Productivity Pessimist Robert Gordon Becomes More Optimistic

(p. A2) After a decadelong drought, worker productivity might be about to accelerate thanks to pandemic-induced technological adoption, which could lift economic growth and wages in coming years while staving off inflation pressure.

. . .

Robert Gordon, a professor at Northwestern University who has studied productivity and living standards during the past century, said productivity growth slowed after 2005 because the payoff from computers faded and new inventions such as smartphones and tablets didn’t revolutionize business operations. In 2015 he had predicted productivity growth of only 1.5% a year over the next 25 years. Recent developments have made him more optimistic, and he expects annual productivity growth of about 1.8% this decade.

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.

. . .

Remote work could deliver a one-time 4.7% lift to productivity after the pandemic, though a large share of the growth will stem from shortened commutes that government productivity data won’t fully capture, according to a working paper from Stanford University’s Nicholas Bloom and co-authors.

For the full commentary, see:

Sarah Chaney Cambon. “Productivity Looks Ready to Pick Up.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 5, 2021): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 4, 2021, and has the title “U.S.’s Long Drought in Worker Productivity Could Be Ending.”)

Gordon’s pessimistic old views were most fully expressed in his much-discussed:

Gordon, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

The working paper co-authored by Bloom is:

Barrero, Jose Maria, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis. “Why Working from Home Will Stick.” Working Paper, April 1, 2021.

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.

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.

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.

“A Public Choice Analysis of Mandated Randomized Double-Blind Clinical Trials”

My “A Public Choice Analysis of Mandated Randomized Double-Blind Clinical Trials” was presented on April 13, 2021 in the Law & Economics session of the Association of Private Enterprise Education meetings. I am grateful to Ray DeGennaro and Matthew McClanahan for including me in McClanahan’s session and to Lauren Nicole Hughes for recording the session on her smartphone.

To some extent, the presentation was an outgrowth of my book:

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

Cancel Culture Comes for Odysseus

I took a couple of years of classical Greek in college from “Doc” Charles, a senior member of the Wabash College faculty. One year we read Homer’s The Odyssey; the other year we read Plato’s “Apology” and the Greek New Testament; I don’t remember for sure which we read first. But I think we read The Odyssey in the second year, when I was the only student in the course. I got credit for taking the course; but with only one student, Doc Charles did not get credit for teaching it. One of my abiding regrets is that I never took the time in later years to thank Doc Charles. When our daughter Jenny’s middle school class read a little bit of an English translation of The Odyssey, I grabbed my own copy of the English translation and read her a few paragraphs that I thought she would like. Jenny is partial to the dachshund breed of hound dogs. The paragraphs I read were about Odysseus finally entering Ithaca after 10 years of fighting the Trojan War and another 10 years of struggling to return home. After 20 years’ absence the first humans he meets do not recognize him. But an old hound dog who was his puppy when he left Ithaca, rises to its feet and wags its tail in greeting. The Odyssey is about loyalty and resilience and loving your hound dog. Created many centuries ago, it connects us to ancestors with whom we still share values, challenges, and hopes. Odysseus was a flawed hero but he was a hero. We should defend our right to read the story of his struggles.

(p. A15) A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts—everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss.

. . .

The demands for censorship appear to be getting results. “Be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash),” tweeted Shea Martin in June [2020]. “Hahaha,” replied Heather Levine, an English teacher at Lawrence (Mass.) High School. “Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” When I contacted Ms. Levine to confirm this, she replied that she found the inquiry “invasive.”

For the full commentary, see:

Meghan Cox Gurdon. “Even Homer Gets Mobbed.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Dec. 28, 2020): A15.

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

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated Dec. 27, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

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.

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.

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.

Vaccine Immunity, Plus Natural Immunity from Getting Covid-19, Equals Herd Immunity Soon

The author of the passages I quote below is a surgeon and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and has authored The Price We Pay, which I recently read. It is a disturbing, eye-opening, excellent account of why the costs of drugs are high and rising.

(p. A17) Anthony Fauci has been saying that the country needs to vaccinate 70% to 85% of the population to reach herd immunity from Covid-19. But he inexplicably ignores natural immunity. If you account for previous infections, herd immunity is likely close at hand.

. . .

Dr. Fauci’s vaccination-only path to herd immunity has significantly influenced the national conversation. KNBC-TV in Los Angeles has a county-by-county vaccine tracker showing a bar graph of the percentage of Californians vaccinated, with the zone 70% to 85% labeled “herd immunity.” Currently, it’s at 26%. The false construct does create a greater urgency for everyone to get vaccinated. But it also creates false justification for continued excessive restrictions on freedom. And it raises the possibility that authorities are misallocating the limited vaccine supply by failing to direct it toward people without natural antibodies.

. . .

Some experts claim they don’t talk about natural immunity because we shouldn’t trust it. But a recent Public Health England study found that less than 1% of 6,614 healthcare workers who had Covid-19 developed a reinfection within five months—even though many of them work with Covid patients. Other experts believe natural immunity is powerful. “Natural immunity after Covid-19 infection is likely lifelong, extrapolating from data on other coronaviruses that cause severe illness, SARS and MERS,” says Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease physician and professor at the University of California.

For the full commentary, see:

Marty Makary. “Herd Immunity Is Near, Despite Fauci’s Denial.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 25, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 24, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

The Makary book praised above is:

Makary, Marty. The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care–and How to Fix It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Chinese Atlases Are Shrugging

(p. B4) SINGAPORE—Chinese e-commerce company Pinduoduo Inc.’s founder and chairman, Colin Huang, stepped down from the company on Wednesday [March 17, 2021], even as the five-year-old company overtook Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. to become the country’s largest e-commerce company by annual active buyers.

Mr. Huang, 41 years old, is resigning as China’s powerful internet sector comes under growing government scrutiny. His resignation follows another departure from a major company in the sector: Financial-tech giant Ant Group Co.’s Chief Executive Simon Hu stepped down earlier this month.

. . .

Beijing in recent months has been moving to rein in China’s powerful internet sector including e-commerce companies. Among the hardest hit has been Alibaba, which is under antitrust probe; its fintech affiliate Ant, whose initial public offering was canceled in November [2020]; and its founder Jack Ma.

This month, Chinese regulators fined Pinduoduo, alongside several other e-commerce companies, alleging anticompetitive practices.

For the full story, see:

Keith Zhai. “Head of China’s Giant E-Commerce Firm Quits.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Mar 18, 2021): B4.

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

(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 17, 2021, and has the title “Pinduoduo Founder Colin Huang Steps Down From Company.”)

The fictional version is:

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.