Thursday, August 31, 2006

Blowing open another surveillance program? 

The Chronicle of Higher Education today put out a special note (and placed this article on its free space) about an FBI program that cross-checked financial aid records at the Department of Education. Any parent of a college-age kid knows about FAFSA, a form students can fill out and give to all the schools to which they apply for financial aid. When I applied to colleges in the 1970s I had to fill out one of these for each school -- now students file one through the government.

While this doesn't seem to be a violation of law, it comes in the middle of a fight between the Dept. of Education and the higher education establishment over the former's plans to track individual student progress and generate a database to report that information to the public. The higher ed establishment says this creates data privacy issues, which are highlighted by this case. This is the quote that piqued my curiosity:

"This is troubling, but not surprising," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "It's hard to be surprised when the government is mining every single database. In the war on terror, there are no safe harbors."

Mr. Hartle called the Education Department's project a "perfect illustration of the dangers of the unit-record system." He pointed out that, to receive federal aid, students must either be U.S. citizens or have a green card. "This is about finding Timothy McVeigh," he said. "This is not about finding Mohammed Atta."

A couple of things struck me. First, I think we are somewhat interested in finding Timothy McVeighs, though of course they have full rights. But the form says that "if the information that you submitted indicates a violation or potential violation of law," the data may be turned over.

Second, I wonder if Mr. Hartle is worried about the availability of safe harbors for terrorists? It's an odd quote.

I was aware of the restrictions on loans but I do think some international students -- even those without visas -- file FAFSA forms. According to this guide for international students seeking aid, there's no problem filing a FAFSA if the international student has a social security card, which can be received by some international students depending on visa type. Indeed, it appears you could file a FAFSA with any 9-digit number in the SSN field -- while it will get flagged for failing to match name and number, it will be nevertheless in DoEd's records. Those could be useful.

There were less than a thousand such searches of the FAFSA database, and I do not see any reference in the Chronicle article as to whether there were any leads generated from it. The story was written by a j-school grad student using FOIA filings to obtain the information. Obviously the Chronicle believes this is an important story, and no doubt this is because they believe it harms the efforts of DoEd to bring greater accountability to higher education. But if we have now exposed another datamining activity that is actually harming our ability to track both the Attas and the McVeighs, the fallout of the colleges' unwillingness to be accountable for what they produce could be deadly.

UPDATE: Welcome Captain's Quarters readers! Ed notes an LA Times article on the subject calls this datamining, when it appears the FBI was asking for records on specific names. From the Times' third paragraph:
Authorities said the program was limited to "fewer than 1,000" persons who were considered witnesses or "subjects" of federal terrorism investigations. Most of the searches were conducted in 2001 and 2002; the program ended in June of this year.
Do we have an accepted definition of datamining? Someone needs to get that to our j-schools soon. But my point here isn't so much that but to point out that Hartle's statement that only US citizens and green card holders filed FAFSAs isn't entirely correct. At any rate, it doesn't appear like enough others did so to make it worth the FBI's time.

Advertising your own referendum on public property 

According to a poster on the SCTimes chat, Government School District #742 was passing out signs asking for a 'yes' vote on the referendum on Sept. 12 for a bond to build a new school. I'm not sure that's legal -- I don't think it is but I am not familiar enough with the law in that area. At any rate, it's unseemly regardless of your views on the referendum.

I've been struggling with the financing on this referendum. The selling point on the levy has been that it will only cost someone $3 more a year on $150,000 of assessed value. (Here's the calculator they use to show this.) But how they do this is to roll an existing levy into the new one. And the school district will have to renew its operational levy, which will be argued it has to do because of state legislative actions. Whatever debt remains to be paid -- which is quite low, looking at the data from the state auditor's office -- stretching it out means people in the future will be paying for the debt for the next 20 years. Moreover, if you had let the existing debt retire -- which as best I can tell would happen in 2007 (I may be wrong about this, but the school district doesn't put its full budget on its website) -- your taxes would have gone down by $99.

$25 million of this goes to a new school in St. Joseph. I have no problem believing it's needed out there (of course, I would rather see private school alternatives out there or another STRIDE Academy, but leave that argument for another day.) And $2 million in a separate question would be voted for a separate land purchase for the fast-growing SE St. Cloud-Haven area. But the school district went and muddied the waters by adding in $8 million for a passel of gifts for various constituencies from science labs and auditorium upgrades to maintenance work and pool covers to keyless entries and sinks and countertops for the home economics program. Why? Why isn't this something we fund out of operational expenses, since these types of expenditures are normal expenses? Why did the school board allow these special interests to attach an extra $8 million onto a bill to help out growing St. Joe? Perhaps to get them to hand out signs at a school open house?

UPDATE: Another thought about charter schools, this time from Joshua Sharf:
We did have one caller, Robin, a middle-school principal, who argued that charters need to upgrade their teacher certification standards, a typical claim from a union that would like to extend the close shop to beyond the shop. If charters are outperforming (or even matching) public schools using less restrictive teacher certification, that just says that at least some of the standards the unions have helped impose are either irrelevant or outright damaging.
Why not have a charter open up in St. Joe?

EConomics still on the list 

A new report released by our school's Career Services office says that the job market for new grads strong in Minnesota. And economics is one of the top programs in demand.
The majors most in demand haven't changed since last year, the study found. Top sought after majors included business, marketing, economics, communications, accounting and psychology/sociology.

The retail industry offered the most opportunities for new grads, with 77 percent of employers in that market saying they planned to increase hiring. The financial services industry followed closely behind, with 68 percent of employers expecting to increase hiring.

The least sought majors included history, political science, chemistry and graphic design.
30% of the surveyed firms expect to pay 4-6% more for new hires this year versus last. An executive summary of the report is here.

History and political science lowest in demand. Who knew? But chemistry is quite surprising to me.


Littlest and I are going to the Dome to be help the Twins snap out of this Royal funk. Bad enough they start my Red Sox' downward spiral; they are NOT going to take the Twins out too. Back later.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Let's be careful out there 

We have in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only; temp link) the story of another faculty member who is part of the Scholars for 9/11 Truth. I suggest you look at that last link first. Then consider these two quotes from the Chronicle article:
Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, said through a spokeswoman on Monday that Mr. Woodward's view, which the professor has discussed in his political psychology class, is "crazy and offensive." The spokeswoman, Pamela Walsh, said that Mr. Woodward's view shows "a reckless disregard for the true facts and raises questions as to why such a professor would be teaching at the university in the first place."

A university spokeswoman, Kim Billings, said that Mr. Woodward was entitled to his First Amendment right to free speech. "We support academic freedom," she said. She argued that Mr. Woodward was free to discuss "case studies," such as the September 11 terrorist attacks, in the classroom, saying that he was "entitled to his opinion."

Nevertheless, as requested by the chairman of the University System of New Hampshire's Board of Trustees, administrators are looking into Mr. Woodward's teachings and his past student evaluations.

Mr. Woodward was gratified that officials, including Andrew E. Lietz, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and J. Bonnie Newman, interim president of the main campus, at Durham, have spoken out in favor of free speech in his case, though they said they disagreed with his views. "I was very heartened to have an affirmation of academic freedom," the professor said on Tuesday.

But Mr. Woodward said he wished that his critics would read his syllabus and visit his class sessions. "I don't press my own views," he insisted, but he does share them. He said he also tries to get students to come to their own conclusions after viewing evidence and hearing all sides of debates on "hot-button issues."
As Mike pointed out during his guestblogging here when discussion Prof. Barrett of Univ. of Wisconsin, Prof. Woodward is engaging in protected speech, a position with which I agree. However, Mike argued "the university has painted itself into a corner" by hiring this professor who appear to be unqualified. I do not know this. This is, after all, a political psychology class -- denial of historical events might well be part of political psychology.

UNH should refrain from looking into this professor's syllabus and student evaluations for anything more than the usual process for promotion and tenure. If he's unqualified to teach, there's a process by which we deal with those issue. Stick to them.

JOBZ helps ... move local firms 

I thought this was an odd quote last week in the International Falls The Daily Journal
We, too, had some concerns about the program when Gov. Tim Pawlenty first launched it. The program appeared to target rural areas, but when places like St. Cloud were designated JOBZs we wondered about the intention of the program. And already, the St. Cloud zone has attracted the most JOBZ projects.
JOBZ is a brainchild of the Pawlenty administration. Rather than being a motivator for people moving from out-of-state, however, it's largely helping local businesses stay open and move to JOBZ-designated areas.
"We've provided incentives to move economic activity around the state, from one part to the other," [U of M Prof. Laura] Kalambokidis said. That can be beneficial if the business is moving from a congested part of the state with low unemployment to an area with high unemployment. But it's not clear that's happening with the JOBZ program, she said.

Some economic developers who have tried to entice companies away from the Twin Cities say they've had better luck helping companies in their back yard expand or make a short move to a JOBZ development site.

Although St. Cloud is one of the areas closest to the Twin Cities, it hasn't drawn any Twin Cities companies north, said Tom Moore, president of the St. Cloud Area Economic Development Partnership.

Moore attributes the high number of JOBZ projects in Stearns County to a focus on local businesses interested in expanding.

"We did land Arctic Cat from Thief River Falls," he said. "They would have gone to Wisconsin if we hadn't had JOBZ."

The Arctic Cat plant, which will make engines for all-terrain vehicles, will employ 50 people when it opens this fall. The main competition for the plant was a site in River Falls, Wis. Wisconsin had offered $3.75 million to Arctic Cat in a package including city financing, land, property tax breaks and state assistance.
So when I hear people brag about JOBZ, my question is whether it is simply moving firms around the state -- in which case the cost-benefit analysis would be, well, interesting -- or if it's moved a company from one place to the next? If it's the latter, then the question is whether such tax programs help. This is one of those times when I think the liberal answer might in fact be right, as this small business owner seems to agree.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Snapshots vs. movies of health insurance coverage 

Here's the problem with this type of information from the Census -- to contribute to Eric Black's big question today -- it's a snapshot, taking stock of who has how much money, who has health insurance coverage, etc., at a point in time. The stock of people without health insurance at one time might be larger or smaller than the stock at a previous period in time, but that doesn't tell us who those people are. What we want to know is not just how many people are without insurance at a point in time, but how long it lasts.

Moreover, as this study from the Census Bureau makes clear, the data used to make these claims about rising lack of health insrance coverage is from the Current Population Survey that is less accurate than the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Only the latter gets at the dynamics by asking the same individuals about health insurance over time.

Although both surveys are household surveys conducted by the United States Census Bureau, they are designed to meet different needs and, hence, have different sample sizes, interview techniques, sample compositions, and survey reference periods. Accordingly, the two surveys produce varying health insurance coverage rates.

The CPS ASEC, which collects annual information, found that 83.6 percent of people were covered by health insurance for some or all of 1998. The SIPP, which collects monthly information, found 92.0 percent of people covered by health insurance for at least 1 month of 1998.2 Since the SIPP collects monthly information and allows us to see changes from month to month, SIPP may be closer to the truth.
As best I can tell, the 2004 SIPP data for health insurance coverage is not yet available. The 1996-99 wave of participants showed 8.3% of individuals without insurance for an entire calendar year, while another 13.3% had no insurance for at least one month in that year.

The difference between the CPS studies and the SIPP studies is like the difference between a photograph and a movie. Which one gives you a better representation of health insurance coverage?

When do you turn the money down? 

Here's another problem I've been thinking about. Suppose you're an incumbent running for re-election. Your state has matching funds to give to candidates who agree to spending limits on their campaigns and the amount is somewhat substantial. You have just about reached the spending limit on your own fundraising with about 70 days to go to the election. Your opponents are well behind you in fundraising and will undoubtedly take the matching funds and agree to the limit. Your decision to make: Do you take the money and limit yourself?

Two complications: First, if you don't take the money and abide by the limits, your money goes in equal shares to your opponents, relieving them of some of their money trouble. Second, your opponents and you both receive assistance from third-party interests who are not subject to any limits; your opponents have access to substantial amounts of those funds.

Now if I'm writing down this problem, it looks like this. I am going to try to maximize the number of votes I receive, which is a function of the amount of money I spend (E), the place on an assumed (heroically) political scale I occupy (P), and the money and place on the scale the opponents occupy.

max Vself(E-self, P-self, E-opp1, P-opp1, ...)

subject to the constraint that E is less than or equal to the amount of contributions I get for each of the candidates self, opponent 1, opponent 2, etc. Because I'm an incumbent, my wiggle-room on casting myself differently on the scale is limited -- I have a record.

This is the problem Tim Pawlenty is facing this week. Can he afford to give Mike Hatch and Peter Hutchinson each about $240,000 so that he doesn't have to abide by the limit of $2.4 million, which he seems to be ready to eclipse? In particular, can he if...
Two Democratic-leaning campaign committees, the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and Minnesotans for Change, reported raising more than $1.5 million between them so far this year.
It may be that he could abide by the limit and still win, but his winning margin will be pulled down. It strikes me, looking at what he's done lately, that Pawlenty has decided not just to win but to maximize his vote total, thus his looking like a pro-life Democrat. (DFL please note: You have a few of these around that still call themselves Democrats. See Pennsylvania FMI. You might want to run one yourself some day.) I believe he is doing that to burnish his credentials for any national aspirations he might have. He will say no, of course, as he should -- but there's little to gain from hewing so close to the center when the other major candidate seems to have a series of small implosions each week except to run up the score. (Again my economist bias -- nobody's stupid, we just have to figure out the objectives of the actors.)

The Hatch campaign is commenting that "If they don't abide, they know they would face criticism and public disapproval." But I doubt it makes much difference, particularly two years from now. If he wants to run up the score, and if he believes he's well ahead, Pawlenty should turn down the state money.

As usual, he beat me to it 

Most everyone is talking about this lead article in the New York Times this morning, arguing that real compensation for workers has not kept pace with labor productivity. Of course some people use this to give vent to their inner Communist, while others handwring over the lack of good jobs. Luckily for us, Russell Roberts is on the job, pointing out the source of the data for this article is none other than the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal DC think tank. Median wages are unusual to use, and more so when you are looking only at cash wages instead of total benefits.

The graph on the left is median average and median wages measured as net compensation, from the Social Security Administration that uses the average number to set cost of living adjustments for Social Security benefits. It specifically excludes any payment to a worker that is not reported as taxable income on the worker's W-2. The ratio of median to average has declined as seen in the graph -- so EPI and the NYT are using the less-favorable number to make their comparisons. But when you look at labor's share of GDP, Roberts points out, the ratio of the wage bill to GDP is still at 70%. It's just that more of that share is being paid in non-taxable portions than before.

