Malcolm Gladwell has written a very good piece for the New Yorker about Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert O. Hirschman. Below the fold, I provide a thought provoking quote and contrast how a Chicago economist thinks versus how Dr. Hirschman approaches the same question.
Imagine that I told you with great excitement that I had flipped a coin “repeatedly” and it came up heads 100% of the time. You’d probably be surprised and wonder what could explain such an unlikely event: Was the coin two-headed? Was it of unbalanced weight? Did I had some weird method of flipping a coin such that it only came up heads?
But then imagine I told you that by “repeatedly” I mean that I flipped it twice. It came up heads both times so that’s 100% heads. You’d be exasperated that I was excited about something so trivial because clearly such a result is a million miles from rare: 100% of only two coin flips coming up heads is at best yawn-inducing.
Hold that example in your head and then consider the fact that whenever schools are ranked on student performance, small schools are always over-represented at the very top of the list. If you are a proponent of small schools, you might explain this as due to the fact that such schools are more home-like, that the teachers give students more individual attention, and that the kids have a sense of community. If you an opponent of small schools, you might argue that small schools do well because they tend to be exclusive places that screen out kids with disabilities and expel kids who pose behavior problems.
But if you knew the brilliant work of Wainer and Zwerling, you would recognize that the over-representation of small schools at the high end of performance is exactly as impressive as flipping a coin twice and having it come up heads 100% of the time, i.e., not at all.
The link between the two examples is small sample size. Small samples are more prone to extreme scores. Even though a fair coin will come up heads 50% of the time, having it come up heads on 100% of only two flips is common. In contrast, flipping a coin 20 times and having it come up 100% heads would be shocking. The larger the sample of coin flips gets, the closer the result is to the boring old true score of 50% heads.
Small schools by definition have fewer students than big schools. That means they will be more prone to extreme scores on any measurement, whether it’s academic performance, shoe size or degree of enjoyment of pistachio ice cream. The average test scores of 50-kid schools will be more likely to be very high than are the average scores of 500-kid schools even if the students in the two types of schools are perfectly identical in terms of ability.
Not incidentally, the tendency toward extreme scores in small samples is bidirectional. That’s why small schools are also over-represented at the very bottom of the list when schools are ranked on performance measures. As Wainer and Zwerling point out, The Gates Foundation was one of many charities that invested in small schools after looking only at the top of achievement lists. If they’d looked at both end of the distribution and seen all the small schools with extremely poor scores, they would have known that there was nothing more complex at work than small samples being prone to extreme scores.
The British television series Yes, Minister remains for me the ultimate in political satire, but on a long airplane ride I recently discovered something almost in the same class: Veep (a late discovery I know, but if you don’t own a television, airplanes are your chance to catch up on small-screen developments).
We’ve had some magnificent political satirists in the U.S., but I must say for a smaller country, the Brits sure punch above their weight in the droll mockery of politicians department.
Time to update the amazing failing-upward saga of the UC Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics program, because we have hit the front page of our local paper with another humiliating roundup. Just to review, we are talking about a $70m-per-year business that loses $10m sending athletes to compete against other schools in a couple of dozen sports where they have fun, do fairly well, and mostly graduate without a lot of handholding and tutoring. It also sells tickets and television access to people who want to watch about 150 men play basketball and football, and rights to make the usual chotchkes and sweatshirts. There are about 850 so-called student-athletes in the care of IA; our other 20,000 students are allowed to buy tickets and watch them, but IA has nothing to do with “students being athletes” in any general sense. (Given that the average playing time for a member of the football squad is eight minutes per year, it’s not so clear that those guys should be scored as athletes either…they do get $10,000 each for those eight minutes, so maybe they should be compared to pro stars)
Nor does IA have much to do with anything else on campus, other than absorbing a Niagara of student fees and tuition money. It was once supposed to be self-supporting, like the parking garages, but the regents – the university’s governing board – fixed that silly rule for us several years ago so the chancellor can give it money that would otherwise be wasted on labs and scholarships and other frills. It even has its own spiffy web site (with a .com, not .edu, suffix).
A few years ago, it was discovered that our art museum and our stadium were too dangerous to occupy with the BO (big one) getting organized under our feet. The museum was temporarily propped up with some awesome steel braces, we designed a really nice new museum at a downtown corner of the campus that would benefit from foot traffic and street activity, and we set about fundraising. Read the rest of this entry »
These next 48 hours are critical for advancing reform of US international food aid, which I have blogged about previously. Short version: because current rules essentially demand that we provide aid in food grown in the US via government subsidy, our current aid regime wastes money, delays delivery of aid by weeks, lines the pockets of agribusiness and big shipping, often undermines farmers in the Global South, and leaves 2-4 million people starving who could otherwise be helped.
The basic answer is to allow food to be procured locally; the Obama Administration’s budget proposal did just that, and was given the back of the hand by special interests in the Senate. The Senate bill, which passed the Upper House, did add some extra money for local procurement, but fell far short of what was really needed. The pathetic justifications offered by the agribusiness and shipping lobbies show just how weak their policy position is.
And now — maybe the House to the rescue. The House? The current House? You gotta be kidding, right?
Wrong. The hero here is House International Relations Committee chair Ed Royce, a very conservative Republican from Orange County, who studied the way food aid rules work, and got outraged. That’s hardly odd for a conservative, because farm policy represents about the clearest case of government waste we have. It didn’t hurt, of course, that allowing for local procurement would also take much food aid from the Agriculture Committee and give it to the IR committee, but that really wasn’t what was happening here: this is an outrage and everyone who looks at it realizes it.
