Thursday, September 28, 2006

Two-Term Presidents

I recently asked what's up with Presidents constantly getting into trouble during their sixth year in office. Turns out that someone has just published an article on American Heritage about that very question, taking into account all 20 two-term Presidents.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Carnival of Homeschooling



Sunday, September 24, 2006

Math Education

Here's an interesting article in the latest Education Next. It's by Barry Garelick, who we've seen before. Garelick points out that on an international math test for eighth-graders, Singapore's students score a full standard deviation higher -- about three or four grade levels -- than do Americans. The article then points out that, unlike American textbooks, Singaporean textbooks are not full of games, puzzles, flashy pictures, and other distracting activities. The overall point of the article is to analyze why American school districts have not been adopting textbooks on the Singapore model to the extent that they should.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Supreme Court Cases

Here's an interesting Los Angeles Times article on two upcoming Supreme Court cases, both reviewing decisions written by the Ninth Circuit's Stephen Reinhardt. For instance, in the first case (opinion available here), Matthew Musladin had been convicted of murdering Tom Studer. A few of Studer's surviving relatives attended the trial while wearing buttons that had Tom Studer's picture on it (but no text). That's it -- that's what the case was about.

To Reinhardt, the mere fact that relatives were present at trial while wearing those buttons somehow managed to deprive Musladin of a fair trial: "The buttons essentially 'argue' that Studer was the innocent party and that the defendant was necessarily guilty . . . . [a] reasonable jurist would be compelled to conclude that the buttons worn by Studer's family members conveyed the message that the defendant was guilty . . . ." Reinhardt also wrote that it was "objectively unreasonable" for the state court of appeals to find that "[t]he simple photograph of Tom Studer was unlikely to have been taken as a sign of anything other than the normal grief occasioned by the loss of a family member."

The article includes a comment from law professor Vikram Amar:
In the Supreme Court, "there is almost a palpable skepticism for what comes out of the 9th Circuit," said Vikram Amar, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

"They don't have any faith that Reinhardt calls it straight. I don't want to call him a bad judge, but a lot of these decisions are hard to understand," added Amar, who was a clerk for the 9th Circuit and the Supreme Court.
Not to go out on a limb here, but I'd bet on reversal.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Translation of Benedict's Speech

We all know that Pope Benedict got in a bit of hot water for giving a speech (in German) with a line quoted from a 14th century emperor on the nature of Islam. What's interesting is how Benedict introduced that quote. According to the first English translations of the speech, here's what Benedict said:
[H]e addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached".
This professor quickly pointed out that in the original German, Benedict actually said: "in erstaunlich schroffer, uns überraschend schroffer Form ganz einfach." Correctly translated, this would be:
[H]e addresses his interlocutor with an astonishing brusqueness, for us an astounding brusqueness, bluntly on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached".
Note that Benedict made it clear that "to us" the statement he's quoting is of "astounding brusqueness." This indicates that Benedict was doing quite a bit more to distance himself from that quotation.

After the professor pointed out the incomplete translation, the Vatican changed its version of the English translation accordingly, so as to be more accurate.

Now comes Slate into the picture. In an annotated version of Benedict's speech, Timothy Noah of Slate claims that Benedict's speech was dishonestly altered after the fact:
Taking a cue from the Congressional Record, the pope appears to have revised and extended his published remarks since the controversy arose. The speech, as given (click here for a copy the BBC obtained from the Vatican and posted online Sept. 15) characterized Manuel II's comments about the prophet Mohammed—the comments that have now given worldwide offense, because the pope initially put little distance between Manuel II's views and his own—as being of "startling brusqueness" (or, if you prefer a translation from the original German made available by The Catholic World News, "somewhat brusque"). On the Vatican's Web site, however, someone has now added the boldfaced insert, "a brusqueness which leaves us astounded." If you scroll to the bottom of this Hot Doc, you'll see it described as merely a "provisional" text, to be improved upon and footnoted later—later, in this case, meaning after the pope gave the speech. As damage control, the inserted language strikes me as insufficient. It is possible, after all, to be "astounded" by something that one nonetheless wouldn't dispute. Better to substitute "offended" for "astounded." Hey fellas, want to take one more whack at this?
Timothy Noah is precisely wrong. He claims to be describing the speech "as given," but his link to the BBC's site merely goes to an English translation -- the inaccurate one.

Thanks to the Internet, however, you can view Pope Benedict delivering the speech in German. Fast forward to 2:48, and you'll hear Benedict pronouncing the words, ""in erstaunlich schroffer, uns überraschend schroffer Form ganz einfach." These are the very words that, according to the professor I cite above, are correctly translated as, "with an astonishing brusqueness, for us an astounding brusqueness, bluntly."

