Category: Education

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.

The debate over think tanks

Read these three posts by Virginia Postrel (as this link ages, you may need to scroll down or use Google).  This is a difficult topic for me, since I have had dealings with numerous think tanks and think tank-related entities for almost thirty years.  I sympathize with much of what Virginia has to say, but here are a few points in the other direction:

1. The existence of think tanks, and related entities, makes being an academic more attractive.  I mean the fun and exposure, not the money (think tanks don’t pay so well, relative to consulting).  Think tanks can make academics more productive, and can make academics more interested in addressing real world concerns.  Such factors have played a considerable role in my life.

2. I am interested in what economists call "rent exhaustion."  Why isn’t the entire budget of a think tank taken up by attempts to raise money?  Well, the entire budget of a for-profit usually is — or at least should be — taken up by attempts to make money; we call those profits.  The true goals of non-profits are more diverse, even when they face budgetary pressures.  Even corrupt non-profits do not spend 100 percent of their budget on raising funds.  Non-profits of all kinds — including think tanks — introduce a degree of mission freedom that is otherwise not there. 

The question depends on what we are comparing think tanks to.  The for-profit sector?  The NSF?  Blogging?  Free-lance writing?  Direct grants from foundations?  They all have their pluses and minuses.  The key question is whether the different pieces fit together in a useful way.

3. Some think tanks simply are markers or beacons for the ideologically faithful.  I do object to the hypocrisy involved, and to the quality of their policy outputs.  That being said, they are providing real services, just as churches do. 

4. I view the interaction between blogs (and other decentralized information and opinion sources) and think tanks as a key question for the future.  Will blogs "smack down" the rot of lower-quality think tank outputs, thereby leading to intellectual improvements?  Or will blogs push think tanks out of serious policy discourse altogether, making them more like churches?  Will blogs amplify the influence of some kinds of think tanks, at the expense of others?  On these questions, all bets are off. 

Note that scholars no longer need think tanks to take their ideas to larger  audiences.  The think tank sector has yet to absorb the import of this fact.  Could Google — and not universities — be the real competitor to policy think tanks?

How to teach driving

Yana has her learner’s permit, so the role of instructor falls upon the blogger in the family.  I have the following three tips, all of which assume you are in a safe area, such as an empty parking lot:

1. Ask the driving student to hit the curb, but just barely.  This is the only way to learn where the curb is.  They are going to find the curb anyway, so let this learning occur under safe circumstances.

2. Make them drive while you are making funny noises, "acting retarded," and screaming "Billy Bob has a crush on Yana."  At some point their friends will hand out the same treatment — make sure they are psychologically prepared.

3. Tell them to put the car in "Park" before it has come to a complete stop.  The same reasoning applies as above.

Why don’t most people teach these lessons (or do you all?)?  You want to feel safe and lower your stress during the lesson, rather than prepping the future driver for real world circumstances.  (So how should we teach prospective central bankers?)  Comments are open, in case you have other tips for how to teach driving…

The tragedy of Jonathan Kozol

Jonathan Kozol has spent a good deal of his life writing eloquently and passionately about children and the sad state of education in America.  The depths of his passion and caring are to be admired and applauded.  The tragedy is that his eloquence has often been put to ill use attacking the one reform that would really help – private schools and school choice.  Kozol’s good intentions, therefore, earn him no free pass from me.

In a recent interview he said:

[Private schools] starve the public school system of the presence of well-educated,
politically effective parents to fight for equity for all kids.

Kozol’s argument can be summed up thusly:

Letting people escape over the Berlin Wall starves the East German system of the presence of well-educated,
politically effective people to fight for the equity of all East Germans.

Barricading parents into the poor schools their government offers them is like barricading people into communist East Germany.  People, even well-educated, politically effective people, should not be used as tools to further some social engineering scheme.

But is the argument even true?  Kozol, draws on Hirschman’s great book Exit, Voice and Loyalty, but like many who read that book he shows no sign of understanding any of its subtleties.

Yes, exit and voice can be substitutes and reducing exit may increase voice.  But more often than not, voice and exits are complements.  When you complain of delay where is your voice more likely to be heard; at a restaurant or at the department of motor vehicles?

It’s the threat of exit that makes people listen.

Moreover, shutting down exit does not guarantee that voice will arise.  The people whose children are stuck in the worst-performing schools have neither voice nor exit – they are like the people of New Orleans who did not have the means to escape nor the political power to compel help from others.

Finally, we go to the data.  Kozol’s argument implies that places with more exit should have worse public schools.  But in fact a large body of research shows that the opposite is true.  Places with more choice – whether that choice comes from private schools, charter schools, or even choice among public schools – have better schools.  Exit and the threat of exit makes educators listen.

But will Kozol listen?  Sadly, I think not because his fundamental opposition to vouchers is not economic but aesthetic.  He says:

Vouchers elevate the lowest instincts of humanity over the most beautiful instincts.

Need I quote Adam Smith in response?

Teaching with blogs

I am requiring my Ph.d. macro class to read some blogs, and yes there will be a test.  They are to read Brad DeLong, Brad Setser, Macroblog, Nouriel Roubini, and some of Econbrowser, all to be found on the blogroll to the left.  I am a proponent of debate as a means of educating; we are programmed to remember interpersonal exchanges better than written or spoken drones.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

I find it odd, too, that so many academics profess to be egalitarians, yet academia as a whole has produced one of the most radically inegalitarian societies to be seen since Louis XVI fled Versailles. Many academics of my acquaintance profess to be aghast at the "status seeking" in which their neighbours engage–and yet I have never met anyone as obsessed with collecting professional merit badges as an academic. Nor have I experienced any other organisational culture, even in hyper-competitive consulting or investment banking, in which professional success is so readily confused with personal worth.

Read more here.