Global Warming Benefits Democracy in Greenland

Ice.jpg Source of captionless photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 20) . . . for the residents of the frozen island, the early stages of climate change promise more good, in at least one important sense, than bad. A Danish protectorate since 1721, Greenland has long sought to cut its ties with its colonizer. But while proponents of complete independence face little opposition at home or in Copenhagen, they haven’t been able to overcome one crucial calculation: the country depends on Danish assistance for more than 40 percent of its gross domestic product. “The independence wish has always been there,” says Aleqa Hammond, Greenland’s minister for finance and foreign affairs. “The reason we have never realized it is because of the economics.”
. . .
But the real promise lies in what may be found under the ice. Near the town of Uummannaq, about halfway up Greenland’s coast, retreating glaciers have uncovered pockets of lead and zinc. Gold and diamond prospectors have flooded the island’s south. Alcoa is preparing to build a large aluminum smelter. The island’s minerals are becoming more accessible even as global commodity prices are soaring. And with more than 80 percent of the land currently iced over, the hope is that the island has just begun to reveal its riches.
. . .
In November, Greenlanders will vote on a referendum that would leverage global warming into a path to independence. The island’s 56,000 predominantly Inuit residents have enjoyed limited home rule since 1978. The proposed plan for self-rule, drafted in partnership with Copenhagen, is expected to pass overwhelmingly.

For the full story, see:
STEPHAN FARIS. “Phenomenon; Ice Free; Will Global Warming Give Greenland Its Independence?” The New York Times, Magazine Section (Sun., July 27, 2008): 20.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Uncertainty About Government Actions Slows Recovery

In the commentary quoted below, Tyler Cowen makes the important point that recovery from the current economic crisis is being slowed by uncertainty about what the government will do next. While the uncertainty lasts, consumers will consume less, and investors will invest less.
Amity Shlaes has made a similar point about the Great Depression. Uncertainty about what policies FDR would try next, kept investors from risking their money in new entrepreneurial ventures.

(p. 5) The financial crisis is a result of many bad decisions, but one of them hasn’t received enough attention: the 1998 bailout of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund. If regulators had been less concerned with protecting the fund’s creditors, our current problems might not be quite so bad.
. . .
. . .    Today, . . . , that ad hoc intervention by the government no longer looks so wise. With the Long-Term Capital bailout as a precedent, creditors came to believe that their loans to unsound financial institutions would be made good by the Fed — as long as the collapse of those institutions would threaten the global credit system. Bolstered by this sense of security, bad loans mushroomed.
. . .
While there are some advantages to leaving discretion in regulators’ hands, this hasn’t worked out very well. It has become increasingly apparent that the market doesn’t know what to expect and that many financial institutions are sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see what regulators will do next. Regulatory uncertainty is stifling the ability of financial markets to engineer at least a partial recovery.

For the full commentary, see:
TYLER COWEN. “Economic View; Bailout of Long-Term Capital: A Bad Precedent?” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., December 26, 2008): 5.
(Note: ellipses added.)

For the Amity Shlaes book mentioned above, see:
Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

“Money Buys Freedom”


Source of book image:

(p. A17) . . . other farm alumni make no pretense to continuing the revolution but instead engage in the boomer habit of replacing youthful extremism with a middle-aged version: “We used to think money was the least important thing. Now I can see that it’s the most important,” says one former commune member, sounding like a budding Randian. “Money buys freedom.”

Few of the farm friends are terribly likable or sympathetic — with the notable exception of Tim, an “alienated citizen” of the farm while he lived there. Tim found the commune’s group dynamics stifling. He wanted time to himself and was promised that he could build his own room and work space in the barn, but the objections of others to his solitary plans thwarted him at nearly every turn.
Of the farm’s whole New Age mission, Tim remarks: “The error was, I think, imagining that there was somewhere new to go, someone new to be. It became increasingly clear that a closed system of myth did not jibe with the world as it really was.” Looking later at the outside world, Tim saw “a system formed less from malice than from a kind of natural order, less from inordinate greed than from longings much like our own for privacy, comfort, individual freedom, and one’s familiar or chosen way of life.” Unfortunately, “Farm Friends” spends too little time with Tim.

For the full commentary, see:

PAUL BESTON. “Bookshelf; A Look Back at the New Age.” Wall Street Journal (Tues., July 22, 2008): A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Since Wire Rope Had Not Been Tried, Entrepreneur Roebling Had to Self-Finance His Innovation

(p. 178) It was a bridge across the Niagara that would change life for the nail and wire makers. In 1831 a German engineer had emigrated from Mühlhausen in Saxony to America, where he founded the city (p. 179) of Saxonburg, Pennsylvania (having refused to settle in the American South because of his views on slavery). He then worked as a farmer, as a surveyor on the Pennsylvania Canal and finally as a railway engineer. His name was John Roebling, and he had a strange obsession with wire ropes. Since nobody in America had ever tried to make that kind of rope, the idea was not easy to promote. After failing to interest the firm of Washburn & Company, in Worcester, Massachusetts (we will return to this firm in our story), in 1848 Roebling moved to Trenton, New Jersey, and set up on his own.

After practicing his technique on a number of small bridges in Pennsylvania and Delaware, Roebling finally got a contract for the 3,640 wires into a compact, uniformly tensioned wire cable. Then, using a kite to get the cable to the other side of the river, he went on to finish the first-ever wire suspension bridge, 821 feet in length and strong enough to take the full weight of a train. The bridge opened to rail traffic on March 16, 1855.

Because of his success at Niagara, Roebling’s cable-spinning technique soon became standard on all suspension bridges. He put his name in the history books with his next job: the Brooklyn Bridge.

Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible – and Other Journeys. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

The Palace of Discovery: “They Came for Wonder and Hope”

The Palace of Discovery (aka Palais de la Decouverte) in Paris. Source of photo:

Near the beginning of World War II, the 1937 Palace of Discovery in Paris, was a popular source of hope for the future:

(p. 206) An unexpectedly popular draw at the exposition was a relatively small hall hidden away behind the Grand Palais. The Palace of Discovery, as it was called, attracted more than 2 million visitors, five times the number that visited the modern art exhibit. They came for wonder and hope. The wonder was provided by exhibits including a huge electrostatic generator, like something from Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, two enormous metal spheres thirteen feet apart, across which a 5-million-volt current threw a hissing, crackling bolt of electricity. The hope came from the very nature of science itself. Designed by a group of liberal French researchers, the Palace of Discovery was intended to be more a “people’s university” than a stuffy museum, a place to hear inspiring lectures on the latest wonders of science, messages abut technological confidence and progress for the peoples of the world.

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

Every Hour of Every Business Day “About 25,000 Jobs Are Destroyed and Created”

(p. A15) It’s important to acknowledge that dynamic product markets create dynamic labor markets as well. In recent years, government statistics show that about 25,000 jobs are destroyed and created every hour that America is open for business. All this economic change is essential, but it presents very real challenges to workers.

For the full commentary, see:
MARTIN NEIL BAILY and MATTHEW J. SLAUGHTER. “What’s Behind the Recent Productivity Slowdown.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., DECEMBER 13, 2008): A15.

Only Permanent Tax Cuts Provide Effective Stimulus


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) The incoming Obama administration and congressional Democrats are now considering a second fiscal stimulus package, estimated at more than $500 billion, to follow the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008. As they do, much can be learned by examining the first.

The major part of the first stimulus package was the $115 billion, temporary rebate payment program targeted to individuals and families that phased out as incomes rose. Most of the rebate checks were mailed or directly deposited during May, June and July.

The argument in favor of these temporary rebate payments was that they would increase consumption, stimulate aggregate demand, and thereby get the economy growing again. What were the results? The chart nearby reveals the answer.

The upper line shows disposable personal income through September. Disposable personal income is what households have left after paying taxes and receiving transfers from the government. The big blip is due to the rebate payments in May through July.

The lower line shows personal consumption expenditures by households. Observe that consumption shows no noticeable increase at the time of the rebate. Hence, by this simple measure, the rebate did little or nothing to stimulate consumption, overall aggregate demand, or the economy.

These results may seem surprising, but they are not. They correspond very closely to what basic economic theory tells us. According to the permanent-income theory of Milton Friedman, or the life-cycle theory of Franco Modigliani, temporary increases in income will not lead to significant increases in consumption. However, if increases are longer-term, as in the case of permanent tax cut, then consumption is increased, and by a significant amount.

For the full commentary, see:
JOHN B. TAYLOR. “Why Permanent Tax Cuts Are the Best Stimulus.” Wall Street Journal (Tues., NOVEMBER 25, 2008): A15.

Inability to Patent Sulfa, Delayed Its Marketing

When new uses of old, unpatentable drugs are discovered, there seems to be inadequate incentive to publicize them, and bring them to market. (For example, I think I have seen research suggesting that aspirin and fish oil capsules, are as effective in fighting heart disease as some newer drugs, but are nonoptimally utilized because of perverse incentives.) Maybe a revision of the patent law should be considered that permits some patenting of new uses of old drugs and substances?

(p. 172) It was wonderful that this powerful, inexpensive medicine was now available, but for a year after the Pasteur Institute announcement, no one marketed it seriously in its pure form as a medicine. Because it was not patentable, it was difficult for major chemical or drug firms to see a way to make much of a profit from it. It was not until months after the Pasteur group’s first publication on sulfa that the president of Rhône-Poulenc, an industrial supporter of Fourneau’s laboratory, visited the Pasteur Institute to hear about it. After talking with the researchers he decided to launch Septazine, a variation on pure sulfa that he felt was different enough to allow patenting—and hence profits. Septazine reached the marketplace in May 1936.

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

“Commerce in Goods Brought with it Commerce in Entertainment, Music, Ideas, Gods and Cults”


“This terra-cotta vessel, from the Hittite site in Turkey, looks strikingly modern.” Source of photo and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. D7) The show whisks us along on complementary interlocking narratives that take the visitor down a spaghetti junction of cultural confluences. We learn that in the 1950s a prominent Turkish archaeologist excavated a site known locally as Kultepe. It yielded a vast hoard of cuneiform tablets that record in detail the town’s trade in copper and numerous aspects of its domestic life, including letters home — many of which are on display. As a result, we know that Assyrian merchants in the copper trade moved en masse to Central Anatolia and founded the town, and many like it, to feed the burgeoning trade in what Ms. Aruz calls “the luxury goods of the time.” She adds that “potentates competed to possess artifacts like these — the more distant and exotic their origins, the more desirable because their possession denoted power and prestige.”

Visitors should, in particular, feast their eyes on the smoothly burnished terra-cotta spouted vessels from Kultepe and Hittite sites in Turkey. Outlandishly geometric and eerily modern, futuristic even, they alone are worth the price of admission.
In following the visual motif of bull-leaping acrobats from Crete to Anatolia to Egypt on everything from Minoan vases to cylinder seals and carved boxes, the show makes the point that commerce in goods brought with it commerce in entertainment, music, ideas, gods and cults. Suddenly images of Sphinxes and Gryphons pop up all over the 15th-century B.C. geosphere, as do toys and board games and educational institutions.

For the full story, see:
SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN. “Doing the Math to Find the Good Jobs; Mathematicians Land Top Spot in New Ranking of Best and Worst Occupations in the U.S.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Jan. 6, 2008): D2.

For the case for the complementarity between capitalism and culture, see:
Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

AmagiCuneiform.gif “The cuneiform inscription . . . is the earliest-known written appearance of the word “freedom” (amagi), or “liberty.” It is taken from a clay document written about 2300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.” Source of the cuneiform and the caption:
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Gains in Productivity Due to “Bipartisan Removal of Regulations that Stifle Competition and Innovation”

In the Clinton administration, Martin Neil Baily was the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. He is one of those Democratic economists, along with Brad DeLong and Larry Summers, who appreciates the importance of innovation through the process of creative destruction, in making our lives better.

