Six Ideas That Made Us Think

1. When We Only Had the Music

Before there was teenage screen addiction, there was the Walkman, the discman, and the suite of portable music players. Pitchfork turns the dial back to 1998 and offers a wistful look at the early, innocent days before MP3s:

Pundits worried about hearing damage and safety hazards. (One New Jersey town made it illegal to cross the street while wearing headphones.) There were also concerns about its social and psychological effects, some expressed more melodramatically than others. In 1981, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune wrote of his dismay after witnessing teenagers in headphones at the Ohio State Fair. “The Walkman is replacing certain drugs as a mind- and mood-altering device,” he lamented. “When teenagers have reached the point where they feel they must shut out the sounds of the Ohio State Fair, society is surely ready to collapse.”

2. An Overpopulation Myth

In their always-worthwhile annual foundation letter, Bill and Melinda Gates respond to ten difficult questions about their philanthropy. This one caught our attention:

Q: Does saving kids’ lives lead to overpopulation?

A: We asked ourselves the same question at first. Hans Rosling, the brilliant and inspiring public health advocate who died last year, was great at answering it. I wrote about the issue at length in our 2014 letter. But it bears repeating, because it is so counterintuitive. When more children live past the age of 5, and when mothers can decide if and when to have children, population sizes don’t go up. They go down. Parents have fewer children when they’re confident those children will survive into adulthood. Big families are in some ways an insurance policy against the tragic likelihood of losing a son or a daughter.

3. “Don’t Ask the Barber Whether You Need a Haircut”

Another must-read annual report: Warren Buffett’s letter to Berkshire Hathaway investors. Here’s Buffett’s take on acquisitions in 2017:

Prices for decent, but far from spectacular businesses hit an all-time high. Indeed, price seemed almost irrelevant to an army of optimistic purchasers. Why the purchasing frenzy? In part, it’s because the CEO job self-selects for “can-do” types. If Wall Street analysts or board members urge that brand of CEO to consider possible acquisitions, it’s a bit like telling your ripening teenager to be sure to have a normal sex life. Once a CEO hungers for a deal, he or she will never lack for forecasts that justify the purchase. Subordinates will be cheering, envisioning enlarged domains and the compensation levels that typically increase with corporate size. Investment bankers, smelling huge fees, will be applauding as well. (Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.) If the historical performance of the target falls short of validating its acquisition, large “synergies” will be forecast. Spreadsheets never disappoint.

4. Mass Audiences

George Will’s assessment of Billy Graham in National Review fuses criticism with begrudging respect. Will also points to what made the late evangelist such a great success: Graham understood mass, and the power of the live audience, even as television came into its own:

Americans respect quantification, and Graham was a marvel of quantities. He spoke to more people directly — about 215 million — than any person in history. In 1945, at age 26, he addressed 65,000 in Chicago’s Soldier Field. The 1949 crusade in Los Angeles, promoted by the not notably devout William Randolph Hearst, had a cumulative attendance of 350,000. In 1957, a May-to-September rally in New York had attendance of 2.4 million, including 100,000 on one night at Yankee Stadium. A five-day meeting in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973 drew 3 million.

Meanwhile, if you want a reminder of how far American culture has shifted over the past 40 years, check out this remarkable clip of Woody Allen interviewing Bill Graham in 1969.

5. Copyright Mania

We’re running out of words and names that can be trademarked. In an exhaustive but readable study in Harvard Law Review, Barton Beebe and Jeanne C. Fromer demonstrate that the fight over trademarked terms has reached the breaking point:

Free speech advocates have grown increasingly vocal about the pervasive trademarking of everyday words. The YouTube duo the Fine Brothers announced in 2016 that they had applied to register the word “react,” after their series of videos. The public reaction was critical and merciless. One commenter joked about registering the word “the” and threatened that “anyone who says it get[s] sued.” The commenter was no doubt unaware that at the time there were already eleven active trademark registrations claiming just the word THE.

Beebe and Fromer make the serious point that the conventional wisdom in legal circles is wrong and that we need to rethink American trademark law

6. Tulip Non-Mania

The Dutch craze for tulips in the 17th century has become “a byword for insanity in the markets,” and it’s now being invoked to explain the purported bitcoin bubble. But Professor Anne Goldgar shows that “tulip mania” is more myth than case study:

Tulip mania wasn’t irrational. Tulips were a newish luxury product in a country rapidly expanding its wealth and trade networks. Prices rose, because tulips were hard to cultivate…and it wasn’t irrational to pay a high price for something that was generally considered valuable, and for which the next person might pay even more. Tulip mania wasn’t a frenzy, either. In fact, for much of the period trading was relatively calm, located in taverns and neighbourhoods rather than on the stock exchange. It also became increasingly organised, with companies set up in various towns to grow, buy, and sell, and committees of experts emerged to oversee the trade.


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