Category: Education

Which countries have the most human capital?

Here is a new Lancet paper by Stephen S. Lim, et.al., via the excellent Charles Klingman.  Finland is first, the United States is #27, and China and Russia are #44 and #49 respectively.  There is plenty of “rigor” in the paper, but I say this is a good example of what is wrong with the social sciences and more specifically the publication process.  The correct answer is a weighted average of the median, the average, the high peaks, and a country’s ability to innovate, part of which depends upon the market size a person has in his or her sights.  So in reality the United States is number one, and China and Russia should both rank much higher (Cuba and Brunei beat them out, for instance, Cuba at #41, Brunei at #29).  And does it really make sense to put North Korea (#113) between Ecuador and Egypt?  I’m fine with Finland being in the top fifteen, but I am not even sure it beats Sweden.  Overall the paper would do better by simply measuring non-natural resource-based per capita gdp, though of course that could be improved upon too.

Now, I did zero work on that one, and came up with a better result than the authors.  What does that tell you?

Addendum: You will note the first sentence of the paper’s background claims: human capital refers to “the level of education and health in a population”.  The first two sentences of the actual paper immediately contradict this: “Human capital refers to the attributes of a population that, along with physical capital such as buildings, equip­ment, and other tangible assets, contribute to economic productivity. Human capital is characterised as the aggregate levels of education, training, skills, and health in a population, affecting the rate at which technologies can be developed, adopted, and employed to increase productivity.”  The paper does an OK job of measuring the former, but absolutely fails on the latter.

How should we judge appeals to identity

Bryan Caplan wrote this in his description of GMU blogger culture:

Appealing to your identity is a reason to discount what you say, not a reason to pay extra attention.

Bryan explains more, not easy for me to summarize but do read his full account.  Let me instead try to state my own views:

1. If someone makes a claim new or foreign to you, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you probably should up the amount of attention you give that claim because the person is from a different background.  Your marginal need to learn from that person is probably above-average, noting of course this can be countermanded by other signals.  That said, I recognize that our ability to learn from “different others” may be below average, given the possible absence of a common conceptual framework.  Nonetheless, I say be ambitious in your learning!

2. If someone makes a claim you already disagree with, and that person comes from a different background in some manner, you should try to figure out why that person might see the matter differently.  You should try harder, at the margin, precisely because the person is from a different background.  Again, this follows from a mix of marginalism and Bayesian reasoning and ambition in learning.

3. When you hear a person from a different background, try not to get too caught up in the “identity politics” of it, either positively or negatively.  Try to steer your thoughts to: “People from this background in fact have a wide diversity of views on this topic.  Still, I will try to learn from this person’s different background.”  Try not to think: “This is how group X feels about issue Y.”

4. I’ve already noted that you often learn more efficiently from people who come from similar backgrounds as yourself.  Even putting language aside, I am more likely to have a fruitful career-enhancing dialogue with another nerdy economist than with a Mongolian sheep-herder.  In this regard I worry when I hear an uncritical celebration of intellectual diversity for its own sake.  To me it too often sounds like mere mood affiliation, subservient to political ends and devoid of cognitive content.

But still, I do not wish to rebel against such sentiments too much.  At the end of the day I am left with my intellectual ambition and I really do wish to go visit Mongolia, including for the sheep herders.  And to the extent I am informed in some ways that maybe not all of my peers are, the intellectual ambition I am presenting here is a big reason why.  I seek to encourage more such ambition, rather than to give people reasons for evading it.

Let’s just simulate economic mobility on TV

…contemporary Americans are watching a record number of entertainment TV programs emphasizing “rags to riches” narratives.  Using detailed Nielsen ratings data and original content analyses, I demonstrate that such shows have become a ubiquitous part of the American media landscape over the last two decades.  In three national surveys…I find that exposure to these programs increases viewers’ beliefs in the American Dream; for heavy viewers this effect is as powerful as that of having immigrant parents.  In experiments conducted both online and in a lab-in-the-field setting establish that these media effects are causal, and stronger among Republicans.

That is from a new paper by Eunice Kim, via Matt Grossman.

Call for Emergent Ventures proposals on talent search and major life changes

Here is my earlier description of Emergent Ventures.  In addition to the general request for proposals, we are looking to fund research in two particular directions, so if you are interested I would encourage you to apply here.  Here goes:

1. What do we know about the best ways to search for additional talent?  What features characterize successful talent searches?

2. How do people make “big” decisions?  This could include the decision to migrate from one country to another, the decision to change religions, the decision to start a new business, to marry, and so on.  Are there general principles here?  What is known or believed, either theoretically or empirically?

