Category: Education

What is wrong with social justice warriors?

Curious if you’ve read this (has a PDF link):

Is this paper bad? If it is bad, what is bad about it? How would you describe “what is bad about it” in a way that would connect to a college freshman who finds his/her economics and critical race theory classes to be equally interesting and deserving of further study? This extends to broader questions about “what precisely is undesirable about the state of social-justice-oriented academic study?” I have seen a lot of backhanded stuff from you on this topic, but not a centrally articulated, earnest answer.

That is from my email, and I would broaden the question to be about social justice warriors more generally.  Most of all, I would say I am all for social justice warriors!  Properly construed, that is.  But two points must be made:

1. Many of the people who are called social justice warriors I would not put in charge of a candy shop, much less trust them to lead the next jihad.

2. Many social justice warriors seem more concerned with tearing down, blacklisting, and deplatforming others, or even just whining about them, rather than working hard to actually boost social justice, whatever you might take that to mean.  Most of that struggle requires building things in a positive way, I am sorry to say.

That all said, do not waste too much of your own energies countering the not-so-helpful class of social justice warriors.  It is not worth it.  Perhaps someone needs to play such a role, but surely those neuterers are not, or at least should not be, the most talented amongst us.

No matter what your exact view of the world, or what kind of ornery pessimist or determinist or conservative or even reactionary you may be, you should want to be working toward some kind of emancipation in the world.  No, I am not saying there always is a clear “emancipatory” side of a debate, or that most issues are “us vs. them.”  Rather, if you are not sure you are doing the right thing, ask a simple question: am I building something?  Whether it be a structure, an institution, or simply a positive idea, proposal, or method.

The answer to that building question may not always be obvious, but it stands a pretty good chance of getting you to an even better question for your next round of inquiry.

The 2019 Public Choice Outreach Conference

It’s time to get your applications in for the 2019 Public Choice Outreach conference, a crash course in public choice for students from all fields and walks of life! Professors, please encourage your students to apply!

When is the Public Choice Outreach Conference?
The 2019 Outreach Conference will be held June 14-16th at the Hyatt Centric Arlington in Rosslyn, VA.

What is the Public Choice Outreach Conference?
The Public Choice Outreach Conference is a compact lecture series designed as a “crash course” in Public Choice for students planning careers in academia, journalism, law, or public policy. Graduate students and advanced undergraduates are eligible to apply. Many past participants of the Outreach seminar have gone on to notable careers in academia, law and business.

What will I learn?
Students are introduced to the history and basic tools of public choice analysis, such as models of voting and elections, and models of government and legislative organization. Students also learn to apply public choice theory to a wide range of relevant issues. Finally, students will be introduced to “constitutional economics” and the economics of rule making.

This is a chance to hear talks from Robin Hanson, Alex Tabarrok, Shruti Rajagopolan, Tyler Cowen and more.

Who can apply?
Graduate students and advanced undergraduates are eligible to apply. Students majoring in economics, history, international studies, law, philosophy political science, psychology, public administration, religious studies, and sociology have attended past conferences. Advanced degree students with a demonstrated interest in political economy or demonstrated interest in political economy are invited to apply. Applicants unfamiliar with Public Choice and students from outside of George Mason University are especially encouraged.

What are the fees involved?
Outreach has no conference fee – it is free to attend. Room and meals are included for all participants. However, ALL travel costs are the responsibility of the participants.

Click here for the 2019 Outreach Application

The rise of the temporary scientist

Here is a new and important piece on the economics of science, from Staša MilojevićFilippo Radicchi, and John P. Walsh:

Contemporary science has been characterized by an exponential growth in publications and a rise of team science. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of awarded PhD degrees, which has not been accompanied by a similar expansion in the number of academic positions. In such a competitive environment, an important measure of academic success is the ability to maintain a long active career in science. In this paper, we study workforce trends in three scientific disciplines over half a century. We find dramatic shortening of careers of scientists across all three disciplines. The time over which half of the cohort has left the field has shortened from 35 y in the 1960s to only 5 y in the 2010s. In addition, we find a rapid rise (from 25 to 60% since the 1960s) of a group of scientists who spend their entire career only as supporting authors without having led a publication. Altogether, the fraction of entering researchers who achieve full careers has diminished, while the class of temporary scientists has escalated. We provide an interpretation of our empirical results in terms of a survival model from which we infer potential factors of success in scientific career survivability. Cohort attrition can be successfully modeled by a relatively simple hazard probability function. Although we find statistically significant trends between survivability and an author’s early productivity, neither productivity nor the citation impact of early work or the level of initial collaboration can serve as a reliable predictor of ultimate survivability.

