Sentences to ponder

by on August 12, 2015 at 1:24 pm in Education, Medicine, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

We did not observe any individual protein-altering variants that are reproducibly associated with extremely high intelligence and within the entire distribution of intelligence.

That is from “a whole bunch of guys” writing in Molecular Psychiatry, via Michelle Dawson.  In other words, the prospect of straightforward genetic engineering for smarter babies probably won’t be a reality anytime soon.  Technology remains pretty far behind the matchmaker.

Singapore fact of the day

by on August 10, 2015 at 1:38 pm in Current Affairs, Education | Permalink

According to Morgan Stanley, Singapore’s public spending on education amounts to about 3 per cent of GDP — far behind the Nordic countries, which spend 7 per cent or more, and even Malaysia at its 6 per cent. For wider comparison, the US spends about 5.5 per cent and Hong Kong 3.5 per cent.

The FT story on Singapore’s 50th birthday is here.

One recurring problem in economics, and the other social sciences all the more, is that researchers will accept a lot of conventional wisdom on a topic if it suits their preexisting biases, especially if it is not an area which they have researched themselves.  Yet this entire question is — surprise, surprise — largely unstudied.  Social scientists love to talk about themselves, but critical self-scrutiny backed by data is less popular.

Jason Briggeman just wrote a GMU dissertation to investigate these and similar questions, here is his abstract:

In the United States and most other wealthy nations, all drugs are banned unless individually permitted. This policy, called pre-market approval, is controversial among economists; the preponderance of the economics literature that offers a judgment on pre-market approval is critical of the policy, but surveys of U.S. economists show that many, perhaps a majority, support pre-market approval. Here I analyze the results of a recent survey that asked economists who support pre-market approval to justify, with reference to the economic concept of market failure, their support of the policy. I find that, while almost all the economists surveyed could point to a market failure or failures that may plausibly exist and affect the market for pharmaceuticals, none were able to make a well reasoned connection between those market failures and the particular remedy of pre-market approval. None of the economists surveyed cited in support of their position any literature specific to pre-market approval. I supplement the survey findings with a review of relevant reading material assigned in health economics courses at top universities, searching that material for discussions of what may justify pre-market approval. I find a strong argument that the prospect of overt disasters being caused by avoidable mistakes can justify some intervention in pharmaceuticals; however, I find little to justify the other interventions that are part of pre-market approval. I suggest that future inquiry into possibilities for liberalizing reform concentrate on understanding matters such as the informational effects of product bans, the distinction between safety and efficacy, the nature of demand for drugs about which little is known, and the political economy of drug substitutes.

The upshot is that economists hold a lot of views whose justifications they cannot articulate very well.  I think you would find the same when it comes to the Ex-Im Bank (are you sure it fits the model of strategic trade theory?), the mortgage agencies (what was that externalities argument for home ownership again?) or all sorts of random regulations.  The relatively interventionist economists will pull some justification out of a hat, and the relatively pro-market economists will be pretty skeptical.

For the pointer I thank Daniel Klein.

America fact of the day

by on August 6, 2015 at 1:51 pm in Education, History | Permalink

Today, the most studied language in U.S. higher education, behind Spanish and French, is a homegrown one: American Sign Language.

The study of Spanish, by the way, is slightly in decline.

That is all from Charles King, “The Decline of International Studies: Why Flying Blind is Dangerous.

And that is by a clear margin.  Columbia is number two.  Harvard is number eleven.  UCSB > MIT.  None for Oxford.

The list is here, excluding literature and peace prizes.

As for countries, the United States is a very clear number one and the UK is number two.  Other than Japan, Asia barely has any at all.

The pointer is from Michelle Dawson.  Here is my previous post on Stanford.

Let’s stick with the living, here are a few who come to mind:

Adam Minter

Charles C. Mann

Laura Miller (formerly of, now of Slate)

Ted and Dana Gioia

Christopher Balding

Fuchsia Dunlop

Stephen King

Arnold Kling

Kendrick Lamar

Viktor Zhadanov

Chow Yun Fat

To be clear, I am not suggesting these people are deficient or lacking in status, rather that it should be higher yet.  Or maybe it is the list of people who should decline in status which interests you more

…Even Cowen tells OZY that even he doesn’t want Tabarrok to “entirely get his way” on all things…

Otherwise it is all about Alex, but that is my cameo.  It is a good and fun profile, though I think it understates Alex’s pragmatic side somewhat.  The author is Sanjena Sathian.

