Let There Be Light

 

  One of Mark Bent’s solar flashlights stuck in a wall to illuminate a classroom in Africa.  Source of the photo:   http://bogolight.com/images/success6.jpg

 

What Africa most needs, to grow and prosper, is to eject kleptocratic war-lord governments, and to embrace property rights and the free market.  But in the meantime, maybe handing out some solar powered flashlights can make some modest improvements in how some people live.

The story excerpted below is an example of private, entrepreneur-donor-involved, give-while-you-live philanthropy that holds a greater promise of actually doing some good in the world, than other sorts of philanthropy, or than government foreign aid. 

 

FUGNIDO, Ethiopia — At 10 p.m. in a sweltering refugee camp here in western Ethiopia, a group of foreigners was making its way past thatch-roofed huts when a tall, rail-thin man approached a silver-haired American and took hold of his hands. 

The man, a Sudanese refugee, announced that his wife had just given birth, and the boy would be honored with the visitor’s name. After several awkward translation attempts of “Mark Bent,” it was settled. “Mar,” he said, will grow up hearing stories of his namesake, the man who handed out flashlights powered by the sun.

Since August 2005, when visits to an Eritrean village prompted him to research global access to artificial light, Mr. Bent, 49, a former foreign service officer and Houston oilman, has spent $250,000 to develop and manufacture a solar-powered flashlight.

His invention gives up to seven hours of light on a daily solar recharge and can last nearly three years between replacements of three AA batteries costing 80 cents.

Over the last year, he said, he and corporate benefactors like Exxon Mobil have donated 10,500 flashlights to United Nations refugee camps and African aid charities.

Another 10,000 have been provided through a sales program, and 10,000 more have just arrived in Houston awaiting distribution by his company, SunNight Solar.

“I find it hard sometimes to explain the scope of the problems in these camps with no light,” Mr. Bent said. “If you’re an environmentalist you think about it in terms of discarded batteries and coal and wood burning and kerosene smoke; if you’re a feminist you think of it in terms of security for women and preventing sexual abuse and violence; if you’re an educator you think about it in terms of helping children and adults study at night.”

Here at Fugnido, at one of six camps housing more than 21,000 refugees 550 miles west of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, Peter Gatkuoth, a Sudanese refugee, wrote on “the importance of Solor.”

“In case of thief, we open our solor and the thief ran away,” he wrote. “If there is a sick person at night we will took him with the solor to health center.”

A shurta, or guard, who called himself just John, said, “I used the light to scare away wild animals.” Others said lights were hung above school desks for children and adults to study after the day’s work.

 

For the full story, see:

Will Connors and Ralph Blumenthal.  "Letting Africa’s Sun Deliver the Luxury of Light to the Poor."  The New York Times, Section 1  (Sun., May 20, 2007):  8.

(Note:  the title of the article on line was:  "Solar Flashlight Lets Africa’s Sun Deliver the Luxury of Light to the Poorest Villages.")

 

 EthiopiaMap.gif   Source of map:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 

The Liberal Attack on Free Speech at Antioch

 

THIS is an obituary for a great American institution whose death was announced this week. After 155 years, Antioch College is closing.

. . .

With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the college increased African-American enrollment to 25 percent in 1968, from virtually nil in previous years. The new students were recruited from the inner city. At around the same time, Antioch created coeducational residence halls, with no adult supervision. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll became the rule, as you might imagine, and there was enormous peer pressure to be involved in all of them. No member of the faculty or administration, and certainly none of the students, could guess what these sudden changes would mean. They were simply embraced in the spirit of the time.

I moved into this sociological petri dish from a well-to-do suburb. Within my first week I twice had guns drawn on me, once in fun and once in a state of drunken for real by a couple of ex-cons whom one of my classmates, in the interest of breaking down class barriers, had invited to live with her.

My roommate began the tortured process of coming out of the closet, first by pursuing women relentlessly and then accepting the truth and allowing himself to be pursued by men. He needed to talk all this out with himself when he came in each morning at 4 a.m., and in the face of his personal crisis, there was little I could do to assert my right to sleep.

. . .

