By Many Metrics, Life Is Better Than Ever

(p. A15) . . . , Mr. Easterbrook argues, “at no juncture in American history were people better off than they were in 2016: living standards, per-capita income, buying power, health, safety, liberty, and longevity were at their highest.”
A potent counter to today’s unwarranted pessimism, the author claims, is not just the evidence that can be seen (rising employment, wages, wealth, health, lifespans and so on) but what has not been seen. Granaries, for instance, are not empty: The many predictions made since the 1960s that billions would die of starvation have not come true. “Instead, by 2015, the United Nations reported global malnutrition had declined to the lowest level in history. Nearly all malnutrition that persists is caused by distribution failures or by government corruption, not by lack of supply.” In fact, obesity is rapidly becoming a global problem.
Similarly, even though there are occasional panics, “resources have not been depleted despite the incredible proliferation of people, vehicles, aircraft, and construction.” Instead of oil and gas running out by the year 2000, as some in the 1970s predicted, both “are in worldwide oversupply” along with minerals and ores.
. . .
Data supporting this author’s optimistic observations are presented throughout “It’s Better Than It Looks.” Similar catalogues can be found in books like Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” (2018), Johan Norberg’s “Progress” (2016), Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s “Abundance” (2012) and Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” (2010). I even touched on some of the same points in my own “The Moral Arc” (2015). Apparently, though, this chorus is not loud enough, since pessimism remains as prominent as it ever was.

For the full review, see:
Michael Shermer. “BOOKSHELF; Why Things Are Looking Up; Though declinists in both parties may bemoan our miserable lives, Americans are healthier, wealthier, safer and living longer than ever.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 27, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘It’s Better Than It Looks’ Review: Why Things Are Looking Up; Though declinists in both parties may bemoan our miserable lives, Americans are healthier, wealthier, safer and living longer than ever.”)

The book under review, is:
Easterbrook, Gregg. It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. New York: PublicAffairs, 2018.

The More Governments Tax, the Less Workers Work

(p. A17) European countries trail the U.S. in working hard and controlling taxes, and their economies have lagged in comparison. France has a tax-to-GDP ratio of about 44%, and in Italy it’s 43%. The French and Italians work almost 30% fewer hours per person than Americans. Notably, the French economy has flatlined since 2010 while Italy’s has contracted.
These patterns are not a coincidence: High taxes discourage work and capital formation. Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that a 1% increase in a nation’s tax rate is associated with a 1.4% decrease in hours worked per person in the working-age population. U.S. data dating to the 1970s also shows that higher taxes cause workers to limit their hours, reducing economic output.

For the full commentary, see:
Winkler, Rolfe and Justin Lahart. “Government Spending Discourages Work; The French and Italians pay higher taxes and put in 30% fewer hours per person than Americans.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018): A17.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 26, 2018.)

Proof of Concept for Regenerating Limbs and Internal Organs

(p. D3) Scientists have decoded the genome of the axolotl, the Mexican amphibian with a Mona Lisa smile. It has 32 billion base pairs, which makes it ten times the size of the human genome, and the largest genome ever sequenced.
The axolotl, endangered in the wild, has been bred in laboratories and studied for more than 150 years. It has the remarkable capacity to regrow amputated limbs complete with bones, muscles and nerves; to heal wounds without producing scar tissue; and even to regenerate damaged internal organs.
This salamander can heal a crushed spinal cord and have it function just like it did before it was damaged. This ability, which exists to such an extent in no other animal, makes its genes of considerable interest.
. . .
The researchers have identified some of the genes involved in regeneration, and some genes that exist only in the axolotl, but there is much work still to be done.

For the full story, see:
NICHOLAS BAKALAR. “TAKE A NUMBER; 32 Billion.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 6, 2018): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 1, 2018, and has the title “TAKE A NUMBER; The Smiling Axolotl Hides a Secret: A Giant Genome.”)

Art Diamond Predicts a 40% Chance that Elon Musk Will Make It to Mars

(p. A1) What are the chances that readers will make it to the end of this article? About 40%.
If you do make it, that prediction will look smart. If you don’t, well, we said the odds were against it.
Such is the nature of the 40% rule, a favorite forecasting tactic of Wall Street analysts and other prognosticators trying to make a bold call without being too bold.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last month there’s a 40% chance that Brexit will be reversed; Citigroup Inc. analyst Jim Suva wrote that there’s a 40% chance Apple Inc. buys Netflix Inc.; and Nomura Holdings Inc. economist Lewis Alexander said there’s a 40% chance Nafta gets ripped up.
The nice thing about 40% is that you never have to say you were wrong, says Peter Tchir, a market strategist at Academy Securities. Say you predict the Dow Jones Industrial Average has a 40% chance of hitting 30000 before year-end.
“Get it right and you can say ‘See, I was telling everyone it could happen,’ ” he says. “Get it wrong and you can weasel your way out: ‘I didn’t say it was likely, I just said it was a strong possibility.’ “

For the full story, see:
Winkler, Rolfe and Justin Lahart, “How Pundits Never Get It Wrong: Call a 40% Chance.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018): A1 & A10.
(Note: the online version of the article has the date Feb. 26, 2018, and has the title “How Do Pundits Never Get It Wrong? Call a 40% Chance.”)

