“The Spontaneous, Uncoordinated Effort of Businesses, Entrepreneurs and Innovators”

(p. A1) True Value Co. heard from its more than 4,500 affiliated hardware stores last month that hand sanitizer was flying off the shelves, leaving store staff with none for themselves.

At the company’s factory in Cary, Ill., which makes cleaning products and paint, John Vanderpool, the company’s divisional vice president of paint, recalled asking, “What can we do to help here?” After a tip from his wife, a pharmacist, he consulted with the Food and Drug Administration, then huddled with his maintenance team and engineers over two weekends to retool two paint-filling lines to produce jugs of FDA-approved hand sanitizer.

Starting this week they are being shipped free to stores for their own use. The product will go on sale to the public eventually.

The changeover at True Value’s factory from paint to hand sanitizer is one of countless private-sector initiatives that represent an underappreciated asset in Americans’ fight against the coronavirus. It is a 21st-century version of the “Arsenal of Democracy,” the mobilization of industrial might that helped win World War II, only this time to make personal protective equipment, ventilators, tests and vaccines instead of uniforms, ammunition, tanks and bombers.

And where that arsenal was orchestrated by the federal government, this one has been largely the spontaneous, uncoordinated effort of businesses, entrepreneurs and innovators driven as much by the urge to contribute as by future profit.

. . .

(p. A9) Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, said national crises such as wars and pandemics historically generate a hive of entrepreneurial innovation, from the late 18th-century search in England for a treatment for smallpox to a German drive in the run-up to World War I to use atmospheric nitrogen for explosives.

“We have this huge reservoir of creative energy spread around the economy. When you have an event like this all of a sudden, everyone says, ‘Oh wow let’s look at this problem—let’s see what I can do to solve it.’ ”

This time, innovators are exploiting tools and methods that didn’t exist in previous crises. In mid-March, Lennon Rodgers, director of the Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Lab at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, fielded a plea from the university’s hospital to make 1,000 face shields.

He often gets requests from around the campus to manufacture random items and “initially, I didn’t take it too seriously,” he recalled. But after his wife, an anesthesiologist, told him the shields were indispensable for dealing with highly infectious patients, he scoured hardware and craft stores for parts.

He teamed up with Delve, a local design firm, and Midwest Prototyping, a contract manufacturer, to design their own “Badger Shield,” named after the University of Wisconsin mascot. They expected to use 3-D printers, then concluded that wouldn’t achieve the necessary scale. They uploaded the design to their website along with the necessary parts for anyone to download. A few days later Ford Motor Co. did, and, with tweaks of its own, began turning out face shields for Detroit-area hospitals.

For the full story, see:

Greg Ip. “Health Crisis Awakens Spirit Of Private-Sector Innovation.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, April 17, 2020): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 16, 2020, and has the title “Shoes to Masks: Corporate Innovation Flourishes in Coronavirus Fight.”)

Each Week, Chinese Children Read “Socialism Is Good. Capitalism Is Bad.”

(p. A11) Many Chinese children of my generation read a newspaper column for students called “Socialism Is Good. Capitalism Is Bad.” Each week, it described the wonders of China alongside the hardships of capitalist societies. The lesson: Socialist China takes care of its people, while people in the United States go hungry and the elderly die alone.

For the full commentary, see:

Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; China Builds Culture of Hate With Selective Coverage of the Pandemic.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 23, 2020): A11.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 22, 2020, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; With Selective Coronavirus Coverage, China Builds a Culture of Hate.”)

87% of American Liberals Support Some Merit-Based Income Differences

In my Openness to Creative Destruction, I claim that most people do not care as much about inequality per se, as they do about unfair inequality. What they care about is the differences in income be roughly related to differences in contribution. I illustrate this by recounting a famous experiment that Frans de Waal conducted with capuchin monkeys. The evidence in the study quoted below, supports my claim.

(p. B3) In 2018, four economists at the Center for Experimental Research on Fairness, Inequality and Rationality at the Norwegian School of Economics conducted a huge experiment — mostly via face-to-face interviews — using the Gallup World Poll. The Norwegian team — Bertil Tungodden, Alexander Cappelen, Ingvild Almas and Erik O. Sorensen — worked with Gallup to survey 65,000 people across 60 countries about their beliefs related to the gaps between the rich and the poor.

Part of the survey was an experiment. Respondents were randomly assigned to different conditions and presented a real-life scenario: Two people were recently hired to independently complete a short assignment; they were both paid, but one was given an additional $6.

In the first group, survey takers were told that the additional $6 was given out randomly. In the second group, they were told the $6 went to the worker who was more productive in completing the assignment. In both cases, respondents were asked how they would divide the additional earnings: whether they would transfer none of it, some of it or all of it to the other worker.

. . .

American conservatives might assume liberals are averse to merit-based compensation. The experiment proves that’s not so. When told the bonus payment was made only to the most productive worker, only 13 percent of the liberals transferred all of the money equally to the less productive worker, which is within the margin of error of the American conservative response (10 percent).

Americans both liberal and conservative were more likely than most people worldwide to accept merit-based income differences. As one of the study’s investigators, Mr. Tungodden, mentioned in his public presentation on the study, people in richer countries were more likely than people in poorer countries to allow merit-based differences. In the rich and more egalitarian country of Norway, 88 percent of respondents transferred the bonus payment equally when told it was allocated by chance, but only 33 percent did so when allocated by merit.

