Friday, May 28, 2010

DIYU v. the skepticism of the commons

My Salon post about the DIYU book got noticed, the author sent me a copy, I reviewed it, and lately I've following the progress of the book through blogville in a not at all creepy or stalkerish way.

In this post, Rortybomb (aka. Mike Konczal) seems to be arguing that "free" educational resources aren't free enough. Until they're rammed down the throat of every man, woman, and child, they will serve only to exacerbate the power inequalities between people.

Okay, that's a grossly distorted characterization of his argument. Read the whole thing. But I think he overstates his case, and offers little in the way of solutions.

Two obvious points come to mind. First, open source textbooks aren't genomic data. They're written in one or more human readable languages, with pictures and whatnot. They're much easier to digest than ATGCCAGTCTCAGATTACATCGATCAAGAABAGTCCC.* Second, even if a piece of data is useful only to a handful of genetics PhDs, that's a far broader access than if it were only useful to the subset of PhDs who happen to work for a specific biotech company.

Which leads to broader point 2b: the only thing that happens when you open source something (like a textbook, or a video lecture) is that certain restrictions that would allow for monopolizing/rent-seeking/whatever-the-cool-kids-in-econ-call-it behavior. Open sourcing isn't magic pixie dust that will usher in the hippie singularity, but I'm not understanding how opening education resources can do anything to make learning less democratic. Really, it's like objecting to a public library in a town where not everyone can read.

I believe the conclusion Rortybomb is drawing from that is that some structure will still be needed to guide the students through the material, to make it accessible. That's true, but it seems like a trivial point. Do people really think that in a DIYU model, five year olds would be handed an iPhone loaded with a hodgepodge of textbooks, reference material, and video, and told to come back when they're ready to enter the job market? Judging by some of the arguments, it seems that way.

The takeaway line seems to confirm this:

Will a self-directed educational goal primarily benefit those with stable homes and the time and capital to cultivate this? Is "DIY U" accessible according to need? This is the framework I think of as I read and explore this work.
So, even under the worst-case scenario, we end up with an education that is nearly as stratified and inaccessible as the one we have today?

I often cite the statistic that, in America, the least academically successful quarter of the children from the wealthiest quarter of families are slightly more likely to graduate from college than the most academically talented quarter of the children from the poorest quarter of families. We also live in the country with the greatest disparity between the performances of the financially best and worst-off students.

The college education we offer now is too expensive, too inflexible, and doesn't fail gracefully when confronted with students whose lives are full of the disruptions and distractions caused by poverty. Some DIY U critics write as though they skipped over the entire Part I of the book -- the part that explains how the system got so screwed up in the first place -- then apply absurd standards of perfection to proposed open education systems.

How will the poor access DIY U? How do they access education now?

Where will the money come from to create all these free textbooks and course materials? Maybe from the tiny sliver of the billions of dollars that students are now paying for overpriced textbooks. It doesn't all have to go back into beer money.

But what will they read them on? Probably an iPad-like device that now costs about as much as a semester worth of books, and will be radically cheaper and more useful in five years.

How will teachers get paid at DIY U? They'll be paid for services rendered, I suppose. Relieved of much of the burden of delivering prepared lectures, creating course materials, and administering tests to assess student progress, they'll have more time to do the sort of one-on-one coaching on areas where the students need the most help. There will always be structures designed to connect those who want to teach with those who want to learn. An educated citizenry is a clear public good, and much of today's education spending is wasted. If this radical transformation requires a bit of government spending or some money from students to get the incentives right, I think it will happen.

I do worry that the open education movement might inadvertently reduce the size of what you might call "the academic class." But given that the demand for education currently outstrips the supply, I'm betting that there will be jobs aplenty for the foreseeable future.

* I'm pretty sure that string is in my genetic makeup somewhere, and that it will kill me before I turn fifty. The 'B' has me especially worried.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

During World War I and World War II, Great Britain was threatened with extinction. Enemies hounded its shores, its people lived in a state of material deprivation, and the nation mourned daily the loss of friends and family who died on the front lines.

Under such conditions, what would you imagine happened to the health and life expectancy of the non-combat population?

A) Health and life expectancy worsened.

B) Health and life expectancy improved.

Obviously, we would expect the answer to be A, but since that would be unsurprising and uninteresting, the answer is of course B. According to the excellent new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger*, the British society of that era had several characteristics that led to greater health and longer lives (with lower crime rates, too):

  • Full employment.
  • An erosion of class distinctions and class consciousness.
  • Greater social cohesion.
  • Narrowed income inequality, caused by a fall in middle class wages and a rise in working class wages.

