Catherine the Great as Benevolent Despot


Source of book image:

(p. C3) Bereft of husband and child, a lonely Catherine began to read the histories, philosophy and literature of Greece and Rome and of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws,” which analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of despotic rule, had a powerful impact on her. She was particularly interested in his thesis that the conduct of a specific despot could partially redeem that form of rule. Thereafter, she attributed to herself a “republican soul” of the kind advocated by Montesquieu.

Voltaire, the venerated patriarch of the Enlightenment, had concluded that a despotic government might well be the best possible form of government–if it were reasonable. But to be reasonable, he said, it must be enlightened; if enlightened, it could be both efficient and benevolent. Soon after ascending to the throne, Catherine began a correspondence with Voltaire that eventually extended to hundreds of letters over more than 20 years.
. . .
Near the end of her reign Catherine was asked how she understood the “blind obedience with which her orders were obeyed.” Catherine smiled and answered, “It is not as easy as you think…. I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people, and so in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have. And when I am already convinced in advance of good approval, then I issue my orders and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience.”
Catherine died in 1796, when George Washington was finishing his second term in office. Since then, the temptations of absolute power have remained great; despots have continued to appear, afflicting people everywhere. We have learned, at enormous cost, the difficulty of combining despotism with benevolence. Few rulers have even tried. Catherine tried.

For the full commentary, see:
ROBERT K. MASSIE. “Catherine the Great’s Lessons for Despots; Russia’s erudite empress tried to redeem absolute rule; her failures highlight dangers still present today.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 12, 2011): C3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

For Massie’s full biography of Catherine the Great, see:
Massie, Robert K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. New York: Random House, 2011.

Entrepreneurs Are Optimistic About the Odds of Success

(p. 256) The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that the statistics apply to them. A survey found that American entrepreneurs tend to believe they are in a promising line of business: their (p. 257) average estimate of the chances of success for “any business like yours” was 60%–almost double the true value. The bias was more glaring when people assessed the odds of their own venture. Fully 81% of the entrepreneurs put their personal odds of success at 7 out of 10 or higher, and 33% said their chance of failing was zero.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Ronald Reagan Celebrated Opening of Disneyland

ReaganCohostingOpeningDisneyland2012-08-17.jpg “Ronald Reagan, left, helped host a TV show about Disneyland’s opening in 1955.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 11) In an unusual collaboration of presidential scholarship and mass-market entertainment — featuring two men who, truth be told, were never particularly close — the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and the Walt Disney Company have joined together to open a sprawling, nine-month exhibition drawn from the Disney archives.
. . .
Reagan was one of three M.C.’s for the televised opening of Disneyland in 1955; a grainy video in the exhibit captures the event. As governor, Reagan petitioned the United States postmaster to issue a Walt Disney stamp, and he was on hand in 1990 for Disneyland’s 35th anniversary.
“He and Walt Disney did know each other,” said Robert A. Iger, the chief ex-(p. 16)ecutive and chairman of the Walt Disney Company. “They became Californians. And they clearly had mutual respect for one another.”

For the full story, see:
ADAM NAGOURNEY and BROOKS BARNES. “In New Exhibit, Disney Lends Its Star Power to Reagan, and Vice Versa.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., July 22, 2012): 11 & 16.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the article is July 21, 2012.)

“If Apple Is a Fruit on a Tree, Its Branches Are the Freedom to Think and Create”

(p. B3) Millions of Chinese flooded the popular micro blogging site Sina Weibo to tweet their condolences on the death of Steve Jobs over the past two days. They also raised the question: Why isn’t there a Steve Jobs in China?
. . .
One of the most popular postings on Mr. Jobs’ legacy came from scholar Wu Jiaxiang. “If Apple is a fruit on a tree, its branches are the freedom to think and create, and its root is constitutional democracy,” he wrote. “An authoritarian nation may be able to build huge projects collectively but will never be able to produce science and technology giants.” On that, Wang Ran, founder of a boutique investment bank China eCapital Corp., added, “And its trunk is a society whose legal system acknowledges the value of intellectual property.”

For the full story, see:
Li Yuan. “China Frets: Innovators Stymied Here.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 8, 2011): B3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Dems Take Taxpayers’ Earnings to Spend on Senator Reid’s Cowboy Poets

