“We Rarely Get the Disaster We Expect”

I disagree with the reviewer quoted below on much that is in his review. I have chosen to quote passages that emphasize what I think is interesting and promising in the book.

If Ferguson is right that “we rarely get the disaster we expect,” then we might be better off growing our general capabilities, rather than invest huge taxpayer funds in preparing for the wrong specific disaster. The best way to grow our general capabilities is to defend an economic system of innovative dynamism.

(p. 16) Niall Ferguson is, in many ways, a historian of the old school. He was trained in the history of business and finance, but over the past two decades his interests have broadened.

. . .

Ferguson’s latest book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe,” . . . [seems] to wave away concerns about climate change . . . in favor of extended speculation about “Black Swan” and “Dragon King” events that defy efforts at prediction? His bewildering answer is that “we rarely get the disaster we expect, but some other threat most of us are currently ignoring.”

. . .

“Doom” is often insightful, productively provocative and downright brilliant.

For the full review, see:

Damon Linker. “Catastrophe Is Coming.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 16, 2021 [sic]): 16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 4, 2021 [sic], and has the title “Niall Ferguson Examines Disasters of the Past and Disasters Still to Come.”)

The book under review is:

Ferguson, Niall. Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. New York: Penguin Press, 2021.

Super Agers “Have a Purpose”

I have personally benefitted from Vernon Smith’s longevity, since he graciously wrote two drafts of a positive blurb for my Openness to Creative Destruction book.

(p. A5) Vernon L. Smith, 97, is a very busy man.

The economist at Chapman University just finished writing a book about Adam Smith and works about eight hours a day, seven days a week in his home office in Colorado Springs, Colo. He enjoys chatting with friends on Facebook and attending concerts with his daughter.

“I still have a lot of stuff to do. I want to keep at it,” said Smith, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002.

. . .

(p. A10) Researchers studying “super agers,” people over 80 who have mental faculties of people decades younger, said strong social relationships are important for keeping brains sharp.

The same is true for people who live beyond 100, said Stacy Andersen, a behavioral neuroscientist at Boston University and co-director of the New England Centenarian Study.

“They have a purpose. They have things they want to go out and do every day,” Andersen said.

Smith says his work and his family keep him motivated and driven.

“I want to go to at least 106,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Dominique Mosbergen. “Several Factors Help Ward Off Mental Decline.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Feb. 16, 2024): A5.

(Note: ellipsis and bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. 15, 2024, and has the title “How to Stay Mentally Sharp Into Your 80s and Beyond.” The last sentence quoted above appears in the online, but not in the print, version of the article.)

My book mentioned above is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Early Wealthy Cell Phone Adopters Funded Innovations That “Made Cellphones Affordable to the Masses”

In Openness to Creative Destruction, I argue that early new technologies are often primitive, expensive, and buggy. They are initially bought by the rich who allow the technology to survive while it is being made better and cheaper. See below that cellphones are another example.

(p. A14) On April 3, 1973, four months after the last manned moon mission, a 44-year-old Motorola engineer took a small step onto Sixth Avenue outside the New York Hilton. There Martin Cooper did something commonplace now but at the time revolutionary: He made a call on a cellular telephone.

“Joel,” Mr. Cooper said to the man who picked up, “I’m calling you from a real cellular telephone—a handheld unit.” Joel Engel worked at Bell Labs, the research division of AT&T. Mr. Cooper was calling to gloat about surpassing the phone monopoly.

. . .

“The function of a cellphone—I can’t express it any better—it is to set people free,” Mr. Cooper, 94, says.  . . .  “A cellphone gives a person the freedom to be connected to the rest of the world, wherever they are and whenever they want to.”

. . .

“We expected the first phones to go to wealthy people,” Mr. Cooper says. “To a large extent that was true. But it turns out that one of the biggest users were real-estate people.” They needed to take calls from clients and go out to show properties. “The cellphone allowed them to do both at the same time. They could be showing a home and still answer the call. So to them the phone, even at that huge price, doubled their effectiveness.”