Some of you, having read this far, may be asking themselves, "Are the authors saying that we should have more wars?" or "Are the authors advocating Communism?"

Yes. Yes they are. That is exactly what the authors are saying. Now please go away. The grownups are trying to have a chat.

In The Spirit Level, the authors collect evidence that countries with narrower income inequality show remarkably good results in a number of social metrics:

  • Longer life expectancy
  • Better health at all ages
  • Reduced infant mortality
  • Higher educational achievement
  • Lower homicide rates
  • Lower rates of petty crime
  • Lower teen pregnancy rates
  • Lower incarceration rates
  • Higher rates of social mobility
  • Lower rates of illegal drug use
  • Lower rates of homelessness

A few caveats and details: The authors are making comparisons only between relatively wealthy, industrialized societies. Think U.S. vs. U.K. or Norway or Japan, not U.S. vs. Cuba** or Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. Among the poorest countries, the best predictor of how well a country is doing is (unsurprisingly) median income. Among the wealthy countries studied, median income predicts almost nothing.

The authors also present their evidence in such a way that it becomes immune to the standard right-wing counterattacks that afflict most comparisons between countries. Usually, if you say something like, "The United States has the same infant mortality rate as Cuba," you could expect a cleaver critic to try to undermine the comparison by citing some difference in how the data is collected and reported, while a slow critic would just say, "But we don't want to be Cuba."

But the authors rarely compare two countries. Instead, what they do -- repeatedly, and to great effect -- is plot the countries on a chart with two axes, with the y-axis showing some rate of some metric of social well-being (obesity, drug use, life expectancy, etc.) and the x-axis showing that country's level of income inequality***, then show the trendline that best fits the data (if such a trend is statistically significant).

So if you don't like the way Italy collects its teen pregnancy stats, or think France's life expectancy is some artifact of their diet, throw both points out. The trendline remains.

They also make all the same comparisons between the fifty states of the U.S., and invariably find the same correlations between income inequality and societal outcomes. "Icelanders just eat more fish" does nothing to explain why Texas has a longer life expectancy than Kentucky, but a shorter life expectancy than Utah.(*4)

That's the beauty of statistical analysis: when you have twenty or fifty points all helping to paint the same picture, the individual quirks of given states and population tend to get averaged out.

A challenge to right-wing orthodoxy

The results really are counterintuitive, and I think they represent a serious challenge to the whole right-wing, laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog orthodoxy. Here is just one example:

Imagine two relatively wealthy, industrialized societies. In society A, the price for not getting a good education is a life of poverty and shame. In society B, there is little market incentive not to squander your education, because the government provides generous welfare and unemployment benefits.

In Society A, the wealthiest people (those in the top 20%) make about ten times as much as the poorest people (those in the bottom 20%) do, so the rewards for being ambitious and doing well in school are huge. In Society B, the same comparison shows the wealthiest members of society only make about four times what the poorest do, so there is markedly less financial incentive to do well in school.

In Society A, polls of high school students show that almost all of them want to attend college. In Society B, a large fraction of the students say that they'd be happy with trade school. Thus, you would expect students in Society A to be more motivated to excel in their college preparatory work.

No surprise, Society A is the U.S., Society B is Finland, and despite what a social darwinist right winger would say are strong disincentives against performing well in school -- no chance at great wealth if you succeed, no risk of poverty if you fail -- Finnish kids outperform American kids by a wide margin. An interesting feature of this gap is that it is narrower when comparing the children of our wealthiest to the children of their wealthiest, and widens steadily as we go down the socioeconomic ladders.

It's almost as though giving kids security about their future and their place in society leads to a more conducive learning environment. But no, that's crazy.

One other example: while highly-paid sports teams win more games than low-paid sports teams, those teams with big gaps between their best-paid and worst-paid players tend to win fewer games than would be predicted by aggregate salary.


I hope you're convinced now that these correlations exist. But if they're so compelling, what causes them? I accept the explanations provided by the authors, which can be boiled down to this: we are status-obsessed monkey people who get stressed and freak out when we don't feel accepted within the social order.

This makes all kinds of evolutionary sense. In the world that molded our monkey brains, there was no more important resource -- or more pressing danger -- than the monkeys around you. If you were an accepted part of the tribe, you could expect a share of their food, protection from outside threats, and opportunities to procreate. If you were not a part of the tribe, you might be beaten, driven away from sources of food and water, or killed outright. The ability to read the social landscape, to know who was allied with who, who might be expected to return altruistic gestures, and how to keep yourself in the good graces of the tribe, were critical skills, and those who excelled at them got vast evolutionary rewards.