As Raghuveer Parthasarathy argues in his excellent blog post: “…small groups may be innovative, but they are the hardest to sustain given the randomness of scientific funding.”

For the pointer I thank Raghuveer Parthasarathy.

Has the Tervuren Central African museum been decolonized?

In a word, no.  They shut the place down for five years and spent $84 million, to redesign the displays, and what they reopened still looks and feels incredibly colonial.  That’s not an architectural complaint, only that the museum cannot escape what it has been for well over a century.  Most of the 180,000 art objects there were either stolen or bought under terms of implicit coercion.  There is an Africa Gallery covering the crimes of King Leopold in the Congo, but it is easy enough to be transfixed by the art and not really take it in.  How about a full room near the entrance devoted to the anti-imperialist E.D. Morel?  And while there are now more art works from the post-colonial period, there is no room devoted to the often very impressive art worlds of Central Africa today.  Having more African people talk on screens was nice, but it doesn’t do the trick.  The colonial still seems glorious, and the post-colonial mediocre.

Despite DRC demands, I do understand that the repatriation of the objects themselves would not be wise, given the current state of the DRC.  In 1976-1982, 114 objects were in fact restituted, but most of them ended up stolen (NYT).  For me preserving the art comes first, and furthermore the current DRC government is hardly a legitimate spokesperson for the historic civilizations of the region.  But might the museum at least have presented the issue in some morally conscious manner?

Before you walk into the museum proper, there is a room devoted to all the sculptures and displays now considered too colonial or too racist for the current museum.  Of course this draws more attention to them, and furthermore the dividing lines are by no means always clear.  That said, there is a double irony, namely that some of the items in this room are sufficiently obnoxious that their display represents a better apology than any part of what is intended as apology.

This is still all much better than the past, when at one time a human zoo of 267 enslaved Congolese was put on display here, in fact that was the inaugural exhibit in 1897.  At least there is now a memorial to those of the enslaved who died of influenza.  And the plaque “Belgium Brings Civilization to the Congo” has been taken down.  Yet this:

The rapacious monarch’s monogram dots the walls of the palatial museum on the former royal estate, which he used to drum up investment for his colonial ventures at the 1897 World Exhibition.

Oh, and there are colonial statues built into the walls:

One was of black children clinging to a white missionary. Another was of a topless African woman dancing.

They cannot be removed because of cultural heritage laws in Belgium.

The animal displays also no longer seem of our time, more about size and stuffing and the conquest of nature rather than with much of a notion of environmental or biodiversity or animal welfare awareness.

It is nonetheless a spectacular museum, the best chronicle anywhere for the Central African artistic achievement by an order of magnitude, and one of the best and most interesting places in Europe right now.  It is worth the rather convoluted one hour trip you must take from Brussels, or if you are visiting Waterloo it isn’t far away at all.  For all its flaws (or in part because of them?), go if you can.

The art aside, the other lesson is imperialism and colonialism cast a longer shadow than you might at first think.  The realities of cultural constipation remain underrated.

My Conversation with Raghuram Rajan

Here is the transcript and audio, we covered so much, here is the CWT summary:

How much has the U.S. actually fixed the financial system? Does India have the best food in the world? Why does China struggle to maintain a strong relationship with allies? Why are people trading close-knit communities for isolating cities? And what types of institutions are we missing in our social structure? Listen to Rajan’s thorough conversation with Tyler to dive into these questions and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: A lot of observers have suggested to me that the notion of a kind of Anglo-American liberalism as ascendant in India is now a dead idea, that ideologically, India has somehow shifted, and the main currents of thought, including on the so-called right, are just really not liberalism anymore. Do you have a take on that view?

RAJAN: I’m not sure I would agree. I would say that we’ve had a government over the last five years which has elements of the majoritarian, Hindu nationalist group in it. But I would argue the country, as a whole, is still firmly secular, liberal in the Nehruvian idea, which is that we need a country which is open to different religions, to different ethnicities, to different beliefs if we are to stay together.

