Real potential benefits without being a panacea

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

The empiricists’ anti-charter arguments that were trotted out against Betsy DeVos weren’t particularly empirical, Ross Douthat notes:

There’s no evidence that DeVos-backed charters actually visited disaster on Detroit’s students. Instead, the very studies that get cited to critique her efforts actually show the city’s charters modestly outperforming public schools.

That “modestly” is important, because it tracks with much of what we know about school choice in general — that it offers real potential benefits without being a panacea. Decades of experiments suggest that choice can save money, improve outcomes for very poor kids whose public options are disastrous, and increase parental satisfaction. (The last is no small thing!) But the available evidence also suggests that choice alone won’t revolutionize schools or turn slow learners into geniuses, that the clearest success stories are hard to replicate, and some experiments in privatization (like Louisiana’s recent voucher push) can badly disappoint.

So in DeVos, we have an education secretary who perhaps errs a little too much on the side of choice-as-panacea, overseeing (with limited powers) an American education bureaucracy that pretty obviously errs the other way. And wherever you come down on striking the right balance, it’s hard to see this situation as empirically deserving the level of political controversy that’s attached to it.

Popular Posts of 2016

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

I just took a look back at my numbers for 2016. Here are the most popular posts during that calendar year, none of which are new, all of which are older:

  1. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics
  2. Myostatin, Belgian Blue, and Flex Wheeler
  3. Polar Bear Turns Purple After Medication
  4. Longbow vs. Armor
  5. He-Man Opening Monologue
  6. Observations from Actual Shootings
  7. Fast Friends Protocol
  8. Foux Da Fa Fa
  9. Subversion
  10. What A Good Job Looks Like

Here are the most popular posts actually from 2016 and not from an earlier year:

  1. We Are Not Smart
  2. Made to Want Evil
  3. Waiting Will Get You Killed
  4. We Don’t Care About Experts Anymore
  5. Stop Wasting Money Teaching Millions of Students Content They Already Know
  6. An Idle Class That Can Only Dream
  7. Culturally Tone Deaf
  8. Brutality Can Terminate Riots Promptly
  9. Born and Bred on the Other Side of the European Frontiers
  10. Scott Adams is Insane

Again, I’m not sure what to conclude.

Also, I should thank some of my top referrers: Reaction Times, Free NorthernerPJ MediaOutside In, Z Man (new to the list!)Mapping The Dark Enlightenment, and Borepatch.

Happy Newtonmas!

Sunday, December 25th, 2016

I’ve discussed Christmas a number of times over the years:

Learning From Trump in Retrospect

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Mike Konczal is learning from Trump in retrospect, as a demoralized progressive:

Watching Trump with fresh eyes shows that we need to think clearer about how our policy forces people to concede to changing social norms, how to convey the rich as the problem, how to have clear messaging, how to deal with trade, and how to deal with wages and power.

Trump talked about jobs:

All the time. This gets lost in the coverage, which focused on the inflammatory scandals. [...] It’s the first and most consistent thing he discusses. It’s implied it is a specific kind of job, a white, male, bread-winning manufacturing job. He doesn’t discuss “the economy” and how it could work for all, he doesn’t talk about inequality, he doesn’t talk about automation and service work; he makes it clear you will have a high-paying manufacturing job when he is President.

Trump never blames the rich for people’s problems:

He doesn’t mention corporations, or anything relating to class struggle. His economic enemies are Washington elites, media, other countries, and immigrants. Even when financial elites and corporations do something, they are a combination of pawns and partners of DC elites.

Trump is unapologetically against trade that harms American workers:

The brilliant economist David Card gave me a useful point here during an interview: the divide among economists on trade is driven by the fact that labor economists study the real effects of unemployment on real people, where trade and macroeconomists treat people as just another commodity.

I’d phrase it this way: are people just like a barrel of oil? In the abstract models of trade economists, commodities like oil will always get sold at some price, they will get to where they need to get to do so, and they’re largely indifferent on the process. Even when commodity markets are off, oil can sit in tankers floating in the ocean waiting out price moves, and it makes no difference to the oil.

Oil doesn’t experience unemployment as the most traumatic thing that can happen to it. Oil moves magically to new opportunities, unlike people who don’t often move at all. A barrel of oil doesn’t beat their kids, abuse drugs, commit suicide, or experiencing declining life expectancy from being battered around in the global marketplace. But people do, and they have, the consequences persist and last, and now they’ve made their voices heard. It’s the the dark side of Polanyi’s warning against viewing human being as commodities.