It's no wonder that so much of our conversation revolves around who likes who, who is fighting with who, who just broke up and why, ad nauseam. It's also no wonder that politicians spend their careers promising to do things that will increase your opportunity to improve your social status (jobs programs, homebuyer incentives, assistance with student loans, etc.) or promising to protect us from those who would reduce our social status (welfare recipients, illegal immigrants, big business) or demonizing those who seem to give their base inadequate respect (East-coast liberal elites, academics, fundamentalists of all stripes).

Studies in animals show that moving an ape from a population where he is the alpha male to a population where he is the... omega male? What do they call the animal at the bottom of the totem pole? Anyhow, moving to the other population will dramatically raise his cortisol levels, meaning that he is under stress, which has strong life-shortening, mood-altering consequences.

All this indicates that humans don't generally do well at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy.

So now what?

In light of this, what sort of policies should we be pursuing? Here are a few suggestions.

Treat conspicuous consumption as pollution. Like pollution, ostentatious displays of wealth have negative effects on those downstream.

Treat marketing as pollution. The most effective advertisements are often the ones that target your sense of social status. Your teeth are unacceptably yellowed. Your flabbiness tells others that you are lazy, and causes them to find you unattractive. What does your car say about you? A certification in the hot new field of penitentiary services is a ticket to a better life. You need makeup. Now you need better makeup. Your hair color doesn't "pop". Your acne repulses even your best friends. Your Mac tells people that you are a creative person who recognizes quality craftsmanship(*5).

There is something immoral about attacking peoples' insecurities in order to make a buck. But in the United States it is not only perfectly legal, it's tax deductible. Advertising -- even excessive, Nike-scale advertising -- is treated as a business expense. We're effectively paying Pepsi thirty cents for every dollar they spend blighting the landscape with billboards. Advertising works by trying to make people unhappy enough about themselves to buy a product, and the negative influence of advertising needs to be confronted.

We need more equal outcomes, not just more equal opportunity. The more unequal a society is, the harder a sell this one becomes. If you're already extremely conscious of social status, you're already primed to fear that such measures may reduce your ability to improve or maintain your own status. The Right will take advantage of that.

But facts are stubborn things. It's easy to speak glowingly about living in a meritocratic, equal-opportunity, colorblind society where hard work is rewarded with great wealth. It's much harder to do so while simultaneously explaining why generational wealth and poverty persist in such a paradise of opportunity, or why the United States ranks lower in many measures of social mobility than the supposedly crippled economies of Europe.

It's easy and cheap to shame the poor into believing they are wholly responsible for their lot in life. But those who want to do so are trying to lower the bar by which we judge policy; rather than demanding that policies demonstrate good outcomes based on hard numbers, they want us to be satisfied with a notion of equality that can be endlessly redefined to suit their agenda.

Attack inequality directly with greater educational funding for the poor, higher minimum wages, more generous unemployment benefits, universal health care, high taxes on excessive concentrations of private wealth, caps on CEO pay, and other measures. Replace the income and social security taxes of most Americans with a carbon tax (while expanding the EITC to fight the somewhat regressive nature of a carbon tax). Research ways to make education more affordable, effective, and accessible.

If the authors are correct, doing this will not only reduce poverty, but slim our waistlines, increase our life expectancy, reduce crime rates, and cause a whole host of other social goods.

Will it work? I think it's worth a try.

* The subtitle of the UK version was, "Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better."

** Though Cuba does have some notable features which are discussed in the book. For example, it manages to have a life expectancy on par with the United States despite living in what we would consider extreme poverty. Also, it has the highest U.N. Human Development Index rating of any country which has what the World Wildlife Fund calls "a sustainable ecological footprint."

*** I believe they use the Gini coefficient, but they claim that the specific measurement used doesn't make any difference to their findings.

**** Note that we're discussing statistically significant trends in noisy data, not perfectly linear correlations where a certain amount of increase in inequality always results in a proportional increase or decrease in obesity or life expectancy. For example, New York ranks #1 in income inequality, and it's not even a close contest. Yet it has nearly the same life expectancy of Utah (the second most equal state), and a way higher life expectancy than Arkansas.

