Admissions officers are traveling hundreds of miles with a live animal to inform high-school seniors they have been accepted to a college—and to urge them to enroll. It’s not just the star athletes or scholarship winners who get the treatment. It is pretty much anyone, a tactic driven by competition to snag the declining number of college-bound high-school students.

I would have brought a schnauzer:

Trip [the bulldog] is “not generally a heavy drooler unless there is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich nearby and then he drools like crazy,” said Michael Kaltenmark, his handler and the school’s director of external relations. “Unless someone is actively making dinner in front of him he’s going to be fine.”

Trip’ silver collar is valued at $10,000, bring on the direct instruction.

That is from Douglas Belkin at the WSJ, courtesy of the excellent Samir Varma.

What I’ve been reading

by on February 13, 2018 at 12:10 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Kathryn Lomas, The Rise of Rome: From the Iron Age to the Punic Wars.  A very thorough, reasonable, and well-researched account and synthesis of what we know about the origins of the Roman empire.  By my standards it is insufficiently concerned with generalizations, but I do understand how many might consider that an advantage.

2. Michael E. Hobart, The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide.  I wanted to love this book, and I still think it is quite important and worthy, but I don’t love reading this book.  Yet here is the first and marvelous sentence of the preface: “This book uses the history of information technology — in particular, the shift from alphabetic literacy to modern numeracy — to narrate and explain the origins of the contemporary rift between science and religion.”  After that it is dense.

3. Robert Irwin, Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography.  The most interesting material concerns Khaldun’s history as a Sufi.  Which brings me to Alexander Knysh’s Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism, which I enjoyed.  Overall I find this a fruitful area to study, and I benefited from some parts of Alexander Bevilacqua’s The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment.

4. David Hockney and Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures.  How artists have thought about space and light over the centuries, consistently interesting and insightful, wonderful color plates too.  I am not persuaded by all of Hockney’s claims about art history, but overall he is much underrated as a writer and thinker, including on the nature and import of photography.

5. Ran Abramitzky, The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World, covers the economics of the Kibbutz.

6. Jeffrey C. Stewart, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.  I don’t have the time to make my way through the details of this 900+pp. book, but upon browsing it appears to be a work of incredible quality, scope, and original research.

7. Matthew Restall, When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History.  A radical revision of the usual story, based on a careful reexamination of Spanish and Nahuatl stories.  Restall seems to be mostly correct, but I will add two points: a) I never took the older account very seriously anyway, and b) I am more interested in the new macro-story than the micro-revisions of the march and the encounter and surrender and so on.  One big difference seems to be there was more early resistance to Cortés than the common accounts would have you believe.  And outright slaughter and starvation were more important for the war in the short run than we used to think, relative to smallpox and other maladies.  In any case, this is an important book for anyone who follows this area.

In today’s developed countries, cities are thus scattered across historically important agricultural areas; as a result, there is a relatively higher degree of spatial equality in the distribution of resources within these countries.  By contrast, in today’s developing countries, cities are concentrated more on the coast where transport conditions, compared to agricultural suitability, are more favorable.

That is from Henderson, Squires, Storeygard, and Weil in the January 2018 QJE, based on light data measured by satellites.  Overall, I view this regularity as a negative for the prospects for liberalism and democracy in emerging economies, as urban concentration can encourage too much rent-seeking and kleptocracy.  It also reflects the truly amazing wisdom of (some of) our Founding Fathers, who saw a connection between liberty and decentralized agrarianism.  It suggests a certain degree of pessimism about China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.  The development of the hinterland in the United States may not be a pattern that today’s emerging economies necessarily should or could be seeking to replicate.  Which makes urban economics and Henry George all the more important.

Monday assorted links

by on February 12, 2018 at 12:29 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

What if I told you that there is a method of education which significantly raises achievement, has been shown to work for students of a wide range of abilities, races, and socio-economic levels and has been shown to be superior to other methods of instruction in hundreds of tests? Well, the method is Direct Instruction and I first told you about it in Heroes are Not Replicable. I am reminded of this by the just-published, The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research which, based on an analysis of 328 studies using 413 study designs examining outcomes in reading, math, language, other academic subjects, and affective measures (such as self-esteem), concludes:

…Our results support earlier reviews of the DI effectiveness literature. The estimated effects were consistently positive. Most estimates would be considered medium to large using the criteria generally used in the psychological literature and substantially larger than the criterion of .25 typically used in education research (Tallmadge, 1977). Using the criteria recently suggested by Lipsey et al. (2012), 6 of the 10 baseline estimates and 8 of the 10 adjusted estimates in the reduced models would be considered huge. All but one of the remaining six estimates would be considered large. Only 1 of the 20 estimates, although positive, might be seen as educationally insignificant.

…The strong positive results were similar across the 50 years of data; in articles, dissertations, and gray literature; across different types of research designs, assessments, outcome measures, and methods of calculating effects; across different types of samples and locales, student poverty status, race-ethnicity, at-risk status, and grade; across subjects and programs; after the intervention ceased; with researchers or teachers delivering the intervention; with experimental or usual comparison programs; and when other analytic methods, a broader sample, or other control variables were used.

It is very unusual to see an educational method successfully replicate across such a long period of time and across so many different margins.

Direct Instruction was pioneered by Siegfried Engelmann in the 1960s and is a scientific approach to teaching. First, a skill such as reading or subtraction is broken down into simple components, then a method to teach that component is developed and tested in lab and field. The method must be explicitly codified and when used must be free of vagueness so students are reliably led to the correct interpretation. Materials, methods and scripts are then produced for teachers to follow very closely. Students are ability not age-grouped and no student advances before mastery. The lessons are fast-paced and feedback and assessment are quick. You can get an idea of how it works in the classroom in this Thales Academy promotional video. Here is a math lesson on counting. It looks odd but it works.

Even though Direct Instruction has been shown to work in hundreds of tests it is not widely used. It’s almost as if education is not about educating.

Some people object that DI is like mass-production. This is a feature not a bug. Mass-production is one of the few ways yet discovered to produce quality on a mass scale. Any method will probably work if a heroic teacher puts in enough blood, sweat and tears but those methods don’t scale. DI scales when used by mortals which is why it consistently beats other methods in large scale tests.

Many teachers don’t like DI when first exposed to it because it requires teacher training and discipline. Teachers are not free to make up their own lesson plans. But why should they be? Lesson plans should be developed by teams of cognitive psychologists, educational researchers and other experts who test them using randomized controlled trials; not made up by amateurs who are subject to small-sample and confirmation bias. Contrary to the critics, however, DI does leave room for teachers to be creative. Actors also follow a script but some are much better than others. Instructors who use DI enjoy being effective.

Quoting the authors of the meta-analysis:

Many current curriculum recommendations, such as those included within the Common Core, promote student-led and inquiry-based approaches with substantial ambiguity in instructional practices. The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations (see also Engelmann, 2014a; Morgan, Farkas, & Maczuga, 2015; Zhang, 2016). It is clear that students make sense of and interpret the information that they are given—but their learning is enhanced only when the information presented is explicit, logically organized, and clearly sequenced. To do anything less shirks the responsibility of effective instruction.
Hat tip: Robert Pondiscio at Education Next.

In 1971 Irving Kristol said yes, today Ross Douthat says yes.  I am sympathetic with the notion that porn in the “I know it when I see it sense” is a net negative bad for society, even if it helps some people revitalize their sex lives (Alex differs).  That said, I cannot find an attractive way of censoring it.

Ross tweeted:

I think you start with the rules we have, and think about how they might be applied to ISPs.

Yet playing whack-a-mole with ISPs does not always go well, a truth to which a number of emotionally well-balanced MR commentators can attest.  And porn users and suppliers I think would be especially willing to find workarounds, including VPNs.  So I don’t think porn would end up all that ghettoized.  My fear is that the American internet would evolve rather rapidly toward Chinese-style institutions of control (though they would not used right now), without stopping porn very much, but leading to increasing calls to censor many other things too.

Keep in mind also that porn has been a major driver of innovation, not just for the VCR but for the internet too, including for means of payment, methods of streaming, and anti-piracy.  Might porn drive the demand to build networks of virtual reality?  So I’m not ready to ban it just yet.

Sunday assorted links

by on February 11, 2018 at 12:43 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Imagine giving all professional economists (and other academics) an essay test.  Determine their area of expertise, and then ask them to write a twenty-page essay on one of the most basic questions in that field.  So it might be “Why did China do so well?”  Or “what are the determinants of economic growth?”  Or “What causes business cycles?”

