Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Books You Haven't Read

I was going to blog about this book, but I haven't read it.

Interesting Legal Articles

You never know what will appear in legal journals.

One recent article from the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies:
Why Sexual Penetration Requires Justification

University of Oxford - Worcester College
University of Oxford - Social Sciences Division
Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, p. 467, 2007

This article defends the claim that sexual penetration is a prima facie wrong: it requires justification. We defend this claim by reference to considerations relating the use of physical force required to achieve sexual penetration, the occurrence and risk of harm posed by sexual penetration, and the negative social meaning of sexual penetration in patriarchal societies. The step we take in this article is a preliminary part of a larger project. We are not here directly concerned with questions of criminalisation; we aim simply to map the moral landscape of sexual penetration.
By the way, they're not talking about sex without consent. The top of page 2 clarifies: "The claim that sexual penetration itself calls for justification, as opposed to, say, sexual penetration without consent, will undoubtedly strike many as counterintuitive."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Avoid Simple Carbs

Yet another reason to avoid processed carbohydrates.

UPDATE: More reasons here and here.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Andy McKee

One of the best guitarists I've seen in a long time:

Thanks to my old pal (and former guitar duet partner) Jon Adams of Montana Skies for tipping me off to Andy McKee.

Less is More when Fighting Crime

From ScienceDaily:
A new study suggests that too much money is wasted on low-risk crime targets. Both crime and prison populations could be reduced dramatically by focusing on the “power few” criminals who commit the most crime, according to Lawrence Sherman, Director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and Professor of Criminology at Cambridge University, UK.

Using data across a wide range of research, Sherman shows that most crime is committed by a small fraction of all criminals, at a tiny fraction of all locations, against a tiny fraction of all victims, during a few hours a week. By focusing police, probation, parole, rehabilitation, security and prison resources on these “power few” units with the most crime, the study shows how society could stand a far better chance at crime prevention without raising costs.

* * *

The study shows that the key to making the most out of these extreme concentrations of crime would be to test prevention strategies aimed only at these few crime locations, times, situations, victims or offenders. By investing more effort in experiments aimed at finding effective solutions to the predictably serious crime problem caused by the “needles in the haystack,” governments around the world could move much quicker to reducing crime and violence. By investing equal effort in low-risk and high-risk offenders, these strategies now yield unequal results − wasting most of the money on targets unlikely to cause serious harm.

Journal article: Sherman, LW (2007) The Power Few: Experimental Criminology and the Reduction of Harm Journal of Experimental Criminology, Journal of Experimental Criminology. (DOI 10.1007/s11292-007-9044-y)
I wonder how one is supposed to identify the "small fraction of all criminals" and the "tiny fraction of all victims" ahead of time, rather than in hindsight.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tort Law Poem

In an old notebook, I came across a Dr.-Seuss-style poem that I wrote in my first-year Torts class with Jon Hanson, in the spring of 1998. Law students might enjoy this:
A very, very learned man
Went by the name of Mr. Hand.
A famous judge, he was the sort
Who redefined the law of tort.

The T.J. Hooper was the case,
Where Hand was called upon to face,
A tug that failed to stay afloat.
It even sank another boat.

A sudden storm had struck. Oh no!
The tugboat had no radio.
If it had heard the storm report,
It might have sailed back into port.

But as it was, the boats were lost.
(An example of a true sunk cost.)

The tug was negligent, said Hand.
It should have made it back to land.
A radio would have saved the day.
The tug owner should have to pay.

Defer to custom? No sirree.
The PL here was more than B.
As any idiot would find,
The industry had lagged behind.

And so the story shows, you see,
The potential liability
Resulting when you do not lug
A radio aboard your tug.
UPDATE: The "T.J. Hooper" was a famous case in tort law. Here's an article about the case by Richard Epstein. For the benefit of non-lawyers, here's what the "PL was more than B" line means: the defendant should be held liable if the Burden (B) of preventing a loss is less than the Probability of the Loss (PL). So if you're taking an action with a 10% chance of causing a $100 loss, and it costs you less than $10 to eliminate the risk -- i.e., if PL > B -- then you should have eliminated the risk. But if B > PL, then you shouldn't have to bear that burden.

