Ths secret of Stradivarius?

I have long wondered why the modern world has never been able to equal Stradivarius and Amati violins. After all, it wasn’t too many years ago that we were using computer punch cards and bulky machines, instead of laptops. Most other goods have improved in quality since the 17th century, and more than just a bit. Why should violins be so resistant to technological advance?

We may now know the answer as to why Stradivarius violins are so special. In addition to first-rate craftsmanship, the wood from that time had a special quality. Why? Longer winters, due to a mini-Ice Age. The cold weather yielded denser Alpine spruces: “narrow tree rings would not only strengthen the violin but would increase the wood’s density.” In other words, the greenhouse effect will raise the prices of good Stradivarius violins, by making it harder for us to match that achievement.

Advice to a liberal-arts major

Lisa G. from Pittsburgh writes to Marilyn vos Savant (Parade, Dec. 7, 2003):

Many of my friends and I are intelligent, liberal-arts graduate who, due to an economic system that glorifies science, medicine, business, and law, are toiling as secretaries and retail clerks. Is there any hope for the philosopher, writer, dancer, poet or sculptor to find paying work in Western society? Or are we doomed to relegate our talents to hobbies while working in drudgery until we die, just to pay the bills?

Marilyn gives a namby-pamby work hard, follow your dreams sort of answer. Here is what she should have said.

First, stop whining. You had a choice of poetry or business and you chose poetry. If your love for the subject is not enough to make up for the loss in income then go back to school. Two, stop blaming “an economic system” that glorifies science etc. and notice that these jobs pay highly because the skills they require are rare and people are willing to pay for the product of these jobs. If you produce something that people want you will be paid highly also but don’t expect other people to pay so that you can fulfill your dreams of writing poetry that no one wants to read. Third, what do you mean by it’s difficult to find work for the philosopher, writer, dancer, poet or sculptor in “Western society.” Do you know of any society at any time or place that has offered more for the arts? A retail clerk who does sculpture on the side has a far higher income than does your typical sculptor working in India. Try visiting most of the rest of the world – where science and business are not glorified – if you want to truly understand “drudgery.”

I see from the above that I have been harsh so here also is some positive advice. Stop focusing on money and instead look around for opportunities to practice your art. Enter poetry slams, make a movie, high-end camcorders are now capable of making decent quality films (yes, you will have to save to buy one), use the internet to promote your works. Do not denigrate your art as a “hobby” even if you don’t do it full-time for pay. Look for work that draws upon your artistic skills. A writer can be an editor, a poet can write great ad-copy, a photographer can photograph weddings (do not sneer it’s a privilege to be trusted with recording one of the most important events of a person’s life.) And don’t look down upon the world of work. The great poet Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive who wrote “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.”

Should we privatize the National Zoo?

In recent times the National Zoo, of the Smithsonian, has been beset by one scandal after another. First large numbers of animals have died due to incompetent management. Then we discovered that Zoo management forged records for how those animals were being treated. The performance and credibility of the Zoo are arguably at an all-time low.

Marc Fisher of The Washington Post now suggests privatizing the zoo.

…there is a healthy middle course that a number of cities have already explored with encouraging results. By contracting with a private nonprofit, often one built up from the local zoological society, cities have ensured better management, more modern exhibits and caring support from local animal lovers.

“The best success story is in New York City,” says Hyson. In 1980, three municipally run zoos — in Central Park, Brooklyn and Queens — were turned over to the New York Zoological Society, curator of the world-renowned Bronx Zoo, and the result has been nothing short of spectacular. The zoos were completely remade, with more effective designs, better animal care and more pleasing exhibits. The zoos still get a city subsidy, and they did have to add an admission fee, but the result is vastly better for all concerned.

About 40 percent of the 165 zoos accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association are run by private nonprofits now, the result of a wave of privatization over the past generation. Seattle just finished transferring control of its zoo from the city to the local zoological society. San Diego’s world-famous zoo is privately run, depending on government for only 2 percent of its funds.

Yes, this probably would mean admission fees, rather than the current null tariff. But why should admission to the zoo be free? If poor urban children need a price break, or free admission, this can be granted. In the meantime, the best way to give customers a say in how the zoo is run is to make them significant financiers.

Our new Medicare bill

Today Bush signed the Medicare bill into law.

The Washington Post writes: “The oft-told story of the elderly gentleman who urged his congressman to “keep the government out of my Medicare” is telling.”

Hardly anyone can understand the new legislation. Again here is the Post, hardly a bastion of anti-regulatory and antibureaucratic sentiment:

Walk with me through a scenario that will have senior citizens scratching their heads when it comes time to figure out how this system functions. After the program begins in 2006, Medicare beneficiaries who decide to purchase a drug plan will pay a $250 deductible and then 25 percent of their drug costs up to $2,250. Once the $2,250 spending cap is reached, they will get no help until they have spent an additional $1,350 of their own money on prescription drugs…

Older and disabled Americans will have to decide whether to opt into the system in the first place, and if so, which drug plan to buy. In 2006, premiums are expected to be $35 a month ($420 a year) but they could be a lot more. Many older people have incomes of less than $20,000 a year; buying insurance that will cost them more than they get back in coverage could be a major sacrifice. Indeed, only people with incomes below $13,470, whose costs will be largely or entirely covered by the government, or people with catastrophic drugs costs, can be sure the coverage is worth the cost. For others, trying to determine that fact will be a painfully complicated calculation…

Plans will also differ in the drugs they offer, and the coverage and charges for drugs not on the “preferred” list. Even if beneficiaries can easily find out which drugs are covered by the different plans (not a sure thing), they are unlikely to know what the drugs will cost. People will be hard-pressed to know whether the plan they choose will cover medications that their doctors prescribe them after they sign up, or whether a plan will drop one of their prescriptions during the year.

If a Medicare beneficiary decides to choose an HMO or PPO to obtain drug coverage, the decision gets even more convoluted. By making this choice, those on Medicare agree to receive all their health care through these groups, with varying expenditures for all medical care.

The whole point of health care reform is to introduce more transparency into choice and costs, that is hardly what we will get. Moreover, the new system relies heavily on penalizing people who make mistakes in once-and-for-all decisions, this is rarely politically stable. The aggrieved elderly will feel they are being treated unfairly, I will predict that the legislation will be rewritten to extend benefits in a simpler but costlier and less responsible form, with few beneficial incentives at all.

And maybe you were thinking that you, or your parents, might buy private insurance to cover some of those gaps in the new Medicare coverage? Think again.

Millions of Medicare beneficiaries have bought private insurance to fill gaps in Medicare. But a little-noticed provision of the legislation prohibits the sale of any Medigap policy that would help pay drug costs after Jan. 1, 2006, when the new Medicare drug benefit becomes available.

Score yet another blow against freedom of choice.

Media concentration

It is commonly alleged that media concentration is on the rise. Ben Compaine, in the January issue of Reason magazine (not yet on-line), debunks this myth. In the mid 1980s, the top ten media companies accounted for 38 percent of total revenue. In the late 1990s the figure was higher, but only barely, up to 41 percent. More importantly, different companies shape our media experiences. Where was Comcast, now the largest cable company, twenty years ago? Bertelsmann, now a giant, was barely visible in American markets. Amazon.com and other Internet-related enterprises are new on the scene as well. If media companies are monopolies, their market power is extremely fragile.

Nor are smaller media outlets necessarily better than the larger conglomerates. The larger outlets are much more likely to win awards for their quality, nor are they obviously more biased. Clear Channel radio is now a poster boy for media critics, but its 1200 stations comprise only slightly more than ten percent of a total of 10,500 American stations. Note also that there were only 8000 radio stations in 1980. We now have satellite radio and Internet radio as well.

Compaine makes a nice point in closing:

It may indeed be that at any given moment 80 percent of the audience is viewing or reading or listening to something from the 10 largest media players. But that does not mean it is the same 80 percent all the time, or that it is cause for concern.

The bottom line: When it comes to media, we have more choice and more competition than ever before.

What would it cost to send a man to the moon?

Recently the Bush administration has been making noises about sending a man to the moon again. Gregg Easterbrook offers some cogent critical points:

A rudimentary, stripped-down Moon base and supplies might weigh 200 tons. (The winged “orbiter” part of the space shuttle weighs 90 tons unfueled, and it’s cramped with food, oxygen, water, and power sufficient only for about two weeks.) Placing 200 tons on the Moon might require 400 tons of fuel and vehicle in low-Earth orbit, so that’s 600 tons that need to be launched just for the cargo part of the Moon base. Currently, using the space shuttle it costs about $25 million to place a ton into low-Earth orbit. Thus means the bulk weight alone for a Moon base might cost $15 billion to launch: building the base, staffing it, and getting the staff there and back would be extra. Fifteen billion dollars is roughly equivalent to NASA’s entire annual budget. Using existing expendable rockets might bring down the cargo-launch price, but add the base itself, the astronauts, their transit vehicles, and thousands of support staff on Earth and a ten-year Moon base program would easily exceed $100 billion. Wait, that’s the cost of the space station, which is considerably closer. Okay, maybe $200 billion.

What can a man do on the moon that automated vehicles cannot? Virtually nothing, and of course he requires far more maintenance and protection.

Given all that, where should we go from here?

NASA doesn’t need a grand ambition, it needs a cheap, reliable means of getting back and forth to low-Earth orbit. Here’s a twenty-first century vision for NASA: Cancel the shuttle, mothball the does-nothing space station, and use all the budget money the two would have consumed to develop an affordable means of space flight. Then we can talk about the Moon and Mars.

Mostly I agree, though I expect private enterprise can beat NASA in this latter project, at least provided we allow the privatization of space.

Queer Eye and the Future of Television

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the latest reality-tv show, features five gay men who remake a “style-deficient and culture-deprived straight man from drab to fab.” The show is a huge success and has created much commentary on the changing nature of social mores in America.

