Welcome to week 366! 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.
Capitalism and Socialism, the fodder of many an introductory course in the social sciences, are very much in the news as we continue the very long run-up to the next presidential election. As a result, journalists and opinion writers are finding the occasion to share their thoughts. Here are a few that occurred this last week:
- “Socialist! Capitalist! Economic Systems as Weapons in a War of Words” The New York Times. Columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin shares the results of an interview he had with Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. “Mr. Stiglitz proposes using a combination of market forces and government nudges—a higher minimum wage and an expanded earned-income tax credit, for example—to help the poorest among us. He also supports a ‘public option’ to improve competition in the private sector in areas like health care and even retirement savings.” On April 22 Stiglitz’s latest book, People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Capitalism, was released.
- “Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron” The New York Times. Joseph Stiglitz wrote this Opinion piece. As he notes: “we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.” How does one do that? By recognizing that “Markets don’t exist in a vacuum; they have to be structured by rules and regulations, and those rules and regulations must be enforced.” At the present time, he argues, we are “in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality. If we don’t change course matters will likely grow worse.”
- “Capitalism in crisis: U.S. billionaires worry about the survival of the system that made them rich” The Washington Post. This article, by reporter Greg Jaffe, takes a look at one of the strongest political supporters of Bernie Sanders: Rep. Ro Khanna, whose constituents include many billionaire residents of Silicon Valley. Khanna is concerned about “the problems that runaway capitalism were causing in his district, where the median home value in formerly blue-collar cities surged past $2 million.” An indicator of that broader concern is the class “Reimagining Capitalism,” taught by Rebecca Henderson, at Harvard University. When the elective began it had 28 students—now nearly 300 are taking it. Here is a description of here course. You can watch a 30-minute video by her here. In May 2020, her book Reimagining Capitalism In a World On Fire will be published by Public Affairs.
May the many future discussions of capitalism and socialism during this campaign be based upon fact and experience, rather than ideology and wishful thinking.
(19 April 2019): “A climate change solution slowly gains ground” The Washington Post
********This article explores three firms—Global Thermostat, Carbon Engineering, and Climeworks—that are looking to profit by developing technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are participating in a complex and somewhat contradictory political-economic environment.
(20 April 2019): “Sweet corn out, sweet potatoes in: Data shows fundamental shifts in American farming” The Washington Post
——–“The American vegetable landscape has shifted. Farmers are abandoning onetime basics such as sweet corn, green beans, peas and potatoes. In their place, they’re planting sweet potatoes and leafy greens such as spinach, kale and romaine lettuce. Once every five years, the USDA Census of Agriculture provides a definitive guide to the trends behind the nation’s farms and diets. The latest figures, released last week, show broad dietary upheaval. In many cases, they show vegetables that may once have been dismissed as fads or trends are reshaping America’s agricultural landscape.”
********The article is graphically rich, although I found some of the graphs hard to interpret. In each case an effort is made to provide insight into why a vegetable is gaining or losing popularity. Sweet potatoes have a strong North Carolina connection. The state “leads the nation is sweet potato acreage . . . In some places, sweet potatoes may be a viable replacement for cash crops: Two of the five counties in North Carolina where tobacco acreage fell the most, the eastern counties of Wayne and Duplin, also saw large gains in sweet potatoes.”
(22 April 2019): [SR] “Coffee Prices Plunge Even Though We Can’t Stop Drinking the Stuff” The Wall Street Journal
——–“Call it the coffee paradox. The brewed beverage has never been more popular, but the price of beans is at its lowest point in over a decade and down by a quarter since October. . . . What has enabled the world to be awash with coffee? Factors include major advances in coffee production and a collapse in the value in the currency of the world’s largest producer, Brazil.”
********Central American coffee growers have not been able to compete with the low cost of Brazilian coffee. One consequence, according to Robert Vélez of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, is “You have Central Americans immigrating to the U.S. and Africans moving up to Europe because coffee prices are too low.”
(22 April 2019): “After China turned it into a cheap snack, caviar is at risk of losing its status as a luxury good” The Washington Post
********I’m sure that few people are concerned about caviar losing its status as a luxury good, but the reasons for it are interesting. Foremost among them is that cheap “Chinese caviar is flooding the U.S. market, causing prices to plummet, and with it, the product’s cachet. . . . You can [now] get caviar on tater tots in New York, on a burrito in the District. [And] The NBA now has its own caviar line . . . and hopes to have it available to fans in arenas soon, right alongside hot dogs and nachos.” Although Chinese caviar seems to be consistent and used by upscale restaurants for years, many “companies in China still use borax as a food preservative—even though it is banned in the United States, China and other countries.”
(24 April 2019): “How the Color Blue Changed Lighting” Bloomberg.com
********This five-minute video give the story behind the development of the blue LED, which was necessary to create white light. The story of how a Japanese scientist, Shuji Nakamura, eventually developed the blue LED while pursuing his Ph.D. is inspiring. The role of LEDs in lesser-developed countries is earnestly discussed.
(25 April 2019): “The Guilt-Free, Data-Driven Guide to Parenting” Bloomber.com
——–Emily Oster “has a doctorate from Harvard and teaches economics at Brown” and is the author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool.” A mother of two, Cribsheet is a follow-on of Expecting Better, “which got raves from everyone from the New York Times to Amy Schumer and took a similar, even-handed look into the scientific research around pregnancy.” As Oster notes, “This book will not tell you what decisions to make for your kids . . . Instead, I’ll try to give you the necessary inputs and a bit of a decision framework. The data is the same for us all, but the decisions are yours alone.”
********Oster is an economist, is a married to an economist, and is the daughter of two economists, so taking a data-driven, rather than anecdotal, approach to pregnancy, birth, and child raising seemed to her like a natural way to proceed. Oster’s work seems to be what is taking hold for people who want to know the facts, including the odds, about these live passages. Although, as the reviewer notes, Oster is not judgmental, some of the facts she has developed are astonishing. Check out the statistics on co-sleeping for parents who bottle-feed, smoke, and drink in contrast to those who breastfeed, don’t smoke, and don’t drink.
May you have a good week!