The 10 Million Dollar Bookmark and the 35 Billion Dollar Egg

Zimbabwean100BillionDollarNote.jpg “A vendor arranges eggs on a new 100 billion Zimbabwean dollar note in Harare July 22, 2008. Zimbabwe’s central bank introduced new higher-value 100 billion Zimbabwe dollar notes on Monday as part of a desperate fight against spiralling hyperinflation, the bank said. An egg now costs $35 billion.” Source of caption and photo:

(p. A1) Robert Mugabe has kept his embattled regime in Zimbabwe afloat on a sea of paper money. Now, he’ll have to try to do it without the paper.

The Munich-based company that has supplied Zimbabwe with the special blank sheets to print its increasingly worthless dollar caved in to pressure on Tuesday from the German government for it to stop doing business with the African ruler.

Mr. Mugabe’s regime relies on a steady supply of the paper — fortified with watermarks and other antiforgery features — to print the bank notes that allow it to pay the soldiers and other loyalists who enable him to stay in power. With an annual inflation rate estimated at well over 1 million percent, new notes with ever more zeros need to be printed every few weeks because the older ones lose their worth so quickly.
. . .
Zimbabwe’s central bank stopped posting inflation figures in January, when it stood at a relatively modest 100,580%. A loaf of bread costs 30 billion Zimbabwean dollars.
. . .
Mr. Mangoma uses a 10 million Zimbabwe dollar bank note, worth 0.0008 of a U.S. cent, as a bookmark because he doesn’t “care if I lose it.”

For the full story, see:
MARCUS WALKER and ANDREW HIGGINS. “Zimbabwe Can’t Paper Over Its Million-Percent Inflation Anymore; Under Pressure, German Company Cuts Off Shipments of Blank Bank Notes to Mugabe.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., JULY 2, 2008): A1 & A10.
(Note: ellipses added.)


“Harare produce seller Chipo Chivanze needs a basket of cash to make change because of Zimbabwe’s battered currency.” Source of caption: print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above. Source of photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

Companies “Once as Strong as Dinosaurs But Now Just as Extinct”

From McCraw’s discussion of Schumpeter’s legacy:

(p. 496) No country, regardless of how long it has been prosperous, can take permanent affluence for granted. Nor can any company assume its continued existence—as names such as Digital Equipment, Pan American Airways, Pullman, Douglas Aircraft, and the Pennsylvania Railroad remind us. Each of these companies once epitomized the cutting edge not only of its own industry but of American business as a whole. And all are now in the dustbin of history, along with hundreds of thousands of other businesses of all sizes—once as strong as dinosaurs but now just as extinct.

McCraw, Thomas K. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007.

Microsoft Still Risks Becoming “Road Kill on the Information Highway”


“Steve Ballmer is the second Microsoft chief executive to butt his head against the view that a new era in technology brings a new market leader.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 4) The Yahoo affair obscures the larger story: Microsoft’s long, long struggle — since 1993 — to maintain its leadership position while the Internet grew ubiquitous. Mr. Ballmer, who joined Microsoft in 1980 as its 15th employee, and Bill Gates, his mentor who will retire next month as a full-time Microsoft employee, have certainly tried their best to avert the inevitable decline of the company’s influence.

In 2000, Mr. Ballmer credited Mr. Gates for noting that no company in the computer business had ever stayed on top through what Mr. Gates called “a major paradigm shift.” The two men wanted Microsoft to be the first company to achieve that goal. An interesting challenge, but some problems are of a size that dwarf the abilities of multibillionaire mortals.
In a 1995 internal memo, “The Internet Tidal Wave,” Mr. Gates alerted company employees to the Internet’s potential to be a disruptive force. This was two years before Clayton M. Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor, published “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail” (1997). The professor presented what would become a widely noted framework to explain how seemingly well-managed companies could do most everything to prepare for the arrival of disruptive new technology but still lose market leadership.
It’s Google, of course, that has developed the musculature to step forward and lay claim to being Microsoft’s successor as industry leader in the Internet era. If there had been any way Microsoft could have prepared for this day, it had ample time to do so. In 1993, fully five years before Google’s founding and two years before Mr. Gates’s memo, Nathan P. Myhrvold, then Microsoft’s chief technology officer, wrote his own memo, “Road Kill on the Information Highway.” It spelled out in prescient detail how each of many industries would be flattened by the build-out of digital networks, and it said that the PC software business would be no exception.

