Empire States of Mind

Sam Valadi for Wikipedia

Peter Thiel cites the fact that the Empire State Building was built in 15 months as a sign that maybe our society has stagnated. Can we build things any more? Why not?

I’ve wondered if part of the answer was the political power of Al Smith, who was appointed head of Empire State Inc, and various other elements of the former Tammany/Democratic machine that controlled New York City at the time. An argument for the efficiency of political machines?

But what if the answer was: fairness?

The Empire State Building was constructed in just 13* months, and that included the dismantling of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel that sat on the site. Paul Starrett, the builder, treated his workers rather well by the standards of the time, paying much attention to safety and paying employees on days when it was too windy to work. Daily wages were more than double the usual rate and hot meals were provided on site.

The concept is known as “efficiency wages”. Companies that compensate workers well and treat them fairly can attract better, more motivated staff. Unlike most construction projects, the Empire State Building had low staff turnover, and workers suggested productivity improvements such as building a miniature railway line to bring bricks to the site.

That’s Bartleby in the Dec 12, 2020 Economist, reviewing a book called The Art of Fairness, by David Bodanis. Starrett was not “naively generous,” the article also notes. He checked worker attendance four times a day.

I’d kind of resolved to stop reading these books that are just collections of neat anecdotes under some big umbrella, but maybe I’ll make an exception here. Another example cited: Danny Boyle used thousands of volunteers for the 2012 London Olympic Ceremonies, but he also had to keep details of the show secret:

The conventional approach would have been to make the volunteers sign a non-disclosure agreement. Instead, he asked them to keep the surprise – and trusted them to do so. They did, thanks to the grown up way he treated them.

Also in this week’s Economist, Buttonwood reports on a study in India:

The study’s main finding is that retail investors who were randomly allocated shares in successful IPOS view their good fortune as evidence of skill.

* note the revision to Thiel’s figure

The Economist Digest

Considering converting Helytimes into just a summary of each week’s issue of The Economist.  That would provide a public service.

From this week’s issue

I learn

  • the President of Liberia, George Weah, a former striker for AC Milan, has recorded a song about Coronavirus.  (Learning more about this story led me to the BBC Pidgin page, which will be bookmarked for future return).  Meanwhile the Governor of Nairobi distributed mini bottles of Hennessey, which he calls “throat sanitizer”


  • The price to book value of the German DAX Index fell below one?  Must investigate.  The S&P 500 by comparison fell to 2.35 at its lowest (March 23) of 2020.  It was at 1.39 on its lowest day in the 2008-2009 crisis.  Are German companies “cheap”?  Paging Ben Graham!


  • Flogging has been banned as a punishment in Saudi Arabia


  • “Eating pangolins is illegal in China, but putting their scales into medical concoctions is not.”


  • Good piece on the Toyota Hilux as a desired vehicle for warlords: “they can cram 30 people into one and can still climb a sand dune.”  You can’t buy a Toyota Hilux in the USA, which pisses me off.  Why wouldn’t you want a tougher, stronger, truck in a more compact form?  It’s the warlord’s choice!


  • Melissa Dell won the John Bates Clark Medal for economists under 40 for work showing that the colonial “mita” system, which between 1573 and 1812 forced indigenous men in Bolivia and Peru to work in silver mines, had negative effects that persist to this day (uh, no shit? just kidding Professor Dell)


  • Most US states begin their fiscal year on July 1.  Because they’re obligated by “a combination of constitutional requirement, statute and tradition” to balance their budgets, there are gonna have to be tax increases or layoffs.  (Interesting that The Economist, a very Oxford publication, doesn’t use the Oxford comma).


  • I didn’t know Samsung began as “a provincial vegetable and dried fish shop”


  • Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is in trouble.  He too, like our president, has a shithead son who’s in the online fake-news business.


  • The Economist puts Joe Biden up six points over Donald Trump


  • Italy’s foreign minister is 33?

(foto di Francesco Ammendola – Ufficio per la Stampa e la Comunicazione della Presidenza della Repubblica)

  • An obituary for rock climber Joe Brown, who climbed the south side of the Old Man of Hoy

source: Svrban

Also if any Helytimes readers are looking for work: