That is the question behind my latest Bloomberg column, and basically the answer is yes.  Schools could scale up, using legacy admissions as a further source of finance.  But why don’t they?:

So why don’t top schools do more to expand their reach? No one doubts that they could find many more qualified students to admit. But there are two problems, both of which we should be willing to live with. First, expanding the size of top schools would lower faculty standards on the research side. That said, teaching quality is unlikely to suffer, as Harvard doesn’t select for the very best teachers. In any case, Harvard’s best researchers could continue their highly productive efforts without missing a beat. Second, administrators would face headaches and potential reputational liabilities from the new initiatives. But that is true in any kind of startup endeavor, and it isn’t a reason to remain stuck in the past.

The actual constraint on how big top schools could grow is how many eligible donors they can find and cultivate, if only through admitting their children. One question is how many such donors there are period, but in an age of high income inequality it seems America’s top schools have hardly tapped out this pool. Legacies make up a sixth of undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. A more unfortunate reality is that some donors might limit their support if say Princeton offered them and their children a less tony and exclusive experience. If that attitude can be overcome, America’s top schools could grow a great deal larger and more diverse.

Do read the whole thing.

The untapped math skills of working children in India: Evidence, possible explanations, and implications (with A. V. Banerjee, S. Bhattacharjee & R. Chattopadhyay)

It has been widely documented that many children in India lack basic arithmetic skills, as measured by their capacity to solve subtraction and division problems. We surveyed children working in informal markets in Kolkata, West Bengal, and confirmed that most were unable to solve arithmetic problems as typically presented in school. However, we also found that they were able to perform similar operations when framed as market transactions. This discrepancy was not explained by children’s ability to memorize prices and quantities in market transactions, assistance from others at their shops, reliance on calculation aids, or reading and writing skills. In fact, many children could solve hypothetical transactions of goods that they did not sell. Our results suggest that these children have arithmetic skills that are untapped by the school system.

Latest manuscript

Online appendix

Sourced here.

And then, [James] Buchanan offers a brief comment on his views on education and school vouchers. Critically, he voices reservations about the introduction of vouchers. Why? Because, as he writes, he is concerned “somehow, to avoid the evils of race-class-cultural segregation that an unregulated voucher scheme might introduce.” Buchanan then goes on to express support for introducing competition in the provision of education, but notes that this should be done in a way that serves “at the same time, to secure the potential benefits of commonly shared experiences, including exposure to other races, classes, and cultures.” In short, though brief, Buchanan’s letter eloquently expresses a vision of education that champions the value of diversity, explicitly condemns “the evils of race-class-cultural segregation,” and notes his reservations about school vouchers if they threaten these values.

That is from Georg Vanberg, and this is fully consistent with the twenty or so years I had of frank conversations with the man.  Here is the letter itself (pdf).

I suspect most of you have followed (to varying degrees) the recent controversies over gender hostility in economics.  What I find striking is that hardly anyone has mentioned the movement known as “Feminist economics.”  And yes that is a formal thing, here is Wikipedia on “Feminist economics”:

Feminist economics is the critical study of economics including its methodology, epistemology, history and empirical research, attempting to overcome androcentric (male and patriarchal) biases. It focuses on topics of particular relevance to women, such as care work or occupational segregation (exclusion of women and minorities from certain fields); deficiencies of economic models, such as disregarding intra-household bargaining; new forms of data collection and measurement such as the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), and more gender-aware theories such as the capabilities approach.[1] Feminist economics ultimately seeks to produce a more gender inclusive economics.

There is much more to a very long, thoughtful, and well-documented entry, and feminist economics has been a recognized field or subfield since at least the early 1990s.  There is an entire refereed journal called…Feminist Economics.  There is a significant International Association for Feminist Economics.

Obviously “feminist economics” is a diverse area, but frequently I have seen the claim made that the very nature of economics keeps out women.  It is claimed there is too much emphasis on male modes of production, and sometimes also “male ways of thinking,” and thus economics must itself first reform before it has any chance at achieving gender parity.  There is also a common tendency to criticize Becker’s and other neoclassical theories of the family for reflecting so many implicit, underlying “male” assumptions about how families work or are supposed to work.

So yes, there is plenty awareness of overt discrimination, but writers coming from this approach see a lot of the problems as quite structural, and embedded in how economics is done.  It’s not only the attitudes of some of the male jerks.

