Stories of Heroic Entrepreneurs

The great idealists of our economy are not the socialists, but the heroic entrepreneurs of innovative dynamism. One of the goals of my book Openness to Creative Destruction, and some of my other writings, is to tell their stories to a wider audience. Gonzalo Schwarz has let me know that his Archbridge Institute is also telling some of these stories under the heading American Originals at:

https://www.archbridgeinstitute.org/american-originals/

Improved Stoves, Pushed by Social Entrepreneurs, Do Not Improve Health or Environment

(p. 80) Laboratory studies suggest that improved cooking stoves can reduce indoor air pollution, improve health, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries. We provide evidence, from a large-scale randomized trial in India, on the benefits of a common, laboratory-validated stove with a four-year follow-up. While smoke inhalation initially falls, this effect disappears by year two. We find no changes across health outcomes or greenhouse gas emissions. Households used the stoves irregularly and inappropriately, failed to maintain them, and usage declined over time. This study underscores the need to test environmental technologies in real-world settings where behavior may undermine potential impacts.

Source:

Hanna, Rema, Esther Duflo, and Michael Greenstone. “Up in Smoke: The Influence of Household Behavior on the Long-Run Impact of Improved Cooking Stoves.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 8, no. 1 (Feb. 2016): 80-114.

Lack of Property Rights in Land Keep Chinese Farmers Poor

(p. A6) XIAOXIHE, China — Every year, the message is the same: the government will fix China’s left-behind countryside through a raft of reforms. This year was no different, with measures meant to help farmers move to cities, educate their children, and invest in improving their land.

But every year, the gap between village and city remains stubbornly wide. Many blame this on the fact that farmers are not allowed to own land, a policy that goes back to one of the founding decisions of the Communist revolution.

In Xiaoxihe, a rolling eastern Chinese region of rice paddies and fishponds, farmers speak of land ownership as something so improbable that it defies imagination.

Dai Jialiang, a 69-year-old farmer, grows rice and vegetables on a small plot of land his family leases from the government. That means that Dai’s family has made a modest living off toiling the land but their gains are limited.

“Ownership is not possible in China,” Mr. Dai said. “Socialism doesn’t allow that.”

. . .

The party has long argued that one of traditional China’s main problems was that land was concentrated in the hands of landlords. After taking power in 1949 it introduced a violent campaign that killed up to two million farmers labeled “landlords.” State ownership of land became a nonnegotiable policy and farmers had to work in state-run collectives.

What farmers in this area came up with in the late 1970s was a plan to break the collectives back into the old family plots of land. Ownership stayed with the state but farmers were allowed to farm their plots as they saw fit as long as they paid a tax, usually in grain, to the government. Anything else they produced was theirs.

Suddenly motivated, farmers set records in grain production, while opening up orchards, vegetable plots and fishponds. Starvation, always a risk during the Communists’ first 30 years in power, disappeared.

National leaders endorsed this system but made sure that land stayed in the state’s hands. Farmers eventually got 30-year contracts over their land. When that ran out about a decade ago, they were extended another 30 years.

. . .

According to popular accounts of Chinese economic history, the nearby village of Xiaogang is where the household-contract system began in 1978. There, a large museum features dioramas showing how farmers almost starved to death under the Communists until they secretly subverted their policies — the unwitting implication being that only civil disobedience can effect change.

For the full story, see:

Ian Johnson. “Barred From Owning Land, Chinese Farmers Miss Spoils of Growth.” The New York Times (Friday, September 27, 2019): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was last updated on September 28 [sic], 2019, and has the title “Barred From Owning Land, Rural Chinese Miss Spoils of Country’s Success.”)

“These Guys Are Selling Things to Better Their Lives”

(p. A20) The colorful bottles have popped up every summer in black and Hispanic communities — from the bodegas of Washington Heights to the stoops of Fort Greene — since the early 1990s. On beach boardwalks, at neighborhood basketball courts and block parties, New Yorkers are drinking nutcrackers, boozy homespun cocktails made from a blend of alcohol and fruit juices.

But this year, the New York Police Department is cracking down on the illegal drinks and the vendors who sell them, vendors and customers said.

. . .

But sellers and customers who believe there is a crackdown are alarmed, saying vital financial lifelines are threatened and raising the issue of which infractions police choose to focus on and which communities are scrutinized.

“It’s just another way to target us,” Dee said. “If I don’t sell nutcrackers, I can’t make my rent. I don’t have a choice.”

Most every Thursday in the summer, Dee clocks out from her job as an exterminator with the city and begins work on her illegal private enterprise.

After spending $600 or so at the liquor store nearby, she will lug her ingredients — cases of vodkas, rums, tequilas and cognacs — to her two-bedroom public housing apartment and into a dim, cramped back room where she will get to work making batches of her best sellers like Tropical Punch, Henny Colada and the Fort Greene Lean.

Dee’s concoctions will be poured into dozens, sometimes hundreds, of stubby plastic bottles and peddled all weekend to her longtime customers: old-timers playing dominoes in Bedford-Stuyvesant, basketball tournament crowds at Gersh Park in East New York, neighbors and friends in her old Flatbush neighborhood. They will all be waiting for her, she said.

On a good weekend, Dee will earn around $1,400 from nutcracker sales, enough to cover her rent, which has risen nearly $700 since 2015, she said.

. . .

“They always trying to beat us down,” said Jay, another nutcracker seller who preferred that his last name be withheld. Jay said he decided to venture into the business this summer as a way to get his music management business off the ground.

“This is going to buy studio time for my artist,” he said, nodding to the cooler he wheeled down the Coney Island boardwalk at sunset. “Ice-cold water,” he said loudly to passers-by, followed by a softer, more subtle “(Nutcrackers.)”

“Ice cold water!”

“(Nutcrackers).”

“These guys are selling things to better their lives,” said Sandra Anguiz, 30, after buying a cream-soda-flavored nutcracker from Jay. “Why are police worried about that?”

For the full story, see:

Aaron Randle. “Cracking Down on the Sweet, Boozy Staple of a City Summer.” The New York Times (Saturday, August 17, 2019): A20.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Banned on the Beach? It’s Still Nutcracker Summer.” In the passages quoted above, the sometimes slightly longer online version is followed.)

Tesla’s Process Innovation May Be Low-Defect, Fast-Assembly

(p. A13) Tesla became a darling of government handouts, with tax credits and public funding galore. It quickly grew into a sales phenom with high prices but low volume. Then, this year, its production numbers started to match those of the other major manufacturers. How Mr. Musk achieved this—and whether he should be considered a visionary or a charlatan—is the subject of “Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors,” by the automotive journalist Edward Niedermeyer.

. . .

The book hits its stride when the author details Mr. Musk’s attempts to revolutionize the way cars are built. DeLorean and others faltered due to their inability to roll out large numbers of vehicles at a decent level of quality. Likewise the assembly line has been Tesla’s biggest obstacle. For a generation, automakers have cleaved to Toyota’s system of production, which emphasizes reducing waste and defects, slowing down the assembly line to achieve these goals. Mr. Musk, in contrast, feels Teslas should be assembled with a fast-moving line, deploying robots where other carmakers have employed workers.

Many observers bet that fast assembly won’t work. But this year Tesla delivered an impressive 158,000 cars to customers in the first two quarters, about the same number of Lexus models sold in the U.S. during that same period. Low-defect assembly was the major innovation of the automotive industry a generation ago; fast-line assembly may be the next. If Tesla’s fast-produced vehicles turn out to be reliable, Mr. Musk will deserve plaudits.

. . .

The portrait of Elon Musk that emerges from this book is one of a social-media obsessive who is constantly overpromising, playing the role of the self-sufficient business person while relying on government favors. Still, Tesla facilities produce lots of actual cars, which is more than what most other one-man marques have achieved. The accomplishment may not be as grand as Mr. Musk would like us to believe: He couldn’t have built his cars without subsidies from taxpayers who cannot afford Teslas and were given no choice in funding playthings for the rich. But his is an achievement, nonetheless.