For the full commentary, see:
RANDALL STROSS. “Digital Domain; The Computer Industry Comes With Built-In Term Limits.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., May 18, 2008): 4.

Science Fiction Writers Provide More Accurate Forecasts Than Economists

Robert Fogel, quoted below, is a Nobel-Prize-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago:

(p. 13) I think I’ve largely covered how things looked after World War II, highlighting both what now seems to have been an unjustified pessimism and also the difficulties in forecasting the future. I close with an anecdote from Simon Kuznets. He used to give a one-year course in growth economics, both at Johns Hopkins and Harvard. One of the points he made was that if you wanted to find accurate forecasts of what happened in the past, don’t look at what the economists said. The economists in 1850 wrote that the progress of the last decade had been so great that it could not possibly continue. And economists at the end of the nineteenth century wrote that the progress of the last half century had been so great that it could not possibly continue during the twentieth century. Kuznets said you would come closest to an accurate forecast if you read the writers of science fiction. But even the writers of science fiction were too pessimistic. Jules Verne recognized that we might eventually get to the moon, but he couldn’t conceive of the technology that actually made the journey possible.

I was at a 2003 conference at Rockefeller University that brought together about 30 people from different disciplines (economics, biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as some industrial leaders) who put forward their views of what was likely to happen in the new millennium. And I must say that the noneconomists were far more bullish than most of the economists I know. So I suspect if we have another MussaFest in 2024, we’ll all look back at how pessimistic we were in 2004.

Fogel, Robert W. “Reconsidering Expectations of Economic Growth after World War Ii from the Perspective of 2004.” IMF Staff Papers 52 (Special Issue 2005): 6-14.

Oil Companies Often Drill Deep With No Payoff

DeepestOilWellMap.gif Source of map: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) McMoRan Exploration Co. is leading a renewed effort to find natural gas in a site known as one of the world’s deepest dry holes.
Exxon Mobil Corp. walked away from the legendary Blackbeard prospect in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006 after drilling to more than 30,000 feet without a payoff. But high energy prices have emboldened the industry, stirring wildcatter passions and prompting companies to look anew at previously abandoned projects.
. . .
(p. B2) If industry reports, unconfirmed by Exxon, are correct, the company spent more than $200 million on the well, making it one of the most expensive dry holes ever drilled.
The industry is littered with expensive failures, but Blackbeard proved too tempting to let go, especially in today’s record-price environment, where any reasonably promising prospect is worth a try. Indeed, there are more drilling rigs at work in the U.S. today than at any point since 1985, according to Baker Hughes Inc.
Mr. Moffett, the 69-year-old founder of McMoRan Exploration, is a geologist and inveterate risk taker. He discovered the giant Grasberg copper and gold mine in Indonesia, parlaying it into global mining giant Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. The oil-and-gas exploration company was spun off from the mining assets in 1994.
Last August, McMoRan paid $1.1 billion for a package of shallow Gulf of Mexico assets, including Blackbeard, from Newfield Exploration Co., Exxon’s former partner on the well. Studying the geology, Mr. Moffett found it similar to successful wells drilled by other companies in the deeper parts of the Gulf.
He now says that if McMoRan decides to keep drilling to 35,000 feet, it will cost about $75 million.

For the full story, see:
RUSSELL GOLD “A Famed Dry Hole Gets a Second Shot.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., July 21, 2008): B1-B2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)


Photo on left is “GorillaIV, the rig drilling Blackbeard.” Image on right is the Co-Chairman of McMoRan. Source of photo, image, and caption on left photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

Founder of Experimental Science Received Prison as His Reward

(p. 53) Where men had once said, ‘Credo ut intelligam’ (understanding can come only through belief), they now said, ‘Intelligo ut credam’ (belief can come only through understanding). In 1277, Roger Bacon was imprisoned for an indefinite period for holding these opinions. Free and rational investigation of nature was to come hard in the clash between reason and faith which would echo down to our own time.

Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo’s Telescope Changed the Truth and Other Events in History That Dramatically Altered Our Understanding of the World. Back Bay Books, 1995.

Tears Flow for Delta Queen “All Because of a Stupid Law”

DeltaQueen.jpg Source: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A16) CINCINNATI — For more than a year now, fans of the Delta Queen, America’s last original paddle-wheeled, steam-driven, overnight passenger boat, have done everything they could to keep it plying the country’s rivers.

