“Authors Need to Eat, Too”

(p. A23) Authors need to eat, too, and we get by (or not quite, these days), by showing up at our writing places at a designated time day after day and staying there till we have fretted out our quota of words, to be sent off, after a time, to a publisher, in the hope that, two or three years down the road, a few pennies may come trickling back under the ludicrously grandiose name of “royalties.”

. . .

“There are people out there that just want everything to be free,” says Mary Rasenberger, the executive director of the Authors Guild (where I am a member), “and it’s like a religion to them.” Some piracy sites, she says, even advise users how to buy a digital copy of a book, strip out the digital rights management (D.R.M.) intended to protect the author’s rights, upload the book to a file-sharing site, and then return the book for a refund, “so they don’t even have to pay for the original.” Some sites are so insanely bent on copyright piracy that they offer their followers wedding vows, in which the couple solemnly commits to support the copying culture. “They don’t understand that writers need to get paid, and publishers are not going to publish books if they can’t make money on them.”

Since 2009, when eBooks and book piracy became a phenomenon, income for authors has declined 42 percent, according to a 2018 Authors Guild income survey, with the median income from writing now so low — just $6,080 a year — that poverty level looks like the mountaintop. By contrast, a 2017 Nielsen survey found that people who admitted to having read a pirated book in the previous six months tend to be middle class, educated, female as well as male, between the ages of 30 and 44 — and with an income of $60,000 to 90,000 a year.

For the full commentary, see:

Conniff, Richard. “Steal This Book? There’s a Price.” The New York Times (Monday, September 16, 2019): A23.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 16, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

Xi Suppresses Mao’s Starvation of Tens of Millions of Rural Chinese

(p. A9) Mr. Xi’s recasting of China’s history has left less and less room to reflect on traumas like the tens of millions who starved to death across the country from 1958 to 1960. That worries scholars who believe that the calamities of that time still offer lessons for China.

Harvests fell drastically short of the miraculous yields that officials had promised in the Great Leap Forward, a feverish campaign to propel China into communist plenty. As hulking collectivized farms failed, the government seized grain from peasants who were accused of hiding supplies. Starvation spread. So did persecution of peasants accused of resisting grain seizures.

Xinyang suffered worse than nearly any place in China. Out of eight million residents, about one million died of undernourishment and other abuses, according to secret official reports at the time.

In Gaodadian Village in Xinyang, two mounted stones stand etched with the names of 72 people who starved to death in this settlement of around 120 residents. The memorial, half hidden among bushes, is the only one around here, or perhaps anywhere in China, for victims of the Great Leap famine.

. . .

Mr. Wu’s son, Wu Ye, 51, helped his father build the famine memorial in their home village. He said he grasped the enormity of the suffering only after he moved to the United States and read a Chinese-language book about that era, “Man-Made Catastrophe,” published in Hong Kong in 1991.

“On the internet there’s all those people who say that it’s nonsense, that so many people couldn’t possibly have died,” the younger Mr. Wu said in a telephone interview from Buffalo. “I wanted to somehow prove that this happened.”

For the full story, see:

Chris Buckley. “Xi Lauds ‘Red’ Heritage in Land Brutalized by It.” The New York Times (Tuesday, October 1, 2019): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 30, 2019, and has the title “‘Xi Extols China’s ‘Red’ Heritage in a Land Haunted by Famine Under Mao.”)

“To Be Profitable, You Have to Have a Purpose”

(p. F2) When a group of the nation’s largest companies said last month that they had changed their mission strictly from making profits to also include benefiting “customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders,” it was generally applauded as an important step in the right direction.

. . .

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in his first public comment on the topic, flatly told me: “I wouldn’t have signed it,” stunning a room of policymakers and business leaders in Washington at last week’s DealBook DC Strategy Forum.

His explanation was nuanced: “To be profitable, you have to have a purpose. I think it’s not as simple as saying we either have a purpose or we have profits. I think the problem with creating a simple answer is it doesn’t fully explore the issues.”

He added: “I do think companies should be long-term oriented. I don’t think companies need to necessarily be focused on quarterly profits and hitting Street earnings numbers. But I think, ultimately, a business’s job is to deploy the capital correctly and to make profits.”

Stephen A. Schwarzman, the co-founder and chairman of Blackstone Group and one of only a handful of members of the Business Roundtable who declined to sign the document, also went public with his explanation in a conversation with me earlier this week: “I know why we’re in business: because people give us money to manage. They want us to earn a lot of money to give them back or else they would give us nothing.”

He said “the idea that business should be concerned” with employees, customers, suppliers and the community should be a given. But, he said, he objected to the idea in the Business Roundtable statement that profits should be listed as simply equal to the other four issues.

“I have trouble managing when I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said, suggesting the statement gives managers too many masters. “I know what I’m supposed to be doing, which is making good investments, safely, and making a great contribution to these pension funds and regular people.”

For the full commentary, see:

Andrew Ross Sorkin. “Profits or Public Interest?” The New York Times (Thursday, September 19, 2019): F2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 18, 2019, and has the title “Profits or the Public Interest: The Debate Continues.”)

Nick Ronalds Graciously Praises Art Diamond’s “Openness” Book and EconTalk Podcast Interview

After my EconTalk conversation with Russ Roberts, that was posted on Aug. 12, 2019, 49 comments were left in the Reader Comments section of the web site. I do not know Nick Ronalds, but I am grateful to him for boosting my morale. Below, I quote his comments in full:

Nick Ronalds
Aug 16 2019 at 7:59pm
I was just going to leave a quick comment that this was an entertaining podcast, but also that Diamond came across as unpretentious and totally non-defensive, which helped make the conversation entertaining. There were also some fascinating nuggets, such as the anecdote about the development of the internet at–but mainly after–DARPA.

