Chester Arthur Reformed Civil Service After Reforming Himself

(p. A15) One of America’s obscure vice presidents was Chester A. Arthur, a machine politician from New York. No one thought of him as presidential timber, least of all Arthur himself. He was chosen as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1880 only to pacify the corrupt yet powerful boss of the New York Republican Party, Sen. Roscoe Conkling, who had fought against the nomination of reform-minded James A. Garfield for president.

Then Garfield was assassinated soon after entering the White House and the machine hack was suddenly President of the United States.

. . .

But reform was in the air. Rutherford B. Hayes, elected president in 1876, had run on a platform promising to overhaul the civil service. He ordered a 20% staff cut at the Custom House, followed by an executive order forbidding “assessments” and barring federal workers from performing political work on or off the job. . . .

When Arthur unexpectedly became president, nearly everyone expected that the federal government would soon return to business as usual. It didn’t. Conkling wanted Garfield’s Custom House appointee fired and his own man put in, so he could use the patronage to fuel his political machine. Arthur refused. “For the vice presidency I was indebted to Mr. Conkling,” Arthur explained. “But for the presidency of the United States, my debt is to the Almighty.”

Mr. Greenberger also highlights the remarkable role that a perfect stranger played in Arthur’s transformation. Julia Sand, a semi-invalid living with her family on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, wrote Arthur a series of letters encouraging, warning and criticizing him, consistently urging him to overcome his corrupt past. He visited her only once, unexpectedly, but carefully preserved her letters even though he burned most of his other papers.

Her encouragement had its effect. In his first annual message to Congress, Arthur called for civil service reform and the reactivation of the moribund Civil Service Commission. In his second message, he called on Congress to pass laws banning assessments and requiring competitive examinations for civil service positions. Under public pressure, Congress quickly complied.

. . .

Even Mark Twain—no apologist for politicians—wrote that “it would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.”

“The Unexpected President” is popular history, dependent on secondary sources, especially Thomas Reeves’s magisterial biography of Arthur, “Gentleman Boss.” But it generally avoids the pitfalls of the genre, such as assuming facts not in evidence in the sources. Above all, Scott Greenberger’s slim, well-written biography is a worthy tale of redemption—of a wandering man who, suddenly finding himself president, rose to the occasion and did his duty.

For the full review, see:

John Steele Gordon. “BOOKSHELF; Growing Into the Office; Chester Arthur was a product of the New York patronage machine. Then Garfield was killed, and suddenly the political hack was president.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2017): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 27, 2017, and has the same title as the print version.)

The book under review is:

Greenberger, Scott S. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur. New York: Da Capo Press, 2017.

California Uber Regulation Reduces Drivers’ Freedom to Choose

(p. A27) Drivers are at the heart of the ride-share business. They’re also at the heart of the debate over a bill approved by California’s legislature, A.B. 5, which aims to solidify gig workers’ legal status as employees. Uber and Lyft have always classified drivers as independent contractors. But many lawsuits over the years, by drivers and others, have put that classification under question. A.B.5 is intended to help drivers by creating a set of criteria under which Uber or Lyft drivers could be considered employees of those companies, and therefore entitled to the benefits and protections of employees.

So why would some drivers be against it?

I spent nearly a year driving part time for Uber and Lyft, and then left my job as an engineer to cover the industry full-time through my blog “The Rideshare Guy.” After thousands of conversations with drivers, I’ve found that while they come from all walks of life, one of the main reasons they value this work is flexibility. As a driver, you can work almost as much or as little as you want, cash out your pay instantly, take a break at a moment’s notice, or even go on a six-month vacation. This flexibility and that feeling of not having a boss makes ride-hail driving stand out in the vast array of service jobs and low-wage work.

For the full commentary, see:

Harry Campbell. “Uber Drivers Just Want to Be Free.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 17, 2019): A27.

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

Environmentalist Greta Thunberg’s Sailboat Crew Flew to and from New York by Airplane

(p. B4) A year ago, a 15-year-old in leopard-print tights sat down outside the Swedish Parliament building with a purple backpack and a sign announcing she was on strike over climate change.

