To Force Use of Organic Farming, Government Banned Chemical Fertilizers; A Ban Which “Devastated” Crops and “Destroyed the Farmers”

(p. A6) GALENBINDUNUWEWA, Sri Lanka—For more than half a century, Pahatha Mellange Jayaappu has tilled the field on his modest farm in Sri Lanka’s agricultural heartland, unswayed by recurrent political and economic turmoil.

Now the 71-year-old is just trying to eke out enough of a harvest to feed his family after an abrupt ban on chemical fertilizers last year devastated his crops. He says he has given up on planting for profit.

“We have lived through armed insurrections and bad government policies,” Mr. Jayaappu said. “This is the worst year I’ve ever seen. They have destroyed the farmers.”

Many Sri Lankans aren’t getting enough to eat, and farmers and agricultural experts say the food shortages are set to worsen. The government reversed the ban in November and promised fresh supplies of chemical fertilizers, but farmers said many received only a small amount, and too late for the current growing season.

. . .

The ban on imports of agricultural chemicals took effect in May 2021, and the rice harvest the following March was down 40%, according to government data. Prices soared. Sri Lanka, which had been largely self-sufficient in rice, was forced to use some of its fast-dwindling foreign reserves to import the key staple. Other crops, like tea, an important foreign-exchange earner, have also suffered. In May, the country defaulted on its external debt.

. . .

Mr. Wickremesinghe was installed by Parliament last month after his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country and resigned in the face of mass protests over fuel shortages and food prices.  . . .

Mr. Rajapaksa billed the ban as a nationwide shift to organic farming, but agricultural experts say that requires a yearslong transition. Opposition lawmakers said cutting off imports of fertilizer, which the government heavily subsidizes for farmers, was a shortsighted attempt to hold on to foreign reserves.

. . .

Farmers complained that the organic fertilizers that came on the market after the ban took effect were poor quality, full of material that wasn’t fully decomposed. And the haste of the ban left insufficient time to make their own compost, or learn how to farm organically.

For the full story, see:

Shan Li and Philip Wen. “Sri Lanka’s Farmers Struggle to Survive.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, August 20, 2022): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 19, 2022, and has the title “Sri Lanka’s Farmers Struggle to Feed the Country—and Themselves.”)

Productivity Increases from AI May Create New Valuable Tasks and Occupations

(p. A2) For centuries, new waves of automation have been greeted by predictions of widespread job loss and convulsive disruption. For centuries, the predictions have been wrong.

. . .

Predictions of technology’s labor-market impacts are notoriously flawed. Experiments like those involving AI often fail to replicate in the real world. Nearly two decades ago, the advent of international fiber-optic connections led some scholars to estimate a fifth of U.S. jobs, such as radiologist, could be offshored. Nothing even close to that happened. A decade ago, economists began warning that self-driving trucks would deprive millions of high-school graduates of good-paying jobs. Today, there are more truck drivers than ever and employers are begging for more.

Often, the technology isn’t good enough or human tasks are too complicated to be replaced. Regulation and inertia get in the way, so the impact unfolds over many years and can’t be detected amid countless other forces at work.

Joshua Gans, an economist specializing in AI at the University of Toronto, said: “Technological changes turn something that was scarce into something that is abundant,” and in the process, “reveal to us what the real value of that stuff is.” Journalists’ greatest value, he said, will be in asking good questions and judging the quality of the answers, not writing up the results.

Spreadsheets made math-intensive analysis easy and cheap, and as a result, led to the creation of countless new tasks and occupations. Large language models could similarly lead to an explosion in applications requiring the synthesis of large amounts of information into serviceable prose.

For the full commentary, see:

Greg Ip. “CAPITAL ACCOUNT; The Robots Have Finally Come for My Job.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 6, 2023): A2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 5, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

Milton Friedman Made the Case for Freedom to 15 Million Viewers

New York Times reviewer Szalai says that watching Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” documentary today is a surreal experience. To the contrary, I say that watching Milton Friedman’s documentary today is an exhilarating experience and watching the the evening news today is a surreal experience. (As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I was in the audience for a couple of the episodes of Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” documentary.)