Antioch College became a rump where the most illiberal trends in education became entrenched. Since it is always easier to impose a conformist ethos on a small group than a large one, as the student body dwindled, free expression and freedom of thought were crushed under the weight of ultraliberal orthodoxy. By the 1990s the breadth of challenging ideas a student might encounter at Antioch had narrowed, and the college became a place not for education, but for indoctrination. Everyone was on the same page, a little to the left of The Nation in worldview.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

Michael Goldfarb.  "Where the Arts Were Too Liberal."  The New York Times, Section 4  (Sun., June 17, 2007):  13.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

“Total Freedom”

 

   On Monday, May 28th, protesters at the G8 meeting in Hamburg, Germany protested for "Total Freedom" and against globalization.  Source of this version of the banner picture:  http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=20070528131819740

 

A photo fairly similar to the one above was run in the print version of the NYT on Tuesday, May 29, 2007, but was not included in the online version.  It appeared by itself, without an attached article.  But, referring to the "Total Freedom" banner, it had the following wonderfully ironic caption:

 

Except, Perhaps, When It Comes to Trade

Thousands of protesters marched against globalization on Monday in Hamburg, Germany, where the Group of Eight industrialized nations will meet next week.  After the largely peaceful rally, some protesters clashed with police and 21 were arrested.  The rest, however, were totally free.

 

Source of the NYT version of the banner picture, and of the caption:

The New York Times  (Tues., May 29, 2007):  A3. 

(Note:  caption title was in bold, and in larger font than the body of the caption, in the original.)

 

Bill Gates Does Not Owe Society Anything

 

Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, helped create a revolutionary computer software company, and earlier this month collected an honorary degree from Harvard University. But he may not understand the vital role wealth creation plays in society.

In collecting his degree, Mr. Gates delivered a commencement address that focused not on the information age, the rise of personal computers or the relentless efficiency his software has brought to nearly every industry. Instead, he focused on his own personal philanthropy. His implicit theme was that so far what he has accomplished may have been good for him and Microsoft shareholders, but it has been no great contribution to society. He suggested that with a personal fortune of about $90 billion (including what he has transferred to his foundation) it is time for him to give something back.

I find this perspective hard to understand. By any reasonable calculation Microsoft has been a boon for society and the value of its software greatly exceeds the likely value of Mr. Gates’s philanthropic efforts.

. . .

Ironically, Mr. Gates’s inspiration to "give back" apparently comes from the world’s second richest person, Warren Buffett, who recently promised to donate much of his fortune to the Gates Foundation.

I say ironic because one can make a much better philosophical case for a give-back of Mr. Buffett’s $52 billion than for Mr. Gates’s $90 billion. Mr. Buffett’s money came mostly from being a good stock picker. Whether his fortune is the product of luck or skill, the social benefits are hard to pin down. These benefits have to derive from improving company management practices or investment decisions.

Of course, Mr. Gates is free to do what he wishes with his $90 billion. But I think he is kidding himself if he believes that the efforts of the Gates Foundation are likely to provide society anything like the past and future accomplishments of Microsoft.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

ROBERT BARRO.  "COMMENTARY; Bill Gates’s Charitable Vistas." The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., June 19, 2007):  A17.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

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.

 

Firms Install Internal Betting Markets for Better Forecasting

 

Charles Plott, of Cal Tech, co-authored a nifty study several years ago in which he installed a betting market inside of Hewlett Packard to do internal forecasting.  The nifty part was that the forecasts produced by the betting market were generally more accurate than the official forecasts that HP’s official forecasters were producing. 

The likely reason is not that the official forecasters were stupid or incompetent, but that they were under considerable pressure by corporate higher-ups to spin the forecasts in a favorable way.  In contrast, the participants in the internal betting market remained anonymous, and received higher payoffs, the more accurate their forecasts turned out to have been.

The result was not surprising, once you think it through.  But what I did find surprising was that HP didn’t keep the betting market going, after the Plott study was finished.  (From a long-run perspective, top management should benefit more from accurate forecasts, than from consistently optimistic forecasts.) 

