Median Income Rising More Under Trump Than Under Bush and Obama

Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) President Trump’s critics can’t deny that the economy is doing well, so instead they insist all the benefits have gone to the rich and large corporations. “America’s middle class is under attack,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren asserted in her presidential campaign announcement last December.

The latest data from the Census Bureau monthly surveys tell a different story. Real median household income—the amount earned by those in the very middle—hit $65,084 (in 2019 dollars) for the 12 months ending in July. That’s the highest level ever and a gain of $4,144, or 6.8%, since Mr. Trump took office. By comparison, during 7½ years under President Obama—starting from the end of the recession in June 2009 through January 2017—the median household income rose by only about $1,000.

These statistics were published by two former census income-research specialists with 50 years experience who now run Sentier Research, a nonpartisan research group.

For the full commentary, see:

Stephen Moore. “Trump’s Middle-Class Economic Progress.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Sept. 30, 2019): A17.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 29, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

“A Disney Story for Young Socialists” Op-Ed in Wall Street Journal

My op-ed touches on a couple of the themes of my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. The URL for the online version of my op-ed piece is: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-disney-story-for-young-socialists-11570661652

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.