Stuck on 1968

Monday, January 30th, 2006

I must admit to getting a bit of a chuckle out of Arnold Kling’s opening salvo in Stuck on 1968:

Most people who were liberals in 1968 still are. Liberals. In 1968.

Kling notes that “the Conventional Wisdom among well-educated liberals in 1968 included the following”:

  • Anti-Communism was a greater menace than Communism.
  • The planet could not possibly support the population increases that would take place by the end of the twentieth century.
  • Conservatives stood in the way of progress for minorities.
  • Government programs were the best way to lift people out of poverty.
  • What underdeveloped countries needed were large capital investments, financed by foreign aid from the rich countries.
  • Inflation was a cost-push phenomenon, requiring government intervention in wage and price setting.

Further, “he degree of confidence in these beliefs was so strong that liberals in 1968 came to the overriding conclusion that”:

  • Anyone who is not a liberal must be incorrigibly stupid

Of course, “since 1968, we have seen”:

  • a mass exodus from Communist Vietnam (the boat people)
  • a large exodus from Cuba (the Mariel boat lift)
  • the collapse of Soviet Communism, revealing that the system did much broader and deeper damage than most people realized
  • an unmistakably large gap between North Korea and South Korea in terms of material well-being and personal freedom

Kling was a young liberal in 1968. He’s not now. Young. Or liberal.

How Wal-Mart Is Like Academia

Monday, January 30th, 2006

James Joyner explains How Wal-Mart Is Like Academia:

Because the academic market is so tight, universities have adopted virtually the same attitude toward aspiring professors as Wal-Mart does to prospective stockers. They demand heavy teaching loads, substantial committee work, a rigorous pace of professional publication — and offer rather paltry salaries. And that’s for people who have, on average, twenty-two or more years of schooling.

Not only is there intense competition for jobs— a nationwide search and the willingness to move, usually at one’s own expense, to whatever school will hire you is a must — but schools increasingly hire part-timers (called “adjuncts” in the business) who work for peanuts and no benefits rather than full-time professors.

Now, obviously, those who succeed at getting tenure-track teaching jobs make more money and have better benefits than those who land jobs as retail store cashiers. But, then, the latter don’t give up a decade of earnings while pursuing degrees in higher education.

The Hamas Win Brings Clarity

Monday, January 30th, 2006

Max Borders shares his unusual perspective on Palestinian democracy in The Hamas Win Brings Clarity:

In fact, it will now be easier politically for Israel to do what it must to protect itself. Now that Hamas is “legitimate,” Israel can simply defend itself against Palestine instead of a murky Palestinian faction — and such would be justified even under international law. Israel is no longer dealing with a terror group hiding behind an enfeebled Fatah.

They’re dealing with a government that has been elected upon an existing right of self-determination — even if it determines itself to be a terror state. And real states (elected by a real majority) may legitimately get their clocks cleaned if they commit acts of war against other states. This may be the clarity the region needed. In the short term, it may mean all out war. In the long term, it may bring some finality to things in a place that has seen only a series of wars and intifadas anyway.

The Relative Longevity of Science Frauds

Monday, January 30th, 2006

What didn’t Feynman do? From The Relative Longevity of Science Frauds:

Hwang’s claims are far from the first fabrications in science. Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman made pertinent remarks on supposedly newly-found Maya documents that were publicized in the 1970s. They were quickly found to be fakes. Feynman had earlier translated (for fun, naturally) a section of a Maya astronomical almanac from the authentic Dresden Codex in which mathematical symbols denoted regularities of the sightings of the planet Venus. When the finding of a new Maya codex was announced, Feynman quickly saw it as a forgery. The arcane calculations for Venus were repeated from the Dresden Codex, and merely copied in a different style, that of the authentic Madrid Codex.

In other words, the forgery wasn’t very clever. “Out of the hundred thousand books originally made [by Mayans],” notes Feynman, “we get another fragment, and it has the same thing on it as the other [very few] fragments. It was obviously, again, one of these put-together things which had nothing original in it.”