For the full commentary, see:

Jonathan Rothwell. “THE UPSHOT; Think Only Liberals Will Share the Wealth? A Survey May Surprise You.” The New York Times (Friday, February 14, 2020): B3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was last updated February 14, 2020, and has the title “THE UPSHOT; Experiment Shows Conservatives More Willing to Share Wealth Than They Say.”)

The soon-to-be-published version of the research discussed above, is:

Almås, Ingvild, Alexander W. Cappelen, and Bertil Tungodden. “Cutthroat Capitalism Versus Cuddly Socialism: Are Americans More Meritocratic and Efficiency-Seeking Than Scandinavians?” Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming 2020).

My book, mentioned above, is:

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

For Venturesome Amazon Toilet Paper Shoppers, “Like Sandpaper” Is “Better than Nothing”

(p. B5) Where name-brand products sell out, off-brand products sold by third-party sellers have filled the void. Many of the top search results for toilet paper with regular Prime delivery were novelty rolls with zombies or the faces of politicians like Hillary Clinton.

In early April, Arielle Ogletree and her mother, who live near Tampa, Fla., were almost out of toilet paper when they turned to Amazon. They found a 16-pack of the large commercial toilet paper rolls found in public restrooms for $42. A few days later, it was at their door.

“It was the only one they had, and we figured it would last a while,” Ms. Ogletree said.

The roll, too big for a regular holder, sits awkwardly on their bathroom counter. Though the single ply feels “like sandpaper,” Ms. Ogletree said, it was better than nothing.

For the full story, see:

Karen Weise. “Confusion And Chaos At Amazon.” The New York Times (Saturday, April 18, 2020): B1 & B5.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 17, 2020, and has the title “When Even Amazon Is Sold Out of Exploding Kittens.”)

To Survive, Venezuelan Socialists Retreat from Socialism

(p. 14) CARACAS, Venezuela — After decades of dominating its oil industry, the Venezuelan government is quietly surrendering control to foreign companies in a desperate bid to keep the economy afloat and hold on to power.

The opening is a startling reversal for Venezuela, breaking decades of state command over its crude reserves, the world’s biggest.

The government’s power and legitimacy have always rested on its ability to control its oil fields — the backbone of the country’s economy — and use their profits for the benefit of its people.

But the nation’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro, in his struggle to retain his grip over a country in its seventh year of a crippling economic crisis, is giving up policies that once were central to its socialist-inspired revolution.

For the full story, see:

Anatoly Kurmanaev and Clifford Krauss. “Economy Mired in Crisis, Venezuela Quietly Surrenders Control of Its Oil.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, February 9, 2020): 14.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 18, 2020, and has the title “To Survive, Venezuela’s Leader Gives Up Decades of Control Over Oil.” The online version says that the article was on p. A8 of the print version. But it was on p. 14 of my National Edition print version.)

Millennials Blame Capitalism for “the Crushing Burden of College Debt”?

(p. A22) “Millennials don’t remember the Cold War,” said Maurice Isserman, a history professor at Hamilton College who has studied democratic socialism. “They don’t react in the same way to the word ‘socialist’ and associate it with totalitarian communism.”

Instead, young voters have experienced a structural shift in the economy, including the 2008 financial crisis and the crushing burden of college debt, that has given them a more critical view of capitalism, he said.

For the full story, see:

Patricia Mazzei and Sydney Ember. “Sanders’s Views on Cuba Split Young and Old Voters.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 29, 2020): A22.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 28, 2020, and has the title “Sanders Is Stirring Cold War Angst. Young Voters Say, So What?.”)

Chinese Communist Officials Rewarded for Loyalty, Not for Competence or Boldness

(p. A1) The Chinese people are getting a rare glimpse of how China’s giant, opaque bureaucratic system works — or, rather, how it fails to work. Too many of its officials have become political apparatchiks, fearful of making decisions that anger their superiors and too removed and haughty when dealing with the public to admit mistakes and learn from them.

“The most important issue this outbreak exposed is the local government’s lack of action and fear of action,” said Xu Kaizhen, a best-selling author who is famous for his novels that explore the intricate workings of China’s bureaucratic politics.

“Under the high-pressure environment of an anticorruption campaign, most people, including senior government officials, only care about self-preservation,” Mr. Xu said. “They don’t want to be the first to speak up. They wait for their superiors to make decisions and are only accountable to their superiors instead of the people.”

The Chinese government appears to be aware of the problem. The Communist Party’s top leadership acknowledged in a meeting on Monday [February 3, 2020] that the (p. A9) epidemic was “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”

. . .

Chinese officials are spending as much as one-third of their time on political studying sessions, a lot of which are about Mr. Xi’s speeches. Political loyalty weighs much more in performance evaluations than before. Now the rule of thumb in Chinese officialdom seems to be demonstrating loyalty as explicitly as possible, keeping everything else vague and evading responsibility at all costs when things go wrong.

. . .

On social media, low-level cadres are complaining that they are receiving so many instructions from the higher-ups that they spend most of their time filling out spreadsheets instead of getting real work done. In a social media post headlined “The Formalism Under the Mask,” the author wrote, “Most people in the system don’t do things to solve problems. They do things to solve responsibilities.”

For the full story, see:

Li Yuan. “In China, Virus Spurred Rush of Blame Shifting.” The New York Times (Wednesday, February 5, 2020): A1 & A9.

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

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 14 [sic], 2020, and has the title “Coronavirus Crisis Shows China’s Governance Failure.”)