Thus, Timothy Noah's entire claim falls apart. Contrary to Noah's claim, the original German was not altered "after the pope gave the speech," nor did the Pope "revise[] and extend[] his published remarks since the controversy arose." Instead, the "astounding brusqueness" language was in the original speech -- as given -- and it was the original English translation that seems to have been incomplete. The translation may have been altered, but only in the interest of greater conformity to the German original.

UPDATE: Slate has now issued a correction, here and here. Credit is due to Eugene and Sasha Volokh as well.

More on Dentist David Graham

A couple of years ago, I posted a couple of very intriguing news items about a Shreveport dentist named David Graham, who had written a manuscript about having met three of the 9/11 hijackers (prior to 9/11, of course), and about having notified the FBI to no avail. Mysteriously, Graham was suddenly taken ill, thought to be poisoned, and was moved to an "undisclosed location."

It recently occurred to me to wonder what had ever happened to Graham. So I looked up the source of the original news story -- Shreveport's tv station KTBS -- and sent them an email asking if they had ever done a followup.

Lo and behold, a followup story turned up on their website a few days later. It's here. The text of the story, which comes with a video link:
He claimed he met three of the 9-11 hijackers in Shreveport a year before the attacks. Now, that man, Shreveport dentist Dr. David Graham, is dead. His family says he was poisoned more than two years ago. At the time, Graham was trying to publish a manuscript about meeting three middle easterners in Shreveport, men he feared were plotting to bomb Barksdale Air Force Base. Graham wrote that he warned the FBI. Then after 9-11, he saw their pictures among the hijackers. Before Graham was poisoned, he was supposed to testify at a deportation hearing against a Pakistani man, Jamal Khan, who hosted the men Graham believed to be the hijackers. Dr. Graham's brother, Edwin Jones, told us Wednesday night, the family believes someone slipped poison into his drink, plunging him into a deadly illness.
The video can be accessed directly here.

Again, very intriguing. There may not be anything to the story, of course, but I wonder why no one beyond a local news station has touched this story, let alone investigated (a) whether Graham really was poisoned (and if so, by who), and (b) the story in Graham's manuscript?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Voucher Study

One of the complaints often made about school voucher programs is that 1) private schools find a way to "skim the cream" of public school students, resulting in 2) less racial integration. Like much of the debate over vouchers, this complaint has little connection to reality.

A study that was just released on charter schools in San Diego comes to a similar conclusion:
Our results seem particularly clearcut on the first question of integration. . . . In addition, our analysis of both applications and actual school transfers makes it quite clear that the choice programs in San Diego do serve to integrate the city’s schools racially and socioeconomically. Our analysis of the student demography at charter schools makes clear that charters in San Diego do not fit the stereotype of elite schools skimming off primarily white, affluent, and high-scoring students.
The scholars did not find any significant difference in test scores, leading them to this conclusion:
What are the larger implications of the nondefinitive test-score results? It would be extremely premature to argue that they suggest that the school choice programs should be either curtailed or expanded. To some readers, the very fact that the programs are so popular with parents may be sufficient justification to continue them. To others, the lack of a consistently positive effect of choice on reading and math achievement may be quite troubling. But potentially mitigating factors abound here. Do the reading and math tests capture true achievement well? What about achievement in other domains? What about nonacademic outcomes? Charter schools may actually receive less funding than regular public schools and so they may prove more cost-effective even though they seem to produce about the same achievement gains as regular public schools.
One thing that I find baffling about the voucher debates, by the way, is this. Educators often state in no uncertain terms that you can't measure the value of education solely by looking at test scores. Education is about much more than filling in the right circles on a multiple-choice math test, they say. But whenever a study comes out showing that, contrary to a lot of previous research, kids in private or charter schools don't necessarily have higher scores, some of the same people leap all over the news as proof that vouchers or charter schools are "not the answer." It's almost as if they switch their position on the validity of tests based on what's politically convenient at the time.



From a recent article:
There's some impressive new scientific research on your side when you tell your kids they can't possibly do their homework with the TV blaring, instant messenger crawling or MP3 player pumping. Unfortunately, explaining it will require you to get them unplugged from their iPods.

Tell them this: A recent study shows that the ruckus of such multi-tasking may make them learn less, and to use the wrong parts of their brains to store information. Tell 'em they can look it up in the Aug. 1 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS). Tell them it was done by researchers at UCLA (that's the University of California, Los Angeles, if they don't know).
The actual study is here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Hadley Arkes on George Sutherland

Some quotes from Hadley Arkes' judicial biography of Justice George Sutherland that caught my eye:
Justice John Clarke conveyed his resignation to President Harding on September 4, 1922, and Harding sent Sutherland's name to the Senate on the same day. The Senate, for its own part, saw no need to disturb the course of its affairs by troubling to hold hearings, or even schedule the meeting, of a separate committee. Sutherland was known so thoroughly to its members, his character was so clearly fixed in the legal profession, and his nomination so long expected, that the nomination bore no surprises and stirred not a trace of opposition. The Senate moved to approve the nomination at once by acclamation. Within a single day, the whole business was accomplished.

Here's Arkes discussing the Adkins v. Children's Hospital case, which struck down a federal law prescribing minimum wages for women in D.C. (This case was later overruled in the New Deal era.)
Under the statute, a board was constituted with the mandate to stipulate the precise wage, in any occupation, that would "supply the necessary cost of living to . . . women workers to maintain them in good health and to protect their morals." Evidently, the board understood the connection between morality and wages in the most calibrated way, for it was able to divine, with an astonishing particularity, that a woman working in a mercantile establishment required a wage of $16.50 per week to sustain her health, while a beginner in a laundry could apparently support herself and her morals with a more modest provision of $9 per week.
And here's Arkes commenting on the National Recovery Administration, one of Roosevelt's most intrusive regulatory innovations, and one that was blocked thanks to the Supreme Court:
A "chiseler" was a character who violated the spirit of the Blue Eagle and the terms of the law when he charged a price below the level specified by the code in his industry. And such a villain, apparently, was Jacob Maged in Jersey City. The hapless Maged, aged forty-nine, was an immigrant who ran his own tailor shop. He had been warned once by inspectors from the government, but the second, in April 1934, the authorities decided to make an example of him. Maged was prosecuted and sent to jail for three months, leaving a wife and four daughters to struggle with the business and pay his $100 fine. And his crime? Knowingly, deliberately, Maged had charged 35 cents to press a suit for a customer, even though the code of the NRA had pegged the price at 40 cents. . . . Jacob Maged could become a criminal only under a rare set of laws, in which people in the business of dry cleaning could use the powers of law to impose penalties on their own competitors who dared to lower their prices.
And here's Arkes lecturing on the same story, and drawing an apt lesson about the New Deal:
The story jars us today, it may strike us as bizarre, precisely because it did not become routine. It did not become part of a practice woven into our daily lives, mainly because it was resisted by The Supreme Court. Many of us have been able to preserve a benign memory of the New Deal precisely because these parts of the record of the New Deal have been screened from our memories--in large part because they have been screened from the accounts shaped for us by the historians.
* * *
With the National Recovery Act we would encounter the experiment of the New Deal in forms of corporatism. Even Huey Long would later complain that, in arrangements of this kind, the New Deal had produced schemes containing "every fault of socialism ... without one of its virtues."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Levy on the Pope's Speech

There is a controversy over Pope Benedict's recent speech -- wherein Benedict apparently committed the grave sin of quoting someone else who believed that Islam is not good. Jacob Levy makes the excellent point that it is only to be expected that religious leaders believe in their own religion:
It seems to me that if religion is meaningful it's serious business; if one is committed to divine truths then one is committed to the falsehood of rival claims. By my human standards "No man comes unto the father but through Me" is a terrible way to run a universe; but if there is a God I have no reason to think that His rules will conform to my contingent, twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards. And so I don't expect religious believers to softpedal the exclusionary implications of their beliefs. I don't think Unitarian Universalism is somehow a better religion than Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism just because its god seems to be so nice and inclusive . . . .

* * *

No matter how politically serious the responses from the Muslim world, there is something morally unserious about many of them--a demand to unsay what was not said, an expectation to be immune from criticism, and (again) an insistence that non-Muslims act with the same reverence toward Mohammed that is religiously demanded of Muslims themselves.

* * *

I don't expect Catholics to take their theology less seriously than Muslims do; I certainly don't expect the Pope to take his theology anything less than wholly seriously. And what is a Catholic, committed to the truth of Catholicism, to think of Mohammed's additions to and transformations of the Christian bible? What is a theologically serious Catholic to think about "what Mohammed brought that was new"? At a minimum he or she will think it false--and, because false, evil in distracting religious believers from an all-important truth.