Trump also never mentions poverty:

And while he talks a lot about reducing taxes, he never talks about increasing transfers, redistribution, or access to core goods. He talks about wages, full stop. He also talks about places. Dying towns that need revitalizing.

The Financial Times has lunch with Marc Andreessen

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

The Financial Times has lunch with Marc Andreessen:

Andreessen continues on the theme of how mundane his social life is for a plutocrat. “We eat at home almost every night. We watch an unbelievable amount of TV or movies.” He gossips about The Honourable Woman series, and attributes the creative renaissance of television to its expanding internet audience. “Today, you’re also selling to Netflix and Amazon and Microsoft and Sony and Yahoo.”

He likes television, he says, because it puts the writer in charge, and compares it to the best tech companies which are also built when you put founders in charge for long periods. “By the way, writers are often crazy; they’re unpredictable, they don’t necessarily operate on a budget or timetable you might want. They argue a lot. Which is the same thing we deal with, with founders. But you get the magic.”

Andreessen turns to public stock markets:

“There are so many people paid to make the problem worse: paid to regulate, to short-sell; to activists, to the governance experts, to the analysts. The pressure that comes to bear when you’re a public company is just astonishing and it comes at you from a dozen dimensions and you’re, “I can’t believe all these people are out there getting paid to attack me like this.”

Despite the touch of paranoia in his answer, Andreessen has thought deeply about finance. Stock markets are now too risk-averse and snarled by regulation, he says, which means public investors “won’t get the returns”. Besides, tech groups have access to multimillions of private capital to fund growth, so have less need for public markets. Any gains, therefore, accrue to a narrow group of wealthy private investors, such as Andreessen, rather than pension funds.

“Microsoft went public in 1986, valued at $300m. It went to $300bn. Public shareholders got a thousand-time rise. When Google went public in 2004, it had about a $30bn valuation and went to about $300bn. Investors got about a 10-time rise. Facebook went public at about $100bn. It’s now $200bn, so public investors have had a two-time rise.” I suggest he seems content living with risky investments. He agrees. “But I’m weird. I’m different. I’m unusual. Most people want to live in a world where there’s no risk. Most people want to invest their money and not have it fall.”

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Pearl Harbor comes up surprisingly often here:

A horrifying look into the mind of 9/11’s mastermind

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

In Enhanced Interrogation, James E. Mitchell takes a horrifying look into the mind of 9/11’s mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed:

“KSM then launched into a gory and detailed description of how he beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl,” Mitchell writes. Up to that moment, the CIA did not know KSM had personally carried out the murder. When asked whether it was “hard to do” (meaning emotionally difficult), KSM misunderstood the question. “Oh, no, no problem,” KSM said, “I had very sharp knives. Just like slaughtering sheep.” To confirm his story, the CIA had KSM reenact the beheading so that it could compare the features of his hands and forearms to those in the video of Pearl’s murder. “Throughout the reenactment, KSM smiled and mugged for the cameras. Sometimes he preened,” Mitchell writes. When informed that the CIA had confirmed that he was telling the truth, KSM smiled. “See, I told you,” KSM said. “I cut Daniel’s throat with these blessed hands.”

After enhanced interrogations ended, the terrorists began cooperating:

Once their resistance had been broken, enhanced interrogation techniques stopped and KSM and other detainees became what Mitchell calls a “Terrorist Think Tank,” identifying voices in phone calls, deciphering encrypted messages and providing valuable information that led the CIA to other terrorists. Mitchell devotes an entire chapter to the critical role KSM and other detainees played in finding Osama bin Laden. KSM held classes where he lectured CIA officials on jihadist ideology, terrorist recruiting and attack planning. He was so cooperative, Mitchell writes, KSM “told me I should be on the FBI’s Most Wanted List because I am now a ‘known associate’ of KSM and a ‘graduate’ of his training camp.”

Supposedly al-Qaeda wanted to draw us into a quagmire in Afghanistan:

KSM said this is dead wrong. Far from trying to draw us in, KSM said that al-Qaeda expected the United States to respond to 9/11 as we had the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut — when, KSM told Mitchell, the United States “turned tail and ran.”

7 Fantasy/Science Fiction Epics That Can Inform You About the Real-World Political Scene

Monday, December 5th, 2016

Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, looks at 7 fantasy/science fiction epics that can inform you about the real-world political scene:

  1. Babylon 5
  2. Battlestar Galactica
  3. Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire
  4. The Hunger Games
  5. The Lord of the Rings
  6. Star Wars
  7. Star Trek

I enjoyed his contrast of the old and new versions of Battlestar Galactica:

The original 1970s TV series was remade in the 2000s. Both versions focus on the survivors of twelve human colony worlds that have been devastated by an attack by the Cylons, and both feature many of the same characters. Yet the original series and the remake are otherwise fundamentally different.

The former reflects a conservative response to the Cold War: the humans fall victim to a Cylon surprise attack because they were influenced by gullible peaceniks; the survivors’ military leader, Commander Adama, is almost always far wiser than the feckless civilian politicians who question his judgment. Concerns about civil liberties and due process in wartime are raised, but usually dismissed as overblown.

By contrast, the new series reflects the left-wing reaction to the War on Terror: the Cylon attack is at least partly the result of “blowback” caused by the humans’ own wrongdoing. The series stresses the importance of democracy and civilian leadership, and condemns what it regards as dangerous demonization and mistreatment of the enemy—even one that commits genocide and mass murder.

Both the original series and the new one have many interesting political nuances, and both have blind spots characteristic of the ideologies they exemplify. The sharp contrast between the two makes them more interesting considered in combination than either might be alone. They effectively exemplify how widely divergent lessons can be drawn from the same basic story line.

No mention of Mormonism, by the way.

How Stable Are Democracies?

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

How stable are democracies? Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, and Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, have developed a three-factor formula to answer that question:

The first factor was public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic? The second was public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule. And the third factor was whether “antisystem parties and movements” — political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate — were gaining support.

If support for democracy was falling while the other two measures were rising, the researchers marked that country “deconsolidating.” And they found that deconsolidation was the political equivalent of a low-grade fever that arrives the day before a full-blown case of the flu.

Venezuela, for instance, enjoyed the highest possible scores on Freedom House’s measures of political rights and democracy in the 1980s. But those democratic practices were not deeply rooted. During that apparent period of stability, Venezuela already scored as deconsolidating on the Mounk-Foa test.

Since then, Venezuelan democracy has declined significantly. In 1992, a faction of the Venezuelan military loyal to Hugo Chávez attempted a coup against the democratically elected government. Mr. Chávez was elected president in 1998 on a wave of populist support, and he immediately passed a new constitution that consolidated his power. His government cracked down on dissent, imprisoned political opponents and shredded the country’s economy with a series of ill-planned economic overhauls.

Likewise, when Poland joined the European Union in 2004, it was hailed as an especially strong example of a post-Communist country making the transition to consolidated democracy. But Mr. Mounk and Mr. Foa found strong signs of deconsolidation during that period: As early as 2005, nearly 16 percent of Poles said they believed democracy was a “bad” or “fairly bad” way of running the country. By 2012, 22 percent of respondents said that they supported army rule. And in the mid-2000s, a series of antisystem parties began to gain traction in Polish politics, including Law and Justice, Self-Defense of the Republic of Poland, and the League of Polish Families.

Today, that fever is starting to look a lot like the flu. Law and Justice, which won the presidency and a parliamentary majority in 2015, has systematically weakened democratic institutions.

Their key finding:

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

Waiting Is Torture

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

Waiting is torture:

SOME years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.

This story hints at a general principle: the experience of waiting, whether for luggage or groceries, is defined only partly by the objective length of the wait. “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” notes the M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson, widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines. Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the carousel). Research on queuing has shown that, on average, people overestimate how long they’ve waited in a line by about 36 percent.

This is also why one finds mirrors next to elevators. The idea was born during the post-World War II boom, when the spread of high-rises led to complaints about elevator delays. The rationale behind the mirrors was similar to the one used at the Houston airport: give people something to occupy their time, and the wait will feel shorter. With the mirrors, people could check their hair or slyly ogle other passengers. And it worked: almost overnight, the complaints ceased.

The drudgery of unoccupied time also accounts in large measure for the popularity of impulse-buy items, which earn supermarkets about $5.5 billion annually. The tabloids and packs of gum offer relief from the agony of waiting.

The Bestseller Code

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

The Bestseller Code reveals what sells:

After four years of work, Jodie Archer, a former acquisitions editor, and Matthew Jockers, an academic specializing in computational analysis of style, have been able to “predict” which books were bestsellers and which were not with “an average accuracy of 80 percent.” This means that, out of a randomly selected group of 50 bestsellers and 50 non-bestsellers, the algorithm would predict 40 of each correctly.

[...]

They built a collection of “just under 5,000 books,” including “a diverse mixture of non-bestselling ebooks and traditional published novels, and just over 500 New York Times bestsellers.”

[...]

There’s a prejudice among many readers of esoteric fare that bestsellers are badly written, escapist, and driven by cringe-making sex and implausible plot turns. But the results of the authors’ program suggest that sex doesn’t sell but realism — of a sort — does, and that bestsellers are carefully, even masterfully, crafted, down to the level of the individual sentence.

As to escapism, Americans’ idea of that means inhabiting somebody else’s job. Work is a riveting topic. The authors don’t explore this in detail, but those jobs tend to be emergency-room doctor or fiery litigator, not insurance analyst or dental hygienist. Other favored topics are “intimate conversation” and “human closeness.” Television caught on to this interest in work and talk long ago: Think of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Friends, Seinfeld. But many so-called serious novelists avoid the world of work, unless it’s university teaching, presumably due to lack of experience.

The list of turnoffs is revealing as well: Fantasy, science fiction, revolutions, dinner parties, very dressed-up women, and dancing, as well as “the body described in any terms other than in pain or at a crime scene.” Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll account for less than 1 percent of bestsellers’ content; sex sells only in a niche market.

[...]

As to structure, focus and simplicity work: “To get to 40 percent of the average novel, a bestseller uses only four topics.” One of these should be something many people fear: an accident, illness, or involvement in a lawsuit. And oddly enough, despite such relentless practicality, 9 of 10 recent debut novels that became instant bestsellers were written by women.

The authors are given to the adjective “winning,” as in “winning style,” “winning over readers,” and “winning prose.” They don’t like “long-winded syntax” and “the endless sentences of some classic writers who will write for three paragraphs without a period point.”

Halloween

Monday, October 31st, 2016

I’ve written a surprising amount about Halloween and horror over the years:

Steven Den Beste has died

Monday, October 24th, 2016

Steven Den Beste of the U.S.S. Clueless has died. Glenn Reynolds will miss him:

I’ve missed his blogging for years. He was a giant in the early days of the blogosphere. And even afterward, he made his contributions, like his Unified Theory Of Left-Wing Causes. Rest in peace, Steven.

I cited him often back in the early days of the blogosphere (2003).

Intolerance is not a thing of the past

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

The Authoritarian Dynamic offers a kind of Rosetta stone, Jonathan Haidt suggests, for interpreting the rise of right-wing populism and its focus on Muslims in 2016:

Stenner notes that her theory “explains the kind of intolerance that seems to ‘come out of nowhere,’ that can spring up in tolerant and intolerant cultures alike, producing sudden changes in behavior that cannot be accounted for by slowly changing cultural traditions.”

[T]he increasing license allowed by those evolving cultures generates the very conditions guaranteed to goad latent authoritarians to sudden and intense, perhaps violent, and almost certainly unexpected, expressions of intolerance. Likewise, then, if intolerance is more a product of individual psychology than of cultural norms…we get a different vision of the future, and a different understanding of whose problem this is and will be, than if intolerance is an almost accidental by-product of simple attachment to tradition. The kind of intolerance that springs from aberrant individual psychology, rather than the disinterested absorption of pervasive cultural norms, is bound to be more passionate and irrational, less predictable, less amenable to persuasion, and more aggravated than educated by the cultural promotion of tolerance [emphasis added].

Writing in 2004, Stenner predicted that “intolerance is not a thing of the past, it is very much a thing of the future.”

[...]

Stenner ends The Authoritarian Dynamic with some specific and constructive advice:

[A]ll the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference — the hallmarks of liberal democracy — are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness…. Ultimately, nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes. And regrettably, nothing is more certain to provoke increased expression of their latent predispositions than the likes of “multicultural education,” bilingual policies, and nonassimilation.

If Stenner is correct, then her work has profound implications, not just for America, which was the focus of her book, but perhaps even more so for Europe.

Happy Secession Day

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Once again, I wish you a happy Secession Day! I’ve discussed the colonies’ secession from the motherland more than once over the years: