Category: Education

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).

Young “stars” in economics

I had not seen this paper before, by Kevin A. Bryan, here is the abstract:

We construct a data set of job flyouts for junior economists between 2013 and 2018 to investigate three aspects of the market for “stars.” First, what is the background of students who become stars? Second, what type of research does the top of the market demand? Third, where do these students take jobs? Among other results, we show that stars are more likely to be international and male than PhDs overall, that theoretical and semi-theoretical approaches remain dominant, that American programs both produce the most stars and hire even more, that almost none are hired by the private sector, and that there is a strong shift toward having pre-PhD full-time academic research jobs.

Is this good news or bad?  The paper is interesting throughout, here is another bit:

…both Americans and women are nearly twice as likely to have Applied Micro as a primary field compared to non-Americans and men.

As for country of origin of these star students, see p.5, I was surprised to see Germany rank second after the United States, with Italy and France not far behind, China coming next, then Argentina (!).

Via Soumaya Keynes.

The future of higher education could be India

This is a fantasy, not a prediction, still we can hold out hope, here is my latest Bloomberg column:

In my fantasy, the [Western] schools that are open to expanding their India operations will rise considerably in reputation. India, and South Asia more generally, is in the midst of a phenomenal explosion of talent in diverse fields…

You might wonder whether India actually needs all of these foreign branches, when it has some superb schools of its own, for instance the various Indian Institutes of Technology. In my fantasy, some Indian institutions of higher education will improve and force some competitors — shall we say UC Berkeley? — to leave the country. Yet many talented Indians will find attending a branch of Harvard or Yale to be an appealing option. Furthermore, the top foreign schools may form alliances with Indian institutions (as Yale has done in Singapore), giving students the best of both worlds.

This future gets better yet. Over time, the population of Indian alumni of prestigious U.S. universities will increase, relative to those who studied and graduated in America. America’s top schools thus will become engines of opportunity. It might also become obvious that the students attending in the U.S. are underperforming their Indian counterparts. What better way to light a competitive fire under the current dominant institutions?

And maybe some of the keenest and most ambitious American students will prefer to study in India rather than in America. (Perhaps a “canceled” American student could be sent to Brown Uttar Pradesh?) Wouldn’t you want to study with the very best of your peers, knowing you might be sitting next to the next generation’s Einstein, von Neumann or, of course Ramanujan?

There is more at the link, noting that this is a Swiftian fantasy of sorts.

My Conversation with Nicholas Bloom

Excellent and interesting throughout, here is the transcript, video, and audio.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler for a conversation about which areas of science are making progress, the factors that have made research more expensive, why government should invest more in R&D, how lean management transformed manufacturing, how India’s congested legal system inhibits economic development, the effects of technology on Scottish football hooliganism, why firms thrive in China, how weak legal systems incentivize nepotism, why he’s not worried about the effects of remote work on American productivity (in the short-term), the drawbacks of elite graduate programs, how his first “academic love” shapes his work today, the benefits of working with co-authors, why he prefers periodicals and podcasts to reading books, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: If I understand your estimates correctly, efficacy per researcher, as you measure it, is falling by about 5 percent a year [paper here]. That seems phenomenally high. What’s the mechanism that could account for such a rapid decline?

BLOOM: The big picture — just to make sure everyone’s on the same page — is, if you look in the US, productivity growth . . . In fact, I could go back a lot further. It’s interesting — you go much further, and you think of European and North American history. In the UK that has better data, there was very, very little productivity growth until the Industrial Revolution. Literally, from the time the Romans left in whatever, roughly 100 AD, until 1750, technological progress was very slow.

Sure, the British were more advanced at that point, but not dramatically. The estimates were like 0.1 percent a year, so very low. Then the Industrial Revolution starts, and it starts to speed up and speed up and speed up. And technological progress, in terms of productivity growth, peaks in the 1950s at something like 3 to 4 percent a year, and then it’s been falling ever since.

Then you ask that rate of fall — it’s 5 percent, roughly. It would have fallen if we held inputs constant. The one thing that’s been offsetting that fall in the rate of progress is we’ve put more and more resources into it. Again, if you think of the US, the number of research universities has exploded, the number of firms having research labs.

Thomas Edison, for example, was the first lab about 100 years ago, but post–World War II, most large American companies have been pushing huge amounts of cash into R&D. But despite all of that increase in inputs, actually, productivity growth has been slowing over the last 50 years. That’s the sense in which it’s harder and harder to find new ideas. We’re putting more inputs into labs, but actually productivity growth is falling.

