Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Let's Tip One to Southwest Florida

As the ball drops, here's a countdown to the New Year -- a countdown worth a toast or two.

10 - That's the state ranking of the NCH Healthcare System by U.S. News & World Report. Hats off to the NCH hospitals, clinics and the thousands of healthcare professionals who keep us well. It's one of the many reasons southwest Florida is so special.

9 - The percent increase in Collier County property values, a bonanza for for homeowners. Not only is the weather great and the economy booming, but our property values keep on rising. I'll take a 9% return any day.

8 - The number of chamber music programs in Naples. That's right, eight! And that's just chamber music. Add to that local opera, church music, Stay in May and the marvelous Naples Philharmonic, to say nothing of jazz groups and even barbershop quartets. When it comes to music, there's something for everybody.

7 - Seven hurricanes hovered around Florida in 2016 and two, Hermine and Matthew, did some damage, about $1 billion worth. But, on balance, we fared pretty well. There were no direct hits of the magnitude of Wilma (2005) or Andrew (1992), and the state's response to flooding and electrical outages was exemplary.

6 - As in a 6% increase in tourists visiting Florida. Storms, Zika and the Orlando nightclub shooting had little effect as some 110 million made their way to The Sunshine State. The tourism industry accounts for more than 1 in 10 jobs in Florida.

5 - Unemployment dropped below 5%, as hospitality and construction pumped new jobs into Collier County. New home sales were up and commercial construction is booming. Looking ahead, Arthrex plans to add 560 high-paying jobs and over $60 million in new investment. Collier remains among the state's top counties for economic growth.

4 - Continuing the good news, Florida racked up two number fours: The 4th fastest growing state and the 4th best state in which to do business -- another check-off on the list of why companies should move here. The contrast to my native Connecticut, where businesses are leaving in droves, couldn't be greater.

3 - We have three new Collier County commissioners this year. Andy Sollis, Bill McDaniel and Burt Saunders join a board facing a ton of issues, the most important being affordable workforce housing, a problem that has gone unaddressed for years. But that's not all. There's the challenge of managing what is expected to be massive growth to the south and east, plus a host of environmental issues, not least the growing problem of water pollution. The new commissioners have their work cut out for them.

2 - The nearly $2 billion in federal money targeted for Everglades restoration. That's the good news. Less certain is the proposed $2.4 billion in state funds to buy sugar land to clean up Lake Okeechobee discharges to the south. Let's hope our state delegation can help push this through.

1 - It's getting to be old hat, but Naples scored another "best." In 2016, the Kiplinger Letter ranked us #1 among "Best Places to Retire," citing the weather, beaches, the growing cultural scene, low taxes and some 90 golf courses. Foremost of the benefits was said to be "healthful living."

So let's tip one to 2016 and drink another to the good news continuing in 2017.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Time for Invention

Has the world seen the last of life-changing inventions? Are we out of big ideas, breakthroughs that impact society?

Several science historians and not a few journalists have worried about this in a panoply of distraught columns, the latest a piece by Greg Ip in the Wall Street Journal that claims science hasn't delivered much lately to improve our standard of living.

Ip cites a measure called "total factor productivity" that is said to capture the contribution of innovation to growth. That peaked at 3.4% in the 1950s as breakthroughs like electricity, aviation and antibiotics reached their maximal impact. It currently stands at 0.5%.

The invention worriers say there are reasons for this: Higher capital and regulatory hurdles. Fewer easy targets. A more risk-adverse economy. And so on.

There's no question we have benefited from a golden age of innovation. Basic research has provided a palette of drugs that prolong life. The digital revolution has changed the way the world communicates. New materials have transformed everything from spacecraft to underwear.

But here's the thing. These life-changing inventions are not big bangs. They don't come from a single epiphany. They come from evolutionary, step-wise advances -- incremental gains that over time can make an impact.

  • It took Thomas Edison hundreds of tries, painful trial and error, to invent a practical incandescent bulb. And then it took even longer to transport electricity and light a neighborhood, then a city.
  • George Mitchell didn't crack open shale one day and usher in the fracking age. He and his engineers built on years of experience, mostly failure, to find the right combination of chemicals, sand particles and hydrolytic pressure. Then it took horizontal drilling, another incremental advance, to give us the cheap natural gas that's transformed the 21st century.
  • Enrico Fermi didn't spawn the atomic age with one revelation. He built in stair-step fashion, drawing on the work of Einstein, Bohr, Pauli, Heisenberg and many others.
  • The Wright brothers didn't just happen upon flight one day on a North Carolina beach. As wonderfully told in David McCullough's book, Wilbur and Orville tried and failed and tried again until they overcame gravity. Then they and others spent years making it reliable and launching commercial aviation. There was no one, single eureka.
Science moves in increments. Breakthroughs are the result of building on what came before. Forget about big bangs.

In my working life, I saw remarkable scientists make remarkable advances, virtually all the result of bootstrapping on what came before. Groundbreaking antibiotics, light-curable paints, calorie-free cooking oils. An effective viscosifier to help coax oil out of depleted fields resulted from a simple process change. Sexy? Not at all. But enabling. And impactful.