A few of my thoughts on teaching

by on August 4, 2015 at 3:13 am in Education | Permalink

What concrete changes would I make in schools? The idea that you need to take a whole class to learn some topic is absurd. Whatever you’ve learned is probably going to be obsolete. A class is to spur your interest, to expose you to a new role model, a new professor, to a new set of students. We should have way more classes which are way shorter. It should be much more about learning, more about variety, give up the myth that you’re teaching people how to master some topic; you’re not! You want to inspire them; it’s much more about persuasion, soft skills.

That is from a longer OECD interview with Marilyn Achiron.  By the way, here is a new and interesting Alana Semuels article on competency-based approaches.


Singapore as an independent nation will be fifty years old this August 9.  In the comments, a number of you have asked me why I find Singapore so special.

I would cite three features of the country above all else:

1. It is a place where large numbers of people are obsessed with both food and economics.

2. The citizens and leadership of Singapore have an unparalleled knowledge and understanding of economics, engineering, and public policy.  In this regard the polity is distinguished in world-historic terms, and anyone who visits is enjoying a remarkable privilege to see this in action.  In my admittedly idiosyncratic view, this is one of the best and most important sights of the contemporary world, more interesting than most natural wonders.

3. Singapore has created what is possibly the highest quality bureaucracy the world has seen, ever.  Imagine a country where you can have a serious debate as to whether there is a brain drain into the government rather than out of it!

Singapore of course, like all places, has various problems and imperfections, but I believe its significance does not receive enough recognition from outside commentators.

Here is a good article about how Singapore is seeking to export its own expertise.

Private schools for the poor are growing rapidly throughout the developing world. The Economist has a review:

PrivateSchoolingPrivate schools enroll a much bigger share of primary-school pupils in poor countries than in rich ones: a fifth, according to data compiled from official sources, up from a tenth two decades ago (see chart 1). Since they are often unregistered, this is sure to be an underestimate. A school census in Lagos in 2010-11, for example, found four times as many private schools as in government records. UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for education, estimates that half of all spending on education in poor countries comes out of parents’ pockets (see chart 2). In rich countries the share is much lower.

Overall, there is good evidence that private school systems tend to create small but meaningful increases in achievement (e.g. herehere, here, here) and especially good evidence that they do so with large costs savings. The large costs savings suggest that with the right institutional structure, which might involve vouchers and nationally comparable testing, an entrepreneurial private sector could create very large gains. Karthik Muralidharan who has done key work on private schools and performance pay in India puts it this way:

Since private schools achieved equal or better outcomes at one-third the cost, the fundamental question that needs to be asked is “How much better could private management do if they had three times their current level of per-child spending?”

The Economist notes that another promising development is national chains which can scale and more quickly adopt best practices:

…Bridge International Academies, which runs around 400 primary schools in Kenya and Uganda, and plans to open more in Nigeria and India, is the biggest, with backers including Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. Omega Schools has 38 institutions in Ghana. (Pearson, which owns 50% of The Economist, has stakes in both Bridge and Omega.) Low-cost chains with a dozen schools or fewer have recently been established in India, Nigeria, the Philippines and South Africa.

Bridge’s cost-cutting strategies include using standardised buildings made of unfinished wooden beams, corrugated steel and iron mesh, and scripted lessons that teachers recite from hand-held computers linked to a central system. That saves on teacher training and monitoring.

The Economist is somewhat skeptical of scripted lessons, known as Direct Instruction in the education world, but in fact no other teaching method has as strong a record of proven success in randomized experiments (see also here and here).

Need I also point out that online education can bring some of the best teachers in the world to everyone, everywhere at low cost? An article in Technology Review titled India loves MOOCs points out that students from India are a large fraction of online students (fyi, we are also finding many Indian students at Marginal Revolution University)

Throughout India, online education is gaining favor as a career accelerator, particularly in technical fields. Indian enrollments account for about 8 percent of worldwide activity in Coursera and 12 percent in edX, the two leading providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Only the United States’ share is clearly higher; China’s is roughly comparable.