COWEN: Let’s say paperwork for researchers is increasing, bureaucratization is increasing. How do we get that to be negative 5 percent a year as an effect? Is it that we’re throwing kryptonite at our top people? Your productivity is not declining 5 percent a year, or is it? COVID aside.

BLOOM: COVID aside. Yeah, it’s hard to tell your own productivity. Oddly enough, I always feel like, “Ah, you know, the stuff that I did before was better research ideas.” And then something comes along. I’d say personally, it’s very stochastic. I find it very hard to predict it. Increasingly, it comes from working with basically great, and often younger, coauthors.

Why is it happening at the aggregate level? I think there are three reasons going on. One is actually come back to Ben Jones, who had an important paper, which is called, I believe, “[Death of the] Renaissance Man.” This came out 15 years ago or something. The idea was, it takes longer and longer for us to train.

Just in economics — when I first started in economics, it was standard to do a four-year PhD. It’s now a six-year PhD, plus many of the PhD students have done a pre-doc, so they’ve done an extra two years. We’re taking three or four years longer just to get to the research frontier. There’s so much more knowledge before us, it just takes longer to train up. That’s one story.

A second story I’ve heard is, research is getting more complicated. I remember I sat down with a former CEO of SRI, Stanford Research Institute, which is a big research lab out here that’s done many things. For example, Siri came out of SRI. He said, “Increasingly it’s interdisciplinary teams now.”

It used to be you’d have one or two scientists could come up with great ideas. Now, you’re having to combine a couple. I can’t remember if he said for Siri, but he said there are three or four different research groups in SRI that were being pulled together to do that. That of course makes it more expensive. And when you think of biogenetics, combining biology and genetics, or bioengineering, there’s many more cross-field areas.

Then finally, as you say, I suspect regulation costs, various other factors are making it harder to undertake research. A lot of that’s probably good. I’d have to look at individual regulations. Health and safety, for example, is probably a good idea, but in the same way, that is almost certainly making it more expensive to run labs…

COWEN: What if I argued none of those are the central factors because, if those were true as the central factors, you would expect the wages of scientists, especially in the private sector, to be declining, say by 5 percent a year. But they’re not declining. They’re mostly going up.

Doesn’t the explanation have to be that scientific efforts used to be devoted to public goods much more, and now they’re being devoted to private goods? That’s the only explanation that’s consistent with rising wages for science but a declining social output from her research, her scientific productivity.

And this:

COWEN: What exactly is the value of management consultants? Because to many outsiders, it appears absurd that these not-so-well-trained young people come in. They tell companies what to do. Sometimes it’s even called fraudulent if they command high returns. How does this work? What’s the value added?

Definitely recommended

Are pre-docs in economics a good idea?

Formal pre-doc programmes have burgeoned, especially in elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago and Yale. Participants clean and analyse data, write papers and do administrative tasks. In exchange they may receive free or subsidised classes, a salary in the region of $50,000, potential co-authorship of the papers they work on, and, most prized of all, a letter of recommendation to a top programme.

In part pre-docs show how economic research has changed. “Economics has become more like the sciences in terms of both the methods and the production process,” says Raj Chetty of Harvard, who directs the Opportunity Insights team, a group with a reputation for working its pre-docs hard. When analysing tax records that gave access only to a certain number of people, he switched away from using part-time research assistants to a lab-like team, inspired by his own family of scientists. As bigger data sets, new techniques and generous funding made such collaboration worthwhile, others followed.

Here is much more on pre-docs from Soumaya Keynes at The Economist.  I suspect this development is inevitable, but I see at least two things going on here.  First, letter writers are internalizing the very high value of those letters in the form of personal services received.  Second, this will push out “weirdos” and make the profession more homogenized, more obedient, more elite, more dependent on school of origin, and less interesting.  I do understand the value of the training received, and don’t propose any mechanism to “stop this,” but overall it does not make me an entirely happy camper.

Will private K-12 schools be reopening?

“As of July 22, pretty much across the board, [private] schools are planning for some sort of in-person learning in the fall,” said Amy McNamer, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, which supports 76 private schools in the region. “And I have to add this big caveat that that could change,” she said.

In online forums, parents are asking one another for advice about private schools, saying they fear that virtual learning at their public schools will be a disaster.

Here is much more from The Washington Post.  Of course you will note that private decisions doth not a social optimum make.  Nonetheless these particular private decisions do internalize the risks to children, parents (grandparents?), and teachers, albeit not the case load of broader society.