Even More Boy Trouble!

Monday, January 30th, 2006

In Even More Boy Trouble! Steve Burton describes his experience trying to teach science and math in a pubic school:

Nor did it take me long to figure out why boys are falling behind girls all across the country. Because it is boys, far more than girls, who need strict discipline and who go straight to hell without it. Raising and teaching boys is a lot more like taming wild horses than it is like nurturing wounded birds — but we are locked in a feminist cultural moment that sees education as, precisely, ‘nurturance.’
Anybody who really knows anything about boys knows that if they see one of their own constantly challenging the supposed authorities and getting away with it, he will quickly become a hero to them — the alpha male, the leader of the pack. And I saw this happen again and again. Budding thugs and clowns who, at one time, would have been quickly and permanently expelled and out looking for dead-end jobs, became instead the most popular kids in the school, lording it over the campus social scene with all the hauteur of grand duchesses — and serving as models for their peers.

For the girls, gazing on admiringly, this sort of thing is only a misfortune. But for the boys, caught up in the struggle, it’s a calamity.

The Trouble With Boys

Monday, January 30th, 2006

Peg Tyre looks at The Trouble With Boys:

By almost every benchmark, boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind. In elementary school, boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and twice as likely to be placed in special-education classes. High-school boys are losing ground to girls on standardized writing tests. The number of boys who said they didn’t like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001, according to a University of Michigan study. Nowhere is the shift more evident than on college campuses. Thirty years ago men represented 58 percent of the undergraduate student body. Now they’re a minority at 44 percent.

Would You Take the Bird in the Hand, or a 75% Chance at the Two in the Bush?

Monday, January 30th, 2006

Would You Take the Bird in the Hand, or a 75% Chance at the Two in the Bush? looks at people’s very different tastes for risk and what the research shows:

This short problem-solving test, [Professor Frederick] found, predicts a lot:
  1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
  2. If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
  3. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half the lake?

The test measures not just the ability to solve math problems but the willingness to reflect on and check your answers. (Scores have a 0.44 correlation with math SAT scores, where 1.00 would be exact.) The questions all have intuitive answers — wrong ones.

“Getting the math problems right predicts nothing about most tastes,” but it does predict a taste for risk and a patience for bigger, later payoffs.

A Degree of Respect for Online MBAs

Sunday, January 29th, 2006

Firms are starting to show A Degree of Respect for Online MBAs:

Enrollments at online MBA programs are soaring — to about 125,000 students from virtually zero 10 years ago — even as applications to traditional business schools have dropped. And while online programs might not grant access to powerful alumni networks or the most prestigious consultancies and investment banks, respect for the degrees has increased to the point where, for some, getting one makes good career sense. ‘Our perception is that an online education from a reputable college or university is as valuable as the degree offered on-ground,’ says Alan Fisher, manager of corporate extended education at Intel, which pays for employees to earn MBAs through various Web-based programs. ‘We don’t differentiate between the two.’

Maverick Hunter’s ‘Human Beings As Prey’ Plan Not As Challenging As Expected

Sunday, January 29th, 2006

Maverick Hunter’s ‘Human Beings As Prey’ Plan Not As Challenging As Expected.

I suppose it’s not so amusing if you haven’t read Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game.

I’m Proud to Be a Coal Miner’s Grandson

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

In I’m Proud to Be a Coal Miner’s Grandson, Iain Murray makes the case that coal mining isn’t that dangerous:

To hear Senators Byrd and Rockefeller speak, one would think that the coal mining industry in this country is one of the major sources of death in the US. They might be surprised to hear that, while 28 miners died in accidents on the job in 2004, so did 27 top executives.

The Art of Bootstrapping

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

Guy Kawasaki opens The Art of Bootstrapping with this dire assessment:

Someone once told me that the probability of an entrepreneur getting venture capital is the same as getting struck by lightning while standing at the bottom of a swimming pool on a sunny day. This may be too optimistic.

That’s why “the key to success is bootstrapping”:

The term comes from the German legend of Baron Münchhausen pulling himself out of the sea by pulling on his own bootstraps.

He recommends forecasting from the bottom up:

Most entrepreneurs do a top-down forecast: “There are 150 million cars in America. It sure seems reasonable that we can get a mere 1% of car owners to use install our satellite radio systems. That’s 1.5 million systems in the first year.” The bottom-up forecast goes like this: “We can open up ten installation facilities in the first year. On an average day, they can install ten systems. So our first year sales will be 10 facilities x 10 systems x 240 days = 24,000 satellite radio systems. 24,000 is a long way from the conservative 1.5 million systems in the top-down approach. Guess which number is more likely to happen.

The Day His World Stood Still

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

The Day His World Stood Still tells “The Strange Story of H.M.”:

When twenty-seven year old Henry M. entered the hospital in 1953 for radical brain surgery that was supposed to cure his epilepsy, he was hopeful that the procedure would change his life for the better. Instead, it trapped him in a mental time warp where TV is always a new invention and Truman is forever president. The removal of large sections of his temporal lobes left Henry unable to form any new personal memories, but his tragic loss revolutionized the field of psychology and made ‘H.M.’ the most-studied individual in the history of brain research.

Henry grew up outside of Hartford, Connecticut, and was by all accounts an amiable young man with above average intelligence. He liked to go ice skating and to listen to mystery shows on the radio, which he enjoyed because he could often deduce the villain ahead of the program detective. Then on his sixteenth birthday, Henry had his first grand mal seizure during a celebratory trip to the city with his parents. After that point, the paralyzing seizures arrived with increasing frequency, until by the summer of 1953, he was experiencing as many as eleven episodes per week. He was unable to hold a steady job, and his prospects for independent living seemed dim. There were not many effective treatments available for epilepsy in 1953, so it was with a mixture of hope and trepidation that Henry’s family turned to Dr. William Scoville and his experimental surgery.

When heroin was legal

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

BBC News Magazine looks at When heroin was legal:

“The Case for Heroin” — so ran the headline for the Times leader column of Tuesday, 14 June 1955.

In the course of a short, lucid article the newspaper which had long been the mouthpiece of Establishment Britain set out its argument in favour of heroin.

In the context of all that has happened since, from heroin’s link with violent crime to the transfer of HIV among users who share needles, as well as countless other social ills, such an article today would seem unthinkable in all but the most libertarian of newspapers.

But in mid-1950s Britain, the spectre of drug addiction was a long way from the top of the public’s concerns.

In fact, as the Times editorial states, in 1955 there were only 317 addicts to “manufactured” drugs in the whole of Britain, of which just 15% were dependent on heroin. That’s a national total of 47.5 heroin addicts. History, regrettably, does not record the precise circumstances of the half-addict.

By contrast, in the US, where heroin was outlawed in 1925, it was said to be a “major social problem”.

The Roman Way, Part I

Wednesday, January 25th, 2006

Friedrich von Blowhard opens his The Roman Way, Part I with a quote from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — which I immediately recognized, since I’d just read it a few weeks earlier:

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.

Of course, Friedrich brings it up in order to disagree. He sees the Romans as too militaristic:

Compared to the Senatorial class in Rome, the Spartans were a group of gentle pacifists quietly minding their own business. For Roman aristocrats, warfare was business and conquest was their ‘business model.’

Of course, sometimes unparalleled militarism leads to a Pax Romana. I enjoyed this comment by MQ:

At some level war was the “business model” for the elite in almost all powerful pre-capitalist states (which is a major reason why capitalism is such an epochal improvement from previous systems). The Romans were just particularly good and particularly vicious. Golden age Athens certainly had colonialism and the resulting tribute as a major source of wealth, and the roots of Greek democracy in many ways lay in war — citizen soldiers demanded participation.
I think you’re presenting a somewhat one-sided picture of the Roman achievement though. The empire seems to have generated wealth more effectively than states for many hundreds of years before its rise or after its fall. Part of this was due to economies of scale in trading (including the creation of the world’s largest free trade zone up until that time) and agriculture. But part was due to the amazing level of Roman skill in civil engineering and administration. By pretty much all of the indirect measures of wealth and market development we are able to use — population, city size, number of cities, road networks, division of labor, financial institutions, etc. — Rome was wealthier than Europe in the late middle ages and some argue even in the early modern period. (Look at Peter Temin’s work for the argument that Rome was as wealthy as 17th century Europe; I’m don’t think I buy it but he has lots of good and interesting arguments). The Romans were brutal, destructive, creative, and constructive all at the same time, and looking at just one side will lead you to caricature them.

The mountain man and the surgeon

Tuesday, January 24th, 2006

The mountain man and the surgeon offers up “reflections on relative poverty in North America and Africa”:

When Americans hear the words “poor” and “white”, they think of someone like Mr Banks. He has half a dozen cars in varying states of disrepair parked outside his trailer, car-parts everywhere and a pile of crushed Pepsi cans below his porch.

He “draws” $521 a month in supplemental security income (a form of cash assistance for the elderly, poor and disabled). [...] Mr Banks also complains that he cannot draw food stamps. In order to qualify, he would have to sell his truck, which he cannot bear to part with. Mr Banks would probably be surprised to hear that, thousands of miles away in central Africa, there lives a prominent surgeon whose monthly income is roughly the same as his. Mbwebwe Kabamba is the head of the emergency department at the main public hospital in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. After 28 years as a doctor, his salary is only $250 a month, but by operating on private patients after hours, he ekes it out to $600 or $700.

Given the lower cost of living in Congo, one might guess that Dr Kabamba is better off than Mr Banks. But the doctor has to support an extended family of 12, whereas Mr Banks’s ex-wife and three sons claim public assistance. Indeed, the reason Mr Banks split up from his wife, he says, is because they can draw more benefits separately. She still lives in the trailer next door.

In more detail:

“Poverty” describes two quite different phenomena: utter penury, of the sort experienced by the billion or so souls who subsist on $1 a day or less; and the situation of people in rich countries who are less well off than their compatriots.

For the first group, finding enough to eat is a daily struggle, and a $2-a-day job hand-washing mineral ore in a river is a lucky break. Shortly before meeting Dr Kabamba, your correspondent interviewed a group of Congolese ore-washers who were delighted to have found such lucrative work.

European countries tend to use relative measures of poverty. A household with an income less than 50% or 60% of the national median counts as poor. This has the perverse result that if the country gets richer, the poverty rate can still rise, as long as incomes at the top and in the middle rise faster than those at the bottom.

America, more sensibly, uses an absolute standard. The “poverty threshold”, created in the mid-1960s, was based on an estimate of how much an adequate diet might cost, multiplied by three. This figure is adjusted for inflation each year, but is otherwise unchanged. So the fact that, according to the Census Bureau, the share of Americans in poverty rose between 1974 and 2004, from 11.2% to 12.7%, ought to be a cause for shame.

But it is not, because American poverty statistics are misleading. For one thing, the poor rarely stay that way. In 1996-99, only 2% of Americans were poor every month over the full four-year period. And life appears, by most measures, to have improved. Poor people today live longer, spend longer in education and are more likely to have jobs. Fewer live in substandard houses, more have cars, fridges, boomboxes and other necessities that were luxuries a couple of generations ago.

How, then, to account for the apparent rise in poverty? It is partly a matter of definition. Some non-cash benefits, such as food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid, are excluded from the calculation. And the raw data must be wrong. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, notes that while reported annual income for the poorest fifth of households in 2003 was $8,201, their reported expenditure was $18,492. Nobody can explain this vast discrepancy.

All one can say is that whereas the poor in Kinshasa complain about the price of bread, the poor in Kentucky complain about the price of motor insurance. Fair enough—they need to drive to work.