Less noticed is that the show is artfully disguised product placement. Each week the fab five carefully name each and every product that they use to remodel the straight guy – like Polo jeans, Ray Ban eyewear, KMS Hair care products, Benjamin Moore paint and Hold Everything furniture, to name a few recently featured items. Love that desk but miss the item number? Got to the website and you can find each product categorized by the show it appeared in.

As usual, a Ralph Nader connected group, Commerical Alert, is complaining that consumers are being ripped off. They want every paid product placement to be overlaid with an on-screen “advertisement” sign. The shift to within-show product placement, however, is a natural response to Tivo and other similar technologies that are making it easier to skip the commercials. I hope that within-show product-placement eliminates commercials altogether – this is the future of television.

Wal-Mart in Mexico

Wal-Mart is now the largest private employer in Mexico, with over 100,000 workers on its payroll there. Only the United States has more Wal-Mart outlets (3,499) than does Mexico (633), Britain is next with 266 outlets. Last year Wal-Mart did $11 billion of business a year in Mexico, more than the entire tourism industry. That is two percent of Mexican gdp, about the same as the percentage in the U.S. The influence of Wal-Mart alone has lowered Mexico’s inflation rate, read here for more details.

A Wal-Mart cashier in Mexico makes about $1.50 an hour. This may not sound generous, but a significant portion of the country does not make that much in a day. Wal-Mart is also a boon to poor and rural Mexicans, who can afford to buy more at the store’s low prices, or who receive goods that were otherwise unavailable or required a trip to Mexico City. If you are looking for an example of how globalization benefits the world’s poor, go no further than Wal-Mart.

A good idea for my university

Students are making voluntary contributions to increase the pay of their favorite professors, to prevent those professors from leaving for another university. Here is one story:

When Brian Cannon, a 21-year old senior at the College of William and Mary, learned that one of his favorite government professors was leaving for a higher-paying job at Princeton University, he was a little upset.

But when the student body president learned that in the past year, 13 professors have left the prestigious public university in Williamsburg — many of them headed to public universities in other states — he knew he had to do something.

He organized a student referendum, adopted overwhelmingly this week, to raise next year’s student activity fee by $5, to about $80. The extra money would be used to boost the salaries of professors who might leave because state budget cuts have frozen faculty raises.

The fees are usually used to bring bands to campus and help out the debate team and other clubs. But now, three professors, to be chosen by the provost with student input, will each receive $10,000 bonuses, to be funded by the fee increases.

This is but one example of a growing gap in salaries between private and state universities. I expect that over time, for better or worse, many state universities will in effect become privatized. They will remain under nominal state control, but their finances will rely increasingly on private sources of support.

I smell a rat?

The World Bank very recently held a contest to award innovative ideas for fighting poverty. One of the winning ideas involved the use of rats to smell and detect disease:

One of the winners was a scheme to use rats as a cheap diagnostic tool for tuberculosis in Tanzania.

Rats are already being used by the Apopo organisation to detect landmines in Mozambique using their acute sense of smell.

Apopo’s Bart Weetjens told BBC News Online that the rats could also be trained to sniff out TB from saliva samples.

A group of rat detectives could process more than 2,000 samples a day compared with just 20 for a human technician with microscope, he said. Using a set of rats should mean 100% accuracy and a quick diagnosis, he added.

“The TB problem in Tanzania is very widespread… but when it’s detected early it can be treated and it makes a big difference.”

To read about the other winning ideas, click here for a BBC news report.

Medicare and Perverse Incentives

Medicare does little to reward service providers for quality improments, and in fact often punishes them. Friday’s New York Times provided a blistering indictment:

By better educating doctors about the most effective pneumonia treatments, Intermountain Health Care, a network of 21 hospitals in Utah and Idaho, says it saves at least 70 lives a year. By giving the right drugs at discharge time to more people with congestive heart failure, Intermountain saves another 300 lives annually and prevents almost 600 additional hospital stays.

But under Medicare, none of these good deeds go unpunished.

Intermountain says its initiatives have cost it millions of dollars in lost hospital admissions and lower Medicare reimbursements. In the mid-90’s, for example, it made an average profit of 9 percent treating pneumonia patients; now, delivering better care, it loses an average of several hundred dollars on each case.

“The health care system is perverse,” said a frustrated Dr. Brent C. James, who leads Intermountain’s efforts to improve quality. “The payments are perverse. It pays us to harm patients, and it punishes us when we don’t.”

Intermountain’s doctors and executives are in a swelling vanguard of critics who say that Medicare’s payment system is fundamentally flawed.

Medicare, the nation’s largest purchaser of health care, pays hospitals and doctors a fixed sum to treat a specific diagnosis or perform a given procedure, regardless of the quality of care they provide. Those who work to improve care are not paid extra, and poor care is frequently rewarded, because it creates the need for more procedures and services.

Does the Bush Medicare bill make any serious attempt to address problems like this? No. Paul Krugman, in his column, described the Medicare bill as “a huge subsidy for drug and insurance companies, coupled with a small benefit for retirees.” If we are to improve America’s health care system, no matter what your political stance, the first order of business is to get incentives working for us, not against us. That fight has yet to begin, nor does it currently have much of a constituency behind it in either political party.