Thursday, April 16, 2015

Was Ayn Rand a hypocrite for collecting Social Security?

John Fugelsang seems to think so:

But wait a minute . . . there's nothing inconsistent about being a libertarian and collecting Social Security. If you believe the government is wrongfully taking your money (in the form of taxes), naturally you should want to take as much of it back as possible (in the form of benefits). You could still complain that this was inefficient because you would've spent the money better if you had kept it all along; some of your money was siphoned off by government workers; etc.

By analogy, if a thief stole your wallet and spent half of the cash that was in it, then offered you the wallet back, you'd take it back, simply to recover most of what you had lost. That wouldn't be an admission that what the thief did was good.

If anything, the hypocritical libertarian would be one who declines to receive Social Security checks, since this would be essentially donating money to the federal government.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What are we doing when we teach fiction to kids?

I want to make an observation I’ve never heard anyone make before. I’d be interested to know if anyone has expressed the same thing. If not, I’d be shocked, since this is something that’s right under our noses. Here it is:

When we teach children fiction — reading it, writing it, understanding it, loving it — as important as those teachings are, I think they also have a negative side effect. By teaching fiction so often and beginning at such an early age, we condition children to expect the “just right” results to flow inexorably from the writing of those who are good and bright.

Before kids learn about economics or law, politics or psychology, they learn that we’re supposed to treasure writing not primarily based on how well it corresponds to reality, but primarily based on whether it makes us feel good. And I intend the double meaning of “good” as in both “contented” and “moral.”

This could explain why well-educated, intelligent people, all across the political spectrum, so often make the unspoken assumption that good intentions and well-crafted words are sufficient for making good public policy. Now, when I put it like that, you might think that’s obviously false, and you might question how many people really believe this. But that's the assumption being made whenever anyone argues in favor of a law by referring to the righteous aspirations underlying it, without contemplating whether the process initiated by the text of the law could lead to results that are at odds with those aspirations. And people do that all the time.

This is not a lament that not enough people understand the concept of unintended consequences. In fact, I think most liberals and conservatives and libertarians understand the concept pretty well. The problem is that even with this fundamental understanding, they have an easy time selectively ignoring unintended consequences to suit their politics. For instance, I think many on the right too readily overlook the unintended consequences of going to war and criminalizing drugs. And I think many on the left overlook the unintended consequences of welfare, the minimum wage, affirmative action, and gun laws. My point here isn’t to say that anyone’s position on any particular issue is right or wrong. For instance, some would retort that conservatives overlook the unintended consequences of making the minimum wage too low. And others would say the anti-war folks overlook the negatives of so-called peace and the unintended consequences of refraining from going to war when it’s justified. Fair enough — but those are just more examples to support the broader point that there’s a lot of blindness to unintended consequences all along the political spectrum.

The approach I'd like to see more of, the pragmatic approach — scrutinizing policies with an eye for unintended consequences — is easily eclipsed by a belief in the power of brilliantly benevolent writing. From an early age, we awaken in children a shimmering, numinous sensibility that transcends empiricism and rationality.

By the way, you might notice that I haven’t proposed anything to be done about all this.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How to stop the skyrocketing cost of law school

David Lat has a good idea:

Only 57 percent of 2013 law school graduates obtained full-time legal jobs nine months after graduation. Yet the federal government subsidizes the production of even more lawyers by lending the cost of attendance to basically anyone who decides to enroll in law school, without regard for the quality of the school or the job prospects of its graduates. A student going to Harvard Law School, where 86.9 percent of 2013 grads had full-time legal jobs, has the same access to federal funds as a student going to Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where just 22.9 percent of 2013 grads work as lawyers.

This policy is hurting students. Federally subsidized loans have enabled law school tuition to spiral out of control. As noted by Professor Paul Campos, “[i]n real, inflation-adjusted terms, tuition at private American law schools has doubled over the past 20 years, tripled over the past 30, and quadrupled over the past 40,” and resident tuition at public law schools has climbed even faster. So long as the federal loans keep coming, tuition is unlikely to stop rising. In the words of Professor Brian Tamanaha, author of “Failing Law Schools,” “Federal loans are an irresistible (and life-sustaining) drug for revenue addicted law schools . . . law schools have been ramping up tuition and enrollment without restraint thanks to an obliging federal loan program.”