But the fact that Diamond is responding to so many comments makes him much more interesting, and suggests, at the very least, that he has an abundance of energy and a love of the fray.

The last guest who was so active in the comments section was Eugene Fama, so Diamond is in pretty good company.

. . .

Nick Ronalds
Aug 22 2019 at 8:28pm
I am blown away by Arthur’s genial responsiveness. I already got an Amazon book sample of his book but I’ll now feel like a jerk if I don’t just go and buy it.

The EconTalk podcast can be found at: https://www.econtalk.org/arthur-diamond-on-openness-to-creative-destruction/

Pilots of Delivery Robots Benefit from Video Game Skills

(p. B4) Michael Niedermayer used to fly drones for the U.S. Army and the Central Intelligence Agency, gathering real-time, life-and-death intelligence on battlefields in Iraq. Now he pilots delivery robots for a San Francisco Bay Area startup that wants to disrupt burrito delivery.

Postmates, which in mid-August received a permit to operate its Serve delivery robot in San Francisco and is already testing it for food delivery in Los Angeles, employs a growing team of “pilots” to remotely oversee, and at times steer, these four-wheeled food ferries.

“We will probably see a drastic increase in our workforce over the next five years,” says Postmates Chief Executive Bastian Lehmann.

Disrupting “last-mile” delivery—historically the domain of box trucks, bike couriers and personal vehicles—“felt like a great fit for my military background,” says Mr. Niedermayer.

His story is hardly unique. Across industries, engineers are building atop work done a generation ago by designers of military drones. Whether it’s terrestrial delivery robots, flying delivery drones, office-patrolling security robots, inventory-checking robots in grocery stores or remotely piloted cars and trucks, the machines that were supposed to revolutionize everything by operating autonomously turn out to require, at the very least, humans minding them from afar.

Until the techno-utopian dream of full automation comes into effect—and frankly, there’s no guarantee that will ever happen—there will be plenty of jobs for humans, just not ones their parents would recognize. Whether the humans in charge are in the same city or thousands of miles away, the proliferation of not-yet-autonomous technologies is driving a tiny but rapidly growing workforce.

. . .

When Postmates managers interview potential delivery-robot pilots like Diana Villalobos, they ask whether or not they played videogames in their youth.

“When I was a kid, my parents always said, ‘Stop playing videogames!’ But it came in handy,” she says.

For the full commentary, see:

Christopher Mims. “KEYWORDS; Behind ‘Autonomous’ Tech, a Person Playing Robot.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019): B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date as the print version, and has the title “KEYWORDS; The Next Hot Job: Pretending to Be a Robot.”)

With Work Ethic, but Not Much Education, “You Can Come Out Here and Still Make Six Figures”

(p. B1) When Mike Wilkinson moved to Midland, Tex., in 2017, he hoped the world’s largest oil field would change his life. His marriage was in tatters. He owed tens of thousands in credit card debt. His morale was broken.

He soon began working as a “hot shot” truck driver, carrying loads for drillers who need pipes or drums in a hurry. The United States is the world’s largest producer of oil, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia, and demand for “hot shots” has soared.

The epicenter of the oil boom is the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, a massive layer cake of shale that’s cracked open with a blasting technique known as fracking. The country’s growing energy dominance has created tens of thousands of jobs in this part of the Southwest in recent years, many for people like Wilkinson looking for fresh starts.

. . .

(p. B4) There are now 55,000 people now work in the Permian. Mr. Wilkinson says he’s found a certain camaraderie with other transplants: “They are either escaping debt or family issues or poverty.

. . .

“I have to make money, and this is the best way I can make money,” he said. “If you’re not educated and have a good work ethic, you can come out here and still make six figures.”

For the full story, see:

Clifford Krauss. “Boom Times and Fresh Starts.” The New York Times (Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 10, 2019, and has the title “‘This Is the Most Lonesome Job’: Ride With a ‘Hot Shot’ Trucker in Oil-Rich Texas.” The online version highlights photographs by Tamir Kalifa. The online and print versions have significant differences in wording and ordering. Where there are differences, the passages quoted above, follow the print version.)

45 Is Average Age of Gazelle Founders

(p. B7) It took an entrepreneur to reimagine the mundane home thermostat as an object of beauty — and then to make a fortune based on that vision.

The entrepreneur was Tony Fadell, who had that thermostat epiphany after decades in the tech industry, including at companies like Apple. Mr. Fadell embodied his idea in a new company, Nest, which he started with the help of a colleague from Apple in 2010, at age 41.

The Nest thermostat had a sleek and intuitive design, smartphone connectivity and the ability to learn its owner’s temperature-setting habits. The product was a big hit, and within a few years Google acquired Nest for $3.2 billion.

Mr. Fadell’s deep experience and relatively mature age when he started Nest are typical of superstar entrepreneurs, who are rarely fresh out of college — or freshly dropped out of college. That’s what a team of economists discovered when they analyzed high-growth companies in the United States. Their study is being published in the journal American Economic Review: Insights.

The researchers looked at start-ups established between 2007 and 2014 and analyzed the top 0.1 percent — defined as those with the fastest growth in employment and sales. The average age of those companies’ founders was 45.

For the full commentary, see:

Seema Jayachandran. “ECONOMIC VIEW; High-Flying Tech Has a Touch of Gray.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, September 1, 2019): B7.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Aug. 29, 2019, and has the title “ECONOMIC VIEW; Founders of Successful Tech Companies Are Mostly Middle-Aged.”)

The forthcoming article mentioned above, is:

Azoulay, Pierre, Benjamin Jones, J. Daniel Kim, and Javier Miranda. “Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship.” American Economic Review: Insights (forthcoming).