David Altig points out that the ratio of GDP going to capital could rise without it being paid by a reduction in labor's share, since indirect taxes and subsidies get in the way. But that's probably not what is going on here. Roberts makes the fine conclusion:
What keeps my wages high (and yours) is our alternatives. Is there any evidence that workers have fewer alternatives than they once had? If anything, workers are more mobile today than ever. What sets workers wages are the wages of those alternatives. That depends, generally, on our skills, our knowledge and our drive and discipline�human capital and how well we are able to apply it. Workers are better educated than ever. That is why I believe that compensation, properly measured, is higher than it was five or ten or twenty or thirty years ago.
The return on education keeps growing and people keep coming in larger numbers to higher education. Why would they do that in a world of falling wages? Why would you invest in human capital if its return was negative? You wouldn't.

Tim Worstall comes at this a little differently and thus gets only close to the answer:
So, yes, productivity has been rising strongly, wages have not been. This sad state of affairs will continue while productivity grows faster than GDP. It explains all of the observed facts, without recourse to some conspiracy theory about screwing the workers, orthe rich keeping it all for themselves.
That leaves a very important question -- how is it that productivity has grown so much? The problem is, of course, that most people measuring productivity are measuring just the share of output growth that is not attributable to an increase in labor hours. Today also happens to mark the release of the first estimates of multifactor productivity for 2005. It shows a slowdown in MFP versus 2003 and 2004. Output per hour rose 2.6% in 2005, but 0.7% of that was due to more intensive use of capital (for which its owners should expect some return) and another 0.1% due to changes in the education and experience of the workforce. In short, the capital per worker ratio rose by 2.3% -- there was an increase in capital intensity. That accounts for almost a third of the increase in productivity. (Looking at the underlying data too quickly tells me the cost of labor has risen faster than the cost of capital, thus inducing some technological substitution towards more capital-intensive production.)

But any fool can come up with a number to prove his point. Economists should study people's behavior before looking up their spreadsheets. If wages were so stagnant, why would people invest in their 'wetware'?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Two tests 

I don't know what is more exciting. Writing a blog post on my new X41 in my own handwriting (I'm training the tablet) or watching Duane milk a cow.

I'm sure I've read this before 

The StarTribune got around to republishing an article from the WaPo on how poor students' vocabulary had gotten ... at Elon College, which is a fairly selective institution. These are not average students in one sense but are so in another -- they do not read good literature. I always find myself at events like J-Wood Saturday Night (such a good event the host needs a few days off) trying to remember the books I read growing up. Mom and Dad subscribed to those Readers Digest Childrens Condensed Books, and Dad was smart enough to know that if he left some of the Classics Illustrateds only sort of hidden but not really, they'd be read. And they were.

Parents also used games. Dad had me playing poker with his friends while Mom was at work (Dad worked nights, and no, it wasn't as bad as this but I did get the occasional swig of a PBR) as well as cribbage. From this I believe I knew how to add any two digit numbers by the time I was six. And I still fancy myself a pretty good Scrabble player, though I'm told I'm too competitive so the family won't play with me. There were very few board games at the house except for Scrabble and Risk until I discovered Avalon-Hill warboarding.

So as I came back from the Cities today I look in the rear view mirror to see Littlest reading The Two Towers. And I think I read it about that same age. And I think she won't be stumped by 'derelict', 'brevity' or 'pith'. It was nothing special I did other than say she could watch the movies only after reading the books.

By the way, she's quite good at cribbage, and we are available to kick your butt in doubles, any time. It'll be good practice.

(h/t: Reader jw.)

Want. To. Play. A. Game? 

Sean Hackbarth has run a webloggers league for some time now in which I've played (won the first year, but have not managed to claim the title since) and we need a few more players for a draft tomorrow night. Interested? Follow this...

Don't send a child to defend you, Senator 

When my letter last week to the St. Cloud Times drew enough heat to get a provocative reaction from the ex-mayor (btw, John, I've decided that needs to be on the masthead), I expected the Clark campaign to send out some kind of reply. Sure enough the reply came (and on a Sunday, unlike my letter and that of my wife's, both of which came out on the low-readership Saturday -- I smell a rat).

I'd go for full frontal fisking, but the letterwriter is a student (I checked the email lists) here at the university and a DFL delegate. So if she ever should be in one of my courses I would not like to have said anything negative about her. But whether she does or does not, a little economics lesson for this student is in order. She writes:
All of our lives are enriched by tax dollars.
I wish to understand what she means. Tax dollars are collected by the government under threat of force. Thieves do the same thing; the only difference is that thieves are sent to jail for doing so -- government officials who do so seek reelection for "enriching us". Is it enriching to take money from one person and give it to another? Was Robin Hood enriching lives?

How about Hezbollah? The Financial Times notes today that that group has a building arm that is re-creating southern Lebanon (it has the lovely name "Construction Jihad.") In one case government destroys your income by confiscating it even before it's in your hands and then gives it back to you. In the other case government (at least part of it, despite the Lebanese government's claims of inability to control the Hezbollah party within it) throws bombs at Israel and then rebuilds the country leveled in response to the provocation. Is this "enriching", Ms. Michel?

Well, perhaps that's not exactly what you meant. You added in the next sentence,
Schools, roads, law enforcement, community programs � we all benefit.
But to what extent? If you should come to an economics class that discusses public goods, we can talk about a tax-price one pays for a public good one receives. One problem with public goods is that we all have to consume the same amount. If the tax-price paid is greater than the benefit received, we are forced to consume something we would not otherwise choose. (Spot and Craig, please note.) Economic choice is about net benefits, not total benefits. If I force you to trade me $10 for an ice cream sandwich on a January evening, you benefit from the sandwich but you're probably still unhappy.

Here's the problem most of us have, Ms. Michel, with the stadium and Tarryl Clark's vote. You can point to there being some benefits as well as some costs. Hey, I teach cost-benefit analysis in my classes, and you should try it! But the question I raise with Senator Clark's vote is: Who gets to decide if the costs are greater or less than the benefits -- the Minnesota Legislature? Or the residents of Hennepin County who will mostly pay those costs? So when you state...
The people of Hennepin County were Clark's priority when she supported this legislation because it would put more police on the streets and provide kids with positive safe activities in their communities. question is, who in Hennepin asked her? And by her action did she just leave us more vulnerable to the rapacious Pogemiller and his tax committee to force St. Cloud to tax itself to pay for something a majority of OUR taxpayers do not want? (Particularly now that he can't hide behind Ellenbecker's thirst for tax dollars.) "First they came for Hennepin, but I said nothing, for I do not live in Hennepin..."

Note to Senator Clark -- this is a question you should answer. The student's letter had more holes than the Viking offensive line last year. Next time, write the letter yourself.

$100 oil = recession? 

That's the opinion of a survey by the National Association of Business Economists' policy panel (I am one of the 195 respondents to the survey.) Here are some additional details from the survey:
More people thought monetary policy currently was just right than too loose or too tight. Wide margins thought government spending and taxation would rise at rates about the rate of inflation. (I wish they would ask that as rate of inflation plus rate of population growth, so we could interpret the answer as saying the size of government will grow or shrink.)

Top three answer to "what do you think is the US's greatest economic strength today": flexible economy and labor force; technological lead and strongh productivity; deep capital markets.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The rise of the MOB 

Mrs. and I went to Keegans last night to witness the Fraters triumph (the NARN team seemed lost without its economics and Slavic history exper -- Jeopardy feh! -- while Hugh's team came in a very respectable second.) Good to see so many people there. Politics was high in the air as Derek Brigham and Barry Hickenthier combined their blogging skiils with a desire for change to become legislative candidates. I think Mrs. loves this stuff, as she spent most of the night getting the inside dope from various and sundry MOBsters. It was one of those nights that makes us wonder why we don't live in the Cities. (The answer will come Monday when I have to go to work for real.)

Has there been many examples of groups of bloggers creating candidates for political office? And is it just a rightroots thing? What's different between organized blogospheric campaigns for the Ned Lamonts, the alt-press coverage of the Thune and Kennedy campaigns, and these ground-up campaigns of Derek's and Barry's? We'll try to ask these questions on the air this weekend as a variety of political people from all across the spectrum visit us this weekend.

NARN at the fair, today (11-5) and tomorrow (12-4). We'll see you there as the Banaian family weekend vacation continues. Near the spaceneedle and the international bazaar and across from the leadaHorticulturebutcantmakeherdrink Building.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Here's the score 

I'm writing QBR this morning then off for a fair Fair weekend. Here's the 411.
We're staying in the Cities this weekend, and I'm excited to bring Mrs. and Littlest to their first Great Minnesota Get-Together. Hope to see you there!

P.S. -- that does mean I'll be posting lightly today, but will post through the weekend, contrary to my usual standards.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

More on textbooks 

One of my commenters on the textbook post yesterday reports something we already know, that textbook prices in the US are higher than those overseas. That reminded me of a paper I read last fall discussing this type of price discrimination. Textbook prices in the US are 50-100% higher than in the UK, they show. Why?
Possible explanations can be broadly categorized as relating to cost factors, preferences, or market structure. ... we argue that explanations based on cost and market structure can not explain differences of the observed magnitude. We claim that price diffrences are almost exclusively demand-driven and discuss several reasons why US consumers are willing to pay so much more than their UK counterparts for textbooks. Our preferred explanation is that demand differences are the result of the different status of textbooks in the educational systems of different countries.
One thing that supports that view is that for other books, the US book price premium is much smaller (30% premium for textbooks, 12% for other books.) The premium is much, much larger for science textbooks, and the premium is nearly 50% for commercial hardcover textbooks.

What this tells the authors that it's probably not cost -- most books are printed in the US, even those sold in the UK. And it's probably not us evil professors either, since faculty in the UK aren't logically any more sensitive to the cost of textbooks to students than US professors. However, a good look at syllabi in courses in other countries indicates how much less important textbooks are in teaching there versus here.
In the United States the textbook is an integral part of college education. In most courses instruction centers around a single textbook that contains most of the material, as well as exercises and practice problems. The textbook is the main reference for students and it is usually labeled as "required" for the course. In the UK, textbooks are not used in the same way. Students are usually given a list of books that are meant to be study aids rather than mandatory textbooks. Thus students feel much less of an obligation to buy particular books, meaning that willingness to pay for textbooks is lower than in the United States.
If the style of education is different in two places, and one relies on the textbook as an input more than the other, is that something that should be corrected? I have found that my students are not happy about using readings and being sent to libraries for materials. Overseas, that does not seem to be a problem (my experience there being very limited, I say that with caution.) And textbook publishers are now able to create so many customizations of textbooks for faculty (which of course have zero resale) that they may be increasing the agency problem, contrary to this paper I'm reviewing.

At any rate, and as most of the other commenters from yesterday's post have noted, search engines are breaking down the ability of textbook publishers to price discriminate (preventing resale is a requirement for price discrimination to be an effective strategy.) I recommend students try out either ABE (as Marty suggests) or use the UK Amazon site. That leakage for publishers is why they are creating more customizations of texts.

Never too old for grad school 

We had a faculty member here who taught for nearly 30 years before finishing his PhD (from the days when the university didn't consider the doctorate a requirement for appointment to the faculty.) Great teacher and maybe the best-read in both current affairs and economic history in the department, he was near sixty years old when he finished the degree, and that was certainly the oldest person to get a PhD in economics that I knew. He retired a few years later. I saw him at a retirement party we gave this summer and he's still reading his Economist and other periodicals and just as sharp on economic affairs as ever.

Sean at The American Mind finds someone older.
After a long and fruitful career, 79-year-old master�s degree graduate Herbert Baum has returned to the University of Chicago to earn his Ph.D. The oldest person ever to be awarded a doctorate by the University, Baum will receive the degree in economics Friday, Aug. 25.
Congratulations, Dr. Baum! May we all have such a love of learning at that age. And Katie at A Constrained Vision notes his committee includes James Heckman, Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, all Nobel winners. You can bet that this is no honorary title.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Textbook windbaggage 

I hate to do this, since I know about half the editorial board of the Times on a first-name basis, but today's was a little too much for me to resist. After running an article Monday on textbook costs, the paper predictably ran an editorial lamenting high prices for stuff people buy. (Worth noting: People also lament low prices for stuff they sell. Ask a farmer.)

So what to do?

There is a national movement known as Make Textbooks Affordable. Among its efforts are working with student governments to do just that. Make Textbooks Affordable lists on its Web site about two dozen universities where student governments have passed resolutions supporting affordable textbooks.

As of Tuesday, no Minnesota schools were listed as either passing such a resolution or working to achieve that. Perhaps St. Cloud State University could become a leader of this effort in Minnesota. Such a resolution can send a strong message that students are serious about lowering costs.

So your information Monday about students using alternative sources for books online, or used books, or book exchange, or students sharing books -- none of those will send as strong a message as a resolution? I am sure McGraw-Hill is quivering in its boots right now.

Make Textbooks Affordable says it surveyed professors and 76 percent said that new editions were justified �half the time or less,� while two out of three said they used the bundled items �rarely or never.�

Such findings indicate there is plenty of potential momentum for changing market conditions. One thing professors can do immediately is let students know whether they need to have the latest edition of texts, or if used texts still provide adequate educational content.

This assumes that all faculty on campus don't give a flying fig about the cost of the textbooks they use. Maybe they could care more, but there's ample evidence that they are already trying to reduce costs. I get email from students asking about previous editions or the use of ancilliaries. My preference is for books that can be read online; they are usually cheaper, more current, and will link to the ancilliaries automatically. (I very rarely get complaints from students not having access to computers; five years ago, I would have.)

Lower costs by minimizing production expenses. Perhaps that means fewer pictures or no color in books.

In a foreign language primer, maybe. In a botany text, no. Colors help with graphs in economics books, though I agree in some cases people go overboard. (My monograph on Ukraine was held down in price -- even though it's still too bloody expensive -- by my reduction in the number of graphs, but more by my drawing them camera-ready myself.) The problem with this thinking is that the price is a function of cost, when the fact is that price is a function of demand and its inelasticity.

Give preference to paper or online supplements instead of producing entirely new editions, especially for introductory courses and subjects in which material does not change much.

Again, those are already out there. The biggest problem I have with them? They get lost in the student's dorm room or apartment because of their size. And students who aren't required to hit the online materials regularly (i.e., for grade) will pay for something and not use it, because after all it's mommy and daddy's money, or it's a loan that they don't think about for years to come.

Allow professors to select unbundled textbooks.

Most book companies already do. Most faculty have that option. If you had bothered to check the bookstore, you might have already seen that.

