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.)

 

FDA Irrationally Bans Drugs that Would Help Patients Suffering from Deadly Disease

 

The most welcome news a cancer patient can hear from their doctor is: "Your tumor is regressing." Sadly, the message that the Food and Drug Administration is now delivering to cancer patients is that the fight against tumors is regressing.

Current FDA policies are discouraging the development of groundbreaking treatments for cancer and other killer diseases, turning the clock back on hard-won regulations put in place in response to the AIDS crisis that allow patients faster access to new drugs. Case in point: This week, facing rejection by the Agency, GPC Biotech withdrew its New Drug Application (NDA) for Satraplatin, a drug to treat prostate cancer — despite data from a large controlled clinical trial showing the drug delayed tumor growth in patients where the disease is widespread.

Most of the patients in this study had exhausted all known therapies; many required powerful medication to control bone pain. Time is running out for them, yet results from this statistically significant study were not sufficient for the FDA. Although GPC Biotech’s application for Satraplatin was under consideration for accelerated approval, the Agency indicated it would need to wait for full survival data from this trial, which will delay approval at least one year.

Sadly, far from being an aberration, Satraplatin is the fifth promising cancer treatment set back by the FDA this year.

. . .

For patients with life-threatening diseases and their families, the implications of the FDA’s recent regressive trend are devastating. It may be acceptable for regulators to be risk-averse when considering drugs for routine or nonserious diseases where alternative therapies exist. But this mindset is simply irrational when it comes to drugs intended to treat patients suffering from deadly diseases — people who often have only weeks or months to live.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

RICHARD MILLER.  "Cancer Regression."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., August 1, 2007):  A15.

 

“I Couldn’t Write a Prescription for Antiobiotics, Because There Were None”

 

    "THE DOCTOR MIGHT BE IN Cubans young and old at a Havana clinic in 2004."  Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 

 

CUBA works hard to jam American TV signals and keep out decadent Hollywood films. But it’s a good bet that Fidel Castro’s government will turn a blind eye to bootleg copies of “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s newest movie, if they show up on the streets of Havana.

“Sicko,” the talk of the Cannes Film Festival last week, savages the American health care system — and along the way extols Cuba’s system as the neatest thing since the white linen guayabera.

Mr. Moore transports a handful of sick Americans to Cuba for treatment in the course of the film, . . .

. . .

Universal health care has long given the Cuban regime bragging rights, though there is growing concern about the future. In the decades that Cuba drew financial and military support from the Soviet Union, Mr. Castro poured resources into medical education, creating the largest medical school in Latin America and turning out thousands of doctors to practice around the world.

But that changed after the collapse of the Soviets, according to Cuban defectors like Dr. Leonel Cordova. By the time Dr. Cordova started practicing in 1992, equipment and drugs were already becoming scarce. He said he was assigned to a four-block neighborhood in Havana Province where he was supposed to care for about 600 people.

“But even if I diagnosed something simple like bronchitis,” he said, “I couldn’t write a prescription for antibiotics, because there were none.”

He defected in 2000 while on a medical mission in Zimbabwe and made his way to the United States. He is now an urgent-care physician at Baptist Hospital in Miami.

Having practiced medicine in both Cuba and the United States, Dr. Cordova has an unusual perspective for comparison.

“Actually there are three systems,” Dr. Cordova said, because Cuba has two: one is for party officials and foreigners like those Mr. Moore brought to Havana. “It is as good as this one here, with all the resources, the best doctors, the best medicines, and nobody pays a cent,” he said.

But for the 11 million ordinary Cubans, hospitals are often ill equipped and patients “have to bring their own food, soap, sheets — they have to bring everything.”  . . .

. . .

Until he had to have emergency surgery last year, Fidel Castro — who turned 80 this year — was considered a model of vibrant long life in Cuba. But it was only last week that he acknowledged in an open letter that his initial surgery by Cuban doctors had been botched. He did not confirm, however, that a specialist had been flown in from Spain last December to help set things right. 

 

For the full commentary, see: 

ANTHONY DePALMA.  "‘Sicko,’ Castro and the ‘120 Years Club’."  The New York Times, Section 4  (Sun., May 27, 2007):   3. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

Why New York City Needs Wal-Mart

 

(p. 7)  . . .  an enduring mystery of the retail economic world: why don’t people in New York City want a Wal-Mart in Midtown?

Manhattan is the most underserved market I have ever seen for retail customers. There really is nowhere for bargains on ordinary household goods and groceries in the whole borough. Yes, I know unions hate Wal-Mart. But not every New Yorker is in a union, and every New Yorker needs food and paper towels. (I, by the way, am a member of three unions: the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Writers Guild of America, West. How many unions is Mayor Michael Bloomberg in?)

Don’t the consumers deserve a break, too? I know Wal-Mart is not hip, slick and cool. It’s for people who have to live within a budget, not for people who see movies with subtitles and have houses on Martha’s Vineyard (or would like to). But don’t working-class people deserve bargains on their daily bread?

To keep Wal-Mart out of New York — or my home, Los Angeles — is simply to inflict a snobby class prejudice on working people. Why they and their representatives put up with this classist, ”let them eat Whole Foods” nonsense is yet another mystery, and one that could be solved if politicians really cared about consumers.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

BEN STEIN.  "EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS; Assorted Mysteries of Economic Life."  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., May 13, 2007):  7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

 

Total Retirement Assets Will Increase, Even as Baby Boomers Retire

 

RetirementAssetsGraph.jpg   Source of graph:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

WILL stocks suffer a multidecade bear market as the baby-boom generation sells its shares to support its retirement? Some have predicted such an outcome, but a new study — which projects huge growth in 401(k) assets in future decades — paints a far more sanguine picture.

The study, “New Estimates of the Future Path of 401(k) Assets,” has been circulating since earlier this month as a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Its authors are James M. Poterba, chairman of the economics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Steven F. Venti, an economics professor at Dartmouth; and David A. Wise, a professor of political economy at Harvard. A version is at www.nber.org/papers/w13083.

Despite the baby boomers’ liquidation of retirement assets in coming decades, the study estimates that the total size of 401(k) plans will nevertheless grow markedly. That forecast may come as a surprise to some people, the professors concede, because 401(k)’s now represent only a modest fraction of a typical retiree’s total wealth. But the professors point out that 401(k) plans have existed only since the early 1980s; by the time that today’s younger workers retire, they will have had many more years to contribute to their 401(k)’s than current retirees have had.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

MARK HULBERT.  "STRATEGIES; Baby Boomers Are Cashing In.  So What?"  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., May 27, 2007):  5.