Now you may or may not agree, or also you might feel uncomfortable with some of the levels of generalization you find in talk of “male ways of [xxxx].”  Still, many of those in Feminist economics see the structural point as very important.

It is striking to me that most of the major contributors to Feminist economics are women.  And from what I can tell, virtually all of you are ignoring them, even though we have been debating their main issue for weeks now, and they have been at this for decades.

Perhaps you are unaware of them.  The only very recent coverage I have seen is this Edwin Hadas piece, but still it doesn’t mention “Feminist economics” by name.  Here is a short, good Economist piece by S.K. (Soumaya Keynes?)  from March 2016.

The biases run deeper than you think, and they’re not just about gender discrimination.  We’ve set up a profession with super-high entry barriers for clearing the “this deserves my attention” hurdle (“top journals,” “top schools,” you can go on down the list), and then we’re befuddled when there is so much other collateral damage along the way.

Jakob B. Madsen and Fabrice Murtin have a newly published paper on this topic:

This paper constructs an original database on physical capital, labor, education, GDP, innovations, technology spillovers, and institutions to analyze the proximate determinants of British economic growth since 1270. Several approaches are taken in the paper to tackle endogeneity. We show that education has been the most important driver of income growth during the period 1270–2010, followed by knowledge stock and fixed capital, while institutions have not been robust determinants of growth. The contribution of education has been equally important before and after the first Industrial Revolution. Overall, the results give strong support to the predictions of Unified Growth Theories.

I would note two things.  First, the growth equations do at some points rely on long and (possibly arbitrary?) lags.  Second, often literacy is proxying for education, so this is more a paper about the origins of growth and the role of science, and less a study of whether formal education is about signaling or actual learning.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

This is from the 28 August 2017 Bloomberg Businessweek:

Salaries and wages: $1.8 billion

Services purchased (catering, security, etc.): $583 million

Benefits: $530 million, roughly equal to the revenue from graduate programs

Depreciation: $338 million

Real estate (leases, utilities, etc.): $345 million

Other (subcontractors, publishing): $323 million

Supplies and equipment run $257m, scholarships $142m, and interest on the debt $235m, with travel expenses, advertising, and postage at smaller amounts.

Total operating costs are $4.7 billion, with undergraduate tuition covering 6.4 percent of that, graduate tuition covering 11.2 percent.

That is from Kyle Stock, I cannot find it on-line.  (I am a biased source, but do note that the new, gated version of Bloomberg Businessweek is consistently excellent.)  One of the difficulties with scaling up, of course, is that Harvard cannot always so easily scale the quality and resources of its donors.  “Harvard as we know it” may be as large as the current set of donors can support.  And “Harvard as we know it” likes…”Harvard as we know it,” not some other Harvard.

That is the topic of my latest column from Bloomberg, here is one excerpt:

If you could directly alter your kids’ genetic profile, what would you want? It’s hard to know how the social debate would turn out after years of back and forth, but I was dismayed to read one recent research paper by psychologists Rachel M. Latham and Sophie von Stumm. The descriptive title of that work, based on survey evidence, is “Mothers want extraversion over conscientiousness or intelligence for their children.” Upon reflection, maybe that isn’t so surprising, because parents presumably want children who are fun to spend time with.

Would a more extroverted human race be desirable, all things considered? I genuinely don’t know, but at the very least I am concerned. The current mix of human personalities and institutions is a delicate balance which, for all of its flaws, has allowed society to survive and progress. I’m not looking to make a big roll of the dice on this one.

It’s also not difficult to imagine parents wanting children who are relatively well-behaved. The same research paper found that mothers, after extroversion, preferred the trait of “agreeableness” in their children, again over both intelligence and conscientiousness.

I was struck by a recent Chinese report that some parents are asking for children who are able to drink socially, for business purposes, and thus trying to avoid some genes that make it difficult to process alcohol. Caveat emptor.

Best sentence: “I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.”

Canada fact of the day

by on August 23, 2017 at 2:13 pm in Education | Permalink

That means the top 10 universities in the United States – a country of over 315 million people – at any given time are educating a grand total of only 62,150 students.