This week, Greta Thunberg arrived by solar-powered sailboat in New York, now as the 16-year-old poster child for younger generations’ climate angst. Also making its way to the New World, as evidenced in the coverage of her carbon-neutral trip, was a concept that in just a few years has swept Europe: flight shame, often hashtagged in the original Swedish, #flygskam.

. . .

As Greta . . . hopped ashore in southern Manhattan on Wednesday after 13 days at sea, loud cheers rose from the hundreds in the crowd there to greet her.  . . .

Amanda LaValle, a mother of three from Kingston, N.Y., brought her two eldest daughters to be part of the crowd. “I’m encouraging them to be involved. I have already blown my own climate credentials by having three kids,” she said, half in jest.

She acknowledged how difficult it can be to put her principles into practice. Earlier in August, when she needed to travel to Minneapolis for a three-day training sponsored by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, she briefly considered taking the train. But, she said, “It would have taken two days and I couldn’t see taking more time away from my family.”

Greta’s voyage has had its own critics, who have pointed out that some members of the sailing crew will return by plane, while others fly in to sail the boat back to Europe.

Boris Herrmann, captain of the sailboat, Malizia II, said that the criticism was expected but that Greta shouldn’t be held responsible for the flights by crew members. “We are kind of the ferry to bring her over. We’re a professional sailing team and sometimes we need to fly. We used this voyage also to train,” he said, adding that the team offsets its flights by funding sustainability projects, including mangrove planting in Indonesia. “The trip is an example of how difficult it is to have zero carbon impact.”

For the full story, see:

Sofia McFarland. “‘Flight Shame’ Comes to U.S.—Via Sailboat.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019): B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was last updated on Aug. 30, 2019, and has the title “‘Flight Shame’ Comes to the U.S.—Via Greta Thunberg’s Sailboat.” Where the online and print versions differ, the passages quoted above follow the more detailed online version.)

Physician-Scientists Should Be Allowed to Discover Cures

(p. A27) Time and again, physician-scientists have changed the history of medicine by identifying a problem in the clinic and taking to the lab to address it. Alexander Fleming watched men die of sepsis during World War I while serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps, then returned home to create penicillin. Sidney Farber, a young physician at Children’s Hospital in Boston, committed himself to finding treatments for childhood leukemia, and laid the foundation for modern cancer chemotherapy.

In the 1970s, the physicians Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein set out to understand how a young child’s arteries could be as clogged as those of an overweight septuagenarian. This patient-inspired research led to the discovery of LDL-cholesterol receptors, and paved the way for the statin drugs that are taken by millions of people every year in the United States alone.

And more recently, the research efforts of two physicians, Brian Kobilka and one of us, Dr. Lefkowitz, seeking to understand how hormones conferred their biological effects, led to the discovery of a large family of receptors that have formed the basis for the development of hundreds of F.D.A.-approved medications.

. . .

Unfortunately, the career path of the physician-scientist has become longer and a lot less appealing. In the United States, about 20,000 graduates emerge from medical school each year, many with significant debt. Many physicians are well into their 30s by the time they complete their clinical training. Doctors who decide to take the research path face the daunting prospect of many more years struggling to win grants and establish a lab. According to N.I.H. statistics, researchers with medical degrees on average receive their first major N.I.H. grant only at age 45.

. . .

We need to ensure that the brightest young doctors can contribute to further advancements in their field, or we risk stalling the engine that consistently delivers better medicine, longer lives and a stronger economy for Americans and people around the world.

For the full commentary, see:

Mukesh K. Jain, Tadataka Yamada and Robert Lefkowitz. ” More Doctors Should Do Research.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019): A27.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 23, 2019, and has the title “We Need More Doctors Who Are Scientists.” The online version says that the commentary appeared on p. A29 of the New York print edition. The commentary appeared on p. A27 of my National print edition.)

A.I. Needs People to Set the Objectives

(p. A2) Although Deep Mind’s Alpha Zero can beat a grand master at computer chess, it would still bomb at Attie Chess—the version of the game played by my 3-year-old grandson Atticus. In Attie Chess, you throw all of the pieces into the wastebasket, pick each one up, try to put them on the board and then throw them all in the wastebasket again. This apparently simple physical task is remarkably challenging even for the most sophisticated robots.

But . . . there’s a more profound way in which human intelligence is different from artificial intelligence, and there’s another reason why Attie Chess may be important.

. . .

The basic technique is to give the computer millions of examples of games, images or previous judgments and to provide feedback. Which moves led to a high score? Which pictures did people label as dogs?

. . .

But people also can decide to change their objectives. A great judge can argue that slavery should be outlawed or that homosexuality should no longer be illegal. A great curator can make the case for an unprecedented new kind of art, like Cubism or Abstract Expressionism, that is very different from anything in the past. We invent brand new games and play them in new ways.

. . .

Indeed, the point of each new generation is to create new objectives—new games, new categories and new judgments. And yet, somehow, in a way that we don’t understand at all, we don’t merely slide into relativism. We can decide what is worth doing in a way that AI can’t.

. . .

. . . , we are the only creatures who can decide not only what we want but whether we should want it.

For the full commentary, see:

Alison Gopnik. “MIND & MATTER; What A.I. Is Still Far From Figuring Out.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 23, 2019): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 20, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

Alison Gopnik’s comments, that are quoted above, are related to her paper:

Gopnik, Alison. “AIs Versus Four-Year-Olds.” In Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockman. New York: Penguin Press, 2019, pp. 219-30.

Empty Threats to Leave Jersey, Gain Firms $100 Million Taxpayer Subsidies

(p. A1) PEARL RIVER, N.Y. — In the summer of 2015, Jaguar Land Rover North America told state officials in New Jersey that it was considering moving to an office development in New York called Blue Hill Plaza.

To keep the automotive giant’s headquarters in New Jersey, the state offered $26 million in tax credits. So Jaguar stayed.

Five months later, FC USA, a travel company, also told New Jersey that it was looking to relocate to the very same office development in New York.

So did Groupe SEB, an appliance manufacturer.

In total, over five years, 12 companies threatened to leave New Jersey and move to Blue Hill Plaza unless the state provided tens of millions in tax credits.

None followed through on the threat. In fact, an investigation by The New York Times suggests that nearly all of the 12 companies never seriously considered moving to New York.

But all 12 received lucrative tax credits from New Jersey to stay — more than $100 million in total, according to documents obtained by The Times.

For the full story, see:

Nick Corasaniti and Matthew Haag. “Businesses Are Cashing In on Empty Threat to Leave New Jersey.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019): A1 & A25.

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the published version, and has the title “How One Address Led to a $100 Million Tax Credit Scheme.”)

“Tech Entrepreneurs Are Just as Mission Driven as People in Nonprofits”

(p. 2) The first rule of Silicon Valley venture capital is never insult a start-up. Founders are always killing it, disrupting the world.

If a start-up is fizzling, shuttering or caught scamming? The socially acceptable response is total silence.

Everyone knows that. Except Jason Palmer.

The start-up in question was AltSchool, a Mark Zuckerberg-backed project to turn school into a start-up experience. It had just announced it was pivoting out of existence after raising $174 million.

Mr. Palmer is in this field: He is a venture capitalist in Washington, D.C., focused on education technology. On June 29, he tweeted that AltSchool was always a bad idea, and he was glad that his firm hadn’t invested in it.

That single jab at a failed company sent the investor elite into conniptions.

. . .

So, two months after the tweet, how is Mr. Palmer feeling? The outrage that came both in public and private did not, in the end, oust him from the industry. He continues to invest.

For him, it was “a reminder,” he said, that tech entrepreneurs truly believe they are saving the world. He wanted to be clear now that he truly believes this, too. They were right. His tweet was very bad. He has been chastened.

“Tech entrepreneurs are just as mission driven as people in nonprofits,” Mr. Palmer said. “They believe they are helping the world just as much as nonprofit founders.”

But of course most start-ups fail, he added, a little quieter, and the tech world ought to learn how to talk about failure.

“In fact, most high-risk start-ups are nonprofits,” he said. “Effectively nonprofits.”

For the full story, see:

Nellie Bowles. “In Silicon Valley, Skin Is Thin.” The New York Times, SundayStyles Section (Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019): 2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 20, 2019, and has the title “Want to Do Business in Silicon Valley? Better Act Nice.” (Where there is a slight difference in wording between the online and print versions, the passages quoted above follow the print version.)