* * *
Neither do I expect Muslim clerics to take their theology less than seriously, or to pay those who stand in the apostolic succession the same respect that believing Catholics do! And I would find it very odd, a category mistake, for the Pope to insist on apologies from every Muslim cleric who describes Christianity or Catholicism as false, evil, or likely to lead humans into sin.
In response to Levy, Brad DeLong makes two key points that seem to contradict each other. First, DeLong takes issue with Levy's point that religious believers should take their own religion seriously. After quoting Christ's parable of the sheep and the goats, DeLong says this:
It strikes me that Bill and Ted's injunction to "Be excellent to each other!" has much more sense--and is far more Christian (in the good sense of "Christian") than volumes of deadly serious theology committed by Pope and Imam.
Note the comic picture of Brad DeLong thinking that he, and not the Pope, understands that the true meaning of Christianity is a line from a Keanu Reeves movie. His point seems to be that that Christians (and believers in other religions too?) shouldn't worry about whether Christianity is, in fact, truer than other religions. They should just believe in the principle: Be nice.

But then, DeLong takes issue with Levy's point that God could still be good even if He differs from "twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards":
I found Levy's first point to be even more disturbing. It is, if I may paraphrase, that we shouldn't let the fact that the Unitarian-Universalist God is a good God who guides all to heaven by their various roads while the Calvinist God is an evil God who before the beginning of time condemned all but a tiny remnant to eternal damnation and torture in hell make us conclude that Unitarian-Universalism is a better religion than Calvinism.

* * *

Evil deeds do not cease to be evil just because a God does them. John Calvin's God, who treats almost every soul he creates not as an end but as means, and damns and tortures them for eternity to accomplish some other goal that we will never comprehend, is a doer of evil--if the word "evil" has any meaning. The Unitarian-Universalist God who uses her infinite power, infinite wisdom, infinite patience, and infinite mercy to eventually get us all on the Big Raft to Heaven by our various roads, that God is a doer of good--if the word "good" has any meaning.

If you presume that (a) there is a God who (b) is good, then priests who preach a God of Evil are ipso facto preaching a bad religion, are they not?
So the question is: If it is bad (in Delong's eyes) for the Pope to say a critical word about Islam because of the supreme principle that we should just all be nice to each other, then why does he think it appropriate to label Calvinism as "evil"? How come he has the prerogative to identify which religious beliefs are good and which are evil, and the Pope can't do the same?

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Six-Year Curse

What's the deal with Presidents getting into trouble or scandal or otherwise hitting a low point around the 6th year of their Presidency?

Richard Nixon -- had to resign in 1974.

Ronald Reagan -- Iran-Contra affair in 1986.

Bill Clinton -- Lewinsky scandal in 1998.

George Bush -- the Iraq situation evolves into an embarrassment by 2006.

I'm sure there is no unifying explanation here, but it's still interesting. I wonder, did Dwight Eisenhower face any scandal in 1958? Roosevelt in 1938?

E Coli in Spinach

From Yahoo:
E. coli outbreak spreads to ninth state

Federal health officials worked Friday to find the source of a multistate E. coli outbreak and warned consumers that even washing the suspect spinach won't kill the sometimes deadly bacteria.
Perhaps state governments should ban spinach, just as many of them ban the sale of raw milk.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Silent Films

Via Political Theory Daily Review -- a marvelous blog, by the way -- here is a link to an article with a set of fascinating video clips:
The African-American past is an iceberg, still 90 percent submerged. Because so much material remains in family hands or lies piled in the unvisited attics and basements of libraries, newspapers, and even police stations, rich discoveries await. Currie Ballard, a historian in Oklahoma, has just made what he calls “the find of a lifetime” — 33 cans of motion picture film dating from the 1920s that reveal the daily lives of some remarkably successful black communities.

Wal-Mart Funding

This story overreaches considerably:
Wal-Mart Finds an Ally in Conservatives

Published: September 8, 2006
As Wal-Mart Stores struggles to rebut criticism from unions and Democratic leaders, the company has discovered a reliable ally: prominent conservative research groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute.

Top policy analysts at these groups have written newspaper opinion pieces around the country supporting Wal-Mart, defended the company in interviews with reporters and testified on its behalf before government committees in Washington.

But the groups — and their employees — have consistently failed to disclose a tie to the giant discount retailer: financing from the Walton Family Foundation, which is run by the Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s three children, who have a controlling stake in the company.

* * *

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, for example, has received more than $100,000 from the foundation in the last three years, a fraction of the more than $24 million it raised in 2004 alone.

