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Friday, April 13, 2007

In Defence of Howard Hughes

I got to be kidding me. For the kids, Howard Hughes was the very model of a rich twit. His father inmproved a drilling bit for oil wells making HH very very rich. He mainly horded his money. He never had (or never recognized) any children. He became reclusive, crazy (not a formal diagnosis) and pathetic.

It is relatively easy to defend people who obtain huge amounts of money by arguing that they made a contribution to total wealth and kept only some of it. This applies to people who just buy and sell financial assets who may make money while driving asset prices towards their fundamental values. HH basically inherited his (in the form of a firm which generated a high stream of profits given its book value).

It is easy to defend rich people who give money away while they are alive. HH gave money only in his will and, I have no doubt, only because he couldn't take it with him.

Conflict of interest disclosure: Due to absurdly strict NIH regulations on conflict of interest my father is no longer a member of the medical advisory board of the Howard Hughes medical foundation (no I can't see any possible conflict of interest between the HH and the NIH either).

I would defend HH even if he had left no will setting up the medical foundation. I think that the foundation spends money more wisely than the US government (war in Iraq anyone ?) but my argument would work if HH left neither will nor close relations and the money went to the US treasury.

I think rich people who pile up money, spend little of it and leave neither relatives nor wills are socially useful. Since they can't take their wealth with them, their existence makes us richer than we think we are. If they didn't produce the wealth, they don't make us richer but they create the illusion of poverty by making the rest of the world underestimate its true wealth.

Thus HH's wealth had an economic role roughly opposite to that of the national debt. Government bonds are not net wealth, but they create the illusion of wealth and distort consumption/savings decisions by tricking people into consuming more than they would if they understood. HH without a will would do the opposite. As I hate deficit spending (mainly because I hate Bush and disapprove of the late Ronald Reagan) I must conclude that, even without the strangely sane decision to set up a medical foundataion, HH made a useful contribution by hoarding and hiding wealth and balancing a tiny fraction of the grand illusion of wealth which is the national debt.

Now HH also consumed an absurdly large amount for a single person (which was an absurdly small amount compared to his wealth). Almost all of this consumption was, in my view, approximately pure waste. However I would guess that the benefit from correcting a tiny fraction of the distortion to consumption savings choices was much larger than the cost of his extra mansion or two.

Now rich people with rich spoiled offspring who keep the wealth in the family indefinitely are another matter. Still, I'd say rich people who are totally selfish (and childless) and can't take it with them are inadvertant stewards of the nations wealth and that they do a less awful job of stewardship than, say G. W. Bush.


Anonymous said...

April 6, 2007

Difference Between Mutts and Jeffs? A Gene

If it weren't for the IGF-1 suppressor gene, Paris Hilton's life would be a lot less elegant.

She'd be lugging around an Irish wolfhound in her purse.

Scientists have just discovered which gene fragment controls the size of dogs, the mammal with the greatest range in size: no other species produces adults with 100-fold differences, like that between a 2-pound Chihuahua and a 200-pound Newfoundland.

In a study to be published today in the journal Science, researchers analyzed 3,241 purebreds from 143 breeds. Genetically, the yapper arguing with your ankle is almost identical to the drooling behemoth bred to hunt bears, except for a tiny bit of DNA — universally present in small breeds and largely absent in big ones — that suppresses the "insulin-like growth factor 1" gene.

Dog owners have unwittingly been selecting for it since the last ice age. Dogs emerged from the wolf about 15,000 years ago, and as far back as 10,000 years ago domesticated dogs as big as mastiffs and as small as Jack Russells were trotting the earth.

The study's lead author, Elaine A. Ostrander, chief of cancer genetics at the National Human Genome Research Institute, said she had visited a lot of dog shows, asking for blood.

"It became kind of a status symbol to participate, and we were inundated," Dr. Ostrander said. "I only wanted one sample from any descendant of one grandfather, and owners would show up with five Scottish deerhounds, all of them siblings, and say, 'Oh, absolutely, they all want to be in.' " ...


Anonymous said...

April 13, 2007

In Startling Advance, Study Identifies Dinosaur Protein

In a retrieval once thought unattainable, scientists have recovered and identified proteins in a bone of a well-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex that lived and died and was fossilized 68 million years ago.

The scientists say the success, with advanced research techniques, opens the door for the first time to the exploration of molecular-level relationships of ancient, extinct animals, instead of just relying on their skeletal remains.

Dinosaur fossil hunters are planning nine expeditions this summer to search wide and deep for more specimens as promising candidates for similar tests. A few large dinosaur bones already in laboratories may be examined for surviving traces of organic matter.

The earliest previously identified ancient proteins were from mammoths that died about 300,000 years ago. The oldest confirmed samples of DNA, a more direct bearer of information of molecular evolution, but more degradable, have come from Neanderthals that lived 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. The extraction of DNA would be necessary for studies in dinosaur genetics and for cloning experiments.

Repeated analysis of the T-rex proteins, the researchers said, uncovered new evidence of a link between dinosaurs and birds, a widely held but contentious hypothesis....

[Yes; birds, of which little Oliver conure in my shirt, is awfully proud. Birds.]


Anonymous said...

Ernst Mayr, by the way, as you well know, began and ended really studying birds. Jared Diamond too, the same birds, or sort of. See why Oliver is so proud?

Anonymous said...

Darn, I think Mayr's work in the philosophy of biology of signal importance. Philosophers, well, American philosophers at least, had problems with Darwin into the 1970s, since Darwin threatens grand theoretical conceptualizations (though Kant fits, for all his early thinking as a sort of astronomer).