EU Is “Infused with the Spirit of Yesterday’s Future”

ThatcherMargaretIronLady2012-09-02.jpg “Mrs. Thatcher at a Conservative Party Conference in 1982.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. C2) . . . , it was Mrs. Thatcher . . . , a couple of years after she left office, who identified the problem with European construction. It was, she said, “infused with the spirit of yesterday’s future.” It made the “central intellectual mistake” of assuming that “the model for future government was that of a centralized bureaucracy.” As she concluded, “The day of the artificially constructed megastate is gone.”

For the full commentary, see:
CHARLES MOORE. “What Would The Iron Lady Do? She preached a gospel of self-discipline, free enterprise and national autonomy. As Europe implodes and the West’s economic woes mount, it’s time to re-examine Margaret Thatcher’s ambiguous legacy, writes Charles Moore.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 17, 2011): C1-C2.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Raising Minimum Wage Hurts Working Poor

(p. 592) Using data drawn from the March Current Population Survey, we find that state and federal minimum wage increases between 2003 and 2007 had no effect on state poverty rates. When we then simulate the effects of a proposed federal minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $9.50 per hour, we find that such an increase will be even more poorly targeted to the working poor than was the last federal increase from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour. Assuming no negative employment effects, only 11.3% of workers who will gain live in poor households, compared to 15.8% from the last increase. When we allow for negative employment effects, we find that the working poor face a disproportionate share of the job losses. Our results suggest that raising the federal minimum wage continues to be an inadequate way to help the working poor.

For the full article, from which the above abstract is quoted, see:
Sabia, Joseph J., and Richard V. Burkhauser. “Minimum Wages and Poverty: Will a $9.50 Federal Minimum Wage Really Help the Working Poor?” Southern Economic Journal 76, no. 3 (Jan. 2010): 592-623.

A Marshmallow Now or an Elegant French Pastry Four Years Later


Source of book image:

(p. 19) Growing up in the erratic care of a feckless single mother, “Kewauna seemed able to ignore the day-to-day indignities of life in poverty on the South Side and instead stay focused on her vision of a more successful future.” Kewauna tells Tough, “I always wanted to be one of those business ladies walking downtown with my briefcase, everybody saying, ‘Hi, Miss Lerma!’ “

Here, as throughout the book, Tough nimbly combines his own reporting with the findings of scientists. He describes, for example, the famous “marshmallow experiment” of the psychologist Walter Mischel, whose studies, starting in the late 1960s, found that children who mustered the self-control to resist eating a marshmallow right away in return for two marshmallows later on did better in school and were more successful as adults.
“What was most remarkable to me about Kewauna was that she was able to marshal her prodigious noncognitive capacity — call it grit, conscientiousness, resilience or the ability to delay gratification — all for a distant prize that was, for her, almost entirely theoretical,” Tough observes of his young subject, who gets into college and works hard once she’s there. “She didn’t actually know any business ladies with briefcases downtown; she didn’t even know any college graduates except her teachers. It was as if Kewauna were taking part in an extended, high-stakes version of Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment, except in this case, the choice on offer was that she could have one marshmallow now or she could work really hard for four years, constantly scrimping and saving, staying up all night, struggling, sacrificing — and then get, not two marshmallows, but some kind of elegant French pastry she’d only vaguely heard of, like a napoleon. And Kewauna, miraculously, opted for the napoleon, even though she’d never tasted one before and didn’t know anyone who had. She just had faith that it was going to be delicious.”

For the full review, see:
ANNIE MURPHY PAUL. “School of Hard Knocks.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., August 26, 2012): 19.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 23, 2012.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:
Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

“Theory-Induced Blindness”

(p. 276) The mystery is how a conception of the utility of outcomes that is vulnerable to . . . obvious counterexamples survived for so long. I can explain (p. 277) it only by a weakness of the scholarly mind that I have often observed in myself. I call it theory-induced blindness: once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing. You give the theory the benefit of the doubt, trusting the community of experts who have accepted it. . . . As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert observed, disbelieving is hard work, and System 2 is easily tired.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Where Credit Is Due

SchatzWaksmanStreptomycinLab2012-09-02.jpg “EVIDENCE; A lab notebook belonging to Albert Schatz, left, with his supervisor, Selman A. Waksman, and discovered at Rutgers helps puts to rest a 70-year argument over credit for the Nobel-winning discovery of streptomycin.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — For as long as archivists at Rutgers University could remember, a small cardboard box marked with the letter W in black ink had sat unopened in a dusty corner of the special collections of the Alexander Library. Next to it were 60 sturdy archive boxes of papers, a legacy of the university’s most famous scientist: Selman A. Waksman, who won a Nobel Prize in 1952 for the discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic to cure tuberculosis.