(p. C1) The documentary series “Free to Choose,” which aired on public television in 1980 and was hosted by the libertarian economist Milton Friedman, makes for surreal watching nowadays. Even if Ronald Reagan would go on to win the presidential election later that year, it was still a time when capitalism’s most enthusiastic supporters evidently felt the need to win the public over to a vision of free markets and minimal government.  . . .

They had an enormous audience: The 15 million viewers who watched the first episode saw an avuncular Friedman (diminutive and smiling), leaning casually against a chair in a Chinatown sweatshop (noisy and crowded), surrounded by women pushing fabric through clattering sewing machines. “They are like my mother,” Friedman said, gesturing at the Asian women in the room. She had worked in a factory too, after immigrating as a 14-year-old from Austria-Hungary in the late 19th century. Friedman explained that these low-wage garment workers weren’t being exploited; they were gaining a foothold in the American land of plenty. The camera then cut to a tray of juicy steaks.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “Sounding an Alarm Over America’s Values.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 18, 2023): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Feb. 17, 2023, and has the title “Is the Marriage Between Democracy and Capitalism on the Rocks?”)

The book based on Milton Friedman’s documentary is:

Friedman, Milton, and Rose D. Friedman. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980.

Blacks Leaving New York City to Find Jobs, Housing, and Wealth

(p. A1) From 2010 to 2020, a decade during which the city’s population showed a surprising increase led by a surge in Asian and Hispanic residents, the number of Black residents decreased. The decline mirrored a national trend of younger Black professionals, middle-class families and retirees leaving cities in the Northeast and Midwest for the South.

The city’s Black population has declined by nearly 200,000 people in the past two decades, or about 9 percent. Now, about one in five residents are non-Hispanic Black, compared with one in four in 2000, according to the latest census data.

The decline is starkest among the youngest New Yorkers: The number of Black children and teenagers living in the city fell more than 19 percent from 2010 to (p. A22) 2020. And the decline is continuing, school enrollment data suggests. Schools have lost children in all demographic groups, but the loss of Black children has been much steeper as families have left and as the birthrate among Black women has decreased.

The factors propelling families . . . out of the city are myriad, including concerns about school quality, a desire to be closer to relatives and tight urban living conditions. But many of those interviewed for this article pointed to one main cause: the ever-increasing cost of raising a family in New York.

Black families drawn to opportunities in places where jobs and housing are more plentiful are finding new chances to spread out and build wealth.

For the full story, see:

Troy Closson and Nicole Hong. “A Black Exodus and Its Effect on New York City.” The New York Times (Wednesday, February 1, 2023): A1 & A22.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 3, 2023, and has the title “Why Black Families Are Leaving New York, and What It Means for the City.” Where there are minor differences in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Experienced Nurses Can Be Disciplined If They Use Hunches from Clinical Observations to Override AI Protocols

(p. A1) Melissa Beebe, an oncology nurse, relies on her observation skills to make life-or-death decisions. A sleepy patient with dilated pupils could have had a hemorrhagic stroke. An elderly patient with foul-smelling breath could have an abdominal obstruction.

So when an alert said her patient in the oncology unit of UC Davis Medical Center had sepsis, she was sure it was wrong. “I’ve been working with cancer patients for 15 years so I know a septic patient when I see one,” she said. “I knew this patient wasn’t septic.”

The alert correlates elevated white blood cell count with septic infection. It wouldn’t take into account that this particular patient had leukemia, which can cause similar blood counts. The algorithm, which was based on artificial intelligence, triggers the alert when it detects patterns that match previous patients with sepsis. The algorithm didn’t explain (p. A9) its decision.

Hospital rules require nurses to follow protocols when a patient is flagged for sepsis. While Beebe can override the AI model if she gets doctor approval, she said she faces disciplinary action if she’s wrong. So she followed orders and drew blood from the patient, even though that could expose him to infection and run up his bill. “When an algorithm says, ‘Your patient looks septic,’ I can’t know why. I just have to do it,” said Beebe, who is a representative of the California Nurses Association union at the hospital.

As she suspected, the algorithm was wrong. “I’m not demonizing technology,” she said. “But I feel moral distress when I know the right thing to do and I can’t do it.”