We're not out of these incremental advances. Far from it. There will be many more, and they will benefit society big time.
  • Artificial intelligence holds promise for everything from real-time control of manufacturing to future modeling of thought.
  • Gene editing will dramatically increase crop yields, adapting agriculture to the stresses of climate change.
  • Offshoots of environmental research will trigger breakthroughs in green chemistry, leading to things like low-cost solar desalination of seawater and conversion of greenhouse gases to building materials. 
  • Gene therapy, long in development, is poised to launch personalized medicine and provide enabling tools for fighting cancer.
So there's no need to agonize about innovation decline. In 1899, Charles Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

He was wrong then and the invention worriers are wrong now. American ingenuity is alive and well.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Remember the Alamo ... and Pearl Harbor

It was a last-minute edit.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt crossed out some words in his speech and replaced them with "infamy." Thus came the iconic radio address to the American people about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- "a day that shall live in infamy."

I don't remember it; I was too young. But I do remember it changed things in a way even a child could understand. Blackouts, air-raid drills, rationing. Neighbors called into service, neighbors who didn't return.

It marked American's entry into the "good war," so named by those who could somehow differentiate a good war from a bad one. I remember hearing that a friend of my father was shot down over the Pacific and forced into the infamous Wake Island death march. He returned and brought me wonderful souvenirs -- or so I thought at the time.

Most Americans of a certain age will never forget the meaning of December 7th, of a sneak attack by an imperial power, a brutal dictatorship -- one every bit as racist and brutal as Nazi Germany. We are reminded of it in Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, now a movie, "Unbroken."

The numbers on Pearl Harbor are sobering, even today: 360 Japanese warplanes attacking in two waves, 2,403 Americans killed, the entire Pacific fleet destroyed or disabled. Planes obliterated while on the ground at Ford Island. Merchant ships and passenger vessels sunk by Japanese submarines. Harbors in Hilo, Jahului and Nawiliwili shelled, with more loss of life.

My wife and I visited Pearl Harbor earlier this year, our first trip to Hawaii. It was for us, like many Americans, a pilgrimage of sorts. Now a tranquil tourist attraction, the peacefulness belies the horror of that fateful day.

I was struck by the makeup of the visitors, a veritable little United Nations. A Dutch woman said, "I always wanted to see the place that brought American into the war." Her husband added, "And won the war."

Later on that trip, returning from Kauia, our plane approached the Honolulu airport over Pearl Harbor. Looking out the window, I saw something I'll never forget: Four Navy warships lined up side by side, an eerie flashback, what it must have looked like to the attacking Japanese bombers.

If Pearl Harbor was the beginning, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the end. And I'll always be amused by the notion that we really didn't have to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, that those stellar humanitarians didn't deserve that kind of wrath. The American apologists would instead have had us invade the mainland, playing fair with conventional weapons and incurring another half million casualties. No thank you.

But the past is past. We will always remember Pearl Harbor, but we've moved on.

In my working days, I visited Japan many times, even Hiroshima. I have Japanese friends, also of another generation, business colleagues -- gracious and generous and professional. We have all moved on.

But we must never forget.

So happy Pearl Harbor Day -- December 7, 1941 -- a day that will always live in infamy.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Breaking the Academic Chains that Bind

I was struck by a recent column in the Wall Street Journal that parsed the anti-trade beliefs of president-elect Donald Trump. After reviewing the history of trade and its relationship to American workers, authors Phil Gramm and Michael Solon made a powerful point: "Mr. Trump's proposal to unleash the talent of students now trapped in failing public schools by empowering their parents with greater school choice will have a positive, significant and lasting effect -- bigger than any change in trade policy can bring."

Education matters. And good education matters most.

Florida has been a leader in school choice. To the horror of teachers' unions, the legislature passed bills in recent sessions making it easier for students to switch from bad to good schools. Tallahassee also boosted charter schools, a growing national phenomenon. There are nearly 7,000 charters in this   country -- independently operated public schools -- serving some three million children in 43 states.

Charters have delivered big time, most measurably in test scores that have risen dramatically for minorities. Witness Eva Moskowitz's high-performing Success Academy, which began in Harlem and now has 41 schools across New York City.

This is happening despite fierce political opposition. An example: The NAACP, joined at the hip with union-backed Democrats, recently voted to oppose charters, effectively ignoring a 2015 Stanford study that found urban charters provided 40 more days of math teaching per year and 28 more days of reading classes than traditional schools. And the youngsters, many from poor families, prospered. It's a sad day when the NAACP puts politics above the interests of black children.

On a more positive note, the Nevada supreme court upheld the state's Education Savings Account, the country's first universal school choice program. This allows Nevada parents who withdraw their kids from public schools to use state funds in ESAs to pay for private schools. With no cap on the number of participants, there's a huge backlog of parents applying for the accounts.

The news isn't all good. Massachusetts voters rejected a referendum that would have lifted the ceiling on charters, stranding 32,000 kids on the waiting list. And Georgia defeated a constitutional amendment that would have created a state recovery district for failing schools. Not to be outdone,  Eric Holder's Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Louisiana's voucher program for poor children.

But changes are afoot. During his campaign, Trump said, "I will be the nation's biggest cheerleader for school choice." How things turn out remain to be seen. But one thing is certain. With Obama going and Clinton gone, a lot of baggage is being off-loaded. For example, the National Education Association, though still loud and destructive, will get little attention in coming years. And the anti-religious bias that thwarted support for poor kids attending parochial schools will no longer be tolerated.

Lest we get too far down in the weeds on school choice, let's admit the real reason to champion better education is that our prosperity depends on it. We need well-educated workers, with skills matched to modern jobs. And many of those jobs, often unfilled, require STEM education -- science, technology (meaning computer skills), engineering and math. The good news is that Governor Rick Scott understands this and has put STEM front and center in Florida school policy.

We can count on better days ahead.