The 60 boxes contained details of how streptomycin was found — and also of the murky story behind it, a vicious legal battle between Dr. Waksman and his graduate student Albert Schatz over who deserved credit.
Dr. Waksman died in 1973; after Dr. Schatz’s death in 2005, the papers were much in demand by researchers trying to piece together what really happened between the professor and his student. But nobody looked in the small cardboard box.
. . .
Thomas J. Frusciano, the head archivist of the Alexander Library special collections, recalled that the Waksman papers had been acquired in 1983, 10 years after the professor’s death, and had even included a vial of streptomycin. He asked a member of his team, Erika Gorder, to search the stacks.
She remembered seeing the small box next to Dr. Waksman’s papers. “I must have passed by it a million times,” she said, “but I always thought it must contain miscellaneous material from the Waksman papers when they were cataloged.”
When she pulled down the box and carefully opened it, however, there, loosely piled inside, were five clothbound notebooks — just like Dr. Waksman’s, but marked “Albert Schatz.”
In the notebook for 1943, on Page 32, Dr. Schatz had started Experiment 11. In meticulous cursive, he had written the date, Aug. 23, and the title, “Exp. 11 Antagonistic Actinomycetes,” a reference to the strange threadlike microbes found in the soil that produce antibiotics. Underneath the title he recorded where he had found the microbes in “leaf compost, straw compost and stable manure” on the Rutgers College farm, outside his laboratory.
The following pages detailed his experiments and his discovery of two strains of a gray-green actinomycete named Streptomyces griseus, Latin for gray. Each strain produced an antibiotic that destroyed germs of E. coli in a petri dish — and, he was to find out later, also destroyed the TB germ. The notebook shows that the moment of discovery belongs to Dr. Schatz.
One of the pages in Experiment 11 had indeed been cut out, but the page was toward the end of the experiment, after Dr. Schatz had made his discovery. There was no evidence of a break in the experiment to suggest that Dr. Schatz might have removed the page to conceal something he didn’t want the rest of the world to know.
And in Dr. Waksman’s own papers — in the 60 boxes — there was confirmation that the professor knew the missing page was not a real issue. His legal advisers had told him bluntly that it was a distraction. As one lawyer wrote, the missing page was “insignificant.”
As for the professor’s story that Dr. Schatz’s uncle had carried off the key 1943 notebook, Dr. Waksman’s own documents make clear it could not have been true. At the time the key notebook was not at Rutgers; it was with university-appointed agents who were preparing the streptomycin patent application. Here, indeed, was evidence that Dr. Waksman had deliberately spread doubt and confusion about Dr. Schatz’s Experiment 11 in a campaign to belittle the work of his student.

For the full story, see:
PETER PRINGLE. “Notebooks Shed Light on an Antibiotic’s Contested Discovery.” The New York Times (Tues., June 12, 2012): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 11, 2012.)

The issues treated above are discussed in more detail in Pringle’s book:
Pringle, Peter. Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug. New York: Walker & Company, 2012.

How Politics Trumps Peer Review in Medical Research


The U.S. public biomedical research system is renowned for its peer review process that awards federal funds to meritorious research performers. Although congressional appropriators do not earmark federal funds for biomedical research performers, I argue that they support allocations for those research fields that are most likely to benefit performers in their constituencies. Such disguised transfers mitigate the reputational penalties to appropriators of interfering with a merit‐driven system. I use data on all peer‐reviewed grants by the National Institutes of Health during the years 1984-2003 and find that performers in the states of certain House Appropriations Committee members receive 5.9-10.3 percent more research funds than those at unrepresented institutions. The returns to representation are concentrated in state universities and small businesses. Members support funding for the projects of represented performers in fields in which they are relatively weak and counteract the distributive effect of the peer review process.

Hegde, Deepak. “Political Influence Behind the Veil of Peer Review: An Analysis of Public Biomedical Research Funding in the United States.” Journal of Law and Economics 52, no. 4 (Nov. 2009): 665-90.

