Category: Education

My Conversation with the excellent Ruth Scurr

A fine discourse all around, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Ruth joined Tyler to discuss why she considers Danton the hero of the French Revolution, why the Jacobins were so male-obsessed, the wit behind Condorcet’s idea of a mechanical king, the influence of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments during and after the Reign of Terror, why 18th-century French thinkers were obsessed with finding forms of government that would fit with emerging market forces, whether Hayek’s critique of French Enlightenment theorists is correct, the relationship between the French Revolution and today’s woke culture, the truth about Napoleon’s diplomatic skills, the poor prospects for pitching biographies to publishers, why Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws would be her desert island read, why Cambridge is a better city than Oxford, why the Times Literary Supplement remains important today, what she loves about Elena Ferrante’s writing, how she stays open as a biographer, and more.

And an excerpt:

COWEN: Is there a counterfactual path where the French Revolution simply works out well as a liberal revolution? If so, what would have needed to have been different?

SCURR: In terms of counterfactuals, the one I thought most about was, What would have happened if Robespierre hadn’t fallen at Thermidor and the relationship between him and [Louis Antoine Léon de] Saint-Just had continued? But that’s not the triumph of the liberal revolution. That would have merely been a continuation of the point they had gotten to. For a triumph of the liberal revolution, that would have needed to be much, much earlier.

I think that it was almost impossible for them to get a liberal constitution in place in time to make that a possibility. What you have is 1789, the liberal aspirations, the hopes, the Declaration of Rights; and then there is almost a hiatus period in which they are struggling to design the institutions. And that is the period which, if it could have been compressed, if there could have been more quickly a stability introduced . . .

Some of the people I’m most interested in in that period were very interested in what has to be true about the society in order for it to have a stable constitution. Obviously when you’re in the middle of a revolution and you’re struggling to come up with those solutions, then there is the opening to chaos.

Definitely recommended.  And I am again happy to recommend Ruth’s new book Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows.

What should I ask Russ Roberts?

I will be doing a podcast with him, specifically focusing on his decision to emigrate to Israel.  Here are the suggestions that Russ solicited from Twitter.  We will release the episode both on EconTalk and on CWT.

So what should I ask him?  Keep in mind this is the Conversation with Russ I want to have…

Greg Caskey, GMU job candidate

Greg Caskey is my student and a Ph.D. Candidate in his 4th year. He focuses on applied microeconomics, economic development, and political economy, particularly regarding the role of China in the developing world. His job market paper, “Chinese Development Lending & the Amplification Effect”, examines the effects of Chinese official lending and foreign aid upon the political institutions of 100+ developing nations. Using a variety of estimators on panel data over the period of 2002-2017, he finds an “amplification effect” with respect to Chinese development flows. While Chinese aid amplifies the existing institutional orientation of both autocratic and democratic recipient nations, this effect exhibits a greater magnitude in autocracies, as sampled autocratic recipients become more autocratic in their institutional orientation, relative to sampled democratic recipients becoming more democratic.

His dissertation is Three Essays on the Role of China in the Developing World, and one chapter considers Chinese policy toward the Uighurs. Greg has several publications and also revise-and-resubmits at good journals, please let me know if you would like my letter of recommendation for him! He is a great teacher too with lots of experience.

Why did southern Italy lag behind?

I’ve long been suspicious of the “deep deep” roots theory of southern Italian stagnation, given the Neapolitan Enlightenment in the 18th century.  This explanation, however, at least in principle makes more sense to me:

The provincial gap in human capital at the time of Italy’s unification is a plausible explanation for the North–South divide of the following decades. We show that the roots of the literacy gap that existed in 1861 can be traced back to Napoleonic educational reforms enacted between 1801 and 1814. We use exogenous variation in provincial distance to Paris to quantify effects, linking the duration of Napoleonic control to human capital. If the south had experienced the same Napoleonic impact as the north, southern literacy rates would have been up to 70 percent higher than they were in 1861.

That is from M. Postigliola and M. Rota in European Review of Economic History.  Might Napoleon be underrated?

Congratulations to Joshua Broggi of Woolf University

An EV winner I might add, here is the news:

“Our software platform helps organizations meet and maintain regulatory and university standards by handling everything from course creation to degree issuance, so they get full accreditation and all the benefits of being a part of a major university while staying independent.”