Richard Vedder, a visiting scholar at the institute, wrote an opinion article for The Washington Times last month, extolling Wal-Mart’s benefits to the American economy. “There is enormous economic evidence that Wal-Mart has helped poor and middle-class consumers, in fact more than anyone else,” Mr. Vedder wrote in the article, which prominently identified his ties to institute.

But neither Mr. Vedder nor the newspaper mentioned American Enterprise Institute’s financial links to the Waltons. Mr. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University, said he might have disclosed the relationship had the American Enterprise Institute told him of it. “I always assumed that A.E.I. had no relationship or a modest, distant relationship with the company,” said Mr. Vedder, who has written a forthcoming book about the company.
John McWhorter responds:
Last Friday I opened the Times to be greeted by a photo of me illustrating a story arguing that conservative think tanks instruct their writers to shill for corporations that give them contributions. My sin was saying on a radio show a year ago (in passing amidst a discussion of several issues) that Wal-Mart provides jobs for lower-income black people. At least the photo was good — black don't crack! However, the notion that the Manhattan Institute sits its writers down and instructs us to speak in favor of corporations that give us money is fiction.

I had no idea Wal-Mart was one of our funders and have never been apprised of a list of such — nor have any of my colleagues. Rather, naturally as someone employed by a free-market think tank, I do not see Wal-Mart as the scourge to humanity that it has become fashionable to claim. The less-than-generous health insurance they offer is a problem, and to me suggests a new discussion about national health insurance. But I said Wal-Mart offers gainful employment to poor blacks because it is, quite simply, true, as plenty of black community representatives have been noting for years.
Two points:

1) The Times' story lends itself to ad hominem arguments. I.e., it doesn't identify anything substantively wrong with Richard Vedder's argument about Wal-Mart. Instead, the notion is that he's somehow discredited because he is associated with a think tank that gets around a tenth of one percent of its money from the Wal-Mart Foundation.

2) Disclosure is a good thing. But you can't disclose what you don't know. Does anyone really expect all of the scholars at think tanks -- or universities, for that matter -- to keep track of every donor who gives a sum so small that it amounts to a tenth of a percent of the institution's income? And isn't the scholars' lack of knowledge a good thing? How can they be skewing their analysis when they are simply unaware of the donors' identity?


Megan McArdle and I co-wrote an op-ed on that Detroit Free Press map of median household income. The opening line: "It often gets dicey for readers when journalists, who are rarely math majors, play with numbers and then publish misleading or mistaken conclusions."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Family Structure

This study is a bit surprising:
This study examines the role of the relationship between the biological parents in determining child wellbeing using longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS). We extend prior research by considering children born to unmarried parents in an investigation of the effect of the relationship structure between the biological parents on infant health and behavior. The main findings are that children born to cohabiting biological parents (i) realize better outcomes, on average, than those born to mothers who are less involved with the child's biological father, and (ii) whose parents marry within a year after childbirth do not display significantly better outcomes than children of parents who continue to cohabit. Furthermore, children born to cohabiting or visiting biological parents who end their relationship within the first year of the child's life are up to 9 percent more likely to have asthma compared to children whose biological parents remain (romantically) involved. The results are robust to a rich set of controls for socioeconomic status, health endowments, home investments, and relationship characteristics.
Apparently the stress of family breakup can contribute to higher rates of asthma.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Mark Gerson

I was reading Mark Gerson's In the Classroom: Dispatches from an Inner-City School That Works, which is about his year teaching at a Jersey City Catholic school. (This is the same Mark Gerson who is now with the Gerson Lehrman Group.)

I found this bit interesting:
Because they worked hard and wanted and expected to work hard as adults, my students took an almost instinctive interest in money and economics. One of the parts of the Constitution that captivated them was the interstate commerce clause, because it allowed the government to limit the number of hours they could work. I did not expect to spend much time on this, but the students were fascinated by the idea that the federal government could regulate working conditions in a Jersey City restaurant on the basis of the fact that the tablecloth was made in New York. I was surprised that this point generated significant ire among my students. Carmen reacted first: "No one should tell me how much I should work except my mother. How does Bill Clinton know how much money we need or how many hours I can work and do well in school?

Walt added, "She be right, yo. And if I ain't workin', you think I'm studyin'? No. I am out with my boys."