They have written letters, signed petitions and enlisted stars like the actor Hal Holbrook (who has played Mark Twain) to support their cause. They even tried to shame Congress into granting another exemption from a federal law that would normally ban the Delta Queen from operating because it is largely made of wood.
But as it pulled away from her dock here into the Ohio River on Tuesday night, tears flowed among passengers, crew members and some of the hundreds of onlookers.
That was because, to date, no exemption has been granted and the current exemption expires at the end of October. As a result, the 10-day cruise to Memphis could well be the Delta Queen’s last commercial voyage.
. . .
“We’re just here to say goodbye,” said Dick Schroeder, 72, a lifelong Cincinnati resident who came to watch this potential last departure with his wife, Mary, and daughter, Patricia Fanning.
“I just don’t know why it has to go, all because of a stupid law,” Mr. Schroeder said.

For the full story, see:
SEAN D. HAMILL. ” Paddle-Wheeler’s Fans Seek a Reprieve.” The New York Times (Weds., October 22, 2008): A16.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

“Three Generations from Overalls to Overalls”

(p. 156) Because it proceeds by competitively destroying old businesses and hence the existences dependent upon them, there always corresponds to it a process of decline, of loss of caste, of elimination. This fate also threatens the entrepreneur whose powers are declining, or his heirs who have inherited his wealth without his ability. This is not only because all individual profits dry up, the competitive mechanism tolerating no permanent surplus values, but rather annihilating them by means of just this stimulus of the striving for profits which is the mechanism’s driving force; but also because in the normal case things so happen that entrepreneurial success embodies itself in the ownership of a business; and this business is usually carried on further by the heirs on what soon become traditional lines until new entrepreneurs supplant it. An American adage expresses it: three generations from overalls to overalls. And so it may be. Exceptions are rare, and are more than compensated for by cases in which the descent is still faster. Because there are always entrepreneurs and relatives and heirs of entrepreneurs, public opinion and also the phraseology of the social struggle readily overlook these facts. They constitute “the rich” a class of inheritors who are removed from life’s battle. In fact, the upper strata of society are like hotels which are indeed always full of people, but people who are forever changing.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle. Translated by Redvers Opie. translation of 2nd German edition that appeared in 1926; translation first published by Harvard in 1934 ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Russia Expands Icebreaker Fleet to Exploit Benefits of Global Warming

HealyIceBreaker20080824.jpg “The Healy, shown in May 2007 in the Bering Sea, is an ice-breaking ship used mainly for science.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 6) A growing array of military leaders, Arctic experts and lawmakers say the United States is losing its ability to patrol and safeguard Arctic waters even as climate change and high energy prices have triggered a burst of shipping and oil and gas exploration in the thawing region.

The National Academy of Sciences, the Coast Guard and others have warned over the past several years that the United States’ two 30-year-old heavy icebreakers, the Polar Sea and Polar Star, and one ice-breaking ship devoted mainly to science, the Healy, are grossly inadequate. Also, the Polar Star is out of service.
And this spring, the leaders of the Pentagon’s Pacific Command, Northern Command and Transportation Command strongly recommended in a letter that the Joint Chiefs of Staff endorse a push by the Coast Guard to increase the country’s ability to gain access to and control its Arctic waters.
In the meantime, a resurgent Russia has been busy expanding its fleet of large oceangoing icebreakers to around 14, launching a large conventional icebreaker in May and, last year, the world’s largest icebreaker, named 50 Years of Victory, the newest of its seven nuclear-powered, pole-hardy ships.
Adm. Thad W. Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard, who toured Alaska’s Arctic shores two weeks ago with the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, said that whatever mix of natural and human factors is causing the ice retreats, the Arctic is clearly opening to commerce — and potential conflict and hazards — like never before.

For the full story, see:
ANDREW C. REVKIN. “A Push to Increase Icebreakers in the Arctic.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., August 17, 2008): 6.

A Succinct Account of the Rise of Anti-Semitism

James Burke, writing of the ninth-century AD (the century of Charlemagne’s death in 814 AD):

(p. 32) It was at this time too that anti-Semitism, previously rare, began to increase. Money-lending, which was forbidden by the Christian Church, was permitted under Jewish law, and the Jews, prevented from owning land, turned to the new business currency. Many of them grew rich and were resented.

Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo’s Telescope Changed the Truth and Other Events in History That Dramatically Altered Our Understanding of the World. Back Bay Books, 1995.