Leo Szilard Was “Ever-Resourceful”

I remember Milton Friedman, in an aside during his price theory class at Chicago, telling us that Leo Szilard used to walk up to him as he walked across campus, and articulately raise some issue in economics. Friedman was clearly impressed with the range of Szilard’s mind. My thought was ‘what’s the big deal about this guy Leo Szilard?’ Since then I have learned that he indeed was a big deal, at least for fans of the survival of Western civilization.

(p. 12) Fatefully, the Fermis sailed from Italy the same week that two Berlin radiochemists discovered nuclear fission.

That discovery was totally unexpected. In spring 1939, working at Columbia with the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, Fermi set out to answer a crucial question about it. Uranium atoms release a burst of energy when they fission, enough per atom to make a grain of sand visibly jump. But what then? Was there a way to combine those individual fissions, to turn a small burst into a mighty roar?

Szilard, ever-resourceful, acquired hundreds of pounds of black, greasy uranium-oxide powder from a Canadian mining corporation. Fermi and his students packed the powder into pipe-like tin cans and arranged them equally spaced in a circle within a large tank of water mixed with powdered manganese. At the center of the arrangement they placed a neutron source.

Neutrons from the source, slowed down by the water, would penetrate the uranium atoms in the cans and induce fissions. If the fissioning atoms released more neutrons, those “secondary” neutrons would irradiate the manganese. Measuring the radioactivity induced in the manganese would tell Fermi if the fissions were multiplying. If so, then a chain reaction might be possible, one bombarding neutron splitting a uranium atom and releasing two neutrons, those two splitting two other uranium atoms and releasing four, the four releasing eight, and so on in a geometric progression that could potentially produce vast amounts of energy for power — or for an atomic bomb. The experiment worked.

For the full review, see:

Richard Rhodes. “Quantifying the World.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, January 28, 2018): 12.

(Note: italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 24, 2018, and has the title “A Remarkable Man Among Remarkable Men and Women.”)

The book under review is:

Schwartz, David N. The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Fauci Criticizes Russia for Allowing Citizens to Take Covid-19 Vaccine After Passing Phase 2 Safety Trials

Milton Friedman thought that, at the very least, the FDA should allow Americans the freedom to choose to take drugs or vaccines after their safety has been established (basically meaning after passing the Phase 2 safety trials). Isn’t it strange that in the FDA’s United States, citizens may not do so, but in Putin’s authoritarian Russia, citizens are allowed that choice?

(p. A4) In a panel discussion, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infections disease expert, criticized Russia’s rushed clearance of a coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine, called Sputnik V, was approved without evidence that Phase 3 clinical trials had been completed, an essential part of the development pipeline to prove a product is safe and effective in people.

. . .

Dr. Fauci called attention to the many other coronavirus vaccines vying for eventual clearance, including several that are in Phase 3 trials in the United States. The process for testing vaccines can last months and usually involves thousands of people.

“So if we wanted to take the chance of hurting a lot of people or giving them something that doesn’t work, we could start doing this, you know, next week if we wanted to,” Dr. Fauci said. “But that’s not the way this works.”

For the full story, see:

Barron, James. “Coronavirus Update.” The New York Times (Thursday, August 11, 2020): A4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated August 14, 2020, and has the title “U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Reflects Sun Belt Outbreaks.” Where there are slight differences in wording between the versions in the passages quoted, the online version appears above. The online version does not list an author. I cite James Barron, who is listed as the author in the print version.)

Outspoken Admirer of Friedman and Hayek Disappears in Communist China

(p. A19) The disappearance of Mr. Ren, a longtime critic of the Chinese government, adds to fears that China is sliding backward and abandoning the reforms that saved it from extreme poverty and international isolation. Mr. Ren was no radical — he was a decades-long loyal Communist Party member, the former leader of a state-run company and a friend to some of China’s most powerful politicians. He emerged in what now seems a distant time, from the 1980s to the period before Mr. Xi became top leader, when the party brooked no challenge to its rule but allowed some individuals to question some of its choices.

Mr. Ren’s fate remains unclear. But if he was punished for his writing, it suggests China’s leadership won’t tolerate criticism no matter how justified it might be.

. . .

He was influenced by free-market economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He believed government control needed to be checked.

“State power in any country is greedy, so it needs to be subject to public supervision,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Otherwise, the power will be abused and everybody will suffer from it.”

. . .

In 2011, near the peak of China’s openness to new ideas, Mr. Ren, an avid reader, started a book club. It drew China’s top entrepreneurs, intellectuals and government officials. Books included Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The events became so popular that people had to apply through a lottery system to join. Some people flew to Beijing from all over the country to attend.

Mr. Ren said his goal was to help China’s young generation develop independent thinking so it would not follow the orders of authority slavishly. The government said no to some topics and speakers, but left it largely alone.

By early 2016, he had nearly 38 million followers on Weibo. But party attitudes toward expression were changing.

That same year, Mr. Xi declared that all Chinese news media had to serve the party. No Chinese leader since Mao Zedong had made that obligation so explicit. Mr. Ren shot back on Weibo, writing that the news media should serve the people, not the party, or the people would suffer.

Retribution was swift. His Weibo account was deleted. His party membership was suspended for a year. His passport was taken away. Members of his family weren’t allowed to leave the country. He faced constant investigations and interrogations.

. . .

Then came the coronavirus outbreak. When doctors working with the disease tried to publicly warn China about the outbreak, they were threatened by government officials. For Mr. Ren, friends said, this confirmed his argument that a media that serves the party couldn’t serve the people.

“Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts,” he wrote in the essay that circulated this year, “people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system.”

He shared the essay with a few friends. Three days after his 69th birthday, he disappeared. His assistant and his son have disappeared, too.

For the full commentary, see:

Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; A Longtime Party Insider Vanishes, in a Blow to China’s Future.” The New York Times (Wednesday, April 1, 2020): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated April 2, 2020, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; A Loyal Chinese Critic Vanishes, in a Blow to the Nation’s Future.”)

Floating Buildings Are Resilient If Global Warming Rises

(p. B6) More developers are building waterborne structures. Floating buildings can alleviate housing shortages in major cities at a time when land is scarce and restrictive zoning makes it hard to build up, said Koen Olthuis, whose Netherlands-based architecture firm Waterstudio specializes in floating structures.

For flood-prone cities like Miami, structures that rise and sink with the sea offer an alternative to waterfront construction that looks increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels. “Climate change has definitely helped us spread our designs and ideas,” Mr. Olthuis said.

. . .

In Rotterdam’s harbor, developer RED Company is building a 54,000-square-foot, three-story, wooden, floating office building. The project, which will serve as the new headquarters of the Global Center on Adaptation, will be energy-neutral and feature solar panels and a floating swimming pool, according to the company.

GCA helps countries, companies and organizations to adapt to climate change. The center’s CEO Patrick Verkooijen said that Rotterdam is threatened by rising sea levels and that the “completely self sufficient floating office is one of many examples of how we must adapt to the realities of climate change to ensure our infrastructure is not only resilient but future proof.”

. . .

Some hope the trend will ultimately lead to floating cities. The Seasteading Institute advocates for communities in international waters as “startup societies” that can make up their own rules. It was founded by investor Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman, the grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.

For the full story, see:

Konrad Putzier. “Developers Float Answer to Floods.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, February 19, 2020): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 18, 2020, and has the title “Are Floating Hotels, Office Buildings the Answer to Rising Sea Levels?”)

A Highly Mathematical Model Endorses Friedman’s View that Feds Directed Economics toward Highly Mathematical Models

(p. 1138) . . . , in many areas, the existing organization of research is characterized by large research institutions staffed with hundreds of
researchers and national funding agencies who set the research agenda for the field. Given the size of such institutions, if they decide to launch a new research program, then the critical mass of scholars can be reached with certainty, and individual researchers need not fear the coordination risk. Researchers should thus choose to work on that research topic, provided that they perceive an expected reward that is larger than s. (p. 1139) Unfortunately, if the large institution selects a poor idea (with a small or even negative θ), it would then be responsible for the emergence of a strand of research with modest scientific value. As an example, Diamond (1996) recalls Milton Friedman’s criticism of the U.S. National Science Foundation, which, in his opinion, has directed the economics profession toward a highly mathematical model.12
. . .
12. Ironically, his opinion is endorsed in this paper by a “highly mathematical model.”

Besancenot, Damien, and Radu Vranceanu. “Fear of Novelty: A Model of Scientific Discovery with Strategic Uncertainty.” Economic Inquiry 53, no. 2 (April 2015): 1132-39.
(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

The 1996 Diamond article mentioned above, is:
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “The Economics of Science.” Knowledge and Policy 9, nos. 2/3 (Summer/Fall 1996): 6-49.

Nader Enlists Mises, Hayek, Friedman and Stigler in Critique of Crony Capitalism

(p. A9) Mr. Nader, the consumer crusader who ran for president to the left of Al Gore, is perhaps the last person one would expect to admire a libertarian critique of the corporate state. But in “Unstoppable” he respectfully describes the views of Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler and other free-market economists. He praises their distrust of politicians, lobbyists and businessmen who seek to put government power in the service of corporate profit.
Not that the Republican Party is always guided by such thinkers. Mr. Nader neatly describes how corporatist RINOs (Republican In Name Only) co-opt the party’s anti-statist crusaders. “The corporatist Republicans,” he writes, “let the libertarians and conservatives have the paper platforms . . . and then move into office, where they are quick to throw out a welcome mat for Big Business lobbyists with their slush funds.” He cites Adam Smith’s suspicion of regulations that benefit special interests: “Such restraints favor the privileged interests that want to entrench their economic advantages through the force of law.”
These are profound observations and ones that I saw play out while editing the Americas column for this newspaper in the 1980s and ’90s. Mercantilist Latin American businessmen who claimed to cheer market forces often thrived only because of their contacts in government. They reached out to the Journal’s editorial page as allies but were more socialist in practice than some of their left-wing enemies. Little did I suspect that a similar form of mercantilism, or corporate statism, would take root in the U.S. It is a pleasure to see Mr. Nader doing battle against such cozy arrangements.

For the full review, see:
DAVID ASMAN. “BOOKSHELF; Let’s Make a Deal; Ralph Nader’s latest crusade is against the convergence of big business and government power. Let’s hope he succeeds.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., July 18, 2014): A9.
(Note: ellipsis in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 17, 2014, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Book Review: ‘Unstoppable’ by Ralph Nader; Ralph Nader’s latest crusade is against the convergence of big business and government power. Let’s hope he succeeds.”)

Book under review:
Nader, Ralph. Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. New York: Nation Books, 2014.

June 16th Is Liberalism Day

In the old days a “liberal” was someone who believed in freedom, including free markets and minimal government. Milton Friedman defended “liberal” in its original sense in his article “Liberalism, Old Style.”
At some point the left hijacked the word, at least in the United States. (I understand that in much of the rest of the world “liberal” still retains more of its original meaning.)
Maybe there’s some defensible justification for hijacking a word, but most of the time it seems like a dishonest and cowardly way to win an argument by muddying up the debate.
Dan Klein and Kevin Frei are trying to reclaim the word “liberal” from the pirates of the left. As part of their effort, they have proclaimed June 16th to be “Liberalism Day.”
I believe their cause is just, but I am not sure it is efficient. Time and effort are scarce, so we must pick our battles.
On the other hand, the meaning of “libertarian” has narrowed over recent decades. It used to be that most libertarians believed in minimal government; increasingly more libertarians endorse anarchism. It used to be that most libertarians believed in national defense; increasingly more libertarians endorse total isolationism.
I do believe in some minimal night-watchman state, and I do believe that sometimes there is evil in the world that must be fought. So maybe I should start calling myself a “liberal” in the original sense, what Friedman called a “classical liberal”?


Samuelson Disputed Nephew Summers’ Praise for Milton Friedman

(p. A4) [Uncle Paul Samuelson and nephew Larry Summers] clashed over the fate of struggling mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were bolstered by a government backstop in July 2008 and later taken over completely by the U.S. Treasury.
Mr. Samuelson found “strange and harmful” his nephew’s skepticism about the government backstop for the firms. Mr. Summers, a longtime critic of the two firms, wrote back that shareholders and management of Fannie and Freddie didn’t deserve taxpayer support.
Friction had emerged earlier in 2006, when Mr. Summers praised the late Mr. Friedman in a New York Times column. Friedman was “the most influential economist” of the second half of the 20th century, Mr. Summers said.
“For your eyes only,” Mr. Samuelson wrote to his nephew of Mr. Friedman, “I had to grade him low as a macro economist” and “stubbornly old fashioned.”

For the full story, see:
JON HILSENRATH. “A Close Bond and a Shared Love for ‘Dismal Science’; Correspondence Between Famously Brash Summers and His Uncle, a Nobel Economist, Reveals Flashes of Humility and Tenderness.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 14, 2013): A4.
(Note: bracketed words added.)
(Note: the online version of the story was updated on September 15, 2013 and has the title “Letters Show Little-Known Side of Summers; Correspondence With Uncle, a Nobel Economist, Reveals Flashes of Humility and Tenderness.”)

A Firm’s Social Responsibility Is to Make a Profit

(p. B1) Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist, blasted the very idea of corporate social responsibility four decades ago, calling it a “fundamentally subversive doctrine.” Speaking for many capitalists then and now, he said, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.”
Companies shouldn’t spend profits on unrelated job creation or social causes, he said. That money should go to shareholders–the owners of the companies. Pronouncements about corporate social responsibility, he added, are the indulgence of “pontificating executives” who are “incredibly shortsighted and muddleheaded in matters that are outside their businesses.” And that indulgence can lead to inefficient markets.
. . .
(p. B2) “Jobs are an input, not an output; they’re a cost of doing business, not a goal of doing business,” says William Frezza, a Boston-based venture capitalist and fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“From the perspective of defending capitalism, if you accept the premise of your opponent that business has to give back to society, you’ve already lost,” he says. “To put sack cloth and ashes on–you’ve delegitimized capitalism, which is the goal of the protesters. Businesses give back to society every day by pleasing their customers and employing their employees. There’s nothing business owes other than selling the best product at the best price.”

For the full commentary, see:
JOHN BUSSEY. “THE BUSINESS; Are Companies Responsible for Creating Jobs?.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., October 28, 2011): B1-B2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)