And those institutions are planning on reopening.  We’ll see if they get there.

A modest case for school reopening at the margin

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

First and most important, there is a distinction between children spreading the virus and children spreading the virus through school activities. The case against a physical reopening rests on the public health dangers, but the relevant question is relative.

Even if the schools do not physically reopen, children will still hang out together. This is especially true for teenagers, and they are also a group that, in a South Korean study, can readily spread the virus to others. Not many parents are going to quarantine their 15-year-olds at home for many months, much less their 17-year-olds. Recall that Romeo and Juliet were teenagers and came together as lovers against extreme parental opposition and during a time of plague.

It is possible that these children will spread the virus less if they were at school than if they were spending time together on their own. At least at school there would be teachers and other staff to enforce some measure of social distancing and proper hygiene practices, such as regular hand-washing…

To be sure, it’s by no means certain that schools will be safer places for children; whether they are will depend on the region. Still, the mere citation of public health dangers isn’t quite as decisive an argument against physical reopening as it may seem.

I believe I was first prompted to consider this argument by some tweets by Amihai Glazer.

My podcast with David Perell on “the Tyler Cowen production function”

Here goes, it is not for me to judge the quality of the result, but I can say that David is a very good interviewer.  Here are his summary notes:

Tyler ends every episode of his podcast asking about other people’s production function. How do you get so much done? What’s the secret sauce of all that you’ve accomplished? This episode is entirely devoted to that question. But this time, I’m asking Tyler. We started by talking about why there aren’t more Tyler Cowens in the world. Then, we moved to Tyler’s process for writing, such as choosing article topics and editing his work. Later in the podcast, we discussed Tyler’s process for choosing friends, why he would travel across the world to visit a new country for just ten hours, and what he’s learned from high-powered people like Peter Thiel and Patrick Collison.

I also tried to give a few deliberately “low status boasting answers,” as I call them (rather than high status airy detachment — e.g., “it is not for me to judge the quality of the result”), label it countersignaling if you wish.

Here is David on Twitter, and you can take his on-line writing classes here.

Self-doubt as a barrier

Nearly half of adults who responded to a national survey said self-doubt is one of the largest challenges they would face if they enrolled in a postsecondary education or training program.

Self-doubt was one of the top three challenges respondents cited, below time and above cost.

The new data are included in the findings from the latest “Public Viewpoints” report from Strada Education Network, which surveyed American adults on their motivations for pursuing more education, as well as the barriers they face.

The importance of mental barriers was one of the findings that stuck out the most, said Nichole Torpey-Saboe, director of research at Strada. It’s yet another layer colleges have to consider when trying to attract people without degrees for enrollment.

Here is the full story.  This is what I call a “trivial” blog post.  There is nothing startling in the content, and perhaps it is not so interesting to read.  The comments on it won’t be very good either.  Yet it represents a very important truth, and one that, while it is well-known, is probably not sufficiently emotionally internalized.  And the gains would be high if more people understood this.

Why not buy up a college campus?

Could you set higher education right?  Why don’t the super-wealthy pursue this route?  I consider those questions in my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Even if enough people wanted to move to Vermont [the site of the campus for sale], this new university would basically have to re-create the talent pool at other, more established institutions, thus replicating their basic character. If anything, the new school probably would have to hire the malcontents, as they are the most likely to leave their current jobs for a new and untested venture. If you think existing universities have too much infighting and rancor, wait till you see this new project.

You might think that the leaders of the new college could shape and improve the incentives of their faculty. But that isn’t easy. For many talented people, the key incentives are outward-facing — they will be looking to get published and win rewards, prizes and eventually job offers from the outside world. Creating a new institution does not change these basic incentives, for better or worse.

Alternatively, you might try to make their rewards more inward-looking — pay them a big bonus if they contribute to campus life in the right way. But that tends to be expensive and to reward people who are good at gaming the system, again increasing the risk of fractiousness. Nor would it attract academic superstars, who typically excel at marketing themselves to the wider and wealthier outside world.

And:

The issue is how to attract a cluster of talent. Smart people wish to go to Harvard because other smart people go there, and that creates a self-reinforcing dynamic. This is in contrast to the corporate world, where top talent is (sometimes) willing to join risky new ventures because of the financial reward. If you were an early employee at Facebook, for example, you are probably much wealthier now than if you had gone to work for Yahoo or AOL.

In other words, I believe such an enterprise would be doomed to failure.  Do read the whole thing.

The Ivy League culture that is Major League Baseball

But the rise of analytics also has resulted in another massive shift: an influx of white, male graduates of Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities into teams’ front offices. In a data analysis conducted by ESPN, the percentage of Ivy League graduates holding an organization’s top baseball operations decision-making position — which, depending on the club, could be its president, vice president or general manager — has risen from just 3% in 2001 to 43% today; while the percentage of graduates from U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top 25 colleges — both universities and liberal arts schools — holding the same positions has risen from 24% to 67%.

Here is more from ESPN, via Adam Minter.  How do you think other economic sectors will be evolving?  And what would Malcolm Gladwell say?

Signaling vs. certification at Harvard

Harvard will be teaching solely on-line this fall (with some students in residence), yet charging full tuition rates.  Many commentators are thus suggesting this supplies evidence for the signaling theory of education.

But not exactly.  The signaling theory, taken quite literally, is that education is a very difficult set of hurdles to surmount, and if you can get through Harvard you must be really really smart and hard-working.  Caltech maybe, but Harvard like Stanford and many other top schools makes it pretty easy to get through with OK enough grades.

The hard part about Harvard is getting in.  By selecting you, Harvard certifies you (as long as you are not part of “the 43% percent,” legacy, athletes, etc…but wait that counts too!).

Why isn’t there a service that just certifies you directly?  Surely you could run a clone of the Harvard admissions department pretty cheaply.

Perhaps the logical conclusion is that both the “social connections/dating” services of Harvard and the certification services of Harvard are strong complements.  If you are certified by Harvard, but live on a desert island, or carry a contagious disease, that certification is worth much less.  So it is hard to unbundle the services and sell the certification on its own, without the associated social networks.  Nor is it so worthwhile to sell the social connections on their own.  Harvard grads are socially connected to their dry cleaning workers as it stands, but that does not do those workers much good.

It takes a good deal more work to get signaling to enter this story.  In the signaling story, you can’t tell who is high quality without actually running the tournament, and that is more or less the opposite of the certification story.

Keep also in mind that the restricted Harvard services are probably only for one year (or less), so most students will still get three years or more of “the real Harvard,” if that is what they value.  And they can use intertemporal substitution to do more networking in the remaining three years.  It’s like being told you don’t get to watch the first quarter of a really great NBA game.  That is a value diminution to be sure, but there will still be enough people willing to buy the fancy seats.  Most viewers in the arena don’t watch more than three quarters of the game to begin with.

Cornell understands the equilibrium

They are reopening campus for the coming semester and here is one reason why:

…the finding from Cornell researchers that holding the semester online potentially could result in more infections and more hospitalizations among students and staff members than holding the semester in person would.

study by Cornell researchers concluded that with nominal parameters, an in-person semester would result in 3.6 percent of the campus population (1,254 people) becoming infected, and 0.047 percent (16 people) requiring hospitalization. An online semester, they concluded, would result in about 7,200 infections and more than 60 hospitalizations.

Do note it is critical to the argument that the returning students actually are tested on a regular basis, which of course is very hard to enforce on-line.

How to identify interesting boats and sailors

I know nothing about this topic, so thought I should pass along this email from MR reader Edward Dixon:

Having benefited from your advice on restaurants, I thought I would pass on some simple tips for the identification of interesting boats & interesting sailors.

The method is actually a little like finding an interesting restaurant: most of the boats you see are more or less in the form in which they left the boatyard that built them.  You can think of them and their owners as being akin to chain restaurants.   These are the ones to ignore!

Watch instead for boats:
– Ignore anything suggested of a racing pedigree
– Equipped to sail. Two masts are better than one.  Gaff rigs and junk rigs are also interesting indicators.  The limited speed but unlimited range are attributes of sail that act as a sort of filder.
– extra hardware bolted on top, like a solar panel / wind-vane combination
– A complicated-looking wind-vane attachment bolted onto the stern indicates self-steering gear
– A cupola or dome, a little reminiscent of a turret on top of a WWII bomber somewhere on the coach-roof.
– Indications that the boat is a home-build – possible harder for you to assess

Boats with quirks tend to contain interesting people; often they have made Unconventional Life Choices, including of course long sea voyages, often solo.  They have often made extraordinary efforts to go to sea – I once met a man in late middle age who had crossed the Irish Sea in an easterly gale in a 17ft open boat he had constructed himself using (non-marine-grade) plywood, and who was engaged in a boat-based camping tour of Ireland.  This turned out to be entirely consistent with the rest of his history.

Interesting boat folk, like interesting restaurants, are out there to be found, once you learn a few heuristics.