Some would be more specific, such as “What makes nominal prices sticky?”, or “Why are the special features of platform competition important?”  How about “How can we encourage hospitals to compete more effectively?”

They can use some numbers, but mostly they should write out the best answers they can.

Then grade the exams.

At which universities would professors do the best?  In which fields would the researchers do the best, recognizing that some face more difficult problems than do others?  In which countries?

How much should our profession be focused on being able to write good answers to such questions?

I am indebted to Chris Blattman and Arnold Kling for useful exchanges related to this topic.

Work habits while traveling

by on February 11, 2018 at 12:31 am in Education, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

Brian Hollar writes to me:

You spend quite a bit of time traveling and seem to remain highly productive while doing so. I was wondering if you’d be willing to share your work habits while you are on the road? I’ve read several interviews with you about your work habits, but am particularly interested in what is the Tyler Cowen productivity function while on the go?

My biggest piece of advice is simply to get something written every day.  No matter what, whether you are traveling or not.  No matter where you are or what you are otherwise doing.  The enemy of academic or writing productivity is “days spent doing nothing,” not “I didn’t get enough written today.”

Another piece of advice is to try what I call “the work vacation.”  Go somewhere — perhaps somewhere dangerous or disgusting — and simply plan to spend your full, normal work/writing day there.  Don’t try to see any sights or to meet any locals.  Of course you’ll end up going for walks and the like and see and meet them anyway.  But with zero pressure and more spontaneously, and in the meantime think of all that work you are getting done.  By the end of the trip it will feel like a full vacation anyway, that’s how silly your memory is.

And to address some of Brian’s specific questions (from later in the email):

I prefer physical books and printed paper to Kindle, and will pack a bigger bag to accommodate them.  I always bring a laptop and an iPad, always.  I’ll keep up with Twitter, on my iPad, during my downtime while walking around a foreign locale.  Most of my writing I do early morning and late evening.  I don’t keep any notes about my travels, except what I write on MR.  It is always possible to travel without making many plans in advance, except for a few weird holiday seasons (e.g., China) when you shouldn’t be traveling anyway.

Chicago fact of the day

by on February 10, 2018 at 2:42 pm in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

The mayhem has not spared the Cboe [Chicago Board Options Exchange], with the exchange’s share price falling by as much as 28 per cent this week. Vix futures were responsible for about 40 per cent of the exchange’s earnings growth between 2015 and 2017, according to Goldman Sachs, with ETPs accounting for roughly 20-30 per cent of the “open interest” in Vix futures in recent years.

That is from Rennison, Wigglesworth, and Johnson at the FT.

Saturday assorted links

by on February 10, 2018 at 12:31 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

From the new 4th edition of Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principles of Economics:

Increased spending and tax cuts have to be paid for. Thus, increased spending and tax cuts today will tend to be followed by decreased spending or tax increases tomorrow. When tomorrow comes and spending is reduced and taxes rise, aggregate demand will fall—this is one reason why long-run or net multipliers are smaller than short-run multipliers. Ideal fiscal policy will increase AD in bad times and pay off the bill in good times, as we show in Figure 37.5. Overall, if we can spend more in bad times when the multiplier is big and tax more in good times when the multiplier is small, the net effect will lead to higher GDP overall. Economists say that the ideal fiscal policy is counter-cyclical because when the economy is down the government should spend more, and when the economy is up the government should spend less.

Although counter-cyclical fiscal policy makes sense to economists, it often
doesn’t make sense to politicians or to voters. The views of economists violate a kind of “common sense” or folk wisdom, which says that in bad times the government should spend less and only in good times should the government spend more. After all, you and I spend less when times are bad and more when times are good, so shouldn’t the government behave similarly? If the government follows the “common sense” view, however, it will tend to make recessions deeper and booms larger, thereby making the economy more volatile, again as shown in Figure 37.5.

Even when governments do spend more in recessions, as economists suggest, they often don’t follow through on the second half of the prescription, which is to spend less during booms…This usually means that there is less room for expansionary fiscal policy when it is needed.

The 4th edition is just out, here is more information.

When a child is looking at a map, he or she is probably organizing some of the associated knowledge in terms of location or plac — “Hmm…so there’s a boot-shaped country at the bottom of Europe.”

If you say “I don’t know much about Algeria.  I should read Alastair Horne on the country, watch Battle of Algiers, and try to speak with some Algerians,” you are again organizing knowledge, and your quest for knowledge, in terms of place.

