Tuesday, December 23, 2014

WSJ.com - The Marvel of American Resilience

Some hope for the coming new year…




Imagine an economic historian in the year 2050 talking to her students about the most consequential innovations of the early 21st century—the Model Ts and Wright flyers and Penicillins of our time. What would make her list?


Surely fracking—shorthand for the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that is making the U.S. the world’s leading oil and gas producer—would be noted. Surely social media—the bane of autocrats like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and of parents like me—would also get a mention. Mobile apps? Check. The emerging science of cancer immunotherapy? Hopefully, with fingers tightly crossed.


After drawing up this list, our historian would then observe that each innovation had “Made in USA” stamped all over it. How strange, she might say, that so many Americans of the day spent so much of their time bellyaching about the wretched state of their schools, the paralyzed nature of their politics, their mounting fiscal burdens and the predictions of impending decline.


Perhaps because I grew up as an American living abroad, I’ve always been struck by the disconnect between American achievement and self-perception. To this day I find it slightly amazing that, in the U.S., I can drink water straight from a tap, that a policeman has never asked me for a “contribution,” that my luggage has never been stolen, that nobody gets kidnapped for ransom, that Mao-esque political purges are conducted only in the editorials of the New York Times .


Try saying the same thing about everyday life in Brazil, Russia, India, China or South Africa—the so-called Brics countries once anointed by a Goldman Sachs guru as the economies of the future.


But back to our future historian. Why, she might ask her students, did the U.S. dominate its peers when it came to all the really big innovations?


Fracking would make a good case study. The revolution happened in the U.S. not because of any great advantage in geology—China, Argentina and Algeria each has larger recoverable shale gas reserves. It didn’t happen because America’s big energy companies are uniquely skilled or smart or deep-pocketed: Take a look at ExxonMobil ’s 2004 Annual Report and you’ll barely find a mention of “fracturing” or “horizontal” drilling.


Nor, finally, did it happen because enlightened mandarins in the federal bureaucracy and national labs were peering around the corners of the future. For the most part, they were obsessing about the possibilities of cellulosic ethanol and other technological nonstarters.


Instead, fracking happened in the U.S. because Americans, almost uniquely in the world, have property rights to the minerals under their yards. And because the federal government wasn’t really paying attention. And because federalism allows states to do their own thing. And because against-the-grain entrepreneurs like George Mitchell and Harold Hamm couldn’t be made to bow to the consensus of experts. And because our deep capital markets were willing to bet against those experts.


“When I talk to foreigners, they’re even more impressed than many Americans by this renaissance,” says my Journal colleague Gregory Zuckerman, author of “The Frackers.” “They understand that it only could have happened in America.”


Fracking has now upended energy markets, pummeled petrodictators, confounded OPEC, forged deeper North American economic ties, slashed U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions to their lowest level since 1995, and sunk a nail into the coffin of most renewable-energy schemes (though there will be no slaying that zombie, as our future historian would also know).


Fracking is one industry. In time, the advantages it has given the U.S. will fade as the technology is more widely disseminated. Then it will be on to the next thing. Which, it is safe to say, will also be of American origin and design.


Here, then, is the larger lesson our future historian will draw for her students: Innovation depends less on developing specific ideas than it does on creating broad spaces. Autocracies can always cultivate their chess champions, piano prodigies and nuclear engineers; they can always mobilize their top 1% to accomplish some task. The autocrats’ quandary is what to do with the remaining 99%. They have no real answer, other than to administer, dictate and repress.


A free society that is willing to place millions of small bets on persons unknown and things unseen doesn’t have this problem. Flexibility, not hardness, is its true test of strength. Success is a result of experiment not design. Failure is tolerable to the extent that adaptation is possible.


This is the American secret, which we often forget because we can’t imagine it any other way. It’s why we are slightly shocked to find ourselves coming out ahead—even, or especially, when our presidents are feckless and our policies foolish.


We are larger than our leaders. We are better than our politics. We are wiser than our culture. We are smarter than our ideas. Enjoy the holiday.


Monday, October 13, 2014

WSJ.com - Research shows that music training boosts IQ, focus and persistence

WSJ.com - Research shows that music training boosts IQ, focus and persistence


Music is no cure-all, nor is it likely to turn your child into a Nobel Prize winner. But there is compelling evidence that it can boost children’s academic performance and help fix some of our schools’ most intractable problems.


Music raises your IQ.

Music training can reduce the academic gap between rich and poor districts.

Music training does more than sports, theater or dance to improve key academic skills.

Music can be an inexpensive early screening tool for reading disabilities.

Music literally expands your brain.