While the authors never explicitly mention it, my impression of the many, many charts is that classic "blue states" (states with strong commitment to social welfare, that traditionally vote Democratic, like California, New York, Massachusetts, and Hawaii) tend to overperform the trendline. That is to say, they seem to do better than you would expect just by looking at inequality in isolation. Southern red states seem to underperform, though Utah seems to overperform somewhat.

I'll hazard a guess about Utah: it's the Church. We have to get our sense of social unity and equality from somewhere, and for a big chunk of the Utah population, membership in the Church provides that. I saw it as a member; no matter who you were, what you did for a living, or what marks of social status you had or lacked, as long as you were an active member you had a clear path to social acceptability.

***** Written on a Mac.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Repost: I guess the future of a Master of the Universe

Specifically, the future of this guy. The missive is truly vile, and whether it was written by an actual trader or someone trying to embarrass traders, I think it comes close to the way a lot of Wall Streeters actually think of themselves. So I think he gets off easy in my version of events.


Nor do I expect "Wall Street" to maintain his vaunted work ethic when he's earning $10-$50/hr for his efforts, and not $200-$500.

Here's how I think it might play out.

He loses his job. The collapse of Wall Street makes it impossible to find another trading position. He never set much money away because, hey, there was more where that came from, right? His girlfriend dumps him when she realizes that, without his money, he's just a kinda short, pudgy guy with a hairline that's already starting to recede.

Broken and humiliated, he moves back to his home town. He even has to live with his parents for three months while he job hunts. Finally, he manages to find a teaching position.

He soon realizes that his herculean efforts won't be rewarded with sportscars, coke-fueled orgies, or the bragging rights that come from being among the best-compensated workers in America. He figures out that he's not God's gift to the teaching profession, that try as he might he can't actually teach kids better than the middle-aged woman one classroom over. He notices that wiping the noses of third graders doesn't give him the same surge of adrenaline that he once got placing million dollar bets with other peoples' money. It dawns on him that he can't teach the kids twice as much by pounding a Red Bull and talking twice as fast. In fact, he doesn't even like his new job; most days, he'd be happy to quit, and would happily take a pay cut to be back at Goldman Sachs.

He starts thinking about how it's time to start writing that novel or taking a vacation to Europe. He notices that he has time to date. He takes up that sketching hobby that he dropped after high school, and realizes that hey, he's still got it.

He meets a girl. She's unambitious and her specialty is French literature, not corporate mergers. She's nothing like his last girlfriend, which he finds oddly refreshing. One thing leads to another. Finally, despite her misgivings, she moves in with him, and her little dog too. He thought he'd hate the dog, but soon finds out that he enjoys long walks and that "I want to be you" look that the dog gives him from time to time, the same look the waiters at those high class restaurants used to give him.

The girl drags him off to Burning Man. Amid the dust and the fire, he breaks down. The life he has been missing all these years is gone, and the new life he's stumbled into is more beautiful and more perfect than his old, unworthy ambitions deserved. He says to hell with it: he likes who he is now, and doesn't care what his old self or his old trading buddies would think.

He asks his girlfriend to marry him.

She says yes.

He's no longer a Master of the Universe. He's barely master of an unruly mob of third graders. But he's no longer consumed by the arrogance or the ambition that once caused him to write that embarrassing e-mail, so he no longer needs to be a Master. He just needs to be.

Wall Street has a uniquely unhealthy culture where money matters more than people and you're only as good as your next trade. I suspect that most of the Wall Streeters are ruthless bastards because on Wall Street, being a ruthless bastard is a mark of honor. They see themselves as the real driving force behind America's prosperity because, hey, most everyone does; everyone wants to feel like their work is important, and Wall Street Traders are no exception. They see the poor as either parasites or rubes because it's hard to sleep at night if you believe deep down that you're bilking unwary grandmothers of their pensions.

Besides, Atlas Shrugged is probably the only fiction the author has read since he got his job, and that only because everyone around him was telling him how awesome it was.

The point is, we're naturally egotistical, rationalizing creatures, and never more so than when that ego is being fueled by million dollar bonuses. It's easy to see how someone under the influence could look at their paychecks and see evidence of their innate moral worth, rather than the good fortune of having one particularly well-remunerated skillset.

Mister "We Are Wall Street," if you ever read this, I don't judge you harshly. That rant was ugly and out-of-touch, but I've written quite a few of those myself, and I know how much fun they are. Your belief that the people below depend upon your largesse, or that we should tremble to compete with you in the job market, says more about you -- or at least the culture of Wall Street -- than it does about the real world. When you decide that you can't handle another year of eighty hour work weeks, and want to try your hand at a simpler life, we welcome you to join us.