Month: October 2015

New results on preschool from a Tennessee RCT

This is the most extensive and careful study of preschool (pdf) I have seen to date, conducted by Lipsey, Farran, and Hofer of Vanderbilt.  The core result is this:

The third question we addressed involved the sustainability of effects on achievement and behavior beyond kindergarten entry. Children in both groups were followed and reassessed in the spring every year with over 90% of the initial sample located tested on each wave. By the end of kindergarten, the control children had caught up to the TN‐VPK [preschool] children and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures. The same result was obtained at the end of first grade using both composite achievement measures.

In second grade, however, the groups began to diverge with the TN‐VPK children scoring lower than the control children on most of the measures. The differences were significant on both achievement composite measures and on the math subtests.

In other words, after some period of time the children who had preschool actually did worse.  I found this interesting too:

First grade teachers rated the TN‐VPK children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school. It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for VPK children in second and third grade.

So does preschool make kids more grumpy?  Immigrant children by the way did well:

…whether or not ESL children experienced TN‐VPK, by the end of third grade, their achievement was greater than either of the native English speaking groups of children.

Arnold Kling offers comment, and for the pointer I thank Peter Metrinko.

The culture that is French

The innovation-friendly Green party mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, has ordered eight vending machines to be placed in the heart of the city that will dispense literary short stories to pedestrians for free at the push of a button.

The big orange terminals have three options – stories of 1, 3 or 5 minutes – that are printed out on thin recycled paper reminiscent of a lengthy shopping bill and can be tucked into a wallet.

“The idea came to us in front of a vending machine containing chocolate bars and drinks. We said to ourselves that we could do the same thing with good quality popular literature to occupy these little unproductive moments,” Christophe Sibieude, a digital publisher who pitched the idea to the city council, told AFP.

There is more here, via Ted Gioia.

Sunday assorted links

1. Does divestment work?

2. There is a reason why it is called an aye-aye.  A good reason.

3. Rumors about coup risk in China (highly speculative, do not jump to conclusions, from the Sunday Times).

4. Is “NPR Voice” taking over the airwaves? (NYT)

5. Economics professor Eric B. Rasmusen files lawsuit against Citibank for tax evasion (NYT).

6. What’s up with electronic medical records?

7. Emil Gilels, Prokofiev piano sonata #3.

*Genghis Khan*, by Frank McLynn

The subtitle is The Man Who Conquered the World, and this is one of the very best non-fiction books of the year, quite possibly the best.  Virtually every page is fascinating and should be read carefully.  It makes intelligible a period of history which is so often a blur to the unfamiliar Western reader,and rather than just throwing a bunch of dates and facts at you it tries to make them intelligible in terms of underlying mechanisms.  Here is one summary bit:

The harshness of the Mongolian habitat and the complexities of nomadic pastoralism help to explain the many potentialities of Mongol society eventually actualised by Genghis Khan.  Care of massive and variegated herds and flocks produced a number of consequences: adaptability and ingenuity of response and initiative; mobility and the capacity for rapid mobilisation; low levels of wealth and of economic inequality; almost total absence of a division of labour; political instability.  Migration meant constant alertness and readiness to fight, since wealth in livestock is almost by definition highly vulnerable to raiding, reiving and rustling. Managing large animals was inherently more strenuous and dangerous than tending crops, so the very nature of pastoral life produced a hardier breed than would be generated by the peasantry.  Migration in peacetime also produced martial qualities via the surplus energy available for fighting, since in a pacific context warriors could leave the minutae of herding and droving to women and children.  when the fighting came, it was less destructive than for sedentary societies that had to defend fields of crops, cities, temples and other fixed points.

There were other military ‘spin-offs’ from pastoralism.  Moving huge herds of animals generated logistical skills and the capacity to navigate through uncertain terrain, coordinating with far-flung comrades while doing so.

Strongly recommended, you can buy the book here.

What I’ve been pawing through

Roger Lowenstein’s America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve covers a poorly understood topic.

Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island is nicely done but didn’t inspire me.  It’s already out in the UK.

Also arrived is Eric Rauchway, The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace.  I haven’t read it but Eric is always smart.

Jim Baggott, Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation (both life and the universe) trods a familiar path but does it much better than most, recommended.

Casey Mulligan, Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health Care Reform.

Is Chinese economic growth Solow catch-up growth?

Forget about the current troubles, or for that matter the current innovations, I’m talking about the earlier golden years.  It seems obvious to many people that Chinese growth is Solow-like catch-up growth, as the country was applying already-introduced technologies to its development.

But how many other economies have grown at about ten percent for so long?  Was there not a secret ingredient added to the mix?

Increasing returns to scale?  Understanding the importance of having networks which allow an employer to assemble so many engineers so quickly for a new project?  Something about Communist Party governance which enabled the corruption to be channeled productively into building more infrastructure rather than holding up progress?  Tiger Mom parenting combined with a relatively meritocratic exam system?

I do not find it unreasonable to postulate that two to three percentage points of that yearly growth were in fact due to innovation and increasing returns to scale in some manner.  Note that most of these innovations are useful only at China’s (previous) ppf and they are less valuable to the West, or perhaps simply not transferable.

More radically, is there some “natural,” culture-neutral rate at which innovations trickle down from the world leaders to the poorer countries?  The diversity of growth rates would seem to indicate not.  Is each country then not innovating — with varying degrees of success — by building its culture-specific net for catching and transmitting global innovations throughout the nation?

In which case we are back to catch-up growth not being entirely well-defined.

Romanian publish or perish

A change in the law in 2013 allows convicts to claim 30 days off their sentences for every work they publish while in prison. This has led Romanian tycoons and politicians imprisoned on corruption charges to indulge in a frenzy of scribbling. It is a system as corrupt as they are.

…Manuscripts must be written with pen and paper. According to Romanian journalists, wealthy prisoners generally hire outside academics as “research supervisors”. They, or other ghostwriters, do the actual writing; the work is then smuggled into jail, where the prisoner copies it out by hand. A publisher is paid to print a few copies, which are presented to the parole board, which (with no guidelines or expertise) judges whether it is worthy of a reduced sentence.

Most of the work has met with derision. Mr Copos, who wrote about the matrimonial alliances of medieval Romanian rulers, was accused of plagiarism. Mr Becali produced a picture-heavy book about his relationship with Steaua Bucharest, the football team which he controls. Realini Lupsa, a pop singer, wrote about stem cells in dental medicine. No one knows how many people have taken advantage of the system. One recent report put the figure at 73, with some prisoners producing up to five books in only a few months.

The story is here, via @DoubleEph.

Friday assorted links

1. The surprising complexity of Chinese ice cream.

2. Diane Coyle’s list of economics books from this year.

3. People want fairness, not equality for its own sake.

4. Are people who have been in your shoes less likely to empathize with you?

5. “…nonwhites are just generally less eager to join weird intellectual signaling-laden countercultural movements.”

6. “It turns out there is such a thing as too much taxidermy.”

Competition Compounded

ArsTechnica: Turing Pharmaceuticals, the company that last month raised the price of the decades-old drug Daraprim from $13.50 a pill to $750, now has a competitor.

Imprimis Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a specialty pharmaceutical company based in San Diego, announced today that it has made an alternative to Daraprim that costs about a buck a pill—or $99 for a 100-pill supply.

Good news. Competition is working. But I was puzzled. In Generic Drug Regulation and Pharmaceutical Price-Jacking, I argued that competition was slow because the FDA makes it expensive and time consuming to get a generic drug approved for sale in the United States. Was I wrong about the difficulty of generic entry? No.

