New York Forces Entrepreneur to Subsidize His Competitor

(p. A24) Last year, the State Legislature levied a new tariff on most of the businesses in the New York City region. The metropolitan commuter transportation mobility tax requires employers to set aside 34 cents for every $100 in payroll costs, and hand the money over to a battered, barely breathing patient on the state’s fiscal operating table: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The tax has not worked out so well. So far, its projected revenues are coming in about $400 million below the state’s estimates — which, in part, will mean reduced subway and bus service for New Yorkers starting this summer. It has also prompted a furious backlash from suburban officials who resent bankrolling an agency that, they say, benefits the city at the expense of its surrounding counties.
And then there is William Schoolman, 69, amateur activist, self-described ”prototypical entrepreneur,” and proprietor of the Hampton Luxury Liner bus fleet. In December, he filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court claiming the tax is unconstitutional and demanding its repeal. The reason?
”Competition,” Mr. Schoolman said in a recent telephone interview, anger rising in his voice. ”This is the first time that I ever had to pay a subsidy directly to my competitor. That’s the thing that really bothers me.”

For the full story, see:
MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM. “Suing Over a Transit Tax, in the Name of Competition.” The New York Times (Tues., February 16, 2010): A24.

Market Entrepreneurs Versus Political Entrepreneurs

HillJamesRailroad2010-03-16.jpg“James J. Hill (center) built a great railroad on his own dime.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) Let’s bring back the robber barons.

“Robber baron” became a term of derision to generations of American students after many earnest teachers made them read Matthew Josephson’s long tome of the same name about the men whose enterprise drove the American industrial age from 1861 to 1901.
Josephson’s cast of pillaging villains was comprehensive: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Astor, Jay Gould, James J. Hill. His table of contents alone shaped impressions of those times: “Carnegie as ‘business pirate’.” “Henry Frick, baron of coke.” “Terrorism in Oil.” “The sack of California.”
I say, bring ’em back, and the sooner the better. What we need, a lot more than a $1,000 tax credit, are industries no one has thought of before. We need vision, vitality and commercial moxie. This government is draining it away.
The antidote to Josephson’s book is a small classic by Hillsdale College historian Burton W. Folsom called “The Myth of the Robber Barons: A New Look at the Rise of Big Business in America” (Young America’s Foundation). Prof. Folsom’s core insight is to divide the men of that age into market entrepreneurs and political entrepreneurs.
Market entrepreneurs like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Hill built businesses on product and price. Hill was the railroad magnate who finished his transcontinental line without a public land grant. Rockefeller took on and beat the world’s dominant oil power at the time, Russia. Rockefeller innovated his way to energy primacy for the U.S.
Political entrepreneurs, by contrast, made money back then by gaming the political system. Steamship builder Robert Fulton acquired a 30-year monopoly on Hudson River steamship traffic from, no surprise, the New York legislature. Cornelius Vanderbilt, with the slogan “New Jersey must be free,” broke Fulton’s government-granted monopoly.

For the full commentary, see:
DANIEL HENNINGER. “Bring Back the Robber Barons.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., MARCH 4, 2010): A17.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated MARCH 3, 2010.)

The full reference for Folsom’s book is:
Folsom, Burton W. The Myth of the Robber Barons. 4th ed: Young America’s Foundation, 2003.

Like Wikipedia, Oxford English Dictionary Was Built by Amateur Volunteers

(p. 70) The venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the history of which is masterfully documented by Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Madman, was in fact possible only through the soliciting of contributions, and the receipt of thousands of “slips” of paper, each with words and definitions found by readers and volunteers.

The OED didn’t start out with such a grand title, and was first a project of the Philological Society in Great Britian (sic), as a response to what they saw as the popular dictionaries of Noah Webster and Samuel Johnson not doing the “English language justice.” In 1857, it was started as the Unregistered Words Committee, and the job was to comb through all forms of media of the era (printed matter, song, spoken word) leading to the inventorying and cataloging of English words. The three founders, Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall, sent out a notice in November of that year: “AN APPEAL TO THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING AND ENGLISH-READING PUBLIC TO READ BOOKS AND MAKE EXTRACTS FOR THE PHILOLOGICAL SOCIETY’S NEW ENGLISH DICTIONARY.” Specifically, it described the project thusly:

Accordingly, in January 1859. the Society issued their Proposal for the publication of a New English Dictionary, in which the characteristics of the proposed work were explained, and an appeal made to the English and American public to assist in collecting the raw materials for the work, these materials consisting of quotations illustrating the use of English words by all writers of all ages and in all senses, each quotation being made on a uniform plan on a half-sheet of notepaper that they might in due course be arranged and classified alphabetically and significantly. This Appeal met with generous response: some hundreds of volunteers began to read books, make quotations and send in their slips to “sub-editors who volunteered each to take charge of a letter or part of one, and by whom the slips were in turn further arranged, classified, and (p. 71) to some extent used as the basis of definitions and skeleton schemes of the meanings of words in preparation for the Dictionary.

The notice was sent to “bookshops and libraries across the English-speaking world” and, under the direction of Scottish lexicographer James Murray, saw its growth blossom. In 1879, Oxford University Press formally agreed to be publisher and employed Murray to take on the editorship. Slips sent in to the effort were filed away in pigeonholes at the Scriptorium, a corrugated metal building Mill Hill School erected specifically for the effort of sorting and housing the staff to work on the dictionary.

Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 2009.
(Note: italics and caps in original.)

The block quote within the Lih block quote is from p. 108 of:
Winchester, Simon. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. paperback ed. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

Entrepreneur Pleases Dwarfs; Critics Are Appalled

DwarfAngels2010-03-16.JPG“Yang Jinlu, 18, left, and Zhang Yinghua, 37.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A10) KUNMING, China — Chen Mingjing’s entrepreneurial instincts vaulted him from a peasant upbringing to undreamed-of wealth, acquired in ventures ranging from making electric meters to investing in real estate. But when he was 44, the allure of making money for money’s sake began to wane. He wanted to run a business that accomplished some good.

And so last September, Mr. Chen did what any socially aware entrepreneur might do: He opened a theme park of dwarfs, charging tourists about $9 a head to watch dozens of dwarfs in pink tutus perform a slapstick version of “Swan Lake” along with other skits.
Mr. Chen has big plans for his Kingdom of the Little People. Imagine a $115 million universe in miniature, set amid 13,000 acres of rolling hills and peaceful lakes in southern China’s Yunnan Province, with tiny dogs, tiny fruit trees, a 230-foot-high performance hall that looks like the stump of a prehistoric tree and standard-size guest cabins.
Also, a black BMW modified to resemble a flying saucer, from which dwarfs will spill forth to begin their performances.
“It will be like a fairy tale,” Mr. Chen said. “Everything here I have designed myself.”
. . .
Critics say displaying dwarfs is at best misguided and at worst immoral, a throwback to times when freak shows pandered to people’s morbid curiosity.
“Are they just going there to look at curious objects?” asked Yu Haibo, who leads a volunteer organization for the disabled in Jilin Province in the northeast.
“I think it is horrible,” said Gary Arnold, the spokesman for Little People of America Inc., a dwarfism support group based in California. “What is the difference between it and a zoo?” Even the term “dwarf” is offensive to some; his organization prefers “person of short stature.”
. . .
But there is another view, and Mr. Chen and some of his short-statured workers present it forcefully. One hundred permanently employed dwarfs, they contend, is better than 100 dwarfs scrounging for odd jobs. They insist that the audiences who see the dwarfs sing, dance and perform comic routines leave impressed by their skills and courage.
Many performers said they enjoyed being part of a community where everyone shares the same challenges, like the height of a sink. “Before, when we were at home, we didn’t know anyone our size. When we hang out together with normal-size people, we can not really do the same things,” said Wu Zhihong, 20. “So I really felt lonely sometimes.”
. . .
Supporters and critics agree on one point: the fact that the park is awash in job applications shows the disturbing dearth of opportunities for the disabled in China. Cao Yu, Mr. Chen’s assistant, says she receives three or four job inquiries a week.
“Under the current social situation in China, they really will not be able to find a better employment situation,” she said.
. . .
Mr. Chen said his employees had gained self-respect and self-sufficiency. “It doesn’t really matter to me what other people say,” he said. “The question is whether meeting me has changed their lives.”

For the full story, see:

SHARON LaFRANIERE. “Kunming Journal; A Miniature World Magnifies Dwarf Life.” The New York Times (Thurs., March 4, 2010): A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated March 3, 2010.)

DwarfsRelax2010-03-16.JPG “Workers relaxed in the dormitories.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

An “Entrepreneur’s Visa” to Let the Future Sergey Brin In

(p. A19) . . . , there is one way to create a lot more jobs without spending federal money. Let’s import them. More precisely, let’s import the people who create them: entrepreneurs.

A bipartisan bill that would begin to do just that was introduced on Feb. 24 by Sens. John Kerry (D., Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R., Ind.). Their “Startup Visa Act” would create a new, two-year visa for immigrant entrepreneurs whose firms attract at least $250,000 in financing from American angel investors or venture capital firms.
. . .
Here’s a way to improve on the Kerry-Lugar plan. Create a true “job creator’s visa,” one tied directly and only to job creation by new immigrant entrepreneurs. The visa could be a temporary one for immigrants already here on another visa who establish a business. It could then be extended if the firm hires at least one American non-family resident. The visa should become permanent once the enterprise crosses a certain job threshold (such as five or 10 workers). But it would not be tied to financing.
. . .
Google was founded by Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant, and American Larry Page by borrowing funds from their own credit cards. Why on earth would we want to create an entrepreneurs’ visa that couldn’t let in the future Sergey Brin?

For the full commentary, see:
ROBERT E. LITAN. “Visas for the Next Sergey Brin; To create more jobs, let’s import more employers.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., MARCH 8, 2010): A19.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated MARCH 7, 2010.)

United States Exports “High-Value-Added Services that Support Well-Paying Jobs”

ServiceImportsExportsGraph2010-03-16.jpgSource of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A23) Exports of American services have jumped by 84 percent since 2000, while the growth rate among goods was 66 percent. America trails both China and Germany in sales of goods abroad, but ranks No. 1 in global services by a wide margin. And while trade deficits in goods have been enormous — $840 billion in 2008 — the country runs a large and growing surplus in services: we exported $144 billion more in services than we imported, dwarfing the surpluses of $75 billion in 2000 and $58 billion in 1992.

Equally important, Commerce Department data show that the United States is a top-notch competitor in many of the high-value-added services that support well-paying jobs.
. . .
. . . , will Washington offer tax breaks or other export incentives? While businesses may clamor for them, these would be a setback for freer trade — after all, for years it has been America that has been hectoring other countries to end their subsidies to exporters. Will Washington try to pick winners in the global marketplace, like green energy? More often than not, this kind of industrial policy wastes money, fosters inefficiency and creates few permanent jobs.

For the full story, see:
W. MICHAEL COX. “An Order of Prosperity, to Go.” The New York Times (Weds., February 17, 2010): A23.
(Note: ellipses added.)

At Odds with Academic Culture, Wiki Programmer Adams Released Early and Released Often

(p. 67) Adams did something unexpected for the academic community, but common in open source culture–release early and release often. Within weeks of its launch, one of the biggest annoyances of Wikipedia was resolved directly by the software’s author. It was not because of monetary compensation or any formal request, but simply because the author was interested in solving it on his own time, and sharing it with others. It was the hacker ethos, and it had crossed from the domain of tech programmers into the world of encyclopedias.

Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 2009.

The Ultimate Complement: When Your Competitor Uses Your Product


“. . . apparently a photo that was snapped from the iPhone as Ballmer brandished it above his head.” Source of caption and photo:

(p. A1) REDMOND, Wash.–Microsoft Corp. employees are passionate users of the latest tech toys. But there is one gadget love that many at the company dare not name: the iPhone.

The iPhone is made, of course, by Microsoft’s longtime rival, Apple Inc. The device’s success is a nagging reminder for Microsoft executives of how the company’s own efforts to compete in the mobile business have fallen short in recent years. What is especially painful is that many of Microsoft’s own employees are nuts for the device.
The perils of being an iPhone user at Microsoft were on display last September. At an all- company meeting in a Seattle sports stadium, one hapless employee used his iPhone to snap photos of Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer. Mr. Ballmer snatched the iPhone out of the employee’s hands, placed it on the ground and pretended to stomp on it in front of thousands of Microsoft workers, according to people present.
. . .
Nearly 10,000 iPhone users were accessing the Microsoft employee email system last year, say two people who heard the estimates from senior Microsoft executives. That figure equals about 10% of the company’s glo-(p. A10)bal work force.
Employees at Apple, in contrast, appear to be more devoted to the company’s own mobile phone. Several people who work at the company or deal regularly with employees there say they can’t recall seeing Apple workers with mobile phones other than the iPhone in recent memory.

For the full story, see:
NICK WINGFIELD. “Forbidden Fruit: Microsoft Workers Hide Their iPhones; Steve Ballmer Sours on Apple Product; Work for Ford, Drive a Ford.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MARCH 13, 2010): A1 & A10.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article had the date MARCH 12, 2010.)

“Strategy, as We Knew It, Is Dead”

(p. B7) During the recession, as business forecasts based on seemingly plausible swings in sales smacked up against reality, executives discovered that strategic planning doesn’t always work.

Some business leaders came away convinced that the new priority was to be able to shift course on the fly. Office Depot Inc., for example, began updating its annual budget every month, starting in early 2009. Other companies started to factor more extreme scenarios into their thinking. A few even set up “situation rooms,” where staffers glued to computer screens monitored developments affecting sales and finances.
Now, even though the economy is slowly picking up, those fresh habits aren’t fading. “This downturn has changed the way we will think about our business for many years to come,” says Steve Odland, Office Depot’s chairman and chief executive.
Walt Shill, head of the North American management consulting practice for Accenture Ltd., is even more blunt: “Strategy, as we knew it, is dead,” he contends. “Corporate clients decided that increased flexibility and accelerated decision making are much more important than simply predicting the future.”
Companies have long planned for changing circumstances. What’s new–and a switch from the distant calendars and rigid forecasts of the past–is the heavy dose of opportunism. Office Depot stuck with its three-year planning process after the recession hit, largely to make sure employees had a common plan to rally around, Mr. Odland says. But the CEO decided to review the budget every month rather than quarterly so the office-supply chain could react faster to changes in customers’ needs.

For the full story, see:
JOANN S. LUBLIN and DANA MATTIOLI. “Theory & Practice; Strategic Plans Lose Favor; Slump Showed Bosses Value of Flexibility, Quick Decisions.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., January 22, 2010): B7.

Small Nuclear Reactor Will Run on Spent Fuel From Big Reactors

GeneralAtomicsEM2reactor2010-03--01.jpg “An artist’s modeling of the proposed EM2 reactor, which would be small enough to be transported by truck.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) Nuclear and defense supplier General Atomics announced Sunday it will launch a 12-year program to develop a new kind of small, commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S. that could run on spent fuel from big reactors.

In starting its campaign to build the helium-cooled reactor, General Atomics is joining a growing list of companies willing to place a long-shot bet on reactors so small they could be built in factories and hauled on trucks or trains.
The General Atomics program, if successful, could provide a partial solution to one of the biggest problems associated with nuclear energy: figuring out what to do with highly radioactive waste. With no agreement on where to locate a federal storage site, that waste is now stored in pools or casks on utilities’ property.
The General Atomics reactor, which is dubbed EM2 for Energy Multiplier Module, would be about one-quarter the size of a conventional reactor and have unusual features, including the ability to burn used fuel, which still contains more than 90% of its original energy. Such reuse would reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste that remained. General Atomics calculates there is so much U.S. nuclear waste that it could fuel 3,000 of the proposed reactors, far more than it anticipates building.
The decision to proceed with its 12-year program indicates that General Atomics believes the time is right to both make a nuclear push and to try to gain approval for an unconventional design proposal despite the likely difficulty of getting it certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The EM2 would operate at temperatures as high as 850 degrees Centigrade, which is about twice as hot as a conventional (p. B2) water-cooled reactor. The very high temperatures would make the reactor especially well suited to industrial uses that go beyond electricity production, such as extracting oil from tar sands, desalinating water and refining petroleum to make fuel and chemicals.

For the full story, see:
REBECCA SMITH. “General Atomics Proposes a Plant That Runs on Nuclear Waste.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., February 22, 2010): B1 & B2.