Feds Paid New York Journalist to Not Grow Crops in Oregon

(p. 11) As for the foolishness of agricultural subsidies, until recently, the federal government paid me, a New York journalist, $588 a year not to grow crops in Oregon. I rest my case.

For the full commentary, see:
Nicholas Kristof. “Our Water-Guzzling Food Factory.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 31, 2015): 11.
(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 30, 2015.)

Drinking Water Not Harmed by Fracking

(p. A13) Fracking isn’t causing widespread damage to the nation’s drinking water, the Obama administration said in a long-awaited report released Thursday.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency–after a four-year study that is the U.S. government’s most comprehensive examination of the issue to date–concluded that hydraulic fracturing, as being carried out by industry and regulated by states, isn’t having “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water.”

For the full story, see:
RUSSELL GOLD And AMY HARDER. “Fracking’s Harm to Water Not Widespread, EPA Says.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 5, 2015): A5.
(Note: the date of the online version of the story is June 4, 2015, and has the title “Fracking Has Had No ‘Widespread’ Impact on Drinking Water, EPA Finds.”)

Should Students Read to Learn, or to Get Gold Stars?

(p. 181) When a consultant tells teachers to concentrate on the bubble kids and ignore the kids who are most in need of help, something has gone wrong. And if gold stars turn reading from an adventure into a job, something has gone wrong. But what? The typical response to examples like these is not to blame incentives but to blame “dumb” incentives. The presumption is that “smart” incentives, or at least “smarter” incentives, will do the job.
This is a mistake. In many situations, for many activities, no incentives are smart enough. Teachers like Deborah Ball and Mrs. Dewey spend their day figuring out how much time to spend with each student and how to tailor what they teach to each student’s particular strengths and weaknesses. They are continually balancing conflicting aims– to treat all students equally, to give the struggling students more time, to energize and inspire the gifted students. Along comes the incentive to bring up the school’s test scores, and all the nuance and subtlety of Mrs. Dewey’s moment-by-moment decisions go out the window. And what “smarter” incentive is going to replace judgment in making sensitive choices in a complex and changing context like a classroom?
Or what, exactly, would you incentivize to encourage hospital custodian Luke to seek the kind and empathetic response to the distraught father who wanted his son’s room cleaned? Incentives are always based on meeting some specific, measurable criterion: read more books; raise more test scores; wash more floors. Left to his own devices, Luke asks himself, “What can I do to be caring?” and because he has moral skill, he comes up with a good answer. With “caring” incentivized, Luke (p. 182) might ask, “What do I have to do to get a raise or a bonus?” “Reclean the room” might be a right answer. “Look sympathetic” might be a right answer. “Be caring” surely is not. Aristotle thought that good
people do the right thing because it is the right thing. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing unleashes the nuance, flexibility, and improvisation that moral challenges demand and moral skill enables. Doing the right thing for pay shuts down the nuance and flexibility.

Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)

Conflict-of-Interest Politics Reduces Medical Collaboration with Industry and Slows Down Cures

(p. A15) The reality of modern medicine, Dr. Stossel argues, is that private industry is the engine of innovation, with productivity and new advances dependent on relationships between commercial interests and academic and research medicine. Companies, not universities or research with federal funding, run 85% of the medical-products pipeline. “We all inevitably have conflicts all the time. You only stop having conflicts when you’re dead. The only conflict-free situation is the grave,” he says.
The pursuit of the illusion “to be pure, to be priestly, to be supposedly uncorrupted by the profit motive,” Dr. Stossel says, often has the effect of banishing or else discounting the expertise of the people who know the most but whose integrity and objectivity are allegedly compromised by industry ties. What ought to matter more, he adds, is simply “Results. Competence. LeBron James–it’s putting the ball in the basket.”
. . .
Zero-tolerance conflict-of-interest editorial policies, Dr. Stossel says, suppress and distort debate by withholding positions of authority. “If you have an industry connection, if you really understand the topic, you can’t say anything,” he notes. “If you’re an editor, and you have an ideological predilection, you have all this power and you can say anything you want.”
Dr. Stossel is equally scorching about the drug and device companies and their trade organizations, which he says drift around like Rodney Dangerfield, complaining they don’t get no respect. They prefer not to be confrontational, they rarely fight back against the conflict-of-interest scolds. “They’re laying responsibility by default to the patients, the people who actually have a first-hand connection to whatever the disease is: ‘Goddammit, I want a cure.’ ”
Which is the larger point: The to-and-fro between publications not meant for lay readers can seem arcane, but the product of conflict-of-interest politics is fewer cures and new therapies. The predisposition against selling out to industry is pervasive, while reputations can be ruined overnight when researchers find themselves in a page-one exposé or hauled before Congress, even if there is no evidence of misconduct or bias.
Better, then, to conform in the cloisters than risk offending the conflict-of-interest orthodoxy–or translating some basic-research insight into a new treatment for patients. Dr. Rosenbaum reports: “The result is a stifling of honest discourse and potential discouragement of productive collaborations. . . . More strikingly, some of the young, talented physician-investigators I spoke with expressed worry about how any industry relationship would affect their careers.”
. . .
‘Pharmaphobia”–part polemic, part analytic investigation, a history of medicine and a memoir–deserves a wide readership. . . . “I’d rather get a conversation started with people who are smarter than I am about how complicated and granular and nuanced and unpredictable discovery is. Let’s not slow it down.”

For the full interview, see:
JOSEPH RAGO. “The Weekend Interview with Tom Stossel; A Cure for ‘Conflict of Interest’ Mania; A crusading physician says medical progress is hampered by a holier-than-thou ‘moralistic bullying.’.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 27, 2015): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date June 26, 2015, and has the title “A Cure for ‘Conflict of Interest’ Mania; A crusading physician says medical progress is hampered by a holier-than-thou ‘moralistic bullying.’.”)

The book mentioned in the interview, is:
Stossel, Thomas P. Pharmaphobia: How the Conflict of Interest Myth Undermines American Medical Innovation. Lanham, MS: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015.

Environment Experts Admit Obama Policies Are Expensive, Ineffective and May Make Environment Worse

(p. B1) Is the American approach to combating climate change going off the rails?
Last year, President Obama set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by as much as 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, only 10 years from now.
Now, environmental experts are suggesting that some parts of the strategy are, at best, a waste of money and time. At worst, they are setting the United States in the wrong direction entirely.
That is the view of some of the world’s top environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club. On Tuesday, they argued in a letter to the White House that allowing the burning of biomass to help reduce consumption of fossil fuels in the nation’s power plants, as proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, would violate the Clean Air Act.
It’s also the view of economists from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley, who on Tuesday released the disappointing results of a field test of the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, the government’s largest effort to improve residential energy efficiency.
It turns out that burning biomass — wood, mainly — for power produces 50 percent more CO2 than burning coal. And even if new forest growth were to eventually suck all of it out of the atmosphere, it would take decades — perhaps more than a century — to make up the difference and break even with coal.
One study commissioned by the state of Massachusetts concluded that the climate impacts of burning wood were worse than those for coal for 45 years, and (p. B8) worse than for natural gas for about 90 years. Humans do not have that kind of time.
The energy efficiency push has a different problem: It is much too expensive. The weatherization improvements cost more than twice as much as households’ energy savings. Even after including the broad social benefits from less pollution, it was still a bad deal. Indeed, the program spent $329 per ton of CO2 it kept out of the air, some eight times as much as the administration’s estimate of the social cost of damages caused by carbon.
These are not small setbacks. Most of the scenarios that keep the rise in global temperatures under a 2 degree Celsius ceiling, the point at which scientists fear the risk of climate upheaval rises significantly, rely heavily on bioenergy, including biomass for power generation and other biofuels, which face similar problems.

For the full commentary, see:
Eduardo Porter. “ECONOMIC SCENE; Climate Change Calls for Science, Not Hope.” The New York Times (Sun., JUNE 24, 2015): B1 & B8.
(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is JUNE 23, 2015, and has the title “ECONOMIC SCENE; Climate Change Calls for Science, Not Hope.”)

The letter to the Obama administration from many environmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, is:

The research mentioned above by economists from Berkeley and the University of Chicago, is:
Fowlie, Meredith, Michael Greenstone, and Catherine Wolfram. “Do Energy Efficiency Investments Deliver? Evidence from the Weatherization Assistance Program.” Working Paper, The Becker-Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, The University of Chicago, June 2015.

The research mentioned above that was commissioned by the state of Massachusetts, is:
Walker, Thomas , Dr. Peter Cardellichio, Andrea Colnes, Dr. John Gunn, Brian Kittler, Bob Perschel, Christopher Recchia, and Dr. David Saah. “Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study, Executive Summary.” Manomet, MA: Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, June 2010.

Fate of Plays Is Decided by Seven Middle-Aged Critics “Who Hated Mickey Mouse When They Were Kids”

(p. B1) Some playgoers don’t care for theatrical inside baseball, but if, like me, you love to peer through a peephole at the craziness of show folk, you’ll find “Light Up the Sky” hard to resist.
. . .
I especially like this sideswipe at drama critics: “What do I need with the theater–a cockamamie business where you get one roll of the dice from seven middle-aged men on the aisle who hated Mickey Mouse when they were kids.”

