Central Banks Epitomize the Administrative State

(p. A15) The promise of the modern central bank is that it will make its corner of the economic-policy world technocratic and academic–in a word, boring.
The lesson of the past decade is that this promise is a lie. The developed world’s four major central banks–the Fed, the Banks of England and Japan, and the European Central Bank–have executed a series of extraordinary policy maneuvers to rescue us from the 2008 financial panic, with debatable success. These include ultralow or negative interest rates; the purchase of sovereign debt in mind-boggling quantities; forays into commercial debt, equity and real-estate markets; and ventures into mortgages, small-business loans and other similar instruments. Central banks have also taken on vast new supervisory powers over the financial system. Each of these measures has had profound effects on our economies: debtors win, savers lose; large, bond-issuing companies get credit, smaller firms don’t; owners of assets accumulate wealth, wage earners see their salaries endangered by inflation. Such distributional choices are normally left to elected leaders, but no one elects a central bank.
Mr. Tucker reminds us how this happened. He places the development of modern central banking firmly within the wider story of administrative governance in the 20th century and its expansion at the expense of electoral accountability. “Central banks might well be the current epitome of unelected power,” he writes, “but they are part of broader forces that have been reshaping the structure of modern governance.” His brief account of the Fed’s history starts not at the usual spot–the 1907 panic and its aftermath–but with the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, in 1887, taken by some as the first step in the development of America’s modern bureaucracy.

For the full review, see:
Joseph C. Sternberg. “BOOKSHELF; ‘Unelected Power’ Review: Monetary Mavericks; The question is not whether recent interventions by central banks were effective, but whether they were legitimate.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, June 28, 2018): A15.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 27, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Unelected Power’ Review: Monetary Mavericks; The question is not whether recent interventions by central banks were effective, but whether they were legitimate.”)

The book under review, is:
Tucker, Paul. Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Youths Reject Construction Jobs

(p. A3) The construction business is having trouble attracting young job seekers.
The share of workers in the sector who are 24 years old or younger has declined in 48 states since the last housing boom in 2005, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by Issi Romem, chief economist at construction data firm BuildZoom. Nationally, the share of young construction workers declined nearly 30% from 2005 through 2016, according to Mr. Romem.
While there’s no single reason why younger folks are losing interest in a job that is generally well-paid and doesn’t require a college education, their indifference is exacerbating a labor shortage that has meant fewer homes being built and rising prices, possibly for years to come.

For the full story, see:
Laura Kusisto. “Youths Shrug at Construction Jobs.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018): A3.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 31, 2018, and has the title “Young People Don’t Want Construction Jobs. That’s a Problem for the Housing Market.”)

Robot Comedian Is an Inconsistent Communist

(p. C4) LONDON — One recent evening at a London pub, Piotr Mirowski, 39, stood in front of several dozen comedy fans to prove that an artificially intelligent computer program could perform improvised comedy.
. . .
Despite all the improvements, Mr. Mirowski said working with an A.I. was still like having a “completely drunk comedian” on stage, who was only “accidentally funny,” by saying things that were totally inappropriate, overly emotional or plain odd.
“Robots are in a way the antithesis of theater and comedy,” he said. “Theatre is about the human expression on stage, and it’s about the communication and empathy between the actors and the audience. Robots do not have the sensors to perceive any of that.”
. . .
During the show on Wednesday, Mr. Mirowski performed several different scenes using the A.I. None were anywhere near as successful as the one involving the couple going for a drive. The climax of the show involved four members of Mr. Mirowski’s improv troupe, Improbotics Ltd., performing a scene involving a fictional president, his chief of staff and an office cleaner.
The audience had to guess which actor was controlled by the A.I. The answer became clear soon after the cleaner took to the stage. “I’m a communist!” she said, completely out of the blue. Later, she performed a U-turn. “I’m not a communist!” she said. Then, out of nowhere she asked another member of the troupe, “Look, do you wanna buy a knife?”

For the full story, see:
Alex Marshall. “Hey, That Robot Seems to Think It’s a Comedian.” The New York Times (Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018): C4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 8, 2018, and has the title “A Robot Walks Into a Bar. But Can It Do Comedy?”)

“They Say ‘Yes,’ and We Pay the Price”

(p. A14) ELLENSBURG, Wash. — When a company from Seattle came calling, wanting to lease some land on Jeff and Jackie Brunson’s 1,000-acre hay and oat farm for a solar energy project, they jumped at the idea, and the prospect of receiving regular rent checks.
They did not anticipate the blowback — snarky texts, phone calls from neighbors, and county meetings where support for solar was scant.
. . .
The political power in Washington State, and the agenda for renewable energy and much else, comes from the liberal urban expanse around Seattle, and many people in conservative rural places east of the Cascades, like Kittitas County, chafe at the imbalance.
. . .
Opponents of the solar project have a shorthand line of attack: Seattle is pushing this.
“The wind farms aren’t located in the greater Seattle area, the wolves aren’t located in the greater Seattle area, the grizzly bear expansion isn’t slated for the Greater Seattle area, and the solar farms aren’t there either,” said Paul Jewell, a former county commissioner, ticking off highly debated initiatives that government officials have considered in recent years.
“They’re all in the rural areas,” said Mr. Jewell, who opposes the solar project. “And so there’s really a disconnect there — they say ‘yes,’ and we bear the burden. They say ‘yes,’ and we pay the price.”

For the full story, see:
Kirk Johnson. ” A Farm Country Clash Over Renewable Power.” The New York Times, Travel Section (Thursday, July 12, 2018): A14.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 11, 2018, and has the title “Solar Plan Collides With Farm Tradition in Pacific Northwest..”)

