On Vaccines and Economics, Europe Suffers “the Same Bureaucratic and Intellectual Rigidity”

(p. A25) Europe’s vaccination debacle will almost surely end up causing thousands of unnecessary deaths. And the thing is, the continent’s policy bungles don’t look like isolated instances, a few bad decisions made by a few bad leaders. Instead, the failures seem to reflect fundamental flaws in the continent’s institutions and attitudes — including the same bureaucratic and intellectual rigidity that made the euro crisis a decade ago far worse than it should have been.

The details of the European failure are complex. But the common thread seems to be that European officials were not just risk averse, but averse to the wrong risks. They seemed deeply worried about the possibility that they might end up paying drug companies too much, or discover that they had laid out money for vaccines that either proved ineffective or turned out to have dangerous side effects.

So they minimized these risks by delaying the procurement process, haggling over prices and refusing to grant liability waivers. They seemed far less worried about the risk that many Europeans might get sick or die because the vaccine rollout was too slow.

For the full commentary, see:

Paul Krugman. “A Fiasco That’s Very European: Vaccines.” The New York Times (Friday, March 19, 2021): A25.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 18, 2021, and has the title “Vaccines: A Very European Disaster.”)

Are We Right to Experiment on Animals to Save Humans?

I believe that higher animals feel emotions and maybe even have souls, so we should try to treat them humanely. I am deeply conflicted on how far animal experiments are justified in the pursuit of curing human diseases. Whenever possible, animal experiments should have the potential to benefit the animals in the experiments, as well as the human experimenters.

(p. A15) The “title characters” of Brandy Schillace’s admirable biography “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul” were one and the same person: Robert J. White, a distinguished neurosurgeon, an accomplished neuroscientist and a man dedicated to searching for the means to transplant souls by transplanting the human brain. If this makes White sound macabre, Ms. Schillace’s account of his life, work and temperament is anything but. She deftly persuades the reader to take White seriously (he wasn’t even eccentric) and to ponder profound medical-scientific-philosophical issues. Best of all, the book is fascinating.

. . .

White felt it was his religious and medical duty to devise techniques for rescuing healthy brains from otherwise diseased and dying bodies. His solution was to transplant heads (containing their brains) onto cadavers that were brain dead but otherwise physiologically viable.

Before he could attempt such surgery on people, White experimented, mostly on monkeys, dozens of times, to ascertain and refine the necessary procedures. In March 1970 he succeeded in transplanting a monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body.

. . .

During the era in which White conducted his experiments, politicians, doctors, journalists and celebrities were becoming deeply and increasingly dismayed by scientific experiments on animals. White ran afoul of the animal-rights advocacy organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and was threatened by animal-rights extremists (he remained imperturbable). White prided himself on scrupulously avoiding harm to his animal subjects. But he didn’t believe that animals had souls: For him, Ms. Schillace writes, “the human was more than animal, and equating the two was not only wrong, it was dangerous.” One of White’s rejoinders to those who would halt animal experimentation was, to paraphrase: If you were a surgeon, how would you like to tell parents that their young child is going to die because the operation that might save him or her was impossible to perform, mainly because the necessary animal-dissection research that would have permitted it was forbidden by law or the medical canon of ethics? His foes never had a good answer.

For the full review, see:

Howard Schneider. “A Heart in the Right Place.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, February 22, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 21, 2021, and has the title “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher’ Review: A Heart in the Right Place.”)

The book under review is:

Schillace, Brandy. Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Inventor of the Cassette Tape Liked CDs Better

(p. A9) Lou Ottens was thinking about convenience and portability when he told his product development team at Philips to come up with something better than reel-to-reel tapes.

He and his colleagues produced the cassette tape, . . .

. . .

“We expected it would be a success but not a revolution,” Mr. Ottens said in the 2016 documentary “Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape.”

. . .

Mr. Ottens later was involved in development of the compact disc, introduced in the early 1980s. He was puzzled by the revival of demand for cassette tapes among young people in recent years. “People prefer a worse quality of sound, out of nostalgia,” he said. As for himself, he told Time magazine in 2013, “I like when something new comes.”

. . .

The idea came to him, he said, one night after he struggled to thread tape through a bulky reel-to-reel player. A colleague quipped that the cassette was inspired by “the clumsiness of a very clever man.”