These early adopters, for whom the technology was worth the cost, helped fund further innovation, which ultimately made cellphones affordable to the masses. Advancements in data-transmission, display and input technology made possible the inexpensive, versatile smartphones we take for granted today.

They also brought ill effects, especially for young people, such as compulsive cellphone use and social media that promote both groupthink and bitter division. “Those are all big problems,” Mr. Cooper says.

. . .

But he accentuates the positive. “We are just starting to figure out what the value of the cellphone is,” he says. “Humanity will solve these other problems if the advantages are big enough. And the advantages—the services you get out of the cellphone, the value to you to make you more efficient—are so great that there’s no question in my mind that humanity is going to solve these problems.”

He is confident that the benefits already outweigh the costs. “Today, people are healthier. There are fewer people in poverty. They live longer than ever before. Something has made that happen, and I think the cellphone is one of the contributors.” By improving efficiency, “it has taken away a lot of the time issues, given people more time to do other things.”

For the full interview, see:

Faith Bottum. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; From the ‘Shoe Phone’ to the Smartphone.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 15, 2022): A13.

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 14, 2023, and has the title “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Opinion: From the ‘Shoe Phone’ to the Smartphone.”)

My book that I mention above is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Shrinking Black-White Wage Gap Mainly Due to “Tight Labor Market”

A tight labor market is a key feature of what I call a “robustly redundant labor market” in my Openness to Creative Destruction book.

(p. A13) In the early 2000s, the wage gap between Black and white workers in the U.S. was as large as it had been in 1950.

. . .

The wage gap, though still enormous, has shrunk.

. . .

There appear to be three main causes of the recent trend, and the most significant is the country’s tight labor market. The unemployment rate has been falling for most of the past decade and has recently been near its lowest levels since the 1960s.

Tight labor markets help almost all workers, and they tend to help disadvantaged workers the most. As Gould put it, “When employers can’t be quite as choosy — when employers have to look beyond their network — that can provide more opportunities for historically marginalized groups.”

This dynamic helps close the Black-white wage gap because Black workers are overrepresented among low-wage workers. The Hispanic-white wage gap has also declined recently.

For the full commentary, see:

David Leonhardt. “The Morning; Why There’s Progress, Finally, on Closing the Black-White Pay Gap.” The New York Times (Monday, June 19, 2023): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary also has the date June 15, 2023, and has the title “The Morning; The Racial Wage Gap Is Shrinking.” The online version of the passages quoted above includes an illustrative parenthetical sentence that I do not include above.)

The Growing Pain of the Working-Class

Many of the working poor are indeed suffering. The solution is mainly to reduce government regulations, to allow a robustly redundant labor market and more opportunities for free-agent entrepreneurship. (See Openness to Creative Destruction.)

(p. 6) Ever since Bobbie Wert was 8 years old, her stomach has ached. “My tummy hurts,” was her refrain as a girl, and the discomfort was accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea that kept her out of school — sometimes for half the days in the school year.

Doctors poked and scanned but couldn’t figure out anything wrong. Over the years, they cut her open and removed bits and pieces yet couldn’t drive away the pain. So doctors prescribed opioids in increasing doses — even fentanyl patches — that left her addicted. At age 43, she now is off opioids but still suffers every single day, enduring chronic pain like an estimated 50 million other Americans.

Wert is part of a vast and mysterious panorama of pain that is increasing, sometimes with no obvious physical cause. And while chronic pain is a global problem, it is particularly puzzling in America. In other wealthy countries, it’s the elderly who report the most chronic pain, which makes some sense. But in the United States it’s the middle-aged — especially the jobless and people like Wert, who did not graduate from high school — who suffer the most. It is a plague on the less educated.

All this raises the question: Is this physical suffering a canary in the coal mine warning us of larger dysfunction in our society?

Here’s what we do know: Tens of millions of Americans are suffering pain. But chronic pain is not just a result of car accidents and workplace injuries but is also linked to troubled childhoods, loneliness, job insecurity and a hundred other pressures on working families.