In any case, the excerpt from the commentary below indicates that some other companies have gotten the point:

 

(p. C1)  Over the last few years, Intrade — with headquarters in Dublin, where the gambling laws are loose — has become the biggest success story among a new crop of prediction markets. The world’s largest steel maker, Arcelor Mittal, now runs an internal market allowing its executives to predict the price of steel. Best Buy (p. C6) has started a market for employees to guess which DVDs and video game consoles, among other products, will be popular. Google and Eli Lilly have similar markets. The idea is to let a company’s decision-makers benefit from the collective, if often hidden, knowledge of their employees.

But there’s a broader point here, too. For a couple of centuries now, long before Intrade or even the Internet existed, financial markets have been making it easier to bet on what the future will bring.

In the mid-1800s, contracts tied to the future price of wheat, pigs and other commodities began to change hands. In 1972, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange introduced futures for foreign exchange rates. Treasury bonds tied to the future rate of inflation came along in the 1990s, and last year, the Merc began selling contracts based on the direction of house prices in 10 big metropolitan areas.

In every case, the market price reflects the sum of the traders’ knowledge — about the extent of the housing bubble in Los Angeles, for instance, or the likely size of next year’s wheat crop.  . . .

N. Gregory Mankiw, a former adviser to President Bush, who has written about Intrade on his blog, explains it this way: ”Everybody has information from their own little corner of the universe, and they’d like to know the information from every other corner of the universe. What these markets do is provide a vehicle that reflects all that information.”

 

For the full commentary, see: 

DAVID LEONHARDT.  "ECONOMIX; Odds Are, They’ll Know ’08 Winner."  The New York Times  (Weds., February 14, 2007):  C1 & C8.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

Must-Visit London Attraction “Was Entirely Commercially Funded”

 

The most elegant big wheel in the world, standing 443 feet high, . . .

Unlike old-style Ferris wheels, where the cars hang inside the structure as it rotates, here the pods are on the outside so as to obtain the best view. Their rotation is not dependent on gravity, but on electric motors synchronized by computerized radio signals sent from the hub. Finally, the whole wheel is hung from one side only, so as to hover over the river. This meant some nifty foundation work. Two separate forests of concrete piles — one taking the Eye’s weight, the other stopping it from toppling over sideways — plunge 108 feet into the ground.  . . .  

As with all the best engineering structures, building it became a public spectacle. It was floated up the Thames in segments on giant barges, complete with the world’s largest floating cranes in attendance. It was then assembled flat on pontoons in the river, its giant central spindle was attached to the perimeter by a skein of steel cables — the suspension-bridge variety, but acting like bicycle spokes — and then came an unforgettable week as the whole wheel, weighing 1,780 tons without its 32 capsules (each a further 10 tons), was hauled slowly from the horizontal to an acute angle. Where it stayed, leaning alarmingly, for several days while the final work was done to bring it to its vertical position.

. . .  

Even more remarkably at a time when ambitious architectural projects funded by a national lottery were being built all over Britain, the London Eye — costing £85 million, or about $150 million at the time — was entirely commercially funded. Today it is a must-visit attraction in the British capital, carrying an average of 10,000 visitors a day. Each trip is one 30-minute revolution.

It opened in late 2000 and immediately became exactly the iconic object that the Millennium Dome downstream had tried and failed to be. That was perhaps unfair — the Dome was also a prodigious feat of engineering and architecture — but in the end what decides these things is the public response.

And the public has always responded to a buccaneering spirit in engineering, the idea that enormous risks are being taken, that enormous reward is the prize, but that total disaster is a looming possibility. That, in short, is the achievement of Mr. Marks and Ms. Barfield’s London Eye: The process of making it was every bit as compelling as the ride on the finished product. They are diffident people — the way they tell it, it was just a matter of A following B — but they surely fall into the category of designer as hero (and heroine). In this sense they are in the tradition of the great 19th-century British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who with his extraordinarily ambitious railways and steamships overcame obstacles with flair and style.  . . .

 

For the full commentary, see: 

HUGH PEARMAN.  "MASTERPIECE; Anatomy of a Classic; Reinventing the Wheel; The London Eye is an engineering marvel with tourist appeal."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., May 26, 2007):  P14.

(Note: ellipses added.)