Topic: General

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Down with the “Joyful Campaign”

I have a piece running in the Federalist this week on the notion that presidential candidates should campaign “joyfully,” as Jeb Bush ever more desperately insists that he is. It’s not clear why we’re supposed to want joyful candidates, but that seems to be the prevailing norm. Hardly a week goes by without reporters needling the contestants: are you having fun yet? I wrote the column before former Senator Fred Thompson passed away on Sunday, but it occurred to me that his failed 2008 run is a perfect illustration of how perverse the cult of campaign-trail positivity has become. 

By almost any measure, Thompson had a full life: a Watergate Committee counsel whose questioning revealed the existence of the White House tapes; U.S. senator from Tennessee; “Law and Order,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “Die Hard 2.” But his short-lived presidential campaign isn’t part of the highlight reel. The Tenneseean put it gently in their obituary: “Mr. Thompson underwhelmed” in his 2008 bid. The press was harsher when Thompson dropped out of the race. “You must show an interest in running for the most powerful office in the world to gain that office,” John Dickerson scolded in Slatebut “The press copies of his daily schedule always looked like they’d been handed out with a couple of the pages missing. The candidate seemed like he might just show up for events in Fred08sweatpants.” “As his hopes cratered,” Politico chided, “the former Tennessee senator increasingly voiced his displeasure with a process he plainly loathed. Thompson’s stump speech became mostly a bitter expression of grievance against what was expected of him or any White House hopeful.” Ha: what a weird old grouch! I mean, the guy’s an actor, and he still couldn’t fake it! What’s wrong with him?

And yet, earlier generations of Americans would have viewed Thompson’s reticence as reassuring. As the political scientist Richard J. Ellis explained in an insightful 2003 article, “The Joy of Power: Changing Conceptions of the Presidential Office,” early American political culture took it as self-evident that anyone who seemed to relish the idea of wielding power over others couldn’t be trusted with it. “Presidential candidates largely stayed home in dignified silence,” he wrote, “ready to serve if called by the people….Distrusting demagoguery and tyranny, the dutiful presidency demanded dignity, reserve and self-denial from its presidents.”

Creation of Artificial Life and Other Recent Discoveries

So, Dr. Craig Venter, the genius who first sequenced the human genome, is at it again. This time, he has created artificial life. Does the man ever sleep? Anyhow, here is the latest installment in my innovation-that-you-might-have-missed series. Included you will find news on the 3D-printing of a human heart, pain management, a new electric battery breakthrough and my personal favorite—sideways elevators!

Researchers Now Capable Of 3D-Printing a Human Heart Using Organic Materials

A recent breakthrough in bio-printing technology may allow for the creation of human hearts. A research team at Carnegie Mellon used a consumer printer to create a heart out of organic material. While 3D-printing has previously been used to solve a lot of different problems, it had, until now, built things out of plastic and metal—inorganic materials that don’t necessarily adapt well to the human body.  Hopefully, further progress of this sort in bio-printing tech will revolutionize the treatment of tissue damage and organ failure.

New Foam Batteries Promise Faster Charging, Higher Capacity

Despite billions of dollars spent on investment, innovation in batteries has lagged relative to other technologies. However, a growing number of researchers are looking at three-dimensional batteries that tend to have porous, sponge-like structures, as opposed to the traditional “2-D” form (i.e., thin layers of metal in a liquid electrolyte solution inside a box). A recent startup, called Prieto Battery, claims to have succeeded in producing a 3-D battery that would be cheaper to make, faster to charge, safer, smaller, and less environmentally toxic than conventional batteries. Prieto’s innovation increases the battery surface area, thereby reducing the distance that the ions have to travel, thus increasing both power and energy density. While the first applications of these new batteries will be limited to small wearable systems and consumer electronics, they could eventually spread to cars, and one day, even grid-scale storage systems.

Scientists Discover How to “Turn Off” Pain

Researchers have discovered that people who suffer from chronic pain (e.g., arthritis) develop more receptors that respond to opiate pain relief. Having extra receptors makes the body more resistant to pain—both by using our bodies’ natural painkillers, endorphins, and through prescribed opiates such as morphine. Put differently, people who regularly underwent physical pain, such as arthritis sufferers as well as those who exercised regularly, were more resistant to pain due to their brains’ increased opiate receptor density. Increasing the receptor density may, therefore, hold the key to more effective pain relief treatment.

Testing for Core Disruption

It’s been a day since the disappointing “Nation’s Report Card” results came out, and it has given me a chance to crunch some numbers a bit. They don’t tell us anything definitive – there is a lot more that impacts test scores than a policy or two – but it is worth seeing if there are any patterns that might bear further analysis, and it is important to explore emerging theories.

Not surprisingly, while many observers have been rightly hesitant to make grand pronouncements about what the scores mean, some theories revolving around the Common Core have come out. The one I’ve seen the most, coming from people such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Karen Nussle of the Core-defending Collaborative for Student Success, is that the Core will bring great things, but transitioning to it is disruptive and we should expect to see short-term score drops as a result.

That is plausible, and we can test it a bit by looking at the performance of states (and the Department of Defense Education Activity) that have demonstrated some level of what I’ll call Core aversion. Those are states that (1) hadn’t adopted the Core at the time of the NAEP test; (2) had adopted but had moved away by testing time; and (3) were still using the Core at test time but officially plan to move away. They are broken down in the following table, which uses score changes in the charts found here:

The Ted Cruz Tax Plan: A Pro-Growth Restructuring of the Internal Revenue Code, but with One Worrisome Feature

The tax-reform landscape is getting crowded.