Every student who commented on the interstate commerce clause agreed with these assessments. The unanimity was striking, but so was the fact that most students did not allow themselves to become too upset in light of what they considered a grievous violation of their liberty. Why? Because, as Charles told me, no one paid any attention to these laws. He had worked sixty hours a week in a restaurant for several years, and no one had ever threatened to stop him. Moreover, Charles added, it was not just small businesses that do not keep official records; his younger brother had worked similar hours in a branch of a large supermarket chain, and no one had bothered him, either. I would never have thought of it before, but now I would not be surprised if statutes restricting the number of hours teenagers work are the most violated laws in the city, and there is nothing the government can do about it.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Median Income

A lot of liberal bloggers have been citing this graphic that originally comes from the Detroit Free Press, purporting to show that most states have lost median household income from 1999 to 2005:

None of the bloggers that I've seen, however, seem to have any interest in where the figures came from. When you look at the original, the source is this: "U.S. Census Bureau data analysis by VICTORIA TURK and MARISOL BELLO/Detroit Free Press."

Is the analysis accurate? I don't think it is. Here's what led me to that conclusion:

Here is the Census Bureau's webpage listing median household income by state, from 1984 to 2005 -- the very thing that the Detroit Free Press was supposedly measuring. What's more, if you scroll halfway down the page, there is a separate set of tables that gives state-by-state figures all in 2005 dollars.

Let's take my home state of Arkansas. According to the Census Bureau's page, Arkansas' 1999 median household income -- in 2005 dollars -- was $34,770. Then in 2005, the median household income was $36,658. That's an increase of 5.4%, as opposed to the 7.2% decrease that the Detroit Free Press claims to have found.

How about another state: Utah. In 1999 (again, in 2005 dollars): $53,943. In 2005: $54,813. That's a rise of 1.6%, not a decline of 10.5% as the Free Press claims.

Even more oddly: In Michigan, the Free Press seems to understate the drop in income. In 1999: $53,989. In 2005: $45,933. That's a drop of 17.5%, although the Free Press has it at 12%. Michigan itself may be an outlier, though: The Census Bureau has Michigan's median household income rising from $46,990 in 1997 to $53,989 in 1999 -- a gain of 14.9% in just two years. That seems anomalous.

As for the nationwide median -- In 1999: $47,671. In 2005: $46,326. That's a 2.8% decrease, not the 6% decrease found by the Free Press. Not that the overall figures are comforting; a nationwide drop of 2.8% is nothing to sneeze at (although you'd have to know if the composition of households changed between 1999 and 2005).

* * *

So, with all of this in mind, it occured to me to ask the Detroit Free Press journalists what their data source was. I got an email response from one of them saying that they had used data from the Census Bureau's "American Community Survey," while the data I cite above came from the "Current Population Survey." Moreover, the journalist said that "both surveys are different and are conducted differently, so you can’t compare the data in one to the data in the other." Another one of the journalists responded that they didn't have "much time" to tell me where the data came from.

The first journalist then followed up and explained further that the 1999 data came from the 2000 Census (it's available here). They used the inflation calculator recommended by the Census Bureau. And then the 2005 data came from the American Community Survey (here).

I don't think this is a legitimate comparison. For present purposes, it doesn't matter which survey is more accurate or "better." What matters is that you simply can't determine whether there was a rise or fall in income if you're mixing and matching different datasets.

Indeed, the Census Bureau's publications regularly offer this sort of warning:
The Census Bureau recommends that people use the [Community Population Survey] as the data source for national estimates of income and poverty. While both the [American Community Survey or ACS] and the [Community Population Survey] offer income and poverty estimates at the state level, it is important not to draw conclusions from comparisons across surveys. For example, it is inappropriate to compare a state estimate of poverty in the ACS to a different state estimate in the [Community Population Survey].
Or this, from a webpage describing several different types of surveys:
The Census Bureau reports income and poverty estimates from several major national household surveys and programs:

Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS ASEC)
American Community Survey (ACS)
Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP)
Census 2000 long form
Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program (SAIPE)

Each of these surveys differs from the others in some ways, such as the length and detail of its questionnaire, the number of households included (sample size), and the methodology used to collect and process the data. The Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program creates statistical models to produce income and poverty estimates by combining survey results with administrative records. As a result of this multiplicity of sources, it is important to understand that different surveys and methods, which are designed to meet different needs, also produce different results. * * *

[E]stimates from any one survey will almost never exactly match the estimates from any other (unless explicitly controlled), because of differences such as in questionnaires, data collection methodology, reference period, and edit procedures.
Most importantly here, the American Community Survey seems, for whatever reason, to produce lower results than the official Census figures. For example, in one detailed analysis comparing ACS to the Census in a couple of counties, the Bureau reported:
There were significant differences in the estimation of median household income. In Tulare County, the Census reported a value of $33,983 compared to the ACS estimate of $31,467. This is consistent with Census Bureau research in other ACS sites that generally found lower income values reported in the ACS . . . .
Indeed, if you look at Table 3 in this Census Bureau article, the Census 2000 figures for each state are usually a few percentage points higher than the ACS figures for 2000. In other words, ACS understates the Census 2000 figures. This suggests that if you start with Census 2000 figures, and then look at ACS figures for 2005, you might think there was a decrease in some states' income -- even though, as shown above, if you look at the same survey for both years, some of the same states' incomes actually rose.