Granted, we are not saying textbooks should be cheap.
Of course you are. You are only recognizing that free is impossible.
They are an essential component and expense of every college education. However, they should be priced fairly.
So how would you describe fair? The Times board is arguing that prices can be whatever the Times board thinks a group of fair-minded individuals would decide them to be. That's a complete misunderstanding of market principles. Prices are not something that we design to turn out a certain, 'fair' way. While prices are the result of human action, they are still unplanned.

Woebetide the partisan hack professor 

Frequent reader and political scientist Steve Frank sent to the campus a synopsis of April Kelly-Woessner and Matthew Woessner's article "My Professor is a Political Hack: How Perceptions of a Professor's Political Views Affect Student Course Evaluations," published last month in PS, a journal of the American Political Science Association. The professors testified before the Pennsylvania legislative committee investigating academic freedom, and in some sense are following on the research agenda of Dan Klein (for instance, the likelihood of liberals getting higher SSCI counts than conservatives.)

The study uses survey results from thirty faculty teaching undergraduate political science at 29 colleges to 1,385 students. Interestingly, 27 of these faculty came from a postcard mailed to two hundred instructors (chosen at random) asking if they would agree to distribute the survey. 22 others wrote back to say they would not. You wonder -- why not just pitch the postcard requesting their participation?

But did it really matter to the sample? 23 of the thirty faculty are rated as left of center, with one person called "very liberal" and one "fairly conservative". When asked if they could be certain of this there was a good deal of variability. Also interesting to me -- the students were able to discern the ideology of the other students in the room, according to Kelly-Woessner and Woessner.

So, if you buy that students can tell the ideology of their professors, what does it matter? The authors explain:
[S]tudents rate faculty members who they perceived to be liberals more favorably on a number of faculty characteristics measures. As a whole, students are more likely to report that liberal professors �encourage students to express their own viewpoints,� and �work to provide a comfortable learning environment.� When professors are perceived as either liberal or Democrats, students are more likely to believe that their instructor �cares about students and their success.�
Those kinds of perceptions appear to be true both within a classroom and between classrooms. And it's likely that those things will be looked at by evaluative faculty committees and academic administrators in deciding who gains promotion and tenure.

Perhaps the most damning point is one for either conservatives or liberals to like. Kelly-Woessner and Woessner find that if you are perceived as being at an extreme in either direction, students systematically believe you are less able to give an "objective presentation". If I had a nickel for each time a faculty member at SCSU said to me that they were able to keep their politics out of the classroom so their extremism shouldn't be an issue, I'd probably quit my job. 35% of students were significantly different from their instructors in terms of party identification (versus 23% difference in ideology.)

How big a difference is it? On a five-point scale, the overall effect of being at least two points away (on a four-point party ID scale) was about 0.3 points. The highest and lowest overall rating averages in my department are less than one point, so 0.3 is meaningful. And being two points away could be simply your being a political moderate in a classroom full of liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans. It appears simply being away from the median view of students in either direction gets you in trouble.
Consequently, if the goal were simply to win the love and adoration of the students, clever instructors would merely pander to the median �voter.� By mimicking students� views and reinforcing long-held beliefs, professors might score well on student evaluations, while providing no useful information at all. Indeed, many students would be more comfortable with a course if they could skip the readings or forego exams. Yet, college is not Club Med. As instructors, we ought not to refine our pedagogy exclusively for the purpose of making students comfortable or improving course evaluations.
Jason Czarnezki notes that perhaps teaching to the median student ideology isn't a good thing:
I think it points to some flaws in student course evaluations--what do they measure?; can they be manipulated?; is there a gap between student perception of what is good teaching and what is actually good teaching?
The answer to the manipulation is usually yes. I can give you one easy example -- if you return an exam or term paper the same day you take evaluations, your evaluations will be influenced by whether the students did well or poorly. If I wanted to spike my evals, then, I give an easy exam a week before evaluation and return them before handing out the evals. Kelly-Woessner and Woessner find that Democratic faculty are more likely to be perceived as grading "fairly and consistently."

Now at SCSU this is less of a problem, since faculty can report whatever parts of their evaluations they wish; there are some areas where the differences are sufficiently small. And you don't necessarily have to use evaluations at all. It would be my preference not to use them, but they are still considered a normal part of the evidence one provides for effective teaching; it is quite normal for job ads for faculty to make evaluations part of the material submitted with applications, particularly at more teaching-oriented institutions.

Maybe as this fertility gap continues to grow, it will be more conservative or Republican faculty that are treated well in student evaluations. But that's not currently the case -- 43% of the students in the Kelly-Woessner and Woessner sampe self-identified as liberal versus 29% conservative, with extremely liberals at 13% versus extremely conservatives 6% -- and so at this time the bias does cut against the conservative or even moderate faculty member.

Only you age 

Beloit College's list of features of the class of 2010
is out today, and the list has some things that make a guy feel old (a birthday that legitimately ends in a 9 comes next week for this professor.) Some items from the list.
1. The Soviet Union has never existed and therefore is about as scary as the student union.

8. They are wireless, yet always connected.

22. Mr. Rogers, not Walter Cronkite, has always been the most trusted man in America.

46. Public school officials have always had the right to censor school newspapers. (That's an odd choice!)

51. Michael Moore has always been showing up uninvited. (Now THAT's funny!)

56. They have never put their money in a "Savings & Loan." (Smiles from the money and banking profs! That's a whole lecture I no longer have to give.)

72. Richard M. Daley has always been the Mayor of Chicago.

Why it matters 

Arthur Brooks' column in the WSJ yesterday on the fertility gap between liberals and conservatives is the kind of fun thing Art often writes. It isn't necessarily new though -- James Taranto has called out the 'Roe effect' for years now. But this morning, David French makes a very interesting observation about the effect of the fertility gap.
If this doesn�t highlight the importance of education to both sides of the political and cultural divide, I don�t know what does. For a long time, liberals and conservatives have argued over who ultimately controls a child�s education � the parents or the state. With parents typically more conservative and the education bureaucracy more left than even the mainstream Democratic party, it is easy to why and where the battle lines are drawn.

After decades of litigation, the balance of power is increasingly clear: While parents who can afford to do so have a right to opt out of public schooling (through home schools or private schools), if the kids are in public schools they are essentially wards of the state and can be subjected to all kinds of state indoctrination without parental consent. Just check out cases where students were forced to sit through lewd sexual programs (Brown v. Hot, Sexy, and Safer Productions), take sexually explicit and suggestive surveys at a young age (Fields v. Palmdale School District), and even participate in Wiccan rituals (Brown vs. Woodland Joint Unified School District). For a nice summary of the rights of parents to control their kids� education, read this.
After the discussion in No Bright Lines last week, it is worth remembering what the stakes are. Should children born into modest circumstances become wards of the state? One side seems to say yes: It wants to determine that math and science should get special importance, for example, or use preschools to conduct mental health screening. Not to say that any of these things are bad things -- just that it is an appropriate discussion to have whether the proper decisionmakers are parents or the government education establishment. It gets more emphasis now because liberals are choosing not to be parents and thus have weaker stakeholdings.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Overachieving overstated? 

Jay Mathews reviews Alexandra Robbins new book The Overachievers, and thinks the problem of stressed out high school seniors is overblown.
I have spent a great deal of time interviewing students and parents in the 20817 Zip code, where Whitman is located, and similar neighborhoods such as 10583 (Scarsdale, N.Y.), 60093 (Winnetka, Ill.) and 91108 (San Marino, Calif.) News editors and book publishers are susceptible to Robbins's argument because many of them live in such places, where family incomes are in the top 5 percent nationally and talk about school stress in rampant. It would be almost a relief to many educators if these families, and their highly motivated students, were typical and overachievement were the greatest threat to high school education today. But the sad truth is quite the opposite.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national achievement test, reading and math scores for 17-year-olds have been stagnant the last 30 years. One of the reasons for this, many educators say, is that students, educators and parents have bought into the notion popularized by Robbins and other social critics that American teenagers have too much schoolwork and should be allowed instead to read for pleasure and watch the sunset and think deep thoughts.

Are news editors susceptible to a fallacy of composition? Perhaps so. Students do little homework, Mathews reports, and HERI's 2004 survey shows over forty percent of high school students are bored with their schools. Less than 1 in 5 of women and 1 in 8 of men study ten hours a week in high school. Mathews and Joanne Jacobs are right -- students do too little in high school, not too much, because we do not ask enough of them.

As if the Fair isn't enough 

Mitch announces that the MOB party will be September 9th at Keegans. I assume it's a late afternoon event (I hope so, since I don't get off the air until 5.)
Do us a favor - send an RSVP to "". If you're a MOB member, you'll be getting a personal email about it (assuming I can find your email address anywhere), but don't wait for me - just send the email so we can get a prelim count of attendees.
And don't forget this Friday, Trivia with Hugh Hewitt. This brain available for rent to a team that asks. You'll never miss another question about gross domestic product.

Thanks for your service. Now leave 

An article in this morning's Chronicle of Higher Education (temporary link; permalink for subscribers only) tells us about Christopher Cooper, a professor of criminal justice at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, who was injured in Iraq while serving as a reservist there.

Since returning from Iraq in October of 2004, Mr. Cooper, who is 43, says he has had to interrupt his classroom teaching to go to the bathroom and to monitor his blood pressure. He has also had to cancel classes for hospital visits and because "sometimes my glands swell and I get blisters on my tongue and I can't speak."

The professor says he asked the university to help him by hiring an adjunct to fill in occasionally and teach his classes. And he says that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offered to help the university foot the bill.

But instead, says Mr. Cooper, the university placed him on an unrequested medical leave from January through May of 2006. Last December, it also turned down his request for a sabbatical for the 2006-7 academic year.

Subsequent to filing an EEOC complaint against the school, the sabbatical was magically approved -- "sufficient funding ... was not available" before, said the school, but now they have them -- but now Prof. Cooper has not made plans for research travel because of the earlier turn-down; failure to produce such research could lead at least to him having to forfeit his pay during the sabbatical, and potentially an inability to achieve promotion to full professor.

Prof. Cooper is tenured, and so I doubt he can be fired. But the school's reluctance to help his disability, particularly in light of its experiences with another professor with anti-military views, certainly has to strike one as inelegant.

Why do government workers cost so much? 

Paul Jacob wonders:

Average compensation for federal civilian workers last year came to $106,579 � which Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute notes is "exactly twice the average compensation paid in the U.S. private sector." Throw out the benefits and the difference is less, but still a whopping 62 percent more for the federal worker.

Of course, past figures used to bolster up the "underpaid civil servant" notion ignore benefits and consider just the nominal wage rate. But today's 62 percent difference is hard to ignore, isn't it?

But face it: nominal wages aren't real wages; for a true comparison we must add on all the benefits, as Edwards does: "Federal workers receive generous health benefits during work and retirement, a pension plan with inflation protection, a retirement savings plan with generous matching contributions, large disability benefits, and union protections."

Here's the Cato study Jacob cites. When I read things like this I usually think they are too pat an answer to be true. I think this one is as well. Gary Becker points out that quit rates for lower-level government jobs are well below quit rates in the private sector.

Federal employees at lower level jobs may not make more than their civilian counterparts, but their economic situation is quite good when all other characteristics are taken into account. Government workers at these levels have great job security since they cannot be fired after a short probationary period, except for the grossest forms of misbehavior, ... In addition, they get many holidays, good vacations, generous pensions and health benefits, and are usually not under much pressure at work. The full set of characteristics offered to these federal employees is very attractive, which is why lower level jobs attract many applicants, and the jobs must be rationed through tests and in other ways.

In general, according to this BLS data, tenure on federal government jobs is almost three times that of private sector jobs. State and local government job tenure are also well above private sector rates. Becker and Richard Posner both point out that this is for the lower level jobs -- higher level federal employment tends to be at salaries well below those attainable in the private sector. Thus for example the high turnover at the Dept. of Homeland Security, where maybe you'd be willing to spend a few more dollars to keep the good upper-echelon people (I assume there are some.)

If there are workers with longer tenure in government, and one is rewarded for years of service with higher pay, it makes perfect sense that government workers would be seen to have higher pay. Jacob and Edwards would bolster their arguments if they could compare worker compensation for employees with the same years of service on a private and federal job.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Too easy to pick bad schools 

After lunch with a colleague with a high school senior child who should have his pick of many universities, I came back and finished this essay by Thomas Hibbs on whether universities have any soul. Anyone with a child heading to college in 2007 should read this before they start gobbling up statistics from USNews or some other college guide. In the context of reviewing a number of books about the state of higher education, Hibbs relates the student to an "amateur" (which until now I had not linked to my days of amo amas amat...)

Specialization breeds an inevitable individualism and elevates narrow expertise over breadth of learning. Clearly a university cannot do without rigorous, specialized knowledge in its faculty. The challenge Mr. Lewis and others pose is whether universities can create incentives to balance focus with breadth.

This would entail another sense of liberalism. Such a liberality or generosity of spirit would revive a proper appreciation of amateurism � not in the sense of an absence of serious training but in the etymological meaning of the word "amateur," from the French for "lover."

In an academic context, an amateur would be one who has a passionate enthusiasm for knowledge, an infectious joy at human inquiry itself and a commitment to transforming students from dependent absorbers of information into colleagues in a shared pursuit of knowledge. This spirit of wonder is the most compelling embodiment of Newman's claim that knowledge is an end in itself. Such a spirit knows no bounds � it can be equally present in an English poetry class, a chemistry lab, a music tutorial or a philosophy seminar.

As Jeffrey Hart said, "Life consists of more, thank God, than politics." Or sex, for that matter. Find those schools that agree.

Textbook season 

The local paper runs the usual kind of article on textbook costs at local colleges. (Note to news editor: Your budget is getting quite predictable. Who's covering SCSU opening drinking season this year?) The cures offered? Buying online and the selling back of used books. Inside Higher Ed has a story of one school that has required faculty to lock in their textbook choices for three years. Another article there argues that the textbook market restricts choices for students.

Worth reminding people: The value of a textbook will depend in part on what you can resell it for later. When I buy a used car, one of the things I look at is the price of that same model three years older in the current Blue Book -- that tells me how the car holds value. If this story about locking in textbooks for three years should increase the reselling price of books from students to bookstore, that would be fine. But the bookstore may be a monopsonist.

Ex-mayors say the nicest things about me 

I had a letter published in which I took issue with Senator Tarryl Clark's vote on the Minneapolis stadium issue (by the way, if you live in Hennepin, there are hearings about this fait accompli the next three nights -- and there will at least be a few people venting.) The Times chat included this late entry:
John Ellenbecker from St. Cloud
Posted: Aug 20, 2006 at 12:03 AM

Deminn - hate to break it to you but the letter writer is just another partisan hack who doesn't give a damn about the stadium issue, just about getting his candidate elected. His candidate is also a fellow faculty member at SCSU.
Yup, that John Ellenbecker. Peach of a guy; he's a guy who thinks political ads that mention him by name are reasons to sue.