Some Workers Willingly Forego Higher Pay for Greater Flexibility

(p. 11) In a survey of 11,000 workers and 6,500 business leaders by Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group, the vast majority said that among the new developments most urgently affecting their businesses were employees’ expectations for flexible, autonomous work; better work-life balance; and remote working. (Just 30 percent, though, said their businesses were prepared.)

Technology is a big reason for the change. The youngest people entering the work force don’t remember a time when people weren’t always reachable, so they don’t see why they would need to sit in an office to work. (They also say they are more practiced than older colleagues at setting boundaries on how much they use their phones, so it doesn’t become overbearing.)

. . .

. . . more young people, recruiters say, are asking for flexibility upfront, and some prioritize it over pay or seniority. Recruiters who visit college campuses say new graduates no longer see it as something to negotiate for, said Marcee Harris Schwartz, the national director of diversity and inclusion at BDO, the accounting firm: “It’s just assumed it’s part of the deal.”

“Years ago, the interview was, for lack of a better word, a test,” said Kamaj Bailey, who works in recruiting at Con Edison, the power company. “Now it’s a conversation. Yes, I want to show that I’m a good candidate, but I’m also seeing if I’m going to get what I expect.”

John Paul Graff, 34, is a pathologist, as was his father, who worked in private practice at least 12 hours a day. Dr. Graff decided to work in academic medicine, and the No. 1 reason was for work-life balance. He estimated that he gave up about $100,000 a year but said it’s worth it to work 40 hours a week.

For the full story, see:

Claire Cain Miller and Sanam Yar. “Can I Work When I Want?” The New York Times, SundayStyles Section (Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019): 1 & 10-11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 20, 2019, and has the title “Young People Are Going to Save Us All From Office Life.”)

Broad Knowledge “Prepares Us for the Wickedly Unanticipated”

(p. A13) In his latest book, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” Mr. Epstein makes a well-supported and smoothly written case on behalf of breadth and late starts.

. . .

The book blends anecdotal stories with summaries of academic studies. Many of these studies upend standard-issue advice about finding one’s way in life. We are introduced to the “Dark Horse Project,” based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which has collected the oral histories of highly accomplished individuals who took circuitous paths to achievement. The researchers were surprised by how many such individuals, in disparate fields, they were able to find. “What was even more incredible,” said one principal member of the project, “is that they all thought they were the anomaly.”

. . .

Not all of the chapters speak directly to range. In “Learning to Drop Your Familiar Tools,” we learn that many cardiologists are unwilling to forsake their use of stents, despite clear evidence that stents are not only ineffective in preventing cardiac events but also introduce fresh risks of complications. It’s sobering to learn that a 2015 study showed that patients suffering cardiac arrest were less likely to die if they were admitted to a hospital when such cardiologists were unavailable to install the devices.

. . .

The chapter titled “Deliberate Amateurs” is a delight, permitting us to spend time with some exemplars in science and medicine who have stepped outside of their cozy professional nests. One such exemplar is Arturo Casadevall, the chair of the molecular microbiology and immunology program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. A much-cited scientist, Dr. Casadevall has led an overhaul of the curriculum at his school to help broaden the education of specialists. Philosophy, history, logic and ethics are incorporated into interdisciplinary classes. “How Do We Know What Is True?” is one of the course offerings. On the wall in Dr. Casadevall’s office, along with the certificate commemorating his election to the National Academy of Medicine, hangs a community-college degree in pest control, the “practical” expertise his father pressed Dr. Casadevall to acquire.

The advice that Dr. Casadevall dispenses to junior colleagues is “read outside your field, everyday something.” If the world were a kinder learning environment, this would not be needed. But as David Epstein shows us, cultivating range prepares us for the wickedly unanticipated.

For the full review, see:

Randall Stross. “BOOKSHELF; Late Bloomers Bloom Best.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, May 29, 2019): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 28, 2019, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Range’ Review: Late Bloomers Bloom Best; Late specialization demonstrably helped Roger Federer, Vincent van Gogh and Charles Darwin. It can serve the rest of us well, too.”)

The book under review is:

Epstein, David. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.