Saturday, December 21, 2019


Silicon Valley can do better than this
Whatever happened to the new industrial revolution that Big Tech promised us?   For decades, we’ve turned to Silicon Valley to show us the future of American endeavor.  But while tech’s innovations have made a handful of people quite rich,  they haven’t offset manufacturing’s decline or done anything for deteriorating infrastructure, climate change, low growth, rising economic inequality.  The machinery of today’s physical world—lights, automobiles, airplanes, subways—was the product of 19th- and 20th-century innovation, not bytes and code. 

Technology advocates argue that coding has increased human ingenuity by allowing individuals to tinker, talk and trade with unprecedented ease.  But Americans today are far less likely to start a company than they were in the 1980s.  It’s not hard to understand why:  Silicon Valley has produced über-monopolies that have grown so large that they scare off entrepreneurs in their path.  Much of Silicon Valley’s effort is now devoted to companies such as Uber, DoorDash and TaskRabbit that make yuppie life convenient.  In the next decade, I’d like to see Silicon Valley deepen its investments in biotech or construction automation or carbon capture. It’s time to find out “what could be accomplished if American ingenuity came back down to Earth.

--Derek Thompson,

Trumpian defense for a murder rap
Had [Donald] Trump pulled out that (so far) proverbial gun and shot someone on Fifth Avenue, Republicans would trot out the exact same defense they have [recently]:  The shot was fired at 2 a.m. and there were no eyewitnesses.  Those nearby who claimed to have heard the shot had actually heard a car backfiring.  The closed-circuit video capturing the incident is, as the president says, a hoax concocted by the same Fake News outlets that manufactured the Access Hollywood video.  The confession released by the White House was “perfect” evidence of Trump’s innocence.  Election records show that the cops who arrived on the scene were registered Democrats and therefore part of a deep-state conspiracy to frame the president for a crime he didn’t commit but that the Democrats did.  The victim was not killed and will make a complete recovery, so no crime was committed anyway.  And even if Trump had killed the young woman he gunned down, the argument advanced by Trump’s lawyer would apply: “'The person who serves as president, while in office, enjoys absolute immunity from criminal process of any kind.'  Next case!

--Frank Rich,  New York Magazine 

Insurers and hospitals love secret prices
Price transparency in health care is one issue where the Trump administration may have actually got it right.   As costs skyrocket, the Department of Health and Human Services is proposing new rules that would require hospitals to publish their minimum and maximum rates for 300 common services.  It would also make insurers reveal the prices they’ve negotiated for services and publish them on an interactive website that lets customers compare providers. 

Hospitals and insurers have teamed up to fight this. Hospitals claim that the rule would compel them to stop offering discounts and raise prices.  That’s nonsense.  Look at New Hampshire. The state began listing how much customers of different insurance plans would be charged at different hospitals and labs for medical imaging such as X-rays, CT scans and MRIs.  After five years, out-of-pocket costs fell 11 percent while the cost of imaging for insurers went down as well.  And the insurance companies? You might think lower costs would make them happy.  But they don’t actually want to drive down prices; in fact, both hospitals and insurers profit more when prices and premiums are high.  The thing the insurers really care about is whether they are getting a better price than their competitors.  Transparency would expose this con game.

--Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post

Saving the world’s code
A cave in the Arctic holds the world’s most important software codes.  The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, “the last stop for civilization before the North Pole,” is known as the Doomsday Vault because it stores seeds for the world’s most important crops in case of an apocalyptic famine or war. But nearby, Nat Friedman, the CEO of GitHub, is on a mission to preserve several terabytes of code, including source code for the Linux and Android operating systems.  It’s kept on what look like old-school movie reels and can last 2,000 years in a cold, dry, low-oxygen cave.  The reels are stored in the Arctic World Archive, a repository of some of the world’s irreplaceable records, including Vatican archives, masterpieces of Italian cinema and the recipe for a certain burger chain’s special sauce.