By contrast, here are the rough numbers of undergraduates at the top 3 Canadian universities:

McGill: 30,000

UBC: 47,500

UofT: 67,000

That is from Joseph Heath, via Alessandro S.  Now, you might wish to argue that the United States is optimally anti-egalitarian in having relatively small classes for its best elite universities.  But then I wonder how much more widely that logic might generalize.  I, for one, still favor Harvard and other top schools trying to do 3x or 5x with respect to their admissions.

I have a odd idea to improve diversity in the short run within the current system. Economists should create a convention (not rule) by setting the example that at least one of the reference letter writers should be female. I think this one small move could nudge people towards a big change. Young grad students will be more likely to work with women in a position of authority. Schools will try to find more senior level female economists for the department. And the young male colleagues might just behave a little better, if only to get a better working relationship and a reference from the female economist.

Yes the Chinese are ahead of us in many ways, here is one bit from an excellent article by Connie Chan:

#11 QR code as call box and information kiosk

Remember those emergency call boxes on the side of freeways? In Nanjing, China, smart street signs with QR codes provide the names and contact info for the local police. They also provide sightseeing guidance with directions, and information on how to handle a residence permit.


Since people in China believe that QR codes are here to stay, even tombstones are engraved with QR codes that memorialize the life-story — through biographies, photographs, and videos — of the deceased. From the leadership of the China Funeral Association: “In modern times, people should commemorate their deceased loved ones in modern ways”.

There is much more at the link.

Let’s start with the distiction between people and their ideas and also their behavior.  We might condemn the ideas of a person without condeming the person himself.  Of course, if the ideas are very, very bad, sometimes we condemn the person too.

We seem to mind less when the bad ideas come from another time and space altogether.  For instance, hardly anyone seems to mind if a Mexican migrant has incorrect and deeply offensive views on the Oapan-Sam Miguel land disputes.  Those beliefs, even if they sanction violence against innocents for the purposes of land grabs, don’t impinge much on current American status competitions.  Similary, I don’t see that many objections to intellectual “monuments” erected in favor of classical Athens, in spite of the significant role of slavery in that society.  The pro-Athenian faction isn’t going to command any electoral votes the next cycle.  Was Joan of Arc problematic?

How many people object if a high percentage of the best jobs for Indian-Americans go to members of higher castes?  Does anyone push for affirmative action within the Indian-American community?  Not that I am aware of.  Those status contests aren’t salient for most of us.

I see many people who have behaved very badly — and here I mean legally convicted criminals — but where the prevailing “mood affiliation” among American liberal intellectuals is to favor their rehabilitation.  For instance, if a company does not ask job applicants if they have criminal records, this is considered to be good, and maybe it is.  For one thing, many of those criminals are the products of bad circumstances and we may have various (true) theories that help to excuse their behavior.  So we don’t go to the nth degree to shame and disgrace those ex-criminals, even if they have been convicted of prior violent activities.

How are we then to feel about contemporary neo-Nazis?  Most of them have not been convicted of anything at all.  Yet right now we are going to great lengths to shame and disgrace them.  We regard them as on a lower moral rung than the convicted criminals.  But is wishing for violence that much worse than having committed it yourself?

Or sometimes those two qualities go together.  If you are a neo-Nazi and you have committed a violent act, like the guy who drove that car into the crowd, it seems OK to put your photo on the internet in any kind of stereotypically despised, lookist, “white filth” portrayal that is possible, with maximum scorn and contempt.  Should we cover a prisoner on Death Row the same way?  What about someone who has been judged mentally ill?  What if in the meantime we simply do not know?

There may be a good utilitarian reason for the distinctions we draw, namely that we wish to discourage neo-Nazi behavior, and the behavior of potential copycats, for future-oriented reasons.   (Is that shaming even the most effective way to do so?  We don’t seem to obsess over shame threats for convicted criminals, to keep them — and others — on “the right track.”).  Perhaps shaming and disgracing them is necessary because they hold very bad ideologies, and perhaps potentially contagious ideologies, ideologies that most violent criminals do not seem to promulgate.

Maybe this utilitarian view is correct, namely that the shaming of an individual should depend on social context and political impact, and not just on the prior behavior of that individual.  But then notice what we are doing, we are moving away from moral individualism ourselves, and treating the shamed person as a means in the Kantian sense.  I even feel that such shaming makes me a slight bit like them, in a way I wish to avoid.