For the full review, see:
TERRY TEACHOUT. “‘Why So Serious?” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., MAY 29, 2015): D7.
(Note: the date of the online version of the review is May 27, 2015, and has the title “‘Light Up the Sky’ Review: Why So Serious?”)

Intel Entrepreneur Gordon Moore Was “Introverted”

(p. A11) “In the world of the silicon microchip,” [Thackray, Brock and Jones] write, “Moore was a master strategist and risk taker. Even so, he was not especially a self-starter.” Mr. Moore possesses many of the stereotypical character traits of an introverted Ph.D. chemist: working for hours on his own, avoiding small talk and favoring laconic statements. Indeed, as a manager he often avoided conflict, even when a colleague’s errors persisted in plain sight.
. . .
After two leadership changes at Fairchild in 1967 and 1968, which unsettled its talented employees, Mr. Moore departed to help found a new firm, Intel, with a fellow Fairchild engineer, the charming and brilliant Robert Noyce (another of the “traitorous eight”). They also brought along a younger colleague, the confrontational and hyper-energetic Andy Grove. Each one of the famous triumvirate would serve as CEO at some point over the next three decades.

For the full review, see:
SHANE GREENSTEIN. “BOOKSHELF; Silicon Valley’s Lawmaker; What became Moore’s law first emerged in a 1965 article modestly titled ‘Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits’.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 26, 2015): A11.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed names, added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 25, 2015.)

The book under review is:
Thackray, Arnold, David C. Brock, and Rachel Jones. Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

Banks Used “Regulatory Arbitrage” to Rent Seek at Taxpayers’ Expense

(p. 21) Between 2009 and 2011, a group of economists at New York University’s Stern School of Business published an influential series of reports and books that sought to explain what, exactly, happened during the financial crisis. The depth of the inquiry was notable because the school is generally thought of as a Wall Street-friendly training ground for future bankers. One of the most striking findings was that between 1980 and 2000, the large banks in America had significantly moved away from productivity ¬≠enhancement and toward rent-¬≠seeking.
For the reports’ principal authors, Matthew Richardson and Viral Acharya, the evidence of this shift came from careful study of the various ways that banks have legally evaded regulation of their capital requirements. A fundamental tenet of bank regulation is that banks shouldn’t borrow too much, because being overleveraged makes them vulnerable to collapse. But banks can most easily make huge profits if they borrow huge amounts, and they tend to pursue unsafe levels of borrowing. Then, the authors observed, they use their power as essential tools in an economy to negotiate bailouts from the government, forcing taxpayers to guarantee their losses. Richardson and Acharya showed that it was precisely because our banking regulations were so extensive and complex that banks were able to seek rents. They called this “regulatory arbitrage,” a term that means banks have harnessed regulation and turned it into a powerful business tool.

For the full commentary, see:
ADAM DAVIDSON. “Wall Street Is Using the Power of Dodd-Frank Against Itself.” The New York Times Magazine (Sun., May 31, 2015): 18 & 20-21.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 27, 2015, and has the title “Wall Street Is Using the Power of Dodd-Frank Against Itself.”)

One of the relevant papers by Acharya and Richardson is:
Acharya, Viral V., and Matthew Richardson. “Causes of the Financial Crisis.” Critical Review 21, no. 2-3 (2009): 195-210.

Seeking Free Speech in China

(p. B1) A few years ago, the Chinese writer Murong Xuecun had the kind of career most novelists dream about. His eight books had sold two million copies in China, and he had amassed more than eight million social media followers.
But in 2011, he decided to stop publishing. He was afraid of running afoul of Chinese censors, and was even more concerned about the self-censorship that had crept into his work. Now he wishes he had never published some of his earlier books, which tiptoed around political issues.
“When I look back on them, I feel ashamed of myself,” said Mr. Murong, 41, who lives in Beijing and whose real name is Hao Qun.
Mr. Murong was among a handful of writers who gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library on Wednesday night to protest the limits on free speech and expression in China. The gathering, organized by the PEN American Center, was prompted by the presence of a large delegation of Chinese publishers at BookExpo America, a major publishing trade event taking place in Manhattan this week.

For the full story, see:
ALEXANDRA ALTER. “A Mixed Message From China.” The New York Times (Fri., MAY 29, 2015): B1 & B6.
(Note: the date of the online version of the story is MAY 28, 2015, and has the title “China’s Publishers Court America as Its Authors Scorn Censorship.”)