SeemanCharlieWesternFolklifeFestival2012-08-15.jpg “Charlie Seemann at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nev., home to an annual festival that draws thousands of cowboy poets and their fans.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) ELKO, Nev. — This isolated town in the northeast Nevada mountains is known for gold mines, ranches, casinos, bordellos and J. M. Capriola, a destination store with two floors of saddles, boots, spurs and chaps. It is also the birthplace of the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a celebration of range song and poetry that draws thousands of cowboys and their fans every January and receives some money from the federal government.
. . .
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, a Democrat and the majority leader, invoked the event in arguing against Republican cuts in arts financing in the budget debate, setting off a conflagration of conservative scorn.
. . .
“He was trying to defend the National Endowment for the Humanities and the N.E.A., and he thought, this is something that he was familiar with and he’s always liked, and he was holding this up as an example,” said Charlie Seemann, the executive director of the Western Folklife Center, a converted 98-year-old hotel on Railroad Street. “And, whoops! In this political climate it was too good a target: ‘Cowboy poetry, say what? We’re paying for that?’
. . .
“Given where we are with our financial situation — and some people would argue regardless of that — this is not something that the federal government should be doing,” said Thomas A. Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “If people want to support a certain amount of activity in the arts or humanities, they should be paying for it. And the fact that Senator Reid for some reason picked this as an example of how extreme the Republican budget was — he might have picked something else.”
Inevitably, some of the argument, as it were, is taking place in verse. Representative Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican from Arizona, posted this on his Twitter account:

Way out in the prairie

To a rustler named Harry
Being broke ain’t no reason to sweat
Just sit in yer barn
Spin a rhythmic yarn
And you’ll pay down the national debt!

For the full story, see:
ADAM NAGOURNEY. “For Cowboy Poets, Unwelcome Spotlight in Battle Over Spending.” The New York Times (Mon., April 11, 2011): A15 & A17.
(Note: ellipses added; italics and indents in original print version.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the article is April 10, 2011.)

“Planning Fallacy”: Overly Optimistic Forecasting of Project Outcomes

(p. 250) This should not come as a surprise: overly optimistic forecasts of the outcome of projects are found everywhere. Amos and I coined the term planning fallacy to describe plans and forecasts that

  • are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios
  • could be improved by consulting the statistics of similar cases

. . .
The optimism of planners and decision makers is not the only cause of overruns. Contractors of kitchen renovations and of weapon systems readily admit (though not to their clients) that they routinely make most of their profit on additions to the original plan. The failures of forecasting in these cases reflect the customers’ inability to imagine how much their wishes will escalate over time. They end up paying much more than they would if they had made a realistic plan and stuck to it.
Errors in the initial budget are not always innocent. The authors of unrealistic plans are often driven by the desire to get the plan approved–(p. 251)whether by their superiors or by a client–supported by the knowledge that projects are rarely abandoned unfinished merely because of overruns in costs or completion times. In such cases, the greatest responsibility for avoiding the planning fallacy lies with the decision makers who approve the plan. If they do not recognize the need for an outside view, they commit a planning fallacy.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

“Let the Consumers Decide When and Where They Want to Eat”

BillowRachelLaCocinita2012-08-13.jpg“Rachel Billow is the co-founder of La Cocinita, a food truck in New Orleans that serves Latin American cuisine. She says the city’s requirement that mobile food vendors change locations after 45 minutes in one spot isn’t feasible. “It takes about a half-hour to set up,” she says.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B8) A street fight is brewing between gourmet food-truck vendors and restaurants–not over the grub, but how it’s sold.

Under pressure to protect bricks-and-mortar restaurants from increased competition, several big cities are starting to apply the brakes on a rising tide of food-truck vendors with fully loaded kitchens.
Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and Seattle are among the cities enacting laws that restrict where food trucks can serve customers in proximity to their rivals and for how long. Some food-truck operators argue that they shouldn’t be punished for offering an innovative service, especially since many cities already allow restaurants to open up alongside one another.
“The rules are unfair,” says Amy Le, owner of Duck N Roll, a food truck in Chicago serving Asian-style cuisine that includes short ribs and mango lychee.
Three weeks after she launched the business last fall, she received a ticket from local law enforcement for doing business about 150 feet from a wine bar–50 feet within the city’s limit for how close food trucks can park outside of retail food establishments.
Ms. Le says she later had to spend nearly a full day in court to find out what the violation would cost her–about $300–and that she lost an estimated $600 to $700 in sales as a result.
“The 200-foot buffer prohibits me from competing,” says Ms. Le, 32 years old, who also opposes a new rule requiring food trucks to install global-positioning devices so the city can track their whereabouts. “It is a free market. Let the consumers decide when and where they want to eat.”
. . .
Gourmet food-truck operators say another problem is that in many cities they are still relegated to antiquated rules intended for ice-cream, hot-dog and other traditional mobile vendors with smaller and less complex menus.
New Orleans, for example, requires mobile food vendors to change locations after 45 minutes in one spot, among other restrictions.
“It’s not a feasible amount of time for this business model,” says 31-year-old Rachel Billow, who last year co-founded La Cocinita, a food truck that serves Latin American cuisine such as plantains and arepas. “It takes about a half-hour to set up.”
Ms. Billow says she and her business partner, Venezuelan chef Benoit Angulo, started La Cocinita after several years of working in the restaurant industry. They invested $50,000 in start-up costs, an amount that included $12,000 in modifications to their vehicle to satisfy the city’s fire code, she adds.

For the full story, see:
SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN. “Street Fight: Food Trucks vs. Restaurants; Some Big Cities Jump Into the Fray, Enacting Parking Restrictions to Cope With Rising Tide of Gourmet Vendors.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., August 9, 2012): B8.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

LeAmyDuckNRollTruck2012-08-13.jpg “Amy Le, owner of Duck N Roll, an Asian-style food truck in Chicago, says last fall she received a fine for doing business about 150 feet from a wine bar–50 feet within the city’s limit for how close food trucks can park outside of retail food establishments.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

Revolutionary Entrepreneurs Need “Unbridled Confidence and Arrogance”

(p. B1) Will there be another?
It’s a bit absurd to try to identify “the next Steve Jobs.” Two decades ago, Mr. Jobs himself wouldn’t even have qualified. Exiled from Apple Inc., . . . Mr. Jobs was then hoping to revive his struggling computer maker, NeXT Inc. . . .
But just as Mr. Jobs followed Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, there will some day be another innovator with the vision, drive and disdain of the status quo to spark, and then direct, big changes in how we live.
. . .
“You have to try the unreasonable,” says Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc., who, as a longtime venture capitalist, has seen thousands of would-be revolutionaries. Two key characteristics, Mr. Khosla says: “unbridled confidence and arrogance.”

For the full story, see:
SCOTT THURM and STU WOO. “Who Will Be the ‘Next Steve Jobs’?” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 8, 2011): B1 & B3.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Vivid Examples of Government Obstacles to Entrepreneurship is posting video clips of free agent entrepreneurs and the obstacles that government policies put in the path to their achievements. The videos give concrete examples and make the costs of regulations more real by connecting the costs to the faces of actual people.

“Unknown Unknowns” Will Delay Most Projects

Kahneman’s frequently-used acronym “WYSIATI,” used in the passage quoted below, means “What You See Is All There Is.”

(p. 247) On that long-ago Friday, our curriculum expert made two judgments about the same problem and arrived at very different answers. The inside view is the one that all of us, including Seymour, spontaneously adopted to assess the future of our project. We focused on our specific circumstances and searched for evidence in our own experiences. We had a sketchy plan: we knew how many chapters we were going to write, and we had an idea of how long it had taken us to write the two that we had already done. The more cautious among us probably added a few months to their estimate as a margin of error.

Extrapolating was a mistake. We were forecasting based on the informa-(p. 248)tion in front of us–WYSIATI–but the chapters we wrote first were probably easier than others, and our commitment to the project was probably then at its peak. But the main problem was that we failed to allow for what Donald Rumsfeld famously called the “unknown unknowns:’ There was no way for us to foresee, that day, the succession of events that would cause the project to drag out for so long. The divorces, the illnesses, the crises of coordination with bureaucracies that delayed the work could not be anticipated. Such events not only cause the writing of chapters to slow down, they also produce long periods during which little or no progress is made at all. The same must have been true, of course, for the other teams that Seymour knew about. The members of those teams were also unable to imagine the events that would cause them to spend seven years to finish, or ultimately fail to finish, a project that they evidently had thought was very feasible. Like us, they did not know the odds they were facing. There are many ways for any plan to fail, and although most of them are too improbable to be anticipated, the likelihood that something will go wrong in a big project is high.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Shedding Light, or “The Greatest Symbol of Modern Progress”


Source of book image:

(p. 5) IN the wake of widespread violence during the New York City blackout of 1977, a newspaper columnist quipped that just one flick of a light switch separated civilization from primordial chaos.

Leaving the hyperbole aside, artificial illumination has arguably been the greatest symbol of modern progress. By making nighttime infinitely more inviting, street lighting — gas lamps beginning in the early 1800s followed by electric lights toward the end of the century — drastically expanded the boundaries of everyday life to include hours once shrouded in darkness. Today, any number of metropolitan areas in the United States and abroad, bathed in the glare of neon and mercury vapor, bill themselves as 24-hour cities, open both for business and pleasure.
. . .
. . . there was never any question that 19th-century communities welcomed lamps, which in conjunction with police forces, posed a powerful deterrent to lawlessness. Another benefit lay in the numerous pedestrians drawn by their inviting glow, whose very presence helped to discourage crime.
“As safe and agreeable to walk out in the evening as by day-light,” pronounced a New Yorker in 1853.
Certainly, public anxiety over the recent removal of lamps should not be minimized. No longer are there witches and wolves to fear, but research strongly suggests, as one might expect, the critical value of street lighting as a hindrance to crime and serious accidents.
. . .
Financial costs and public safety, however, are not the only issues. Without the benefit of street lighting, towns and cities, after sunset, will be diminished as communities. Families will be more apt to “cocoon” at home, rather than visit friends or attend sporting and cultural events. And, too, our appreciation for night itself will suffer. Evenings can be best enjoyed if they remain inviting and safe, whether for neighborhood gatherings, walking Fido or gazing at the heavens — all with less chance of losing your wallet or stumbling into a ditch.

For the full commentary, see:
A. ROGER EKIRCH. “OPINION; Return to a Darker Age.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., January 8, 2012): 5.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 7, 2012.)

Ekrich wrote a related book:
A. Roger Ekirch. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.