Friday, December 24, 2010

Department of Wow, or, Valuing a Great Teacher

A new NBER working paper from Eric Hanushek makes the following claim:
A teacher one standard deviation above the mean effectiveness annually generates marginal gains of over $400,000 in present value of student future earnings with a class size of 20 and proportionately higher with larger class sizes. Alternatively, replacing the bottom 5-8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the U.S. near the top of international math and science rankings with a present value of $100 trillion.

I am using this post to save the link because I haven't yet read the paper. But if this is true, which I wouldn't find surprising, then... Wow.
HT: Greg Mankiw

Friday, December 17, 2010


In the trendy fashion of applying economic logic to new fields, Spousonomics is applying economic reasoning to marriage, for better or worse.

I particularly enjoyed this interview with Economist and Game Theorist Jeff Ely of Northwestern University.

Does being an economist make you better or worse at resolving conflict with your wife?

As an economist and game theorist I have a unique understanding of the secrets of conflict resolution. And my marriage will be peaceful and harmonious once my wife accepts that.

...admittedly not terrifically funny , but I figure it was time I blogged about something.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Teaching Philosophy

I've sat down and written it on more than one occasion. Though I'm certain it is naive and misguided, here is what I have (and how I feel about education). Yeah, it's long. Sorry.

I'm terrified of feedback, but that seems to be all the more reason to put this up on the internet.

I do not subscribe to the idea that students are blank slates. They come to the classroom as a collection of experiences, shaped by their own families, their peers, their environments, previous teachers, and a whole collection of factors too numerous for me to count. Many students have influences I cannot name or begin to understand. Ultimately, great teachers and poor teachers are small subset of the influences on a student. A great teacher can unlock potential within a student, often by showing them how to succeed. However, without the support of other teachers, peers, community, or family, it is nearly impossible for a teacher to succeed in bringing out the most outstanding aspects of any individual student.

Successful teaching most often is a function of repetition. I looked to athletics first, and realized that most athletes learn how to perform in their sport (throw and catch a football, hit a baseball, etc.) simply by practicing over and over again. Even professionals must practice regularly to maintain excellence. Next, I looked to music. Musicians play their instruments every day, and even professionals spend time rehearsing before they perform. Finally, I looked back to basic subjects: reading, writing, and mathematics. In my experience, I have been most successful learning each of these when I am engaging myself on a daily basis. I struggle in math, even today, when I take multiple days and do not solve any problems. I cannot read or write as quickly when I go a week without doing so. Repetition is the key to become a master of a subject, task, or craft.

The biggest obstacle to utilizing repetition is student engagement. After all, it can get boring to perform the same tasks over and over again. The best way to avoid making repetition boring is to frame the repeated task in a different way. Begin each class by doing a quick warm-up exercise. Have a contest for students to see who can do the most simple problems in a period of time. Divide students into groups and get them to solve complex problems. Provide different instructions for each task, so that it is framed differently. This will help combat student boredom while still engaging them in repeating a task until they are proficient.

Finally, when it comes to teaching, it is important to understand the power of persuasion. Too often, leaders resort to using authority to convince persons to perform a certain task. This is a mistake, because authority can be bested by a higher authority. Persuasion, however, is much more difficult to overcome when used properly. If students can be persuaded to do something, then they will be doing so willingly. This will yield greater student interest, on net, than simply requirement by force.

Overall, the most successful teachers are those who can engage their students in doing a task they might otherwise find lowly or of mean reward. The power of repetition in the classroom at all levels should never be forgotten. However, teaching only with repetition will not provide the students with the intellectual stimulation they need to remain interested in learning new material on a regular basis. Framing tasks in such a way that students participate of their own accord simultaneously maximizes student interest and learning.

Monday, December 13, 2010

School Deregulation

At National Affairs, Frederick Hess has an extended piece on school choice. One of his main points is that the rhetoric of "school choice" developed in a funny way (according to him, because the urban African-American leaders calling for better options in schooling had the most politically palatable rhetoric). I wonder if the fate of the school choice movement would be at all different if it were instead called school deregulation.

Lots of gems at the article, I won't quote many here because I encourage you to take some time and read it. My favorite quote:

Markets are a product of laws, norms, talent, information, and capital, and the absence of these can readily yield market failures — not because markets do not work, but because markets are not a magical salve.