And democracy plays an important role here because it allows some of the pressures which build up in each community to essentially get expressed and therefore diffuses some of the pressure. So I think India’s ideal is still a polyglot coming together in this country.

COWEN: But someone like Ramachandra Guha — what he symbolizes intellectually — do you think that would be a growing part of India’s future? Or that will dwindle as colonial ties become smaller, the United States less important in global affairs?

RAJAN: I think that an open, liberal, tolerant country is really what we need for the next stage of growth. We are now reaching middle income. We could go a little faster. We should go a little faster there.

Once we reach middle income, to grow further, I think we need an intellectual openness, which only the kind of democracy we have — the open dialogue, a respectful dialogue — will generate the kinds of innovative forces that will take us more to the frontier.

So I keep saying, and I say this in the book, we’re very well positioned for the next stage of growth, from middle to high income. But we first have to reach middle income.


COWEN: Will current payments companies end up as competitors to banks or complements to the banking system? Or are they free riders on the banking system?

RAJAN: I think they’re trying to figure out their space. As of now, sometimes they’re substituting for . . . Certainly, my daughter uses her payment system completely separate from her bank account. But longer term, we’ll find ways of meshing these in and reduce the costs of making payments. Those costs are really too high at this point, and reducing those costs makes a lot of sense.

COWEN: Will banks ever be truly excellent at doing software?

RAJAN: I think we will have a combination of the guys who are truly good at software — the fintech companies — merging with banks who know how to do the financial side. They’ll bring each of their talents together. I’ve seen a lot of fintech people who have no clue as to what finance is really about. And I’ve seen a lot of banks who have no clue as to what tech is about. I think some merger will happen over time.

There is much more at the link.  And here is Raghu’s new book The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave Community Behind.

The college bribery scandal

Of course universities have long taken money to let in unqualified applicants, what is happening here is they are going after the local rate busters.  Here is my Bloomberg column on this topic, excerpt:

My second worry is that the number of bribery cases suggests that many wealthy Americans perceive higher education to be an ethics-free, law-free zone where the only restraint on your behavior is whatever you can get away with.

I suspect that most of those charged in this case never expected they might have to answer in court for their actions. To consider a parallel situation: I wouldn’t dream of shoplifting. Yet I sometimes drive 32 mph in a 25 mph speed zone. Like most of us, I draw a distinction between laws we are expected to follow, and laws we aren’t.

To me, the number of people caught up in this scandal indicates that too many Americans do not take seriously the idea that our system of higher education is a set of institutions bound by morality and laws. They take its governing rules as optional and conditional, depending on convenience, much as we do many speed-limit signs.

In this case, those charged are mostly wealthy Americans of high social status, not gangsters. They probably thought of themselves as law-abiding Americans, with exceptions so minor as to be negligible. In other words, this case illustrates what a low opinion America has of its system of higher education. As a university professor, I would feel much better if it had been mobsters charged with these alleged crimes.

There is much more at the link.

The third cohort of Emergent Ventures recipients

As always, note that the descriptions are mine and reflect my priorities, as the self-descriptions of the applicants may be broader or slightly different.  Here goes:

Jordan Schneider, for newsletter and podcast and writing work “explaining the rise of Chinese tech and its global ramifications.”

Michelle Rorich, for her work in economic development and Africa, to be furthered by a bike trip Cairo to Capetown.

Craig Palsson, Market Power, a new YouTube channel for economics.

Jeffrey C. Huber, to write a book on tech and economic progress from a Christian point of view.

Mayowa Osibodu, building AI programs to preserve endangered languages.

David Forscey, travel grant to look into issues and careers surrounding protection against election fraud.

Jennifer Doleac, Texas A&M, to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.

Fergus McCullough, University of St. Andrews, travel grant to help build a career in law/history/politics/public affairs.

Justin Zheng, a high school student working on biometrics for cryptocurrency.

Matthew Teichman at the University of Chicago, for his work in philosophy podcasting.

Kyle Eschen, comedian and magician and entertainer, to work on an initiative for the concept of “steelmanning” arguments.

Here is the first cohort of winners, and here is the second cohort.  Here is the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  Note by the way, if you received an award very recently, you have not been forgotten but rather will show up in the fourth cohort.

*Culture in Nazi Germany*

That is a new and forthcoming book by Michael H. Kater, excerpt:

The book’s first contention is that in order for a new Nazi type of culture to take hold, the preceding forms first had to be wiped out.  This mainly affected the artistic and intellectual achievements most hated by the Nazis, those of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic and political hallmark was Modernism.  The police controls Hitler used to carry out purges in political and social contexts were also used against Modernist art forms and their creators…

However, as far as films were concerned, the most acute interest shown by Hitler was in the weekly newsreels.  These embodied for him what film was all about: an ideal instrument for political control.  He regularly commented on newsreels to Goebbels, and had some several cut or modified.  More so than in the case of feature films, Hitler was liable to override any decisions Goebbels had already made on them.  Even long before the war broke out Hitler was adamant that newsreels display the heroic…

Recommended, even if you feel you’ve had your fill of books on Nazi Germany.

Those new service sector jobs is this one in fact torture?

Imagine: For the rest of your life, you are assigned no tasks at work. You can watch movies, read books, work on creative projects or just sleep. In fact, the only thing that you have to do is clock in and out every day. Since the position is permanent, you’ll never need to worry about getting another job again.

Starting in 2026, this will be one lucky (or extremely bored) worker’s everyday reality, thanks to a government-funded conceptual art project in Gothenburg, Sweden. The employee in question will report to Korsvägen, a train station under construction in the city, and will receive a salary of about $2,320 a month in U.S. dollars, plus annual wage increases, vacation time off and a pension for retirement. While the artists behind the project won’t be taking applications until 2025, when the station will be closer to opening, a draft of the help-wanted ad is already available online, as Atlas Obscura reported on Monday.

The job’s requirements couldn’t be simpler: An employee shows up to the train station each morning and punches the time clock. That, in turn, illuminates an extra bank of fluorescent lights over the platform, letting travelers and commuters know that the otherwise functionless employee is on the job. At the end of the day, the worker returns to clock out, and the lights go off. In between, they can do whatever they want, aside from work at another paying job.

That is by Antonia Noori Farzan at WaPo.  The project is called “Eternal Employment.”

For the pointer I thank Peter Sperry.

The real threats to free speech on campus

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

…being at a state school is hardly a guarantee of tolerance. Teaching at a state university does widen the scope of what a professor can say without being fired. But ongoing student protests or unfavorable treatment from colleagues can make continued employment so unpleasant that a person simply decides to leave. In my experience, most professors aren’t in it for the money — rather, they love their work. Loving your work is a gift that can be taken away rather easily, regardless of whatever formal legal protections there may be.

Or consider the position of a student. You might have the legal right to start a pro-Trump group on campus. But you might be dissuaded from doing so if you fear your professors would respond by writing you mediocre letters of recommendation.

What really matters on campus is what the most obstreperous participants in these debates consider to be acceptable behavior and speech, and how far they will take their protests. These individuals are usually those with relatively little to lose from strident behavior, and perhaps some local status to gain. They may be students, or they may not; they can be student counselors, or faculty members, or even low-level university bureaucrats.

I explain in the piece why my own university, George Mason, has been strong in this regard.  And I am not crazy about the new proposed Trump executive order:

The relevant troublemakers are hardly ever university administrators. Yet they would inevitably become entangled in any tighter federal free-speech regulations. I have found such administrators to be pragmatic and able to see multiple sides of an issue, even if I do not always agree with their stances. Their primary goal is usually to get the rancor and protests to go away, so the business of the university can return to normal. Placing more constraints on their behavior could actually weaken their hand — by limiting their ability to mollify unruly student groups, for instance.

The full piece offers several additional arguments of note, so do read the whole thing.  Here is my conclusion:

I’m all for free speech, whether for public or private schools. But the fight has to be won in the hearts and minds of students and workers, not by the federal government.

The complacent class

The students who had taken over her office were a conscious throwback to the activism of the 1960s, when Hampshire [College] was conceived as an experiment in higher education. Now they were fighting for its survival in a different time, and it was not looking good. The college announced in January that it was facing “tough financial trends” and was looking for a partner to stay afloat…

Founded in 1965 and opened to students five years later, Hampshire, a liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, is an embodiment of the progressive education principles that arose from the spirit of individualism and self-expression of that era. There are no grades, only narrative assessments, and there are no prescribed majors; students design their own courses of study.

Hampshire and a few dozen other schools founded on similar principles were once the cutting edge of academia. But now, families facing sky-high tuitions are looking for a more direct link between college and career, college officials say. As a result, many of these small, experimental schools are being forced to re-examine their missions, merge with more traditional institutions or, in some cases, shut down.

Here is more from Anemona Hartocollis at the NYT.

Modern Principles of Economics

If you are teaching principles of economics next year do check out our textbook, Modern Principles of Economics.

Modern Principles means modern content and modern delivery. We cover material that many other textbooks ignore, such as how managers should choose between piece rates and tournaments and how firms can increase their profits using clever forms of price discrimination such as bundling and tying. In macroeconomics, we have created a simple yet powerful AD-AS model that combines insights from New Keynesian and Real Business Cycle models. We have also created the Super Simple Solow model which for the first time makes the Solow model of economic growth accessible to principles of economics students.

High-quality videos integrated directly into the textbook make Modern Principles a new kind of textbook, one born in the age of the internet. No other textbook has the quantity and quality of supplementary material available with Modern Principles. Whether you are looking to flip the classroom or just for the occasional video to grab the student’s attention before the lecture, you will find what you need in Modern Principles. The superb course management system also makes it easy to assign videos and grade questions.

Teachers can request a free examination copy here.

Here’s a video overview of Modern Principles of Economics:

How to improve the tenure process

Next, institutions must heed growing calls to abandon paper counting and similar metrics for evaluating researchers. One alternative approach, the Rule of Five, demonstrates a clear commitment to quality: candidates present their best five papers over the past five years, accompanied by a description of the research, its impact and their individual contribution. The exact numbers are immaterial: what matters is the focus on quality. A handful of institutions have required reviewers to consider individual contributions rather than lists of publications, and the shift has not been easy. Reviewers should be admonished for Googling individuals’ h-indices and citation lists, for example. Perseverance and self-reflection are essential.

Here is the Nature piece by Alan Finkel, via Lama.

RadicalXChange, March 22-24

Robert Wiblin of 80,000 hours has an excellent podcast with Glen Weyl on Radical institutional reforms that make capitalism & democracy work better. Weyl’s diagnosis of the problems of capitalism and democracy strike me as wrongheaded but on the other hand his solutions are interesting.and original. Wiblin does a good job of gently but decisively pushing back in places, e.g. in the discussion of high modernism.

RadicalXChange is hosting a big conference March 22-24 in Detroit. In addition to Weyl, speakers include Vitalik Buterin, Margaret Levi and Zooko Wilcox among others. I will be talking about open borders and also about city development on a panel with Devon Zuegel, Mwiya Musokotwane and Mark Lutter.


Academic jobs are notorious for long, convoluted hiring processes, but becoming a school bus driver, at least in the county where I work, isn’t much easier.  For an academic position, applicants submit a dossier (often packed with repetitive material), survive a screening interview (with a committee larded by ulterior motives), and visit the prospective employer for at least a day, during which they’ll be tested and measured by dozens of gatekeepers, before negotiating a complex employment package and earning the governing board’s rubber stamp, all of which can take over a year.  Aspiring drivers attend an orientation, watch dozens of online videos, solicit moral references, pass a physical (including a drug screening), get a commercial learner’s permit (a laborious process that requires extensive testing and hours at the DMV), finish classroom and road training (at least 200 hours), sit for various written exams (failure of a single exam can mean removal from the program), complete a half-day CDL test (which includes a daunting pre-trip bus check), and undertake at least two weeks of on-the-job training before showing up at the intake office to request a route that probably isn’t available.  Trainees are paid once they reach the classroom.  I finished everything in about six months.

That is from Steve Salaita, who was forced to leave academia after several times making inappropriate remarks.  Here is another bit from the same essay:

You hear ex-professors say it all the time and I’ll add to the chorus:  despite nagging precariousness, there’s something profoundly liberating about leaving academe, whereupon you are no longer obliged to give a shit about fashionable thinkers, network at the planet’s most boring parties, or quantify self-worth for scurrilous committees (and whereupon you are free to ignore the latest same-old controversy), for even when you know at the time that the place is toxic, only after you exit (spiritually, not physically) and write an essay or read a novel or complete some other task without considering its relevance to the fascist gods of assessment, or its irrelevance to a gang of cynical senior colleagues, do you realize exactly how insidious and pervasive is the industry’s culture of social control.

Wordy at times, but mostly interesting throughout.