We are open as to what form a contribution might take, but as a default I am envisioning a paper (on either) of say 60-80 pp., surveying and conceptually summarizing academic literature, but written for very smart non-academics and with a somewhat practical bent.

I encourage you to apply, both on these topics and more generally.

How to have a good conversation

Here is an excerpt from Tim Herrra in the NYT, under the title “Three [sic] Tips to Have Better Conversations“:

To be a true conversation superstar, try these tips:

  • Be attentive and give eye contact.

  • Make active and engaged expressions.

  • Repeat back what you’ve heard, and follow up with questions.

  • If you notice something you want to say, don’t say it. Challenge it and go back to listening.

  • For bonus points, wait an hour to bring up that thing you didn’t say earlier.

And keep in mind that when you say something declarative, seek out the other person’s opinion as well.

Those seem mostly wrong to me, and perhaps better targeted at the median USA Today reader who has to make small talk at a company picnic.  I would suggest some slightly different tips, admittedly not for everyone in all situations:

1. Set up the conversational premise so you, and the other person, have easy outs, if it is not a good match.

2. Don’t assume the conversation will last an hour.  Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.

3. If you notice something you want to say, say it.

4. Be worthy of a good conversation.

Rinse and repeat.  I would stress the basic point that most conversations are bad, so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end) rather than better.

What is conversation for anyway?  I don’t even recommend being charming, or trying to be charming, unless a work situation is forcing you to do so.  Let yourself be sullen when the mood beckons.  Feel free to let eye contact lapse.  Don’t repeat back what you’ve heard.  Say something surprising.  Be willing to go meta.  Most of all, try to establish a “we actually can have a more genuine conversation than we thought was going to be possible” level of understanding, taking whatever chances are needed to get to that higher level of discourse.

By the way, do not use alcohol, not if you wish to learn something or maximize your powers of discrimination.

Has private philanthropy become underrated?

My latest Bloomberg column focuses on Jeff Bezos in particular, and his recently announced $2 billion gift to preschool education and to help the homeless.  Here is one excerpt:

…the gift is unlikely to take the form of Jeff Bezos dictating terms, even if he is the world’s richest man. Bezos and his team will have to work through many institutions — not just preschools and homeless shelters but other organizations that help them do their work. Even brand new preschools and homeless shelters, funded entirely by Bezos, will have their own charters, missions, staffs and fiduciary responsibilities.

Any wealthy person who wants to give away money will find that incentives and the nature of decentralization and bureaucracy impose their own set of checks and balances. Real philanthropic influence goes to those who can persuade others to work with them and share their vision.

Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford, argues in his forthcoming book that the philanthropy of the wealthy is not very democratic. But philanthropy operates a lot more like democracy than it might — and in fact, it may be too democratic. Voters, like philanthropists, can wish for a particular set of outcomes, but what they get will be filtered through broadly similar constraints of bureaucracy and decentralized incentives.

And this:

How about replacing philanthropy with higher taxes and more spending from the government, which is at least democratically controlled? Well, obviously there is room for both democracy and philanthropy in American society. But the elderly vote the most, and democratic expenditures — Social Security, Medicare, pensions and the like — are skewed toward the elderly. Philanthropy, including the Bezos initiative with its stated focus on homeless families, is usually more oriented toward the young or future generations.

The points I make about taxation of capital income should already be familiar to attentive MR readers.

What should Robert Wiblin ask Tyler Cowen?

Robert will be interviewing me later this week, as an installment of Conversations with Tyler, just as Patrick Collison once interviewed me a while back.  At least part of the interview will focus on my forthcoming book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.  (And we will do 2.5 hours, a Robert specialty!)  Here is part of Robert’s bio:

I studied both genetics and economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduated top of my class and was named Young Alumnus of the Year in 2015.

I worked as a research economist in various Australian Government agencies including the Treasury and Productivity Commission.

I then moved to Oxford in the UK to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism, first as Research Director and then Executive Director.

I then became Research Director for 80,000 Hours. In 2015 the project went through Y Combinator, and in 2016 we moved from Oxford to Berkeley, California in order to grow more quickly.

He is renowned for his thorough preparation and he runs a very good podcast of his own.  So what should he ask me?

Are generational or cohort-level changes strong?

Here is the view of Kali H. Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan, in their piece “Rethinking “Generation Me”: A Study of Cohort Effects from 1976-2006”:

Social commentators have argued that changes over the last decades have coalesced to create a relatively unique generation of young people. However, using large samples of U.S. high-school seniors from 1976 to 2006 (Total N = 477,380), we found little evidence of meaningful change in egotism, self-enhancement, individualism, self-esteem, locus of control, hopelessness, happiness, life satisfaction, loneliness, antisocial behavior, time spent working or watching television, political activity, the importance of religion, and the importance of social status over the last 30 years. Today’s youth are less fearful of social problems than previous generations and they are also more cynical and less trusting. In addition, today’s youth have higher educational expectations than previous generations. However, an inspection of effect sizes provided little evidence for strong or widespread cohort-linked changes.

The pointer is from @hardsci.  As he (Sanjay) notes on Twitter: “Researchers these days just don’t make cohort arguments like they used to”  And here are some related results on narcissism.

Do Boys Have a Comparative Advantage in Math and Science?

Even with a question mark my title, Do Boys Have a Comparative Advantage in Math and Science, is likely to appear sexist. Am I suggesting the boys are better at math and science than girls? No, I am suggesting they might be worse.

Consider first the so-called gender-equality paradox, namely the finding that countries with the highest levels of gender equality tend to have the lowest ratios of women to men in STEM education. Stoet and Geary put it well:

Finland excels in gender equality (World Economic Forum, 2015), its adolescent girls outperform boys in science literacy, and it ranks second in European educational performance (OECD, 2016b). With these high levels of educational performance and overall gender equality, Finland is poised to close the STEM gender gap. Yet, paradoxically, Finland has one of the world’s largest gender gaps in college degrees in STEM fields, and Norway and Sweden, also leading in gender-equality rankings, are not far behind (fewer than 25% of STEM graduates are women). We will show that this pattern extends throughout the world…

(Recent papers have found the paradox holds in other measures of education such as MOOCs and in other measures of behavior and personality. Hat tip on these: Rolf Degen.)

Two explanations for this apparent paradox have been offered. First, countries with greater gender equality tend to be richer and have larger welfare states than countries with less gender equality. As a result, less is riding on choice of career in the richer, gender-equal countries. Even if STEM fields pay more, we would expect small differences in personality that vary with gender would become more apparent as income increases. Paraphrasing John Adams, only in a rich country are people feel free to pursue their interests more than their needs. If women are somewhat less interested in STEM fields than men, then we would expect this difference to become more apparent as income increases.

A second explanation focuses on ability. Some people argue that more men than women have extraordinary ability levels in math and science because of greater male variability in most characteristics. Let’s put that hypothesis to the side. Instead, lets think about individuals and their relative abilities in reading, science and math–this what Stoet and Geary call an intra-individual score. Now consider the figure below which is based on PISA test data from approximately half a million students across many countries. On the left are raw scores (normalized). Focus on the colors, red is for reading, blue is science and green is mathematics. Negative scores (scores to the left of the vertical line) indicate that females scores higher than males, positive scores that males score higher on average than females. Females score higher than males in reading in every country surveyed. Females also score higher than males in science and math in some countries.

Now consider the data on the right. In this case, Stoet and Geary ask for each student what subject are they relatively best at and then they average by country. The differences by sex are now even even more prominent. Not only are females better at reading but even in countries where they are better at math and science than boys on average they are relatively better at reading.

Thus, even when girls outperformed boys in science, as was the case in Finland, girls generally performed even better in reading, which means that their individual strength was, unlike boys’ strength, reading.

Now consider what happens when students are told. Do what you are good at! Loosely speaking the situation will be something like this: females will say I got As in history and English and B’s in Science and Math, therefore, I should follow my strengthens and specialize in drawing on the same skills as history and English. Boys will say I got B’s in Science and Math and C’s in history and English, therefore, I should follow my strengths and do something involving Science and Math.

Note that this is consistent with the Card and Payne study of Canadian high school students that I disscused in my post, The Gender Gap in STEM is NOT What You Think. Quoting Card and Payne:

On average, females have about the same average grades in UP (“University Preparation”, AT) math and sciences courses as males, but higher grades in English/French and other qualifying courses that count toward the top 6 scores that determine their university rankings. This comparative advantage explains a substantial share of the gender difference in the probability of pursing a STEM major, conditional on being STEM ready at the end of high school.

and myself:

Put (too) simply the only men who are good enough to get into university are men who are good at STEM. Women are good enough to get into non-STEM and STEM fields. Thus, among university students, women dominate in the non-STEM fields and men survive in the STEM fields.

Finally Stoet and Geary show that the above considerations also explain the gender-equality paradox because the intra-individual differences are largest in the most gender equal countries. In the figure below on the left are the intra individual differences in science by gender which increase with gender equality. A higher score means that boys are more likely to have science as a relative strength (i.e. women may get absolutely better at everything with gender equality but the figure suggests that they get relatively better at reading) and on the right the share of women going into STEM fields which decreases with gender equality.