Originally, Royce teamed up with IR Global Affairs Subcommittee ranking member Karen Bass, a liberal African-American Democrat from Los Angeles, to introduce the Food Aid Reform Act, which would allow for local procurement as a general matter. Before the House can vote on that, however, it needs to consider the Farm Bill, so Royce and IR Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D – NY) have proposed an amendment to the House bill that essentially replicates the Food Aid Reform Act. The House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.
Think about that for a second: “the House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.” That says a lot. Amendments don’t get considered on the floor of the House unless the Rules Committee allows them to be considered, and the Rules Committee doesn’t allow them to be considered unless it’s okay with the leadership. That means that at least, there is substantial support in the Republican Conference for this measure. GOP to the rescue!
Of course, they should support it. Reforming food aid to allow for local procurement (as well as other crucial reforms) is such a no-brainer that it is perhaps the last genuinely bipartisan policy initiative out there. Don’t believe me? Even the Heritage Foundation favors this. Does that make you as a liberal Democrat get nauseous? Well, me too, sort of, but the same reforms are backed by the Center for American Progress.
So now — which is to say, right now, as soon as the business day starts in Washington DC — call your Congresscritter and ask them to support the Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) to the Farm Bill. After the jump, I’m including the talking points prepared by the American Jewish World Service, which in conjunction with lots of other charities like Bread for the World, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, and many others, has spearheaded this campaign. You should drop a dime for them, too, by the way.
But really: call. write. E-mail. This means life or death for people. Do it.
I’m writing, as a constituent and as a supporter of American Jewish World Service <http://www.ajws.org/>, to urge you to vote YES on the Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) when it comes up during the Farm Bill debate this week.
The bi-partisan Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) to the Farm Bill would make significant and urgently needed reforms to our international food aid system by creating more flexibility and ending the practice of monetization, while also saving taxpayer dollars by eliminating wasteful spending.
While U.S. food aid saves millions of lives, we know all too well that the system is flawed. Current law requires that our government ship the majority of our food aid from the U.S., which means that it can take many months to reach people who need it. And since we buy almost none of the food from farmers in the countries we’re helping, our aid often undercuts local prices and even puts local farms out of business.
As you may recall, President Obama made recommendations in his 2014 budget proposal to address some of these challenges. The Royce-Engel Amendment essentially codifies the president’s proposal into law by allowing 45% of U.S. food aid to be in the form of local purchase, cash or vouchers. This flexibility would enable us to reach at least 4 million more people, with the same dollar amount, and would eliminate delivery delays of 3-4 months that are often the difference between life and death.
The amendment also ends the requirement that some portion of food aid be ‘monetized’ – a system through which in-kind food aid is donated to international development organizations, which in turn sell the food in local markets overseas to raise money for their development projects. Ending monetization creates the flexibility to use cash instead of commodities for important development projects financed through the food aid program.
A large coalition of groups support this amendment including AJWS, Oxfam, Bread for the World, Save the Children, CARE, Catholic Relief Services and many others. Think tanks across the ideological spectrum have also endorsed food aid reform, from the Heritage Foundation to the Center for American Progress.
I believe ending global hunger is a moral imperative and a fiscal priority. I urge you to vote YES on this amendment and to help make history on this issue.
Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
–Benjamin Franklin (but probably not really)
The New York Times reports that Phoenix is figuring out how to reduce the demand for water during a time when it isn’t raining. For economists who read the RBC, note that the words “water prices” are not mentioned in the article. Instead, conservation is achieved through rebates and on the supply side water is recycled. While Phoenix is often predicted to become a hell hole thanks to ongoing climate change, millions of people have chosen to live there. They have the right incentives to search for solutions to emerging challenges. I know that you are tired of hearing this but this is the optimistic message of my 2010 Climatopolis book. When Federal and global policy fails to deliver first best solutions (carbon taxes), people and local governments have the right incentives to step up to protect their day to day quality of life and to preserve home values. After all, if Phoenix’s quality of life deteriorates then the land owners in the city are the big losers. The renters can get up and go without suffering an asset loss. Green grass in Phoenix will vanish and this will sharply reduce the city’s aggregate water demand. Will the people of Phoenix suffer greatly from this single adaptation step? I don’t think so.
Since the NSA surveillance story broke, a number of journalists (e.g., at Mother Jones and Nation) have noted that the original reporting by Glenn Greenwald/The Guardian and Barton Gellman/Washington Post was flawed, perhaps profoundly so. Greenwald and Gelman have been sort-of backpedaling from some of their original claims, although neither to my knowledge has given a full and clear accounting of what they got wrong and why.
In the entirely dead tree publishing era of newspapers, journalists who made mistakes in reporting and subsequently walked a story back had no choice but to make a clean breast of things: The hard evidence of their errors was right there on every subscriber’s kitchen table. But in the online era, journalists can revise their stories without being specific about what details they have changed and why.
As I do not have the technical skill to evaluate how much the authors of the original NSA stories revised their articles in light of emerging evidence uncovered by other journalists, I am grateful to Ed Bott for having saved Gellman’s original and revised NSA stories and then posting this file with both articles compared side-by-side.
Bott’s work allows everyone to make their own judgement about whether the Post’s revisions reflect merely the correction of small errors or are a symptom of seriously sloppy journalism the first time around (If it hasn’t happened yet, I hope someone does the same with the Greenwald/Guardian stories). But should the provision of this valuable service be left to energetic volunteers outside of a newspaper’s operations? I believe it would be better practice for all newspapers to include a link to the original versions of subsequently edited breaking stories (e.g., “Click here to see how we have changed our reporting since this story broke”). It might keep Internet-era journalists more honest and careful to know that their breaking stories will be as available to future readers as were those of journalists in the dead tree publishing era.