To be sure, I have no intention of impugning the journalists' integrity or motives here. Census Bureau statistics can be maddeningly difficult to decipher, and the Free Press's results seem to be consistent with the common perception that the past few years were hit hard by an economic recession.

The moral: As I've said before, you can't always be 100% sure that a news story is correct about even the simplest of facts. When a newspaper article touches on a complex subject, use your head, and, if you can, look up the original sources for yourself.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein and Kevin Drum have, to their credit, acknowledged the problems in the Free Press's map.

UPDATE: Most of the people visiting this post will have seen this already, but Megan McArdle makes a similar point with her typical intelligence and wit.

The Value of Education?

Here's something that I've been thinking about for a while now: A very common idea is that more education equals greater economic growth. What's more, one of the main ways that Third World countries could advance is to spend more money on education.

Now this may not be true at all: According to Alison Wolf's research, there's no proven connection between increased education and increased economic growth. But even if it's true to some minor extent, the thing that bothers me is that we only seem to be talking about formal education. Schools . . . universities . . . years spent in a classroom.

It seems to me, however, that two propositions are likely true:

A) The most useful skills that you will ever get from formal schooling are fairly basic: reading, writing a coherent description or argument, and basic math. A lot of what's studied in high school or college may be very interesting, and can make one a well-rounded person, but has little or no relevance to economic growth. (I'm all for studying Shakespeare or Western Civilization or Physics 101, but unless you plan on pursuing one of those subjects as a career, I don't think that your studies have anything to do with economic growth.)

B) By contrast, if there exists any knowledge that leads to economic growth, the overwhelming majority of it is captured in businesses and other institutions, and cannot be taught in schools. I'm not talking just about "job training," i.e., formal training classes that might last a day or a week at the beginning of one's employment (or formal "continuing education" classes in various professions). Instead, I'm talking about all of the informal knowledge that relates to "how we do things here at ____."

Take a simple example: A McDonald's store. They're at the bottom rung of the American economy. So they should be simple to run, right? Any one of you could do it?

Not right now, you couldn't. You don't know how. There's no course at a government-run or private school that teaches you how to open a McDonald's (the most relevant thing that you might learn in school is how to make change, which hardly qualifies you to open a McDonald's).

So you're looking at an empty lot near an interstate. What sorts of knowledge do you need in order to open a McDonald's? As someone who worked at McDonald's as a teenager, here's what I can think of, off the top of my head:

1. Is the location suitable? What's the average traffic here? How do you find it out? How much traffic should there be anyway?

2. What sorts of permits do you need from local or state governments?

3. Who is going to build the store? Where do you get the architectural plans to give to the builder? How do you make sure that the building complies with innumerable legal requirements (from local zoning regulations to federal disability law)?

4. How do you hire the managers and workers? What do you look for? What kind of training do you give them?

5. Where do you get all of the machinery and other items that fill a McDonald's kitchen?

6. Where do all of the food items come from? How are the food items cooked/assembled/whatever? (This would include what to put on a Big Mac, how to fill the shake machine, how to mix Coke syrup, how to work the fry machine, and a hundred other tasks.)

7. How do you set employees' schedules? Make a payroll?

Well, I could go on and on. The point is, if you want to open a McDonald's store, there are innumerable facts and skills that you will need to know -- knowledge that McDonald's can give you but that you could not learn in a regular school. After all, even if regular schoolteachers knew all of this information (they don't), no school is going to waste its time teaching all of the specific knowledge that it takes to run a McDonald's (or any of the other thousands of types of businesses that exist). That's just not the sort of thing that a school can or should do.

I would suggest that all of the above is true -- at least to some extent -- for all of the businesses that exist in America. For any type of business that you can imagine, the overwhelming majority of the information necessary to run the business consists of informal knowledge that has accumulated over years or decades, and that will never be taught in schools.

At most, one can point to a few trades or professions where some specialized schooling teaches someone the basics (i.e., a trade school might teach the basics of installing electrical wires, or a law school teaches the basics of how to analyze statutes and cases). Even there, a large part of what you do on the job involves information or tasks that weren't specifically taught in school.