For the full review, see:

Gregg Easterbrook. “BOOKSHELF; A Revolutionary Old Product.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 27, 2019, and has the title ” BOOKSHELF; ‘Ludicrous’ Review: A Revolutionary Old Product.”)

The book under review is:

Niedermeyer, Edward. Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc., 2019.

Regenerative Farming Practices “Could Soak Up Half to 100% of All the Carbon Dioxide Emitted”

(p. A2) AINSWORTH, Iowa—What if there was a way to combat climate change that didn’t require technological breakthroughs, carbon taxes or eliminating all fossil fuels?

Such a solution might lie here in an Iowa cornfield beneath the feet of Mitchell Hora, a seventh-generation farmer. Mr. Hora experiments with “regenerative growing practices” that improve soil health, boost yields, reduce water and fertilizer use, and carry a significant collateral benefit: they sequester in the soil carbon released from burning fossil fuels.

Mr. Hora could soon be rewarded for providing this social benefit. Indigo Ag Inc., a Boston-based company specializing in agricultural technology and management, is setting up a market for carbon credits. Companies and consumers with voluntary or compulsory commitments to reduce their carbon footprint can, rather than reduce emissions themselves, pay farmers to do it for them. Via the Indigo Carbon marketplace, they can pay farmers like Mr. Hora $15 to sequester one metric ton of carbon dioxide in the soil.

. . .

David Perry, Indigo’s chief executive, is almost messianic about the potential: “We could soak up half to 100% of all the carbon dioxide emitted since the industrial revolution,” or roughly one trillion tons.

The Rodale Institute, a think tank that promotes organic agriculture and has partnered with Indigo, cites trials that suggest through regenerative growing practices, an acre of agricultural land can sequester one to 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Extrapolating to the world, that equals the about 37 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide released globally through fossil fuel use each year.

For the full commentary, see:

Greg Ip. “CAPITAL ACCOUNT; Carbon Emissions Get a Fix on the Farm.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 12, 2019): A2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 11, 2019, and has the title “CAPITAL ACCOUNT; How to Get Rid of Carbon Emissions: Pay Farmers to Bury Them.”)

Rent Control Reduces Landlord Investment in Apartments

(p. A11) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law in June expanding the state’s damaging and counterproductive rent regulations.

. . .

In response to the new law, New York property owners immediately began making decisions that, when played out across tens of thousands of apartments, will add up to a disaster for everyone—not only landlords.

I spoke with one of those landlords over breakfast not long ago. He owns a medium-size portfolio of older buildings in middle- and lower-middle-class New York neighborhoods. Among his properties is a large building in northern Manhattan. For more than 40 years, one of the building’s apartments—a two-bedroom—was occupied by a tenant paying about $800 a month.

. . .

The tenant recently died. After four decades of wear and tear, the apartment needs some work.

. . .

A bathroom upgrade costs about $10,000 and a kitchen about $15,000. My friend could have invested another $10,000 or so to repair damage, replace doors and finishes, and upgrade electrical circuits. Those investments could have brought the rent to about $1,700. The apartment’s next tenant could have moved into an improved, not fancy, two-bedroom with a somewhat below-market lease, still protected from increases by rent stabilization.

The new law ensures that won’t happen. It gives property owners no vacancy-bonus increase. For every $15,000 my friend spends on improvements, he can raise the rent by only $83.33 a month. Even that shrunken rent increase will go away after 30 years. If he makes any investment in the apartment exceeding $15,000 in any 15-year period, it will be money he isn’t legally allowed to recoup. He won’t be allowed to raise the rent further. Whoever lucks into that apartment will pay only about $900 a month, half the market rate.

. . .

Here come the unintended consequences: My friend now says he won’t invest a penny in the apartment, because doing so makes no economic sense. Instead, he plans to hold it vacant and wait for better days. Maybe Albany will figure out it made a huge mistake and reverse course. Maybe the courts will recognize that rent regulation represents a taking of private property without compensation and violates the Constitution. Maybe my landlord friend will accumulate adjacent vacant apartments and combine or reconfigure them.

For the full commentary, see:

Joshua Stein. “CROSS COUNTRY; How to Kill a Housing Market.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 27, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)