Others made note of the fact that I'm not a DFL-loving professor -- sorry, I hate typecasting -- and that I am only looking at one issue. Well yes, I am, but it's no different than the Ned Lamont campaign. Taxation without representation, or more specifically taxation without a referendum that the same legislative body had made law, and still maintains as law, choosing only to ignore it in this case, was the fundamental cause of the American Revolution. Was John Hancock a single-issue voter?

And to the questions about who I'll vote for governor: In a contest between TPaw and Hatch, yes I'll vote for Pawlenty in a heartbeat. But that's a choice for me between second-best and worst. My decision, as I mentioned on the radio Saturday, is whether I can afford to express my displeasure with Pawlenty with a protest vote for Sue Jeffers, given my doubts that she could beat Hatch in a general if it came to that. And had she run as a Libertarian, the problem would be the same, so those who still kvetch about her choice to run as Republican are missing the point -- if she loses as expected in September, most of her voters will return to TPaw in November. You should thank her for doing what she's doing: She's getting her protest done and over before it interferes with the general election.

Worth reading: David and Margaret are also having at TPaw; she says "Pawlenty [is] basically a pro-life democrat."

UPDATE: Marty piles on.
Please try to do better than "Pawlenty is bad but Hatch is worse." Such arguments do have some merit. However, I have considered this argument and I'm not convinced by it right now. I would rather regain some of my principles and face a Hatch governorship then lose all I have come to believe as a fiscal conservative.
That's been David's position for awhile. What you would need to do to convince me to sit on my hands is establish that a defeat in November will win back the party to fiscal conservative principles. I'm not at all encouraged by what I see -- who do you think will lead that charge? Do you see the Chris Coleman tax increase in St. Paul leading to more fiscal conservativism or less?

Not one of us 

I initially read about this article on the Chronicle of Higher Education blog. It seemed reasonable enough -- a faculty member at the University of Virginia holds the title of 'state climatologist' and gets a grant to do private research; Governor Tim Kaine's office asks the professor not to use that title on his private research. Quite reasonable in my view; the professor is speaking in a private capacity and should represent that fact to readers of his private research. Even given that it's a debate over global warming -- the professor, Patrick J. Michaels, has written a number of articles that are skeptical of global warming claims -- the university correctly says the professor has academic freedom to write those articles, but shouldn't represent that he speaks in any way for the state government.

But the problem is, there is no official state office of climatology, and while he was appointed 25 years ago by a governor, Michaels' office is run by UVa.
U.Va. spokeswoman Carol Wood provided this statement: "We are grateful to the secretary of the commonwealth for her letter about the state's relationship to the Office of the State Climatologist. As it has since 1978, the University will continue to operate the office as an institutional program in accord with the American Association of State Climatologists, the body that oversees state climatology offices nationwide."

The governor's office said Michaels could refer to himself as the "AASC-designated state climatologist."

You have to wonder why Governor Kaine's office is making such a fuss over this. Sure it provides funding to Michaels' office, but that would be true of any faculty member on campus. And any of them are able to speak as experts under their grant of academic freedom, as long as they are clear that they do not speak for the state or the university.

I have to wonder if the reason for Governor Kaine's letter is the content of Professor Michaels' research.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Finally back, word 

It feels like forever since I've been to the station in Eagan, but tomorrow we kick off NARN 3: The Final Word, with Michael Brodkorb. I am amused with the peals of joy over the new show seen on Michael's blog.

NARN begins at 11am with the Opening Act Fraters sans Rocket, the Headliners Mitch and Ed from 1-3 and, the Final Word 3-5. Replay of the whole thing starts Sunday nights at 7pm. We'll have to get the kinks worked out fast, because the following weekend we are at the State Fair!

They can have my Economist when they pry it from my cold dead hands 

Chad waves the white flag on the best weekly news magazine in the world.
Not that there's anything wrong with the weekly magazine. Far from it. It's an excellent source for world news, especially business and economic, and provides a perspective that you will not find in the US media. If I was limited to only being able to take one magazine on a flight (and we may be headed for such Draconian measures), it would be The Economist.

However, with my daily newspaper, bi-weekly magazine, monthly journal, and book (to say nothing of the pearls posted by Saint Paul and Atomizer every six weeks or so) reading, I find myself with no time to keep up with the weekly delivery of The Economist. I'm lucky to skim through the contents and read one or two articles before the next issue lands. Then there are two of them demanding my attention and inspiring bouts of regret and guilt.
I understand. At one time I subscribed to NR, Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Harper's and The Economist. Just before I started this blog in 2002 I finally started dropping them. Only The Economist remains. Its locus is what I politely call "the men's reading room" ("because when a man's gotta, um, read, there'd better be nobody doing their damned makeup in there.") The articles mostly are short enough so that two fit in one reading. This allows for fairly complete coverage; I have it sent to my office so that I can read the one or two long articles before taking it to its final commode.

I hate five-man rotations 

Earl Weaver would have agreed with me. He had ten Laws, the seventh of which was "It's easier to find four good starters than to find five." Yet most baseball teams insist on five starters, with me usually cringing every time the Red Sox send out their fifth. ("Does this have anything to do with Jason Johnson giving up a leadoff triple to start the game against the Yankees today, Professor?" You know me too well.)

Likewise, proposals to limit school class sizes assumes that the supply of good teachers is practically infinitely elastic. As Frank Stephenson points out, that ain't necessarily so.
Proposals at both the state and federal levels have called for class-size reductions in an effort to boost student performance. Typically, such proposals have implicitly assumed that teacher quality will remain constant when hundreds or thousands of additional teachers are hired to lead the smaller classes. This assumption is mistaken. ...It just might be better to have more kids in a class with a better teacher than to divide the students into smaller classes with inferior teachers.
Of course, the real reason for those proposals isn't to encourage hiring new teachers but to increase the rents received by the current stock of teachers.

UPDATE: I also hate former Royals in my bullpen. 8-3 Yankees, middle 7.

Confiscatory monetary reform 

I collect paper money as a hobby. My focus is always for paper money from hyperinflations -- I love buying pieces of paper with lots of zeroes that the govenrment has made worthless. It's a weird hobby, I suppose, except that inflation has always been at the center of my research interests.

Just dropping zeroes shouldn't make a big difference you would think. And if that was all they were doing you'd be right. When I was in Ukraine in September 1996, the new hryvna replaced the karbovanets by lopping off five zeroes (Hr 1 = Krb 100,000).

But the Zimbabwean reforms do more than remove three zeroes from the old currency. (Hat tip: Mises blog.) This one has a little confiscatory twist.
With inflation officially pegged at 1,183 percent, it has been estimated that huge amounts of money in circulation was actually stashed outside the banking system, largely by the informal sector.

[Central bank governor Gideon] Gono ruled that individuals looking to exchange money could only deposit a total of Z$100 million (US$1,000 at the old official rate) a day. Excluding public holidays, that leaves 16 days until the deadline, or a maximum of Z$1.6 billion (US$16,000) that can be exchanged - bad news for parallel market foreign currency traders, or anyone who has not been using the formal banking system.
Students of Soviet history will recall that this was quite similar to what happened with monetary reforms in Germany after World War II or the last Soviet reforms with Gorbachev in 1991 (when 50- and 100-rouble notes above a certain number were placed in frozen accounts at the state banks, which were rendered worthless in the subsequent post-Soviet inflation.) Such confiscations normally cause a short-run deflation in the economy.

Last week Gono reported that less than 1/8th of the currency in the country passed through the banking system. And the Mugabe government is using police and party youth militia to man roadblocks to confiscate cash holdings of more than Z$100 million (about US$1,000.) About one-fourth of the pre-reform money supply seems to have been taken off in this way.

Those people who do business in the parallel (off-book, cash) contain both the middle and lower economic classes of Zimbabwean society. They are losing money to the government as it engages in this reform. This is much more than just lopping off three zeroes.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

This trick never works 

There are people who I often consider reasonable who keep thinking the government should just do something about gas prices. What that means is more or less fixing them, as is happening now in Ukraine. When you fix price below equilibrium, children, what happens? Lines form because people know quantity demanded will exceed quantity supplied (they won't say it that way because they speak normal languages, not economics.)

People complained about Yulya Tymoshenko being a populist (including me.) It appears new/old prime minister Viktor Yanukovych is drawing on the same well.

Another reason Bernanke has a hard job 

If you can read anything into the lates leading indicators report you've earned your money today. I am getting no hints from there whether a recession is coming or not. It's not likely to be this current quarter, based on what we know right now. Indeed, I agree with Brad DeLong and Menzie Chinn -- there's not much of a chance of calling this recession before it happens.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Daddy needs a new computer, so advice please 

I have a great wife in Mrs. Scholar. When she announced her laptop was simply not good enough -- a hand-me-down from me that is now about seven years old -- I quickly asked if I could buy her a new one. "Oh that's not necessary, because I don't use the newer stuff. You do. Go buy yourself a new one and I can have yours." Other than the drag of clearing off 15 GB of music and Diamond Mind Baseball to a new laptop, that's like the best gift a guy could have.

While in Mongolia I got another case of gadget envy for a tablet PC (Josh's flashing of his at the Westerns one year being the first case). Being able to draw on slides while I present materials in seminars or presentations is my killer app; I don't just circle, I want to draw a graph on the side of my PowerPoint slide, and then I want to save it. (Let's see Landy do that!) But it needs to be a convertible, because most of the time I'm going to do email with something on my lap.

Now my hankering based on the reading of many reviews since I got back from Mongolia has been the Thinkpad X41 from IBM/Lenovo. Looks super, light, and the added feature of having a fingerprint security system just makes my inner geek swoon. But my concern is that it doesn't appear to be able to use all the upcoming bells and whistles in Vista. So my question is: Would you hold out for something that ran everything Vista runs, or would you not worry too much about that (which would mean the Toshiba M400 is a serious option)?

Minnesota jobs on fire? 

I've seen several pieces about the new job-growth figures for Minnesota, and Governor Pawlenty is quite pleased about them. Deep in an MPR article, however, there are some disquieting concerns:

More than half the jobs added in Minnesota last month were in the government sector. State labor market analyst Oriane Casale says about half the government jobs added were in education, both higher ed and K-12.

Casale says many schools and colleges didn't lay off as many people as they usually do in the summer. That helped boost the latest job numbers.

"And so what we anticipate is that in the fall, we're also not going to see the increase in hiring that we normally see," said Casale. "And so this is impacting the numbers in that it looks like this is a good summer, when what it could actually mean is that the fall will be a less than good fall."

Casale says other areas of strong job growth last month included professional and business services, including IT and temp jobs, and the hospitality industry, particularly restaurants. The state lost jobs in the construction and factory sectors.

Casale says residential construction is slowing, and some factories are doing their annual shutdown to replace or maintain equipment. She also notes that Minnesota's job growth lagged behind the national average until recently.

"The national job growth started picking up a lot sooner than the state job growth. Now we're picking up, and the nation is slowing down," said Casale. "So what you're seeing is we're beginning to surpass the nation in terms of job growth where, just six months ago, we were quite a bit below them."

I don't know Ms. Casale, but I am a heavy user of data from her office. And if she says that maybe things aren't as rosy as these numbers appear, I am going to take notice. So I have plotted the US versus Minnesota 12-month growth rates since January 2002.
Actually, the Pawlenty version of the story that "we're on fire" is supported by the data, but Casale's version has some truth too. Since Casale has focused us on the private/public employment distinction, I have plotted job growth for private sector jobs only. If one beleives that government activity crowds out private activity, government jobs would crowd out private sector jobs. And as you can see, the private sector in Minnesota, after having a sub-par 2005, has done quite a bit better than the national average for the last three quarters. I suppose I could throw a little cold water on Pawlenty and suggest that the private-sector slowdown in 2005 was due to his battle with the Legislature and uncertainty over tax policy. I don't know that's true -- it's merely conjecture -- but it would seem plausible. How does one add workers when one doesn't know the tax rate one will face going forward?

But despite a weak residential and commercial real estate market -- you will hear more from me on this going forward, it's a big topic for the fall -- there is little doubt that the Minnesota economy has done quite well even in the private sector in 2006. Casale's not wrong in her analysis, but she is focused on one-month changes; the previous three months were very strong for private employment here. I say this on this blog at least once a month -- don't focus on the one month changes!!!

She's right certainly about one thing. There has been a sharp increase in the number of state workers, both in the education portion and elsewhere. If Governor Pawlenty wants to run as a fiscal conservative, he should have some explanation for the expansion of state government payrolls.

Competition any way to run a university? 

The Angry Professor wonders whether having academic departments compete for the university budget leads to a "race to the bottom":
Several years ago LSU moved to a business model budget. Under this model, each department has control over its own funds. We might choose, for example, to give everyone a big raise. Or, we might choose to hire new faculty. We might purchase equipment, or furniture.

As with all such schemes, the administration makes sure that they will get money from somewhere to sustain their bloated salaries. Each department pays a "tax" to the college, which is determined by enrollments and indirects as earned in "Year Zero" (the year before the new budget took effect). If the department fails to generate at least the enrollments and indirects earned in this year, the college will take the shortfall out of the departmental budget. We're not talking about that funny fake money that colleges usually shuffle around, but real dollars: my raises.
This has wreaked havoc on interdepartmental research, and apparently caused a proliferation of statistics courses. So who wins?
Only two groups of people seem to be benefitting from this model: the deans and the marginal-at-best departments. The dean no longer has to make the hard decisions about which programs to support and which to cut. S/he no longer has to deliver bad news, but only sits back and watches the marketplace in action. The marginal departments, the ones with the lowest possible academic standards, are pulling in vast numbers of warm bodies and the tuition dollars associated with them. The departments that formerly only provided degrees to the football players are now thriving.
But is it real competition, when your budget doesn't necessarily grow with learning but just with 'fannies in the seats'? Alex Tabarrok suggests a better grading system that would lead students to feel rewards for taking and succeeding in more difficult classes. But even that assumes the university in this situation could somehow wear the Rawlsian veil of ignorance and choose a set of grading rules without looking to see if your own ox is gored.

It would seem that if you wanted to use a competitive model the administration would be interested in learning what the students have actually learned. Thus the Commission on the Future of Higher Education's call for the Adult Literacy Survey to be used on college students might help provide better-informed competition. If students in your major score less on this survey, perhaps, your tax goes up.

But my general opinion is the first benefit that the Angry Professor lists is the correct one: Deans like these formula-driven budgets because they allow the deans to avoid having to make hard decisions. Every formula has holes and blind spots. Choosing to rigidly follow the formula is a decision, and saying "sorry, that's what the spreadsheet says" is excuse-making, not decision-making.

To boldly write more 

I would have, but I spent so much time following Newmark's links I got distracted until now. The one about metaphors was particularly entertaining.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Radio newbie so excited 

OK, little fella. Just settle down and SPELL MY DAMNED NAME RIGHT.

And you're bringing the 'Bou. COD, cream, no sugar.

Oh, hi. You'll see I've updated the banner on the right of this page to remind you that MDE and I will be on 3-5 Saturdays starting this week on AM 1280 the Patriot. NARN3: The Revenge of the Sith was one suggested title (since volumes 1 and 2 are often known as the Opening Act and the Headliner -- even though normally the headline act comes on last, ahem.) I guess the Search for Spock doesn't quite work. Got an idea?

We intend to have guests, and we intend them to be from all parties (DFL, Republican, Independence) to the extent they will come into studio with us. Preference given for state races, or even exciting MN House and Senate races. Suggestions in the comment box please, or write to one of us.

What do you mean you don't know what COD means?

Don't ask, don't show 

You've got to be kidding.

Mine has already been run 

Candace de Russy thinks the state of Missouri's idea to run background checks on state university professors is a good idea and should extend to all states. An emailed response to her makes the point even clearer:
�it seems that the professors want to institutionalize a utopian socialist system where one is free to do anything one wants and not be bothered by "bourgeois ethics." To carry the idea that "all morality is relative and therefore meaningless" to its logical conclusion, one has to live in a world where you are not fingerprinted in order to become a professor/instructor.
The idea that we assess student outcomes, for example, still strikes some faculty as being an intrusion on academic freedom. The idea that if you fabricate sources for your research you might be fired from your post leads to people signing petitions decrying the process -- not the findings of fraud -- are usually couched in terms of faculty having a different set of standards. What good is an ivory tower, some must wonder, if not to keep out these forces of darkness that try to impose business standards like 'transparency' or 'accountability'?

Full disclosure: Since I work as a subcontractor on federal contracts, my background has been quite thoroughly checked. What they didn't find, the social worker writing our file for adoption would have. Most of us have lives outside the tower.

Personal for MG 

Last I heard, you were off doing the Ford Bell thing. You were gone, then I was gone. And now you're not putting up my favorite tunes any more, doing that jazz stuff instead. And you rag on me for not giving you link love, and think it's because of your foul language?

Please. Just post a little Nouvelle Vague for your next mix -- bought the new one yet? it's great -- and all will be well again. Besides, Swiftee hates that stuff.

Oh poop, I linked to him again. Sorry man.

No bright lines 

In a comment on something I wrote about Mark Kennedy and free trade last week, Tony suggested we shouldn't look too hard at candidates' websites for positions on issues. They are usually vacuous. But Craig finds much in Patty Wetterling's education position -- much not to like, and in some ways endorses the kind of advice that Tony points out is why most issues pages of candidates are gauzy eye candy.
Wetterling�s basic education position is that the federal government should play a significant role in education policy, funding and even content. If I had a �Dump Wetterling� mentality I�d Photoshop her tearing up the constitution. I�d demand to know if Patty Wetterling endorses tyranny where the federal government dictates what every person will study. I�d demand to know if she supports every position of teacher�s unions (Does she support high-cost school supplies resulting from a Wal-Mart boycott?) and the blatant socialism of Marc Tucker (of �Dear Hillary� fame). That�s the way Michele Bachmann is attacked.

However, I don�t for a second think that Wetterling holds any of those views. And frankly I don�t care who supports her, other than as a directional indicator. Her philosophical direction is clear. All of what she proposes is well-intentioned, some of her ideas are good (the implementation method is at question), but then so was the building of the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Wetterling�s positions, regardless of immediate intentions, move us along the path to federal dominance of education -- not just policy, but now content. While advocating federal involvement in education, Wetterling sets no logical limit on that involvement. If the government can target science and math for special attention, then why not at some point human genetic engineering? Maybe that master race thing isn�t such a bad idea after all?

This is a dangerous position, not just for what it says, but because it has immediate appeal for people looking for simplistic feel-good approaches to complex problems. It wasn�t until the good guys started dying that well-intentioned Col. Nicholson realized that maybe building a bridge for the enemy to cross the Kwai wasn�t the best way to build his troops� morale. His dying words �What have I done?� I submit, play very well examining Wetterling�s education position.
In short, Wetterling and Bachmann have displayed a bright line on education policy in terms of philosophy -- one for reliance on professionals, the other for reliance on parents.

I know I'll be skewered for what I am about to say, but it bears saying: If you consider Wetterling's personal tragic history, it is easy to see how faith in collective, centralized action would be the lesson she draws. The message from most child abduction cases is one of vulnerability, which leads to demands for greater public safety, more power concentrated in fewer hands charged with the responsibility of looking out for children. It would take an individualist of the firmest beliefs to go through the absolute horror her family did and not be pulled towards the thought that parents need help from society to raise their children safely. And if you think it's needed for child safety, it is a very short walk to thinking you need greater help from society to educate children.

This is not to critique Wetterling's character in any way: I admire her determination to build something out of tragedy; only a cad would gainsay it. But tragedy doesn't necessarily turn you into a champion for limited government. Sometimes, it can make you quite the opposite.

It is for this reason, I think, that the Wetterling campaign might be wise to take Tony's advice to "Keep the answers/issues vague." In the relatively conservative 6th CD, bright lines are unlikely to be helpful to her. That's why the GOP keeps trying to goad her into drawing them.

Got to agree to be angry 

Few thoughts rambling around from reading this week -- isn't vacation grand?

I ended up writing in macroeconomics and political economy largely from a single course in 1980 that had four books of great influence to me. One was a reader; the other three were Buchanan and Wagner's Democracy in Deficit, Olson's The Logic of Collective Action, and Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty. I still have all four books from that class. Buchanan got his Nobel, Olson I believe would have had he lived longer, and I agree with Tyler Cowen that Hirschman should get one.

Hirschman first suggested voice gets stronger and more effective when exit is limited. In his (earlier) vision, if you can leave you won't complain. Fidel Castro understood this and let many Cubans go, although of course they complained from Florida. It is sometimes suggested that in a world of school vouchers fewer parents would show up at the school board meeting. Don't yap, just yank your kid.

In reality voice often works best when competitive pressures are strong. HBO is more responsive than was East Germany. You are not wasting your time to complain at Wegman's, or for that matter at this blog. Competition and voice are more likely complements than substitutes. Hirschman admitted and indeed emphasized this point in his later writings.

As far as I know, no one has solved for the proper conditions for when voice is effective. Here is one recent model. The general problem is that the motives for voice are poorly understood.

"The motives for voice". I find myself thinking about that a lot these days: Why do we stay involved in our departments, our jobs, our politics, our churches -- why do we use our voices in cases where exit is easy (complements rather than substitutes)? That's playing in my head with a passage from Ephesians 4 that was the basis of my pastor's sermon this week:
26-27Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry�but don't use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don't stay angry. Don't go to bed angry. Don't give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.

29Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.
The word that I come to in both situations is 'authentic'. Voice which is sincere rather than strategic would seem to be a division between motives where voice works and doesn't work. It would seem to me that good leadership in an organization is one that values authenticity in the voice of one's members as a gift and discourages strategic behaviors that are foul or dirty.

Voice also shows up in some of my pleasure reading this summer, specifically Alan Furst's new novel, The Foreign Correspondent. Long-time readers of Scholars will know he's my favorite spy novelist. It's a story about Italian emirgres in 1938 Paris writing a clandestine paper for distribution in Mussolini's Italy. The emigres had all three qualities of exit, voice and loyalty exhibited in their behavior, but for many others there was voice through little acts against the growing fascist state and its OVRA enforcers. It is interesting that what captures me in reading Furst as well is the authenticity of the actions of the protagonists like Wiesz; Furst's heroes are seldom people who are clever liars -- that might be why I like his heroes better than, say, LeCarre's.

(By the way, this has been the Summer of OVRA in my pleasure reading, having finally read Eric Ambler's Cause for Alarm just before Furst. Ambler's long bibliography keeps me going between Furst's offerings these days.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

How dare you use PowerPoint!?! 

I hope the SCTimes editorial page is making a good joke. Discussing some verbal fireworks between two city council members, they tried to blame both sides, but the offenses were quite different. While one member stalked out of the council with some apparently salty language for the council president, the president did something far worse...

He used PowerPoint to make his statement.

Landy isn't blameless here, either. As council president, it's his job to run a fair and professional meeting.

For example, at the same meeting, he provided his opinion via a PowerPoint presentation. That's a little over the top. But here's the broader point he must remember: He opened the door to such tactics. Now if other council members want to pursue that or similar options to express their views, he is bound to let them do so.

Oh, the outrage!

Yes, "a little over the top", I'd say ... for the Times editorial board.

You can learn economics from a PiPress editorial 

Commenting on the Mike Hatch proposal for an energy czar for Minnesota , the paper encourages economic education:
If we might humbly petition, we suggest the energy czar:

� Review the laws of supply and demand and remind visibly aggrieved politicians of the increased worldwide demand for oil that must be the starting point for any discussion of energy policy. One doesn't solve a supply problem with grandstanding and artificial efforts to reduce gasoline prices � efforts that actually increase demand and make the problem worse.

� Call out politicians by noting "windfall profits," "price gouging" and "Big Oil" conspiracy sound bites are not policy. Oil is a commodity, and price and profits fluctuate more rapidly in response to market conditions than policymakers can react. Attempts to punish companies for short-term profits are a disincentive for increasing oil exploration and gasoline production, don't help consumers and yes, make the problem worse.

(Dirty little secret: the past 25 years, state and local governments have collected $2.2 trillion in gasoline taxes, more than three times oil company profits.)

� Point out that boutique blends of fuel, such as a 20 percent ethanol mandate, mean higher refining costs and hinder the ability of suppliers to move surplus supplies to areas of regional shortages. Surprise, that makes the price problem worse.
Somewhere Moffitt fumes...

Outside of economics, the usual suspects 

Doc, you should get out more.
Those of us who teach in large economics departments are sometimes blissfully unaware of the anti-capitalism, anti-market propaganda taught in so many other disciplines. We tend to fraternize mostly among ourselves and less with those who disagree with us.
Easy enough to do. My own department's suite of offices are in the top corner of a building on the river's edge, far from the center of campus. You have to walk past two other departments and numerous classrooms to find us. (I've been tempted to hang a sign: "Welcome to the right wing.") And for us to find them: Most of my colleagues' contact with the outside world comes from campus email they filter to the delete box without opening, brief forays into the student union building for lunch (always travel in pairs!) and be damn sure to be sick the day the department picks who has to go to Faculty Union Senate.
My recent experience teaching in England brought the separation home to me very clearly. Other professors there (with three notable exceptions) were offering courses teaching that capitalism is a cancer, that there is something evil about the commodification of anything, etc. I never heard anything good about Margaret Thatcher.

These professors were teaching courses in history, politics, literature, geography, drama, astronomy, etc. They uniformly had little, if any, training in economics, and yet they knew that they knew what was wrong with capitalism and market economies. One colleague, over lunch, did little more than shout, "Enron" any time I tried to defend relying on prices to allocate scarce resources.
Those of us who do venture out from the wing are well familar with that. I get lunches where people make serious discussion about the "false consciousness" of students, meaning it in its very literal Marxist sense.

So when someone pointed out to me that there were two faculty members of our college who had signed the petition to reinstate Ward Churchill (hat tip: reader jw), those of us who go on anthropological digs of the campus' blatant leftism were surprised. Only two? But even more remarkably, there are 26 members of economics departments among the 460. Those who think most economists are right-wing apologists for corporate profits might be surprised to find a number that large. But you'd be wrong: Economists are 3-to-1 Democrat according to a survey by Daniel Klein (original article here for subscribers); we only look right wing by comparison to the other social sciences (8-to-1 to 10-to-1).

Maybe we learn something from a meaningless endorsement 

It's not like the outcome of the DFL's substitute endorsement for attorney general was really in much doubt; my new radio partner decided to skip the festivities after being invited. Sounds like a good choice.

But the local story here included a couple of quotes from state Senator Tarryl Clark of St. Cloud, as the local area DFL was host for this event:

"This is an area we're going to be taking back," she said.

The DFL Party tries to move around the state for events to reach delegates and make it easy for as many as possible to attend, she said.

"It's a great place to have it," Clark said. "The St. Cloud area is an area people need to win, to win statewide."

That is interesting because this is traditionally a Republican area; in the 6th Congressional District in 2004 Bush/Cheney won by over 55,000 votes, the highest margin of any district. Given the DFL's huge advantage in CD 5, it's a rather strange thing to think CD6 is a swing district for the DFL. Maybe just a rally cry or happy talk, but it says something about strategy. For Republican statewide officeholders to win, this area has to turn out in large numbers.

Churches need not apply 

A few months ago my church worked with a African Methodist Episcoplian Zion church to see if we could help them get into a building that would promote their ministry. The congregation was declining though, and their church recently disbanded. Too bad, it was a ministry that reached a number of families that had few resources but great joy at any rate.

In the process I learned of a second black church in the community -- which, given this place was called White Cloud when I moved here was a bit of surprise. That congregation is looking now to acquire its own space, but it's being blocked by zoning issues. The property the church proposes to buy is by a railyard and other industrial businesses. Safety, they say, is the issue.


"I'm a Christian man. I go to church regularly. ... But I need to say this because it's a concern deep in my heart and that is the safety of children," Jim Schiffler said.

Schiffler spoke on behalf of Monumental Sales Inc., which is kitty-corner to the site eyed by Nu Way Missionary Baptist Church.

"I understand the dangers involved in blending facilities that have children present in industrial locations ... because I have personally asked young people to leave our property many, many times because they are curious."

He presented the commission with the names of 284 area residents who, he said, had similar concerns against rezoning the industrial building to allow Nu Way to
move in.

If this is an industrial area, where did those 284 area residents come from? Do any of them have children?

What isn't written there is that about two blocks away are many apartment buildings, some of which contain families of color that might use Nu Way. It could be that these places are trying to avoid lawsuit liability -- which in my perfect world the church would indemnify the industries against any suits arising from their children spilling into the neighboring businesses -- but if there are so many families available to sign this document, this isn't just an industrial area now, is it?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Trivia challenge with Hugh Hewitt 

Chad the Elder has served notice for a trivia challenge, limited to ten teams of four. A $100 contribution to Soldiers Angels is the admission fee for the first nine teams -- bragging rights is the prize. A chance to compete against the Commish, the Generalissimo, the Forehead of Delphi and a PTBNL awaits you on August 25th beginning at 9pm.