Overcoming Bias

Yet another thought-provoking post on Overcoming Bias. I liked these paragraphs:
There's chocolate at the supermarket, and you can get to the supermarket by driving, and driving requires that you be in the car, which means opening your car door, which needs keys. If you find there's no chocolate at the supermarket, you won't stand around opening and slamming your car door because the car door still needs opening. I rarely notice people losing track of plans they devised themselves.

It's another matter when incentives must flow through large organizations - or worse, many different organizations and interest groups, some of them governmental. Then you see behaviors that would mark literal insanity, if they were born from a single mind. Someone gets paid every time they open a car door, because that's what's measurable; and this person doesn't care whether the driver ever gets paid for arriving at the supermarket, let alone whether buyer purchases the chocolate, or whether the eater is happy or starving.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Reagan's 1980 Speech

All you ever hear about Reagan's 1980 speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi is that he used the phrase "state's rights." A recent National Review column had a link to the only known recording of that speech, which is here.

What I found really surprising is that while we're constantly reminded that Reagan once invoked the "welfare queen" in a Cadillac, his Mississippi speech took a very different view of welfare recipients -- a view that didn't seem to be calculated to appeal to the prejudices of his white Mississippi audience. Go to about 26:00 on the recording, and Reagan says:
Over recent years with the best intentions, they've create a vast bureaucracy . . . to try and solve all the problems and eliminate all the human misery that they can. They have forgotten that when you create a government bureaucracy, no matter how well-intentioned it is, almost instantly its primary priority becomes preservation of the bureaucracy.

And I know from our own experience in California when we reformed welfare. I know that one of the great tragedies in welfare in American today -- and I don’t believe the stereotype, after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there’s no way they can get away. And they’re trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Math Education

Barry Garelick -- about whose work I've posted twice before -- has an interesting three-part series on the decline of math education. See here, here, and here.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Krugman v. Krugman

UPDATE 11/22/07: Based on new information and comments elsewhere, I think that my original implication of an inconsistency on Krugman's part was incorrect.

* * *

1. Paul Krugman, 2007:
The great Social Security debate of 2005 was a seminal moment for American progressives. Conventional fiscal wisdom in the Beltway was that the aging population is THE big problem — when the truth is that grim long-run fiscal projections mainly reflect projected health care costs. And conventional political wisdom was that the Bush administration’s fear-mongering on the issue would work.

But a determined defense by progressives in the media, on the blogs, and in Congress beat back one spurious argument after another, while the American people made it clear that they really want a program that guarantees a basic retirement income that doesn’t depend on the Dow. And Social Security survived.

All of which makes it just incredible that Barack Obama would make obeisance to fashionable but misguided Social Security crisis-mongering a centerpiece of his campaign. It’s a bad omen; it suggests that he is still, despite all that has happened, desperately seeking approval from Beltway insiders.
2. Paul Krugman, 1996, reviewing "WILL AMERICA GROW UP BEFORE IT GROWS OLD? How the Coming Social Security Crisis Threatens You, Your Family, and Your Country. By Peter G. Peterson."
Responsible adults are supposed to plan more than seven years ahead. Yet if you think even briefly about what the Federal budget will look like in 20 years, you immediately realize that we are drifting inexorably toward crisis; if you think 30 years ahead, you wonder whether the Republic can be saved.

* * *
In short, the Federal Government, however solid its finances may currently appear, is in fact living utterly beyond its means. While the present generation of retirees is doing very nicely, the promises that are being made to those now working cannot be honored.
As far as I can tell, Obama hasn't said anything about Social Security that even remotely approaches Krugman's speculation about the end of the Republic. I wonder whether the financial projections for Social Security have improved that drastically since 1996. [UPDATE: They apparently have.]

UPDATE: To be fair, Krugman in 1996 was talking about Social Security and Medicare together. But he didn't say anything to diminish the role of Social Security in leading to the end of the Republic, nor did he take issue with the title of one of the books he was reviewing ("How the Coming Social Security Crisis Threatens You, Your Family, and Your Country").

UPDATE: Krugman's column today -- "Played for a Sucker" -- is even more critical of Obama and of the notion that Social Security is in any kind of "crisis":
But the “everyone” who knows that Social Security is doomed doesn’t include anyone who actually understands the numbers. In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided.

* * *

How has conventional wisdom gotten this so wrong? Well, in large part it’s the result of decades of scare-mongering about Social Security’s future from conservative ideologues, whose ultimate goal is to undermine the program.

* * *

But Social Security isn’t a big problem that demands a solution; it’s a small problem, way down the list of major issues facing America, that has nonetheless become an obsession of Beltway insiders. And on Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want.

We all wish that American politics weren’t so bitter and partisan. But if you try to find common ground where none exists — which is the case for many issues today — you end up being played for a fool. And that’s what has just happened to Mr. Obama.
Of course, perhaps the financial projections for Social Security have indeed improved drastically since 1996, but Krugman owes his readership an explanation.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman gives an explanation here: "
As for what I wrote in 1996: the world looked very different then. On one side, Social Security projections were much more pessimistic than they are now, basically because the projections assumed that the 1973-1995 era of very slow productivity growth would go on forever. On the other side, the 90s were the era of the great pause in health expenditures, the (it turned out) brief era in which the rise of managed care stabilized health spending as a share of GDP. So Medicare and Medicaid looked less important as sources of fiscal problems than they do now.
I'm trying to figure out exactly what changed about "productivity growth." In any event, I think any implication of an inconsistency on Krugman's part was wrong. If the projections now are that much more favorable than they were in 1996, then Krugman was quite right to change his mind.

UPDATE AGAIN: In comments, Drake points to a comment by Bloix on another blog, which also gives a pretty convincing explanation:
[Krugman's] point [in '96] is that all funding of all entitlements for the elderly - Social Security plus Medicare - is unsustainable and will cause a crisis. He doesn't separate out Social Security funding from Medicare funding.

But as he came to understand, it is a mistake to conflate Social Security and Medicare, because the funding sources are different and "reform" of one has no affect on the other. Nonetheless, people who want to privatize - that is, repeal - Social Security like to use the coming Medicare crisis to argue that Social Security is in crisis.

* * *

In 1996, Krugman was thinking about entitlements generally, because no one was trying to destroy Social Security. In this decade, he's been focused on the specific programs, because he's now participating in a political debate over privatisation that didn't exist in 1996.

So it's not that Social Security faces no challenges; it's that in the current situation, and given that Medicare is manifestly the more pressing problem, the focus on Social Security by its friends is misbegotten, and by its foes suspiciously artificial.

Monday, November 12, 2007

McWhorter v. Loury

A very worthwhile Bloggingheads debate.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Congratulations to my good friend and classmate Jay Webber, who was just elected to the New Jersey Assembly.

Other classmates in politics include: Jake Zimmerman (Missouri state representative), twin brothers Julian and Joaquin Castro (San Antonio city council and Texas state representative), and Mike Leiter (deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center).

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Ezra Klein on Vouchers

Ezra Klein has this to say about vouchers:
Since I've been involved in this debate, I've been trying to read up on the various voucher programs that have actually been implemented. To that end, I just grabbed RAND's Rhetoric versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Voucher and Charter Schools. RAND, it goes without saying, is no hotbed of left wingery. But their "Academic Achievement" section begins with this:
The newest experimental voucher evidence comes from the federally sponsored voucher program in Washington DC, established in 2004, known as the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. . . . The authors found no impact, positive or negative, on average test scores in reading or math. Similarly, they found no impact of the effect of using a voucher to attend a private school on average reading or math test scores.
Given that a lot of this conversation has actually been about the DC public school system, this data is relatively important. Again, it doesn't mean that experimentation couldn't have positive impacts -- say, under charter schools, where pubic accountability is retained -- but this intense focus on vouchers stems from a commitment to economic orthodoxy, not because the programs have any proven results.
Ezra is quoting from page 80 in that RAND report. But if you continue to page 83:
Although we do not address all of the technical points here, our bottom-line conclusion is that the New York voucher experiment provides fairly strong evidence that the voucher offer benefited the achievement of many participating African-American students.

