Capital-Intensive Toilet Paper Firms, Already Near Capacity, Unable to Quickly Fill 600% Surge in Demand

(p. 4) As the chief executive of a company that makes toilet paper, Joey Bergstein has been through an intense few months.

. . .

You’ve mentioned that you anticipated some demand, but nothing like what was about to come.

The week of March 8 [2020] we saw a surge in demand of somewhere between 600 and 750 percent. When you build a supply chain and package, you normally have about a 30 percent buffer to be able to meet a surge in demand. Nobody built a supply chain to be able to respond to that kind of surge in demand. So the team has been in a constant state of triage ever since, and we’re still in that.

. . .

What was it about toilet paper that made it so hard to come by?

First of all, nobody anticipated the level of stocking up you would see on toilet paper. That shocked everybody. But any of these paper businesses are very capital-intensive businesses. You only make money in that business if you’re running your machines pretty close to capacity. So when you have a big surge in demand, it’s hard to increase more than you’re already producing, because you’re generally producing pretty close to capacity. You don’t have the kind of flexibility that you would normally expect to have in another business.

For the full interview, see:

David Gelles, interviewer. “Selling 2-Ply in a Pandemic (It’s Harder Than You Think).” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, June 7, 2020): 4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date June 5, 2020, and the title “Selling Toilet Paper and Paper Towels During the Pandemic.” The first sentence and the bold questions are from the interviewer David Gelles. The answers after the bold questions are from the interviewee Joey Bergstein.)

Houghton Shifted Corning from Cookware to Fiber Optics

(p. A13) When Amory Houghton became chief executive of Corning Glass Works in 1964, the company founded by his great-great grandfather was thriving. Known to the general public for Pyrex measuring cups and Corning Ware casseroles, it dominated the U.S. market for the glass used to encase TV tubes.

But the company, now known as Corning Inc., proved too reliant on those tubes, which accounted for as much as 75% of profit. In the mid-1970s, the company faced a recession and the loss of TV-related business as Japanese imports captured the U.S. market. Profits collapsed, and Mr. Houghton had to chop costs, including at the headquarters in Corning, N.Y. The global workforce dropped by more than one-third.

. . .

“It was tough making these cuts,” he said, “particularly when you lived in a small town where you knew a lot of these people.”

Corning bounced back, unlike many other U.S. manufacturing giants. That was partly because Mr. Houghton made a long-term commitment to development of fiber optics. He correctly saw that hair-thin strands of glass would replace copper wire in transmissions of voice and data. “It’s our turf, with our patents,” he said.

By the late 1990s, optical fiber and related telecommunications products accounted for more than half of Corning’s operating profits.

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Executive Lifted Corning With Bet on Fiber Optics.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 14, 2020): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 13, 2020, and the title “Amory Houghton’s Bet on Fiber Optics Helped Save Corning.”)

Oliver Williamson’s Subtle Attempt to Get Pablo Spiller to Turn Down the Music

Several years ago, I presented a paper in an economic methodology session at the AEA in which Williamson also presented a paper. He was a fellow pluralist in method. I think his work deserves more attention than I have given it. The profession will be worse for his absence.

(p. A9) Building on the work of Ronald Coase, Dr. Williamson developed transaction-cost economics, examining costs that go beyond the price of a good or service.

. . .

Some of Dr. Williamson’s thinking took shape when he worked for the Justice Department’s antitrust division in 1966 and 1967.

The department had accused Schwinn & Co. of restraining trade by limiting the retailing of its bicycles to authorized merchants. The conventional wisdom among antitrust enforcers was that such arrangements could be explained only as an effort to reduce competition.

Dr. Williamson found the question more complicated and argued that Schwinn’s motive might be to reduce costs. For instance, a restricted number of retailers would make it less costly to control quality and agree on how to share advertising expenses. The resulting increase in efficiency could benefit consumers.

. . .

Pablo Spiller, a friend and Berkeley colleague who lived across the street from Dr. Williamson, recalled that he spoke precisely but not always directly. One night Dr. Spiller was playing music a bit too loudly. Dr. Williamson called. Rather than mentioning the volume, he said: “You know, I actually like the current song more than all the previous ones.”

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Economist Explored Inner Life of Firms.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 6, 2020): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date June 4, 2020, and the title “Oliver Williamson, Nobel Economics Winner, Studied Inner Life of Firms.”)

For 12-Year-Old, 10 Hours a Day in Mine “Really Meant Freedom for Me”

(p. A15) For Jack Lawson, “ten hours a day in the dark prison below really meant freedom for me.” At age 12, this Northern England boy began full-time work down the local mine. His life underwent a transformation; there would be “no more drudgery at home.” Jack’s wages lifted him head and shoulders above his younger siblings and separated him in fundamental ways from the world of women. He received better food, clothing and considerably more social standing and respect within the family. He had become a breadwinner.

Rooted in firsthand accounts of life in the Victorian era, Emma Griffin’s “Bread Winner” is a compelling re-evaluation of the Victorian economy. Ms. Griffin, a professor at the University of East Anglia, investigates the personal relationships and family dynamics of around 700 working-class households from the 19th century, charting the challenges people faced and the choices they made. Their lives are revealed as unique personal voyages caught within broader currents.

“I didn’t mind going out to work,” wrote a woman named Bessie Wallis. “It was just that girls were so very inferior to boys. They were the breadwinners and they came first. They could always get work in one of the mines, starting off as a pony boy then working themselves up to rope-runners and trammers for the actual coal-hewers. Girls were nobodies. They could only go into domestic service.”

Putting the domestic back into the economy, Ms. Griffin addresses a longstanding imbalance in our understanding of Victorian life. By investigating how money and resources moved around the working-class family, she makes huge strides toward answering the disconcerting question of why an increasingly affluent country continued to fail to feed its children. There was, her account makes clear, a disappointingly long lag between the development of an industrialized lifestyle in Britain and the spread of its benefits throughout the population.

For the full review, see:

Ruth Goodman. “BOOKSHELF; Livings And Wages.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, June 8, 2020): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 7, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Bread Winner’ Review: Livings and Wages.”)

The book reviewed above, is:

Griffin, Emma. Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020.

Like During the Great Depression, Wages May Now Be Sticky-Downward

Economists have sometimes claimed that the reason that the labor market did not quickly clear during the Great Depression, was that wages were sticky-downward. The result of sticky-downward wages can be long-term high levels of unemployment.

(p. 7) Much as now, in the Great Depression people were very focused on maintaining a “fair wage” in the face of economic distress. But this led to nationwide resistance to nominal wage cuts for anyone, even when retail prices were falling rapidly.

This appears to have had the unintended result of inducing employers, who could not afford to keep everyone working at their former wages, to lay off many people. The economists Harold L. Cole of the University of Pennsylvania and Lee E. Ohanian, of U.C.L.A., have shown that this may explain some of the extreme duration of Great Depression unemployment.

For the full commentary, see:

Robert J. Shiller. “ECONOMIC VIEW; Looking Back for Clues About What’s Ahead After the Pandemic.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, May 31, 2020): 7.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 29, 2020 and has the title “ECONOMIC VIEW; Why We Can’t Foresee the Pandemic’s Long-Term Effects.”)

The Cole and Ohanian paper mentioned above, is:

Cole, Harold L., and Lee E. Ohanian. “New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis.” Journal of Political Economy 112, no. 4 (Aug. 2004): 779–816.

Frustration of a Non-Expert Entrepreneur Inspired the Creation of Square

(p. B6) It was 2009, and Mr. McKelvey—a glassblower, computer scientist and serial entrepreneur—had lost a sale of one of his artworks because he couldn’t accept American Express cards. Though neither he nor Mr. Dorsey, now CEO of Square and Twitter Inc., knew much about the world of credit-card transactions, his frustration inspired the creation of Square’s signature white readers, a technology that would revolutionize payments by allowing anyone to accept a card with a smartphone or tablet.

In his new book, “The Innovation Stack,” Mr. McKelvey uses the story of Square’s early days, and its success in fending off a rival product from Amazon.com Inc., to encourage other potential founders with a dearth of credentials to fix unsolved problems and start novel businesses.

“If you’re going to do something that’s never been done, by definition, you cannot be an expert,” he said. “Take it from a glassblower who started a $30 billion payment company: You don’t have to be.”

. . .

“. . . there are no experts anymore. We’re living in a world without expertise, and that’s the world of the entrepreneur, like it or not.”

For the full interview, see:

Peter Rudegeair, interviewer. “Square’s Co-Founder Sees Openings in Recessions.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, May 26, 2020): B6.

(Note: ellipses, and quotation marks around last two sentences, added.)

(Note: the online version of the television review has the date May 24, 2020, and has the same title “BOSS TALK; Square’s Co-Founder: A Recession Is a Great Time to Start a Company.” The first several paragraphs quoted above are from Pter Rudegeair’s introduction to his interview of Jim McKelvey. The last couple of sentences are from McKelvey’s response to the last question in the interview.)

The book, mentioned above in the introduction to the interview, is:

McKelvey, Jim. The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time. New York: Portfolio, 2020.

California Places the Regulatory “Final Straw” on Elon Musk’s Tesla

(p. A15) Informed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s authorities that his factory in Fremont had to remain in lockdown, Mr. Musk tweeted: “Frankly, this is the final straw. Tesla will now move its HQ and future programs to Texas/Nevada immediately.”

The keyword here is “final straw,” suggesting that Mr. Musk’s cost-of-doing-business problems with California predate this virus. Hundreds of businesses already have relocated out of California, fleeing the uncountable regulatory straws the state has laid across the backs of anyone doing business there.

For the full commentary, see:

Daniel Henninger. “WONDER LAND; Elon Musk’s ‘Final Straw’.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 21, 2020): A15.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 20, 2020 and has the same title as the print version.)

In Most Red States, the Benefits of Opening Economies Exceed the Costs

(p. A4) Two-thirds of confirmed coronavirus cases are in states with Democratic governors. When states are measured by the sheer number of coronavirus cases, six of the top seven have Democratic governors. Together, those six blue states have about half of the nation’s cases, though only about a third of its population.

. . .

“A red-state governor is losing his business in exchange for blue-state lives,” said Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at a Brookings Institution seminar last week. “So for him, opening up is a no-brainer, which is sort of why it is happening.”

He added: “It is a lot to ask those governors to kill their businesses and their GDP for people who live far away, and who they may not even like very much.”

For the full commentary, see:

Gerald F. Seib. “CAPITAL JOURNAL; Virus Exacerbates the Red-Blue Divide.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, May 19, 2020): A4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 18, 2020 and has the title “CAPITAL JOURNAL; Why Coronavirus Increasingly Exacerbates the Red-Blue Divide.”)

Deaton’s comments quoted above, are consistent with the central message of his co-authored book:

Case, Anne, and Angus Deaton. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2020.

“The Better the Person, the Crumbier the House Is Going to Look”

I smiled at Jerry Seinfeld’s comment below that good people are too busy doing good to spend enough time for their house to look fabulous. (Admission: I have never been known for having a neat office.)

(p. C4) I like wearing the suit and having the crowd and the energy and the crackle — I like the magic. I don’t want to know who you really are. I don’t want to see how you really live. We’re all just sick of people’s houses. They’re all so depressingly normal. And the better the person, the crumbier the house is going to look. Because they’re too busy to do anything. The only people that have fabulous, fabulous places, stink. They’re horrible at what they do. They’re spending their money on the house instead of focusing on their art.

For the full interview, see:

Dave Itzkoff, interviewer. “He’s Now ‘Post-Show-Business’.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 5, 2020): C1 & C4.

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date May 4, 2020, and has the title “Jerry Seinfeld Is Making Peace With Nothing: He’s ‘Post-Show Business’.”)

Paul Marks Purged Old Guard in Order to Recruit New Talent for His Vision of Cancer Research

One important question, not addressed in the obituary quoted below, is the extent to which Marks’s vision for cancer research was farsighted and the extent to which it was misguided. Another important related issue is Marks’s role in support of Nixon’s centrally planned war on cancer.

(p. B11) Paul A. Marks, who transformed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center into one of the world’s leading institutions for research and treatment of cancer, died on April 28 at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

. . .

Memorial Sloan Kettering today is very different from the institution Dr. Marks joined in 1980 as president and chief executive. It was still reeling from a scientific scandal in the 1970s involving crudely falsified data. It was also behind the times, focused more on surgical interventions than on the developing frontiers of biological science.

“Frankly, it was an institution that really needed surgery from top to bottom, and Marks was the right guy,” James Rothman, chairman of the Yale School of Medicine’s department of cell biology, said in a phone interview.

. . .

The timing was ideal, said Richard Axel, a neuroscientist and molecular biologist in the department of neuroscience at Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Marks, he said, energized the institution to pursue the alterations in DNA that cause tumors, doing so at the very moment that it was becoming possible “to truly study DNA, to pet it, to clone it, to determine its sequence.”

What followed was a purge of much of the institution’s old guard, with attendant turmoil and alienation for many of those involved. Dr. Marks instituted a tenure system with a tough review process, and dozens of scientists left between 1982 and 1986. A 1987 article about Dr. Marks in The New York Times Magazine noted that “there are researchers who call Marks ‘Caligula,’ ‘Attila the Hun’ or simply ‘the monster.’”

The article described a scene in his laboratory during his Columbia days when Dr. Marks “grabbed a man by the throat and dragged him across a table.” His wife, Joan Marks, then head of graduate programs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., said in the article, “He can be brutal,” adding, “He really doesn’t understand why people don’t work 97 hours a day, and why they don’t care as much as he cares.”

In his memoir, “On the Cancer Frontier: One Man, One Disease, and a Medical Revolution” (2014, with the former Times reporter James Sterngold), Dr. Marks said he had been embarrassed to see the incident recounted in the article. While he didn’t deny that it had happened, he said that he had actually grabbed the man by both arms, not the throat, and shaken him.

For all of the sharpness of his elbows, Dr. Rothman of Yale said, there was also charm. Dr. Marks, he said, “projected at once a kind of a deep warmth and, at the same time, a formidable aspect.”

Dr. Marks was known for a sharp eye in recruiting talent. “He had an uncanny ability to attract these great scientists from all over the nation,” said Joan Massagué, the director of the Sloan Kettering Institute, the institution’s experimental research arm.

For the full obituary, see:

John Schwartz. “Paul Marks, 93, Administrator Who Pushed Memorial Sloan Kettering to Top-Tier Status.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 7, 2020): B11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated May 6, 2019 and has the title “Paul Marks, Who Pushed Sloan Kettering to Greatness, Dies at 93.”)

Marks’s memoir, mentioned above, is:

Marks, Paul, and James Sterngold. On the Cancer Frontier: One Man, One Disease, and a Medical Revolution. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2014.