The male dominance in STEM fields is usually seen as due to a male advantage and a female disadvantage (whether genetic, cultural or otherwise). Stoet and Geary show that the result could instead be due to differences in relative advantage. Indeed, the theory of comparative advantage tells us that we could push this even further than Stoet and Geary. It could be the case, for example, that males are worse on average than females in all fields but they specialize in the field in which they are the least worst, namely science and math. In other words, boys could have an absolute disadvantage in all fields but a comparative advantage in math and science. I don’t claim that theory is true but it’s worth thinking about a pure case to understand how the same pattern can be interpreted in diametrically different ways.

Texas likely is removing Helen Keller from the curriculum

Here is the story, note that Hillary Clinton was removed as well and Billy Graham was added, at least on a preliminary vote.  Various historical figures were assessed for their relevance, and Helen Keller did not receive a high enough score.  Barbara Jordan, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and Henry B. González — all figures from Texas history — made it through easily.  Dolores Huerta was added.

On Keller, here is some additional background:

In 1929 and again in 1938 she published books that both contained extended sections defending the Soviet Union—which she maintained was still a more or less democratic workers’ state—and praised the late Vladimir Lenin, whose great legacy rested on how he had helped to sow in Russia “the unshatterable seed of a new life for mankind.”

There is some chance the Texas decision will influence textbooks on a nationwide basis, because Texas is such a large market and publishers wish to market the same book nationally.

Keller should be kept because she is an impressive, focal, and easy to explain example of an individual who overcame disabilities and became prominent and influential.  At the margin, her radicalism is a reason to include her, not to exclude her.  Students should be encouraged to think of America as having had a diverse intellectual history, including radicalism.  That said, the same should hold for a variety of now-disgraced figures on the Right, provided of course that they have meritorious achievements worthy of note, and no this is not by definition impossible.

The first linked article claims that cutting Keller from the curriculum will save forty minutes.  Even if you don’t think Keller is worth exactly forty minutes, surely she is worth more than zero minutes, and besides the teacher simply can talk faster if need be (don’t most teachers talk too slowly?).

I don’t mind keeping the relatively obscure Texas figures in the social studies course of study.  If nothing else, it encourages young Texans to think of themselves as special and to resist assimilation into broader America, again to the benefit of diversity.

Addendum: Keller is a very good choice if you are playing Twenty Questions.  It is unlikely if someone will ask whether you are a famous person connected to the idea of disabilities.  And that reflects exactly why she should be kept in the curriculum.

Second addendum: Here are some other changes:

The board also voted to add back into the curriculum a reference to the “heroism” of the defenders of the Alamo, which had been recommended for elimination, as well as Moses’ influence on the writing of the founding documents, multiple references to “Judeo-Christian” values and a requirement that students explain how the “Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” in the Middle East.

Barry Goldwater was removed as well, with Moses replacing Thomas Hobbes.  There will be a chance to overturn these decisions by a final vote in November.

Where did Swedish schooling go wrong?

Some parts of this paper seem a priori implausible to me, and I don’t think the abstract puts the best foot forward for the paper, but these are such important issues I wanted to pass along the new piece by Magnus Henrekson and Johan Wennström.  Here is the opener:

The Swedish school system suffers from profound problems with teacher recruitment and retention, knowledge decline,and grade inflation. Absenteeism is high, and psychiatric disorders have risen sharply among Swedish pupils in the last ten years. In this pioneering analysis of the consequences of combining institutionalized social constructivism with extensive marketization of education, we suggest that these problems regarding school quality are to no small extent a result of the Swedish school system’s unlikely combination of a postmodern view of truth and knowledge, the ensuing pedagogy of child-centered discovery, and market principles. Our study adds to the findings from previous attempts to study the effects of social-constructivist pedagogy in nonmarket contexts and yields the implication that caution is necessary for countries, notably the U.S., that have a tradition of social-constructivist practices in their education systems and are considering implementing or expanding market-based school reforms.

At the risk of sounding like Bryan Caplan, is schooling even effective enough for mistakes in method to be so fatal?

For the pointer to the paper I thank Daniel Klein.

*Emergent Ventures*, a new project to help foment enlightenment

As of today, we at Mercatus, led by me, are formally initiating a new project called Emergent Ventures.

Here is the Mercatus press release.  Here is my short podcast on the venture.  Here is the landing page of the project, for receiving further updates.  Here is the GMU press release.

Most importantly, here is the application page, and here is its opening summary:

We want to jumpstart high-reward ideas—moonshots in many cases—that advance prosperity, opportunity, liberty, and well-being. We welcome the unusual and the unorthodox.

