Dynamist Blog

Tick, Tick, Tick

We've already done to organs what Debra Ortiz wants to do to human eggs (see item below). The result: thousands of unnecessary deaths. My friend Sally Satel takes on "death's waiting list" in an op-ed in today's NYT:

March was National Kidney Month. I did my part: I got a new one. My good fortune, alas, does not befall nearly enough people, and the federal government deserves much of the blame.

Today 70,000 Americans are waiting for kidneys, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which maintains the national waiting list. Last year, roughly 16,000 people received one (about 40 percent are from living donors, the others from cadavers). More are waiting for livers, hearts and lungs, which mostly come from deceased donors, bringing the total to about 92,000. In big cities, where the ratio of acceptable organs to needy patients is worst, the wait is five to eight years and is expected to double by 2010. Someone on the organ list dies every 90 minutes. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Read the whole thing (permanent link on AEI site here). Sally has organized a half-day conference on solutions to the organ crisis for June 12.

Attacking Research from the Left

In my last Forbes column, I warned that long-term threats to biomedical research are as likely to come from the anti-commercial left as from the anti-abortion right. That's happening, with little comment, in blue-state California, where state Senator Deborah Ortiz is sponsoring a bill to prohibit paying women who donate eggs for research. From the text:

This bill would prohibit human oocytes or embryos from being acquired, sold, offered for sale, received, or otherwise transferred for valuable consideration for medical research or development of medical therapies, and would prohibit payment in excess of the amount of reimbursement of expenses to be made to any research subject to encourage her to produce human oocytes for the purposes of medical research....

No payment in excess of the amount of reimbursement of direct, out-of-pocket expenses shall be made to any research subject to encourage her to produce human oocytes for the purposes of medical research. There shall be no reimbursement for lost wages.

The bill is supported by the Center for Genetics and Society, a left-wing anti-biotech group.

After tracking this bill, I was surprised to read in the LAT that Ortiz is running for secretary of state in the Democratic primary against Debra Bowen, another state senator. Bowen, whom I met a number of times when I was editing Reason, is one of my favorite California Democrats.

The French Disease

My trip to speak at Créapôle, a private design school in Paris, taught me a bit about French education. Elaine Sciolino's NYT report confirmed, with more details, what I'd gathered about the sad state of French universities

At Nanterre, Alexandre Frydlender, 19, a second-year student in law and history, complained about the lack of courses in English for students of international law. But asked whether he would be willing to pay a higher fee for better services, he replied: "The university is a public service. The state must pay."

A poster that hangs throughout the campus halls echoed that sentiment: "To study is a right, not a privilege."...

The protests also were the latest warning to the French government and private corporations that the university system needs fixing. Officials, entrepreneurs, professors and students alike agree that too many students are stuck in majors like sociology or psychology that make it difficult to move into a different career in a stratified society like France, given the country's troubled economy.

The fear of joblessness has led many young people in different directions. Students who have the money are increasingly turning to foreign universities or private specialized schools in France, especially for graduate school. And more young people are seeking a security-for-life job with a government agency....

"We are caught in a world of limits where there's no such thing as the self-made man," said Claire de la Vigne, a graduate of Nanterre who is now doing graduate work at the much more prestigious Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris. "We are never taught the idea of the American dream, where everything is possible. Our guide is fear."

Founded in 1981 by an entrepreneurial couple, Jean-Michele and Harumi Laralu, Créapôle sees itself as an upstart, with a somewhat adversarial relationship to the French policital and academic establishment. Its big selling point is its job placement rate. The school works students hard, focuses on practical problems, and guarantees graduates a job. Créapôle students don't have time to protest, I was told, and they laugh at the manifestations (demonstrations, or protests). They have too many assignments to complete--and, unlike the student marchers, they're paying hefty tuition, about $8,000 to $10,000 a year, with no scholarships. (When my mother asked M. Leralu if the school offers scholarship, his answer demonstrated a telling cultural gap: "No, we are a private school.")

Créapôle students, too, are looking for security above all--a job with a "stable company," I was told. What a contrast to U.S. design students, who tend to value interesting work much more highly than stability. After all, you can always get another job.

On that note, Molly Selvin's LAT feature on picky college grads provides a sharp contrast to Sciolino's NYT article. I was particularly struck by this anecdote:

UC Berkeley senior Katie Seligman values that kind of opportunity. The 21-year-old psychology major turned down an offer from Internet search titan Google Inc., instead agreeing to start next month with a San Francisco healthcare consulting firm partly because she will interact with top managers and the chief financial officers of large hospitals.

"I wanted to be challenged," she said.

On the French disease, James Traub's NYT magazine article on French presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal contains this priceless anecdote:

In fact, Royal seems innocent of any taint of economic liberalism. She regards Villepin's peremptory imposition of the new law as a sign of a systematic failure to listen to ordinary people; but she does not view the national suspicion of market forces as a comparable source of paralysis. I was surprised, I said during our interview, that someone whose entire life constituted a triumph over adversity would join the campaign to insure against précarité....Royal countered my observation with a familiar refrain: "The problem is that everybody isn't subject to insecurity. Do you see businessmen being fired for incompetence? The young see politicians, who also have a stable and secure job, being civil servants, lecturing others on insecurity. So the young graduate will say, 'In the name of what am I going to sign an insecure contract?' "

Then the conversation took an odd turn. Royal asked me, with the air of someone pulling out a trump card, "Are you in an insecure situation?" Actually, I explained, as a contract writer for this magazine, I have little security.

Royal wasn't going to be put off the scent that easily. "Yes, but how many years does your contract last?"

"I sign a new one every year."

Now she was frankly incredulous. "You could be fired every year?" For all her own experience, Royal apparently viewed précarité as a kind of socioeconomic stigma rather than the price you might choose to pay for freedom. Or maybe you could say that for her, as for the left generally--and not only in France--market liberalism and globalization have the status merely of fact, which is categorically inferior to a right. This is no less so if the fact appears to obviate the right. "The global economy shouldn't be supported by wage earners," Royal insisted. "They have to be able to build a future, like any human being."

I wrote another book about that. Like The Substance of Style, however, it is not available in French. Ces livres sonts trop americains, or so they say. You can, however, buy them in Chinese and Korean.

California's Tax Windfall

In a fascinating bit of reporting, Kathleen Pender of the SF Chronicle traces a huge chunk of the state's recent fiscal good fortune back to a single source:

California took in a record $11.3 billion in personal income tax receipts in April, $4.3 billion more than it collected last April. It's almost certain that a significant chunk of April's haul came from Google employees -- perhaps one-eighth or more of the tax receipt gain.

The fact that a single high-flying Silicon Valley company is giving such a big boost to the state treasury can be determined by examining insider stock trading information filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Fourteen of Google's top executives and directors sold $4.4 billion worth of stock last year, according to Thomson Financial. That includes founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, each of whom sold about $1.3 billion worth of stock.

Assuming the 14 insiders had acquired the shares at very low cost and that all were in the top 10.3 percent state-tax bracket, they could have owed the state close to $450 million in capital gains tax on their stock sales.

It's just the latest illustration of two remarkable California facts: that the state is incredibly dependent on a few rich people for its tax revenue and that those rich people haven't all left for Nevada, where there's no state income tax. How skewed are tax payments in California? Pender reports:

California's tax structure is highly progressive, which makes it highly volatile. For the 2004 tax year, 38,000 California tax returns reported more than $1 million in income. They represented just 0.2 percent of all state-tax returns, yet they accounted for 14 percent of total adjusted gross income and about 30 percent of the total personal tax.

The top 3 percent of the returns, those with incomes exceeding $200,000, paid about 60 percent of all state taxes.

"What happens to the top 1 percent is of great interest to the Department of Finance," says David Hitchcock, a debt analyst with Standard & Poor's.

(Via Good Morning Silicon Valley.)

Back in the USA

I'm back from France, which should give Dan Brown some kind of award for his tremendous contributions to the economy. I'm mostly sorting through my enormous piles of virtual and physical mail but am making an attempt to resume blogging. Hence, there are a couple of new posts below. More to come later.

Why Hang Out in the Cafe When You Could Be Standing in Line?

grocery.jpgFrom the sluggish checkout procedures in Paris grocery stores, you'd never know that a French company, Carrefour, is the most efficient, productive supermarket chain in the world. You might guess, however, that most of its success has occurred outside France. (By way of background, see this NYT column I wrote on Bill Lewis's terrific book The Power of Productivity and download this Lewis article.)

How to Load an Airplane Faster

Dave Demerjian of Wired News reports on how airlines are using math to expedite boarding. The article is well worth a full read, but here's an excerpt:

America West Airlines, which became US Airways after a recent merger, has led the way in rethinking passenger boarding, working with engineers at Arizona State University to develop a system that speeds the process by reducing interference between passengers.

According to Tim Lindemann, US Airways' managing director of airport services, streamlining the boarding process was one part of a larger effort to reduce turnaround times at what was then America West. "We were looking at every possible way to shave time off the process," he says.

Convinced that there was a statistical solution to the problem, Lindemann approached Arizona State University's industrial engineering department. "We have a great university in our backyard, and hoped they could help," he says. "The engineers there immediately understood the problem we were trying to solve, because they had witnessed it themselves. They had been on our flights."

Professor René Villalobos and graduate student Menkes van den Briel began reviewing boarding systems used by other airlines. "The conventional wisdom was that boarding from back to front was most effective," says van den Briel. The engineers looked at an inside-out strategy that boards planes from window to aisle, and also examined a 2002 simulation study that claimed calling passengers individually by seat number was the fastest way to load an aircraft.

The two then developed a mathematical formula that measured the number of times passengers were likely to get in each other's way during boarding. "We knew that boarding time was negatively impacted by passengers interfering with one another," explains van den Briel. "So we built a model to calculate these incidents."

Villalobos and van den Briel looked at interference resulting from passengers obstructing the aisle, as well as that caused by seated passengers blocking a window or middle seat. They applied the equation to eight different boarding scenarios, looking at both front-to-back and outside-in systems. "Ultimately, the issue America West needed to address was time," explains van den Briel. "We figured a system that reduced interference between passengers would also cut boarding time."

I'm sure the operations research is good, but airlines have some tough behavioral issues to deal with too. Passengers all want to board first. Some flout the rules, knowing that most airlines ignore line cutting. (A confrontation slows the boarding process.) And, at least on some flights, most passengers are actually entitled to early boarding, thanks to their--our--illustrious frequent flyer status.

Why (Legal or Illegal) Immigrants Are Better for Texas than California

It's the political economy, stupid. (Nasty phrase, that.) Texas has no income tax, which means public services are funded by sales and property taxes. Everyone, regardless of income or legal status, pays sales and property taxes, either directly or indirectly through rent. California, by contrast, relies heavily on a very progressive income tax that doesn't fall on people who are paid off the books or who don't earn much money in the first place. Liberals who support immigration should rethink their love of progressive income taxes.

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