(p. A15) The economic attention of U.S. government and business leaders is fixed squarely on the downturn and financial crisis. Whether or not bailouts are proper short-term medicine, economists agree that the long-run solution for restoring economic growth lies in raising productivity.

The single best measure of a country’s average standard of living is productivity: the value of output of goods and services a country produces per worker. The more workers produce, the more income they receive, and the more they can consume. Higher productivity results in higher standards of living.

So how has U.S. productivity grown recently? Unfortunately, very slowly. After averaging 2.7% productivity growth from 1995 through 2002, annual growth of productivity in the nonfarming business sector has slowed dramatically — to just 1.7% in 2005, 1.0% in 2006, and 1.4% in 2007. At this new average rate of under 1.4%, it would take nearly 52 years for average U.S. living standards to double — versus just 26 years at the earlier average. Signs of this slowdown are apparent, particularly in the waning competitiveness of U.S. sectors like automobiles, financial services and information technology.

On Monday, we are issuing a new report that details a set of policies the government could implement to boost U.S. productivity growth. Time is of the essence in addressing this challenge because the economy-wide impacts of structural policies tend to appear only gradually, in part because of many-year corporate planning horizons. It is also because faster productivity growth will ease the burden of massive U.S. fiscal deficits now projected for the coming years.

A central theme of this report is the critical role that competitive product markets play in spurring productivity growth and boosting standards of living. One of the great U.S. policy successes of recent decades has been the bipartisan removal of regulations that stifle competition and innovation in product markets. U.S. industries that face strong competitive intensity are more productive than highly regulated or otherwise sheltered industries. This competition, in turn, yields higher incomes and greater choices for consumers.

Maintaining the productivity benefits of product market competition requires sound choices in areas including trade and investment, regulation and infrastructure.

For the full commentary, see:
MARTIN NEIL BAILY and MATTHEW J. SLAUGHTER. “What’s Behind the Recent Productivity Slowdown.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., DECEMBER 13, 2008): A15.

Good Jobs and Bad Jobs


Source of cartoon: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

Labor is usually viewed as a victim of the process of creative destruction, because some old jobs are destroyed when a new technology replaces an old one. But part of the process is the creation of new jobs, and on average, the new jobs are created have better characteristics than the old jobs that are destroyed.
The article quoted below, discusses some of the characteristics that make a job better or worse.

(p. D2) Nineteen years ago, Jennifer Courter set out on a career path that has since provided her with a steady stream of lucrative, low-stress jobs. Now, her occupation — mathematician — has landed at the top spot on a new study ranking the best and worst jobs in the U.S.

“It’s a lot more than just some boring subject that everybody has to take in school,” says Ms. Courter, a research mathematician at mental images Inc., a maker of 3D-visualization software in San Francisco. “It’s the science of problem-solving.”
The study, released Tuesday from, a new job site, evaluates 200 professions to determine the best and worst according to five criteria inherent to every job: environment, income, employment outlook, physical demands and stress. ( is published by Adicio Inc., in which Wall Street Journal owner News Corp. holds a minority stake.)
The findings were compiled by Les Krantz, author of “Jobs Rated Almanac,” and are based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau, as well as studies from trade associations and Mr. Krantz’s own expertise.
According to the study, mathematicians fared best in part because they typically work in favorable conditions — indoors and in places free of toxic fumes or noise — unlike those toward the bottom of the list like sewage-plant operator, painter and bricklayer. They also aren’t expected to do any heavy lifting, crawling or crouching — attributes associated with occupations such as firefighter, auto mechanic and plumber.

For the full story, see:
SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN. “Doing the Math to Find the Good Jobs; Mathematicians Land Top Spot in New Ranking of Best and Worst Occupations in the U.S.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Jan. 6, 2008): D2.

For the ranking of 200 jobs, and the components that went into the ranking, see: