Harvard President James Conant Helped Develop Mustard Gas in WWI

(p. C7) With America’s entry into World War I, Conant took a commission in the Chemical Warfare Service. His task was to develop poison gases—first mustard gas, then an even nastier brew called lewisite. Conant had Quaker branches on his family tree, but he had no qualms: What, he asked, was the moral difference between killing soldiers with explosives and killing them with gas?

. . .

The subtitle of Conant’s autobiography was “Memoirs of a Social Inventor.” He had invented poison gas; he had managed the invention of the Bomb; he had helped invent the modern Harvard; and he aimed to reinvent American education as a whole. But his greatest invention was himself: a new type of social being on the American scene—the scientist-administrator-social engineer. His granddaughter’s biography is an outstanding portrait of a technocrat, at work and at home.

For the full review, see:

Steven Shapin. “Citizen Conant.” The New York Times (Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017): C7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 27, 2017, and has the title “Review: Citizen Conant.”)

The book under review is:

Conant, Jennet. Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Top 0.1% Have 15% of U.S. Wealth

(p. A1) The income tax is the Swiss Army Knife of the U.S. tax system, an all-purpose policy tool for raising revenue, rewarding and punishing activities and redistributing money between rich and poor.

The system could change fundamentally if Democrats win the White House and Congress. The party’s presidential candidates, legislators and advisers share a conviction that today’s income tax is inadequate for an economy where a growing share of rewards flows to a sliver of households.

For the richest Americans, Democrats want to shift toward taxing their wealth, instead of just their salaries and the income their assets generate.

. . .

In the real world, a wealth tax would emerge from Congress riddled with gaps that the tax-planning industry would exploit, said Jason Oh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. For example, if private foundations were exempted, the wealthy might shift assets into them.

“We’ve never seen in the history of taxation a pristine tax of any form,” Mr. Oh said. “People who want to pursue a wealth tax for the revenue may be a little disappointed when we see the estimates roll in.”

European countries tried—and largely abandoned—wealth taxes. They struggled because rich people could switch countries and because some assets were exempt. Mr. Zucman said Ms. Warren’s tax would escape the latter problem by hitting every kind of asset, from artwork to stock to privately held businesses to real estate.

While he and fellow economist Emmanuel Saez assume 15% of the tax owed would be avoided, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and University of Pennsylvania law professor Natasha Sarin wrote a paper estimating the plan would raise less than half what Mr. Zucman projects, based on how much wealth escapes the estate tax.

A paper by economists Matthew Smith of the Treasury Department, Eric Zwick of the University of Chicago and Owen Zidar of Princeton University contends top-end wealth is overstated. Acccording to their preliminary estimate, the top 0.1% have 15% of national wealth, instead of the 20% estimated by Mr. Zucman. Their findings imply that Ms. Warren’s tax might raise about half of what’s promised.

For the full story, see:

Richard Rubin. “Democrats’ Tax Idea: Target Wealth, Not Just Income.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 27, 2019, and has the title “Democrats’ Emerging Tax Idea: Look Beyond Income, Target Wealth.”)

The paper co-authored by Smith, and mentioned above, is:

Smith, Matthew, Owen Zidar, and Eric Zwick. “Top Wealth in the United States: New Estimates and Implications for Taxing the Rich.” Working Paper, July 19, 2019.

“Wealth Taxes Would Sap Innovation”

(p. A1) WASHINGTON — Progressive Democrats are advocating the most drastic shift in tax policy in over a century as they look to redistribute wealth and chip away at the economic power of the superrich with new taxes that could fundamentally reshape the United States economy.

As they compete for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont have proposed wealth taxes that would shrink the fortunes of the richest Americans. Their plans envision an enormous transfer of money from the wealthy to ordinary people, with revenue from the wealth tax used to finance new social programs like tuition-free college, universal child care and “Medicare for all.”

The wealth taxes under discussion would deal a major blow to the balance sheets of American plutocrats like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. If the tax that Ms. Warren has called for had been in place since 1982, the net worth of the 15 richest Americans in 2018 would have been half as much, according to two economists who helped develop her plan. The Sanders wealth tax, which was released last week, would have eroded their fortunes even further, to barely one-fifth of their 2018 total.

. . .

(p. A18) But redirecting such vast sums could have unintended effects on the United States economy that go beyond promulgating economic fairness. While Ms. Warren ticks off the social programs that can be funded if the richest Americans pay just 2 cents on every dollar they have above $50 million — a number that is unimaginable to most Americans — skeptics warn of economic stagnation, depressed business confidence and a legal battle that would go to the Supreme Court.

At a conference sponsored by the Brookings Institution in September, N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist, debated Mr. Saez and Mr. Zucman about the merits of taxing wealth. Mr. Mankiw, the former head of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, offered a searing critique, arguing that a wealth tax would skew incentives that could alter when the superrich make investments, how they give to charity and even potentially spur a wave of divorces for tax purposes. He also noted that billionaires, with their legions of lawyers and accountants, have proven to be experts at gaming the system to avoid even the most onerous taxes.

“On the one hand it’s a bad policy, and then the other thing is it’s a feckless policy,” Mr. Mankiw said.

Left-leaning economists have expressed their own doubts about a wealth tax. Earlier this year, Lawrence Summers, who was President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, warned in an article with Natasha Sarin, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, that wealth taxes would sap innovation by putting new burdens on entrepreneurial businesses while they are starting up. In their view, a country with more millionaires is a sign of economic vibrancy.

“Turning the tax code into a vehicle for confronting what some call ‘oligarchic drift’ would undermine business confidence, reduce investment, degrade economic efficiency and punish success in ways unlikely to be good for the country or even to be appealing to most Americans,” they wrote.

For the full story, see:

Alan Rappeport and Thomas Kaplan. “For or Against, Taxing the Rich Rouses Passion.” The New York Times (Wednesday, October 2, 2019): A1 & A18.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Democrats’ Plans to Tax Wealth Would Reshape U.S. Economy.”)

The “article” by Sarin and Summers, mentioned above, is:

Sarin, Natasha, and Lawrence H. Summers. “Fair, Comprehensive Tax Reform Is the Right Path Forward.” Entry on larrysummers.com, March 29, 2019. http://larrysummers.com/2019/04/01/fair-comprehensive-tax-reform-is-the-right-path-forward/ .

U.S. Forest Service Regulations Delay Monitoring Signs of Volcanic Eruptions

(p. D1) On Mount Hood, “any little thing that happens could have a big consequence,” said Dr. Moran, scientist-in-charge at the federal Cascades Volcano Observatory.

And yet the volcano is hardly monitored. If scientists miss early warning signs of an eruption, they might not know the volcano is about to blow until it’s too late.

Determined to avoid such a tragedy, Dr. Moran and his colleagues proposed installing new instruments on the flanks of Mount Hood in 2014. Those include three seismometers to measure earthquakes, three GPS instruments to chart ground deformation and one instrument to monitor gas emissions at four different locations on the mountain.

But they quickly hit a major hiccup: The monitoring sites are in wilderness areas, meaning that the use of the land is tightly restricted. It took five years before the Forest Service granted the team approval in August.

The approval is a promising step forward, but Dr. Moran and his colleagues still face limitations, including potential legal action that may block their work.

Such obstacles are a problem across the United States where most volcanoes lack adequate monitoring. Although federal legislation passed in March could help improve the monitoring of volcanoes like Mount Hood, scientists remain concerned that red tape could continue to leave them blind to future eruptions, with deadly consequences.

For the full story, see:

Shannon Hall. “Eruptions of Red Tape.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 10, 2019): D1 & D6.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 9, 2019, and has the title “We’re Barely Listening to the U.S.’s Most Dangerous Volcanoes.”)

Chester Arthur Reformed Civil Service After Reforming Himself

(p. A15) One of America’s obscure vice presidents was Chester A. Arthur, a machine politician from New York. No one thought of him as presidential timber, least of all Arthur himself. He was chosen as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1880 only to pacify the corrupt yet powerful boss of the New York Republican Party, Sen. Roscoe Conkling, who had fought against the nomination of reform-minded James A. Garfield for president.

Then Garfield was assassinated soon after entering the White House and the machine hack was suddenly President of the United States.

. . .

But reform was in the air. Rutherford B. Hayes, elected president in 1876, had run on a platform promising to overhaul the civil service. He ordered a 20% staff cut at the Custom House, followed by an executive order forbidding “assessments” and barring federal workers from performing political work on or off the job. . . .

When Arthur unexpectedly became president, nearly everyone expected that the federal government would soon return to business as usual. It didn’t. Conkling wanted Garfield’s Custom House appointee fired and his own man put in, so he could use the patronage to fuel his political machine. Arthur refused. “For the vice presidency I was indebted to Mr. Conkling,” Arthur explained. “But for the presidency of the United States, my debt is to the Almighty.”

Mr. Greenberger also highlights the remarkable role that a perfect stranger played in Arthur’s transformation. Julia Sand, a semi-invalid living with her family on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, wrote Arthur a series of letters encouraging, warning and criticizing him, consistently urging him to overcome his corrupt past. He visited her only once, unexpectedly, but carefully preserved her letters even though he burned most of his other papers.

Her encouragement had its effect. In his first annual message to Congress, Arthur called for civil service reform and the reactivation of the moribund Civil Service Commission. In his second message, he called on Congress to pass laws banning assessments and requiring competitive examinations for civil service positions. Under public pressure, Congress quickly complied.

. . .

Even Mark Twain—no apologist for politicians—wrote that “it would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.”

“The Unexpected President” is popular history, dependent on secondary sources, especially Thomas Reeves’s magisterial biography of Arthur, “Gentleman Boss.” But it generally avoids the pitfalls of the genre, such as assuming facts not in evidence in the sources. Above all, Scott Greenberger’s slim, well-written biography is a worthy tale of redemption—of a wandering man who, suddenly finding himself president, rose to the occasion and did his duty.

For the full review, see:

John Steele Gordon. “BOOKSHELF; Growing Into the Office; Chester Arthur was a product of the New York patronage machine. Then Garfield was killed, and suddenly the political hack was president.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2017): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 27, 2017, and has the same title as the print version.)

The book under review is:

Greenberger, Scott S. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur. New York: Da Capo Press, 2017.

Empty Threats to Leave Jersey, Gain Firms $100 Million Taxpayer Subsidies

(p. A1) PEARL RIVER, N.Y. — In the summer of 2015, Jaguar Land Rover North America told state officials in New Jersey that it was considering moving to an office development in New York called Blue Hill Plaza.

To keep the automotive giant’s headquarters in New Jersey, the state offered $26 million in tax credits. So Jaguar stayed.

Five months later, FC USA, a travel company, also told New Jersey that it was looking to relocate to the very same office development in New York.

So did Groupe SEB, an appliance manufacturer.

In total, over five years, 12 companies threatened to leave New Jersey and move to Blue Hill Plaza unless the state provided tens of millions in tax credits.

None followed through on the threat. In fact, an investigation by The New York Times suggests that nearly all of the 12 companies never seriously considered moving to New York.

But all 12 received lucrative tax credits from New Jersey to stay — more than $100 million in total, according to documents obtained by The Times.

For the full story, see:

Nick Corasaniti and Matthew Haag. “Businesses Are Cashing In on Empty Threat to Leave New Jersey.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019): A1 & A25.

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the published version, and has the title “How One Address Led to a $100 Million Tax Credit Scheme.”)

Regulations Mandate Ineffective Dishwashers

(p. A18) The FreedomWorks regulatory policy manager, Daniel Savickas, said the Competitive Enterprise Institute had flagged the dishwasher issue and the groups had decided to combine their efforts. “We try and roll back burdensome regulations and make life easier for consumers and manufacturers,” he said.

“The dishwasher in my apartment is absolute garbage, and I have to run cycles multiple times,” Mr. Savickas said.

The crux of their argument is that energy efficiency standards have made America’s dishwashers ineffective with ever-longer cycles, to the consternation of users. “Why should the government mandate these models rather than leave the choice to consumers in the first place?” Mr. Kazman said.

For the full story, see:

Hiroko Tabuchi. “Warriors Against Environmental Rules Champion the Dishwasher.” The New York Times (Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019): A18.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 17, 2019, and has the title “Inside Conservative Groups’ Effort to ‘Make Dishwashers Great Again’.” The online version says that the New York print edition was on p. A17. In my National print edition, the article was on p. A18.)