Culture Percolated Over Coffee

(p. A15) Shachar M. Pinsker, a Hebrew scholar at the University of Michigan, believes that cafés in six cities created modern Jewish culture. It’s the kind of claim that sounds as if it might be a game-changer, and there are enough grounds and gossip in “A Rich Brew” to keep this customer engrossed from cup to cup, . . .
Mr. Pinsker gets percolating at Signor Fanconi’s establishment in Odessa, an Italian café where women were unwelcome and Jews periodically excluded. The young Sholem Aleichem, arriving penniless from Kiev in 1891, found a marble table in the corner and started writing short stories that become the bedrock of Yiddish literature. What else went on in a Black Sea café? They “talk politics day and night . . . read newspapers from all over the world . . . and speculate on currencies and stocks,” writes Mr. Pinsker, drawing on letters of the cafe’s habitués. Isaac Babel found Fanconi’s “packed like a synagogue on Yom Kippur.” It got shut down by Lenin’s commissars.

For the full review, see:
Norman Lebrecht. “BOOKSHELF; A Remarkable Cultural Infusion; Sholem Aleichem found a table and wrote stories while all around him customers drank coffee, read newspapers and talked politics.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 29, 2018): A15.
(Note: ellipsis at end of paragraph, added; ellipses internal to paragraph, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review was last updated June 28, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘A Rich Brew’ Review: A Remarkable Cultural Infusion; Sholem Aleichem found a table and wrote stories while all around him customers drank coffee, read newspapers and talked politics.”)

The book mentioned above, is:
Pinsker, Shachar M. A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2018.

Flying Is Cheaper and More Convenient After Deregulation

(p. 3) Since the industry was deregulated in 1979, increased competition and airline consolidation caused airfares, when adjusted for inflation, to drop 40 percent, according to the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank devoted to transportation issues. In 2016, it found the average domestic round-trip ticket in the United States cost $367 versus $187 in 1979.
“Airlines became very efficient at trying to get as many paying passengers onboard per flight,” said Paul Lewis, the vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center. “Seats got closer, load factors got higher and while we don’t tend to like cramming into an airplane, that’s how we’re able to enjoy relatively low fares.”
Technology advancements and the surge in low-cost carriers, particularly on international routes, have made flying more convenient, if not necessarily more comfortable.

For the full commentary, see:

Elaine Glusac. “THE GETAWAY; Tickets From Here to There for Less.” The New York Times, Travel Section (Sunday, July 14, 2018): 3.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 13, 2018, and has the title “THE GETAWAY; Fly Farther, for Cheaper. For Now..”)

Ridiculed Nathan Myhrvold Perseveres on Asteroids and Is Vindicated

Nathan Myhrvold has also been ridiculed on his entrepreneurial patent clearinghouse (called Intellectual Ventures), and on his geoengineering solution to global warming.

(p. D1) Thousands of asteroids are passing through Earth’s neighborhood all the time. Although the odds of a direct hit on the planet any time soon are slim, even a small asteroid the size of a house could explode with as much energy as an atomic bomb.

So scientists at NASA are charged with scanning the skies for such dangerous space rocks. If one were on a collision course with our planet, information about how big it is and what it’s made of would be essential for deflecting it, or calculating the destruction if it hits.
For the last couple of years, Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former chief technologist at Microsoft with a physics doctorate from Princeton, has roiled the small, congenial community of asteroid scientists by saying they know less than they think about these near-Earth objects. He argues that a trove of data from NASA they rely on is flawed and unreliable.
. . .
(p. D4) Dr. Myhrvold’s findings pose a challenge to a proposed NASA asteroid-finding mission called Neocam, short for Near-Earth Object Camera, which would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A congressional committee that controls NASA’s purse strings just included $10 million more in a budget bill for the development of Neocam.
. . .
When Dr. Myhrvold made his initial claims, the Neowise scientists made fun of a few errors like an equation that mixed up radius and diameter.
“It is too bad Myhrvold doesn’t have Google’s bug-finding bounty policy,” Dr. Wright told Scientific American. “If he did, I’d be rich.”
Dr. Mainzer also said at the time, “We believe at this point it’s best to allow the process of peer review — the foundation of the scientific process — to move forward.”
. . .
Earlier this year, Icarus published Dr. Myhrvold’s first paper on how reflected sunlight affects measurements of asteroids at the shorter infrared wavelengths measured by WISE. It has now accepted and posted a second paper last month containing Dr. Myhrvold’s criticisms of the NASA asteroid data.
. . .
When the scientists reported their findings, they did not include the estimates produced by their models, which would have given a sense of how good the model is. Instead they included the earlier measurements.
Other astronomers agreed that the Neowise scientists were not clear about what numbers they were reporting.
“They did some kind of dumb things,” said Alan W. Harris, a retired NASA asteroid expert who was one of the reviewers of Dr. Myhrvold’s second paper.
Dr. Myhrvold has accused the Neowise scientists of going into a NASA archive of planetary results, changing some of the copied numbers and deleting others without giving notice.
“They went back and rewrote history,” he said. “What it shows is even this far in, they’re still lying. They haven’t come clean.”
Dr. Harris said he did not see nefarious behavior by the Neowise scientists, but agreed, “That’s still weird.”
. . .
Dr. Myhrvold said NASA and Congress should put planning for the proposed Neocam spacecraft on hold, because it could suffer from the same shortfalls as Neowise. “Why does it get to avoid further scrutiny and just get money directly from Congress?” he asked.

For the full story, see:
Kenneth Chang. “A Collision Over Asteroids.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 19, 2018): D1 & D4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 14, 2018, and has the title “Asteroids and Adversaries: Challenging What NASA Knows About Space Rocks.”)