Clarity Is Rewarded, at Least Among Cave Experts

After Deirdre McCloskey published her classic “Economical Writing” in Economic Inquiry, Jack High published a critique in the same journal arguing that young economists would ruin their careers if they followed McCloskey’s advice to write clearly. High claimed that clear writing would be less published and economists who wrote more clearly would therefore be less likely to receive tenure. McCloskey published a rebuttal saying that clear writing was more likely to be published, to be read, and to help the writer receive tenure. But she added that even if she was wrong about that, we should try to write clearly because it is the right thing to do.

The study mentioned below provides some evidence to support McCloskey’s claim that clarity is rewarded.

(p. D2) . . . a team of researchers has analyzed jargon in a set of over 21,000 scientific manuscripts. The study focused on manuscripts written by scientists who study caves, . . .

They found that papers containing higher proportions of jargon in their titles and abstracts were cited less frequently by other researchers. Science communication — with the public but also among scientists — suffers when a research paper is packed with too much specialized terminology, the team concluded.

For the full story, see:

Katherine Kornei. “Confused by All That Scientific Jargon? So Are the Scientists.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Are You Confused by Scientific Jargon? So Are Scientists.” Where the wording in the online version differs from the wording in the print version, the passages quoted above follow the print version.)

The study discussed in the passages quoted above is:

Martínez, Alejandro, and Stefano Mammola. “Specialized Terminology Reduces the Number of Citations of Scientific Papers.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Britain (April 7, 2021)

The McCloskey classic article, and the exchange with Jack High, are:

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 23, no. 2 (April 1985): 187-222.

High, Jack C. “The Costs of Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 543-45.

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Reply to Jack High.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 547-548.

Biden Plan “Lurches Into” the “Quagmire” of Government Picking Tech Winners and Losers

(p. A23) The Biden administration has put forward the biggest, boldest, most expensive expansion of government in at least a half-century.

. . .

The Biden plan doesn’t just tiptoe around the quagmire of the government picking winners and losers, or what has been termed “industrial policy” — it lurches into it. Hundreds of billions of dollars will be invested by government agencies, whose record of success with direct involvement in the commercial world is, at best, mixed.

A recent case in point: the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which, at $787 billion, was much, much smaller than the more than $4 trillion sum of the two Biden plans put forward thus far. While the 2009 stimulus did put much-needed dollars into the economy without fraud or abuse (as Mr. Biden likes to remind us), it didn’t achieve another of its goals: a swifter transition to clean energy.

As a 2015 Congressional Research Service report reviewing stimulus projects further noted, “Solyndra declared bankruptcy in late 2011 and defaulted on its $535 million loan, Abound Solar received about $70 million of its $400 million loan before shuttering its solar panel operation and filing for bankruptcy in 2012, and SoloPower never met the requirements to initiate its $197 million loan guarantee.”

None of this should be too surprising. Going all the way back to the creation of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation in 1980, which I covered as a New York Times correspondent, the federal government’s recurring efforts at directing energy transitions have mostly struggled.

. . .

No one should want the Biden plan to fall short. But given its vast sweep — I conservatively counted more than five dozen initiatives — the administration should increase its chances of success by leaning more heavily on private models for help and using tax incentives to a greater extent for efficiency.

For the full commentary, see:

Steven Rattner. “Handle Big Government With Care.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Biden’s Big Government Should Be Handled With Care.”)

Still Plenty of Fruit to Pick from the Tree of Science

Some pessimists have argued for imminent economic stagnation on the grounds that technological progress depends on new scientific knowledge and that we already pretty much know all there is to know about science. One way in which they are wrong is that the process of scientific discovery still has a long way to go before we fully understand the world. (If C.S. Peirce was right in saying that truth is the result of infinite inquiry, then we will never fully understand the world.)

(p. A1) Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday, a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.

The result, physicists say, suggests that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science. The new work, they said, could eventually lead to breakthroughs more dramatic than the heralded discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson, a particle that imbues other particles with mass.