“A Place of Hypocrisy and Fear, Where Tenured Professors Proclaim Empty Solidarity with Exploited Workers”


Source of book image:

(p. 20) A couple of years ago, Bawer made a trip home to see what’s happened to the academic world he left behind. He attended a few conferences for women’s studies, black studies, queer studies and Chicano studies, where he heard plenty of cant, as when a participant at a “Fat Studies” conference explained her veganism by declaring: “Dairy is a feminist issue. Milk comes from a grieving mother.” He found, in abundance, what he’s looking for: ­jargon-spewing careerists posing as radicals, semiliterate professors of literature and widespread condemnation of reason itself as a hoax perpetrated by the powerful on the powerless. Based on this sample, he concludes that the contemporary American academy is a place of hypocrisy and fear, where tenured professors proclaim empty solidarity with exploited workers, and Take Back the Night rallies promote the idea that “male students metamorphose, werewolf-like, into potential rapists” every night.
. . .
The humanities and “soft” social science departments that Bawer mocks are sinking into insignificance — partly, to be sure, because they have purveyed the kind of buffoonery he decries.

For the full review, see:
ANDREW DELBANCO. “Back to School.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., August 26, 2012): 1 & 20.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 23, 2012 and had the title “Academic Battleground; ‘The Victims’ Revolution,’ by Bruce Bawer.”)
(Note: in the print version, the review started in the left column of the first page under the title “Back to School.” The title was shared by a review of another book, that started in the right column of the first page.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:
Bawer, Bruce. The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind. New York: Broadside Books, 2012.

Premortem Reduces Bias from Uncritical Optimism

(p. 265) As a team converges on a decision–and especially when the leader tips her hand–public doubts about the wisdom of the planned move are gradually suppressed and eventually come to be treated as evidence of flawed loyalty to the team and its leaders. The suppression of doubt contributes to overconfidence in a group where only supporters of the decision have a voice. The main virtue of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts. Furthermore, it encourages even supporters of the decision to search for possible threats that they had not considered earlier. The premortem is not a panacea and does not provide complete protection against nasty surprises, but it goes some way toward reducing the damage of plans that are subject to the biases of WYSIATI and uncritical optimism.

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

“Oldest” Pottery Now 2,000 Years Older

PotteryAncientKitchen2012-09-02.jpg “Pottery made by mobile foragers dates back 20,000 years.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The evidence quoted below is somewhat esoteric, but it bears on an important issue: how long ago did our ancestors become our equals in terms of biological and intellectual abilities? (The longer that period, the longer is the handle in McCloskey’s “Great Fact.”)

(p. D3) Fragments of ancient pottery found in southern China turn out to date back 20,000 years, making them the world’s oldest known pottery — 2,000 to 3,000 years older than examples found in East Asia and elsewhere.
. . .
The crockery, found in Xianrendong Cave in Jiangxi Province, belonged to a group of mobile foragers, Dr. Bar-Yosef said. They were a hunting and gathering community; plant cultivation and agriculture probably did not arrive until about 10,000 years later.

For the full review, see:
SINDYA N. BHANOO. “OBSERVATORY; Remnants of an Ancient Kitchen Are Found in China.” The New York Times (Sun., July 3, 2012): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 28, 2012.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:
Wu, Xiaohong, Chi Zhang, Paul Goldberg, David Cohen, Yan Pan, Trina Arpin, and Ofer Bar-Yosef. “Report; Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China.” Science 336, no. 6089 (June 29, 2012): 1696-700.

Economists Have “the Tools to Slap Together a Model to ‘Explain’ Any and All Phenomena”

(p. 755) The economist of today has the tools to slap together a model to ‘explain’ any and all phenomena that come to mind. The flood of models is rising higher and higher, spouting from an ever increasing number of journal outlets. In the midst of all this evidence of highly trained cleverness, it is difficult to retain the realisation that we are confronting a complex system ‘the working of which we do not understand’. . . . That the economics profession might be humbled by recent events is a realisation devoutly to be wished.

Leijonhufvud, Axel. “Out of the Corridor: Keynes and the Crisis.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 33, no. 4 (July 2009): 741-57.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the passage above was quoted on the back cover of The Cato Journal 30, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2010).)

Economists Optimistic that Economy Can Adapt to Climate Change


Source of book image:

(p. 222) Efficient policy decisions regarding climate change require credible estimates of the future costs of possible (in)action. The edited volume by Gary Libecap and Richard Steckel contributes to this important policy discussion by presenting work estimating the ability of economic actors to adapt to a changing climate. The eleven contributed research chapters primarily focus on the historical experience of the United States and largely on the agricultural sector. While the conclusions are not unanimous, on average, the authors tend to present an optimistic perspective on the ability of the economy to adapt to climate change.

For the full review, see:
Swoboda, Aaron. “Review of: The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present.” Journal of Economic Literature 50, no. 1 (March 2012): 222-24.

Book under review:
Libecap, Gary D., and Richard H. Steckel, eds. The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present, National Bureau of Economic Research Conference Report. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.