Category: Education

Cosby was Correct

In Debunking Cosby on Blacks Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary attacks Bill Cosby for his speech last year to the NAACP. 

Poor blacks are bad parents because they waste what little money they have
buying high-priced, brand-name shoes, Cosby chided.

"All this child knows is gimme, gimme, gimme," Cosby said, according to
a transcript of the speech. "They are buying things for the kid. $500 sneakers.
For what?"

Cosby was lauded by white conservatives and some blacks for being brave
enough to speak out. But like the price of sneakers that Cosby got wrong, he was
incorrect about much of what he said.

…the comedian was rattling off
nonsense much like his Fat Albert character Mushmouth.

I was curious so I went to Table 2100 of the Consumer Expenditure Survey and found the following for 2003:

Average income of whites and other races: $53,292.
Average income of blacks: $34,485.

The survey then lists expenditures on a wide variety of goods from eggs and fish to books and televisions; to do a proper comparison we would have to correct for income and other demographic variables but some figures just jump out at you, including this:

Expenditures on footwear by whites and other races: $274
Expenditures on footwear by blacks: $440.

Chalk one up for the good Dr. Cosby. 

Why do parents talk with their childrens’ friends?

As a teenager, some of my friends became quite chummy with my parents.  But usually teenage children want their parents to stay quiet.  Why might a parent wish to talk to other teenagers?

1. The parent seeks to estimate the quality, or at least the politeness, of the child’s friends.

2. The parent wishes to feel connected to younger generations.

3. The parent is nervous and wishes to relieve the tension of quiet.  And not speaking is seen as an abdication of parental responsibility.

4. The parent wishes to establish the authority to do something the child does not like.

5. The parent finds those children genuinely interesting.

6. The parent wishes to pretend a reasonable relationship with the peers of their child, either to feel involved or to pretend that everything will be OK.

None of these motives are popular with the sons and daughters of the conversing parent.  If a put on my technocratic Paretian hat, this is sooner an activity to be taxed than subsidized.

Do cellphones have a role in education?

As a recording device, or for taking down illustrations or graphs, the multifunction mobile phone rivals, or will soon rival, the iPod. Few seem to have noticed, but a whole generation of students have taught themselves shorthand (texting, that is). This has not been exploited educationally.

Ringtone interruptions in a teaching or learning situation are, of course, intolerable. And having to overhear one-sided mobile chatter is as blood-boilingly irritating in the library or computer cluster as it is in the railway carriage. But texting enables rapid notetaking to oneself, silent interchange between auditors at a lecture, or participants in a seminar. Used conscientiously, even today’s generation of phones could be used for teaching purposes – to foster uninterruptive cross-interaction, rapid access to outside information sources, or simple queries ("what the hell did he just say, I missed it?")

I’d be a lot more confident about our universities’ ability to absorb the Gates tablet if, in the lecture hall, the signs on the wall said: "Please turn your mobile phones on".

My predictions: Using cell phones to record lectures is easy, and the playback should speed up the pace.  Might the linked information technology improve the lecture by adding material or explanation?  How about phones which flash red whenever the instructor says something questionable or controversial?  How about phones which monitor the reaction of the individual listener and send this message to the other listeners?  So if everyone else is sleeping, upset, or sexually excited, you would know about it.  Overall, I do not expect the balance of power to shift in favor of the lecturer.

Here is the source link, and thanks to you-know-who for the pointer.  Comments are open if you wish to offer your own predictions.

How to write a paper or give a seminar

At the Ph.d. level, that is.  John Cochrane has great advice throughout.  It starts as follows:

Figure out the one central and novel contribution of your paper.  Write this down in one paragraph.  As with all your writing, this must be concrete.

Here are John’s far more specific (and for most people less useful) suggestions for paper topics.

Thanks to Newmarks’ Door for the pointer, courtesy of Ngan Dinh.

The Caroline Hoxby vouchers debate

Is Caroline Hoxby’s defense of school vouchers hopelessly flawed in its data work?  I doubt it, but I have not been following this debate.  Here is the recent and excellent WSJ article on the spat; the link does not require a subscription.  Excerpt:

Five years ago Harvard’s Caroline Hoxby, a rising star in economics, wrote a paper that reached an unusual conclusion: Cities with more streams tended to have schools with higher test scores.

Today her work is a widely cited landmark in the fierce national debate over free-market competition in public schools. And it’s at the center of a bitter dispute with another economist that is riveting social scientists across the country.

Her adversary is Jesse Rothstein, a young professor at Princeton, who says her study is full of flaws. In a rebuttal to her critic, Dr. Hoxby wrote of his work: "Every claim is wrong." She has also accused him of ideological bias. Dr. Rothstein, in turn, says she resorts to "name-calling" and "ad hominem attacks" on him.

For commentary, try this Mahalanobis post, or this from MaxSpeak.  Here is a critical take on Hoxby.  Here is The Lowest Deep on the debate.  Here is Brad DeLong, my view is closest to his.

Should professors podcast their lectures on-line?

John Palmer, the Eclectic Econoclast, wonders whether he should podcast his lectures on-line; be sure to scroll down to his point #7.  Here is a recent article about podcasting university lectures (who owns the rights? who should own the rights?).

A few weeks ago, Russ Roberts at Cafe Hayek asked whether there was much demand for economics podcasts.  Being excessively terse by nature, I feel ill-suited to the podcast medium.  And I fear that podcast lectures would make some of my students stay home and also would make me more self-conscious in class.  But what do you all think?  Comments are open.