If the government were to stop lending for law school or even just impose per-student or per-school caps on loan amounts (perhaps combined with making it easier to discharge student loans in bankruptcy), law schools would have to dramatically lower tuition, in order to attract students.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Amanda Knox

Judy Bachrach, who's been covering the Amanda Knox case since 2007, writes in Vanity Fair (via):

Outside the U.S., my criticism of the way the case was handled fell on deaf ears. In the U.K., where she was the subject of daily vilification, any defense of Knox was chalked up to jingoism. In Italy, where she was even more detested, there was even greater certainty about her guilt. After Knox’s incarceration, one of the young men in my class—an Italian—rose to protest.

How could I declare her innocent? “She slept with more than one man!!”

“E allora?” I said. So what?

He looked exasperated.

“In Italy it is not O.K. for a girl to sleep with more than one man. A man can sleep with more than one girl, but the reverse just isn’t acceptable!”

So that’s when I knew. Amanda Knox was going to be convicted of murder. And that conviction would be based on her social life. And in 2009 that’s exactly what happened.

Now that the results of that botched investigation have been definitively voided, the question is: How much? How much does Italy owe two young people imprisoned for a murder in which there was no credible motive, no credible evidence, and no credible witnesses?

The money question is not far-fetched. The families of both Knox and Sollecito have indicated they will seek damages. And why shouldn’t they collect after all they’ve been through? To cover her defense the Knox family mortgaged their house and drained retirement funds. Every year Italy pays around 12 million euros to those who have been imprisoned and then later exonerated, as CNN reported....

“Amanda . . . is a restless person who does not disdain multiple frequentations,” the first group of Italian judges decided in their report—by which they meant that she slept around. As bad, the judges added, Knox “indulged in ostentatious displays of affection with Raffaele, even going as far as the paradoxical purchase of an item of intimate apparel, apparently for use in having ‘wild sex.’”

As many observers concluded early on, the more likely culprit was Rudy Guede, a Perugia local originally from the Ivory Coast, already known to police as the prime suspect in at least three burglaries (in one of which he allegedly brandished a knife) and reportedly fond of cocaine and binge drinking. It was his DNA that was inside Kercher’s body, on her bra straps and her purse, his bloody fingerprint on a cushion in her room, his bloody handprint on the wall. Knox’s DNA, on the other hand, was nowhere in the dead girl’s room, where her body was found. Guede was convicted of the murder in a separate, fast-track trial in October 2008.

Why charge two students with no history of violence? Absent any credible evidence everyone—judges, jurors, media—turned to a one-word answer: sex. Sex made Amanda do just about everything.

This obsession with the American girl’s sex life followed her into prison. Early on, prison authorities falsely informed her that she was H.I.V.-positive, at which point she plunged into despair. Back in her cell, Knox wrote up a list of her previous lovers—which in short order, was leaked to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and quoted extensively by an Italian author who came up with what would become a habitual media conclusion, one she confided to The Sunday Times: “It’s as if [she] were always hunting men.”

Thus Knox became every Italian mamma’s worst nightmare: the classic blonde, American manipulator of men. Luciferina with an angel’s face, an Italian newspaper called her. Luciferina was dutifully echoed in the courtroom: the girl was obviously involved in some kind of satanic rite. Outside Italy, there were any number of fantasy riffs on this theme. Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox, was the original title of a book published by the Daily Beast in 2010. Foxy Knoxy, the Daily Mail called her, in an endless stream of headlines . . .

"It's not the money . . ."

"Corporate America strikes a liberal note on wages," reports Politico:

With McDonald’s following Wal-Mart, Target, TJ Maxx and Marshall’s in raising wage minimums, big companies are buckling under pressure to address the problem of wage stagnation and workplace issues. And they’re embracing the favorite language — if not the full-fledged policies — of the political left in doing so.

“I really want to assert McDonald’s as a modern and progressive burger company,” McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook told “CBS This Morning” on Thursday. “And to do that, you’ve really got to make meaningful changes for the business, whether through the food [or] through the employment proposition.” . . .

Other CEOs have been quick to name-drop stars of the left in announcing new workplace measures. In January, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini told all of his executives to read Thomas Piketty, the famed progressive economist, and then went and established a $16 an hour wage floor for all of the company’s employees. “It’s not just about paying people, it’s about the whole social compact,” Bertolini told The Wall Street Journal.
A rule of thumb I learned from the fascinating book Never Trust a Calm Dog: When people say, "It's not about the money, it's about the principle" . . . it's about the money.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Rick Perry makes the conservative case for reining in the excesses of the drug war

Perry, who was Governor of Texas from 2005 until earlier this year, writes:

I am a firm believer that the states are laboratories of innovation—that, given the flexibility, they will implement policies that work most efficiently to address the needs of their citizens. And the criminal-justice debate is no different.

I know this first-hand. You see, Texas was one of many states that spent billions locking up kids for minor offenses. In jail, these individuals learned how to become hardened criminals. Out of jail, they often repeated their crimes.

The result was a significant fiscal burden on taxpayers and a segment of society shut out from hope and opportunity. And while arrests for violent and property offenses steadily declined throughout the 1990s, drug-related arrests increased by more than 60 percent. We knew we needed to do something, and do it quickly. That’s why, when John Creuzot, a Democratic judge from Dallas, shared an idea that would change the way we handled cases of first-time, non-violent drug offenders, I listened.

As the founder of one of the first drug courts in Texas, Creuzot argued that, for many low-risk, non-violent offenders, incarceration is not the best solution, and can increase the odds that an individual will commit additional crimes after release. Just as importantly, he emphasized that by treating addiction as a disease, rather than simply punishing the crimes it compels, we could give new hope to people trying to get their lives back.

His evidence was compelling. Recidivism in his program was 68 percent lower than other state courts, and every dollar he spent saved $9 in future costs. So in 2007, with broad support from Republicans and Democrats, Texas changed course.

We expanded our commitment to drug courts that allow offenders to stay out of jail if they agreed to comprehensive supervision, drug testing, and treatment. We invested more in treatment and rehabilitation programs for drug addiction and mental illness, and shifted our focus to diversionary programs like community supervision. We reformed our approach to parole, imposing graduated sanctions for minor violations instead of immediate re-incarceration.

We also implemented common-sense policies, such as allowing individuals to earn their way off probation through exemplary conduct and by achieving benchmarks, such as obtaining a degree. We passed legislation allowing nonviolent offenders to earn up to 20 percent of their terms by completing treatment and vocational programs proven to reduce recidivism.

The results have been extraordinary. Texas’s crime rate has dropped to its lowest point since 1968 and, during my tenure, Texas’ crime rate shrank by almost 24 percent. In fact, for the first time in state history, Texas is closing prisons without replacing them—three units since 2011. On top of that, this more efficient approach has saved Texas taxpayers $2 billion.

But perhaps the most significant result is the countless individuals and families who are better off today because these Texans were given a chance to minimize the damage they had done to their lives. And for some people, a chance is all they really need.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Words to live by

"Dance like no one's watching; tweet like one day you will be held up as the moral authority of the land." — Kumail Nanjiani

Monday, March 30, 2015

Overheard on the NYC subway

Two British girls in a whole class of high-school students taking the 1 train uptown to 59th St.:

Did you know we're going to Central Park?

What's Central Park?

It's just a park!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why the humanities shouldn't be crowded out by STEM education

Fareed Zakaria makes a compelling case:

If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world. . . .

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

For most of its history, the United States was unique in offering a well-rounded education. In their comprehensive study, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” Harvard’s Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz point out that in the 19th century, countries like Britain, France and Germany educated only a few and put them through narrow programs designed to impart only the skills crucial to their professions. America, by contrast, provided mass general education because people were not rooted in specific locations with long-established trades that offered the only paths forward for young men. And the American economy historically changed so quickly that the nature of work and the requirements for success tended to shift from one generation to the next. People didn’t want to lock themselves into one professional guild or learn one specific skill for life.

That was appropriate in another era, the technologists argue, but it is dangerous in today’s world. Look at where American kids stand compared with their peers abroad. The most recent international test, conducted in 2012, found that among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked 27th in math, 20th in science and 17th in reading. If rankings across the three subjects are averaged, the United States comes in 21st, trailing nations such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia.

In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.

Consider the same pattern in two other highly innovative countries, Sweden and Israel. Israel ranks first in the world in venture-capital investments as a percentage of GDP; the United States ranks second, and Sweden is sixth, ahead of Great Britain and Germany. These nations do well by most measures of innovation, such as research and development spending and the number of high-tech companies as a share of all public companies. Yet all three countries fare surprisingly poorly in the OECD test rankings. Sweden and Israel performed even worse than the United States on the 2012 assessment, landing overall at 28th and 29th, respectively, among the 34 most-developed economies.

But other than bad test-takers, their economies have a few important traits in common: They are flexible. Their work cultures are non-hierarchical and merit-based. All operate like young countries, with energy and dynamism. All three are open societies, happy to let in the world’s ideas, goods and services. And people in all three nations are confident — a characteristic that can be measured. Despite ranking 27th and 30th in math, respectively, American and Israeli students came out at the top in their belief in their math abilities, if one tallies up their responses to survey questions about their skills. Sweden came in seventh, even though its math ranking was 28th.

Thirty years ago, William Bennett, the Reagan-era secretary of education, noticed this disparity between achievement and confidence and quipped, “This country is a lot better at teaching self-esteem than it is at teaching math.” It’s a funny line, but there is actually something powerful in the plucky confidence of American, Swedish and Israeli students. It allows them to challenge their elders, start companies, persist when others think they are wrong and pick themselves up when they fail. Too much confidence runs the risk of self-delusion, but the trait is an essential ingredient for entrepreneurship.

My point is not that it’s good that American students fare poorly on these tests. It isn’t. Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have benefitted enormously from having skilled workforces. But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook. A country like Japan, by contrast, can’t do as much with its well-trained workers because it lacks many of the factors that produce continuous innovation.

Americans should be careful before they try to mimic Asian educational systems, which are oriented around memorization and test-taking. I went through that kind of system. It has its strengths, but it’s not conducive to thinking, problem solving or creativity. That’s why most Asian countries, from Singapore to South Korea to India, are trying to add features of a liberal education to their systems. Jack Ma, the founder of China’s Internet behemoth Alibaba, recently hypothesized in a speech that the Chinese are not as innovative as Westerners because China’s educational system, which teaches the basics very well, does not nourish a student’s complete intelligence, allowing her to range freely, experiment and enjoy herself while learning: “Many painters learn by having fun, many works [of art and literature] are the products of having fun. So, our entrepreneurs need to learn how to have fun, too.”

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (and the owner of this newspaper), insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the “narratives” to themselves and makes notes on them. In an interview with Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said: “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Companies often prefer strong basics to narrow expertise. Andrew Benett, a management consultant, surveyed 100 business leaders and found that 84 of them said they would rather hire smart, passionate people, even if they didn’t have the exact skills their companies needed.

Innovation in business has always involved insights beyond technology. Consider the case of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg was a classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. He studied ancient Greek intensively in high school and majored in psychology while he attended college. And Facebook’s innovations have a lot to do with psychology. Zuckerberg has often pointed out that before Facebook was created, most people shielded their identities on the Internet. It was a land of anonymity. Facebook’s insight was that it could create a culture of real identities, where people would voluntarily expose themselves to their friends, and this would become a transformative platform. Of course, Zuckerberg understands computers deeply and uses great coders to put his ideas into practice, but as he has put it, Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”

Twenty years ago, tech companies might have survived simply as product manufacturers. Now they have to be on the cutting edge of design, marketing and social networking. You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the world, but you can’t sell it for $300 unless you’ve built a story around it. The same is true for cars, clothes and coffee. The value added is in the brand — how it is imagined, presented, sold and sustained. Or consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum.

Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs. David Autor, the MIT economist who has most carefully studied the impact of technology and globalization on labor, writes that “human tasks that have proved most amenable to computerization are those that follow explicit, codifiable procedures — such as multiplication — where computers now vastly exceed human labor in speed, quality, accuracy, and cost efficiency. Tasks that have proved most vexing to automate are those that demand flexibility, judgment, and common sense — skills that we understand only tacitly — for example, developing a hypothesis or organizing a closet.” In 2013, two Oxford scholars conducted a comprehensive study on employment and found that, for workers to avoid the computerization of their jobs, “they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”

This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology, but it does suggest that as we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.

One final reason to value a liberal education lies in its roots. For most of human history, all education was skills-based. Hunters, farmers and warriors taught their young to hunt, farm and fight. But about 2,500 years ago, that changed in Greece, which began to experiment with a new form of government: democracy. This innovation in government required an innovation in education. Basic skills for sustenance were no longer sufficient. Citizens also had to learn how to manage their own societies and practice self-government. They still do.