. . .

“People’s lives are coming apart, and this leads to huge increases in physical pain,” said Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize winner in economics who with Anne Case popularized the term “deaths of despair.” He, Case and Arthur Stone warn in a recent article that “the mystery of American pain reveals a warning for the future.”

Americans die from deaths of despair — drugs, alcohol and suicide — at a rate of more than a quarter-million a year, and the number of walking wounded is far greater.

For the full commentary, see:

Nicholas Kristof. “Why So Many Americans Are Feeling More Pain.” The New York Times, SundayOpinion Section (Sunday, May 7, 2023): 6-7.

(Note: ellipsis added. In the original last paragraph, the words “want” and “all” are in italics.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 3, 2023, and has the title “Why Americans Feel More Pain.”)

The book by Deaton and Case alluded to above is:

Case, Anne, and Angus Deaton. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013.

William F. Buckley, Sr. Spent $100,000 to Fund His Son’s Entrepreneurial Start-Up: National Review

In my Openness book, I give reasons why risky innovative start-ups at fragile early stages almost always need to be substantially self-funded. When close relatives invest, I include that as self-funding.

(p. A15) . . . “William F. Buckley Sr.: Witness to the Mexican Revolution, 1908-1922,” [is] a fascinating if uneven book by the independent historian John A. Adams Jr.

. . .

The business climate in Mexico was promising for foreigners like the Buckleys, thanks to the pro-development policies of its autocratic president, Porfirio Díaz, who would rule the country for more than three decades.

Buckley’s prominence among the American expatriate community made him a natural conduit between officials in the U.S. and Mexico once the latter country was plunged into chaos following the ouster of Díaz in 1911. Buckley was Zelig-like, cropping up repeatedly at key moments. He visited the U.S. Embassy in February 1913 during the Decena Tragíca (Ten Tragic Days), when Francisco Madero, Díaz’s successor, was overthrown in a coup led by Gen. Victoriano Huerta, instigating a spasm of violence that killed thousands in Mexico City.

. . .

Buckley favored Huerta, serving as the regime’s legal counsel in negotiations with the U.S. aimed at preventing hostilities between the two nations. He was thus dismayed by the ascendance of Venustiano Carranza and, later, Álvaro Obregón. Both leaders endorsed the Mexican Constitution of 1917, including Article 27, which asserted national ownership of natural resources while circumscribing the economic power of the church. These provisions horrified Buckley, who was a staunch believer in free-market capitalism as well as a devout Roman Catholic. In the bulletin of the American Association of Mexico, an advocacy group he founded in 1919, Buckley denounced the “dangerous Bolshevist movement” that had taken root in Mexico.

. . .

. . ., Mr. Adams consulted with several Buckley family members, including a descendant based in Mexico City, as well as Judge James L. Buckley, the sole survivor among the 10 children born to Will and his wife, Aloise. Judge Buckley, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, contributed a foreword acknowledging the importance of Mexico to the family’s understanding of itself, writing that “it had somehow permeated our DNA.”

. . .

As another of his offspring once said, Buckley’s experience in Mexico “deepened his frontier suspicions of autocratic [leaders] (and big government in general), and this attitude dyes all his children strongly.” Surely that was true of Buckley’s favorite son, William F. Buckley Jr., who, after serving a short stint with the CIA in Mexico City (he, too, was fluent in Spanish), founded National Review in 1955, which remains one of the leading voices of the conservative movement. The elder Buckley helped fund his son’s upstart venture with a $100,000 contribution from a fortune that traced its origins to Mexico during the most tumultuous period of that nation’s history.

For the full review, see:

Andrew R. Graybill. “BOOKSHELF; Conservatism’s Mexican Roots.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 27, 2023): A15.

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

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 26, 2023, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘William F. Buckley Sr.’ Review: Conservatism’s Mexican Roots.”)

The book under review:

Adams, John A., Jr. William F. Buckley Sr.: Witness to the Mexican Revolution, 1908–1922. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023.

Famine Among the Inuit Led to “The Occasional Killing of Children Who Would Otherwise Starve”

Are we fundamentally better than the Inuit? Or has economic growth allowed us to have higher standards of behavior so we never must commit “the occasional killing of children who would otherwise starve”? In my Openness book I argue that people treat each other better when they live in a system of innovative dynamism that creates economic growth.

(p. 15) Peter Freuchen spent the winter of 1907 alone in the dark. A junior member of a Danish scientific expedition to northern Greenland, he was, in his own words, “just past 20, full of a lust for novel adventures,” and so, “like a fool,” he volunteered to spend the season manning a remote weather station. As wolves slaughtered his dogs and the icy condensation of his breath caused his cabin’s frozen walls to creep inward, his thoughts turned “sterile and unattractive” and he began having extended conversations with his cutlery. But the ordeal did not break him, for Freuchen had fallen in love with the Arctic.

Freuchen is the subject of Reid Mitenbuler’s “Wanderlust,” an attempt to reconcile the contradictions of, as Mitenbuler writes, “a highly sociable person who, somewhat inexplicably, was drawn to some of the most isolated places on Earth.” Mitenbuler paints Freuchen as the rare explorer who saw the world’s remote corners not as territory to be conquered but as a place to call home. Although narratively clumsy, it is a charming portrait of a man who traveled the world with an open mind, whose natural warmth never faltered in the cold.

As an explorer, Freuchen distinguished himself not through feats of heroism but by actually giving a damn about the people he met during his travels. After visiting Greenland on several lengthy expeditions, he came to stay in 1910, founding a trading post in Thule, in the island’s far north, in partnership with his friend Knud Rasmussen. He met the Inuit on their own terms, learning their language and eating their food, working alongside them to survive in an environment where one had to grow used to the reality of famine, starvation and even the occasional killing of children who would otherwise starve.

For the full review, see:

W. M. Akers. “The Land of Frozen Poop Chisels.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 5, 2023): 15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 26, 2023, and has the title “Frozen Poop Chisels and Amputated Toes: A Life of Arctic Adventure.”)

The book under review is:

Mitenbuler, Reid. Wanderlust: An Eccentric Explorer, an Epic Journey, a Lost Age. New York: Mariner Books, 2023.

Janega Claims That Europeans in Middle Ages Washed Themselves Daily

If the claims in the book quoted below turn out to be well-documented, then I may need to modify a few sentences in my Openness book, if a new edition ever appears.

(p. A15) A longstanding myth holds that people in medieval Christian Europe didn’t bathe. In fact, the Middle Ages subscribed heartily to the adage “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Thinkers of the period considered physical beauty to represent spiritual purity, and they looked at hygiene in the same way: If one’s body was impure, it would by definition be unattractive and out of harmony. If it had any imperfections, one would best address them through cleansing. For women, in particular, cleanliness was one of the very highest virtues.

The daily wash usually involved collecting water in a ewer, heating it, then pouring it into a large basin to be used for scrubbing. Baths in a wooden tub would happen less often, given it was a world without plumbing. Water is heavy, and collecting it, heating it, and then getting it from the kettle into the bathtub was difficult. Baths also required space, which was at a premium in most households.

Luckily, there were a few ways to bathe outside the home. In warmer months, you could simply find a pond or a lake, and you were good to go. But in January this could be a problem, and that was where bathhouses came in. Bathhouses took the laborious and difficult work of drawing and heating water and monetized it. Most towns boasted at least one professional bathhouse, while cities played host to a number of competing establishments.

For the full essay, see:

Eleanor Janega. “The Middle Ages Were Cleaner Than We Think.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023): A15.

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date January 12, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

The essay quoted above is based on the author’s book:

Janega, Eleanor. The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society. New York: W.W. Norton, 2023.