Education is changing very rapidly and its the developing world which is leading the way.

Imagine if I wrote a post that just served up a list like this:

The people who deserve to be raised in status:

Norman Borlaug, Jon Huntsman, female Catholics from Croatia, Scottie Pippen, Yoko Ono, Gordon Tullock, Uber drivers, and Arnold Schoenberg,


The people who deserve to be lowered in status:

Donald Trump, Harper Lee, inhabitants of the province Presidente Hayes, in Paraguay, doctors, Jacques Derrida, Indira Gandhi, and Art Garfunkel

You might get a kick out of it the first time, but quickly you would grow tired of the lack of substance and indeed the sheer prejudice of the exercise.

Yet, ultimately, the topic so appeals to you all.  So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status.  It’s pretty easy — too easy in fact — to dissect most Paul Krugman blog posts along these lines.  It’s also why a lot of blog posts about foreign countries don’t generate visceral reactions, unless of course it is the Greeks and the Germans, or some other set of stand-ins for disputes closer to home (or maybe that is your home).  Chinese goings on are especially tough to parse into comparable American disputes over the status of one group vs. another.

I hypothesize that an MR blog post attracts more comments when it a) has implications for who should be raised and lowered in status, and b) has some framework in place which allows you to make analytical points, but points which ultimately translate into a conclusion about a).

Posts about immigration, the minimum wage, Greece and Germany, the worthiness of entrepreneurs vs. workers, and the rankings of different schools of thought or economists all seem to fit this bill.

Sometimes I am tempted to simply serve up the list and skip the analytics.

Addendum: Arnold Kling comments.

The subtitle is Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, and the editor is Elizabeth D. Samet.  Here’s the shocking truth: these really are writings by our greatest thinkers!  Usually I am allergic to the topic of leadership and all the more allergic to edited volumes.  But this book has well chosen excerpts from Thucydides, Cervantes, Borges, Marcus Aurelius, Tolstoy, Milton, Plutarch, and Shakespeare, among many others, and a variety of moderns, including Mandela, Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, and Osip Mandelstam’s poem on Stalin.

This is actually a remarkable book.

The University of New Hampshire’s Bias-Free Language Guide came in for widespread criticism earlier this week for possibly chilling speech by labeling words such as “American,” “illegal alien,” “foreigners,” “mothering,” and “fathering” as problematic and non-preferred.

Commendations are due, however, to university president Mark Huddleston. The UNH reports:

The associate vice president for community, equity and diversity removed the webpage this morning after a meeting with President Huddleston. The president fully supports efforts to encourage inclusivity and diversity on our campuses. He does not believe the guide was in any way helpful in achieving those goals. Speech guides or codes have no place at any American university.

The rise of Stanford economics

by on July 28, 2015 at 7:33 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

From the report of the President of the university, Raj Chetty and Matt Gentzkow will be starting at the school this fall.

And John Cochrane is moving to Hoover full-time.

In the late 1970s and 80s, MIT was undoubtedly number one as a place to study economics, even if Chicago ideas were more important and more fundamental (Becker, Fama, Posner, etc.).  Harvard passed MIT a bit later for a good twenty year run at the top.

Stanford is next.

Interesting but worrying too:

The SmartGPA study uses passive sensing data and self-reports from students’ smartphones to understand individual behavioral differences between high and low performers during a single 10-week term. We propose new methods for better understanding study (e.g., study duration) and social (e.g., partying) behavior of a group of undergraduates. We show that there are a number of important behavioral factors automatically inferred from smartphones that significantly correlate with term and cumulative GPA, including time series analysis of activity, conversational interaction, mobility, class attendance, studying, and partying. We propose a simple model based on linear regression with lasso regularization that can accurately predict cumulative GPA. The predicted GPA strongly correlates with the ground truth from students’ transcripts…Our results open the way for novel interventions to improve academic performance.

That is from a new paper by Rui Wang, Gabriella Harariy, Peilin Hao, Xia Zhou, and Andrew T. Campbell (pdf).  Class attendance, by the way, does not predict grades very well.

For the pointers I thank Eric Barker and Dan Gould.