. . .

In the documentary, Mr. Ottens insisted that he was untroubled by the demise of technology he helped create. “I don’t believe in eternity,” he said.

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Dutchman Launched Cassette ‘Revolution’.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 18, 2021): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 12, 2021, and has the title “Lou Ottens Led Team That Invented the Cassette Tape.”)

Hacked Trove of Documents Show China’s “Weaponized System of Censorship”

(p. 1) In the early hours of Feb. 7 [2021], China’s powerful internet censors experienced an unfamiliar and deeply unsettling sensation. They felt they were losing control.

The news was spreading quickly that Li Wenliang, a doctor who had warned about a strange new viral outbreak only to be threatened by the police and accused of peddling rumors, had died of Covid-19. Grief and fury coursed through social media. To people at home and abroad, Dr. Li’s death showed the terrible cost of the Chinese government’s instinct to suppress inconvenient information.

Yet China’s censors decided to double down. Warning of the “unprecedented challenge” Dr. Li’s passing had posed and the “butterfly effect” it may have set off, officials got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative, according to confidential directives sent to local propaganda workers and news outlets.

They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: “As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results.”

The orders were among thousands of secret government directives and other documents that were reviewed by The New York(p. 14)Times and ProPublica. They lay bare in extraordinary detail the systems that helped the Chinese authorities shape online opinion during the pandemic.

At a time when digital media is deepening social divides in Western democracies, China is manipulating online discourse to enforce the Communist Party’s consensus. To stage-manage what appeared on the Chinese internet early this year, the authorities issued strict commands on the content and tone of news coverage, directed paid trolls to inundate social media with party-line blather and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices.

. . .

The documents include more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos and other files from the offices of the country’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, in the eastern city of Hangzhou. They also include internal files and computer code from a Chinese company, Urun Big Data Services, that makes software used by local governments to monitor internet discussion and manage armies of online commenters.

The documents were shared with The Times and ProPublica by a hacker group that calls itself C.C.P. Unmasked, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. The Times and ProPublica independently verified the authenticity of many of the documents, some of which had been obtained separately by China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls.

. . .

“China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founder of China Digital Times. “It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale.”

“This is a huge thing,” he added. “No other country has that.”

For the full story, see:

Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur, Jeff Kao and Aaron Krolik. “‘Be Sleek and Silent’: How China Censored Bad News About Covid.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 20, 2020): 1 & 14.

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

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Jan. [sic] 13, 2021, and has the title “No ‘Negative’ News: How China Censored the Coronavirus.”)

Press Should Be “Watchdog, Not Partisan Attack Dog”

(p. 7) WASHINGTON — I’ve been waiting for this moment. The moment when some on the left would react indignantly to journalists doing their job.

It was so enthralling and gratifying to assail Donald Trump as a liar and misogynist that it was bound to be jarring when the beast slouched out of town and liberals had to relearn the lesson that reporters don’t — or shouldn’t — suit up for the blue team.

. . .

. . . , the left declared it a national emergency and acted as though all journalistic objectivity should be suspended. Some thought that the media should ignore Trump’s news conferences and tweets and that the only legitimate interview with Trump was one where you stabbed him in the eye with a salad fork.

Many reporters offered sharp opinions, the kind not seen before in covering a president.

. . .

A whole generation of journalists was reared in the caldera that was Trump’s briefing room.

Some Washington reporters have been worried about this for some time, that the left would “work the refs,” as one put it, and turn on the media and attack if they dared to report something that could endanger the Republic (a.k.a. hurt a Democrat).

But the role of the press in a functioning democracy is as watchdog, not partisan attack dog. Politicians have plenty of people spinning for them. They don’t need the press doing that, too.

For the full commentary, see:

Maureen Dowd. “Democrats, High on Their Own Supply.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, February 28, 2021): 7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 27, 2021, and has the title “High on Their Own Supply.”)

Cafe Hayek Quotes from Openness Book on Happiness

Posted by Arthur Diamond on Friday, April 2, 2021

Don Boudreaux quotes from my Openness to Creative Destruction book on Cafe Hayek, the blog he runs with Russ Roberts.