Independent Snapchat Entrepreneurs Turned Down Facebook’s Three Billion Dollars

(p. A17) Snap Inc. provides a remarkable story, not only because it has accumulated so many users so rapidly but also because it has remained an independent company in the shadow of Facebook, which in 2012 acquired Instagram, also photo-centered, for $1 billion. A year later, noticing Snapchat’s power to attract young users, Facebook offered Snap’s founders $3 billion for the company, a figure that the book’s publisher has rounded down for the title. Mr. Spiegel, the chief executive, said “no,” and Snap’s current market capitalization, around $23 billion, would seem to be sweet vindication. But Snap has yet to figure out how to convert its many users into net profits, and Instagram has shown no compunction about copying Snapchat features and has grown even faster.
. . .
In Mr. Spiegel’s view, sharing snaps–of anything–was enjoyable because the images were ephemeral and didn’t have to be composed for posterity. “It seems odd that at the beginning of the internet everyone decided everything should stick around forever,” he said.

For the full review, see:
Randall Stross. “BOOKSHELF; A Startup in Focus; Snapchat was born when casual photos replaced text messages among Stanford students. It now boasts 187 million daily users.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Feb. 12, 2018): A17.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 11, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Review: A Startup in Focus; Snapchat was born when casual photos replaced text messages among Stanford students. It now boasts 187 million daily users.”)

The book under review, is:
Gallagher, Billy. How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Italian Bureaucracy Leaves Innovative Restaurateur Feeling “Psychologically Violated”

(p. A7) ROME–The campaign leading up to Italy’s national elections on March 4 [2018] has featured populist promises of largess but neglected what economists have long said is the real Italian disease: The country has forgotten how to grow.
Take Gianni Angelilli’s pizzeria in downtown Rome. He uses an innovative dough mix and flexible cooking methods, drawing long lines and rave reviews. But Italy is too bureaucratic, the locals have no money and his ambition isn’t what it used to be, Mr. Angelilli said. If he opens more outlets, they will be abroad.
“Now, foreigners have more desire to eat well than Italians,” he said. “Italy is dead. Italy is finito.”
. . .
Italian politics have become measurably more chaotic since the country’s old party system–largely frozen during the Cold War–collapsed amid corruption scandals in the early 1990s. Data collected by Einaudi economist Luigi Guiso and others show that since 1992, coalitions have become more likely to crumble, lawmakers to defect and governments to need confidence votes in parliament. Politicians jostling for attention push more frequent, longer and more-complicated legislation.
“An excess has cluttered the bureaucratic machine,” says Mr. Guiso. “The country has become cumbersome.”
Yet the weakness of transient politicians has paradoxically made the public administration more powerful, at the same time as constant legal changes immobilize it, he says.
Mr. Guiso has practical experience. He is helping to set up a government-supported program to send young Italians to learn about entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley and at U.S. business schools, and he said Italian civil servants decided a tender offer inviting U.S. organizations to participate could be published in Italian only. After much persuasion, the civil servants agreed to publish the tender in English too–but insisted all applications must be in Italian, said Mr. Guiso. He said political friends apologized, saying there was nothing they could do.
Mr. Angelilli said his encounters with Italian bureaucracy while running his Pinsere pizzeria have left him feeling “psychologically violated.” He said he had to pay a fine recently because his oven’s air extraction, made to comply with European, national and regional laws, ran afoul of new city rules.

For the full story, see:
Marcus Walker and Giovanni Legorano. “The Real Italian Job: Rev Up Productivity.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018): A7.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date Feb. 27, 2018, and has the title “Italy: The Country That Forgot How to Grow.”)

Environment Can Affect Which Genes Are Activated

(p. D5) In September 1944, trains in the Netherlands ground to a halt. Dutch railway workers were hoping that a strike could stop the transport of Nazi troops, helping the advancing Allied forces.
But the Allied campaign failed, and the Nazis punished the Netherlands by blocking food supplies, plunging much of the country into famine. By the time the Netherlands was liberated in May 1945, more than 20,000 people had died of starvation.
The Dutch Hunger Winter has proved unique in unexpected ways. Because it started and ended so abruptly, it has served as an unplanned experiment in human health. Pregnant women, it turns out, were uniquely vulnerable, and the children they gave birth to have been influenced by famine throughout their lives.
When they became adults, they ended up a few pounds heavier than average. In middle age, they had higher levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. They also experienced higher rates of such conditions as obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia.
. . .
“How on earth can your body remember the environment it was exposed to in the womb — and remember that decades later?” wondered Bas Heijmans, a geneticist at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
Dr. Heijmans, Dr. Lumey and their colleagues published a possible answer, or part of one, on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. Their study suggests that the Dutch Hunger Winter silenced certain genes in unborn children — and that they’ve stayed quiet ever since.
While all cells in a person’s body share the same genes, different ones are active or silent in different cells. That program largely is locked in place before birth.
But scientists have learned that later experiences — say, exposure to a virus — can cause cells to quiet a gene or boost its activity, sometimes permanently.
The study of this long-term gene control is called epigenetics. Researchers have identified molecules that cells use to program DNA, but how those tools work isn’t entirely clear. One of the best studied is a molecular cap called a methyl group.
At millions of spots across our DNA, genes may carry a methyl group. They seem to silence genes — at least, researchers have found that silenced genes often have a collection of methyl groups lurking nearby.

For the full story, see:
Zimmer, Carl. “Dutch Genes Still Bear Scars of a Famine.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 6, 2018): D5.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 31, 2018, and has the title “MATTER; The Famine Ended 70 Years Ago, but Dutch Genes Still Bear Scars.”)