“This is our Mars rover landing moment,” said Chris Polly, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., who has been working toward this finding for most of his career.

The particle célèbre is the muon, which is akin to an electron but far heavier, and is an integral element of the cosmos. Dr. Polly and his colleagues — an international team of 200 physicists from seven countries — found that muons did not behave as predicted when shot through an intense magnetic field at Fermilab.

The aberrant behavior poses a firm challenge to the Standard Model, the suite of equations that enumerates the fundamental particles in the universe (17, at last count) and how they interact.

“This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory,” said Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky.

. . .

(p. A19) For decades, physicists have relied on and have been bound by the Standard Model, which successfully explains the results of high-energy particle experiments in places like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. But the model leaves many deep questions about the universe unanswered.

Most physicists believe that a rich trove of new physics waits to be found, if only they could see deeper and further. The additional data from the Fermilab experiment could provide a major boost to scientists eager to build the next generation of expensive particle accelerators.

For the full story, see:

Dennis Overbye. “A Particle’s Tiny Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.” The New York Times (Friday, April 16, 2021): A1 & A19.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was updated April 9, 2021, and has the title “A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.”)

My point at the start of this entry is directly relevant to my argument in the first half of the last chapter of:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Where Hospitals Charge Higher Prices for C-Sections, More C-Sections Are Performed

(p. B6) The more a hospital profits from a cesarean delivery, the more likely a woman is to get one, a new analysis suggests.

For the study, published in JAMA Network Open, researchers analyzed records of 13.2 million deliveries nationwide from 2010 to 2014, using a large database of generally healthy women.

. . .

During that period, profit from C-sections varied, from an average of $4,969 for the one-quarter of hospitals with the lowest charges to $26,129 for the quarter that charge the most.

The researchers found that compared with the one-quarter of hospitals that averaged the lowest profit per cesarean, those that made the most per formed 8 per cent more C-sections.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas Bakalar. “In Brief; Making Profits From C-Sections.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): D6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: after considerable search, I could not find this article in the online version of the NYT as of 4/24/21.)

The JAMA Network Open article discussed in the passages quoted above is:

Sakai-Bizmark, Rie, Michael G. Ross, Dennys Estevez, Lauren E. M. Bedel, Emily H. Marr, and Yusuke Tsugawa. “Evaluation of Hospital Cesarean Delivery–Related Profits and Rates in the United States.” JAMA Network Open 4, no. 3 (2021): e212235-e35.

Cuomo-Endorsed Closure of Indian Point Nuclear Reactors Increases New York’s Use of Fossil Fuels

(p. B6) For most of his long political career, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo railed against the dangers of having a nuclear power plant operating just 25 miles away from New York City, saying its proximity to such a densely populated metropolis defied “basic sanity.’’

But now, the plant is preparing to shut down, and New York is grappling with the adverse effect the closing will have on another of Mr. Cuomo’s ambitious goals: sharply reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

So far, most of the electricity produced by the nuclear plant, known as Indian Point, has been replaced by power generated by plants that burn natural gas and emit more pollution. And that trade-off will become more pronounced once Indian Point’s last reactor shuts down on April 30 [2021].

“It’s topsy-turvy,” said Isuru Seneviratne, a clean-energy investor who is a member of the steering committee of Nuclear New York, which has lobbied to keep Indian Point running. The pronuclear group calculated that each of Indian Point’s reactors had been producing more power than all of the wind turbines and solar panels in the state combined.

For the full story, see:

Patrick McGeehan. “Nuclear Plant’s Shutdown Means More Fossil Fuel in New York.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): A15.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 13, 2021, and has the title “Indian Point Is Shutting Down. That Means More Fossil Fuel.”)