Economics job market observations

As you may recall, each year I scour the job market websites to see what new job candidates are working on and presenting.  Unlike many years, this year I did not find the top or most interesting papers at Harvard and MIT.  Northwestern and UC Davis seem to be producing notable students.  More broadly, interest in economic history continues to grow, and the same is true for urban, regional, and health care economics.  There were fewer papers on macro than five or ten years ago, and very few on monetary economics or crypto.  Theory papers are rare.  Overall, the women seem to be doing more interesting work than the men.  Many schools seem to be putting out fewer students than usual.  University of Wisconsin at Madison was the website with (by far) the most “pronouns” listed.  I fear that this year’s search was more boring than usual, at least for my tastes, due to hyperspecialization of the candidates and their research topics.  Perhaps the worst offender was papers based on balkanized, non-generalizable data sources.  I’ll be continuing to look at a few more sites.

Connecticut fact of the day

Over the last two decades, the number of managerial and professional staff that Yale employs has risen three times faster than the undergraduate student body, according to University financial reports. The group’s 44.7 percent expansion since 2003 has had detrimental effects on faculty, students and tuition, according to eight faculty members.

In 2003, when 5,307 undergraduate students studied on campus, the University employed 3,500 administrators and managers. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on student enrollment, only 600 more students were living and studying at Yale, yet the number of administrators had risen by more than 1,500 — a nearly 45 percent hike. In 2018, The Chronicle of Higher Education found that Yale had the highest manager-to-student ratio of any Ivy League university, and the fifth highest in the nation among four-year private colleges.

The full article offers a number of competing explanations for this development.  Perhaps all of them are true!

Yglesias on CRT

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on schooling and politics emphasizing three points. First, there is a lot of diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) nonsense which the schools are using to train teachers and administrators. Second, at the same time the school administrators/teacher’s unions are generally ignoring the very real cost to children and parents of the school closures, including the costs of a widening racial gap. Third, the schools are stigmatizing testing under the guise of promoting equity but in reality because the teacher’s unions know that when you test children you learn that not all teachers are equally capable.

[The DC Public Schools] also recommend that people read a bunch of Robin DiAngelo books and brag that “more than 2,000 DCPS staff have participated in Courageous Conversation training.” But is Courageous Conversation training a good idea? This NYT Magazine profile of the company and its founder made it sound pretty bad:

Singleton, who holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and who did stints in advertising and college admissions before founding what’s now known as Courageous Conversation in 1992, talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.” He spoke about how the ancient Egyptians had “ideas about how humanity works that never had that scientific-hypothesis construction” and so aren’t recognized. “This is a good way of dismissing people. And this,” he continued, shifting forward thousands of years, “is one of the challenges in the diversity-equity-inclusion space; folks keep asking for data. How do you quantify, in a way that is scientific — numbers and that kind of thing — what people feel when they’re feeling marginalized?” For Singleton, society’s primary intellectual values are bound up with this marginalization.

I don’t think Frankfurt School Marxists are going to take over society by injecting these ideas into K-12 schools or anything like that. What I so think is that time and money is being wasted on initiatives that are run by people who are somewhere between stupid and fraudulent.

And it’s important to take that seriously, not just because someone somewhere may take these goofy ideas seriously (see prior commentary about Tema Okun), but because fiscal tradeoffs are real. Dollars spent on DEI trainings that come with zero proof of efficacy are dollars that can’t be invested in things like D.C.’s successful teacher bonus pay program, updating school air conditioning, improving school lunches, reducing kids’ exposure to air pollution and lead poisoning, or any of the other various interventions that have decent evidence behind them.

Of course when I say that investing in higher quality school lunches is good for kids’ learning, what I mean is that it’s good as measured on standardized tests.

Standardized testing has become a weird discourse flashpoint, but I think everyone agrees that you can, in principle, assess someone’s competence in a given subject area with a test. And if you want to compare different people, you need to give them the same test. It’s only by making comparisons across classrooms and across time that we are able to persuasively demonstrate that particulates are bad for school performance, healthy meals are good for school performance, and air conditioning improves school performance in the summer.

All this would be uncontroversial, I think, except teachers’ unions don’t like the idea of assessing teachers based on their job performance.

Read the whole thing and subscribe to Slow Boring.

The University of Austin

A new university is being founded.  Here is part of the statement from its new president, Pano Kanelos:

As I write this, I am sitting in my new office (boxes still waiting to be unpacked) in balmy Austin, Texas, where I moved three months ago from my previous post as president of St. John’s College in Annapolis.

I am not alone.

Our project began with a small gathering of those concerned about the state of higher educationNiall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, Arthur Brooks, and Iand we have since been joined by many others, including the brave professors mentioned above, Kathleen Stock, Dorian Abbot and Peter Boghossian.

We count among our numbers university presidents: Robert Zimmer, Larry Summers, John Nunes, and Gordon Gee, and leading academics, such as Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, Leon Kass, Jonathan Haidt,  Glenn Loury, Joshua Katz, Vickie Sullivan, Geoffrey Stone, Bill McClay, and Tyler Cowen [TC: I am on the advisory board].

We are also joined by journalists, artists, philanthropists, researchers, and public intellectuals, including Lex Fridman, Andrew Sullivan, Rob Henderson, Caitlin Flanagan, David Mamet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sohrab Ahmari, Stacy Hock, Jonathan Rauch, and Nadine Strossen.

You can follow the school on Twitter here.

My Conversation with David Salle

I was honored to visit his home and painting studio, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

David joined Tyler to discuss the fifteen (or so) functions of good art, why it’s easier to write about money than art, what’s gone wrong with art criticism today, how to cultivate good taste, the reasons museum curators tend to be risk-averse, the effect of modern artistic training on contemporary art, the evolution of Cézanne, how the centrality of photography is changing fine art, what makes some artists’ retrospectives more compelling than others, the physical challenges of painting on a large scale, how artists view museums differently, how a painting goes wrong, where his paintings end up, what great collectors have in common, how artists collect art differently, why Frank O’Hara was so important to Alex Katz and himself, what he loves about the films of Preston Sturges, why The Sopranos is a model of artistic expression, how we should change intellectual property law for artists, the disappointing puritanism of the avant-garde, and more.

And excerpt:

COWEN: Yes, but just to be very concrete, let’s say someone asks you, “I want to take one actionable step tomorrow to learn more about art.” And they are a smart, highly educated person, but have not spent much time in the art world. What should they actually do other than look at art, on the reading level?

SALLE: On the reading level? Oh God, Tyler, that’s hard. I’ll have to think about it. I’ll have to come back with an answer in a few minutes. I’m not sure there’s anything concretely to do on the reading level. There probably is — just not coming to mind.

There’s Henry Geldzahler, who wrote a book very late in his life, at the end of his life. I can’t remember the title, but he addresses the problem of something which is almost a taboo — how do you acquire taste? — which is, in a sense, what we’re talking about. It’s something one can’t even speak about in polite society among art historians or art critics.

Taste is considered to be something not worth discussing. It’s simply, we’re all above that. Taste is, in a sense, something that has to do with Hallmark greeting cards — but it’s not true. Taste is what we have to work with. It’s a way of describing human experience.

Henry, who was the first curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was a wonderful guy and a wonderful raconteur. Henry basically answers your question: find ways, start collecting. “Okay, but I don’t have any money. How can I collect art?” You don’t have to collect great paintings. Just go to the flea market and buy a vase for 5 bucks. Bring it back to your room, live with it, and look at it.

Pretty soon, you’ll start to make distinctions about it. Eventually, if you’re really paying attention to your own reactions, you’ll use it up. You’ll give that to somebody else, and you’ll go back to the flea market, and you buy another, slightly better vase, and you bring that home and live with that. And so the process goes. That’s very real. It’s very concrete.

And:

COWEN: As you know, the 17th century in European painting is a quite special time. You have Velásquez, you have Rubens, you have Bruegel, much, much more. And there are so many talented painters today. Why can they not paint in that style anymore? Or can they? What stops them?

SALLE: Artists are trained in such a vastly different way than in the 17th, 18th, or even the 19th century. We didn’t have the training. We’re not trained in an apprentice guild situation where the apprenticeship starts very early in life, and people who exhibit talent in drawing or painting are moved on to the next level.

Today painters are trained in professional art schools. People reach school at the normal age — 18, 20, 22, something in grad school, and then they’re in a big hurry. If it’s something you can’t master or show proficiency in quickly, let’s just drop it and move on.

There are other reasons as well, cultural reasons. For many years or decades, painting in, let’s say, the style of Velásquez or even the style of Manet — what would have been the reason for it? What would have been the motivation for it, even assuming that one could do it? Modernism, from whenever we date it, from 1900 to 1990, was such a persuasive argument. It was such an inclusive and exciting and dynamic argument that what possibly could have been the reason to want to take a step back 200 years in history and paint like an earlier painter?

It is a bit slow at the very beginning, otherwise excellent throughout.

The Price of COVID-19 Risk In A Public University

Wow. Duha Altindag, Samuel Cole and R. Alan Seals Jr, three professors in the economics department at Auburn University, study their own university’s COVID policies. The administration defied the Alabama Governor’s public health order on social distancing and created their own policy which caused enrollment in about half of the face-to-face classes to exceed legal limits. Professors assigned to teach these riskier classes were less powerful, albeit they were paid more to take on the risk. I am told that the administration is not happy. I hope the authors have tenure.

We study a “market” for occupational COVID-19 risk at Auburn University, a large public school in the US. The university’s practices in Spring 2021 caused approximately half of the face-to-face classes to have enrollments above the legal capacity allowed by state law, which followed CDC’s social distancing guidelines. Our results suggest that the politically less powerful instructors, such as graduate student teaching assistants and adjunct instructors, as well as women, were systematically recruited to deliver their courses in riskier classrooms. Using the dispersibility of each class as an instrument for classroom risk, our IV estimates obtained from hedonic wage regressions show that instructors who taught at least one risky class were paid more than those who exclusively taught safe courses. We estimate a COVID-19 risk premium of $8,400 per class.

My Conversation with Stanley McChrystal

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether we’ve gotten better or worse at analyzing risk, the dangerous urge among policymakers to oversimplify the past, why being a good military commander is about more than winning battlefield victories, why we’re underestimating the risk that China will invade Taiwan, how to maintain a long view of history, what set Henry Kissinger apart, the usefulness of war games, how well we understand China and Russia, why there haven’t been any major attacks on US soil since 9/11, the danger of a “soldier class” in America, his take on wokeness and the military, what’s needed to have women as truly senior commanders in the armed forces, why officers with bad experiences should still be considered for promotion, how to address extremists in the military, why he supports a draft, the most interesting class he took at West Point, how to care for disabled veterans, his advice to enlisted soldiers on writing a will, the most emotionally difficult part and greatest joys of his military career, the prospect of drone assassinations, what he eats for his only meal of the day, why he’s done writing books, and more.

And:

COWEN: If we had to shrink one capacity of the military, say, by 50 percent, and double the capacity of another, what would you pick to shrink and what to expand?

MCCHRYSTAL: This is always the tough one. I tend to think that the maneuver warfare part that we have created for ground warfare in Europe or in the Mideast is probably somewhere where we have to accept some risk. We have to have fewer capabilities there. You could even argue maybe the number of aircraft carriers — big capital things.

I think where we can’t afford — and therefore, I would invest — is in really good people. Now, that seems like a simplistic answer, but we are going to need very crafty people at things like cyber warfare. We’re going to need very innovative people. We’re going to need people with cultural acuity, which means language skills, and that’s going to be more important. So if I was advocating, I’d be leaning toward resourcing harder in those areas.

COWEN: Now, of course, your father was a general. You come from a military family. Why is it that military recruitment, right now, is so well predicted by having had a parent in the armed forces? What’s driving that? And how can we take advantage of that to recruit additional people?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, we’ve taken advantage of it to the point where it may be counterproductive now. When I would travel the battlefields and go to small bases, invariably, the sergeant or lieutenant in charge was the son or daughter of a friend of mine. In one way, it’s comforting because you know people have entered the service with open eyes and clear expectations, and they make good soldiers, but you don’t want a soldier class in America.

Definitely recommended, there is also a segment about disabled veterans and their rights.  And again here is Stan’s new book Risk: A User’s Guide, co-authored with Anna Butrico.

Average is over

Thirteen-year-olds saw unprecedented declines in both reading and math between 2012 and 2020, according to scores released this morning from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Consistent with several years of previous data, the results point to a clear and widening cleavage between America’s highest- and lowest-performing students and raise urgent questions about how to reverse prolonged academic stagnation.

The scores offer more discouraging evidence from NAEP, often referred to as “the Nation’s Report Card.” Various iterations of the exam, each tracking different subjects and age groups over several years, have now shown flat or falling numbers…

both reading and math results for nine-year-olds have made no headway; scores were flat for every ethnic and gender subgroup of younger children — with the exception of nine-year-old girls, who scored five points worse on math than they had in 2012. Their dip in performance produced a gender gap for the age group that did not exist on the test’s last iteration.

More ominous were the results for 13-year-olds, who experienced statistically significant drops of three and five points in reading and math, respectively. Compared with math performance in 2012, boys overall lost five points, and girls overall lost six points. Black students dropped eight points and Hispanic students four points; both decreases widened their score gap with white students, whose scores were statistically unchanged from 2012.

In keeping with previous NAEP releases, the scores also showed significant drops in performance among low-performing test-takers. Most disturbing: Declines among 13-year-olds scoring at the 10th percentile of reading mean that the group’s literacy performance is not significantly improved compared with 1971, when the test was first administered. In all other age/subject configurations, students placing at all levels of the achievement spectrum have gained ground over the last half-century.

Here is the full story, please note these are pre-Covid test scores, arguably now the problem could be worse.  Via Luke, a concerned human.