Category: Education

Patience and educational achievement

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

Economists have once again entered the fray, this time with a study that tries to determine how patience is correlated with better educational outcomes. The results are impressive, albeit unsettling. In Italy, differing degrees of patience account for two-thirds of the achievement variation across the country’s regions. In the US, differing degrees of patience account for one-third of the variation in educational outcomes across states, a smaller amount but still notable.

Before I go any further, you might be wondering which are the most patient states. They are (in alphabetical order) Maine, Montana, Vermont and Wyoming. The least patient state? California. In Italy, patience is highest in the northern region bordering Austria, which has a relatively Germanic culture and history. Patience is the lowest by far in Sicily. In both Italy and the US, patience is generally greater in the North than in the South.

These results do not necessarily mean that lower patience results in lower grades. It could be that doing well in school makes you more patient, because you learn that working hard has its own rewards, and that may lengthen your time horizon. Or there may be some underlying factor, say conscientiousness, that is key to both patience and academic achievement.

Still, it is hard to avoid the overall impression that there is a tight connection between certain “bourgeois virtues” and academic achievement. If you are a parent, you might want to be rooting for your child to be more patient rather than less, no matter how complex all the interrelationships among the various personal and cultural attributes may turn out to be.

The researchers estimated patience by an ingenious method. There is already a widely accepted global preference survey that measures patience across nations. They then used Facebook data on interests, clicks and likes to see which interests were most popular in the more patient nations. Then they examined that data to see how popular those interests were in the various regions of those countries.

Here is the underyling research by Eric A. Hanushek, Lavinia Kinne, Pietro Sancassani, and Ludger Woessmann.  I do consider whether “patience” is exactly the right word for what is going on here.  Hat tip also to The Wisdom of Garett Jones.

My excellent Conversation with Lazarus Lake, ultra-marathons

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

Lazarus Lake is a renowned ultramarathon runner and designer. His most famous creation (along with his friend Raw Dog) is the Barkley Marathons, an absurdly difficult 100-mile race through the Tennessee wilderness that only 17 people have ever finished in its nearly 30-year existence.

]Tyler and Laz discuss what running 100 miles tells you about yourself that running 26 miles does not, why so many STEM professionals do ultramarathons, which skill holds people back the most, why his entrance fee is no more or less than $1.60, the importance of the Barkley’s opaque application process, how much each race costs to mount, whether he sees a decline in stoicism and inner strength in America, what accounting taught him about running, which books influenced him the most, who’s going to win the NBA title next year, how he’s coping with increasing fame, the competition he’s most focused on now, and more.

And one excerpt:

COWEN: Of all of those skills, which is the most scarce? Which holds people back the most, apart from just the running and the endurance? What are they most likely to screw up?

LAKE: I think these days, navigation is a bigger problem than it used to be because people have become dependent upon GPS. If you don’t use part of your brain, it withers. If you’re not accustomed to knowing, in your head, where you are and just listening for a little voice to tell you when to turn next, it’s something of a problem because they don’t get to take GPS.

COWEN: They literally end up lost in the woods, some people.

LAKE: It happens.

COWEN: What happens to them then? They stay there for the rest of their lives? They wander slowly back to civilization, or . . . What becomes of them? They send out a call for help?

LAKE: If they don’t find their way out in a couple of days, we’ll go look for them. Usually, they will. So far, they’ve always found their way out.

COWEN: That’s the incentive.

LAKE: Sometimes they wander around for an extended period of time lost, but that’s what they signed up for. They’re on their own. All the electronics and all the conveniences of modern life are gone, and they just rely on themselves.


COWEN: How did carrying bodies to the morgue influence your subsequent life?

LAKE: [laughs] How did you know I did that?

As I’ve said before, CWT guests who do not have a college degree are better on average (in equilibrium).

How AI will change student evaluation

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

The main point is that grades will come to mean something different. Traditionally, at least in theory, grades have been a measure of how well a student understands the material. If they got an A in US history, presumably they could identify many of the founders. In the future, an A will mark a kind of conscientiousness: It will mean that, at the very least, they applied their AI consistently to the questions at hand. Whether that counts as “cheating” or “allowed” will depend on the policies of the relevant educational institution, but anti-AI software is not reliable and anti-AI rules cannot be enforced very readily.