Zoning Regulations Restrict Building Affordable Homes

(p. A25) Although zoning may seem like a technical, bureaucratic and decidedly local question, in reality the issue relates directly to three grand themes that Joe Biden ran on in the 2020 campaign: racial justice, respect for working-class people and national unity. Perhaps no single step would do more to advance those goals than tearing down the government-sponsored walls that keep Americans of different races and classes from living in the same communities, sharing the same public schools and getting a chance to know one another across racial, economic and political lines.

Economically discriminatory zoning policies — which say that you are not welcome in a community unless you can afford a single-family home, sometimes on a large plot of land — are not part of a distant, disgraceful past. In most American cities, zoning laws prohibit the construction of relatively affordable homes — duplexes, triplexes, quads and larger multifamily units — on three-quarters of residential land.

For the full commentary, see:

Richard D. Kahlenberg. “Zoning Is a Social Justice Matter.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 20, 2021): A25.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 19, 2021, and has the title “The ‘New Redlining’ Is Deciding Who Lives in Your Neighborhood.”)

Defending the Enlightenment

(p. C7) The dishonoring of Hume, and attacks on other Enlightenment luminaries such as Jefferson and Kant, indicate that the case against the Enlightenment has escaped the faculty lounge and is now in the streets. This turbulent context will inevitably frame any modern history of the Enlightenment, and so it is with Ritchie Robertson’s “The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790.” Mr. Robertson’s study is part of a growing rearguard action. He is determined, alongside colleagues such as Jonathan Israel and Anthony Pagden, both to defend the Enlightenment on its own terms and to promote its “particularly urgent message for our time.”

. . .

What the Enlighteners offered was reason alloyed with sentiment. “In this book,” writes Mr. Robertson, “I try to present the Enlightenment not only as an intellectual movement, but also as a sea change in sensibility, in which people became more attuned to other people’s feelings, and more concerned for what we would call humane, or humanitarian values.”

. . .

He uses the sentimental revolution to explain important reformist causes, such as the suppression of cruelty to animals, penal reform and new models of education. A “feeling” for humanity in all its diversity, among figures such as Diderot and Burke, informed powerful critiques of European empire. Even Adam Smith—(p. C8)often misremembered as a pitiless capitalist—made feeling central to sociability in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759). According to Smith, as Mr. Robertson puts it, social and economic life was not powered by “cold calculations” but by “desire, which had to be properly channelled in order to produce happiness.”

The postmodernist attacks on the Enlightenment as coercive, disciplinarian and hierarchical, Mr. Robertson claims, ignore its softer dimension, its humane sympathy and its concern to ameliorate suffering.

For the full review, see:

Jeffrey Collins. “Let’s Be Reasonable, and Humane.” The New York Times Book Review (Saturday, March 13, 2021): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 12, 2021, and has the title “‘The Enlightenment’ Review: Daring to Feel.”)

The book under review is:

Robertson, Ritchie. The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790. New York: Harper, 2021.

Mundell and Laffer Agreed High Taxes Hurt Poor

(p. A12) Robert A. Mundell began to make his name in the 1960s as a maverick economist eager to challenge his more orthodox colleagues. He ended up influencing mainstream economic policy in the U.S. and Europe in profound ways that few of his peers could have imagined.

. . .

Dr. Mundell’s influence on U.S. economic policy also dates to the 1960s. He was teaching at the University of Chicago when he met Arthur Laffer in 1967. Dr. Laffer, a Stanford-educated economist, later recalled their first meeting as a shock. “In walked a sallow, tousle-headed, pipe-smoking figure wearing a faded trench coat belted with a clothesline cord,” Dr. Laffer wrote.

The disheveled Dr. Mundell and the buttoned-down Dr. Laffer agreed that steeply progressive taxes were deterring investment and employment in ways that hurt the poor.

In the 1970s, Dr. Mundell argued that the U.S. should defy conventional economic wisdom by raising interest rates to protect the dollar’s value while reducing taxes to stimulate the economy. “I knew I was in the minority,” he said in an 1988 interview. “But I thought my vote should count much more than the others because I understood the subject.”