Do I have the option of just feeling sorry for the neo-Nazis, and at the same time dreading their possible social impact, in the way one might dread and hate a tornado?  But not shaming or scolding them?

Or should I feel bad about benefiting from the shaming activities of others, and being a kind of free-riding Kantian moral purist?

What if deterrence is not your actual goal with the shaming, but rather you are shaming for the purposes of motivating your own “troops”?

Another group being shamed over the course of the last week has been the misogynistic EJMR posters.  But I am curious as to the implicit theories held by the shamers here.  Why do those men write such nasty things?  Is it all just bad socialization, or might some of them them have a genetic inclination toward such behavior?  But once we consider the latter, we seem dangerously into the kind of stereotyping we were objecting to just a moment ago, when we sought to shame them.

What if sexual bullying lies deep in male DNA?  Not for everyone of course, but for some people.  And those same people may well have grown up in disadvantageous circumstances, surrounded by the wrong kinds of nerds, and then they ended up sad and broken on EJMR, for lack of having had the right role models.

Overall I am not impressed by how most of you are writing and thinking about these issues.  I wish to shame you a bit.  Everyone wishes to shame someone.  For me it’s you — sorry!

The gap between the unemployment rates in north and south, for instance, will soon be wider than that between east and west (see chart 2). In the New Social Market Economy Initiative’s education rankings, Saxony and Thuringia took the two highest places among Germany’s 16 states while Berlin and Brandenburg, also eastern states, took the two lowest. The north-south divide on life expectancy is now greater than the east-west one; women in Baden-Württemberg and Saxony live the longest. According to André Wolf of the Hamburg Global Economics Institute, “in the medium term the north-south differential could definitely supersede the (current) east-west one.”

In 1960, however, Bavaria was the poorest part of West Germany.

That is from The Economist.

Here is the transcript and audio (no video).

We discuss what makes Florida special, why business writing is so terrible, Eddie Murphy, whether social conservatives can be funny (in public), the weirdness of Peter Pan, how he is so productive, playing guitar with Roger McGuinn, DT, the future of comedy, and much much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If I look at old slapstick, it doesn’t seem funny at all. Intuitively, you would think slapstick, being only physical, would have a much longer half-life. What I find funny is very culturally specific references. Now, am I strange?

BARRY: Well, not about slapstick. When I was a little guy, I maybe thought that the Three Stooges were kind of funny but that stopped a long time ago. Some physical humor is still funny to me. Abbott and Costello were pretty physical, but they were funny without being slapstick. Just hitting each other in the nose and going, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” never struck me as funny at all. I have forgotten the second part of your question.

On different comedians and what’s not funny anymore

COWEN: You mentioned Abbott and Costello. If you’re willing, I’ll talk about a few comedians, or mention a few, and you can tell me what you found funny with them, didn’t find funny.

Let’s start with Abbott and Costello. Favorite of my father. I’ve watched almost all the movies. As I kid, I didn’t find them funny, but I actually started to find them funny in retrospect after having watched a bit of Seinfeld and Larry David. What’s your take on Abbott and Costello?

BARRY: Yeah, I can see the connection there. It more relies on you letting it — the humor — slowly develop and the characters themselves being the humor without coming right out and saying what’s funny about it: The one who never understands what’s going on, the one who’s always losing his patience with the other one. The first, maybe, three or four times, it’s just mildly amusing. But after a while, when you see it coming, that becomes very funny to you.

It’s very rare to find that kind of patience in humor anymore. I don’t think the audience is as generous as it used to be, allowing humor to build the way it did in an Abbott and Costello sketch.

COWEN: And is Abbott or Costello funnier to you? Abbott being the straight man.

BARRY: Yeah, I think Abbott is funnier.

COWEN: I think he’s much funnier.

Most of all, I was impressed by Dave Barry as a managerial force for his own career.  Again, here is the link.

It is long, and thus below the fold… Read More →

A University of Georgia professor has adopted a “stress reduction policy” that will allow students to select their own grades if they “feel unduly stressed” by the ones they earned.

According to online course syllabi for two of Dr. Richard Watson’s fall business courses, he has introduced the policy because “emotional reactions to stressful situations can have profound consequences for all involved.”

Here is a bit more, but you get the idea.  On RateMyProfessor, some considered him tough.