Similar randomized voucher experiments have been conducted in three other cities. In Dayton, Ohio, and Washington DC (in 1998), and in Charlotte, North Carolina (in 1999), nonprofit organizations distributed tuition scholarships to low-income students, allocating the scholarships by lottery in imitation of the New York program. . . .

Averaged across the three cities, the effect was equal to approximately one-third of a standard deviation — fairly large in terms of most educational interventions, equal to about one-third of the average racial gap in achievement in the country.
And on page 84:
Meanwhile, in Charlotte, Jay Greene used the voucher lottery to examine achievement after one year and found statistically significant advantages for voucher students in both reading and math. This positive voucher effect corresponds to 0.25 standard deviation. The Charlotte results are not disaggregated by ethnicity, but the overwhelming majority of participants were African-American. In sum, the experimental voucher findings are largely positive for African-American children (although no effects have become apparent after one year of participation in the federally funded voucher program in DC).
After discussing some concerns (such as attrition in the programs), the RAND report concludes:
Despite these concerns, the findings from the experimental studies constitute the most compelling evidence available on the achievement effects of vouchers (for voucher students).
Anyone who cites the RAND report should acknowledge that it deems the "most compelling evidence" on the subject to be the many studies showing significant achievement gains for black students.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein has a new post on vouchers. Rather than supplementing the record, he says this:
I've posted the conclusions of books, studies, and RAND monographs. Voucher programs simply haven't worked.
That's not a fair representation of what the RAND report says.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Two Items

1. From a long NY Times article on philosopher Antony Flew's seeming conversion to some sort of deism:
Intellectuals, even more than the rest of us, like to believe that they reach conclusions solely through study and reflection. But like the rest of us, they sometimes choose their opinions to suit their friends rather than the other way around. Which means that Flew is likely to remain a theist, for just as the Christians drew him close, the atheists gave him up for lost.

2. From a Mark Steyn speech on the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, which I remember struggling through when I was 13:
“Popular culture” is more accurately a “present-tense culture”: You’re celebrating the millennium but you can barely conceive of anything before the mid-1960s. We’re at school longer than any society in human history, entering kindergarten at four or five and leaving college the best part of a quarter-century later—or thirty years later in Germany. Yet in all those decades we exist in the din of the present. A classical education considers society as a kind of iceberg, and teaches you the seven-eighths below the surface. Today, we live on the top eighth bobbing around in the flotsam and jetsam of the here and now. And, without the seven-eighths under the water, what’s left on the surface gets thinner and thinner.

* * *

Popular culture used to be very at ease with the inheritance of the past. One of the trends of the last forty years is not just the vanishing of “high culture” but of low-culture jokes about high culture—the variety-show sketches in which Schubert’s mates urge him to come down the pub with him and he says “No, I’ve got to stay in and finish my symphony.” It assumes a residual familiarity—from some half-recalled school lesson—with a bloke called Schubert who wrote an “Unfinished Symphony.”

* * *

The old middle-brow middle-class couples who subscribed to the symphony every season and dutifully sat there through Beethoven, Bartók, Brahms, and Bernstein are all but extinct, and pitied for their inability to cut loose and boogie in the same way we feel sorry for those trapped in a loveless marriage. What a difference it would make if grade-schoolers could know just enough of a smattering of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to recognize the excellent joke “The Simpsons” makes of it. What an achievement it would be if every high-school could acquire a classical catalogue as rich as that used in Looney Tunes when Elmer Fudd goes hunting Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. Carl Stalling, who scored those cartoons, often fell back on formula: If someone was in a cave, the orchestra would play “Fingal’s Cave.” But you can’t even do that any more, because no-one gets the joke.
Sad but true. Steyn also makes this intriguing point:
Imagine if talking pictures hadn’t been invented in 1927, but eighty years later, in 2007. Do you think Hollywood studios today would conclude that they needed to hire house composers and full orchestras to accompany the drama with symphonic scores? Something we take for granted about the form of modern talking pictures—dialogue accompanied by orchestral music—arose from a particular kind of cultural aspiration that no longer exists.