Dr. Laffer introduced Dr. Mundell and his ideas to Jude Wanniski and Robert Bartley of The Wall Street Journal editorial pages, whose work influenced Republican politicians including Jack Kemp and Mr. Reagan.

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Canadian Economist Inspired U.S. Tax Cuts.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 6, 2021): A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Robert Mundell Helped Inspire U.S. Tax Cuts and the Euro.” In the last paragraph quoted above, the online version mentions Jack Kemp. The print version did not.)

Amazon Workers Can Flourish Without Unions

(p. A1) Amazon workers at a giant warehouse in Alabama voted decisively against forming a union on Friday, squashing the most significant organizing drive in the internet giant’s history and dealing a crushing blow to labor and Democrats when conditions appeared ripe for them to make advances.

Workers cast 1,798 votes against a union, giving Amazon enough to emphatically defeat the effort. Ballots in favor of a union trailed at 738, fewer than 30 percent of the votes tallied, according to federal officials.

. . .

(p. A17) William and Lavonette Stokes, who started work at the Bessemer warehouse in July, said the union had failed to convince them how it could improve their working conditions. Amazon already provides good benefits, relatively high pay that starts at $15 an hour and opportunities to advance, said the couple, who have five children.

“Amazon is the only job I know where they pay your health insurance from Day 1,” Ms. Stokes, 52, said. She added that she had been turned off by how organizers tried to cast the union drive as an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement because most of the workers are Black.

“This was not an African-American issue,’’ said Ms. Stokes, who is Black. “I feel you can work there comfortably without being harassed.”

In a news conference organized by Amazon on Friday, Mr. Stokes and other workers said they had concerns that they wanted the company to address, like better training and anti-bias coaching for managers.

“We just feel like we can do it without the union,” he said. “Why pay the union to do what we can do ourselves?”

For the full story, see:

Karen Weise and Michael Corkery. “Major Setback to Labor As Amazon Employees Reject Unionization Bid.” The New York Times (Saturday, April 10, 2021): A1 & A17.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Amazon Workers Vote Down Union Drive at Alabama Warehouse.”)

Clean-Energy Requires More Transmission Lines Which Requires More Use of Eminent Domain to Seize Private Property

(p. B12) President Biden’s infrastructure plan proposes some tried-and-trusted methods to spur clean-energy development such as a 10-year extension of existing tax credits for solar and wind energy. More interestingly, it introduces an investment tax credit for high-voltage transmission lines.

. . .

The administration is certainly looking in the right direction: To reach President Biden’s net-zero emissions goal by 2050, the U.S. will need to expand electricity transmission systems by 60% by 2030 and may need to triple it by 2050, according to research published by Princeton University in December [2020]. That is because renewable energy-rich places such as the windiest regions aren’t necessarily close to population centers, where electricity demand is.

While the clean-energy industry probably won’t complain about a new subsidy, the tax-credit proposal is a bit of a head scratcher given that the real roadblocks to transmission lines have to do with permitting, much of which is in the hands of state and local authorities.

A shift toward e-commerce should push up productivity by eliminating workers needed in bricks-and-mortar stores, Mr. Gordon said. Videoconferencing should also help, though the public-transit sector could offset some of the gains because buses and rail transit will carry fewer riders, he said.

“For most transmission we need in the country, it’s not a cost issue or an access-to-capital issue, although transmission can be delayed because of cost allocation debates,” said George Bilicic, global head of power, energy and infrastructure at Lazard.

. . .

The proposed plan also calls for a so-called Grid Deployment Authority within the Energy Department to “better leverage existing rights of way” along roads and railways. That would be a good first step, though eminent domain—the power of the government to take private property and convert it for public use—remains largely within state regulators’ hands. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has authority to grant natural-gas pipelines the right of eminent domain under the Natural Gas Act, there is no equivalent authority for electricity transmission under the Federal Power Act and little momentum in Congress to grant that provision.