How Columbia built up its economics department

Here is the story. One excerpt:

“Especially in a place like New York, there is a big temptation to go for assembling people who will be on Charlie Rose, get written up in The New Yorker,” says David Card, who’s credited with helping rejuvenate Berkeley’s economics department. “But that has nothing to do with younger people doing research”–the true measure of a top program.

Here is their home page and list of new arriving faculty.  Thanks to Craig Newmark for the pointer.

More specific foreign words for “rent-seeking”

Do you, like me, cringe at the word "rent-seeking" to express the concept of investing resources to gain transfers of wealth from others?  (Forget about Alfred Marshall, isn’t "rent" what you pay for your apartment?  And do you really have a consistent definition which delineates "rent-seeking" from "profit-seeking," yet without begging the question?)  Here are some more specific concepts, expressed in terms of a single word, taken from a longer list of strange words.  How about these?

GRILAGEM Brazilian Portuguese

The practice of putting a live cricket into a box of newly faked documents, until the insect’s excrement makes the paper look convincingly old.

DHURNA Anglo-Indian

Extorting payment from someone by sitting at their front door and staying there without food, threatening violence, until you get paid.

SOKAIYA Japanese

A man with a few shares in several companies who extorts money by threatening to come to the shareholders’ meetings and cause trouble.

If you ever wish to teach rent-seeking to your class, just tell them about sokaiya.

How to teach microeconomics

The initiative was inspired by the discovery that there is no better way to master an idea than to write about it. Although the human brain is remarkably flexible, learning theorists now recognize that it is far better able to absorb information in some forms than others. Thus, according to the psychologist Jerome Bruner, children "turn things into stories, and when they try to make sense of their life they use the storied version of their experience as the basis for further reflection." He went on, "If they don’t catch something in a narrative structure, it doesn’t get remembered very well, and it doesn’t seem to be accessible for further kinds of mulling over." Even well into adulthood, we find it easier to process information in narrative form than in more abstract forms like equations and graphs. Most effective of all are narratives that we construct ourselves.

The economic-naturalist writing assignment plays to this strength. Learning economics is like learning a language. Real progress in both cases comes only from speaking. The economic-naturalist papers induce students to search out interesting economic stories in the world around them. When they find one, their first impulse is to tell others about it. They are also quick to recount interesting economic stories they hear from classmates. And with each retelling, they become more fluent in the underlying ideas.

Many students struggle to come up with an interesting question for their first paper. But by the time the second paper comes due, the more common difficulty is choosing which of several interesting questions to pursue.

The paper is not a complete substitute for the traditional syllabus. But the lasting impact of the course comes mainly from the papers. When students come back to visit during class reunions, the equations and graphs long since forgotten, we almost always end up talking about the questions they have posed and answered during the intervening years.

Having written this blog for over two years now, I feel qualified to agree completely.

My macro class has been asking me what kind of exam they can expect

Try this question:

"Simon Grant and John Quiggin argue that taking the equity premium seriously–-the well-known fact that the average annual historical return of stocks is seven times that of government bonds and other debt-–has many implications, the most robust of which is that recessions are extremely costly even if they don’t lower average consumption and that macroeconomic stabilization policies are more important than has been thought."

True or false, and why?  Under what conditions is your answer wrong (always the proper query)?  Here is a relevant link, though registration is required.

My new teaching assignment

Holmes The Common Law

   Posner Law and Literature

  Dissents by Holmes and Frankfurter


September 8                             Sophocles – Antigone             


September 15                           Plato  Apology            

September 22                           The Bible – Selections from Exodus, Kings I and II-

Part II:                                    LIBERTY AND LICENSE

September 29                           More Utopia


October 6                                Shakespeare Measure for Measure

October 13                              Milton Areopagitica 

                                                Short Paper Due #1 (5 pages)


Part III:                                  TRIALS AND ORDEALS

October 20                              Twain Pudd’nhead Wilson

October 27                              Melville Billy Budd 


November 3                             Selection from Dostoievsky The Brothers Karamazov

Kafka, In the Penal Colony from Collected Stories

Part IV:                                   PERFORMANCE AND WITNESS

November 10                           Bertolt Brecht The Caucasian Chalk Circle

(Methuen Student Ed.)

   Susan Glaspell Jury of Her Peers 

November 17                           Rebecca West, A Train of Powder

                                                Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


November24 –                         THANKSGIVING

PART V:                                 LITERATURE AND LEGAL CHANGE

December 1                             Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart

The cynic’s conundrum

The cynic’s conundrum is that while a cynic might prefer that others believe an idealistic theory of his cynical mood, his own cynical beliefs should lead him to believe a cynical theory of his own cynical mood. That is, a cynic should believe that complainers tends to be losers, rather than altruists.

Furthermore, the meta-cynical theory, that cynics tend to be losers, seems to better explain the patterns that people don’t like to be around cynics, and don’t want to their children trained in cynicism. If idealism indicates more attractive features, people and institutions would try to present themselves as idealistically as possible.

Of course both the idealistic and the cynical theory of cynicism seem to accept the claim that cynical beliefs tend to contain a lot of truth. And this fact in turn favors the cynical theory of cynicism. Thus while hypocrisy and low motives probably are in fact much more widespread than most people acknowledge, most people are well-advised to pretend that they believe otherwise.

That of course is Robin Hanson, here is the whole (short) essay.