If you snooze, you get a chance to compete by outbidding other teams for the tenth table. Now that's a solution any economist could love!

Rumor has it I may play this year for the first time. But I follow the old maxim, Better to keep one's mouth shut and have people think you can't play trivia, than to open it and mess up the Clint Eastwood question too.

New adventures in impact multipliers 

Over at the now-famous Sports Economist (where I've been derelict in posting much lately -- too busy watching late-inning Red Sox meltdowns on, Skip Sauer points out some funky math in deciding the new University of Louisville basketball arena will generate $154 million in revenues per year.
Freedom Hall seats about 19,000. The new arena is designed for 22,000. Suppose both sell out for 30 games. Let the new arena's seats be a significant improvement, so that they sell for $50 each, a $15 premium over tickets at Freedom Hall. The additional seats would thus yield $4.5m of new revenue. The seats "moved" from Freedom Hall would bring in, under these assumptions, an additional $8.55m. So the bread and butter fare at the new arena nets $13.05m in additional ticket sales ($33m if you assume that Freedom Hall is no longer usable). How one gets from there to $154m in annual economic impact takes a mighty big imagination.
Having just taught a course in benefit-cost analysis, I can tell you I have no models that allow for a multiplier of 5 or 10. But even more important is to say, whose benefits are those, anyway? And whose costs? BCA doesn't just yield a single number ... or at least, it shouldn't.

Good selling, bad timing 

The good news: Retail sales were up 1.4% in July, a full half-point above the expectation. Hot weather and higher gas prices look like the motors of this upsurge.

The bad news: It's the first number since the Fed decided to pause on raising the Fed Funds rate. That might be a mistake, says one analyst:
``We clearly see inflation flying higher,'' said Joseph Brusuelas, chief U.S. economist at IDEAglobal in New York. ``If consumers don't back off, it means that growth's not moderating along the lines exactly that the Fed has forecast, and maybe the third quarter isn't going to be as weak as we all think.''
Current rate hike odds for the Sept. 20 meeting of the Fed are at 36% right now, a fairly significant upswing. I tend to think that economic forecasters do two things to lead to what I call "herd revisions" -- they over-weight the most recent economic data, and they try hard not to get too far outside what other people are saying (though that second effect has lessened in recent years as people take more extreme views to get on Cavuto or Dobbs or whatever...) At the beginning of the year I thought GDP growth was going to be 3.5-3.75% Q4 to Q4. So far we have about 2% of the growth in the books (2.04%, if you want to be precise.) An average of 3.1% for the last two quarters puts us in the midrange of that estimate. Worrying about whether the next quarter is 2.8% or 3.4% isn't something I can do -- the errors I make in forecasting make either of those numbers quite plausible while still permitting me to think my initial forecast is valid. And while I don't forecast oil, I did have a gold forecast around $650. (The model is one I use for my grad forecasting course, which I haven't taught for a few years, but once I year I update the model anyway to keep it ready.)

Moral of the story? We're trying to forecast a difficult environment with very short-term methods. Maybe we should take a giant step back for a broader view. And maybe so should the Fed.

The NARN empire expands 

Those of you expecting me to be on with Mitch and Ed tomorrow will be disappointed. (Thanks, Mom, I knew I could count on you.) The boys will be at the Dakota County Fair, which I think is held somewhere in Missouri. At any rate, it's a bridge too far when gas is $3.10 a gallon.

But the bigger reason why I'm holding off a week is that we are expanding NARN to six hours beginning August 19th. For a while at least, I will be hosting the 3-5pm slot. Because the fall elections coming up this November are critical to the future of Minnesota, we are creating a forum that will look primarily at state races. Given the state of the Middle East and the foiled hijacking from yesterday, Mitch and Ed and the Opening Act will have their hands full with geopolitics and the national political scene affected by them. And with Patriot Insider now a distant memory, the Patriot wanted to be sure such coverage was provided.

My co-host for those hours will be Michael Brodkorb of Minnesota Democrats Exposed. The mask now removed from the previously anonymous blog, Michael continues to provide intimate details of what is going on in Minnesota politics, details some people would rather you didn't know. His insights along with your calls and visits from political insiders this fall will keep you informed with what you need to know this November.

The Saturday lineup then, beginning August 19th, will be Hewitt replay (why not? He is after all the Commissioner!) 9-11, the Opening Act with the Fraters and John Hinderaker 11-1, Mitch and Ed at 1-3, and Michael and me at 3-5. Mark your calendars, buy a cigar and plan on taking us onto your deck for a full Saturday.

UPDATE: Michael adds, Democrats shouldn't listen while driving.

Trust our numbers 

Thomas Sowell writes about how difficult it is to get the numbers to support an argument that goes against conventional wisdom:
"Critics of affirmative action have long said that mismatching black students with colleges that they do not qualify for creates wholly needless academic failures among these students, who drop out or flunk out of colleges that they should never have been in, when most of them are fully qualified to succeed in other colleges.

Has the ending of preferential admissions in the University of California system and the University of Texas system led to a rise in the graduation rates of black students, as critics predicted? Who knows? These universities will not release those statistics."
Sowell's article is the third on the subject of fact-checking published studies. In yesterday's he cites another common problem -- six studies cited as independent verification of some point, only to find all six rely on one result found by one researcher. I've seen that one several times myself. Or the report you write for a boss that says "the results are inconclusive", which means to the higher-ups that they can pick whichever position they wanted beforehand and use half the results to support it. The result? Sowell's mentor George Stigler's advice to "spend a few hours in a library checking up on studies that had been cited."

Think it a waste of time? Had the University of Colorado done it, it might have saved itself the pain of Ward Churchill.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Send me one of those 

I found via Tyler Cowen that Gene Epstein (one of my four favorite economics writers in the press -- I've mentioned the others here so you can find them if you want to know) has a new book. I just ordered a copy. I'll review it after I read it, but on first look it's a great source to dissect those terrible pieces each month that come out with the jobs report. Tyler notes that Epstein does a number on the writings of Paul Krugman, for example. I'll let you know how the book turns out.

How to save, and why 

Joanne Jacobs writes about a neat Bronx high school program that is teaching students about bank.
The goal is to help students further their skills in banking services and to promote basic finance literacy among the wider student body. The branch will have two teller stations and two customer service desks, but to make sure that students do the work, it will have no A.T.M.
Whoever came up with this idea needs to win an award. This is a good test case, because Theodore Roosevelt HS contains the Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology, which is one of five schools in the TRHS building. But just as I recall learning about thrift by walking up some lighted stairs to a teller's window that was just for (small) kids, learning about banking in a high school where one both takes deposits and potentially could make a loan -- no word in the article if they'll do that -- would be highly educational to all the students in the school, not just those working behind the windows.

Craig's back 

And he gets the idea that financing and provision of public goods are separable.
Bremer applies a narrow definition of "public education" that equates it solely with the monopoly system of government-run schools; thus any criticism, justified or not, is seen as criticism of "public education" instead of what it is � criticism of one system of delivering skills and knowledge. Criticism is seen as an attempt to "kill public education." Not true. Public education is more than "public schools."

In a related vein, Matt has a followup to Michael Boucher's guest post here last month. Matt concludes:
Whether the topic is social studies or math, International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement, it behooves parents especially to really get to know their children's teachers, principal, district superintendent, and school board. All citizens are stakeholders in the public schools. As Lincoln said, "The philosophy of the school room in one generation is the philosophy of the government in the next generation."
Which is why Paul Samuelson once said, "Let those who will, write the nation's laws if I can write its textbooks." The best way to get parents to act like stakeholders is to give them incentives to do so. Options as those Craig discusses are exactly how one provides the incentives.

For the few people (very few, in fact) who wrote asking why I posted Boucher's essay: The discussion that followed it was exactly the discussion I wanted to see happen. We are strengthened in our views by debating openly with those who disagree with us. The vigor of the comments that followed were commendable and the tone admirable. If Michael or any other educators who might disagree with the views here would like a similar opportunity, please write me (comments at this blog's name as one word dot com.)

Free trade -- an important gauge for my vote 

Greg Mankiw reads the Ned Lamont position page on jobs and gets quite nervous. Lamont is for strong restrictions on trade with China until "American products have the same access to Chinese markets that Chinese products have to American markets." Mankiw comments:
So Lamont seems to think the U.S. economy is suffering and the primary reason is competition from poor workers in China.

This rhetoric scares me. Wages, benefits, and labor and environmental standards are primarily a function of the level of economic development. Complaining about poor countries low wages and benefits is essentially blaming the poor for being poor.

Talk about "strong standards" sounds nice, but it is not realistic: Labor and environmental standards cannot catch up to U.S. levels until China is much richer than it is today. Demanding "strong standards" can easily become an excuse for imposing trade restrictions, which will only improvish the world's poor even further, as well as denying Americans the benefits of globalization.
I went to check the Bachmann and Wetterling sites for a position on trade, but I see none. Let me suggest to whomever gets both of them to come to a debate -- something of a debate in itself -- that we pin those two down on international trade. I believe I've asked Bachmann the question on air once, but I'd have to dig through archives to find that answer, and those aren't with me today.

Nothing much on free trade on Kennedy's site either. Amy Klobuchar, however, has a very similar ring. Here's Lamont:
Many of our high-skill jobs are being sent overseas, drawn by low wages and no benefits.

I support strictly-enforced fair trade policies which level the playing field, requiring that American products have the same access to Chinese markets that Chinese products have to American markets. I would support only reciprocal trade agreements which include strong labor and environmental standards.
And here's Klobuchar:
I will fight to open markets and make sure that Minnesota's farmers have fair access to them. I believe we need fair trade, not just free trade. Properly negotiated trade agreements have the potential to create new opportunities for Minnesotans while increasing living standards and economic development overseas. But when those agreements ignore low labor and environmental standards in other countries, the full gains of free trade can't be realized and we harm our own national interests.
If you're wondering who would Amy choose, I think you have your answer. Now I've been hard on Kennedy in the past over votes that have spurned free trade principles in favor of farm protections (see the ethanol issue, for example), but his free trade votes in the House have been certainly better than those espoused by Lamont and Klobuchar.

And while we're at this issue, let's look at new MN Attorney General wannabe Bill Luther, who also has decided to dispense some gas:
In the first half of this year, oil companies made excessive profits during a time when there was relative stability in market distribution and oil supply.
So if demand for your product rises and as a result you earn more income, you're a gouger? Bill Luther, meet the law of demand.

I judge candidates by their economic literacy. Can't help it, it's a professional hazard. And to be blunt, on these issues it's hard to find someone I like, except maybe Joe Lieberman.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I wonder what their testosterone levels were 

Turns out two guys were accused of cheating at the World Open of Chess last month. This doesn't surprise me at all. There's a reason parents and all non-participants are kept away from boards at tournaments. This is the reason I don't play online games (chess, poker, or anything else.) There needs to be some agreement on what the rules of competition are, and the online gaming environment doesn't do this. (h/t: The Sports Economist.)

(Afterthought: The most famous case of chess cheating, or was it?)

Lose ONE game to the Royals, and look what happens 

They declare hoops is Massachusetts' state sport. Sheesh. Next thing you know, they'll start saying Bird is better than Papi.

Speaking of the Red Sox, for those of you who heard me groan when we had to take Mike Lowell's contract in order to trade for Josh Beckett? I take it all back. (h/t: Cafe Hayek.)

I love stalkers 

Apparently Craig Westover's best friend Bob from the ALAmn has decided to take up stalking me as well. In a discussion on an article in this morning's St. Cloud Times in which I'm quoted he says,
I would take any comment on ethanol and the price of Minnesota gasoline from King Banaian from SCSU with a grain of salt
Excellent idea. Use the whole shaker if you like, though it's bad for your heart.
...on his blog, he has frequently expressed his displeasure with ethanol because of the subsidies.
And I've expressed my displeasure over its high price because Congress, including Rep. Mark Kennedy, has opposed lowering the price by allowing Brazilian imports of biofuel that is much cheaper. My complaint is that ethanol policy is tied up in agricultural subsidies to protect U.S. farmers at the expense of both American consumers and agriculture in the developing world. I'll stand by that.
What he fails to mention is: 1) Minnesota gets most of its crude oil from Canada, not Alaska, shipped in via pipeline (which are open)...
Curious comment from an avid anti-smoking guy. Oil is as fungible as cigarette smoke -- if the Alaska pipeline shuts down, that decrease in supply increases prices for all substitute oil sources, including Canada. You can't have Canadian sources and Alaskan sources separated any more than you have smoking and non-smoking sections of restaurants.
2) Minnesota refines most of its gasoline in-state, at two large refineries.
Do you wonder why? For a large part, as I said in the article, the reformulated gas used in Minnesota is unique. When our prices are high, you would think neighboring refineries would move gas from the cheaper places to us -- this is called arbitrage -- but they can't because that would require them to re-refine the gas to meet our EPA restrictions to burn the funky fuel mix. This adds enough cost that there are limited arbitrage opportunities for out-of-state refiners. Thus the in-state refiners have a government-created barrier to entry that permits prices to remain high here.
3) The "state laws" (E10 mandate) he refers to have been in place for nearly a decade, and has had no negative impact on local prices. Truth is, Minnesota has historically enjoyed some of the lower gas prices in the nation for some time.
Actually, to do this requires the state of Minnesota to have not raised taxes on gasoline in quite a number of years, compared to our neighboring states. Iowa has a 0.7 cent per gallon higher tax than Minnesota does, yet its average gasoline prices are a dime a gallon cheaper. Minnesota is lower than the national average by only a little bit, and this week we're 3.5 cents above the Midwest average. The lower taxes help when supplies are normal, but the reformulation restrictions bite hardest when supplies are disrupted.

Bob ends his diatribe with "what is the cost of doing nothing?" The Taxpayers' League publication Gasbags gives us a nice answer to that
Doing something always seems better than doing nothing, but history and basic economics tell us that markets are much better at adjusting to short and long-term trends than government planners. Few people know that the gas shortages of the 70�s were caused by government price controls and control over allocation of gas�not by any real shortage in petroleum. The lesson? Markets work better than government planners.
I suspect Bob hasn't read Basic Economics. Now would be a good time. Also recommended, Oil and the Apocalypse, published today by Christopher Westley.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I still like the bet 

Even though I lost.
Readings on core inflation have been elevated in recent months, and the high levels of resource utilization and of the prices of energy and other commodities have the potential to sustain inflation pressures. However, inflation pressures seem likely to moderate over time, reflecting contained inflation expectations and the cumulative effects of monetary policy actions and other factors restraining aggregate demand.