My book is:

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

The Handful Who “Called the Government’s Bluff and Stayed”

(p. A12) ACHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — First the houses and cars vanished. Fences, driveways and the other remaining markers of suburban life followed. Now, only stretches of green remain — an eerie memorial to two earthquakes that leveled Christchurch, New Zealand’s second-largest city, 10 years ago.

The undulating expanse, which begins two miles from downtown Christchurch, was deemed uninhabitable after the quakes, the second of which killed 185 people on Feb. 22, 2011. The 8,000 properties it encompassed were bought by the government and razed, the remnants swept away.

. . .

When the government sought to buy out thousands of homeowners after the 2011 quake, it intended to give them certainty about their futures. Many were angered by the offer, which was based on four-year-old property valuations.

Some were compelled to accept in order to pay their mortgages, others when officials warned that red-zoned areas would no longer be served by utilities, infrastructure or insurance.

A handful of residents called the government’s bluff and stayed.

Brooklands, a semirural area, is home to the most united display of red-zone defiance. When the land there was judged unlivable, most residents sold up and left, but a little over a dozen homes remain.

“It’s beautiful,” said one of the homeowners, Stephen Bourke. “There’s no one here. It’s paradise.”

A project manager in the civil construction industry, Mr. Bourke repaired his 80-year-old wooden villa himself. “It doesn’t leak,” he said. “It’s all on an angle, but we’ve water-sealed it.”

Ramshackle bus shelters remain on Brooklands’s single-house streets, although no buses arrive. Surviving homes are flanked by overgrown lots.

The local authorities still collect trash and mow the verges, contrary to warnings in 2011 that they would stop, but the roads are potholed and uneven.

Mr. Bourke said he saw little point in moving elsewhere, given that much of New Zealand is prone to earthquakes and floods.

“It’s all very well having these politicians turn up and tell people where they can go,” he said. “But where are you going to tell me to go in New Zealand that’s safe to live?”

For the full story, see:

Charlotte Graham-McLay. “Years After Quakes, City Leaves a Hush Where Homes Stood.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 23, 2021): A12.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 21, 2021, and has the title “10 Years After Christchurch Quake, a Hush Where 8,000 Homes Once Stood.”)

In the Early Fight Against COVID-19 in China “Front-Line Bureaucrats Were Consumed With Paperwork”

(p. A15) After Chinese leader Xi Jinping ordered rural poverty eliminated by 2020, bureaucrats in the southwestern city of Mianyang got busy—with paperwork.

Instructed to devote 70% of their time to the campaign, they diligently filled out forms certifying compliance, a practice known as “leaving marks,” said Pang Jia, a local judicial clerk who joined the effort. When higher-ups demanded photographic proof of their home visits, some aid workers made up for missing winter photos by posing in cold-weather clothing during summer house calls, Ms. Pang said.

Since taking power in late 2012, Mr. Xi has realigned Chinese politics with his domineering style and a top-down drive to forge a centralized state under the Communist Party. But his efforts are running into an old foe: bureaucracy.

Party observers say the drive for centralization in a sprawling nation too often fosters bureaucratic inertia, duplicity and other(p. A10)unproductive practices that are aimed at satisfying Beijing and protecting careers but threaten to undermine Mr. Xi’s goals.

Indeed, some local officials have become so focused on pleasing Mr. Xi and fulfilling party mandates that they can neglect their basic duties as public servants, sometimes with dire results.

As the new coronavirus spread in Wuhan in late 2019, for instance, local authorities were afraid to share bad news with Beijing. That impeded the national response and contributed to the death toll, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation.

Mr. Xi and other senior officials publicly lamented how front-line bureaucrats were consumed with paperwork instead of fighting the contagion. Officials dedicated hours each day to filling out multiple documents for agencies making overlapping requests for information, including residents’ body temperatures and symptoms.

For the full story, see:

Chun Han Wong. “Xi Jinping’s Eager Minions Snarl His China Plans.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, March 8, 2021): A15.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 7, 2021, and has the title “Xi Jinping’s Eager-to-Please Bureaucrats Snarl His China Plans.”)

Long Beach Supermarket Workers Lose Jobs Due to Higher Minimum Wage

(p. A15) As these things always do, it started out with the best intentions. In January [2021] the City Council of Long Beach, Calif., adopted an ordinance requiring large grocery-store chains to pay employees an extra $4 an hour. The idea was to reward them for the risks they took by doing their jobs amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

It didn’t turn out that way. In response to the ordinance, Kroger Co. announced it would close two Long Beach supermarkets.

. . .

As one of the world’s largest retailers, Kroger makes an easy villain. But instead of blaming “reckless capitalism,” might the fault lie with the reckless politicians who passed this measure? Thanks to their intervention, instead of finding an extra $4 an hour in their paychecks, nearly 200 grocery workers will now have no paychecks at all unless they are transferred to another store or find another job. It’s but the latest illustration of economist Thomas Sowell’s dictum that whatever a government might set it at, “the real minimum wage is always zero.”

For the full commentary, see:

William McGurn. “The Human Cost of a Minimum Wage.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, February 16, 2021): A15.

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

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date February 15, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Humans Excel at Finding and Using Patterns

(p. 9) At the end of the 20th century, scholars of human evolution proposed a thrilling idea: Humans were special and distinct from all other animals because of a sudden transformational change that occurred around 35,000 years ago. For millions of years our ancestors had trudged through existence with the same simple tool kit, yet in that special moment, there was a flowering of symbolism, of art, of complicated tool use. This was when the modern human mind was born. You could see its traces in the archaeological record.

. . .

In “The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention,” Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist and the director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, contributes a new version of this cognitive revolution. Baron-Cohen argues that humans split off from all other animals to become the “scientific and technological masters of our planet” because we evolved a unique piece of mental equipment that he calls the Systemizing Mechanism. It came into being between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, and it led to the invention of pretty much everything, bows and arrows, pottery, agriculture, science, skateboards and so on.

. . .

Here’s how the mechanism works: Humans alone observe the world and ask questions that demand why, how and what. They answer their questions by looking for if-and-then patterns, such as, if I boil an egg for eight minutes, then the yolk will be hard, and if I boil an egg for four minutes, then the yolk will be soft. They use those patterns to build theories, which they then repeatedly test, looking always for systems to further employ and exploit.

Grand theories aside, Baron-Cohen is at his most striking when he writes about people with autism, like Jonah, who was slow to talk but who taught himself to read. When Jonah eventually learned to speak, he used language less as a tool for communication than as a system for categorizing the world around him. As a young child, he was endlessly fascinated by how things worked, and he spent hours experimenting, like flipping a light switch on and off to test and retest its effect. At school he showed great brilliance in his observations about the natural world, he was a “born pattern seeker,” but at the same time he was taunted by other children for being so different. In group reading time, which he hated, he would shut his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. Jonah’s weekend hobby as a young man was helping fishermen locate shoals by being able to read the signs from surface waves. Yet despite his incredible talents, Jonah was lonely and frustrated because he couldn’t find a job that would allow him to live an independent life. Baron-Cohen argues with feeling and conviction that society must do a better job of making room for people like Jonah, and that it will benefit enormously when it does.

For the full review, see:

Christine Kenneally. “Systematizers.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 20, 2020): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Dec. 9, 2020, and has the title “Does Autism Hold the Key to What Makes Humans Special?.”)

The book under review is:

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Bernie Sanders Is Uncomfortable that Twitter Censored Trump

Do you think there is truth to the critique that liberals have become too censorious and too willing to use their cultural and corporate and political power to censor or suppress ideas and products that offend them?

Look, you have a former president in Trump, who was a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, a pathological liar, an authoritarian, somebody who doesn’t believe in the rule of law. This is a bad-news guy. But if you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the then-president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don’t feel comfortable about that.

Now, I don’t know what the answer is. Do you want hate speech and conspiracy theories traveling all over this country? No. Do you want the internet to be used for authoritarian purposes and an insurrection, if you like? No, you don’t. So how do you balance that? I don’t know, but it is an issue that we have got to be thinking about. Because yesterday it was Donald Trump who was banned, and tomorrow, it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view.

I don’t like giving that much power to a handful of high-tech people. But the devil is obviously in the details, and it’s something we’re going to have to think long and hard on.

For the whole interview, see:

Klein, Ezra, interviewer. “An Unusually Optimistic Conversation With Bernie Sanders; The Vermont senator discusses the Rescue Act, cancel culture, the filibuster and more.” The Ezra Klein Show, on the New York Times web site. (Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021).

(Note: the first sentence question is by interviewer Ezra Klein. The following answer is by Senator Bernie Sanders.)