-- Ashlee Vance,  Bloomberg Businessweek

The world isn’t coming to an end
Climate change is a real threat,, but no scientific body has ever said climate change threatens the collapse of civilization, much less the extinction of the human species..  As an environmentalist who is not a skeptic or denier, I am dismayed by activists’ apocalyptic warnings that the world will soon end if we don’t dramatically cut emissions over the next decade.  That’s not what the science says, and framing the issue that way is self-defeating, because it alienates and polarizes many people.  The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that sea levels will rise by about 2 feet by 2100—a problem, but not one that threatens civilization.

As for wildfires and extreme weather, the role of warming remains murky, but thanks to economic development the global death toll from natural disasters has plunged 99.7 percent since 1931, from 3.7 million people to 11,000 in 2018.  Despite the impact of warming, scientific bodies are predicting that crop yields will increase 30 percent by 2050, and the IPCC projects the global economy will be as much as 500 percent larger in 2100 than it is today.  Some perspective, please. There is plenty of middle ground between climate apocalypse and climate denial.

--Michael Shellenberger,

The growing superbug threat
Drug-resistant superbugs are a much larger threat to public health than previously thought, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  In a long-awaited report, the federal agency found that bacteria, fungi and other germs resistant to antibiotics sicken some 3 million people a year in the U.S.—up from 2.6 million in 2013—and kill 35,000, reports the Associated Press.  The toll rises even higher when Clostridioides difficile—which infects 223,000 people a year, killing 12,800—is factored in. 

While that gut-ravaging bacteria is rarely drug-resistant, it is often diagnosed in patients taking antibiotics. The study identifies 18 germs that public health officials must monitor, including two emerging superbugs: Candida auris, a fungus that began appearing in hospital and nursing-home patients in the U.S. in 2013; and carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, a bacteria that has evolved resistance to nearly all antibiotics.   “[We] are living in a time when some miracle drugs no longer perform miracles,” CDC Director Robert Redfield wrote in a letter accompanying the report. “Stop referring to a coming post-antibiotic era—it’s already here.” 

--The Week
How Europe pays for its welfare state
Some Democratic presidential candidates insist that America could afford a European-style welfare state if only it taxed the rich more heavily.   But a close look at Europe’s taxation policies shows that countries have learned the hard way that the rich aren’t rich enough to pay for their entitlements and balance their budgets by heavily dunning the middle class.  Germany, for example, imposes a 42 percent rate on married households earning $124,000, whereas in the U.S., such a couple pays 22 percent.  Sweden’s top rate of 55 percent kicks in with individual earnings as low as $47,000, and in the U.K., taxpayers earning just $64,000 pay a 40 percent rate.  Governments also slap workers with hefty payroll taxes they call “social insurance contributions” that are far higher than America’s Social Security and Medicare deductions, and impose a Value Added Tax of 21 percent on all consumer purchases, regardless of a buyer’s income.  As a result, Europe’s tax system takes more than half of most people’s wages and is far less progressive than the U.S.’s.  Beware politicians who claim they can finance free college, day care, and health care for all by taxing billionaires.  The middle class will pay, because that’s where the real money is. 

--Wall Street Journal

Taxing the rich isn’t enough
France tried soaking the rich with a wealth tax, and it didn’t go well.  From 1982 to 1986 and again from 1988 to 2017, France imposed a tax of about 1.4 percent on fortunes larger than $14.3 million.  That’s far lower than the 6 percent and 8 percent top rates floated by Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.  Still, at least 10,000 wealthy people left the country to avoid paying France’s levies, and the revenue the tax raised was paltry—only a few billion euros, or about 1 percent of France’s total revenue from all taxes.” 

When those richest families left, France lost not only their wealth-tax revenue but their income taxes and other taxes as well, costing the French government about twice what the tax brought in.  In 2012, the country also tried introducing a “supertax” of 75 percent on incomes of more than $1 million.  But it only added to the exodus of wealthy individuals, raising just 160 million euros before it was repealed two years later. France realized it didn’t need these flamboyant taxes on the rich to increase government revenue and reduce inequality: It raised taxes across the board and boosted social-welfare spending—a more effective strategy to raise revenue and reduce inequality that’s less exciting to populist firebrands.

--Noah Smith,

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