Occupational licensing and ex-cons

By JSC5

Matt Yglesias has had a great series of posts up about how little sense it makes for state governments to require certification before someone can provide simple services like haircuts. The silliness of occupational licensing is one of my pet issues, and I’m stunned by how many intelligent people spend time justifying the status quo instead of applying the free market principles they otherwise claim to support.

For an indication of just how ridiculous some of this licensing gets, check out this list of occupations in North Carolina requiring government licensing. Along with Yglesias’s hobbyhorse, barbers, North Carolina also requires government charters for athletic agents, chick and egg dealers [presumably referring to chickens], geologists and soil scientists [but no other scientists], interpreters, landscape contractors, manicurists, refrigeration contractors, seed dealers, and scores of other workers.

Those of us who question the extent of occupational licensing in America usually argue that it is just a tool that helps currently-licensed providers limit competition and thus artificially raise prices and profits — all while hiding under the guise of consumer protection. To be sure, licensing is a good idea for certain classes of services in which market forces and lawsuits don’t provide sufficient deterrent to and remedies for harm. But how does “landscape contractor” fall into that category? Anyone who believes that landscape contractors clearly need a government license to operate, while gardeners are good to go without public imprimatur, is probably letting their preexisting beliefs and status quo bias guide their ‘principles’.

But back to Matt Yglesias. His final post in the series praises Barack Obama for making some positive moves towards liberalizing Illinois’ licensure regime.

And Yglesias is partly right. Barack Obama, as a state senator in Illinois, was the primary sponsor behind a bill that eased occupational licensing restrictions for convicted felons. The felon, after living crime-free for a period of time and documenting certain pro-social behaviors, could apply for a ‘Certificate of Relief from Disabilities’ (CRD) that would remove certain legal disabilities all felons face when released into the world. No longer would a single felony conviction bar someone from getting a license to cut hair; the licensing board would have to come up with some other excuse, instead.

Yglesias is skeptical about the broader impact of the CRDs:

“The problem here is that when you set up these boards, they have incentives to think up any kind of halfway plausible reason to bar people from entering the field.”

Remove the felony bar, the logic goes, and the boards will just come up with other flimsy excuses.

He’s almost certainly right about most licensing boards and most occupations. But in the particular case of Illinois, the problem isn’t that the licensing boards don’t approve ex-cons despite their Certificates. It’s that few ex-cons end up applying for licensing in the first place. As this report (PDF) indicates, only 47 applications for CRDs were made within the first 2 years of the program’s implementation. Of that extremely low number, 81% of applications for CRDs were approved. But none of those recipients ended up applying for occupational licenses within the observation period. That said, a very few ex-cons without CRDs did apply for occuptional licenses, and 67% of those applicants were eventually approved during the same period.

The bottle-neck in Illinois, then, isn’t necessarily the board rejecting felons, but qualified felons not knowing about or not applying for CRDs or occupational licenses in the first place.

I guess the take-home lesson here is that occupational licensing boards really can be nothing more than thinly disguised guilds covering their own economic interests. But occupational licensing reform isn’t exactly the key to rehabilitating felons. Connecting felons with existing benefits and procedures is the easy low-hanging fruit there. That doesn’t mean that making it easier for ex-cons to become barbers isn’t worth doing … it’s just not the kind of major reform that should get our blood pumping. It turns out that the actual benefit of CRDs may just be the perception among private employers that the state says these guys (and they are mostly guys) are safe(r).*

* No, I didn’t closely follow Barack Obama’s occupational licensing and recidivism reform policies in the Illinois state legislature. I came by this knowledge honestly, as part of a much larger research project this summer.

Liberal Caricature

By JSC5

Yesterday, co-blogger JSC7 linked to a bunch of new posts out there on the nets about how to effectively manage your online time and get away from destructive overconsumption. JSC7 ended the piece with a keen observation about the importance of models of healthy living, and how we basically don’t have any for internet use:

“We don’t yet really have a firm sense of what is living well or badly in the modern world, the way we do with say, alcohol consumption or other addictive vices.”

As a matter of societal consensus, I think JSC7 is right.

However, it seems to me that there actually is a sizable group of people who are seriously grappling with “what it is to live well or badly in the modern world”. Those people are hippies, or leftists, or ‘limousine liberals’, or ‘latte-sipping, volvo-driving elitist snobs’, or granola west coasters — at least, that how they get caricatured.  These are the people who self-consciously think about their diets and their impact on the world, go out of their way to avoid dumping their externalities on the world, and limit the time they spend in front of the TV or ditch the TV entirely. And they’re also the people who are trying to spend more time outdoors jogging or playing Frisbee golf than inside on the internet.

And, as we all know, those people are all caricatured and ridiculed by the rest of us. It seems like ‘we’ actually do have a fairly good model of what healthy, ‘good’ living is supposed to look like in the modern world: eat more local, organic produce; don’t light a barrel of oil on fire to keep your living room warm; get more exercise; spend less time staring at a screen and more time interacting with real live people. Healthy internet use seems like part of an entire lifestyle package.

And even though ‘we’ all know what the right thing to do is, we can’t imagine adopting that lifestyle entirely. The magnitude of the change frightens us. So instead of accepting the superiority of healthy internet and exercise choices and making incremental improvements to our lives, we end up bragging about eating at McDonald’s and not driving a Prius. The real shame there is that the markers of a healthy lifestyle — which have no business being a partisan issue — get turned into partisan markers in a weird, tribal way. It’s terrible for our society when the healthy model of modern living turns into a liberal caricature that no one feels like emulating.

Death by Information link dump

Ask and you shall receive. Well, sort of. After my first post on suboptimal internet use, I’ve noticed a number of other bloggers talking about that problem. At the bottom of this post, Chris Hayes talks about his internet use, and here’s Ezra Klein’s take. I assume more will follow. From Hayes’ post, I caught wind of two applications, Freedom and Anti-Social, that are a first rough hack at the sort of software I was calling for in my post (essentially, they lock you out of the internet or certain websites for a certain period of time that you set). But by far the most interesting piece I’ve read is by Paul Graham, about the addictiveness of the internet, which I think has implications beyond just the internet (and which I’m surprised isn’t discussed at all in the social sciences blogosphere). Money quote:

as the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of “normal” is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.

These two senses are already quite far apart. Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.

That last point, if true, is going to be a tough one to wrestle with, since we don’t yet really have a firm sense of what is living well or badly in the modern world, the way we do with say, alcohol consumption or other addictive vices.

gay marriage! controversy! slow down!

[by JSC5]

I’m a little late in getting to this, but a federal judge has ruled that California’s Proposition 8, which prohibited gay marriage in that state, is unconstitutional. I like to think of same-sex marriage is one of those “duh!” issues, like beer deregulation or early childhood education. We recognize, however, that despite how simple an issue it is for some, same-sex marriage has caused a great deal of controversy for other people. Orin Kerr had a post up recently over at Volokh Conspiracy that took this fact of controversy and conflated it with actual importance. He starts by quoting Judge Walker’s ruling, and then responds to it:

[Judge Walker's opinion]: “Because the evidence shows same-sex marriage has and will have no adverse effects on society or the institution of marriage, California has no interest in waiting and no practical need to wait to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Proposition 8 is thus not rationally related to proponents’ purported interests in proceeding with caution when implementing social change.”

[Orin Kerr's commentary]: Whatever your views of same-sex marriage — or Judge Walker’s decision as a whole — I think this particular part of the analysis is pretty weak. First, the idea that same-sex marriage is not a significant social change strikes me as plainly incorrect. This is one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time: Whether you think it’s the greatest advance for civil rights in America or the end of the world, it seems pretty clear that it’s a big deal.

Now, gay marriage is certainly politically salient in that it stirs up emotions and seems to divide people into two camps. That said, I don’t think it’s nearly as polarizing as he makes it out to be. Who exactly is Kerr hanging out with to make him think that mainstream opinion runs from “the greatest advance for civil rights in America” to “the end of the world”? I know a lot of pro-gay marriage people, and I don’t think a single one thinks that gay marriage clearly outranks the civil rights movement for African-Americans or the women’s rights movement. Furthermore, I know many (though fewer) anti-gay marriage people,  none of whom think it will seriously end the world. In fact, mainstream opinion on this subject seems to stretch from “good idea/duh” to “I’m concerned about it/ewww”.

Either way, I’m not sure that the actual level of controversy even matters. It seems that Orin Kerr is confusing (1) political salience with (2) actual breadth or depth of change. What exactly is the evidence Professor Kerr would offer up in defense of his contention that same-sex marriage is “one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time”? The simple fact that Americans fall into two broadly equal pro and con camps isn’t enough. Lots of issues – both important and superficial – are politically salient in a similar way,  so the mere fact of salience can’t help us to distinguish actual importance.

Just how important and sweeping of a change would gay marriage be? Judge Walker;’s answer (quoting a bevy of experts who testified at trial) is that it’s pretty important for the gay couples who would get married, and not at all important for everyone else. In response, Orin Kerr says that the mere fact of political controversy proves Judge Walker wrong.

It’s an effective strategy for troglodytes trying to make sure that gay people don’t have the same rights as everyone else. They don’t even need to marshal any real evidence or reasons as to why the proposed reform would be bad or that implementing it right now would be dangerous; all they need to do is disagree, and the disagreement becomes the evidence.That is, until smart professors like Orin Kerr, along with the rest of us, some day stop believing the hype.

Confidence in astrophysics

[by JSC5]

This paragraph from an essay by Dennis Overbye on discoveries in astrophysics really blew me away:

“Call it the two-sigma blues. Two-sigma is mathematical jargon for a measurement or discovery of some kind that sticks up high enough above the random noise  to be interesting but not high enough to really mean anything conclusive. For the record, the criterion for a genuine discovery is known as five-sigma, suggesting there is less than one chance in roughly 3 million that it is wrong. Two sigma, leaving a 2.5 percent chance of being wrong, is just high enough to jangle the nerves.”

If you think back to your first statistics class, you’ll remember a bunch of ways for testing an observation for significance, and I’ll bet you $10 you used the 95% confidence level for just about everything you did in that class. It’s become the default level for significance in most social sciences. Run the regression, and if p<.05, bam, you’re done. Call it significant and move on.

Then along comes a hard science like astrophysics that puts everyone else to shame. These guys run right past .05  without looking back, at .025 their nerves start “jangling”, but it’s not until 3.33 x 10^-7 that they’re ready to go ahead and say, “Excuse me, sir, but I think I have a genuine discovery on my hands.” Meanwhile the economics/poly sci grad student next door has run 1000 new regressions and ‘discovered’ a bunch of things that turn out not to be quite right but still get published with frightening frequency.

And that’s why people trust astrophysicists.

The kids aren’t all right: plagiarism(!) edition

[by JSC5]

Another day, another curmudgeonly story about “kids these days”. Today’s complaint comes from the New York Times, which goes out of its way to blame plagiarism among college students on everything except the obvious culprit.

The article starts off on a prejudicial – if hilarious – anecdote:

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

Now, on a first reading, I figured this paragraph was trying to tell me that DePaul students aren’t the brightest of bulbs if they can’t see the big text color tool at the top of the Microsoft Word window. On a second reading, however, my Old Codger radar went off. This is more than just a funny story about a lone idiot and his lack of a moral compass; this sets the stage for how the author wants the reader to interpret the entire rest of the article. What explains plagiarism in college these days, the author asks? Why, the decrepit morals of the young, of course! The author even has anecdotes to prove it!

Then we get this gem of an explanation:

Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution. “This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don’t have the same gravity,” said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. “When you’re sitting at your computer, it’s the same machine you’ve downloaded music with, possibly illegally.”

On a first reading, I figured this was a story of a 31-year-old undergraduate misfit committing social suicide on the front page of the New York Times while engaging in some pop psychology. But no, this is supposed to be another piece of “data” on young people’s attitudes towards plagiarism, with the conclusion that kids these days just lack the moral compass of their forebearers when it comes to serious things like media and intelectual property.

Then the story brings in the academic set to try their hand:

“Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs. …  Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

This one’s harder for me to dismiss as just the lazy observations of a single student. Ms. Blum is a professor, after all — an anthropologist at Notre Dame. What I find hard to stomache, however, is the offhanded way in which Ms. Blum asserts that today’s media content is more pastiche-driven than previous generations. While I love a good mash up as much as the next guy, I’m not crazy enough to believe that Kanye invented sampling or that Family Guy invented allusions. I’m pretty sure that most creative works going back to antiquity have drawn on pre-existing works.

Finally, the article brings in the favorite boogey man of the Old Codger: the internet and its deliterious effect on the morals of our youth:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Yeah, it’s possible to believe that cultural creations accessed via the internet have no author, just like it’s possible to believe that Star Wars really did take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The difference is that we usually give moral actors who are not “kids these days” (like Star Wars fans) the benefit of the doubt and treat them like normal humans with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs similar to our own. The rules for “kids these days” are different, however. Lazy writers get to trash them at will.

Let me lay down what I think ought to be a fairly simple explanation for plagiarism:

  1. Kids today are no different from my slightly older generation, or their parents’ generation, or Shakespear’s generation. We’re all the same idiots and fuck-ups, geniuses and successes.
  2. Things like Wikipedia, YouTube, and the internet in general don’t erode our values to the point that people start commonly believing that “this information is just out there for anyone to take”. Please treat the younger generations as competent moral agents (see point #1)
  3. Instead, the internet reduces access and plagiarism costs. Copying someone else’s words no longer involves clickety-clacking them from a book to your typewriter or Apple II. Now you can Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V it (or use an entirely different and unintuitive keystroke, for my Apple folks out there). When costs fall, consumption tends to rise. In this case, ‘consumption’ is plagiarism.

Now, this explanation is boring compared with the sexy NYT article talking about the moral failings of the youth caused by “the Internet” (always capitalized, like Towne, Shoppe, or any Noun from ye olde Book of random Capitalizations). But it seems far more plausible, and has the added benefit of not treating the current youngest generation as a bunch of uniquely-monstruous idiots.

Don’t get me wrong: plagiarism is a terrible thing. But the fix seems to be pretty easy. The only way students could think they’ll get away with copying and pasting Wikipedia entries without attribution is if their teachers are in the habit of accepting long entries of text including information, analysis, and theories that the student clearly was not born knowing. Start treating shitty writing that doesn’t reference its information like it deserves — by giving it a failing grade — and you’ll be well on your way to fixing plagiarism. One can’t help but wonder how awful the teachers are if their students think that merely copying and pasting Wikipedia articles would get them anything but a swift kick in the ass and a big fat goose egg on the top of the paper — even if the actual plagiarism is never caught.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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