Welcome to week 336! The articles below caught my attention this week. What are intended to be relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********). Article titles preceded by [SR] require a subscription to be read in their entirety, although complete articles might be found by an Internet title search.
Please let me know if you have questions or comments.
(5 September 2018): “Overlooked No More: Melitta Bentz, Who Invented the Coffee Filter” The New York Times
********The series Overlooked No More lifts up the lives and stories of people who did not make it into the NYT during an era when obituaries were “dominated by white men.” This article relates how Melitta Bentz of Germany developed the coffee filter—Melitta—and laid the foundation of a business that had 2017 sales of $1.7 billion.
(14 September 2018): “FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year—the shortlist” The Financial Times
——–The shortlist for the annual Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year has been announced. The list includes: Capitalism in America, by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge; Give People Money, by Annie Lowrey; The Billionaire Raj, by James Crabtree; Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou; The Value of Everything, by Mariana Mazzucato; and New Power, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. The Book of the Year Award “goes to the book that provides ‘the most compelling and enjoyable’ insight into modern business issues.” This year’s Award will be presented in London on November 12th.
********Very brief descriptions of each book are given in the article. In relation to Give People Money, which examines “How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World,” it is interesting to read and think about “Why Politicians Want the U.S. to Guarantee You a Job” Bloomberg Businessweek.
(19 September 2018): “Windows on How Cities Change Can Be All Too Captivating” The New York Times
********Emily Badger, who writes for The Upshot on cities and urban policy, answers questions on what technology she uses in her work. She recently moved from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., which led her to relay the following observation: “D.C. is a city full of people who would regulate this new technology—or hold think-tank symposiums on how to regulate it—but few here have seen it in action, let alone gone for a ride in a driverless car.”
(20 September 2018): “The Auto Industry’s VHS-or-Betamax Moment” The New York Times
——–“The auto industry has a choice to make: Which language will cars speak when they talk to one another? Until a couple of years ago, automakers agreed on one vehicle-to-vehicle communications platform, called dedicated short-range communications, or DSCR, based on the technology used for Wi-Fi. But some car companies have begun to favor a competing protocol, known as Cellular V2X, which is based on a next-generation version of the technology used by your mobile phone. So far, the federal government has held back on enforcing a standard.” The choice is important. “Cars are increasingly connected, and the autonomous vehicles that will arrive in the future must have a way to communicate with each other and surrounding infrastructure. But even before self-driving cars hit the street en masse, there are enormous benefits to be had. Federal transportation officials estimate that, once widely deployed, such communication systems will prevent or mitigate up to 80 percent of all non-impaired collisions and address thousands of fatal crashes per year in the United States.”
********This would have been a great opportunity to derive lessons from the VHS/Betamax competition, but that opportunity was missed. It seems like “everyone” knows something about the competition, e.g., that Betamax was superior to VHS, which seems to be an urban legend. There are some good academic sources on the competition, which might provide what the NYT did not. A good overview is provided by Wikipedia’s article “Videotape format war.” In its list of references, the articles “Choosing How to Compete: Strategies and Tactics in Standardization” and “Path Dependence, Lock-In, and History” stand out. Both articles are available in their entirety online. The most detailed examination of the competition is [SR] “Strategic Maneuvering and Mass-Market Dynamics: The Triumph of VHS over Beta,” Business History Review 66,1 (Spring 1992): 51-94.
(23 September 2018): “Why Ireland’s Border Is Brexit’s Intractable Puzzle” Bloomberg.com
——–“The boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was long the scene of tense checkpoints and violent protest. Nearly two decades after the end of a conflict that claimed 3,500 lives, the undulating border is once again caught u in a bitter division. When British and European Union leaders carry out the split—Brexit—that British voters ordered up, the border between Ireland’s north and south will be the only land crossing between the two jurisdictions. For now the border is effectively open, meaning people and goods are free to cross back and forth. Whether it remains that way is the most vexing issue in the divorce talks.
********As is the practice for QuickTake articles, this piece has a Reference Shelf for additional information. How to proceed with regard to the border post Brexit is far from clear.
(23 September 2018): “What Have We Learned Since Bagehot?” Economic Principals
——-Earlier this month at the Brookings Institution Ben Bernanke said that after he became the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, in 2006, “Literally one of the first things I did was to ask the staff to give me the handbook or what you do in the case of a financial crisis, and they provided me a little notebook, typed on a manual typewriter and mimeographed, about four pages in it, and it said, ‘Open the discount window.’ And that was about it. . . . Tim Geithner had a similar experience at the New York Fed, and so we went into one of the complicated and consequential crises in human history with very little in the way of playbook for thinking about how to address the crisis.” What is clear, though, “is that the next global financial crisis won’t be like the last. the reason is the financial innovation proceeds within the regulatory framework no matter what, until at some point the authorities face a landscape so different from the expected one as to be essentially unfamiliar.” Walter Bagehot essentially laid down the notion of “open the discount window” in 1873 when his book Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market was published; Bagehot simply said “lend freely to troubled institutions, at a slight penalty rate, against good collateral.” Bagehot’s book now has a modern counterpart: Fighting Financial Crises: Learning from the Past (University of Chicago, 2018), by Gary Gorton and Ellis Tallman. The book “is a vital addition to crisis literature because it compares what happened in 2008 to the ways in which US bankers dealt with panics on their own in the years before there was a Fed.”
