Archive for the 'hypothesizing' Category

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.

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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.

Those damn kids and their high G.P.A.’s

It seems like every year, some segment of the old geezer intelligentsia gets worked up about ‘grade inflation’. This cycle, it’s the TimesEconomix blog that kicks off the hand-wringing, with a new dig at private schools:

G.P.A.’s have risen from a national average of 2.52 in the 1950s to about 3.11 by the middle of the last decade. For the first half of the 20th century, grading at private schools and public schools rose more or less in tandem. But starting in the 1950s,  grading at public and private schools began to diverge. Students at private schools started receiving significantly higher grades than those received by their equally-qualified peers — based on SAT scores and other measures — at public schools.

My hunch is that grade inflation hawks have more in common with old men in rocking chairs yelling at ‘kids these days’ to get off their lawns than they do with, say, actual education policy experts. We’ll start by debunking the traditional inflation argument, and then take a look at the public-private disparity. First, the argument against traditional inflation hawkery:

1. There is nothing metaphysical about grading. Just as there is no inherent, metaphysical value of a dollar, there is no platonic ideal of an ‘A’ or an ‘F’ floating out there in the ether that we here on Earth should be compelled to perceive and imitate. Hence, we should all be very wary of arguments based on average GPAs across varying time periods, as if this information on its own were enough to win the argument. That’s because …

2. The real purpose of grading is to provide useful information. First, grading exists to help tell the student how s/he is doing during the class, so that the student can adjust his/her own study habits, effort, and expectations. Second, grading exists to help others objectively evaluate a student’s mastery of the subject matter, usually in the context of a competitive application for a job, internship, faculty position, or what-have-you. That’s it. If rising GPA’s hinder these two functions, then grade inflation really is a serious problem. If not, then there’s very little reason to take the grumpy old inflation hawks seriously — outside of the camp value of listening to how things were back in the day. And as it turns out …

3. Our current system of grading does, in fact, provide useful information. You can rank people just as easily on a 4-point GPA scale normed at 3.11 as you can on a 4-point GPA scale normed at 2.52. Now, a rising mean GPA certainly could threaten to compress the highest performers on the upper end and inhibit oridnal ranking, but I don’t see much evidence that this is actually happening. There isn’t really any good data on this, but my own experience in college indicated that GPAs even at elite private universities are concentrated heavily around the mean, with plenty of room left over on either end for the high and low performers to distinguish themselves.

4. Finally, you say ‘inflation’, I say ‘attainment’. It’s a big, bad world out there — bigger and badder than the world was in the comparatively sleepy 1950s. There’s a lot more to learn now than there was then, and the tempo of discovery and invention is only accelerating. As a result, we’ve done a lot of what my mother disparagingly refers to as ‘curricular cram-down’, but what I prefer to think of as ‘learning more’ — especially among top-tier students. It’s now expected that our top-flight students learn intro calculus and stats in high school, along with a hard science and history. What used to be considered ‘college-level’ courses (the AP program) are now seen as prerequisites for admission at the best universities. And it just keeps on going. What used to count as a graduate level seminar in comparative Latin American government is now given to juniors and seniors. It ought to surprise no one, then, that average educational attainment in college may have grown from 2.5 to 3.1 in the last 50 years. Just compare the standard mathematics classes taken by kids at MIT in 1950 and 2010. What some call ‘inflation’ could just as easily be seen as ‘appreciation’.

“That’s all well and good”, you might say, “But what about the disparity in mean GPA between private and public universities? Doesn’t that put the lie to your cute little story, JSC5?”

I’m glad you asked. In a word, no. There are two possible explanations for higher private school GPAs, neither of which should worry us that the sky is falling:

1. Poor study design. The study compares the GPAs of what it calls “equally qualified peers” in public and private universities  based on SAT scores alone. The problem here is that grades in college are awarded based on performance in college classes, while SAT scores come from a test taken in 12th grade that covers information normally covered by upper-track students by the end of 8th grade.  The study’s assumption seems to be that if 2 students scored equally on the SAT, then they should probably score equally in any given class in college. For this to be true, however, we’d have to assume that the SAT truly does measure scholastic aptitude instead of high speed recall and use of 8th grade knowledge. We would also have to assume that there is no difference between the quality of the education at public and private universities that may lead to higher educational attainment among private school students. We’d also have to assume that there are no confounding variables that might legitimately distinguish the student who opted for the private university from the one who went public. All of these assumptions strike me as problematic.

2. Actual grade inflation. But maybe private schools really do inflate GPAs above comparable public school students’ GPAs. Is this the smoking gun that inflation hawks might think? No. Remember that 1) grading is not metaphysical, and 2) grades are supposed to convey information. Let’s drop the issue of resentment for a second and look at practical effects. Everyone knows that grading at different schools is different. Without a rigid national rubric, it has to be. That’s why college admissions committees look at population averages and distributions of grades from different high schools to help them interpret the individual GPA of any given applicant in light of their educational background. Graduate schools do the same when interpreting college GPA. The goal of having grades providing useful information to help construct ordinal rankings can still be met even if some institutions have higher average grades than others. That’s why you employ recruitment professionals with this kind of industry knowledge, and it’s why you do population norming. Certainly private university GPA inflation, if it existed, would make ranking more difficult, but certainly not impossible.

The take-home lesson is that grade inflation is not the slam-dunk case most grade inflation hawks seem to think it is. It’s hard not to conclude that persistent grade inflation hawks are really just angry that kids these days have a higher GPA than they themselves did back in the day.

Leviathan on hold

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is now law, and as much as this is a big victory for 30 million people without insurance and anyone else who will get sick in the future and need insurance, it’s also a victory for Executive power. “I believe this commission is the largest yielding of sovereignty from the Congress since the creation of the Federal Reserve,” says administration budget director Peter Orszag, via Ezra Klein. And given how ineffective Congress is these days, that may actually be good thing.

Orszag is specifically referring to the Independent Payment Advisory Board created under ACA. The Board’s job is to propose cost-saving measures for Medicare to keep cost inflation no higher than the average 5-year GDP growth rate plus 1%. And the Board has a great deal of power. Here’s Ezra explaining:

If Congress approves the board’s recommendations and the president signs them, they go into effect. If Congress does not vote on the board’s recommendations, they still go into effect. If Congress votes against the board’s recommendations but the president vetoes and Congress can’t find the two-thirds necessary to overturn the veto, the recommendations go into effect. It’s only if Congress votes them down and the president agrees that the recommendations die.

My guess is that the political equilibrium will be for the Board to make proposals and for the Congress and President to ignore them and thereby allow them to go into effect without being personally responsible. That gives the IPAB quite a bit of actual power to cut costs in what will soon become the largest item in the federal budget. And who decides who will be on the IPAB? The President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Board’s 15 members will all have 6-year terms, renewable once.

Another big win for executive power in the ACA is the role given to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, currently Kathleen Sebelius. The text of the Affordable Care Act says that the secretary shall define, determine, or create 1,697 things. New powers accruing to the Secretary include the ability to define specific benefits and regulate insurance options on the exchanges.

There are two lessons here. First, for Republicans: this is what happens when you adopt a complete rejectionist strategy instead of negotiating to improve the bill. Certainly many liberals were never interested in bipartisanship, but House Blue Dogs and Senate centrists like Baucus, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Nelson were dying for some bipartisan cover. Left to negotiate amongst themselves, Democrats came up with a bill that expands the discretionary powers of the presidency over the congress and the states. Presumably some authentic conservatives may have liked to avoid this situation. So next time, Republicans, try playing the game instead of taking your ball and going home.

Second, this may just push the Democrats to reform Senate procedure. As Prof. Bernstein has been saying since ACA passed, Republicans are likely to start blaming every single problem in the health care system on the newly-passed law, much like they blamed Obama and the stimulus for every economic problem after January 2009. That gives the administration and its party a large incentive to make sure the law is implemented as professionally as possible. The problem is that all the key figures for implementation (the Health Secretary, dozens of other sub- and assistant-secretaries, and the IPAB) are administration appointees, and the appointment process is broken. At this point in his presidency, Obama has had far fewer of his nominees approved by the Senate than his predecessor. Because of arcane Senate rules like unanimous consent and the anonymous hold, staffing up a modern administration turns out to be very, very difficult in a climate of partisan obstruction. The administration and the party have clearly been annoyed by this for a while, but the need to implement the ACA should give them an extra push to do something about the problem at the beginning of the next congress.

Alaska: not such a great deal?

Alaska may not actually have been that great a deal, financially speaking, for the U.S. I’ve added a new question to the list of potential research questions page asking some follow-up questions. Maybe the U.S. expanded too much? Or should we have expanded a little more while the gettin’ was good?:

Did the U.S. expand too far? Should it expand more? Economist David Barker put out a paper recently that complicates the typical view that Alaska was a great deal for the US, which purchased the state in 1867 for $7 million USD. Alex Tabarrock at the group economics blog Marginal Revolution has a brief write-up on the article, which concludes that discounted net present value of Alaska at the time of purchase probably didn’t reach $7 million. The article goes further at the end and asks: “The results of this paper suggest new lines of inquiry in the history of the West, such as: Has westward expansion been worth the price? What have been the costs and benefits? Should expansion have been less or greater than it was? Should United States expansion continue? Should the United States shrink by cutting ties with its remaining possessions?”

This seems like a good application for a little firm theory, trade theory, comparative government wonkery, and M&A number crunching. We’ll probably have to narrow the question down to physical chunks of territory that changed hands at a certain price as the result of actual negotiations, just to make sure we have a solid purchase price to compare to a discounted cash flow or other model of value. Although, let’s not forget that territory is often conquered by force, and the price of potential wars can be estimated within certain bounds. Also, for territory that was relinquished freely or never sought after in the first place, estimates may be made based on the value of what the US got in return (say, by maintaining good business ties and peaceful relations, for example).

Of course, the question is moot because as everyone knows we were just exercising our Manifest Destiny.

As always, if anyone has any thoughts on a good way to approach this question, post in the comments.

Coming up with research topics

I’ve started a new page on the blog called ‘Questions‘ — just look to the tab next to ‘About’. I’ll start using that page to list interesting research questions I’ve dreamed up on my own or in response to someone else. The questions will ideally range from the quirky and fun to the highly academic. The list is intended as a fount of inspiration for me whenever I get bored, come across new sources, or need a blog post topic. It is also intended as a repository of potential topics for someone else’s thesis, term paper, dissertation, blog post, or hobby project. I’ve added in a couple of questions I’d thought of randomly in the last few days. I’ll keep adding to the list over time, and whenever I find something new about one of the questions I’ll update the entry and put up a post here on the main page.

Finally, if anyone else has some questions they’d like to put on the page, please feel free to post a comment on the Questions page and I’ll add any question that strikes my fancy to the list.


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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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