Our goal is positive social change, but we do not mind if you make a profit from your project. (Indeed, a quick path to revenue self-sufficiency is a feature not a bug!)

Projects will either be fellowships or grants: fellowships involve time in residence at the Mercatus Center in Northern Virginia; grants are one-time or slightly staggered payments to support a project.

We encourage you to think big, but we also will consider very small grants or short fellowships if they might change the trajectory of your life. We encourage applications from all ages and all parts of the world.

Imagine you are the next Satoshi, trying to invent “the next Bitcoin.”  Or say you are a budding public intellectual, seeking the reach and influence of Jordan Peterson, by building your social media presence.  Or an 18-year-old social science prodigy, hoping to fly to Boston to meet a potential mentor.  What about moving to Sacramento to write a quality blog covering California state government?  I very much hope you will apply for a grant at Emergent Ventures.  Most of all, I hope you are applying with ideas that we haven’t thought of yet.

We will be running Emergent Ventures with a minimum of overhead costs and a maximum of attention on upside potential from your projects.  This means:

1. The money is given away, not spent on staff or creating a new self-perpetuating bureaucracy.  That also keeps our incentives away from self-perpetuation and risk-aversion.

2. There is no committee to screen applications, or to keep the “crazy” ideas from getting to my desk.  I will personally review each and every application, albeit with additional refereeing assistance from Mercatus, the Mercatus network, and my own personal network.

3. If you receive money, the “report back” requirements are minimal, typically a 1-2 page report a year or so later, and possibly future reports too.  If you can’t show value or progress in a short report, you probably haven’t produced it.

4. The proposal you submit is limited to 1500 words, though with an option of supplementary documents.  If you can’t get to the point and explain your plans succinctly, we will not fund you.

5. If you receive a grant, we at Mercatus — and also I personally — will do our very best to help you in your endeavors.

Think of the goal of Emergent Ventures as supporting new ideas and projects that are too difficult, too hard to measure, too unusual, too foreign, too small, or…too something to make their way through the usual foundation and philanthropic process.

If you wish, you also can think of Emergent Ventures as a bet on my own personal judgment.  For some time to come, I will be devoting significant time to Emergent Ventures every single day (with a few exceptions, mostly travel-related).  Most applications will be processed promptly.

If you are interested, as a donor, in supporting Emergent Ventures, please write to my email.  It is a tax-deductible contribution.  Within a short period of time we expect to have a total of $4 million lined up, from a very brilliant set of donors, but we hope to do more.

Those of you who are applying should use the main site (not my email), so I hope you will apply here.

If you tweet, write on Facebook, blog, write as a journalist, work as a professor or teacher — I am asking you to please do your best in helping us to publicize this endeavor.

Addendum: For the curious, here is one bit from the application: “…what is one mainstream or “consensus” view that you absolutely agree with? (This is our version of a “trick” question, reversing the now-fashionable contrarianism.)”

Peer review is becoming tougher to achieve

Scientists in developed countries provide nearly three times as many peer reviews per paper submitted as researchers in emerging nations, according to the largest ever survey of the practice.

The report — which surveyed more than 11,000 researchers worldwide — also finds a growing “reviewer fatigue”, with editors having to invite more reviewers to get each review done. The number rose from 1.9 invitations in 2013 to 2.4 in 2017…

The report notes that finding peer reviewers is becoming harder, even as the overall volume of publications rises globally (see ‘Is reviewer fatigue setting in?’).

File under “the cost disease strikes back.”  Furthermore, it seems increasingly obvious that a lot of lesser journals just don’t matter, and that may discourage prospective referees from putting in the effort.  And note:

In 2013–17, the United States contributed nearly 33% of peer reviews, and published 25.4% of articles worldwide. By contrast, emerging nations did 19% of peer reviews, and published 29% of all articles.

China stood out — the country accounted for 13.8% of scientific articles during the period, but did only 8.8% of reviews.

That is from Inga Vesper in Nature, and for the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Death, Trauma and God: The Effect of Military Deployments on Religiosity

Learning to cope with man’s mortality is central to the teachings of the world’s major religions. However, very little is known about the impact of life-and-death trauma on religiosity. This study exploits a natural experiment in military deployments to estimate the causal effect of traumatic shocks on religiosity. We find that combat assignment is associated with a substantial increase in the probability that a serviceman subsequently attends religious services regularly and engages in private prayer. Combat-induced increases in religiosity are largest for enlisted servicemen, those under age 25, and servicemen wounded in combat. The physical and psychological burdens of war, as well as the presence of military chaplains in combat zones, emerge as possible mechanisms.

That is from Resul Cesur, Travis Freidman, and Joseph J. Sabia.