406 (29 January 2020)

Welcome!  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.

(4 May 2009)The Buddha as a Businessman: Economics and Law in an Old Indian ReligionUniversity of California TV

********This 58-minute lecture by UCLA professor of Asian Languages and Cultures Gregory Schopen, “explores the Buddha as an astute businessman, economist and lawyer.”  It lightly discusses text and provides insight into aspects of the Buddha that are seldom discussed.  While watching, it occurred to me that all religious movements, especially those connected with monastic dimensions, must confront the basic issue of economic sustainability.  This is a great lecture by someone who knows his subject well.

(24 January 2020)Afternoon of a PawnbrokerThe New York Times

********This graphic article provides clear ideas of what pawn shops are and how they work, indicating that they are an important financial option for the unbanked.  Much of its content is drawn from an interview with Rachel Wilen, who is the president of GEM Pawnbrokers, which has 26 locations in New York; Wilen has “been in the business since 1992.”  She notes, “Most of our customers live paycheck to paycheck.  They can’t get money from the bank, so they use us like their bank. . . . They use their jewelry like a credit card.  If you have bad credit, we don’t care.  We don’t do credit checks.  You just have to own the item. . . . You think pawn means pawning your item off, like you’re getting rid of it.  But pawn actually means collateral loans.  Pawning is lending money.  What we’re doing is we’re holding on to your jewelry as collateral. . . . Most of our business is lending money.”

(25 January 2020)Clayton Christensen, Guru of ‘Disruptive Innovation,’ Dies at 67The New York Times

——–“Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard professor whose groundbreaking 1997 book, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma,’ outlined his theories about the impact of what he called ‘disruptive innovation’ on leading companies and catapulted him to superstar status as a management guru, died on Thursday in a Boston hospital.”  The Economist called Innovator’s Dilemma “one of the six most important business books ever written.”  Christensen wrote that “corporate giants were so focused on doing the very things that had been taught for generations at the nation’s top business schools . . . [that] they were blindsided by small, fast-moving, innovative companies that were able to enter markets nimbly with disruptive products and service and grab large chunks of market share.  By laying out a blueprint for how executives could identify and respond to these disruptive forces, Professor Christensen . . . struck a chord with high-tech corporate leaders.”

********A clear instance of disruption of a giant (Gillette) by the small (Dollar Shave Club) is provided by “They Changed the Way You Buy the BasicsThe New York Times.  Michael Dubin, who founded Dollar Shave Club, “helped usher in a business model for 21st century entrepreneurs to take on previously unassailable consumer brands: Technology had the potential to change the world of physical goods and the way brands are created. . . . By targeting a corporate giant’s weakness—high prices or inconvenience or a stodgy image—a clever start-up with the right strategy, the right message and the right product value could create a new national brand virtually overnight.”  Many other “overnight sensations” are mentioned in the article.  For a further development of the ideas contained in the article, see Billion Dollar Brand Club: How Dollar Shave Club, Warby Parker, and Other Disruptors Are Remaking What We Buy, by Lawrence Ingrassia. 

(27 January 2020)How the G.O.P. Became the Party of the Left BehindThe New York Times

********A very interesting article with dramatic graphs showing voting percentages for Republicans as it relates to deciles of U.S. per capital income.  Since 1992 there has been an inverse relationship between Republican voting percentage and per capita income, i.e., the higher the per capita income, the lower the Republican voting percentage.  Generally speaking, this relationship has strengthened, in the sense that lower per capita income voters have voted more Republican and higher per capita income voters have voted less Republican; the strengthening was especially dramatic in 2016.  The remainder of the article, by columnist Eduardo Porter, sheds some light on these changes, taking Dayton, Ohio as its touchstone.

(28 January 2020) [SR]’The Bridge’ Review: A Pipeline Joining East and WestThe Wall Street Journal

********This is a review of The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe, by Thane Gustafson; Gustafson is a professor of political science at Georgetown University.  It shows how  consumption and trade between the EU and Russia created “a vast web of gas fields, pipelines, and compressors . . . [that serve] thousands of factories and millions of consumers, binding them together in a dense network.”  Along the way geopolitical relations between Russia and the West are explored in depth.  A lengthier review that requires no subscription can be found in Energy Reporters, which speaks very highly, too, about Gustafson’s earlier book The Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia.  Gustafson is currently at work on a book tentatively titled Klimat: The Future of Russia in the Era of Climate Change.  The Energy Reporters review refers to Gustafson’s three books as a trilogy, and so it seems to be: oil, natural gas, and beyond.

(28 January 2020)Everything You Think You Know About Housing Is Probably WrongThe New York Times

********This article takes a look at the idea of “housing density.”  Its context is a show at the Skyscraper Museum in New York on that very notion.  Housing density “gets to the heart of some of the biggest problems facing American cities today. . . . opposition to density has . . . stiffened as the gulf widens between the 1 percent and everyone else.  Well-to-do NIMBYs, congenitally opposed to new developments, have lately been joined by anti-displacement tenant activists—advocates for poor and working-class residents who might ordinarily want more housing but have come to fear that nearly all development brings gentrification that prices the most vulnerable out of neighborhoods.  In cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston, this new alliance means even initiatives promising some subsidized housing have become line in the sand.” 

Paradox lies within the article.  According to Yonah Freemark, a scholar of urban development, people tend to “perceive public housing as dangerous, failed, not integrated into the supporting communities.  So they thing density is the enemy.”  As the Skyscraper Museum show demonstrates, “that notion gets density almost exactly backward.”  In Chicago, “the densest neighborhoods are mostly on the wealthier North Side.  In New York, the largely well-to-do Upper West Side is one of the densest neighborhoods in the city; East New York, in Brooklyn, is one of the least dense.”  As the late, well-known urbanist Jane Jacobs preached, the show enumerates: “New York’s lower-density housing developments failed to achieve the quality of life that high-density neighborhoods provide.”  As the article notes, perhaps some “of the community pushback [on higher density] derives from a lack of collaborative planning and architecture.  The added costs and complications of upfront design can help deliver buy-in, better neighborhoods and more affordable housing.  People want to feel invested and need to picture improvements.”

The article concludes, “Solving what ails American cities also requires urbanists and activists to acknowledge that not all real-estate development is automatically bad.  It demands rethinking some anti-densifying rules and regulations.  And it will depend on a shared understanding of what density actually means.”  Words to reflect upon, as Asheville considers its own density concerns.

(29 January 2020)Milton Friedman’s World Is Dead and GoneBloomberg.com

——–The recently concluded gathering of “the rich and powerful” in Davos, Switzerland “put the longstanding debate about the social responsibility of corporations front and center by proclaiming its official them as ‘stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world.’”  In doing so, “the World Economic Forum confirmed that it’s taken sides in a debate rekindled last year by the Business Roundtable.”  The Roundtable, last year, “had issued a statement highlighting a ‘fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders,’ . . . thereby situating itself in opposition to the view of corporate responsibility made popular half a century ago by the economist Milton Friedman.”  In 1970, Friedman had said that “business executives who diverted corporate assets toward social goals were betraying their obligations to shareholders.”  Yet, there are five key points to note in the debate between supporters of the recent Roundtable statement and those who support Friedman.

********The key points are related later in the article.  Friedman’s main statement appeared in The New York Times Magazine on September 13, 1970.  You can read it—six pages—here

May you have a good week!

Bruce

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