For the full commentary, see:

Jinjoo Lee. “Productivity Looks Ready to Pick Up.” The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, April 6, 2021): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 4, 2021, and has the title “Biden’s Grid Proposal May Be a Square Peg in a Round Hole.”)

The Princeton research mentioned above is:

Larson, Eric, Chris Greig, Jesse Jenkins, Erin Mayfield, Andrew Pascale, Chuan Zhang, Joshua Drossman, Robert Williams, Steve Pacala, Robert Socolowi, Ejeong Baik, Rich Birdsey, Rick Duke, Ryan Jones, Ben Haley, Emily Leslie, Keith Paustian, and Amy Swan. “Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts, Interim Report.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, Dec. 15, 2020.

How Chuck Yeager Acquired the ‘Right Stuff’: “I Worked My Tail Off”

(p. A1) Chuck Yeager, the most famous test pilot of his generation, who was the first to break the sound barrier and, thanks to Tom Wolfe, came to personify the death-defying aviator who possessed the elusive yet unmistakable “right stuff,” died on Monday [December 7, 2020] in Los Angeles.

. . .

His signal achievement came on Oct. 14, 1947, when he climbed out of a B-29 bomber as it ascended over the Mojave Desert in California and entered the cockpit of an orange, bullet-shaped, rocket-powered experimental plane attached to the bomb bay.

An Air Force captain at the time, he zoomed off in the plane, a (p. A23) Bell Aircraft X-1, at an altitude of 23,000 feet, and when he reached about 43,000 feet above the desert, history’s first sonic boom reverberated across the floor of the dry lake beds. He had reached a speed of 700 miles an hour, breaking the sound barrier and dispelling the long-held fear that any plane flying at or beyond the speed of sound would be torn apart by shock waves.

. . .

Mr. Wolfe wrote about a nonchalance affected by pilots in the face of an emergency in a voice “specifically Appalachian in origin,” one that was first heard in military circles but ultimately emanated from the cockpits of commercial airliners.

“It was,” Mr. Wolfe said, “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

In his memoir, General Yeager said he was annoyed when people asked him if he had the right stuff, since he felt it implied a talent he was born with.

“All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”

. . .

At a time when the administration of President John F. Kennedy was encouraging diversity in the Air Force, a former test pilot, Edward Dwight Jr., became the only African-American astronaut candidate at the school. But he was never selected for the astronaut corps, retired from the Air Force in 1966 and became a sculptor, specializing in bronze representations of heroic figures in Black history.

In July 2019, Mr. Dwight told the New York Times that General Yeager had never given him a fair chance. “Every week, right on the dot,” Mr. Dwight said, “he’d call me into his office and say, ‘Are you ready to quit? This is too much for you, and you’re going to kill yourself, boy.’ Calling me a boy, and I’m an officer in the Air Force.”

Responding to those remarks, General Yeager said that he had never told anybody that he would get Mr. Dwight out of the program, that he had not held weekly meetings with him, and that he had never called him “boy.”

But he did question Mr. Dwight’s ability. “Isn’t it great that Ed Dwight found his true calling and became an accomplished sculptor?” he wrote in an email.

. . .

In his memoir, General Yeager wrote that through all his years as a pilot, he had made sure to “learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment.”

It may not have accorded with his image, but, as he told it: “I was always afraid of dying. Always.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Goldstein. “Fighter Ace and Test Pilot Embodied ‘the Right Stuff’.” The New York Times (Wednesday, December 9, 2020): A1 & A23.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated December 9, 2020, and has the title “Chuck Yeager, Test Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier, Is Dead at 97.” The paragraphs quoted above about Edward Dwight appear in the print, but not in the online, version of the obituary.)

Tom Wolfe portrayed Yeager as the exemplar of the “right stuff” in:

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1979.

Yeager’s memoir is:

Yeager, Chuck, and Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.