What's the upshot of all of this? That there's no real reason to think that formal education is going to magically produce increased business activity -- i.e., economic growth -- here or in Third World countries. You could take the entire population of a Third World country and send them to 12 years of school to learn all about social studies and literature and political science. At the end, they wouldn't be any closer to a modern economy than they are now. What would be far more helpful is if the necessary institutions -- i.e., the many different kinds of businesses -- existed in that country, so that people could gain the knowledge that is actually relevant to economic growth.

The fact that this seems to be a chicken-and-egg problem leads to a further suggestion: Anything that increases business activity in Third World countries -- whether globalization or micro-credit loans that encourage local entrepreneurs -- is far more likely to produce the sort of education that creates further economic growth. With globalization, a factory might open in such a country, providing a place where workers will learn at least some skills that are economically relevant. Even better, entrepreneurship allows people to gradually accumulate the necessary knowledge to run their own businesses.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Prof. Dutch

Via Newmark's Door comes Professor Steven Dutch's Top Ten No-Sympathy Lines that he's heard from college students (mostly of the type that ought not be in college in the first place). I loved this one:
There Was Too Much Memorization

Sad to say, students have been victims of a cruel hoax. You've been told ever since grade school that memorization isn't important. Well, it is important, and our system wastes the years when it is easiest to learn new skills.

Memorization is not the antithesis of creativity; it is absolutely indispensable to creativity. Creative insights come at odd and unpredictable moments, not when you have all the references spread out on the table in front of you. You can't possibly hope to have creative insights unless you have memorized all the relevant information. And you can't hope to have really creative insights unless you have memorized a vast amount of information, because you have no way of knowing what might turn out to be useful.

Rote memorization is a choice. If you remember facts and concepts as part of an integrated whole that expands your intellectual horizons, it won't be rote. If you merely remember things to get through the next exam, it will be rote, and a whole lot less interesting, too. But that is solely your choice.

It is absolutely astonishing how many people cannot picture memorization in any other terms than "rote memorization," - even after reading the paragraph just above.
He also has a lot of provocative and interesting essays here, including the most sensible thing I've ever read on plagiarism.

Carnival of Homeschooling



Other People's Children

Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children is an excellent and thoughtful book about education in a multicultural environment. What I found most interesting was the fact that she highlighted some scathing comments by other black teachers who seem to view so-called "progressive" education as a liberal racist ploy. For example, she had learned in education school to "embrace[] holistic processes" to teach writing "with an emphasis on fluency and creative expression." But when she talked to another black teacher -- Cathy -- she heard quite a different perspective:
She adamantly insisted that it [a progressive writing program] was doing a monumental disservice to black children. I was stunned. I started to defend the program, but then thought better of it, and asked her why she felt so negative about what she had seen.

* * * she was particularly adamant about the notion that black children had to learn to be "fluent" in writing -- had to feel comfortable about putting pen to paper -- before they could be expected to conform to any conventional standards. "These people keep pushing this fluency thing," said Cathy. "What do they think? Our children have no fluency? If they think that, they ought to read some of the rap songs my students write all the time. They might not be writing their school assignments but they sure are writing. Our kids are fluent. What they need are the skills that will get them into college. I've got a kid right now -- brilliant. But he can't get a score on the SAT that will even get him considered by any halfway decent college. He needs skills, not fluency. This is just another one of those racist ploys to keep our kids out. White kids learn how to write a decent sentence. Even if they don't teach them in school, their parents make sure they get what they need. But what about our kids? They don't get it at home and they spend all their time in school learning to be fluent. I'm sick of this liberal nonsense.
Delpit describes other similar incidents. Then in the second chapter of the book, Delpit is even harsher:
Several black teachers have said to me recently that as much as they'd like to believe otherwise, they cannot help but conclude that many of the "progressive" educational strategies imposed by liberals upon black and poor children could only be based on a desire to ensure that liberals' children get sole access to the dwindling pool of American jobs. Some have added that the liberal educators believe themselves to be operating with good intentions, but that these good intentions are only conscious delusions about their unconscious true motives.
What's really interesting is Delpit's description of what happened when she presented these ideas at a 1987 conference at the University of Pennsylvania:
Amidst an undercurrent of whispered disapproval, one white woman rose to say that I was lying to suggest that black teachers weren't happy: I was just trying to stir up trouble where none existed. Several of the African-American teachers in the audience loudly and passionately challenged her position. When the session was ended due to scheduling constraints, the passion continued. I found the woman who had challenged me sobbing in the bathroom, surrounded by a group of consoling white women.