. . .

In a survey of 1,042 registered nurses published this month by National Nurses United, a union, 24% of respondents said they had been prompted by a clinical algorithm to make choices they believed “were not in the best interest of patients based on their clinical judgment and scope of practice” about issues such as patient care and staffing.” Of those, 17% said they were permitted to override the decision, while 31% weren’t allowed and 34% said they needed doctor or supervisor’s permission.

. . .

Jeff Breslin, a registered nurse at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Mich., has been working at the Level 1 trauma center since 1995. He helps train new nurses and students on what signs to look for to assess and treat a critically ill or severely injured patient quickly.

“You get to a point in the profession where you can walk into a patient’s room, look at them and know this patient is in trouble,” he said. While their vital signs might be normal, “there are thousands of things we need to take into account,” he said. “Does he exhibit signs of confusion, difficulty breathing, a feeling of impending doom, or that something isn’t right?”

. . .

Nurses often describe their ability to sense a patient’s deterioration in emotional terms. “Nurses call it a ‘hunch,’ ” said Cato, the University of Pennsylvania professor who is also a data scientist and former nurse. “It’s something that causes them to increase surveillance of the patient.”

. . .

At UC Davis earlier this spring, Beebe, the oncology nurse, was treating a patient suffering from a bone cancer called myeloid leukemia. The condition fills the bones with cancer cells, “they’re almost swelling with cancer,” she said, causing excruciating pain. Seeing the patient wince, Beebe called his doctor to lobby for a stronger, longer-lasting pain killer. He agreed and prescribed one, which was scheduled to begin five hours later.

To bridge the gap, Beebe wanted to give the patient oxycodone. “I tell them, ‘Anytime you’re in pain, don’t keep quiet. I want to know.’ There’s a trust that builds,” she said.

When she started in oncology, nurses could give patients pain medication at their discretion, based on patient symptoms, within a doctor’s parameters. They gave up authority when the hospital changed its policies and adopted a tool that automated medication administration with bar-code scanners a few years ago.

In its statement, UC Davis said the medication tool exists as a second-check to help prevent human error. “Any nurse who doesn’t believe they are acting in the patient’s best interests…has an ethical and professional obligation to escalate those concerns immediately,” the hospital said.

Before giving the oxycodone, Beebe scanned the bar code. The system denied permission, adhering to the doctor’s earlier instructions to begin the longer-acting pain meds five hours later. “The computer doesn’t know the patient is in out-of-control pain,” she said.

Still, she didn’t act. “I know if I give the medication, I’m technically giving medication without an order and I can be disciplined,” she said. She watched her patient grimace in pain while she held the pain pill in her hand.

For the full story, see:

Lisa Bannon. “Nurses Clash With AI Over Patient Care.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 16, 2023): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 15, 2023, and has the title “When AI Overrules the Nurses Caring for You.”)

Blacks Are Migrating Away from Northern Cities, Due Partly to Rising Costs and Violence

(p. B3) The waves of migration that brought Black Americans to many northern cities are reversing.

Departing residents are heading everywhere from nearby suburbs to high-growth areas in the southern U.S., such as metro Atlanta, according to demographers, real-estate agents and public officials.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates, released Thursday, indicate Black residents are continuing to leave many urban centers in the North and elsewhere, adding to decades of decline. These losses have hit many major cities with historically large Black populations, including Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Oakland, Calif.

. . .

Some are motivated by rising housing costs and worries about safety.

“I wanted some peace and quiet. I was tired of the gunshots, the sirens,” said Mary Hall-Rayford, a retired teacher who moved from Detroit to neighboring Eastpointe, Mich., in 2012. “Eastpointe was a nice little city.”

She serves on the school board and is running for mayor.

For the full story, see:

Jimmy Vielkind, Jon Kamp, Paul Overberg and Jack Gillum. “Black People Are Departing Cities in North.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 23, 2023): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 22, 2023, and has the title “Black Americans Are Leaving Cities in the North and West.”)