Education as Credentialing

Via Marginal Revolution, I see this interview with sociologist Randall Collins, author of (among other things) "The Credential Society." (About which, see here and here).

Here's what he says about credentialing:
One of my regrets doing lots of different stuff is that you can’t always follow up stuff that you’ve done earlier. I predicted some twenty years ago that the dynamics of the credential seeking process would lead to further inflationary effects. And as far as I can see that certainly has happened. I’ve written a little about this recently, mainly because I’m interested in the question, “Can education inflation go on indefinitely?” The difference that emerges here between a monetary system and educational credentials is that it is pretty costless to produce more money. All you have to do is have the government change the denomination on the bills, so you end up like Yugoslavia with a million dinars equalling a penny. But it is expensive to produce more educational credentials. At some point the cost side of it is going to kick in and constrain the inflationary side of it. . . .

The major problem of education is basically stratification. Not everyone does well because basically this is a system of getting credentials and some people are going to get the best jobs out of this. The more people compete the more inflationary it is. I haven’t seen a single politician who has figured that out. Maybe it’s intractable. Maybe nobody wants to think about this. Okay, let’s get all the lowest students better, so what? So they will all become Ph.D.’s in physics? Or will it just be that you need a Ph.D. to get a job at McDonalds? I think it’s a major issue of stratification in the future; it deserves more analysis.
Collins later adds this admirably frank explanation for why he quit publishing in that area (his explanation sheds some light on why not many professors are willing to question the economic utility of increased education):
On the other hand, the other policy issue that I was really interested in early on in my life, namely educational stratification, educational credentialism, I realized, after I published my book on this in 1979, I realized, you know, if I keep on trying to make this, get this argument across to the public, I should put myself in to be Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education. Because the conservatives want to get rid of the education system too. At least they did at that time. So, I said, “I’m really just attacking the organization in which we all work and make our living.” We make our living off this expanding credential system." So, I thought, “I think I’ll switch to something else.”


Friday, November 02, 2007


Some folks have suggested that vouchers don't "work," by which they apparently mean that vouchers haven't, all by themselves, eliminated the racial achievement gap in education. I'd like to make two points about this:

1. Who ever said that test scores are the sole end of education? That certainly doesn't seem to be the attitude among liberals whenever the topic is anything besides vouchers and charter schools. In fact, I'd say that the strongest case for vouchers is equity, autonomy, and choice -- all of which are values that liberals claim to support in other areas. See James Forman's excellent article, "The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First.

In addition, vouchers often make parents happier and put kids in schools that have less violence; they seem to put some competitive pressure on public schools to improve; they tend to promote civic and democratic values among students; and they sometimes allow students to attend more racially integrated schools. Again, these are all values that liberals would otherwise claim to support; I've never heard a good faith explanation as to why every value except for test scores should be thrown out the window when the word "voucher" is uttered.

2. Even if you dismiss all of the above evidence and think that test scores are the sole measure of success, the scholarly literature is sometimes ambiguous but often positive on the question of test scores. There are several studies showing at least modest increases in test scores from vouchers, or from Catholic schools more generally. For example, Angrist et al. had a couple of papers in the American Economic Review; see here and here. They found that a large voucher program in Colombia, with lottery assignment, caused a 0.2 standard deviation increase in test scores, along with a 15-20% increased chance of graduating from high school. Vouchers are no panacea, but no one ever said they were. The point is, if you dismiss these results as insignificant (substantively, not statistically), you'll also have to dismiss pretty much every liberal educational policy that has ever been tried.

To be sure, there are some studies that have failed to find positive effects of vouchers, or that have played with the specifications until a positive result could be eliminated, but no one seems to think that vouchers actually harm test scores. Even Martin Carnoy -- an opponent of vouchers -- conceded in his own research on Chile that "Catholic voucher schools are somewhat more effective than public schools," and that "non-religious schools are more efficient, by virtue of producing academic achievement at a lower cost."