The drug that Imprimis Pharmaceuticals is selling is not FDA-approved. A bit of background is in order. Even today some drugs need to be tailor-made. A patient, for example, might not be able to swallow a pill so a licensed pharmacist may create for a specific, individual patient a small batch of the drug in liquid form. A pharmacy that does this kind of work is called a compounding pharmacy.

Compounding pharmacies have a long and tendentious history with the FDA. The FDA has always claimed that a new drug is a new drug, even one created only for a specific individual. Thus, the FDA has always said that it has the right to regulate compounding pharmacies just like manufacturers of new drugs. In practice, however, the FDA allowed the industry to proceed with little regulation.

In the 1990s some compounding pharmacies began to create large batches, especially of drugs in short supply, as a way of avoiding the FDA process. The FDA worried about quality control, however, and it re-evaluated its traditional hands off approach. A political battle then ensued in which Congress and the Supreme Court also had their say. In 2012, fungal meningitis outbreaks caused by poor quality control at the New England Compounding Center brought these issue to public attention and resulted in greater regulation of compounding pharmacies, albeit with clearer regulations on when a compounding pharmacy may sell large quantities.

Imprimis Pharmaceuticals did not apply for approval to sell a generic version of Daraprim. As I argued earlier, that would take years and cost millions of dollars. Instead, it is doing an old-style end-run of the FDA process by offering its alternative under the compounding pharmacy laws. That means that it can only sell to order, on a patient by patient, prescription by prescription basis. Since Daraprim is not widely used this may work. Indeed, I hope this end run works but my reading of the act is that compounders can only supply drugs in large quantities if they are on the FDA’s shortage list. Perhaps the FDA will look the other way, however, in order to send Turing and similar firms a message.

Free college tuition for everyone?

A few of you have written in to ask what I think of the Clinton plan (NYT link) to dramatically reduce tuition for a four-year college education.  The focal point of the plan is this:

Under the plan, which was outlined by Clinton advisers on Sunday, about $175 billion in grants would go to states that guarantee that students would not have to take out loans to cover tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. In return for the money, states would have to end budget cuts to increase spending over time on higher education, while also working to slow the growth of tuition, though the plan does not require states to cap it.

By the way, here is a more extreme Bernie Sanders plan, closer to free tuition period, though in both cases a variety of details remain murky.

One issue is to debate the social value and externalities associated with a college education, but that would lead us far afield.  Let’s assume that such externalities are present.

A more pressing issue is that community college is already close to de facto free for lower-income individuals, if they piece grants and aid together.  Yet the completion rate at these colleges is at best approaching thirty-eight percent.  The real problems come before college, and encouraging more people to attend four-year colleges is unlikely to do much good.  In any case, here is further evidence that higher subsidies to community college attendance very often do not lead to more actual education.  The same or worse is likely to hold for state universities.

It could be the goal is not “college for more people” but simply to redistribute income to students who otherwise would have debt burdens.  But they, with their above average human capital, are not the most deserving recipients of additional redistribution.  Might a cynic wonder if this is simply a way to reward a constituency which often votes Democratic?  Or a way to make the Republican Congress look like meanies?

The end result of the plan would be price controls on tuition, even though the plan itself does not stipulate that.  There simply isn’t the political constituency to support an extra federal $350 billion for higher education (over ten years), plus the state kick-ins which are supposed to follow.  The federal money will sooner or later dwindle, while the tuition restrictions will stick.  In the longer run, this isn’t even a net subsidy to higher education.  In the short run higher ed quality will go down, and in the longer run the move away from tuition support will imply more fiscal starvation for these institutions rather than less.

In sum, let’s not do this.

Addendum: Here is information on the Scottish experience with free tuition.

Division of labor markets in everything is science broken after all?

There is a growing industry where publication consultants will work with authors, research groups or even institutions to help get their work published, or help submit their dissertation/thesis. This help can range from proof reading, data collection, analysis (including statistics), helping with the literature review and identifying suitable journals/conferences.

That is from a new PubMed paper, via Neuroskeptic.