Alternatively, you might organize your knowledge in terms of historical eras, of fields of science, or in terms of people you know — “that’s Johnny’s view of the world!”  Of course we all use some combination of these methods and others.

I find that people who travel a great deal often organize their knowledge in terms of physical location.  For instance, they might be curious about visiting parts of the world they have had no previous exposure to, or alternatively they might decide “I am going to specialize in Brazil.”

I see a few advantages from organizing knowledge in terms of place:

1. It encourages objectivity, as most of us do not have strong political or partisan opinions about most other countries.  In contrast, if you set out to study “Does industrial policy work?”, you will approach your study of each place with a higher degree of bias.  Instead, just study each place, and let your conclusions about industrial policy come to you.  Quite literally, it has a useful “distancing” effect.

2. As I have mentioned, almost everyone in the world becomes an interesting potential partner in your quest for knowledge.  Even if a person doesn’t know much theory, or is not a good storyteller, almost certainly they can teach you something about the places they have lived in.

3. There are many places, so you will never feel you know so much.  And you can always be imagining the next quest.

4. Increasing returns to scale will drive your curiosity, much as one might seek to capture stones in the game of Go.  Imagine knowing all the countries that surround Uzbekistan, but never having visited Uzbekistan itself.  Oh how the passions would rise!

5. Even if distant travel is not available to you, you can study so many social science questions by comparing parts of your city, or by considering adjacent towns and their differences.

6. Folding over pages in a book, leaving books in piles on the floor, and trying to remember “where in a book you read something” are all methods of using space to better organize your knowledge.  Subsequent innovations in VR and AR may help us advance on these techniques.

Organizing knowledge in terms of place does not always encourage theoretical reasoning or thinking in terms of models.  It is therefore especially useful for people who tend to be systematizers in the first place.

In general, I believe that many people have a quite underdeveloped sense of how to use physical space as a cognitive tool.  You may recall that many medieval and Renaissance memory systems (pre-Google!) instructed the user to imagine all of the information arrayed at different points in physical space, such as in a sequence along a road, or as rooms in a house.

Similarly, if you organize your knowledge of the arts, music, and economics by country and place, many of the underlying study objects may become much more vivid to you.

Defense spending most of all, but there is also this, by Heather Long and Jeffrey Stein:

“There are a ton of unmet needs out there because of federal cuts: job training, low-income assistance programs, help for students with Pell Grants, child care assistance,” said David Reich, a senior fellow of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “This is the opportunity to make some progress with those needs. Money here will help.”

Meeting a key Democratic priority, the agreement funnels billions of dollars for several key health-care priorities — funding community health centers for two years, extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program for an additional four years (on top of six years that had been previously authorized), and staving off several cuts to Medicare and Medicaid that would have been triggered had the caps not been lifted.

“All I can say is the obvious: It’s great to get the funding for these finally nailed down,” said Tim Jost, a health-care expert at the Washington and Lee University School of Law. “It finally brings stability to some very important health-care programs.” About $7 billion will be spent on the community health centers, which provided care to 26.5 million Americans in 2016.

No, Trump and the Republicans never were going to “gut Medicare.” Overall, so many commentators on the left are fooled into thinking elected Republicans are far more ideological, and far less majoritarian and less sensitive to public opinion, than in fact they are.  Oddly, or perhaps not so, they are fooled in many of the ways that many of the Fox News viewers are fooled too.

By the way, have I told you my “gut” rule?  If you read an article or tweet these days, where “gut” is used as a verb in a non-self-reflective way, it is almost always a bad piece or tweet.  That is what my gut says at least.

Friday assorted links

by on February 9, 2018 at 12:06 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The implicit theology of Jordan Peterson: “No one has come to save you; you will have to save yourself.”

2. Comedy complaints about Facebook.

3. Not a very satisfying abstract, but what was I expecting?

4. A claim that Irish border solutions are possible.

5. Will the UK simply stop building museums?  If so, what does this say about us?

6. Can the Catholic Church become Silicon Valley once again?  “That the Catholic Church should put Silicon Valley—or any other institution or culture—to shame when it comes to world-changing innovation is not some tantalizing yet naïve prospect. It should be the baseline expectation for any educated Catholic.”  And indeed that once was the case.