Standardized Measurements Expedite Honest Exchange

(p. 20) Reading James Vincent’s quietly thrilling new book, “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants,” I began to think that one measure (so to speak) of the human experience might be the number of things we take for granted.

. . .

When people agree on a standard of measurement, they can coordinate their actions. You tell me that the sofa you’re selling is 72 inches wide, and from that bit of information I can see that it will fit in my living room.

. . .

Unlike, say, a simple act of thievery, which caused individual harm, metrological trickery could undermine the entire social order by sowing mistrust. “Measurement is a covenant that binds communities together,” Vincent writes. In addition to its obvious practical benefits — the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the Pyramids by eyeballing it — measurement has been embraced “for its ability to create a zone of shared expectations and rules.”

. . .

Metrology’s early history is marked by plurality — different units developing in different places, each one suited to a particular community’s needs. This variability allowed for flexibility, but it also allowed confusion and corruption to flourish. Vincent gives the example of France under the ancien régime, where the unit known as the pinte measured a measly 0.93 liters in Paris and a whopping 3.33 liters in Précy-sous-Thil. Elastic units were “exploited by the rich and powerful.” In exchanges with the peasantry, feudal lords used their authority over weights and measures to their own benefit.

Consequently, the metric system was a radical departure — the brainchild of the French Revolution’s savants, who promised to dispense with arbitrary units like the pied du Roi, or “the king’s foot,” in favor of weights and measures that were rational and impartial because they would be tethered to the Earth itself. A meter was standardized to one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. But even that definition turned out to be too “crass,” Vincent writes. Now the meter is defined in terms of something even more constant: the speed of light.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “Fathom That.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 4, 2022): 20.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Nov. 21, 2022, and has the title “A History of Humanity in Cubits, Fathoms and Feet.”)

The book under review is:

Vincent, James. Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2022.

Firms Nimbly Shift Shipping Away from Unionized and Bottlenecked California Ports

(p. B1) Sharpie maker Newell Brands Inc. is opening distribution centers in Pennsylvania and North Carolina to lessen dependence on seaports in California. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is moving more merchandise through New York and New Jersey to avoid West Coast bottlenecks. Air-conditioning manufacturer Trane Technologies PLC is sending most of its cargo this year through ports in the South, instead of the Los Angeles area.

The hierarchy of U.S. ports is getting shaken up. Companies across many industries are rethinking how and where they ship goods after years of relying heavily on the western U.S. as an entry point, betting that ports in the East and the South can save them time and money while reducing risk.

Their reasons range from fears of a dockworkers strike along the West Coast and a repeat of the bottlenecks that roiled supply chains early in the pandemic to a reduced dependence on Chinese production and the need to get products to all parts of the country faster.

In August [2022], Los Angeles lost its title as busiest port in the nation to the Port of (p. B6) New York and New Jersey as measured by the number of imported containers. It trailed its East Coast rival again in that measure during September and October, according to the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and ports data.

The share of all U.S. containerized cargo handled by Los Angeles and a neighboring port in Long Beach fell through the first 10 months of the year to a combined 25% as measured by weight, according to census data analyzed by Jason Miller, interim chair of Michigan State University’s supply chain management department. That was their lowest level in nearly two decades, down from a height of 33%.

Other ports benefiting from this shift include Savannah, Ga., Houston and Charleston, S.C.

For the full story, see:

Paul Berger. “New Routes for Big Business.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022): B1 & B6.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 14, 2022, and has the title “California Long Ruled Shipping in U.S. Importers Look to East.”)

During December 2022, Kindle Version of McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality Is Only $2.99

The long, but wonderful, third volume of Deirdre’ McClokey’s Bourgeois trilogy, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, is on offer from Amazon during the month of December 2022 in eText Kindle version for only $2.99.

Chinese Communist Party Archives Reveal Contradictions, Confusion, and Corruption in “Reform” Policies

(p. C3) Up until the Covid pandemic, I spent years traversing the country to explore the Chinese Communist Party archives from the reform period. Access was at times surprisingly easy, and my findings were eye-opening.

. . .

The archives suggest that officials were aware of reform’s contradictions from its earliest days. Remnants of the command economy combined with what one economist called “selected, pasteurized, partial, truncated, restricted and disjointed pieces of market and private property policy.” The outcome, said Liu Guoguang, a professor of economics and alternate member of the party’s Central Committee, was “a confused economic system.”

Private ownership of intellectual property had no place in this system, and its theft was actively encouraged throughout the party hierarchy. Two government ministries jointly circulated a directive on counterfeiting in 1983, noting that due to the country’s legal obligations, it was necessary with such goods to “change the name of the product.” As one report noted, “We need a unified approach towards copying” so that “the quality of the copied equipment can be guaranteed.”

The counterfeiting of computer technology assumed particular importance after Zhao Ziyang, the country’s premier from 1980 to 1987, read “The Third Wave,” by the American futurist Alvin Toffler. The book predicted that, in the wake of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, a third revolution would be based on the computer. In October 1983, Zhao proposed skipping the second wave altogether: “Time and tide wait for no one, opportunity knocks but once,” he pronounced. To leap into the digital era, China would need to imitate and reverse engineer foreign products.

But the copying wasn’t limited to computer technology. By 2001, China was awash in fake pharmaceutical products and pirated Hollywood movies on DVD. China’s accession to the WTO that year led to a bonanza of copying, for which few consumers paid more than ordinary Chinese: Electric kettles blew up, brake pads failed. Spices contained paraffin wax, noodles used a red dye that caused cancer, and rice wine was made with cheap industrial-grade alcohol. In 2007, the government estimated that one-fifth of the food and consumer goods it checked were substandard or tainted.

China’s financial system rested on similarly shaky foundations. By the summer of 1988, the pace of growth led to double-digit inflation, and state banks were unable to pay villagers for their contractual deliveries of grain, cotton and other essential products. Protests in 1989, in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere across the country, were as much about economic as political discontent. About a fifth of the files in the party archives deal with debt—lending to solve the debt, further debt due to the lending, more lending to solve an even larger debt.

. . .

The image that emerges from the archives is very different from the impression that many have of today’s China. From a distance, the country’s gleaming cities may resemble an impressively shipshape tanker, with the captain and his lieutenants standing proudly on the bridge, but below deck, sailors are desperately pumping water and plugging holes to keep the vessel afloat.

For the full essay, see:

Frank Dikötter. “China’s Economic Miracle That Wasn’t.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, November 19, 2022): C3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 17, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

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

Dikötter, Frank. China after Mao: The Rise of a Superpower. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2022.

Toyota Pressured to “Dial Back” Its Defense of Hybrids as a Practical Bridge to EVs

(p. B2) Mr. Toyoda, Toyota’s chief, has been one of the industry’s most prominent voices of caution about EVs. He has questioned whether the vehicles are as environmentally friendly as advertised and expressed doubt that consumers want them.

Toyota has said it believes hybrids can reduce carbon emissions while the battery supply chains and charging networks necessary to support big fleets of EVs are built globally over the coming decades. Hybrid cars—which made up nearly 30% of Toyota and Lexus global shipments for the most recent quarter—are helping the auto maker meet tightening emissions rules in markets like Europe.

Demand for hybrids also helped Toyota reach a record operating profit of ¥3 trillion, equivalent to $21 billion, for the fiscal year ended in March. Its stock price on the Tokyo Stock Exchange has held up reasonably well, down 9% this year, while other auto makers have suffered steeper declines.

Mr. Toyoda has been trying to understand why some investors and environmental groups remain unconvinced about the company’s electrification strategy.

. . .

People at Toyota said company executives have been advised by public-relations specialists and others in the company to dial back negative comments about EVs and instead highlight their benefits as well as Toyota’s extensive investments in the technology.

Sage Advisory Services, an investment management firm in Austin, Texas, that holds Toyota bonds, said it has sensed a shift in rhetoric.

Sage Advisory had approached the car maker last year with concerns about its EV stance, to which Toyota responded with its usual arguments, including about hybrid cars, said Sage Vice President Emma Harper. She said the points made sense to her but were hard for the general public to grasp.

More recently, she said, Toyota has “flipped over and they’ve felt the change in the tide and how consumers and politicians and other stakeholders are feeling about the transition away from fossil-fuel cars.”

For the full story, see:

River Davis. “Toyota Aims to Face Critics of Its EV Policies.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Sept. 26, 2022): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 25, 2022, and has the title “Toyota Softens Toward Critics of Its EV Push.” Where the versions differ, the quotes above follow the more detailed online version.)

Deregulation of Hearing Aids Will Lower Costs and Increase Innovation

(p. A1) The Food and Drug Administration decided on Tuesday to allow hearing aids to be sold over the counter without a prescription to adults, a long-sought wish of consumers frustrated by expensive exams and devices.

The high cost of hearing aids, which are not covered by basic Medicare, has discouraged millions of Americans from buying the devices. Health experts say that untreated hearing loss can contribute to cognitive decline and depression in older people.

Under the F.D.A.’s new rule, people with mild to moderate hearing loss should be able to buy hearing aids online and in retail stores as soon as October, without being required to see a doctor for an exam to get a prescription.

. . .

“This could fundamentally change technology,” said Nicholas Reed, an audiologist at the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We don’t know what these companies might come up with. We may literally see new ways hearing aids work, how they look.”