Nonetheless, the Committee judges that some inflation risks remain. The extent and timing of any additional firming that may be needed to address these risks will depend on the evolution of the outlook for both inflation and economic growth, as implied by incoming information.
That looks mostly to me like "the value of additional information about growth, productivity and prices is much higher now than before, so we're going to keep the option of 5.5% in our pocket for six weeks." I believe Jeffery Lacker's dissent -- he wanted to increase to 5.5% now -- is the first dissenting vote of the Bernanke chairmanship, in his fourth meeting. I expect more dissent later this year, and this will be the first test of Bernanke's skills of persuasion.

Rah rah ree! Earmarks for me! 

Everyone's favorite porkbuster, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has sent a letter to over one hundred university presidents wondering how they lobby to receive earmarks. Earmarks per se are not subject to any peer review -- they just go to whomever is favored by the congressperson who gets them into a spending bill. Of course, the universities are now "retaining counsel to advise the affected institutions on the range of options they have in responding to this letter.� I wonder if they'll inquire about the University of Minnesota's $16 million earmark in last year's transportation bill that built a "national university transportation center." (All earmarks in that bill came to $602 million.)

Chinggis, hero or villain? 

One of the books I read while in Mongolia -- which, Chad will agree, is a better activity than watching BBC or CNN International on your satellite TV in your room -- was Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Written by Macalester professor Jack Weatherford, it is a relatively revisionist history of the Great Khan's creation of the first Mongolian State. Mongolia is now celebrating the 800th anniversary of its creation. This made hotels in UB very hard to come by. The airport now has been renamed Chinggis Khan Airport, which gives the Manchester Guardian some discomfort.
He is credited with a belief in meritocracy, decimalisation, female emancipation, freedom of religion and flat taxes (after a fashion). He also specialised in mass slaughter, razing cities to the ground (saving only the engineers and artists), and pouring molten silver into the ears of insurgent leaders or, if they preferred, suffocating them under his table while he ate dinner. Neoconservatives still often declare themselves "well to the right" of him.
The Guardian concerns itself with how this plays to the tourist industry (which is a substantial part of service exports in Mongolia) but I can tell you it plays well to the locals. And celebration of Chinggis occurs even among the expatriate community, as this
report in the San Francisco Chronicle notes.
Thousands of Mongolians from across the United States gathered at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on Saturday to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan establishing the Mongol empire.

They came from Chicago, Washington, D.C., Minnesota, Denver and across California to a small field behind the Conservatory of Flowers for what organizers said was the first such celebration in the United States. Some men dressed in the traditional uniform of a Genghis Khan warrior, and an offering was made to the Mongolian ruler's spirit involving fermented mare's milk - a favorite drink of Khan's and still a popular drink on the Mongolian steppes.

Although much of the world knows Genghis Khan for his ruthless pursuit of an empire, he is revered in Mongolia, where his image decorates everything from vodka to cigarettes to restaurants. There he is called Chinggis Khaan.
The fermented mare's milk, called 'airag', is actually quite tasty. (Those of you who see the word 'arak' there -- that's a Turkish drink that's completely different. But the words probably have the same root, which roughly translates to "drink that will make you stupid.") If you drink kefir from your local Lunds or Byerlys, you've had something similar, except without the alcoholic kick. Frankly, it's better than Chinggis vodka or Chinggis beer, neither of which I would recommend. Poland and Ukraine still win my tastebuds for vodka, and Czech beer is still the cat's pajamas.

Weatherford's book makes the point that since Mongolian shamanism practiced by Chinggis made one's head sacred, many of the violent things he is said to have done make no sense. Weatherford's book seems plausible enough, and the people of the steppe now are serene enough that I think Weatherford's account has some validity. Most of the book is based on translations of "The Secret History of the Mongols", written by scribes contemporaranrously in Chinggis' court. It will be interesting to see whether the book withstands scrutiny as others read the Secret History and write their own accounts.

Monday, August 07, 2006


(First of a series of memories of my trip to Mongolia the last three weeks.)

Most people don't say Ulan Bator (or Ulaanbaatar, the preferred transliteration). They just refer to it as UB. It's not an ancient city -- it was built in its current spot in 1778 -- and the name means 'red hero' and dates to the 1920s. (The red heroes referred to the alignmnet of Outer Mongolia to Russia and away from China.)

You see many names ending in baatar, so there are many heroes of Mongolia. Most names have that grandiose feel. The name of our IT guru translated to "golden ax" for example. I would imagine that name is helpful at the local nightclub, though it might lead to unrealistic expectations. We referred to him simply as Sukh; there is a famous leader known as Sukhbaatar, or "ax hero". I wonder what Hollywood would change that name to? Maybe Axel Foley.

But back to UB: it still has many temples and other beautiful buildings. The picture I posted from there was of the Monastery of the Choijin Lama that sits among many modern grocery stores and several of the better restaurants there. And here is a statue that sits outside of the city, near the Zaisan Memorial but I cannot figure out for sure what this particular statue was called. It looks far too new to be unrefinished. (That will teach us to tour without a guide.)

One night I had dinner alone -- all my companions had friends in UB and were visiting them -- and sat outside at corner Italian restaurant (Bella -- the food was quite good, btw.) The architecture was mostly imported from the Soviets -- it looked eerily like any number of streets I had sat along in Yerevan or Kyiv (though a heck of a lot better than Skopje) -- but there were many small shops along it. The Mongolians have taken hold of the small retail shops that have been popular in most transition economies and built on them.

The people have very nice faces, different than Chinese with rather longer skulls. All the cars are Asian and have a mixture of right- and left-side steering wheels. There were many young western tourists around -- on a Thursday night at about 8pm, the place reminded me of 1993 Prague summertime. There are loads of Japanese visitors, and the Korean influence here is quite heavy, down to a boulevard named "Seoul Street". (There is even a Menards-like store called Seoul.) At the end of the evening I ask the waiter to call for a taxi to take me back to the hotel. His sister came out -- the waiter is the owner's son. She spoke excellent English and got me a cab and chatted while we waited. I asked how she learned English and she replies she went to high school in Vancouver. She wants to return to the US or Canada for a masters degree. (Luckily, I had business cards and directed her to SCSU.) There were a large number of young people who were studying or had studied in the States, in fact. The younger one was, the more likely the second language was English, not Russian.

One major problem one has is getting taxidrivers to understand anything other than Mongolian (an almost impossible language -- at least three distinct gutteral consonants and almost all vowels can be doubled to create some very strange sounds). Younger drivers do not get Russian at all. The hotel we stayed at -- I have nothing good to say about it, so I'll skip the name -- gave us cards to help taxis find the place because it was off the beaten path. Great, except the cards are printed in English. If they could read that, they'd probably understand me saying "turn left NOW."

Taxis aside, though, the most remarkable thing about the place is that it's a little like St. Cloud, insofar as it's a very large small town. I had an unfortunate incident in which I used my Visa cash card at an ATM. Now, I usually take the cash, then the card. Not a problem. This time, taking the cash first meant the machine thought I had forgotten my card and it re-entered the machine. It was a Saturday, and that afternoon I was supposed to leave for the tourist camp. It's one of those gaffes that seem so magnified because you are in a strange land. The driver of the van we were using that day, whom we had hired for $40, starts making calls, as do the people in charge of this project. The Americans get nowhere. The driver, though -- a young person just back from his first year of university in India -- uses his network to try to call friends of friends. Eventually he gets someone to call the card center for Visa for all of Mongolia. We arrive, and this driver knows the manager. They were classmates. "Does this happen often, that you know all these people?" "It depends, but there are only two good high schools in the city, and I went to one of them." Through his network, I received the card about two hours later, and damned if the thing didn't work the next day as promised.

Chinggis Khaan smiled.

I'll put $10 on "raise" 

One problem with being out of the loop was that I could not track this most interesting period in Federal Reserve policy. The market makes it about an 18% chance that the Fed increases the discount rate to 5.5% tomorrow. I know what the numbers say. I also think I have a handle on Bernanke; he is sufficiently stung by previous perceptions of being an inflation dove that he probably needs one good 'sting' of the markets to get them to pay attention to what he says rather than what they think he's going to do. I won't be surprised if the string of increases ends tomorrow, but I'm betting on the momentum instead.

Martin Feldstein agrees (subscribers link):
It is understandable that it would like to achieve the soft landing of low inflation with continued solid growth. But that may not be possible. And if the Fed wants to convince the markets that inflation will be contained in the future, it must show that it is willing to take the risk of tightening too much.
I remember that Bernanke once gave a speech when he was a governor of the Fed (before his stint at the Council) in which he discussed OLIR -- the optimal long-term inflation rate. In that he said,
the OLIR should have long-run credibility, that is, it should be the best (lowest-forecast-error) answer to the question: "What do you expect the average inflation rate in the United States to be over the ten-year period that begins (say) three years from now?"
Again, that would be only a guess, but the implied inflation rate expectation for the next five years (taken by subtracting the current five-year US Treasury bond rate from that for five-year index TIPS) is 2.59% and it stays about there for longer horizons. (From the last Fed H.15 report.) If we're pretty sure this OLIR has to sit between 1% and 2.5%, I think Feldstein is right.

This is a cautious bet, so I'm only putting down $10 -- i.e., half the beer money -- on a rise tomorrow. But still, at about 4-1 odds it's a nice opportunity. Besides which, if the Fed starts saying the economy has slowed... If I'm right, want to bet on the market's reaction? I say 'up'.

So who knows more? 

Teachers? Or professors of schools of education? Jay Mathews explains:
Jason Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year, made regular visits to his students' homes in Southeast Washington, showing up unannounced if he couldn't reach a parent by phone. Rafe Esquith, a Disney national teacher of the year, developed a system for his low-income Los Angeles fifth-graders that pays them virtual dollars based on their work. Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, award-winning creators of the Know-ledge Is Power Program (KIPP) for low-income fifth- through eighth-graders, require students to call their teachers' cellphones after school if they have questions about homework.

These practical, if unorthodox, teaching methods have helped produce some of the largest achievement gains in the country. Yet none was learned at an education school. Kamras, Esquith, Levin and Feinberg say their ed school classes primarily taught theory, and they had to develop their most powerful methods through trial and error or watching other teachers.

...the few ed school people I heard from seemed unfamiliar with many of the strategies, and more than once I was told that teaching methods in the curriculum must be confirmed by research. The problem is that education research is often so vague, impractical and controversial that it isn't much help to a new teacher.

The most forthcoming of my ed school correspondents, a professor at a leading university, approved in general of collecting home numbers and lengthening, with care, the school day. He knew much about the research on increasing time for effective learning. But the same professor said he did not like most of the other suggestions from expert teachers. "No one wants someone just showing up at their home unannounced," he said. "Teachers must treat parents with respect."

He advised against requiring students to call teachers after school. "Teachers usually have class preparation and grading to do at home," he said. "Students should contact their teachers via Blackboard [a Web site] or e-mail." He also opposed Kamras's selective homework marking: "Teachers should be willing and able to grade all homework. If they are not, then they should not assign so much homework."
I completely disagree with the ed prof on that one. I can (and have a couple of times) announce in class in advance "I will assign X homeworks for you to do. Of those, I will collect Y (< X) for grading. You don't know what Y is, only I do." It works, just like the sign "Trespassers shot on sight two days a week; you guess the days" works to keep hunters off one's property. It frees up time to prepare lectures or go sit in some committee meeting while providing appropriate motivation to students.

I don't deal with parents as a university professor, but I can say that if a parent is not getting his or her child to do the homework, I'm not all that concerned about disturbing them at home. Were this a private school there would be a contract that specified whether teachers would contact parents at home or not. Why should public schools be different?

(h/t: Newmark's Door.)

Well, I'm not surprised 

Graduating seniors in Minnesota are shocked! to hear that they need remediation before entering college, says the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Each summer across Minnesota, thousands of high school students take college placement exams and are staggered to discover they need remedial courses, especially in math. Some find the work that earned them A's and B's in high school will not cut it in college. For many, it's the first time they've been told they weren't ready for college.

The problem has hit troubling levels the past few years. Almost half of Minnesota high school graduates enrolling in a state two-year college need remedial classes; at the regional universities, it's more than one in four.

Beyond the embarrassment, remedial work can be expensive for students, who must pay for "developmental" studies, which don't count toward their degree. Many students who get tagged for remedial work drop out. Schools also bear the rising costs of teaching the basics � not just in math and writing but also in classes like "How to Study."

And it's not just a Twin Cities problem. Research by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system shows many suburban and rural high schools are nearly as likely as urban schools to graduate students who need college remedial classes.

That information is available from MnSCU here, and I've written about this several times before, most recently here. Matt Abe has noted the effects of "integrated math" on remediation in mathematics.

The MnSCU document includes this note:
Admission to the University of Minnesota and the four-year state universities is becoming more selective. Students who need developmental education may increasingly find they cannot start at a four-year public institution.
Hogwash. Declining demographics are causing such headaches for particularly the state universities that we are admitting more students that do not normally meet the entrance requirements just to keep enrollments constant. But if we do not do a good job at remediation then it may be better for those students to enroll at a two-year school first, where remediation has often been part of their mission.

Rip van Mongolian 

Before anything else, let me thank Peter, Mike and Josh for their solid work on keeping the Scholars blog filled with interesting items. Some of them were off my usual path of writing, which I consider an added bonus. Does anyone wish to have any of these fine gentlemen writing here more permanently? Drop a comment, and if so I'll set up a poll.

Be sure to make Peter's and Mike's blogs a regular part of your blogospheric readings. Josh -- you need a blog of your own. Soon.

After four days in Ulaanbaatar I went to a gher camp north of the capitol. That area had more mountains than I had thought would be there. I'll post nightly this week stories from UB, the camp, and the experience of the people of Mongolia. But during the day it will be back to usual. One "back to usual" is finding that 672 of the 709 emails in one of my accounts were spam. So that took part of yesterday. Also found that my internet connection at the house was hosed. After 45 minutes online with the nice people at Charter, I was told I needed a technician. "What time on Monday would that be?" I asked. "Well, we could do Monday the 21st." "Nothing sooner?" "We have some time on the previous Friday." Charter, thy days are numbered at the Scholars Haus. Here's the competitor.

Being at the camp meant that we had no internet. Well, not exactly true. One companion brought a satellite linkup with him, which we had to point towards the Indian Ocean and do a special dance to get to work. That allowed me to visit with Mrs. and Littlest while there. Getting email from LS, who just turned twelve last week while I was away, is a new and wonderful experience. She has blended both her parents' senses of humor into something very funny, and it's as if you are talking to someone you know but don't know at the same time.

Enough navelgazing. It's time to bring Scholars back to its usual programming. Speaking of programming, I see I have to wake up earlier on Saturdays now. Or maybe not. More on that as I figure out what happened to NARN in my absence. I will be fetching podcasts in the meanwhile.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman is praising a certain evangelical minister. In this column, he lauds Pastor Gregory Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, Minnesota. Boyd has preached against what he sees as the "alignment of Christian conservatives with the right-wing political agenda." Coleman applauds Boyd's criticism of the "growing political involvement of believers."