Joyce Meskis Was the Principled Entrepreneur Behind Denver’s Wonderful Tattered Cover Bookstore

The Tattered Cover in Denver is my favorite bookstore. I remember one time as I was exiting, running into Scott Parris, then an economics editor at Oxford University Press, who would later be the acquisition editor for my Openness to Creative Destruction. I remember he asked me if I had seen any books in economics in the Tattered Cover that looked promising. On another memorable occasion I visited the bookstore with my daughter Jenny’s Montessori middle-school class as a bookend to the class’s trip to Estes Park. It is a large welcoming bookstore, with comfortable chairs, good coffee, and a wonderful and diverse selection of books. At least it was during the years that Joyce Meskis owned it. (It may still be–I have not visited for several years.)

(p. B12) In 1995 the writer A.E. Hotchner presented Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, with a PEN American Center award recognizing her efforts on behalf of freedom of speech and expression.

“In this room,” he said at the awards ceremony, “there are writers, editors, publishers, and the rest of you are readers. If this woman fails, we all fail. We don’t exist unless the bookseller can sell us.”

And that was before Ms. Meskis went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court to prevent law enforcement officials from knowing what books one of her customers had bought.

Ms. Meskis, who built the Tattered Cover into one of the most successful independent bookstores in the country, died on Dec. 22 [2022] in Denver, the National Coalition Against Censorship announced.

. . .

In addition to creating a bookstore famed for its vast selection and bibliophile-friendly atmosphere, Ms. Meskis often took a stand in matters related to censorship and the First Amendment. Sometimes those positions were not easy ones to embrace.

. . .

To Ms. Meskis, owning a bookstore was about more than just sales. As she told The Arizona Daily Star in 1992, “It’s my view that as booksellers we have our own version of the Hippocratic oath — to maintain the health and well-being of the First Amendment.”

. . .

Her stances didn’t always involve government regulation and court battles. In the late 1980s, she vowed to continue selling Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses,” despite anonymous telephone threats after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran declared the book blasphemous and called for the author’s death.

. . .

If Ms. Meskis was celebrated for her First Amendment stands, she took that spotlight reluctantly.

“Trouble finds us, we don’t go looking for it,” she told Publishers Weekly, an oft-repeated line. “When you’re in a general community, you will always have challenges. There are things I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect so many court battles. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

For the full obituary, see:

Neil Genzlinger. “Joyce Meskis, 80, Bookseller Who Defended Readers’ Rights.” The New York Times (Thursday, January 12, 2023): B12.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Jan. 11, 2023, and has the title “Joyce Meskis, Bookseller Who Defended Readers’ Rights, Dies at 80.”)

United Nations “Innovation Matters” Podcast Posts Episode on Diamond’s Openness to Creative Destruction

The United Nations’s “Innovation Matters” podcast on 2/24/23 posted Part 1 of a discussion of my book Openness to Creative Destruction.  Anders and I had an animated conversation, and a lengthy one, so the United Nations says we can look forward to them posting a Part 2 and a Part 3.

You can listen to the podcast on the following platforms: SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music.

Log4j Open Source Bug Created “Endemic” Risk for “a Decade or Longer”

Continuing worries about the Log4j software bug are consistent with my skepticism of open source software, Openness to Creative Destruction. You can find a brief discussion in the chapter defending patents.

(p. A6) WASHINGTON—A major cybersecurity bug detected last year in a widely used piece of software is an “endemic vulnerability” that could persist for more than a decade as an avenue for hackers to infiltrate computer networks, a U.S. government review has concluded.

. . .

“The Log4j event is not over,” the report said. “The board assesses that Log4j is an ‘endemic vulnerability’ and that vulnerable instances of Log4j will remain in systems for many years to come, perhaps a decade or longer. Significant risk remains.”

. . .

Security researchers uncovered last December a major flaw in Log4j, an open-source software logging tool. It is a widely used piece of free code that logs activity in computer networks and applications.

For the full story, see:

Dustin Volz. “‘Endemic’ Risk Seen In Log4j Cyber Bug.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, July 15, 2022): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 14, 2022, and has the title “Major Cyber Bug in Log4j to Persist as ‘Endemic’ Risk for Years to Come, U.S. Board Finds.”)

My book, mentioned above, is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.