Friday, February 25, 2011

Earworm Idiocy

At some point over the past week I heard that "The People United Will Never be . . ." chant. In my head ever since, I have heard for the never be part: excited, invited, afrighted, and all manner of other nonsense. God help us or rather me.

Motto for the Next Generation

In the thread to this post over to Ballon Juice, I found the following comment:

In my county we’re now suffering the effects of having elected a county executive who promised to “run the county like a business” and has yet to discover that you can’t run something like a business that isn’t one. Why people always fall for this I do not know.
Followed by:
Somehow “Let’s run the county like a county” doesn’t pull in the votes, even though you would think it hard to argue with.
I would add lets run our educational systems like educational systems and not paper mills but yes, by all means, lets get back to running the country like it's a country instead of engaging in the useless fiction that MBAs and economists are ideally suited to run the world.

Read the Damn Book: Baumol Edition

Recently, Matthew Yglesias argued that the Baumol Effect required lowering educators wages. Foolishly, I took him at his word that the Wikipedia entry offered an accurate account of Baumol's argument. I may have done so because of his truly magnificent econ cred:
I’ve never actually taken an intro economics course. The best I can say is that I have read both the Krugman and the Mankiw textbooks and I think I understand the material well enough to be taken seriously by economics bloggers with PhDs and everything.
As it turns out, of course, I was wrong. Baumol's essay is titled "The Macroeconomics of Unbalanced Growth: The Anatomy of Urban Crisis."[1] In it he argues that increased productivity can led to increased wages so long as unions exist to see that the gains from reduced labor costs are translated into wage increases and that cities cannot overcome the problems of urban decay without increased federal subsidies for things like culture and education. He also rejects increased reliance on teaching technology to improve educators productivity as being kind of creepy. Mark Kleiman endorses Yglesias' misreading of Baumol's argument and insist that the way forward is more reliance on teaching technology.

This last point is especially unnerving. Kleiman argues, inter alia, that
[t]he future of education is for students to educate themselves, individually and in groups, with the help of computers, networks of computers, recorded media (including, of course, the greatest educational innovation of all, the printed book), and the skilled facilitation of a relatively small number of live helpers. If you think it’s impossible to get masses of young people to spend astounding numbers of hours on cognitively-demanding tasks, then how do you explain the success of the video-game industry?
And insists that
yes, that means universities, too. How many people, right now, are preparing to give a lecture tomorrow in introductory economics or organic chemistry? And how many of those lectures have more educational value than would a video of the best such lecture being given tomorrow? Or, better yet, a professionally-produced lecture on DVD, with hot-links to relevant materials?
While he (grudgingly?) admits that professors also create new knowledge, he seems confident that that difficulty can be got around.

Leaving aside the evidence that distance learning of the sort he advocates hasn't worked nearly as well as the video game industry in capturing the leaders of all of our tommorrows' imagination. How, one wonders, do we identify the "best" introductory lecture in economics?  Is it the one in which Keynes is right or its opposite? The one where Adam Smith loved capitalism or the one where Smith thought that market based economic exchange freed from the distortions of mercantilism but regulated to protect against nefarious businessmen did a better job of channeling  humanity's essential concupiscence into socially beneficial results?  What about the ever increasing difficulties in selected the best lectures on any subject in the disciplines of literature, history, sociology, anthropology, and so on.

Kleiman's position essentially constrains us to agree to transform our institutions of higher learning into a series of technical schools teaching only those subjects in which a command of a discrete set of facts whose mastery enables the holder to perform some activity or another, like designing a building's plumbing, and assumes that the discrete set of facts is now and forever perfect.

For if you eliminate more teaching positions, who is going to train to get a PhD and thus add to our shared stock of knowledge?  The market for academic positions has already cratered and the process of getting a PhD in any discipline and then a full time position is already as competitive as getting into professional sports; does Kleiman actually think that reducing the positions will solve that problem.

Right now my money is on Baumol in terms of the appropriate response to the effect, should it in fact exist, more subsidies and stronger unions while eschewing the mechanization of education because information isn't knowledge and a world in which students gain their understanding of complex issues from one great video game isn't one I'd want to occupy.

[1] You can find Baumol's text on the Intertubes with minimal googling.  You can also find Brian Champman's “Baumol’s Disease”: The Pandemic That Never Was," which discusses contemporary criticism and adds some of his own.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bike Wants

I want this:

Improvement Doesn't Just Happen

Matthew Yglesias busy being wrong about educational reform, which ought include, he thinks, less unions writes:
Say it’s true that we don’t know how to make schools better
A chart and an explanation of the chart:
 The circled numbers show how American students compared to the average of the entire dozen countries. In 1964, we were 0.35 standard deviations below the mean. In the most recent tests, we were only 0.06 and 0.18 standard deviations below the mean. In other words, our performance had improved.
We know that Yglesias' preferred modes of reform don't work; so from where came this gradual improvement in "measurable" educational outcomes? From professional educators being left alone to do what they know seventy-bazillion times better than Ygelsias, who hasn't a clue about what he's talking about.

It's just bizarre how people who know nothing insist that if we react to a non-crisis in a field that engages in constant conversation about how to do what it does better conclude that the solution to the non-problem involves implementation of economically based solutions, likeforcing them to be like the Olive Garden.

Food or People are Crazy

Michele Obama ate a dinner that included short ribs and the Conservatives went ballistic because of the hypocrisy of some one who encourages Americans to eat sensible ate sensibly.

This is Odd

According to this article, a general in Afghanistan tried to use soldiers trained in psy-ops/propaganda to manipulate US politicians and others.  On the whole, the article has a kind of Seven Days in May sound to it. Fortunately, Patreaus promised to never run for office. So we needn't worry


For reasons having mostly to do with Western Civilization and the evolving notion of what and where Europe is, I know quite a bit about the Ottoman Empire and its successor state. I did not, however, know anything about this trial, which is really disturbing.

Coincidental, I am Sure

No doubt the thingy in the Wisconsin budget that allows the state to sell its power plants to whomever for whatever isn't a potential gift to someone or another. But still
Energy client is looking for experienced Plant Managers for multiple power plants located in Wisconsin. You need 15+ years of operations & maintenance experience in a power plant environment. You should have at least 5 years of experience managing operations & maintenance teams in an operational power plant. The ideal candidate has experience in a coal fired power plant. Salary is commensurate with experience.

via the comments to this post.

Empiricism: Reality Bites Edition

 Not content with being profoundly silly and wrong about education and history, Matthew Yglesiashas decided to be silly and wrong about industrial policies and economic opportunity. He insists that making things is making things and restaurants can replace factories as engines of economic opportunity. Empirical reality suggests that he has yet again embarrassed himself.

As I mentioned a Koch Brothers owned paper mill recently laid off 158 workers and replaced them with machines. In that post, I used the figure of 30k per worker: I was wrong to guess. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean salary for all workers in the productive side of the paper mill industry is 43,670. The mean for food prepares and related jobs in full service restaurants is 21,150 and the mean for managers is 53,750. So it's true, I guess, that if all 158 displaced workers find work as full service restaurant managers, which is impossible, they will be better off. If, on the other hand, they end up in the elsewhere in the full service restaurant industry making things, they will be much worse off. The reason, in other words, people want to increase the number of factory jobs want to increase the number of factory jobs is that they pay better, for which fact we can all thank, or -- if you're a Neoliberal and hate people-- blame, unions.

Of course, we could also all go to work at Olive Gardens and live here, it's only 200 bucks and it's size would allow for high-density Hoovervilles.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Koch and Walker Discussing Various Matters

Here is an prank call from someone pretending to be David Koch and someone actually being Scott Walker. It is sort of mind blowing. Here is one elevated exchange:
Koch: Beautiful; beautiful. You gotta love that Mika Brzezinski; she’s a real piece of ass.
Walker: Oh yeah. [story about when he hung out with human pig Jim Sensenbrenner at some D.C. function and he was sitting next to Brzezinski and her father, and their guest was David Axelrod. He introduced himself.]
Koch: That son of a bitch!
Walker: Yeah no kidding huh?…
The Koch Brothers have supported Walker for years and yet he doesn't know what they sound like? He is truly dumber than he looks. And, yes, it's real.

