Monday, February 27, 2006

Health insurance

Two thinkers make what seems to be an indisputably correct point that there is no good reason that health insurance should be provided by employers: Here and here.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Conversations with a Four-Year-Old

My four-year-old daughter recently had to get glasses to help correct for an eye that is weaker than the other. She doesn't like her glasses at all. She mopes around the house, complaining that "I look like a grandma." She "loses" the glasses -- once, we found them in the freezer.

The other day, I feel a small tug on my elbow as I'm working. It's my daughter. She looks up at me with plaintive eyes.

"When I grow up, I want to be just like you," she says.

My heart melts. But she wasn't through:

"Because YOU don't wear glasses."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Crunchy Con Blog

National Review is having a serious discussion about the nature of conservatism on the "Crunchy Con Blog," a blog specifically devoted to Rod Dreher's excellent new book. Lots of interesting stuff.

FYI: The quotation at the head of chapter one is from my father; I put him in touch with Rod a couple of years ago. Also, this reader comment was from me.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

New Clerk for Alito Has a Long Paper Trail - New York Times

That's the headline for this NY Times article:
JUSTICE SAMUEL A. ALITO JR., who was so bland and self-effacing at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last month, made a bold decision on arriving at the court. He hired Adam G. Ciongoli, a former top aide to Attorney General John Ashcroft and an architect of the Bush administration's legal strategy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to be one of his law clerks.

* * *
"We don't normally contemplate a high-level Justice Department official becoming a Supreme Court clerk," said Ronald D. Rotunda, a specialist in legal ethics at George Mason University School of Law. "It's just asking for problems that are unnecessary." Most Supreme Court law clerks, who prepare memorandums and draft decisions for the justices, have little of note on their résumés beyond superior grades at a top law school and a clerkship with a federal appeals court judge.

"They're like legal Doogie Howsers — child prodigies of the law," said David Lat, a former federal prosecutor whose blog "Underneath Their Robes" reports on the hiring of Supreme Court clerks. "Yet they're influencing decisions that affect millions."

Mr. Ciongoli, 37, represents a different model. He has a rich and public history in government and, most recently, as a senior lawyer at Time Warner.

"It really indicates a lapse in judgment," Deborah L. Rhode, who teaches legal ethics at Stanford, said of Justice Alito's decision. "I just don't think it helps your reputation for nonpartisanship, particularly after such partisan confirmation hearings, to start out by hiring someone who is perceived to have an ideological agenda."
I don't think anyone can honestly claim that Alito's choice of Ciongoli is a sign of partisanship. New Justices almost always hire a mix of former Supreme Court clerks and their own former clerks, as was the case with Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, as well as Chief Justice Roberts.

Justice Thomas also hired several of his former clerks in his first year on the Court, including Arnon Siegel, Gregory Katsas, and Chris Landau, who clerked for Thomas on the D.C. Circuit, clerked for Scalia, and then for Thomas again on the Supreme Court.

And going back to Justice Scalia's first year on the Court (1986-87), he hired three of his own clerks from the D.C. Circuit: Patrick Schiltz, Lee Liberman Otis, and Gary Lawson.

Compare Prof. Rhode's opinion to Steven Lubet's:
In all, Justice Alito's decision to hire Mr. Ciongoli was smart, said Steven Lubet, who teaches legal ethics at Northwestern. "Somebody with some real experience can provide better work than someone who's green," Professor Lubet said. "It's a terrific idea."
Lubet describes himself as a "political liberal," and can often be found criticizing Republican-nominated judges. Yet here, and elsewhere, Prof. Rhode seems eager to accuse Alito of ethical lapses where Prof. Lubet sees no problem.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Conversations with a Six Year Old

My son: "Dad, before God made everything, were there colors?"

Me, feeling confident: "Nope. Before there was light, there were no colors, because light makes colors when it bounces off of stuff."

My son: "But if there was no light, then everything was dark. Dark is black, and black is a color."

Me, markedly less confident: "But black isn't really a color, because it is just the absence of light."

My son: "Black is a color."

Me: "I do believe it's time for bed."

Friday, February 17, 2006


On the subject of television viewing, this study is particularly intriguing:
Does Television Rot Your Brain? New Evidence from the Coleman Study

University of Chicago - Graduate School of Business
University of Chicago; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
January 27, 2006

We use heterogeneity in the timing of television's introduction to different local markets to identify the effect of preschool television exposure on standardized test scores later in life. Our preferred point estimate indicates that an additional year of preschool television exposure raises average test scores by about .02 standard deviations. We are able to reject negative effects larger than about .03 standard deviations per year of television exposure. For reading and general knowledge scores, the positive effects we find are marginally statistically significant, and these effects are largest for children from households where English is not the primary language, for children whose mothers have less than a high school education, and for non-white children. To capture more general effects on human capital, we also study the effect of childhood television exposure on school completion and subsequent labor market earnings, and again find no evidence of a negative effect.
A few scattered thoughts:

1. Nice to see that researchers are still digging out useful findings from the Coleman data (i.e., data on several hundred thousand schoolchildren in 1965, which enabled the researchers to measure TV's effect by comparing children who had been exposed to commercial television for their entire lives vs. children who were older or lived in cities where television was introduced later).

2. That said, television programming was much different before 1965 than it is today. From all that I can tell, the programming then was much calmer and more rational. Whereas today's kids programming (especially the commercials) tends to be a) full of exciting colors, b) teeming with activity (bouncing visuals, ultra-quick changes between different camera shots), c) often accompanied by obnoxiously loud, driving dance/rock music, d) never devoting much time to any single scene (Sesame Street is typical here). My hunch is that in all of these ways, kids programming today is much more likely to encourage hyperactivity, shorten attention spans, etc.

3. 0.02 standard deviations in increased test scores really isn't very much at all.

4. The study explains further that children whose parents weren't likely to read to them benefited a little from television (i.e., television is better than nothing), but where television displaced reading, the children were harmed (although not by much).
We find that non-white students benefit considerably more from television exposure than do white students. The point estimate of the effect on average test scores is more than 0.05 for non-white students, as compared to less than 0.01 for white students. For non-white students, the effect of television on verbal scores is positive and statistically significant, and the effects on reading and general knowledge scores are positive and marginally statistically significant. By contrast, we find statistically significant evidence that white students’ general knowledge test scores are decreased by television exposure.

* * *

For students who were not read to as preschoolers, an additional year of television is estimated to raise average test scores by about 0.09 standard deviations. This coefficient is marginally statistically significant (p = 0.058). Moving to the top of the preschool reading distribution lowers this coefficient by a statistically significant 0.11 standard deviations, implying that students who were read to regularly would have experienced a small and statistically insignificant decline in average test scores as a result of an additional year of television exposure.

* * *

In all cases television is estimated to have a positive effect on students whose parents did not read to them, and in most cases this positive effect is economically nontrivial and statistically significant at the 10 percent level. Also, the interaction between childhood reading and television exposure is consistently negative and nontrivial in size, and is often statistically significant, implying in most cases that the effect of television on students who were read to regularly is small and negative.

These findings provide further support for the hypothesis that children whose home environments were more conducive to learning were more negatively impacted by television.


Beware of Email

A couple of cautionary stories:

From Wired News::
"Don't work too hard," wrote a colleague in an e-mail today. Was she sincere or sarcastic? I think I know (sarcastic), but I'm probably wrong.

According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I've only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they've correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time.

'That's how flame wars get started,' says psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, who conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University. 'People in our study were convinced they've accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance,' says Epley.
And from the Boston Herald, this one is making the rounds:
Dianna Abdala of Newton has been an attorney for less than a year, but lawyers all over the world already know her name.

A biting e-mail exchange between the recent Suffolk University Law School grad and a potential employer at a Boston firm reached the inboxes of attorneys from Boston to Berlin over the past week, making Abdala an unwitting butt of jokes in the legal community on how not to get a job.

It began with an e-mail Abdala sent to attorney William Korman earlier this month declining a job offer with his firm because the pay was too low.
“I have decided to work for myself, and reap 100% of the benefits that I sew,” she wrote, misusing “sew” for “sow.”

Korman, who said the e-mail surprised him since Abdala had already accepted the offer, replied that while he understood her reasoning, “I am extremely disappointed in the way this played out.”

Her reply: “A real lawyer would have put the contract into writing.”

The exchange went on to include Korman asking “do you really want to start p***ing off more experienced lawyers at this early stage of your career?” and finally culminated with Abdala’s final response: “bla bla bla.”

Thursday, February 16, 2006

New York School Reform

This is a very interesting article: How Hedge-Fund Guru Joel Greenblatt Used Wall Street Principles To Turn Around a Queens School.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

NCLB Study

Yahoo is plugging a story titled: "Harvard study blasts Bush education policy." Here's how the story begins:
President George W. Bush's signature education policy has in some cases benefited white middle-class children over blacks and other minorities in poorer regions, a Harvard University study showed on Tuesday.

Political compromises forged between some states and the federal government has allowed schools in some predominantly white districts to dodge penalties faced by regions with larger ethnic minority populations, the study said.
Wow. Benefits to white middle-class children vs. penalties for blacks and other minorities.

But what benefits? And what penalties? Read on:
Under No Child Left Behind, children in every racial and demographic group in every school must improve their scores on standardized tests in math and English each year. Failure to achieve annual progress can lead to sanctions against schools.

Children in poorly performing schools can switch schools if space is available. In extreme cases, schools can be closed.

* * *

Nearly every state has taken some action to amend the law or been granted waivers to provisions in No Child Left Behind, the study said. "The problem with this approach is that it does not affect all schools equally," said Sunderman. "No two states are now subject to the same requirements."

In one example the study cites, states in rural Midwestern regions were granted extensions to deadlines to meet requirements on teacher qualifications that were unavailable to poorer rural regions with greater numbers of black Americans and ethnic minorities in southeast and southwest states.

"The policy is essentially a product of negotiation, of power and discretion, not law," Gary Orfield, director of Harvard's Civil Rights Project, said in the report.
For more detail, the full report is available here.

Now, I'm not an expert on NCLB, but I am very much inclined to agree with the premise of the article: That whatever NCLB says, it should be applied equally across the nation. If too many people are unhappy with the law, they should move to get it changed, not seek special and ad hoc exemptions.

But the article's conclusion seems wholly unwarranted to me. If you believe that NCLB's basic methods (i.e., requiring schools to improve test scores, to hire more qualified teachers, etc.) are likely to benefit students, then the fact that "white middle-class" schools get special treatment really boils down to this: The white middle-class schools won't have to do as much to improve and won't have to hire as many qualified teachers, while the minority schools will still be required to demonstrate progress and hire more qualified teachers. At the same time, minority students may be more likely to have the chance to transfer out of failing schools.

The problem is that the article (and the study on which is it based) are begging the question. If NCLB is a horrible law that only harms any student that it affects, then giving white middle-class schools a shortcut is an unfair benefit to those schools and the students. But if NCLB is a decent (albeit flawed) law that ultimately benefits the students who have more qualified teachers, etc., then the white middle-class students are not necessarily being done any favors here. Instead, it would be precisely the minority students who are benefited in that their schools are still being forced to improve teacher quality, etc.


Friday, February 10, 2006


A good comment on the potentially troubling trend towards more unbundling of cultural products (i.e., the availability of single songs on Itunes, single pages of books on Amazon, the potential for an FCC mandate that cable channels be sold individually).

One potential problem is that people will underconsume cultural goods. Or maybe that's not a problem at all. I'm not sure what to think. On one hand, some people will buy the hit song for 99 cents electronically, while not realizing that they would have liked 3 or 4 or 9 other songs if they'd bought the entire album. This will discourage artists from putting out entire albums. On the other hand, a lot of albums really do consist of one or two good songs and 8 or 9 songs that are just rehashed filler. Maybe some artists need to be discouraged from putting out anything more than their one or two good songs.

Same for cable: If the History Channel (for example) isn't bundled with a packet of 40 or 50 other channels, there are lot of people 1) who wouldn't think to subscribe to the History Channel on an individual basis, but 2) who would then miss out on the great show that they would have loved, if only they had seen it while flipping channels. On the other hand, I tend to think that anything that gets people to watch less television would be a good thing (such as if they had to pay per episode, which is what will happen eventually if most people get electronic recorders that can skip all the commercials, which will make "free" TV a thing of the past). But back on the first hand again, is it a really a good thing if most people's television viewing consists of Friends or Seinfeld or ESPN or similar junk?

I don't know what to think here. On the TV question, I'm reminded of something that Sheldon Vanauken once wrote to me: If you could push a button and destroy all television (including the very technology), would you do it? Personally, I'd probably pause for half a second while recalling the X-Files or American Gothic or Lost, but I'd do it, no question.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Law Review Article

This may be interesting:
Beyond Marbury: The Executive's Power to Say what the Law Is

University of Chicago Law School

AEI-Brookings Joint Center Working Paper No. 05-21
U Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 268
Yale Law Journal, Forthcoming

Under Marbury v. Madison, it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. But as a matter of actual practice, statements about what the law is are often made by the executive department, not the judiciary. In the last quarter-century, the Supreme Court has legitimated the executive's power of interpretation, above all in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the most-cited case in modern public law. Chevron reflects a salutary appreciation of the fact that the executive is in the best position to make the judgments of policy and principle on which resolution of statutory ambiguities often depends. But the theory that underlies Chevron remains poorly understood, and in the last two decades, significant efforts have been made to limit the executive's interpretive authority. In general, these efforts should be resisted. The principal qualification involves certain sensitive issues, most importantly those involving constitutional rights. When such matters are involved, Congress should be required to speak unambiguously; executive interpretation of statutory ambiguities is not sufficient.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Progressive "Education"

From a paper on alternative schools, this passage was striking:
Semel (1999) wonders whether “progressive education can work for all children, or whether it will continue to be the province of the upper middle class, or whether it, in fact, disadvantages African American, Latino, and working class students” (p. 20). Semel is referring to Delpit’s (1995) compilation of her own and other teachers’ experiences with “progressive” educators since the Sixties. These experiences occurred during workshops on “writing as a process”.

Delpit observed that “writing process projects initially attracted a few blacks or minority teachers but soon they dropped out of the program” (p. 16). Delpit believed this happened because of a fundamental cultural conflict. Delpit reminisces that she and other black teachers experienced “a certain paternalism [that] creeps into the speech of some of our liberal colleagues as they explain that our children must be ‘given voice’” (p. 19). Delpit argues that many African-American teachers “have been able to conquer the educational system because they received the kind of instruction that their white progressive colleagues are denouncing” (p. 19). For example, when a black teacher asked her white workshop leader when the “technical skills of writing standard prose” were to be taught, the workshop leader “began to lecture [the black teacher] on the dangers of a skills orientation in teaching literacy.” The black teacher never returned to the workshop (p. 16).
It's amazing to me that some "educators" evidently don't believe that children should be taught the basics of reading and writing.