Adding to the proposals put forth by other candidates (I’ve previously reviewed the plans offered by Rand Paul, Marco RubioJeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Donald Trump), we now have a reform blueprint from Ted Cruz.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, the Texas Senator unveiled his rewrite of the tax code.

…tax reform is a powerful lever for spurring economic expansion. Along with reducing red tape on business and restoring sound money, it can make the U.S. economy boom again. That’s why I’m proposing the Simple Flat Tax as the cornerstone of my economic agenda.

Here are the core features of his proposal.

…my Simple Flat Tax plan features the following: • For a family of four, no taxes whatsoever (income or payroll) on the first $36,000 of income. • Above that level, a 10% flat tax on all individual income from wages and investment. • No death tax, alternative minimum tax or ObamaCare taxes. • Elimination of the payroll tax and the corporate income tax… • A Universal Savings Account, which would allow every American to save up to $25,000 annually on a tax-deferred basis for any purpose.

From an economic perspective, there’s a lot to like. Thanks to the low tax rate, the government no longer would be imposing harsh penalties on productive behavior. Major forms of double taxation such as the death tax would be abolished, creating a much better environment for wage-boosting capital formation.

Technology Takes On the Big Problems

Take a look at how markets and technology are taking on some of society’s biggest problems and revolutionizing the way we live. 

Nanotech and clean drinking water 

The World Economic Forum recently reflected on nanotechnology’s potential to improve people’s lives by providing smaller yet more powerful batteries, and by speeding up the purification process for air and water, among other things. Nanotechnology could deliver clean drinking water to millions of people who currently lack it, furthering the current positive trend. Around 10 percent of the global population lacks clean drinking water, down from around 20 percent in 1990.

Minimum Wage Hikes in Theory and Reality

Don Boudreaux recently despaired that only 26 percent of economists surveyed agreed that

If the federal minimum wage is raised gradually to $15-per-hour by 2020, the employment rate for low-wage US workers will be substantially lower than it would be under the status quo.

In the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s regular survey of distinguished policy economists chosen for ideological diversity, 24 percent disagreed with the statement, and 38 percent said they were uncertain.

Some said that employment effects were likely, but they might not be “substantial.” That’s an empirical question, of course, and knowing the direction of a change doesn’t necessarily tell us its magnitude. In addition, each person’s definition of “substantial” might be different. Boudreaux doesn’t think there should be much uncertainty:

Would 74 percent of my fellow economists either disagree that, be “uncertain” that, or have no opinion on the question of whether a forced 107 percent increase in the price of the likes of 737, 777, and 787 jetliners would cause airlines to cut back substantially on the number of new jetliners they buy from Boeing?  Or what if the question were about the prices of fast-food?  Would 74 percent of these economists either disagree that, be “uncertain” that, or have no opinion on the question of whether a forced 107 percent increase in the prices of the likes of Big Macs, Baconators, and buckets of KFC fried chicken would cause consumers to cut back substantially on the amount of food they purchase at fast-food restaurants?

But who am I to jump into this battle of economists? Just a lowly newspaper reader, that’s all. And as it happens, Boudreaux posted his critique on Sunday, and on Monday I read an interview in the Wall Street Journal with Sally Smith, CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings. She runs a chain of more than 1,000 sports bars, and she’s trying to expand. Here’s part of her interview:

WSJ: How are minimum-wage increases affecting the way you make business decisions?

MS. SMITH: You look at where you can afford to open restaurants. We have one restaurant in Seattle, and we probably won’t be expanding there. That’s true of San Francisco and Los Angeles, too. One of the unintended consequences of rising minimum wages is youth unemployment. Almost 40% of our team members are under age 21. When you start paying $15 an hour, are you going to take a chance on a 17-year-old who’s never had a job before when you can find someone with more experience?

WSJ: Are you turning to automation to reduce labor costs?

MS. SMITH: We are testing server hand-held devices for order-taking in 30 restaurants now, and we’ll roll them out to another 30 in the next month and another 30 by the end of the year. Servers like it because they can take on more tables and earn more tips. Eventually we’ll have tablets where guests can place their own order from the table and pay for it.

Ms. Smith is no economist. (She has a BSBA in accounting and finance, and served as CFO of Buffalo Wild Wings and other companies for about 10 years before becoming CEO in 1996.) She’s just a CEO trying to make revenues come out ahead of costs. And when she thinks about a substantial increase in the minimum wage, her thoughts turn to not expanding, hiring more experienced workers, and using technology so fewer servers can serve more customers.

She doesn’t seem as uncertain about the effects on employment as the academic economists do.  

Yet More Breakthroughs in Science and Technology

Here is yet another installment in the series on incremental change in science and technology. As ever, check out data on the improving state of the world at www.humanprogress.org.

Prawn Sex-Change Boosts Yields   

Male prawns grow faster and get to be 60% larger than female prawns. As such, they are more economically valuable. By slicing the prawn genome, scientists from the Ben Gurion University found, it is possible to generate all-male populations of prawns. In trials, female prawns were injected with a molecule that silenced certain genes thus allowing for all-male prawn yields. This method eliminates the need for chemicals or hormones, which have been used to increase prawn yields in the past. The breakthrough in prawn yields could also be used in the fight against bilharzia in Africa. Bilharzia is carried by snails and prawns are snails’ natural predators. By increasing prawn yields, snail populationscould be controlled more easily.   

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