In China

Chinese activists are calling on the fellow citizens to meet up in 13 different cities and once there
We invite every participant to stroll, watch, or even just pretend to pass by. As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear.
It would seem that getting rid of authoritarian regimes really is a walk in the proverbial park.

You Can't Buy Freedom

In this week's New Yorker, John Cassidy has a sort of review essay in which he considers and then rejects the notion that Islam causes underdevelopment; for obvious reasons Weber's Protestant Ethic is central to the debate.  It's a perfectly fine little essay; what struck me, however, were its opening lines, which really have nothing to do with essay's overarching argument. Cassidy writes:
After the revolution comes the test of governing. From Paris in 1789 to Cairo and Tunis in 2011, the task is the same: translating the euphoria of the uprising into lasting material progress.
Is that right?  Is economic growth that central to the revolutionary impulse? In 1789 there were, obviously, all manner of economic systems suggested and demands made but was the tulmult really about "lasting material progress" as opposed to say creating new and better political and social arrangements? There were as many if not more proposals for political organization and social alteration as ever there were for economic reorganization.  Unless there is some clause in the Declaration I missed, the complaints I read there are all political and there is no sentence that reads: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and lasting material progress.

According to Aristotle to be human is to be a political animal, which means -- more or less, the ability and the desire to create social and political organizational structures through the use of reason.  No ants we, driven to scurry hither and thither by instinct, humanity gets to decide how or if it will scurry and what set of rules does or doesn't organize the scurrying. When did the notion that civic engagement trumped economic efficiency and material improvement become such a quotidian idea that it's presented in the The New Yorker as if it were a matter of fact?

The Dutch and Their Bikes

Life could be a dream if we would only ride our bikes.

Don't they all look happy?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two Things at One Time

Megan McArdle doesn't understand the concept of walking and chewing gum.  She takes Ezra Klein to task because he argues that union support of Medicaid proves it cares about the least among us.  McArdle's "argument" is that
[i]n the most recent quarter for which the Census has data, corporate income taxes provided about $9.2 billion worth of revenue to all 50 states.  This is less than 20% of New York State's Medicaid bill. It is also about 3% of the overall tax revenue collected by the states.  This goes up to about 4.5% in the second quarter of the year, which includes April 15th, but overall, it is not a very significant source of revenue.
Sales and gross receipts tax are much more significant--about $72 billion, or a quarter of the total tax take.  But general gross receipts taxes are used in only a minority of states; most of that is sales tax revenue.  And sales taxes are generally assumed to ultimately be borne by the consumers, not corporations.

So the unions are not lobbying against corporations, who do not have much of a dog in this fight.  Who does?  Taxpayers, and consumers of health care services.
You know what unions want to do about this right? Raise corporate tax rates. It's not just that she dumb and lazy it's the near perfection of her dumb laziness, the characterization is meant with all due civility.


If McCain and Palin had won what their team of tried and true warmongers might be up to right now.  Imagine as well, how dim a series of bulbs Rumsfeld and the rest were:

And think of how many known and unknow bombers would be awaying right now. Obama's not perfect but he actually is the lesser of the available evils.

Unionish Organizations

Some years ago, Joel Rodgers and Richard Freedman argued that Unions could expand their membership by accepting "non-majority" unions, that is workers interested in creating a union shop who lack the 50%+1 necessary for certification. It really does seem like a good idea and certainly better than created a workers' rights and interests version of the NRA.

Natural Death

Many naturalists die in interesting circumstances. It's a long list but one of the more interesting so far:
Défago,Gérard (?-1942), Swiss entomologist working with Karl Roos on DDT.  Both died, ages unknown, in an unexplained car crash near Heidelberg, Germany. The Swiss chemical company Geigy, which would eventually sell DDT to both sides in the war, had apparently sent them on a clandestine mission to inform the Nazi government of their research.  The Germans hoped to use DDT against the potato beetle, which they apparently feared the Allies would employ as a weapon of biological warfare.  One theory is that the visiting Swiss scientists learned something that day about Germany’s own plans for biological warfare.

History Continues to be a Discipline

Matthew Yglesias spared us a full bore attempt at comparing 1848 to 2011 but he did take the time to be wrong:
She’s referring to the fact that most of the 1848 revolutions “failed.” But many of the things failed revolutionaries wanted in Germany wound up happening.
The 1848 revolutions in German-speaking Europe and points east failed because they failed to achieve the Revolutionaries' goals.  Liberals wanted to create a Liberal constitution order which embodied their interests and preferences; what they got was a Conservative constitutional order that embodied Conservatives' interests and preferences given to them by the monarch.  Liberals in Germany spent much of the rest of the 19th century failing to overcome Conservative dominance and, by 1871, they accepted the Conservative order of things and continued their struggle against the Socialists. I suppose that from the appropriate level of abstraction or ignorance one constitution order looks much like any other even if they are, in fact, totally different.

 Prussian Conservative Constitutional Order

Unless, of course, by "wound up happening" he meant all of those struggles plus the Revolution of 1918 out of which came the Weimar Republic.None of which "happened" but was caused by the efforts of actual existing men and women working to create a world that looked, more or less, how they wanted to to look until, of course, the Conservatives and Reactionaries made common cause with the Nazis and destroyed it.

It is also helpful to remind everyone that one of the big reasons the Revolutions failed was Liberals' refusal to make common cause with the Radicals. No one knows what might have happened had the Liberals and the Radicals come together, unfortunately. But if you're looking for life lessons from the pages of history, 1848 provides a nice example of the benefits of working with people who share some of your goals but not others instead of hoping that people who share nearly none of them will be reasonable and accept, what the king called, crown from the gutter.

The circle of ignorance is complete. Sullivan, who has beating the 1848/2011 drum the loudest, cites Applebaum, who Yglesias used for his chance to be wrong about the past, and Yglesias for "context" about 1848 and an imagined irony of history. It's not just Fox News spreading ignorance through the land.

The End is Near: History Remains a Discipline

Andrew Sullivan right twice on Wisconsin and concerning Libya. To make up for that unusual occurance -- which might otherwise be the first warning of the end time's nearness -- fortunately, he misreads Darton's essay, which doesn't explore the analogy between 1789 and 2011 but rather denies its validity and, indeed, cast very cold water on the notion of comparing revolution altogether.

Relatedly, the French have decided to intervene on the side of the forces of order:
Defense Conseil International (DCI), a French state-owed training company, has three crowd-control specialists acting as advisers to the Bahrain Army, chief executive Jean-Louis Rotrubin said at the IDEX trade show.
The advisers, drawn from the French Gendarmerie Nationale and elite GIGN special forces unit, are part of a program to train Bahrain special forces in non-lethal crowd control and the avoidance of the use of deadly force, he said. The program is just beginning.
DCI also has sent French personnel to Libya to train pilots and maintenance crews, aimed at bringing the Libyan Air Force’s Mirage F.1 fighters back into active service. Up until three years ago, an embargo prevented the delivery of spare parts, which meant Libya was unable to fly the Mirage F.1, Rotrubin said.
Why it's just like when France intervened in Spain and (what would become) Italy in 1821. Except, of course for nothing like that at all.