. . .

The change has been percolating for years. In 2016, a proposal for the F.D.A. to approve over-the-counter hearing aids for adults with mild to moderate hearing was released in a report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The following year, Senators Chuck Grassley, a Republican of Iowa, and Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat of Massachusetts, introduced a bill enabling the agency to make the change. Congress approved the legislation and President Trump signed it into law.

Finalizing regulations has moved slowly since then, with some conflict over details, like how the federal rule would interact with state laws on hearing aid returns or warranty policies and how much the devices should amplify sound.

Mr. Biden issued an executive order last July calling for greater competition in the economy, which urged the F.D.A. to take action “to promote the wide availability of low-cost hearing aids.”

For the full story, see:

Christina Jewett. “F.D.A. Decides to Allow Over-the-Counter Sales of Hearing Aids.” The New York Times (Wednesday, August 17, 2022): A1 & A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 23, 2022, and has the title “F.D.A. Clears Path for Hearing Aids to Be Sold Over the Counter.”)

President Grover Cleveland Stuck with His Free Market Principles

(p. C7) Troy Senik, a former White House speechwriter, has written “A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland” to rescue his subject from obscurity.

. . .

Mr. Senik says that Cleveland should be remembered as “one of our greatest presidents.”

. . .

He entered the White House favoring tariff cuts, the gold standard, limited government and the expansion of the civil service to reduce the power of patronage bosses. When he retired 12 years later, his principles were the same. He vetoed more bills in his first term than all 21 of his predecessors combined.

. . .

(p. C9) When Texas suffered a drought, he vetoed a bill to provide seeds to farmers, warily explaining: “Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care . . . and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.”

. . .

After triumphing in his first White House bid he declared, “Henceforth I must have no friends,” a rather monkish notion of virtue and a fitting template for how he governed. At the end of that term, he was advised not to push for tariff reform before his re-election but ignored the advice, observing: “What is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?”

“A Man of Iron” is a tribute to an incorruptible man, a rare politician who rose above partisanship.

For the full review, see:

Roger Lowenstein. “Oddly, Both Principled And President.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022): C7 & C9.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs added; ellipsis within paragraph, in original. Bracketed word also added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 16, 2022, and has the title “‘A Man of Iron’ Review: Grover Cleveland, Honest to a Fault.”)

The book under review is:

Senik, Troy. A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland. New York: Threshold Editions, 2022.

“No One Wants to Take Mass Transit”

(p. A16) Across almost seven hours Thursday night [Aug. 25, 2022], the speeches grew in volume and intensity — a cacophony of New Yorkers brought together over Zoom to either praise or denounce one of the city’s most contentious transportation projects.

Transit officials held the virtual hearing to collect input on a tolling program to reduce traffic in Manhattan. But the meeting also provided the chance to swing at a favorite New York City punching bag: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway and bus network and would benefit from the proposal.

. . .

“No one wants to take mass transit. It’s not safe. Jumping turnstiles, shooting, looting, fighting, the list goes on,” Brendan Peo, a schoolteacher who lives in New Jersey, said during the hearing on Thursday. “The suggestion that more people will use mass transit instead of driving when conditions are like this in the subway is asinine.”

For the full story see:

Ana Ley. “Critics Abound at First Hearing on Tolls for Driving Into Manhattan.” The New York Times (Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022): A16.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 26, 2022, and has the title “At M.T.A.’s First Congestion Pricing Hearing, Critics Abound.”)

Miami Mayor Welcomes Private Enterprise with Public Safety, Low Taxes, and Few Regulations

(p. A15) On one side, we have the socialist model: high taxes, high regulation, less competition and declining public services with government imposing itself as the solver and arbiter of all social problems. On the other side, we have the Miami model: low taxes, low regulation and a commitment to public safety and private enterprise. The models present a stark choice on issues ranging from personal freedom, economic opportunity, public safety and the role of government.

. . .

In Miami, many residents have personally experienced the socialist model along with its symptoms of hyperinflation, class resentment and stagnant growth. Four years ago Miami residents elected me to pursue a different path. We reduced taxes dramatically, and our revenue base doubled. We invested in our police, and our crime rate dropped. And last week we reduced taxes to their lowest level in history—cutting costs for residents and promoting economic growth.

Miami is a place where you can keep what you earn, invest what you save, and own what you build. We are meeting the high demand of rent costs by encouraging public-private partnerships, activating underutilized land through zoning reforms, and harnessing free-market forces to build more. It works, and our new residents from New York and California can confirm it.

For the full commentary see:

Francis X. Suarez. “Miami Takes On the Socialist Model.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Aug. 22, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 21, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

“Maverick” Chinese Entrepreneur Zhou Hang Dares Criticize Zero Covid Policy

(p. B1) China’s entrepreneur class is grappling with the worst economic slump in decades as the government’s zero Covid policy has shut down cities and kept would-be customers at home. Yet they can’t seem to agree on how loudly they should complain — or even whether they should at all.

. . .

Their approach, the equivalent of an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, doesn’t make sense to Zhou Hang. Mr. Zhou, a tech entrepreneur and a venture capitalist, has questioned how his peers can pretend it’s business as usual, given the political and economic upheaval. Stop putting up with the ridiculous reality, he urged. It’s time to speak up and seek change.

Mr. Zhou is rare in China’s business community for being openly critical of the government’s zero Covid policy, which has put hundreds of millions of people under some kind of lockdowns in the past few months, costing jobs and revenues. He’s saying what many others are whispering in private but fear to say in public.

“The questions we should ask ourselves are,” he wrote in an article that was censored within an hour of posting (p. B4) but shared widely in other formats, “what caused such widespread negative sentiment across the society? Who should be responsible for this? And how can we change it?”

He said the lockdowns in Shanghai and other cities made it clear that wealth and social status meant little to a government determined to pursue its zero Covid policy. “We’re all nobodies who could be sent to the quarantine camps, and our homes could be broken into,” he wrote. “If we still choose to adapt to and put up with this, all of us will face the same destiny: trapped.”

. . .

Mr. Zhou, 49, is known as a maverick in Chinese business circles. He founded his first business in stereo systems with his brother in the mid-1990s when he was still in college. In 2010, he started Yongche, one of the first ride-hailing companies.

Unlike most Chinese bosses, he didn’t demand that his employees work overtime, and he didn’t like liquor-filled business meals. He turned down hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and refused to participate in subsidy wars because doing so didn’t make economic sense. He ended up losing out to his more aggressive competitor Didi.

He later wrote a best seller about his failure and became a partner at a venture capital firm in Beijing. In April [2022], he was named chairman of the ride-sharing company Caocao, a subsidiary of auto manufacturing giant Geely Auto Group.

A Chinese citizen with his family in Canada, Mr. Zhou said in an interview that in the past many wealthy Chinese people like him would move their families and some of their assets abroad but work in China because there were more opportunities.

Now, some of the top talent are trying to move their businesses out of the country, too. It doesn’t bode well for China’s future, he said.

“Entrepreneurs have good survivor’s instinct,” he said. “Now they’re forced to look beyond China.” He coined a term — “passive globalization” — based on his discussions with other entrepreneurs. “Many of us are starting to take such actions,” he said.

For the full story see:

Li Yuan. “A Solitary Critic on ‘Zero Covid’.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 11, 2022): B1 & B4.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 10, 2022 and has the title “A Chinese Entrepreneur Who Says What Others Only Think.”)

Which Country’s National Anthem Ends by Questioning Its Citizens’ Bravery and Freedom?

(p. 9) Mark Clague knows everything about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” . . . .

. . .

The lyrics were composed by the lawyer, politician and amateur poet Francis Scott Key while held prisoner by the British in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812.

. . .

Clague even creates a detailed military map of the engagement to demonstrate how “perilous” that fight really was. The first verse, the only one now sung, ends, as every child knows, with a question:

“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”

In the complete version, Key details his relief at finally seeing the flag, and rejoices in the promise of future victories. But those three verses are rarely sung, and leaving the question unanswered might be the secret to the song’s hold on the American public. It is not an anthem that, like “La Marseillaise,” calls for our enemy’s “impure blood to water our fields.” Rather, it’s a song for a country that is still in the fight, for its existence and its ideals, and it offers an invitation to any and all — the “you” of the first line — . . .

. . .

. . ., Clague has no patience for anyone who demands . . . reverence from others, . . . . But he reveres the anthem itself, and he makes the strongest case for the song in his detailed analysis of what he calls its most successful modern rendition, Whitney Houston’s performance at the 1991 Super Bowl.

Houston’s version, though, is transformed by artistry and personality and musical genius. She has changed the time signature to 4/4, and imbues the melody with the ornamentation of jazz, blues and, most important, gospel. By the time she gets that highest “FREEEE” she not only reaches but goes above it, expressing ownership of the word and the gesture. While the lyrics may remain as written, the meaning of a crucial word in the first line — “you” — has been wrenched from past to present to be addressed, at last, to all of us.

So: Does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and home of the brave? Not yet, perhaps. But listening to a descendant of the enslaved claiming the song of a slaver, you want to believe it someday might.

For the full review, see:

Peter Sagal. “High Notes.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, July 3, 2022): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated June 22, 2022, and has the title “Our Flag Was Still There.”)

The book under review is:

Clague, Mark. O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of “the Star-Spangled Banner”. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2022.