********Gorton and Tallman conclude Crises with five guiding principles for future financial crises: “Find the short-term debt. Manage the information environment . . . Open emergency lending facilities . . . Prevent systemically important institutions from failing during the crisis. And consider that certain laws and regulations need not be applied during a financial crisis.” The proprietor of Economic Principals was previously a reporter for The Boston Globe, and ends his post with the following: “With illustration, analysis and nuance on every page, Fighting Financial Crises is one hundred and fifty years better than Lombard Street.”
(23 September 2018): “The latest sign of Iran’s economic distress: a shortage of diapers” The Los Angeles Times
——–“In recent days, Iranian authorities have conducted raids in several cities, seizing illicit stockpiles of rare goods and vowing to prosecute the culprits to calm a seething public. The precious contraband: diapers. Hyperinflation and a shortage of raw materials have made infant and adult diapers costly and exceedingly scarce, prompting some parents to revert to old-fashioned cloth diapers. Imported alternatives have tripled in price from a few months ago.” The fall in the value of the Iranian currency against the dollar by more than one half since January has increased the cost of “producing disposable diapers and sanitary products” that use ultra-absorbent cellulose imported from China, Indonesia, and other countries. This has resulted in smaller and costlier inventories in stores.
********The article contains a graph showing how the dramatic increase in the price of a dollar in rials, the Iranian currency, since November 2017.
(24 September 2018): “Walmart’s Veggie-Tracking B.L.T.: Blockchain Lettuce Technology” The New York Times
——–“After a two-year pilot project” Walmart “announced on Monday that it would be using a blockchain, they type of database technology behind Bitcoin, to keep track of every bag of spinach and head of lettuce. By this time next year, more than 100 farms that supply Walmart with leafy green vegetables will be required to input detailed information about their food into a blockchain database developed by I.B.M. for Walmart and several other retailers exploring similar moves.” This move follows an experiment conducted by Walmart a year ago—trying to trace the source of sliced mangos. “It took seven days for Walmart employees to locate the farm in Mexico that grew the fruit. With the blockchain software developed by IBM, the mangos could be tracked in a matter of seconds, according to Walmart.”
********The system used by Walmart is IBM Food Trust. You can learn more about it here.
(24 September 2018): “It’s a good time to buy art made by women” Marketplace
********This is a four-minute podcast, with transcript, of an interview by Kai Ryssdal with Mary Gabriel, the author of Ninth Street Women: Lee Krassner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art. Gabriel makes the point that for a number of reasons, art dealers “are awakening to the idea that women artists are of value and of interest to collectors.” That awakening of interest has led, and should continue to lead, to an increase in the dollar amounts paid for the work of women artists, something that should show up clearly in the fall auction season. From what I can gather from the interview, Gabriel relates some clear ideas about the development of the U.S. art market, especially as it relates to the abstract expressionist in the 1950s.
********If you are looking for a middle ground between the Marketplace interview and Gabriel’s 944-page book, you can take a look at “Want to Get Rich Buying Art? Invest in Women” The New York Times.
(25 September 2018): “The Militant Miners Who Exposed the Horrors of Black Lung” JSTOR Daily
——–Conflict between coal miners and mine owners in Appalachia is of long standing. So “when men who had worked their whole lives underground began dying in increasing numbers from a chronic respiratory illness, their lungs literally blackened from years of inhaling coal dust, Appalachians did as they have often done. As labor studies scholar Alan Derickson writes, they organized a grassroots movement to challenge the deadly working conditions in the coal mines.” The U.S. Department of Labor reports that “more than 76,000 miners have died” from black lung disease. The efforts of miners, and the legislation they helped pass, resulted in “the 1970 law that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”
********An interesting and informative précis on the efforts of miners to have legislatures recognize the existence of black lung disease and do something about it. I found the following to be especially thought provoking:
Coal mining has always been a dangerous job, but by the 1950s, technological advances that automated some of the miner’s tasks, like the continuous miner, had succeeded in reducing the number of deaths and injuries from mechanical accidents. But the new equipment also significantly increased miner’s exposure to coal dust, leading to a spike in the number of workers afflicted by black lung disease.
The 20-page article that grounds this post looks to be very readable.
May you have a good week!