Exponential Growth Is Not Inevitable and Has Seldom Occurred Outside of Computer Chips

(p. C5) Nothing has affected, and warped, modern thinking about the pace of technological invention more than the rapid exponential advances of solid-state electronics. The conviction that we have left the age of gradual growth behind began with our ability to crowd ever more components onto a silicon wafer, a process captured by Gordon Moore’s now-famous law that initially ordained a doubling every 18 months, later adjusted to about two years.

. . .

Bestselling tech prophets like Ray Kurzweil and Yuval Noah Harari argue that exponential growth will allow us to disrupt our way into a future devoid of disease and misery and abounding in material riches.

. . .

The problem is that the post-1970 ascent of electronic architecture and performance has no counterpart in other aspects of our lives. Exponential growth has not taken place in the fundamental economic activities on which modern civilization depends for its survival—agriculture, energy production, transportation and large engineering projects. Nor do we see rapid improvements in areas that directly affect health and quality of life, such as new drug discoveries and gains in longevity.

. . .

The conclusion that progress is not accelerating in the most fundamental human activities is supported by a paper published in 2020 by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors, four American economists led by Bryan Kelly of the Yale School of Management, studied innovation across American industries from 1840 to 2010, using textual analysis of patent documents to construct indexes of long-term change. They found that the wave of breakthrough patents in furniture, textiles, apparel, transportation, metal, wood, paper, printing and construction all peaked before 1900. Mining, coal, petroleum, electrical equipment, rubber and plastics had their innovative peaks before 1950. The only industrial sectors with post-1970 peaks have been agriculture (dominated by genetically modified organisms), medical equipment and, of course, computers and electronics.

For the full essay, see:

Vaclav Smil. “Tech Progress Is Slowing Down.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date February 16, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay quoted above is adapted from Smil’s book:

Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

For Musk “Hard Core” Means “Long Hours at High Intensity”

(p. A24) Have you ever gotten an email at midnight from the boss with ​an ominous subject line like “a fork in the road”? Granted, email etiquette today says we’re not supposed to get midnight emails from bosses at all. But Elon Musk is no ordinary boss, and it’s safe to assume he didn’t get the memo on empathetic leadership. So, true to form, as chief executive of Twitter, after laying off nearly half of his staff, bringing a sink to work and proclaiming he would be sleeping at the office “until the org is fixed,” Mr. Musk recently issued this late-night ultimatum to his remaining employees: From this point forward, Twitter was going to be “extremely hard core.” Were they ready to be hard core? They could select “yes” — or opt for three months of severance pay.

To Mr. Musk, “hard core” meant “long hours at high intensity,” a workplace where only the most “exceptional performance” would be accepted and a culture in which midnight emails would be just fine. I’d wager that more than a few workaholics, bosses or otherwise, weren’t entirely turned off by the philosophy behind that statement, and yet it immediately conjured images of sweaty Wall Street bankers collapsing at their desks, Silicon Valley wunderkinds sleeping under theirs and the high-intensity, bro-boss cultures of companies like Uber and WeWork, with their accompanying slogans about doing what you love and sleeping when you’re dead.

For the full commentary, see:

Jessica Bennett. “Elon, the Mosh Pit Called. It Wants ‘Hard Core’ Back.” The New York Times (Friday, November 25, 2022): A24.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 23, 2022, and has the title “The Worst Midnight Email From the Boss, Ever.”)

“In Tokyo Good Things Have Been Created Through Private Initiative”

(p. A22) Yuta Yamasaki and his wife moved from southern Japan to Tokyo a decade ago because job prospects were better in the big city. They now have three sons — ages 10, 8 and 6 — and they are looking for a larger place to live. But Mr. Yamasaki, who runs a gelato shop, and his wife, a child-care worker, aren’t planning to move far. They are confident they can find an affordable three-bedroom apartment in their own neighborhood.

As housing prices have soared in major cities across the United States and throughout much of the developed world, it has become normal for people to move away from the places with the strongest economies and best jobs because those places are unaffordable. Prosperous cities increasingly operate like private clubs, auctioning off a limited number of homes to the highest bidders.

Tokyo is different.

. . .