Monday, February 21, 2011

History is a Discipline

Andrew Sullivan, who is wrong most of the time, has taken to comparing the events in the Middle East, which isn't really in the middle of anything and is only east of here, with Europe in 1848. In his first go at the comparison, he links to a Wikipedia entry, which he adjudges "a useful summary of what occurred that year." It is, in fact, a summary of everything that happened in 1848 all over the globe.  It offers no insight into what happened in Europe in 1848 during the so-called "Springtime of Nations." I wonder how and why on earth he thinks an undifferentiated mass of names and dates from an encyclopedia's time line aids in understanding the complex of complicated events taking place in the Middle East. I wonder, as well, why anyone would want to listen to the Mrs. Jellyby of neo-Conservativeism blather on about the Middle East, 1848, let alone the events in Wisconsin when he has shown himself incapable of even understanding the fundamental beliefs of his religion. I also wonder why it is that folks who have no real knowledge of the history of any given event insist on making historical analogies. Sort of like Jesse Helms comparing Aristide and Hitler, and being wrong as wrong can be. Hitler was appointed chancellor in a dirty back room deal by conservatives and reactionaries at least in part because Hindenburg's son was a bit of a crook. (Chapter X in Kershaw's Hubris is especially nice on this event.)

Whether it's Sullivan with the misuse of history or Yglesais with the mangling of economic thought the world would be better off if these kind of dolts, if I may be so uncivil, were forced to make their badly done arguments on their own terms instead of wrapping them in the language of discipline they only just understand.

Financial Crises Explained

A couple of days ago I suggested the Matthew Yglesias' praise for a book that explained the current economic crises as the result of "overconfidence" was misplaced. Today I read a review of several books that make the case of understanding the crises is slightly different terms. Of the books under review, I can only comment on Stiglitz's, which I found to be very persuasive.

Bombing For Freedom

The other day, I made what I thought was a joke about the neo-Cons love of freedom elsewhere because they get to bomb things. Today, Daniel Foster of the NRO emotes
With reports that the Gaddafi regime — or what’s left of it — has effected the indiscriminate massacre of Libyan civilians, up to and including air strikes in Tripoli and the planned carpet-bombing of Benghazi, the suggestion that President Obama establish a “no-fly zone” above Libya has begun popping up on social media.

I don’t say this lightly, but I think POTUS must so act. U.S. Sixth Fleet under AFRICOM may or may not have a carrier “chopped” (that is, assigned) to it at the moment (Ed Morrissey has a good post on why it’s so hard to pin down where our carriers are at a given moment), but it appears that one or several aircraft carriers are within striking distance.
Sound familiar? Let's, for once, let Libya be Iibya, I suspect they'll make the right choices or, at least, choice close to right. Follow the neo-Cons advice and its five front war, which can't be good.

Productive Workers versus Robots

Recently the Koch Brothers, who aid and abet Scott Walker, laid off 158 employees at one of their paper mills here in Wisconsin.  The lay offs result from the introduction of automated machines which made the workers redundant. The factory was already profitable and there is no sign of a decline in demand for its various paper products. 158 employees represent about 25% of the total work force. Assuming the theory that more productive workers gain income because of their increased productivity, which is a fact of the matter according to the Baumol Effect, we would expect the remaining workers to share in the income of the formerly employed workers, who now have the chance to retrain for some other job that doesn't exist or won't exist in the near future.

For the sake of argument lets say that the 158 workers salaries excluding benefits was 30k. 158 * 30000 = 4,740,000.  If I have this right, the total work force would have been 632; 632-158=474; 4,740,000 / 474=10,000 means an increase of 10,000 per remaining worker with all the other labor costs passing back to the company. Otherwise everybody involved, the City of Green Bay, the business, banks, and etc previously patronized by the now unemployed workers, except two of the richest men in the world loses out.

What do you bet the odds are that the remaining workers paychecks went up? I agree: zero. After all the Koch Brothers are currently working to destroy public unions, and they own power plants, no?,  -- although I am sure that's all just a coincidence, I'm sure they see their various industrial endeavors as primarily as a means of fulfilling a socially useful function and not at all are they interested in profit maximization.  Nope. Beside which private vice = public virtue, all the classical economists say so.

Eduction Reform

This post does a nice job of illustrating the kind of magical thinking involved in reforming the non-broken system of higher education evidenced in this WaPo article.  It's unclear to me who wrote the last but who ever it was does seem a bit confused.  I'll only add that I have worked in CCs and remediation efforts pay huge dividends and face-to-face instruction is always preferable.