Yet music programs continue to be viewed as expendable. A 2011 analysis in the Journal of Economic Finance calculated that a K-12 school music program in a large suburban district cost $187 per student a year, or just 1.6% of the total education budget. That seems a reasonable price to pay for fixing some of the thorniest and most expensive problems facing American education. Music programs shouldn’t have to sing for their supper.

Friday, September 5, 2014

WSJ.com - Whatever Happened to Global Warming?

WSJ.com - Whatever Happened to Global Warming?


The U.N. no longer claims that there will be dangerous or rapid climate change in the next two decades. Last September, between the second and final draft of its fifth assessment report, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change quietly downgraded the warming it expected in the 30 years following 1995, to about 0.5 degrees Celsius from 0.7 (or, in Fahrenheit, to about 0.9 degrees, from 1.3).


Even that is likely to be too high. The climate-research establishment has finally admitted openly what skeptic scientists have been saying for nearly a decade: Global warming has stopped since shortly before this century began.


"The scientific community would come down on me in no uncertain terms if I said the world had cooled from 1998," wrote Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia in Britain in 2005. He went on: "Okay it has but it is only seven years of data and it isn't statistically significant."


If the pause lasted 15 years, they conceded, then it would be so significant that it would invalidate the climate-change models upon which policy was being built. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) written in 2008 made this clear: "The simulations rule out (at the 95% level) zero trends for intervals of 15 yr or more."


Well, the pause has now lasted for 16, 19 or 26 years—depending on whether you choose the surface temperature record or one of two satellite records of the lower atmosphere.


It has been roughly two decades since there was a trend in temperature significantly different from zero. The burst of warming that preceded the millennium lasted about 20 years and was preceded by 30 years of slight cooling after 1940.


This has taken me by surprise. I was among those who thought the pause was a blip. As a "lukewarmer," I've long thought that man-made carbon-dioxide emissions will raise global temperatures, but that this effect will not be amplified much by feedbacks from extra water vapor and clouds, so the world will probably be only a bit more than one degree Celsius warmer in 2100 than today. By contrast, the assumption built into the average climate model is that water-vapor feedback will treble the effect of carbon dioxide.


But now I worry that I am exaggerating, rather than underplaying, the likely warming.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

WSJ.com - The salt libel: Scientific debates are rarely 'settled.'

WSJ.com - The salt libel: Scientific debates are rarely 'settled.'


We were told the science was settled. Yet new research suggests that salt is not nearly as dangerous as the government medical establishment has been proclaiming for many decades—and a low-salt diet may itself be risky.


Yet the latest USDA food pyramid, which was updated as recently as 2011, clings to simplistic low-salt pseudo-science. The FDA is pressuring food manufacturers and restaurants to remove salt from their recipes and menus, while the public health lobby is still urging the agency to go further and regulate NaCl as if it were a poison.


The larger point is that no scientific enterprise is static, and political claims that some line of inquiry is over and "settled" are usually good indications that real debate and uncertainty are aboil. In medicine in particular, the illusion that science can provide some objective answer that applies to everyone—how much salt to eat, how and how often to screen for cancer, even whom to treat with cholesterol-lowering drugs, and so on—is a special danger.


Government regulation often can lock in bad advice and practices and never changes as quickly as the evidence evolves.



Wednesday, May 28, 2014

WSJ.com - Doctors' War Stories From VA Hospitals

WSJ.com - Doctors' War Stories From VA Hospitals



U.S. doctors are well aware of the problems with VA hospitals because many of us trained at them. There are 153 VA hospitals. Most of them are affiliated with the country's 155 medical schools, and they play an integral role in the education of young physicians. These physicians have borne witness to the abuses and mismanagement, and when they attempt to fight against the entrenched bureaucracy on behalf of their patients, they meet fierce resistance.


The veterans who receive their care at VA hospitals are the kindest and most grateful patients that I have had the privilege to care for in my career. Unfortunately, they are getting shortchanged. The time to repair this national embarrassment is long past.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

WSJ.com - Ignoring an Inequality Culprit: Single-Parent Families

Ignoring an Inequality Culprit: Single-Parent Families

Intellectuals fretting about income disparity are oddly silent regarding the decline of the two-parent family.




Suppose a scientific conference on cancer prevention never addressed smoking, on the grounds that in a free society you can't change private behavior, and anyway, maybe the statistical relationships between smoking and cancer are really caused by some other third variable. Wouldn't some suspect that the scientists who raised these claims were driven by something—ideology, tobacco money—other than science?


Yet in the current discussions about increased inequality, few researchers, fewer reporters, and no one in the executive branch of government directly addresses what seems to be the strongest statistical correlate of inequality in the United States: the rise of single-parent families during the past half century.


Why isn't this matter at the center of policy discussions? There are at least three reasons. First, much of politics is less about what you are for than who you are against….  And intellectual and cultural elites lean to the left. So, quite simply, very few professors or journalists, and fewer still who want foundation grants, want to be seen as siding with social conservatives, even if the evidence leads that way.


Second, family breakup has hit minority communities the hardest. So even bringing up the issue risks being charged with racism, a potential career-killer.


Finally, there is no quick fix. Welfare reform beginning in the mid-1990s offered only modest marriage incentives and has been insufficient to change entrenched cultural practices. The change must come from long-term societal transformation on this subject, led by political, educational and entertainment elites, similar to the decades-long movements against racism, sexism—and smoking.


But the first step is to acknowledge the problem.


Monday, May 5, 2014

WSJ.com - The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease

The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease

Are butter, cheese and steak really bad for you? The dubious science behind the anti-fat crusade





"Saturated fat does not cause heart disease"—or so concluded a big study published in March in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. How could this be? The very cornerstone of dietary advice for generations has been that the saturated fats in butter, cheese and red meat should be avoided because they clog our arteries. For many diet-conscious Americans, it is simply second nature to opt for chicken over sirloin, canola oil over butter.


The new study's conclusion shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with modern nutritional science, however. The fact is, there has never been solid evidence for the idea that these fats cause disease. We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias.


One consequence is that in cutting back on fats, we are now eating a lot more carbohydrates—at least 25% more since the early 1970s. Consumption of saturated fat, meanwhile, has dropped by 11%, according to the best available government data. Translation: Instead of meat, eggs and cheese, we're eating more pasta, grains, fruit and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Even seemingly healthy low-fat foods, such as yogurt, are stealth carb-delivery systems, since removing the fat often requires the addition of fillers to make up for lost texture—and these are usually carbohydrate-based.


The problem is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin—a hormone that is fantastically efficient at storing fat. Meanwhile, fructose, the main sugar in fruit, causes the liver to generate triglycerides and other lipids in the blood that are altogether bad news. Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, very likely, heart disease.


Sticking to these guidelines has meant ignoring growing evidence that women on diets low in saturated fat actually increase their risk of having a heart attack. The "good" HDL cholesterol drops precipitously for women on this diet (it drops for men too, but less so). The sad irony is that women have been especially rigorous about ramping up on their fruits, vegetables and grains, but they now suffer from higher obesity rates than men, and their death rates from heart disease have reached parity.

Friday, March 28, 2014

WSJ.com - Climate Forecast: Muting the Alarm

WSJ.com - Climate Forecast: Muting the Alarm


"In climate science, the real debate has never been between "deniers" and the rest, but between "lukewarmers," who think man-made climate change is real but fairly harmless, and those who think the future is alarming.


Almost every global environmental scare of the past half century proved exaggerated including the population "bomb," pesticides, acid rain, the ozone hole, falling sperm counts, genetically engineered crops and killer bees. In every case, institutional scientists gained a lot of funding from the scare and then quietly converged on the view that the problem was much more moderate than the extreme voices had argued. Global warming is no different."



Friday, January 31, 2014

The Imperial Presidency of Barack Obama



The president's taste for unilateral action to circumvent Congress should concern every citizen, regardless of party or ideology. The great 18th-century political philosopher Montesquieu observed: "There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates." America's Founding Fathers took this warning to heart, and we should too.


Rule of law doesn't simply mean that society has laws; dictatorships are often characterized by an abundance of laws. Rather, rule of law means that we are a nation ruled by laws, not men. That no one—and especially not the president—is above the law. For that reason, the U.S. Constitution imposes on every president the express duty to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed."


Yet rather than honor this duty, President Obama has openly defied it by repeatedly suspending, delaying and waiving portions of the laws he is charged to enforce. When Mr. Obama disagreed with federal immigration laws, he instructed the Justice Department to cease enforcing the laws. He did the same thing with federal welfare law, drug laws and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.


On many of those policy issues, reasonable minds can disagree. Mr. Obama may be right that some of those laws should be changed. But the typical way to voice that policy disagreement, for the preceding 43 presidents, has been to work with Congress to change the law.


In the past, when Republican presidents abused their power, many Republicans—and the press—rightly called them to account. Today many in Congress—and the press—have chosen to give President Obama a pass on his pattern of lawlessness, perhaps letting partisan loyalty to the man supersede their fidelity to the law.


But this should not be a partisan issue. In time, the country will have another president from another party. For all those who are silent now: What would they think of a Republican president who announced that he was going to ignore the law, or unilaterally change the law? Imagine a future president setting aside environmental laws, or tax laws, or labor laws, or tort laws with which he or she disagreed.


That would be wrong—and it is the Obama precedent that is opening the door for future lawlessness.