Small apartment buildings can be built almost anywhere, and larger structures are allowed on a vast majority of urban land. Even in areas designated for offices, homes are permitted. After Tokyo’s office market crashed in the 1990s, developers started building apartments on land they had purchased for office buildings.

“In progressive cities we are maybe too critical of private initiative,” said Christian Dimmer, an urban studies professor at Waseda University and a longtime Tokyo resident. “I don’t want to advocate a neoliberal perspective, but in Tokyo good things have been created through private initiative.”

Tokyo makes little effort to preserve old homes. Historic districts subject to preservation laws exist in other Japanese cities, but the nation’s largest city has none. New construction is prized. People treat homes like cars: They want the latest models.

For the full commentary, see:

Binyamin Appelbaum and Andrew Faulk. “Tokyo, the Big City Where Housing Isn’t Crazy Expensive.” The New York Times (Saturday, September 16, 2023): A22.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 11, 2023, and has the title “The Big City Where Housing Is Still Affordable.”)

Public Sector Unions Make Government Unaccountable to the Will of the People

(p. A17) In 2008, six years after securing control over New York City’s public schools, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein put forward a program to tie teacher tenure to student performance. The goal was to reward the best-performing teachers with job security, encourage better student outcomes, and hold teachers accountable for demonstrated results. To most New York residents, it surely sounded like a good idea.

To New York’s teachers’ unions, however, the program was utterly unacceptable. Union leaders lobbied Albany, threatened state lawmakers (who could pass legislation binding the mayor) with the loss of political support, and walked away with a two-year statewide prohibition on the use of student test performance in tenure evaluations. In short, the union thwarted the mayor’s authority over the city’s schools and commandeered the state’s legislative power.

In this case and many others, a public-sector union served its own interests at the expense of the public’s. In “Not Accountable,” Philip Howard shows in vivid detail how such practices have made government at all levels unmanageable, inefficient and opposed to the common good. He argues that, in fact, public unions—that is, unions whose members work for the government—are forbidden by the Constitution. The argument, he notes, would have been familiar to President Franklin Roosevelt and George Meany, the longtime president of the AFL-CIO, both of whom championed private-sector labor but believed that public workers—teachers, fire fighters, policemen, civil-service employees—had no right to bargain collectively with the government.

. . .

Mr. Howard makes a persuasive case, but the chances of seeing it affect American political life are, at the moment, remote.

. . .

Still, the goal is admirable and worth pursuing. In place of public-sector collective bargaining, Mr. Howard calls for a merit-based system for hiring and evaluating government employees. Instead of stultifying work rules that thwart creativity, he envisions a public-sector structure in which employees can use their talents and judgment to improve the functioning of government. Fundamentally, Mr. Howard views the Constitution, and the law generally, as a mechanism for both action and accountability, one that entrusts powers to inevitably fallible human beings while subjecting them to the checks of others in authority and, ultimately, to the will of the people.

For the full review, see:

John Ketcham. “BOOKSHELF; Unelected Legislators.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, March 14, 2023): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated March 13, 2023, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Not Accountable’ Review: Unelected Legislators.”)

The book under review is:

Howard, Philip K. Not Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions. Garden City, NY: Rodin Books, 2023.

Cars Give Commuters Flexible Choices Absent from Public Transit

(p. A14) Across the United States, transit systems that have relied for decades on office workers are scrambling to avoid financial collapse as commuters stay home. Many systems are asking their local governments for bailouts as federal pandemic relief runs dry, . . .

. . .

“If anyone says that they know the way out of this difficult situation, they’re fooling themselves,” said Brian D. Taylor, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This is a really challenging time.”

. . .

“You can put the New York City subway in the middle of Oklahoma and you wouldn’t have any ridership — that’s kind of the harsh reality for American transit,” Mr. Elkind said. “There’s only so much they can do with service and fares to lure riders back.”

In many cities, riders may need to go to the office only on Wednesdays. Or they want to pick up their children from school in the middle of the day or make a run to the grocery store.

For the full story, see:

Soumya Karlamangla. “With Commuters Scarce, Transit Agencies Try New Enticements.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 20, 2023): A14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 19, 2023, and has the title “With Commuters Staying Home, Transit Agencies Try to Reinvent Themselves.”)