’s boom in sickness absenteeism since the late 1990s is about more than simple fraud. Sick leave for psychological conditions such as depression, burnout or panic attacks has rocketed. Over 20% of the population complain of anxiety syndromes. "We are actually the safest country in the world," says David Eberhard, chief psychiatrist at St. Göran’s hospital in Stockholm. But "people are feeling psychologically worse and worse."

Assar Lindbeck, one of Sweden’s best-known economists, says the lenient welfare state has changed the country over the past generation. In place of the old Protestant work ethic, it has become acceptable to feel unable to work and to live on benefits, he says. "I would not call it cheating," Prof. Lindbeck says. "I would call it a drift in attitudes and social norms."

By being so accommodating, the Swedish system has encouraged Swedes to treat life’s tribulations as clinical issues requiring sick leave, posits Anna Hedborg, a former Social Democrat cabinet minister: "As time has passed, we have medicalized all sorts of problems."


For the full story, see:

MARCUS WALKER.  "Rx FOR CHANGE; Sweden Clamps Down On Sick and Disability Pay; Once Freely Dispensed, Benefits Face Scrutiny; Ms. Lanström Is Cut Off."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., May 9, 2007):  A1 & A15.  

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


LandstromLottaElectricityAllergy.gif  A former Swedish teacher who had been receiving government disability payments for being allergic to electricity.   Source of photo:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.


Invention as a Form of Criticism


The toughest part of inventing isn’t solving problems. It’s figuring out which problems are worth the effort.

"A few years ago, an inventor patented a device that caused an electric motor to rock a chair," wrote Raymond F. Yates in 1942. "Now imagine, if you will, the sad spectacle of anybody too lazy to rock his own chair! No wonder he could not make money. If he had expended the same effort on something that was actually needed, he might be wealthy today instead of being sadder but wiser."

Mr. Yates, a self-taught engineer, inventor and technical writer, tried to nudge other inventors in the right direction with his book, "2100 Needed Inventions." Published by Wilfred Funk Inc., Mr. Yates’s book was a list of ways people could alleviate certain nuisances and defects of life and get rich for their trouble.

. . .

"Invention is really a systematic form of criticism," Mr. Yates wrote, and people tend to criticize the things that annoy them in their daily lives. Mr. Yates, for example, seems to have found most commonplace devices excessively noisy.


For the full story, see: 

CYNTHIA CROSSEN.  "DEJA VU; An Inventor in 1940s Gave Tips on Going From Smart to Rich."  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., May 21, 2007):  B1.