Here In Wisconsin

It's not just about teachers and unions. From Walker's budget proposal, via here and here:
16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state−owned heating, cooling, and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state−owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).
Why it's almost like destroying the unions isn't enough for Walker and the Koch Brothers, they'll need to sell off state property for a dollar as well. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Snake Oil Effect

Over the weekend I finished reading Richard Overy's The Twilight Years, a very well-done discussion of intellectual movements in interwar Britain. One of his points is that the response to the perceived crises during this period relied on  all manner of ill-informed and inapt use of science in the hopes of finding solutions.  Eugenics relied on misunderstood notions of race and biology, for example.[1] Overy sheds a great deal of light on this tendency in a variety of contexts rand the books is well worth reading.

In this vein, Matthew Yglesias, whose grasp of economics is open to debate, argues of people interested in educational reform in response its "crisis" that he
know[s] a lot of people, especially people working in or around academia, find this kind of talk unpleasant. But people thinking about education really do need to confront the Baumol problem.
The Baumol Effect or Disease, as it is actually called, for those not interesting in clicking, is that educators', artists', and others' salaries rise without any connection to increased productivity. Leaving aside, except for this comment, the fact that there is no connection between increased productivity and increased salaries as evidenced by the stagnant wages among more "productive" workers, there is no reason on earth to think of education as an issue whose reform is best served by the application of economists' paradigms.

Indeed, given that the rise of thinking about social and political arrangements like an MBA or an economist hasn't been especially helpful, see, for example, the current state of America's economy, which -- after thirty years or so of Neoliberalism -- is a mess. There is every reason to accept that thinking about social and political arrangements in this manner is counter productive, if your goal is a more equatable and substantively democratic society.

It is also the case that as applied to higher education the assumption here is that educators' salaries drive costs. It is now no secret that, particularly in the humanities, administrators rely increasingly on adjunct faculty to lower costs, the number of students per teacher continues to rise, faculty are increasingly pressured to use "distance" learning to increased their "productivity," resources dedicated to faculty research is in decline, even as faculty members are expected to engage in more service and administrative tasks without any decrease in their other responsibilities.

It's not, in other words, that people find this kind of argument "unpleasant" but rather they find it to one side of the problem and one more example of people who know nothing about education guiding its reform in ways that are counter productive.

When you get right down to it, rather like Scott Walker, Yglesias, and his ilk are blaming the workers for most of the problems people like Walker, Yglesias, and his ilk caused and offering more of the same snake oil as the necessary cure.

[1] For a really useful discussion of Nazi racial science and eugenics more generally see Eric Ehrenreich's The Nazi Ancestral Proof. In the interest of full disclosure, I know Ehrenreich and spent a great deal of time with him in Berlin while he was researching and am mentioned in the acknowledgments.

Ring Tones

Macy Halford over to The New Yorker's book bench mentions that there is a free translation of a Russian novel that recasts The Lord of the Rings novels.  I've read the books more than once and seen the movies, which are truly awful because their fidelity to the books exposes the impossibility of much if not all of the action, so I thought why not read The Last Ring Bearer?

It's a nice little book and the translator writes well and spins a nice story; I have no idea how much the same holds for the original Russian and to what extent the English-language version resembles its source material. One of the more interesting aspects of the LRB is recasting the conflict between east and west, leaving aside the now malevolent Elves, Gandalf, and Aragon, was the conflict between the pastoral and the mechanical on the question of progress. Mordor and its allies are, more or less, agents of industrialization, innovation, and enlightenment while the West, under the domination of the Elves, offers a cycle of stagnation and blissful ignorance. The novel is meant as a polemic against what its author sees as the agrarian authoritarianism, if not fascism, of Tolkien's master narrative.

The other aspect of this text as opposed to TLR is that its a spy story in which the tawdry and compromised world of Le Carre replaces Tolkien's gaudy two-toned world in which heroic heroism forthrightly battles the evil empire. It is, in other words, subtler and considerable funnier that TLR.

And the best sign from yesterday? Walker Take a Lesson From Palin: Quit