I have not read Boyd's book, but the Star Tribune column and the New York Times article it references (AOL reprint here) fails to answer the question of whether churches were wrong to participate in the civil rights movement or the fight against slavery.

Of course, someone will counter that the War on Terrorism is not the same as the abolition of slavery. And Gregory Boyd is no Martin Luther King, Jr. But we can talk further about this issue on SwanBlog after I read the book.

This leads to a larger point about comparisons. By bringing up slavery, have I equated the Taliban and the Baathists with slaveowners? Or have I merely pointed out a flaw in the sweeping generalization presented by Boyd and Coleman?

Let's assume that someone asserts that the reason that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero is that he went to jail for his beliefs. If a second person points out that the Ayatollah Khomeini also went to jail for his beliefs, does that mean that the second person has likened MLK to a ruthless dictator? Actually, the second person would be saying quite the opposite. When your standard for heroism is so imprecise, then polar opposites like MLK and Khomeini are caught up in the same category. So you had better refine your definition of heroism.

Remember Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's famous "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" line? Again, that was billed as a "comparison" by then-Senator Quayle to the 35th president. Perhaps Quayle could have responded that Bentsen had proved his point. When you look only at age and years in Congress, then people who are as different as President Kennedy and Vice President Quayle look exactly the same. So we must evaluate candidates using other criteria.

OK. So my advice on the 1988 Vice Presidential Debate is a little late in coming. If only they had asked me back then.

Lack Of Common Sense and Good Judgment 

Regardless of whether you believe we should be in Iraq, you have to admit that this "protest" by Code Pink was, shall we say less then well thought out.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

More From UW-Madison and Barrett 

Sorry my contribution here has been rather light this past week, but alas trials have way of sucking your time dry. But for better or worse I am back, least till Monday when King returns. So I thought I would return to a topic that I have posted about over the last month or so (here, here, and here)

Today the Chicago Tribune has a story on UW-Madison's growing frustration with Barrett - the adjunct with the offensive, not to mention rather bazaar 9/11 conspiracy theories who was hired to teach an introductory course on Islam. Seems That Provost Patrick Farrell is now having second thoughts about his decision to retain Mr. Barrett:

University of Wisconsin's provost warned an instructor who believes the U.S. government orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks to stop seeking publicity for his views, days after he defended the teacher's right to free speech.

UW-Madison Provost Patrick Farrell also warned Kevin Barrett to stop associating himself with UW-Madison when he advocates his views. Otherwise, Farrell wrote in the July 20 letter, he would reconsider his decision to allow Barrett to teach a course on Islam this fall.

``In summary, if you continue to identify yourself with UW-Madison in your personal political messages or illustrate an inability to control your interest in publicity for your ideas, I would lose confidence ... ,'' he wrote in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press in an open records request.

The letter came 10 days after Farrell decided to retain Barrett as a part-time instructor for the fall semester course, ``Islam: Religion and Culture,'' despite calls to fire him.

I think everyone here knows my position on the topic - Barrett shouldn't have been hired, he isn't qualified, and is an embarrassment, but he cannot be terminated for engaging in protected speech. Of course UW-M can terminate an incompetent professor. However, the university has painted itself into a corner.

UW-M hired Barrett after reviewing his qualifications, and since those qualifications have not changed and he has not begun teaching, it would be hard to argue that he is now suddenly not qualified. More importantly:

Farrell launched a review of Barrett's course plans after he gave a radio interview in which he said he planned to teach students his views that the U.S. government carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to spark war.

The provost concluded Barrett was qualified to teach and he could present his ideas during one week of the course as long as students were allowed to challenge them.

In short, UW-M approved Barrett's course content. So how can the university now fire Barrett for teaching and talking about the contents of a course they approved? Additionally, UW-M is now threatening to fire Barrett not for speech he engages in during class, but for speech he engages in outside of class. It is plain that UW-M is reacting to the public backlash, which is significant and in my opinion justified. However, to fire Barrett for engaging in protected speech would only further compound the significant mistakes UW-M has so far made - not exercising more caution in the hiring process and approving Barrett's course content.

Ann Althouse, a law professor at UW and blogger, who is guest blogging at Instapundit puts it better then I can (ok, at least as well as I could):

And why should Barrett have to refrain from publicizing his ideas in order to keep his job? It's acceptable for him to teach here, but please, be very quiet about it? And this is held out as an attempt "to be fairly careful to not inhibit his privilege of speaking freely"? The letter makes a connection between speaking out publicly and being able to "separate his opinions from what happens in the classroom." But what is that connection? And would we use that reasoning on other teachers? Promoting a strong political position in the public arena raises a suspicion that you can't fairly present material in the classroom anymore? All politically active academics would feel threatened if we thought the university would apply that reasoning across the board. And if Farrell is not going to apply that reasoning across the board, why is he inflicting it on Barrett?

In my opinion, the outrage should be directed at the UW-M powers to be. It is their extremely poor choices that has placed the university in the position of living with the public backlash or violating a person's civil rights.

One of the great things about our country is that we have very broad free speech rights. In order to ensure that those rights remain viable they have to be protected for everyone, not just for those whose opinions conform to the prevailing norm. And yes, that includes Mr. Barrett, regardless of how offensive and asinine I find his opinions.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

InstaScholars? SCSUPundits? 

Prof. Banaian is back in just a few days, so I figure that now is the best time to lay out my Strategic Vision For The Future Of SCSUScholars (SVFTFOSCSUS), while he is still away and unable to do anything to stop me. >:)

I was thinking to myself about what makes a good blog -- you know, one you go to everyday for insight and information -- and I thought that the best model to use would be the Blogfather himself, Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit. Lots of people read his blog every day, in search of helpful commentary and keen insight into the world around us.

So that is the core of my SVFTFOSCSUS: Be like Instapundit.

Part One of this grand endeavor: Post about neat science stuff, like space and nanogizmos and rotarian engines and how we're not going to get old ever.

So in that vein, check this out. (And, you know, read the whole thing.) There will be a quiz later. And by "quiz" I mean a follow-up post. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Lawyers and Lyrics 

I have much to say about this article in the Minnesota State Bar Association magazine, Bench and Bar. Let's start with some quotes from the article by Attorney Karna Peters.

We've all been hearing increasingly hostile political rhetoric about the judiciary. "Activist judges" is a phrase commonly heard. Another expression, less loaded but still suggesting general distrust of the judiciary, is "let's keep this out of the hands of the judges." Even the words "judicial independence," which most lawyers recognize as shorthand for an essential pillar of our system of constitutional checks and balances, are now heard by many people to mean "judicial arrogance" the idea that judges are somehow making decisions without regard to the law, with no ccountability. (footnote omitted)

How do we respond? My guess is that so far, most lawyers have simply let it blow by. Many of us are naturally reticent about wading into political waters. We know that such rhetoric has been used by partisans in our State Legislature and the United States Congress, and by President George W. Bush.

* * *

Our Rules of Professional Responsibility suggest that we do need to respond to the hostile rhetoric, in order to defend the judiciary against unjust criticism.

Rule 8.2(a) of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer from making a statement "that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge or of a candidate for election or appointment to judicial or legal office." This language suggests that lawyers should not be casting aspersions on judicial integrity by saying we cannot trust judges.

* * *

What are the consequences if we don't speak out? The first and obvious consequence is that Minnesota's judiciary will be at risk of being taken over by partisan judicial politics. In other states, this has led to corruption. (footnote omitted) We can explain the risks to people this way: do you want judges to make decisions based on the facts and law of your case, or do you want judges to make decisions based on whether you are on the list of their campaign contributors?

We also need to consider a less obvious potential consequence of our failure to counter hostile rhetoric. By failing to respond we may tacitly encourage physical threats and violence to judges, as well as those around them.

* * *

So what do these already angry people think when they hear a phrase like "activist judges?" It could legitimize their anger, and trigger an offshoot of anger --vengeance. People are more likely to act out of vengeance if they believe that ordinary rules have broken down or are not being followed. Think of "vigilante justice." (footnote omitted) If people already angry at judges hear rhetoric suggesting that judges are arrogant and not following the rules -- in essence, that the rule of law has broken down -- they may be more likely to act out against judges (or possibly others), and to take the law into their own hands.

And then what if these same angry people hear the phrase "activist judges" from their church pulpit or from TV evangelists? Will this give them the idea that the vengeance response is not only legitimate, but sanctioned by a church or religion?

* * *

Look at the plot discovered this April in Rice County, Minnesota. Two brothers were threatening a Rice County district judge, an assistant county attorney, and a sheriff's deputy, all of whom participated in a 2004 drug case involving one of the brothers. The brothers plotted to blow up the Rice County Courthouse and law enforcement center, and they had the means to carry out their plan: two propane tanks filled with explosives and fertilizer.

* * *

The explosives in the Rice County plot were similar to those used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City 11 years ago. One hundred sixty-eight people died in the Oklahoma City bombing, including federal employees and 19 children in a day care center located there

* * *

The title of one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, which often deal with violence, ought to give us impetus: "The life you save may be your own."

Wow. Where do I begin?

1. I wonder what Ms. Peters thinks about the criticism of the ruling in RPM v. White. Could that criticism (by her political allies) lead to violence?

2. Would she agree that Ozzie Osbourne is responsible for teen suicide, or that Marilyn Manson was responsible for Columbine?

3. Timothy McVeigh was mad about, among other things, Ruby Ridge and Waco. He was mad at government generally, not judges. In fact, a judge ignoring the law would probably be a hero to those militia types. Should we have criticized the government's handling of those two incidents? Did that criticism cause McVeigh to do what he did?

4. Judicial activism is a real concept. Some lawyers and judges embrace the label as a way to effect positive social change. Here is an e-mail I wrote to Vance Opperman a few years ago.

On the most recent (Face to Face) program, Mr. Opperman criticized the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Bush vs. Gore as "activist." Many people this term incorrectly to describe every court decision they disagree with. The real meaning of judicial activism is essentially that a court has usurped the role of the political branches of government. Defenders of judicial activism will argue that un-elected judges are in the best position to defend the rights of minorities. They contend that this is crucial to our system of checks and balances. The main issue in Bush vs. Gore was whether the judicial branch or the political branch had the authority to oversee Florida elections. One can disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, but it was not activist.
Peter A. Swanson
Plymouth, MN

His response (which is no longer on my hard drive) was something about the U.S. Supreme Court overruling a state court on a matter of state law. But the point is that even a true blue liberal can criticize judicial activism.

5. Under the various rulings in RPM v. White, judicial candidates still do not know the identity of their contributors. The issue in the most recent case was whether candidates could sign their own letter to potential donors, rather than having a surrogate do it.

6. Peters is quite willing to accuse judges of corruption, as long as they reside in another state. Saying that "you can't trust" judges is not to accuse them of corruption. It is saying that one cannot predict how a judge will rule. The same wisdom goes for juries. The local Minnesota ACLU took on a case in the 1990s about a lawyer who, after losing a case, wrote to his client something along the lines that "some judges are just pro-defense." I verified the basic facts of this case with a lawyer involved and an ACLU employee at the time. The lawyer was facing sanctions for being disrespectful to the "pro-defense" judge. Set aside the fact that there may have been sour grapes involved. The idea that a lawyer may not share candid opinions about the leanings of a specific judge is frightening. But that is where the Bench and Bar article seems to suggest we are headed. How did anyone find out about the "pro-defense" comment? The lawyer and client were involved in a fee dispute where the correspondence was disclosed. Not very wise to put that in writing, but that is another post for another day.

Here's a controversy for you 

Is it just me, or have SCSUScholars' ads been a little ... spicy ... lately? I mean, for the last few days there was that "Do cops give girls enough speeding tickets?" (I'm paraphrasing here) ad, and the accompanying pic was a drawing of some sexy lace-draped girl who you just KNOW never gets a ticket. Today the ad is "Should inmates have girly magazines?", and (just in case we forgot what girly magazines contain) has a drawing of another girl in her underwear.

As pictures go, these aren't particularly salacious; they're more like pictures of drawings of an artist's conception of what a sexy-ish woman could possibly look like, if she happened to be wearing lingerie. And I'm not the sort of person who has fits of the moral vapors and has to be revived with smelling salts everytime I see someone who is, shall we say, particularly at risk of sunburn. I'm not offended, and I'm not really trying to suggest that Something Be Done About This.

I guess I'm really just amused that those pictures are showing up in the box labelled "Scholarly stuff!"

I've gone ahead and enabled comments for this post ;) so feel free to tell us all what you think about spicy pictures on SCSUScholars! I'll be sure to pass you suggestions on to Prof. Banaian. :)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Talk Amongst Yourselves 

I feel a little like Colonel Tigh, when he took command of Battlestar Galactica and messed things up (I snuck in a little science fiction reference there). I have the car keys for a couple more days, so I am going to do a couple doughnuts in the parking lot with King's station wagon. Here goes.

Please provide your comments on the following question. The relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is like the relationship between:

a) a Dear John letter to a former lover and marriage vows to a new spouse, or

b) the articles of incorporation and the bylaws of a company.

Discuss in the comment block below.

Invites to Google stuff 

Google has rapidly moved to the number one spot on my List of Companies Which Are Awesome. I love Gmail and Google Calendar, I have Google Maps Mobile on my cell phone, and I routinely will spin the globe in Google Earth and poke around looking for neat stuff.

You may have heard Google's recent announcement that they are testing out an online spreadsheet program; even prior to that, Google bought Writely, an online word processing application. Both of these are still in a beta-testing phase, and participation is by invitation only.

Soooo..... if you want an invitation to either or both of these things, I'm told you can go here and ask for one, and you might could maybe get one. Perhaps. Or maybe not. Whatever, I signed up for one of each, and I'll let you know if and when I receive them. If you like, you may wait until I have bestown (bestooned? done bestowed?) the SCSUScholars Sparkly Tiara of Approval upon the site, with all of the benefits and honours that implies.

Or, you could go now and give your secret personal email address to a total stranger, sight unseen without any guarantees of anything whatsoever purely because some other total stranger (me) told you that you could, secure in the knowledge that you're not being any more stupid than I am. Your call.

If you try it and it works, though, you owe me.

UPDATE: I have received my Writely invite, and will be trying it out soon (got some actuall work to do today, so my puttering-around time is limited for the moment). So it's not a scam. Still, no word on GoogleSheets yet though, so maybe it could be a scam after all...

UPDATE II: I have now also received a Google Spreadsheets invite! Hooray! Sparkly Tiaras for everyone!