Category: Education

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

Recommended.

University of Pennsylvania update and correction

“The email sent by Penn SAS Deans last Tuesday needs to be interpreted with some care. In particular, notice the words “school-funded Ph.D. programs.” There is a lot of institutional background that is lost when the email is read from the outside, especially because the Economics Ph.D. program has its own funding structure that differs from other Ph.D. programs at Penn SAS.

At this moment, the Department of Economics is working out the details of the next year incoming class, but a first-year incoming class and regular classes first-year are planned. Also notice that much of graduate teaching in economics involves Ph.D. students from Wharton, who are not part of SAS. Wharton is going ahead with its Ph.D. admissions.”

That is from an email from a well-informed inside source.  Here is the original MR post, blame it on the Dean.

The educational culture that is Dutch

Academics should not be forced to squeeze their research into weekends and holidays, according to the Dutch education minister, who admitted that pressure on some researchers had become intolerable and that professional competition had gone “too far.”

Ingrid van Engelshoven wants to reduce stress and time pressure in academe by tipping the balance away from competitive grants and toward more stable support for universities, reversing a long-term research funding trend in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in the Hague, she hoped that reforms to Dutch academe would mean that in five to 10 years, academics would be able to do their research “within normal working hours.”

“So you don’t have to skip your vacation, skip your weekend, because you’re busy all week with teaching your students, designing your online courses [or] … drafting your applications for grants,” she said.

Here is the full story by David Matthews.

No economics Ph.D admissions for U Penn next year

The School of Arts and Sciences will pause admissions for school-funded Ph.D. programs for the 2021-2022 academic year.

SAS Dean Steven J. Fluharty and Associate Dean for Graduate Students Beth Wenger wrote in an email to SAS standing faculty and graduate students on Tuesday that the decision was made as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the school’s finances.

Here is more, via Jon Hartley.  GMU, by the way, seems to be doing fine with its enrollments and finances at all levels.

Addendum: See this update and correction.

How to make yourself happier during the pandemic

There is plenty of relevant psychological advice, here is some more narrowly economic advice from my latest Bloomberg column.  Start with this key point:

…it is a common result in empirical economics that consumption habits are slow to adjust to changing circumstances, especially unprecedented circumstances. It is not enough for you to develop new spending habits — you should double down on them.

And this:

Savings have been so high in part because people are hoarding resources for an uncertain future. But a lot of the explanation, especially for those with higher incomes, is that planned expenditures became impossible, dangerous or inconvenient. Instead of flying to Paris and staying at a hotel on the Seine, they drove to a cabin in Maine or West Virginia. Or maybe they postponed that purchase of a new car or spent less time browsing in a bookstore. In any case, the end result is less spending and more savings, whether conscious or not.

Those may well have been prudent decisions. Still, many of us are not spending enough money having fun. We have been too slow to develop new, Covid-compatible interests.

Furthermore, likely you are underinvesting in driving to go see people, again due to the sluggishness of habit adjustment.  In most parts of America, traffic remains somewhat lower than before, and your human contact is likely lower than before.  Go and have lunch with them outside before the weather gets too cold!

Recommended.

On-line education in Oklahoma, from my email box

I have not applied further indentation:

“…this is seemingly starting to be a big deal in OK, but flying under the radar.

Background:
  • 10-15 years ago Oklahoma passed a law allowing online-only charter schools with a separate regulatory structure from physical charter schools.
  • Critically, the unions did not think to push for an enrollment cap.
  • There are 5-10 schools, all quite small, except for one named EPIC.
About EPIC:
  • Has enrollment (~38,000) that is larger than any district in the state. This enrollment is currently surging faster than its usual high growth because of COVID-19 and could reach 46,000 by the Oct 1 “Money Head Count” deadline.
  • From Oct 1, 2018 to Oct 1, 2019, EPIC’s enrollment grew more than the enrollment growth for the entire state of OK.
  • Like all public charters in OK, the school is free to attend. Parents get paid $1000 per student per year for school supplies and activities.
  • They have 100% online and blended learning options. Teachers in the online-only are paid by how many students they take on and can earn over $100,000. The state average pay for teachers is just over $50,000/yr.
  • They are a non-profit but they are run by a closely related for-profit management company that is paid 10% of gross revenue. (Incentives!)
  • Everyone in OK education that isn’t EPIC, hates EPIC. The state has multiple lawsuits and audits alleging that they have been committing fraud. These go back as far as 2012 but none have yet been resolved, even with open investigations by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. The alleged amounts are less than 1% of cumulative revenue.
Comparison to Regular Schools:
  • An Oklahoma Watch survey from several years ago found that parents were choosing EPIC primarily because they felt their students were falling behind at their districted school, were escaping bullying, or had a desire to pursue other activities i.e. competitive gymnastics.
  • On the Oklahoma State Dept. of Education A-F scorecard, EPIC scores better than every traditional Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools middle school or high school. It performs roughly near the state average.
  • 4-year high school graduation rates are SIGNIFICANTLY lower than traditional schools.
  • It seems likely this is because with the online format you cannot graduate without completing assignments on time. There are OKCPS schools that have 1% of students performing at grade level and 95% graduation rates.
  • Total Oklahoma K-12 enrollment for 2019-2020 was ~700,000. So EPIC is now over 5% of total state enrollment. They have been growing roughly 50%/year, but that was starting to slow some before the pandemic.

Enrollment Article:

https://oklahoman.com/article/5667424/surge-pushes-epic-charter-schools-to-highest-enrollment-in-state

And they are trying to scale gamification of learning:

https://oklahoman.com/article/5667051/in-oklahoma-remote-learning-goes-to-the-next-level

Like most online education providers, retention has been their weakest point.

Oklahoma schools are required to have each school facility staffed with a certain number of non-teaching positions (librarian, counselor, etc.) so fixed costs are very high. Teacher salaries are usually 35-40% of the budget and are one of the only variable cost centers. Most money is allocated by the state, following the student. EPIC is not far from doing real damage to traditional school finances. This does not seem to be on most people’s radar. It could get more interesting, yet.

Austin Vernon”

Are School Reopening Decisions Related to Union Influence?

Yes, in short.  Here is a new paper from Corey Deangelis and Christos Makridis:

The COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread school closures affecting millions of K-12 students in the United States in the spring of 2020. Groups representing teachers have pushed to reopen public schools virtually in the fall because of concerns about the health risks associated with reopening in person. In theory, stronger teachers’ unions may more successfully influence public school districts to reopen without in-person instruction. Using data on the reopening decisions of 835 public school districts in the United States, we find that school districts in locations with stronger teachers’ unions are less likely to reopen in person even after we control semi-parametrically for differences in local demographic characteristics. These results are robust to four measures of union strength, various potential confounding characteristics, and a further disaggregation to the county level. We also do not find evidence to suggest that measures of COVID-19 risk are correlated with school reopening decisions.

And please do note that last sentence again:

We also do not find evidence to suggest that measures of COVID-19 risk are correlated with school reopening decisions (emphasis added).

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Why cancel culture will not take over everything

I was reading this blog post by Arnold Kling, and I thought I should put my own views into a Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

So what to make of the apparent growing strength of cancel culture and affiliated movements? Here is the fundamental point: With the rise of social media and low-cost communications, virtually everything that can be said, will be said.

It might be said on Twitter rather than on the evening news, or on 4Chan rather than on Facebook. But the sentiments will be out there, and many of them will be disturbing. The world has arrived at a place where just about every politically incorrect statement — and a response to it, not to mention every politically correct statement and a response to that — is published or recorded somewhere.

So the policing of speech may be vastly more common than it was, say, 15 years ago. But the discourse itself is vastly greater in scope. Political correctness has in fact run amok, but so then has everything else.

As a general principle, people notice what disturbs them more than what doesn’t. Therefore opponents of political correctness — and I include myself in this group — have a never-ending supply of anecdotes to be concerned about. I am not suggesting that this cycle will end well, but it does put the matter in perspective.

The issue is how social norms will adjust to cope with a world where everything is being said all the time. That path will not be smooth — but anxiety about it is different from fear of political correctness simply swallowing up everything and canceling everybody.

I’m no optimist. In fact, I suspect it will be harder to rein in the chaos and bewilderment from the say-whatever-you-want culture — have you checked out the pandemic discourse lately? — than to curb the intemperance of the you-can’t-say-that culture.

Consider also the evolution of internet communication. For all of its diversity, there are significant trends toward centralization. The English language is more focal than before, national politics command more attention than local politics, and the U.S. itself has more soft power in some crucial directions, thanks to its central role in the internet’s intellectual infrastructure. It is striking, for example, how much the entire world responded to the Black Lives Matter movement.

That means Americans will be subject to more cancellations and to more political correctness than people in the rest of the world. For better or worse, Americans are the central nexus that so many others are talking about, not always favorably. To quote Joseph Heller: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you — and Americans have good reason to be paranoid these days. If you published your politically incorrect column in your local Croatian newspaper, the rest of the internet just wouldn’t care all that much.

Yet note the underlying assumption here — namely, that American soft power is indeed growing. And if you are an American intellectual, your relative influence around the world is likely to be growing as well. With that greater influence comes greater scrutiny, and greater risk that you will be treated unfairly by the PC brigades. Is that really such a bad trade-off?

At first I was afraid that “all the wrong people” would like this piece, but so far so good.

My Conversation with Jason Furman

Yes, the Jason Furman, here is the audio and transcript, please note this was recorded in January.  Here is part of the summary:

Jason joined Tyler for a wide-ranging conversation on how monopolies affect investment patterns, his top three recommendations to improve American productivity, why he’s skeptical of place-based development policies, what some pro-immigration arguments get wrong, why he’s more concerned about companies like Facebook and Google than he is Walmart and Amazon, the merits of a human rights approach to privacy, whether the EU treats tech companies fairly, having Matt Damon as a college roommate, the future of fintech, his highest objective when teaching economics, what he learned from coauthoring a paper with someone who disagrees with him, why he’s a prolific Goodreads reviewer, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: The US is losing some of its manufacturing capacity, and certainly a lot of its manufacturing workforce. Are there external benefits to keeping those activities more in the US? Significant benefits?

FURMAN: I don’t think that manufacturing itself should be an important objective of US policy. It’s one type of job. It’s been a good type of job, but there’s other good types of jobs as well. I wouldn’t focus on where physical things are being made as opposed to where services are being made. In fact, if anything, I think the error in policy is probably a little bit too much emphasis on manufacturing and a little bit less on services.

COWEN: What do you think of the national security argument? That, say, when building a ship, we might be dependent on South Korean components. If there were a war in Asia, those might be, for some reason, unreliable. We depend on China for rare earths. We depend on Taiwan, to some extent, for high-quality chips, even though we make our own. Is the supply chain extended too long, and it was a kind of economic fantasy, and it doesn’t make national security sense?

FURMAN: I don’t consider myself an expert in any of those national security questions, so I would be open to thinking about the national security concerns associated with the supply chain. I have an awful lot in specific cases — both when I was in government and just in the world more generally — heard people make national security arguments that I found tendentious and pretty unpersuasive.

There may be some that are persuasive and that are true. There’s an awful lot that aren’t. Our administration, towards the end, worried a bit about semiconductors. When I’ve looked at that, there’s enough of a diversified world supply, enough of an ability to scale up if necessary in the United States, that I don’t think on semiconductors — there, it was protectionism under the guise of national security.

So I think we should accept the possibility of national security, take it seriously, but be really, really wary that a lot of protectionist arguments use that trappings.

Economics throughout, with a touch of Dickens.  Recommended.

Should hiring schools coordinate on delaying their interviews?

The AEA emails me this (web version here):

The AEA suggests that employers wait to extend interview invitations until Monday, December 7, 2020 or later.

Rationale: the AEA will deliver signals from job candidates to employers on December 2. We suggest that employers wait and review those signals and incorporate them into their decision-making, before extending interview invitations.

…The AEA suggests that employers conduct initial interviews starting on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, and that all interviews take place virtually; i.e. either by phone or online (e.g. by Zoom). We also ask that all employers indicate on EconTrack when they have extended interview invitations (https://www.aeaweb.org/econtrack).

Rationale: In the past, interviews were conducted at the AEA/ASSA meetings. This promoted thickness of the market, because most candidates and employers were present at the in-person meetings, but had the disadvantage of precluding both job candidates and interviewers from fully participating in AEA/ASSA sessions. Since the 2021 AEA/ASSA meetings (which will take place Jan 3-5, 2021) will be entirely virtual, we suggest that interviews NOT take place during the AEA/ASSA meetings to allow job candidates and interviewers to participate in the conference.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they don’t offer much economic analysis of this recommendation.  I have a few remarks, none of which are beyond the analytical acumen of the AEA itself:

1. This proposal could well be a tax on the more conscientious departments, which will abide by the stricture while the more rogue departments jump the gun, giving them a relative advantage in finding job candidates.

2. It is common practice for the very top departments to make phone calls to advisors early, well before Christmas, and in essence tie up their future hires before the rest of the market clears (even if the ink on the contract is not dry until later on).  Whatever you might think of this practice, have any of those departments vowed to stop doing this?  If not, is the new recommendation simply an exhortation that other departments ought not to copy them, thus giving them exclusive use of this practice?  And did the AEA — which essentially is run by people from those top schools — ever complain about this practice?

3. In the more liquid market, as this proposal is designed to create, the better job candidates are likely to end up going to the more highly rated schools.  That is the opposite of how the NBA draft works — this year the Minnesota Timberwolves (a very bad team) pick first.  So maybe the more liquid market is best for the most highly rated schools — is that obviously a good thing?

4. Many job candidates don’t get any early offers at all, and this is likely to be all the more true with Covid-19 and tight state budgets.  Aren’t they better off if the market clears sooner rather than later?  Then they can either move on to other jobs searches, take jobs with community colleges, look for postdocs, or whatever.  Why postpone those adjustments?  Is their welfare being counted in this analysis?  Aren’t some of them the very neediest and also most stressed people in the economics job market?

5. Let’s say instead the market is done sequentially, where first you “auction off” the candidates in highest demand, ensuring that say a department rated #17 does not tie up an offer (fruitlessly, at that) to one of the very top candidates.  Won’t that #17 school then bid harder for the candidates one tier lower, thus making that part of the market more liquid?  I know it doesn’t have to work out that way, but surely that is one plausible scenario?

6. In finance, there are some results that you get less “racing” behavior with batched rather than continuous trading auctions. Again, that doesn’t have to be true, but surely it is no accident that many high-frequency traders oppose the idea of periodic rather than continuous securities auctions?  What exactly are the relevant conditions here?

7. Would many economists recommend that say the top tech firms not make any offers before a certain date, so as to keep that labor market “more liquid”?  What exactly is the difference here?

8. Might it be possible that a permanent shift to non-coordinated interview dates, and less temporally coordinated Zoom interviews and fly-outs, would permanently lower the status and import of said AEA?

I do not wish to pretend those are the only relevant factors.  But here is a simple question: does anyone connected with the AEA have the stones to actually write a cogent economic or game-theoretic analysis of this proposal?  Or does the AEA not do economics any more?

College football is education too

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

So far the data are fragmentary, but they indicate that parties, bar-going and after-hours fraternization — not athletic practices — have been the major risks contributing to Covid-19 clusters among young people of college age. For all the talk of banning athletics, how about university regulations banning all alcohol consumption (including off-campus) for all registered students, under the pain of academic suspension? [NB: more schools have started trying at least partial versions of this since I wrote the column.]…

There is the risk that football players and other collegiate athletes will bring the virus home to their parents and older relatives. Still, that danger seems to be at least as high if they are bored and going out drinking, compared to practicing and trying to secure their place on the team. It simply is not obvious that athletics create a new risk.

Under the current system, student athletes can opt not to participate, just as many NBA players have elected not to play in the league’s “bubble.” While there are social pressures to go ahead and play, they are no different than the pressures to socialize more generally. Yet there are no calls to ban young people from socializing, even though that too is clearly a dangerous activity — perhaps the most dangerous activity — in terms of Covid-19 spread.

There is much more at the link.

Emergent Ventures winners, 10th cohort

Sebastian Garren, to found John Paul II Preparatory School’s South Campus in St. Louis, a hybrid on-line and in-person educational alternative for K-12, also stressing Western history and the classics.

John Durant, for career development and writing, and explorations into notions of angels.

Mishka Orakzai of Peshawar, Pakistan, to support her thiscodeworks project intent to make snippets of code more available.

Krishaan Khubchand, 20 years old, studying law at Birkbeck, to study mega-projects and capital allocation, he is also a Progress Studies fellow.

Vignan Velivela.  He started as a robotics engineer at Cruise Automation, is a member of the Explorers Club (wikiBBC) for his work on the lightest planetary rover at Carnegie Mellon, worked on a peer-to-peer lending startup in India that was acqui-hired by PayTm, went to college (BITS Pilani) in India studying EE and Economics, and now is co-founder of AtoB.

Wasteland Ventures (no web page), to support their efforts in talent search and development.

And two Emergent Ventures anti-Covid prizes have been awarded to:

Witold Wiecek, Bayesian statistician and consultant, for his work on the Bayesian modeling of the COVID-19 epidemic, and the design of an optimal vaccine portfolio, in cooperation with the Accelerating Health Technologies team.

Arthur W. Baker (no web page, and not this guy) for his efforts on incentive design for vaccines, in cooperation with the Accelerating Health Technologies team.

Here are previous winners of Emergent Ventures grants and prizes.

CCP cancel culture extends into American academia

Classes at some elite universities will carry a warning label this fall: This course may cover material considered politically sensitive by China. And schools are weighing measures to try to shield students and faculty from prosecution by Chinese authorities.

At Princeton University, students in a Chinese politics class will use codes instead of names on their work to protect their identities. At Amherst College a professor is considering anonymous online chats so students can speak freely. And Harvard Business School may excuse students from discussing politically sensitive topics if they are worried about the risks.

The issue has become particularly pressing because at least the first semester at many universities will be taught online, meaning some students from China and Hong Kong will connect with their U.S. classmates via video links. Some academics fear the classes could be recorded and ultimately end up in the hands of Chinese authorities.

Here is more from Lucy Kraymer at the WSJ.

The phantom risk of Covid-19

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

…here is why I am not yet an unreconstructed economic optimist. Covid-19 cases have acquired a stigma, and that stigma is likely to persist above and beyond the dangers associated with the virus itself.

If, say, 20 Covid-19 cases were identified within a high school today, there is a very real risk that those infected students would carry the virus home and infect older and more vulnerable people. There is also a small risk that the students would sustain damage themselves. Not surprisingly, most schools won’t reopen because they cannot deal with the burden — institutionally, legally or otherwise — of being connected to significant numbers of Covid-19 cases.

The question is how this stigma ends. If rates of death and possible long-term damage fell to half of their current levels? One-third? Less? I strongly suspect these same schools still would be unwilling to reopen, due in part to phantom risk.

If rates of death and damage fell to one-fifth of their current level, perhaps, there would be more reopenings — but there would still be a lot of reluctance to restore previous levels of attendance. How about one-tenth the level of mortality? It is hard to say when people will feel comfortable once again.

Along these lines, as long as clusters of reported cases are possible — regardless of mortality rates — many high-rise office buildings will not let workers and visitors simply pile into their elevators.

Many sites likely to experience identifiable, traceable clusters of cases will keep their doors shut, or open them on only a very limited basis. Further declines in the mortality rate won’t help much, because “37 Covid-19 Cases Identified at UC-Berkeley” is enough of a headline to create reputational risk and an institutional response. Even if everyone makes a speedy recovery, that won’t get the same kind of media coverage.

There is much more at the link, and my point will grow increasingly relevant, first of all in NYC and environs (partial herd immunity there, at least for the time being).