“Applied their AI consistently” might sound unimpressive as a certification. But I have known many students over the years who don’t meet even that standard. They may neglect to hand in homework or fail to monitor due dates. They may or may not know the relevant material — often they do not — and it is not at all clear to me that current AI technology will automatically enable them to get good grades.

In other words, an academic system replete with AI is still is testing for something, even if it is much less glorious than what we might have hoped for. Over time grades will come to indicate not so much knowledge of the material as a student’s ability to be organized and prepared.

The remainder of the column considers other possible changes, including greater reliance on oral exams and work done in class.

My Conversation with the excellent Jerusalem Demsas

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

In this special episode, Tyler sat down with Jerusalem Demsas, staff writer at The Atlantic, to discuss three books: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, and Of Boys and Men by Richard V. Reeves.

Spanning centuries and genres and yet provoking similar questions, these books prompted Tyler and Jerusalem to wrestle with enduring questions about human nature, gender dynamics, the purpose of travel, and moral progress, including debating whether Le Guin prefers the anarchist utopia she depicts, dissecting Swift’s stance on science and slavery, questioning if travel makes us happier or helps us understand ourselves, comparing Gulliver and Shevek’s alienation and restlessness, considering Swift’s views on the difficulty of moral progress, reflecting on how feminism links to moral progress and gender equality, contemplating whether imaginative fiction or policy analysis is more likely to spur social change, and more.

An actual conversation!  This one is difficult to excerpt, and unlike many I suspect it is better to listen than to read the transcript.  Nonetheless here is one short excerpt:

DEMSAS: Yes. The only walls on the anarchist planet [in The Dispossessed] are the ones that surround the space travel, the launching pad or whatever it is. That’s something that’s said very early on, but then you discover throughout the book how much there are all of these other “invisible walls” that he’s discovering. That’s made very explicit at times, sometimes maybe too explicit. [laughs] But I think it’s also a lesson in how much you have to have an other to compare yourself to in order to even understand yourself.

He’s alone for a really long time, and when he’s doing his studies at the beginning or in the middle of the book, and he can’t get these scientific breakthroughs that he inevitably does get to — it’s when he starts interacting with other people and rebuilding those bonds with other humans that you do actually get these breakthroughs. I think that’s also another point in favor of Le Guin pointing out that communitarianism is important.


Who Runs the AEA?

That is a new JEL publication (gated) by Kevin D. Hoover and Andrej Svorenčík, here is the abstract:

The leadership structure of the American Economic Association is documented using a biographical database covering every officer and losing candidate for AEA offices from 1950 to 2019. The analysis focuses on institutional affiliations by education and employment. The structure is strongly hierarchical. A few institutions dominate the leadership, and their dominance has become markedly stronger over time. Broadly two types of explanations are explored: that institutional dominance is based on academic merit or that it is based on self-perpetuating privilege. Network effects that might explain the dynamic of increasing concentration are also investigated.

And this:

The current paper is based on an extensive prosopographical database covering the entire leadership of the AEA over the
1950–2019 period, including all Presidents, Presidents-elect, Vice Presidents, ordinary members of the Executive Committee, as well as the losing candidates for all elective offices, and members of the Nominating Committee.

The results?:

The 14 institutions in the table account for almost more than 80 percent of the positions for the whole 1950–2019 period. Even within this select group, the distribution is highly skewed with Harvard, the top supplying institution over the period accounting for more than a fifth of the total, and the last five universities accounting for around 2 percent each. The top five institutions, Harvard, MIT, Chicago, Columbia, and Stanford, which we designate as the first tier, account for over half (57.1 percent) of the positions over the whole period…

The authors summarize their findings:

The most obvious lessons are, perhaps, hardly surprising: the AEA leadership is overwhelmingly drawn from a small group of elite, private research universities—in the sense that its leaders were educated at these universities and, to a lesser degree, employed by them. What is less well-known is that for much of the past 70 years, the AEA leadership has been drawn predominantly from just three universities—Harvard, MIT, and Chicago.

By the way, institutional concentration has become more pronounced over time, not less.  But since about eighty percent of U.S. students go to state schools, most of those large state schools, I guess we can reconfigure all these panels to have eighty percent state school representation, rather than 80 percent elite school representation.  Right?  Right?

You may or may not like these facts (I for one am willing to admit to more elitism than are many people), for the time being I will say only this: “Do not listen to what they say, watch what they do!”

New Emergent Ventures Vertical Supports Talent Identification Projects

Here is the press release and more detail, I thank Schmidt Futures and Eddie Mandhry for their support, and there is a parallel initiative led by David Deming and Heidi Williams, focusing on the research side of talent identification (for that do not apply to Mercatus/EV).  Applications on the practitioner side for finding and developing talent are welcome at the usual Emergent Ventures site.

My Conversation with Vishy Anand

In Chennai I recorded with chess great Vishy Anand, here is the transcript, audio, and video, note the chess analysis works best on YouTube, for those of you who follow such things (you don’t have to for most of the dialogue).  Here is the episode summary:

Tyler and Vishy sat down in Chennai to discuss his breakthrough 1991 tournament win in Reggio Emilia, his technique for defeating Kasparov in rapid play, how he approached playing the volatile but brilliant Vassily Ivanchuk at his peak, a detailed breakdown of his brilliant 2013 game against Levon Aronian, dealing with distraction during a match, how he got out of a multi-year slump, Monty Python vs. Fawlty Towers, the most underrated Queen song, how far to take chess opening preparation, which style of chess will dominate in the next ten years, how AlphaZero changes what we know about the game, the key to staying a top ten player at age 53, why he thinks he’s a worse loser than Kasparov, qualities he looks for in talented young Indian chess players, picks for the best places to eat in Chennai, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Do you hate losing as much as Kasparov does?

ANAND: To me, it seems he isn’t even close to me, but I admit I can’t see him from the inside, and he probably can’t see me from the inside. When I lose, I can’t imagine anyone in the world who loses as badly as I do inside.

COWEN: You think you’re the worst at losing?

ANAND: At least that I know of. A couple of years ago, whenever people would say, “But how are you such a good loser?” I’d say, “I’m not a good loser. I’m a good actor.” I know how to stay composed in public. I can even pretend for five minutes, but I can only do it for five minutes because I know that once the press conference is over, once I can finish talking to you, I can go back to my room and hit my head against the wall because that’s what I’m longing to do now.

In fact, it’s gotten even worse because as you get on, you think, “I should have known that. I should have known that. I should have known not to do that. What is the point of doing this a thousand times and not learning anything?” You get angry with yourself much more. I hate losing much more, even than before.

COWEN: There’s an interview with Magnus on YouTube, and they ask him to rate your sanity on a scale of 1 to 10 — I don’t know if you’ve seen this — and he gives you a 10. Is he wrong?

ANAND: No, he’s completely right. He’s completely right. Sanity is being able to show the world that you are sane even when you’re insane. Therefore I’m 11.

COWEN: [laughs] Overall, how happy a lot do you think top chess players are? Say, top 20 players?

ANAND: I think they’re very happy.

Most of all, I was struck by how good a psychologist Vishy is.  Highly recommended, and you also can see whether or not I can keep up with Vishy in his chess analysis.  Note I picked a game of his from ten years ago (against Aronian), and didn’t tell him in advance which game it would be.

Twenty Years of Marginal Revolution!

Who would have guessed that after twenty years Tyler and I would still be writing Marginal Revolution! Thanks especially to Tyler, we have had multiple new posts every single day for twenty years! Incredible.

We had some idea when starting Marginal Revolution that it would provide the foundation for our eventual textbook, Modern Principles of Economics, but we didn’t imagine that it would also become the foundation for our online platform for economics education, Marginal Revolution University and Conversations with Tyler, Emergent Ventures and various other projects of Tyler and myself.

We never imagined that Marginal Revolution would one day be archived by the Library of Congress or become one of the world’s nexus points for debating and understanding events like the Financial Crisis and the Covid Pandemic. It was a shock when the first undergrad told us that they had been reading MR since the age of 12. Today, there are multiple PhD economists who grew up reading Marginal Revolution.  

In this conversation, with David Perell, we reflect on 20 years and talk about our process of writing and working together. Tyler is very funny. Tyrone makes an appearance or two, albeit never announced. (Apple podcast, Spotify).

We also thank our many readers and the commentators. You all make MR better (ok, most of you make MR better).

We are still excited to write about economics every day and we don’t think we have peaked! Let’s see what happens over the next 20 years. Thank you all.

In which sector are the top performers stupidest?

One of my core views is that the most successful performers in most (not all) areas are extremely smart and talented.  So if you are one of the (let’s say) top fifty global performers in an area, you are likely to be one sharp cookie, even if the form of your intelligence is quite different from that in say academia or the tech world.

You might that a sport such as basketball selects for height, and thus its top performers are not all that mentally impressive.  But I’ve spent a lot of time consuming the words of Lebron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (including a podcast and a dinner with the latter), and I am firmly convinced they are all extremely intelligent.  From what I’ve read about supermodels, they are also an extremely intelligent group at the very top.  There are many good-looking women, but managing your career to get to the top in a non-self-destructive fashion still requires extreme talent.

In general, most forms of top achievement involve knowing how to practice and knowing how to manage your career, both of which are likely to select for both smarts and determination.

So what then is the area where top performers are just not that smart?  Comments are open.

YouTube does not polarize, yet further results in this direction

We find that while the [YouTube] algorithm pulls users away from political extremes, this pull is asymmetric, with users being pulled away from Far Right content stronger than from Far Left. Furthermore, we show that the recommendations made by the algorithm skew left even when the user does not have a watch history.

That is from a new research paper by Hazem Ibrahim,  For further cites showing that YouTube does not polarize, see this CWT.  Via Matt Grossman.

Return to the Econ

Joshua Gans revisits life among the econ, 50 years after the classic investigation by Axel Leijonhufvud.

In Leijonhufvud’s time, economics was dominated by two super-castes which worshipped different totems.

Today, however, the super-castes are hardly to be seen and the old totems have been replaced by a singular new totem:

The technology powering the Econ runs on one precious resource, d’ta, and the work of obtaining that d’ta rests with the grads. Upon arrival in the dept, they are immediately sent into the D’ta Mines and tasked with collecting seemingly impossible quantities of the resource. They toil in dirty and unsanitary conditions. Ironically, their next task is to painstakingly clean and polish the d’ta they have extracted one at a time — sometimes millions of individual items — so they can then be sorted and made available for processing. With luck, the grads may be assigned processing tasks that take place in windowless rooms twenty-four hours a day operating a single machine. The hope is that they can then produce the new high achievement of the Econ, a tabl. It is hard to describe what a tabl is to outsiders, but it represents the outcome of finely processed d’ta. The more the tabl contains bright, bejewelling in the form of star-like symbols (*), the more valuable it is. Failure to create a sufficiently dazzled tabl means being sent back to the mines.

Listen to Lech

WashPost: Of the giants who brought down the Iron Curtain — among them Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II, Vaclav Havel — only Walesa is still with us. At 79, he still looks as vigorous as the young electrician who led a workers’ uprising against the “dictatorship of the proletariat”; forced Poland’s Marxist regime to recognize the first independent trade union in the communist world; was imprisoned under martial law only to later force his former jailers at the negotiating table to allow free elections; and who, as the first president of the newly free Poland, anchored his former Warsaw Pact country in the institutions of the West.

Sitting in his office at the European Solidarity Center, the museum built on the grounds of the old Lenin Shipyard where Solidarity was born, I asked about polls showing that half of young Americans have a positive view of socialism. What is his message for young people who have no living memory of communism? “Many young people are actually fooled to accept communism as an idea,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “There are beautiful sentences talking about equality, about justice. … But as soon as you start putting that system into practice, all sorts of serious disasters come about. But young people quite often don’t know it. We have experience [with socialism], so we really know something about it. So, I strongly recommend rejecting it.”