I am totally fascinated by education policy right now. Is this because it's a compelling topic or because I should be studying for finals? Guess I will know next week.

(H/T Tyler Cowen)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Very Good Sentences

If we are looking to remedy the harmful kinds of inequality, we should focus on good educational reform, the benefits of which start accruing to a person quite early in life but also last through the entire life.

That's from Tyler Cowen (who else?) in a recent symposium at the New York Times, available here.

One of many reasons I am looking closely not only at Teach for America, but at teaching as a vocation for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mike Munger on Writing

It's all things I already know, of course, but a nice reminder of how I'm not pushing myself enough outside of class. So maybe I'll try doing this a little more. (and a few other things, I've got a medium-sized to-do list of unfinished digital projects. too bad things like BSU/VT tickets get in the way!)

The article is definitely worth a read for those who have not seen it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Internships: Financing Human Capital?

My recent post on private/public education generated a fair amount of controversy (rightfully so, as my views definitely are not set on this issue). I'm currently reading Capitalism and Freedom - something light to kick off my summer - and enjoying Friedman's discussion of education. One complaint he levies is that investment in human capital is too low (as of 1962) relative to investment in physical capital. He cites the difficulty of securing a loan as one major reason. Suppose you make a loan to your neighbor for a tractor. If he quits paying, you can take the tractor. But if you make a loan for him to go to college and he quits paying, you cannot take him and enslave him. Nor can you even expect him to work for you, because he may simply not cooperate with whatever tasks you want done.

Friedman's solution, or one possible one, is investment by companies in their future employees. He suggests in a footnote that "training financed by XYZ insurance company could be made into an assurance of quality (like "Approved by Good Housekeeping")". Is the current system of internships a step in this direction? Most college students, at least around greater DC, are strongly advised to get as many internships as possible. I would believe that an internship with a powerful company, such as the Department of State, could function as a quality assurance for a person with an education but little/no work experience. Perhaps this also explains why so many internships are unpaid; the best internships provide non-monetary compensation by opening up future earnings possibilities.

Of course, I'm not convinced this is a good system. Many internships end up involving a lot of filing and fetching of coffee (I attest to this from personal experience). It's also becoming more common for interns to be hired to do work that would otherwise require paying an employee, and to me this is unfair to the intern. How can the internship system be revised to avoid some of these effects?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Starve the Beast: Let's Take a Look at the Data

Mark Thoma links to a very interesting article from Bruce Bartlett. The conclusion: "Starve the Beast" actually does very little to reduce government spending. My favorite quote:
On Aug. 7, 1978, economist Milton Friedman added his powerful voice to the discussion. Writing in Newsweek magazine, he said, "the only effective way to restrain government spending is by limiting government's explicit tax revenue--just as a limited income is the only effective restraint on any individual's or family's spending."

It's pretty obvious where Friedman's metaphor breaks down: a family has no source of spending other than its income. It can get a loan for a house, for example, but if a family isn't credibly repaying its loans it will not be able to get any further loans. Government can fail to repay a whole bunch of loans and continue to get more. This needs to get more attention... it's going to be very relevant for domestic American politics for the next few decades as we try to get our fiscal house in order.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Private vs. Public Education

A friend has been in my ear about why a fully privatized education system is infeasible at this time. I'm just the third party to her debate with another economist, but I'm going to try to organize some thoughts I've had while listening to the debate.

A fully private education system would suffer, I think, from some dynamic inconsistency. It's easy to argue that parents would take all the tax money they saved to buy their children high-quality education, and in fact that quality could go up as price goes down. But it is also very possible, maybe even likely, that parents with lower incomes would prioritize spending money on things other than their children's education. If the parent has no particular incentive to send their kid to the best possible school, and a healthy skepticism of the education system (perhaps because they didn't receive a good education), it's easy to imagine a cycle taking hold for the poor that is difficult to escape.

Suppose, however, that we assume all parents value education as a good and will seek high quality education they can afford for their children. Where will the higher quality schools locate? Probably in wealthier neighborhoods, because more families there will be able to pay for education. Thus students in low-income neighborhoods may be priced out not by tuition costs, but by their location (i.e. they cannot afford to get to the quality school even though they can afford the tuition). Costs like these are often glossed over when "libertopians" consider their ideal world.

Don't misunderstand this post - I'm all for school vouchers and bringing more accountability to the education system. But I think academics often miss the point that not everyone values education the same way they do, and their proposals for reform implicitly assume education is a normal good for everyone all the time. In addition, reforms need to be considered within institutional structures. Major reforms require larger institutional changes and these challenges need to at least be acknowledged by libertopians.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Names and Success

The always-interesting Eric Barker has a post claiming that your name certainly influences your success. I want to throw a bit of anecdotal support behind the claim, dating back to my time in elementary school. With a last name beginning with A-B-B-A, I have literally been alphabetically at the top of every class I have ever taken. Classes in public schools are generally seated alphabetically, at least initially, and teachers would often call on presenters, etc., in alphabetical order. Get chosen first enough times for presentations and eventually you get used to being prepared to go first - by about fourth grade, I found myself expecting to turn things in or present projects at the earliest opportunity.

One other note: I believe there are plenty of studies indicating that an A-B-C name helps you advance in academia, because your name is more likely to be cited in group works. A last name like Wilson will generally come at the end and may end up stuck under an "et al" label. Credit can often be distributed unequally alphabetically, and if/when I end up teaching a class I plan to use reverse alphabetical order as much as possible to give everyone a taste of the opposite situations.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Very Good Sentence-Paragraphs

From John Nye:
In a sense, Western markets are like Western medicine: Just as an outbreak of incurable plague would lead to both a renewed search for sound cures and an atavistic appeal to folk remedies, so the Depression stimulated both productive thinking about the sources of business instability as well as destructive appeals to extreme nationalism, protectionism and military aggression.

The whole article is excellent. I'm still pondering this passage. In a plague, medicine drives people to one extreme or the other out of fear: both those who are thinking progressively and those who are appealing to folk remedies do so because they want to stem the plague. Do markets drive people to similar extremes because of fear, or is there a confounding variable in the comparison?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Global Warming & Evolution on the Same Ticket

Apparently, lawmakers in various Midwestern states, such as Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, are trying to link the issues of evolution and climate change together, according to the New York Times. What could these two issues possibly have in common? In this case, a group of people feels that these theories may or may not have factual evidence, and children need to be taught that in public schools.

My initial reaction was, "whatever brings the science of climate change into the classroom is probably a good thing. Making young people aware of the issue can only help, especially since they are overwhelmingly accepting that humans are changing the Earth's climate." But upon further consideration, maybe the best thing we can do is keep these issues out of the classroom. After all, kids can't remain insulated from these issues forever. Once they become curious, they'll seek out information, and honestly that might be better than learning from a teacher who is legally required to give climate change skepticism and intelligent design theories equal justification.

If these lawmakers want to teach more critical thinking and evaluative skills, I'm all for it. But they are openly admitting that they are trying to get a religious agenda exempt from separation of church and state. Students don't need anti-science to be taught alongside science, and trying to teach critical thinking by sanctioning intelligent design and climate change skepticism in the classroom sounds to me like a proposal that requires some critical analysis of its own.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

In many ways I am, but I find hard-core libertarianism to be one-dimensional and boring. It has little practical significance because realistically, Galt's Gulch isn't anywhere on the horizon. Advocating libertarianism, in my mind, is useful only if you are trying to shift the center. It doesn't represent a recipe for a long-term successful nation.

Anyway, that all stems from Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz's book From Poverty to Prosperity. I have been enjoying it and wanted to take a quote from their interview with Paul Romer:

One interesting example of a beneficial government action was when the FAA started forcing the airlines to report on-time performance for their flights. This led to really big changes in how the airlines did their scheduling, and on time performance went up dramatically...

Good example of a reform that market participants would likely not have undertaken on their own that has huge benefits for everyone. The book, so far, is full of stories like this, and I have been thoroughly enjoying it. Kudos to Kling and Schulz on a very good story!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Great Paragraphs

From James M. Buchanan, continuing to demonstrate how worthy was his Nobel victory:
Unfortunately, economists, generally, failed to understand that aggregate variables that may be measured with tolerable accuracy ex post may not be variables subject to control, directly or even indirectly. The fundamental misconception here lies in the understanding of what ‘the economy’ is. The ‘economic problem’ is not (despite Lionel Robbins) an engineering problem that may be defined simply as the allocation of scarce resources among alternative uses. The economy, in some inclusive definitional sense, is perhaps best described as an order that consists of an interlinked set of exchanges, simple and complex, from which outcomes emerge that may in some respects be meaningfully measured but that cannot be chosen, and thereby controlled, by concentrated decision takers.

The whole essay seems incredibly important for any aspiring economist.

H/T Tyler

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Very Good Sentences

From Matthew J. Slaughter in the Wall Street Journal:

When parent firms based in the U.S. hire workers in their foreign affiliates, the skills and occupations of these workers are often complementary; they aren't substitutes.

H/T Mark Thoma

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Evolutionary Economics May Not Be Useful After All

Thanks to Matt Lister, via an MR comment, for recommending Alexander Rosenberg's Darwinism in Philosophy, Social Science, and Policy. "Does Evolutionary Theory Give Comfort or Inspiration to Economics" was a good cautionary tale and I'm glad to have read it, though I'm still digesting all of its implications.

The idea that Darwinian theory isn't a good predictor for individual agents was a nice ah-ha moment for me. I'm trying to resolve that with my intuition that macroeconomics doesn't necessarily need to make individual prescriptions for action. This is going to require its own dedicated post.

Additionally, Rosenberg points out that the "environment" in economics is constantly changing, while the environment in evolution is essentially constant. This problem might be resolved by looking at relative time horizons, describing economic time as instantaneous, but since I'm taking an Austrian class at the moment I'm not sure I am well-prepared to do this.

Finally, his point near the conclusion that information affects economic agents and evolving creatures very differently feels like a dagger. "The information that the environment provides about relative adaptedness is costless and universally available." This is inescapably unlike anything I have heard from an economist and will need to be closely considered.

So, my initial reading of Rosenberg has led me to three points that suggest combining economics and evolution is a dumb idea. There are certainly more but on first reading those are the ones that stuck out to me, and I'll have my hands full simply trying to address them. I wasn't going to bother but Rosenberg extensively quoted Armen Alchian's paper "Uncertainty, Evolution, and Economic Theory," so I decided I better read that over as well. Alchian sees what I saw after finishing Dawkins: "The economic counterparts of genetic heredity, mutations, and natural selection are imitation, innovation, and positive profits."

So perhaps addressing Rosenberg will be an upcoming series for me. If you've got any recommended readings that might help, please leave them in the comments. (I'll be starting into Nelson and Winter, An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, as soon as it gets returned to the library).

Monday, February 1, 2010

Seeking Regulation

From my textbook for "Economics of Energy" (Energy, Economics and the Environment, page 61)-
Although initially skeptical, many electric and gas and telephone companies actively began to seek state regulation. They were being bedeviled by all sorts of inconsistent demands by local governments and they saw state regulation as a way to preempt them. Consequently, most public utilities acts preempted local regulation.

I heard this argument regularly last semester from Andrew Light in the run-up to Copenhagen. Right now, it looks like regional agreements are going to dominate the next few years in terms of carbon pricing. My question is this: if/when companies want to ask for one universal price on carbon, who are they going to ask? It seems the UNFCCC, with its emphasis on consensus, has played its way out of a role in future negotiations. The US is still the top dog in terms of emissions but China is growing fast; however, I don't see any country (America included) with the international clout to make a system happen quickly. Is there any chance of businesses banding together to self-regulate, and simply not providing service to any government that did not accept self-regulation?

Alex T Gets It

The title is Do Animals have Animal Spirits and here is the conclusion:
Could a natural system provide a model for business cycle behavior? It would be odd if only people had animal spirits. Biology and economics have much to offer one another.

The intersection of economics and - I would use ecology instead of biology, mostly because I think it's important that they have the same prefix - is a place lots of people, myself included, should spend more time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I've been working my way through Dawkins' The Selfish Gene over break, among other activities, but I am breaking from that before beginning the last chapter to read some Orwell. My sister gave me a copy of "Why I Write," and within four pages I have a gem I feel like sharing. (The "power of facing unpleasant facts" is a great line but it was referenced in an Econtalk not too long ago, so I don't think I'd be doing anything unique by mentioning it.)
The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition - in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all - and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful [sic] people who are determined to live their own lives to the end.

The first line seems almost silly to me, until I realize that I fully place myself (rightly or wrongly) among the gifted minority. Upon further reflection, I can conclude that I am not sure whether or not this is true, but I would place the probability it is true above 50%.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Airport Security

What would it take to make American airport security more like Israeli airport security?

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty