The “dear Harold” advice card

My friend Dylan Matthews is starting/resuming an advice column. He’s a busy person. I thought I would save him some time by encapsulating the sum total of wise advice on the below index card. I could only fit half of the world’s wise advice on one card. So I suppose Dylan’s column is still needed.

Regular readers will be shocked that it tilts in the direction of #dadtweet advice….

50% of new human knowledge 1900-2014.

50% of new human knowledge 1900-2014. Copyright Harold Pollack

Two Unknowns of a Guaranteed Minimum Income

Two people I respect, Dylan Matthews and Mark Kleiman, have both endorsed a guaranteed minimum income as a poverty fighting tool. Here is Dylan’s conclusion, which he draws after discussing the findings of negative income tax experiments undertaken by the Nixon Administration:

A negative income tax or basic income of sufficient size would, by definition, eliminate poverty. We still don’t know if there’d be much of a cost in terms of people working and earning less. If there is, the effect is almost certainly small enough that a negative income tax can offset the lost earnings and remain affordable. The worst case scenario is that we eliminate poverty but see a modest decline in employment. The best case scenario is we eliminate poverty at even lower cost and don’t see much of an effect on employment. That’s a gamble I’m willing to take.”

It sounds great, but there are two unknowns that could undermine the whole approach.

1. What is the effect on the employment decisions of people NOT eligible for the guaranteed income?

Dylan focuses quite appropriately on the labor participation data available from negative income tax research, namely whether the research participants who got the income boost worked less as a result. But what happens to the far larger number of people initially not getting the subsidy could be much more important.

Imagine someone who is working hard 2000 hours a year at $11/hour, generating an income of $22,000. Then the government creates a minimum income of $20,000, which the person could receive if s/he stopped working. The person is now working 2000 hours a year for an extra $2000, i.e., for $1/hour.

Some people would keep working at that low effective wage because they like their jobs or they think they will move up someday or they just believe in the moral value of work. But other people — potentially most people — would be glad to free up 2000 hours a year at such little cost.

When those people move from jobs paying just above the guaranteed income (and such people will exists regardless of the level of the guarantee — $20,000 is just an example) to taking the guaranteed income, two things happen. The fiscal demands on the income support program grow and the tax base to pay for it shrinks. Neither of these possible effects supports the program’s long-term viability.

2. What is the effect of a guaranteed income on inflation in goods that people need to survive?

A number of industries that produce essentials (e.g., food, clothing) pay the minimum wage or just above it to some of their workforce. But as explained in the above example, once there is a guaranteed minimum income, the effective return on working a low wage job (i.e., those offering under or just over the minimum guaranteed income) drops precipitously and could indeed be negative, reducing the incentive to work in such jobs. One might say “Good, that will teach those plutocrats! The minimum wage will have to triple!”. But follow that logic out such that you have an economy where a fruit picker can only be employed for $30/hour and someone who sews shirts together can only be employed for $35/hour and so forth, and you end up with sharply rising prices in the market for essential goods.

This inflation in the price of essential goods means that the basic guaranteed income has to be sharply raised concomitantly to keep it as a meaningful anti-poverty program. This makes the costs of the program per enrollee go up, and also exposes a large group of new people who are just above the new guaranteed income to a strong incentive to quit working. As some of them respond to that incentive, the number of enrollees grows and the tax base to support the program contracts at the same time. Rinse and repeat.

Maybe Dylan, Mark or some other advocate of a guaranteed income has evidence that would allay the worries raised by the above two questions, but barring that, I don’t see a scenario under which a program like this wouldn’t collapse under its own weight within a decade of being implemented.

How to improve teaching

Elizabeth Green has a fascinating long read in the NYT today, from her forthcoming book.  The best thing about it is her attention to quality assurance practices: she’s much less about this or that cool classroom hack than about a program that improves teaching, whatever practices the latter turns out to entail.  Here are the key paragraphs, in my view:

When Akihiko Takahashi arrived in America, he was surprised to find how rarely teachers discussed their teaching methods. A year after he got to Chicago, he went to a one-day conference of teachers and mathematicians and was perplexed by the fact that the gathering occurred only twice a year. In Japan, meetings between math-education professors and teachers happened as a matter of course, even before the new American ideas arrived. More distressing to Takahashi was that American teachers had almost no opportunities to watch one another teach.

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. Each public lesson poses a hypothesis, a new idea about how to help children learn. And each discussion offers a chance to determine whether it worked. Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers. Without jugyokenyku, Takahashi never would have learned to teach at all. Neither, certainly, would the rest of Japan’s teachers.

This is approximately the “quality circle” the sainted W. Edwards Deming taught Japanese manufacturers when our own were too arrogant to listen, and with which Toyota and pals ate Detroit’s lunch.  Teaching, as has been often noted, is the most isolating profession (maybe second to pathology [update 28/VII: Nope, says edgepath in comments]) but I guess not in Japan.  I wonder if Japanese pathologists get away from their microscopes and schmoose with peers about their work?

Equally interesting, Green’s report is redolent with the idea that good teaching is not a trait, but that teachers can learn to be better. This is a problem because if true, it implies actual work, while totting up test scores and firing the teachers at the bottom of the list is a lot quicker and easier.

Higher ed faculty, keep moving; nothing to see here. Green’s prescription is for other people; we know that children learn in a completely different way from college students, and more important, that K-12 teachers are nothing like us: they need to learn to teach, and keep on learning, while we just need to eat the magic pill taped on the back of our PhD diplomas. The only reason a college professor should ever be in another’s classroom is at promotion and tenure time, where the name of the game is reward or punishment, not improving practice.  Common room conversation about pedagogy, of course, is goofing off and if tolerated (much less encouraged) must surely have devastating effects on research productivity. It may even endanger the record of the football team: why take foolhardy chances with our core values, either way?

Cannabis legalization: not whether, but how

The New York Times comes out for cannabis legalization.

David Frum is still against it.

Neither deals seriously with the balance of advantage and disadvantage; the Times simply blows off the question of substance use disorder and pretends that passing a law forbidding sales to minors takes care of the problem of increased use by minors, while Frum never mentions the damage done by the $40-billion-per-year illicit market created by cannabis prohibition and proposes nothing that would shrink that market.

And neither the Times editorial board nor David Frum seems interested in the question of how to legalize, as opposed to whether to legalize. The Times doesn’t notice that commercialization is only one approach to legal availability, and arguably not the best; Frum simply dismisses a temperate approach to legalization as politically unworkable, without explaining how to make his kinder, gentler prohibition a political winner.

Alas, I sometimes suspect they’re both right. As a matter of practical politics, our only choices may be a badly-implemented prohibition or a badly-implemented legalization.  (If so, I’m inclined to try the Devil I don’t know.)  So far, my attempts to put political and organizational muscle behind the idea of smart legalization have merely illustrated the wisdom of Ralph Yarborough’s maxim, “They ain’t nuthin’ in the middle of the road but yaller lines and dead armadillas.”  I don’t find life as political roadkill especially uncomfortable, but it does get frustrating. It’s not just that continued prohibition and commercial legalization are both bad ideas; it’s that the arguments for those two bad ideas leave no media space, or mindspace, for discussion of the good ideas that might lie between them.

Footnote Ann Althouse does a good demolition job on the Times editorial, though to the best of my knowledge there’s no evidence of intoxication or health damage from second-hand cannabis smoke or vapor.

Creeping conservatism: the guaranteed minimum income

What’s supposedly progressive Dylan Matthews at the supposedly progressive Vox doing pushing an idea favored by Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Richard Nixon?

Of course, the devil is in the details. It matters a lot how minimal the income really is, how fast it phases out, and (crucially) how much of the rest of the income-maintenance and social-services structure it replaces. It’s an idea with the defects of its virtues: Insofar as it displaces direct services, it saves overhead expense and avoids subjecting recipients to bureaucratic meddling in their lives. That’s good or bad depending on how great the expense is, how much fraud results, and how much meddling turns out to be useful. It gives recipients maximum flexibility in how and when to spend their money, which is good or bad depending on the recipients’ capacities for foresight and self-command. At the level of political economy, the question is whether the superior performance of the system would give redistributive policies a political edge sufficient to compensate for the loss of support from provider interests.

For those – including progressives – who think the virtues obviously trump the defects, here’s the thought-experiment: Would you replace public education with unrestricted cash payments to families with school-aged children?

But if you think, as I do, that most of what’s wrong with poor people is that they don’t have enough money, and that many of what look from the outside like behavioral pathologies are actually the predictable consequences of scarcity and insecurity, and despair, as I do, of the prospects for changing the distribution of market incomes enough to manage rising inequality, then the guaranteed-income idea looks very, very attractive. The problem then is to get as large a base and as gentle a phase-down as possible, and – this is the hard part – to discern what specific services need to be delivered alongside the cash. Seems pretty clear to me that housing, home heating, and food mostly shouldn’t get specific subsidies or direct provision, while education and health care should. But there’s lots of crucial detail to be worked out: even with a relatively generous income guarantee, I suspect there would be a need for direct housing provision to people who otherwise would be homeless victims of severe mental illness or substance use disorder. (Day care is an interesting liminal case; so is disability insurance, which could be replaced by a cash income not conditional on disability – likely to lead to substantially improved health outcomes – plus direct services or subsidies to help people deal with the consequences of disability other than difficulty in earning a living.)

The other key progressive goal should be keeping the income-support system national, to protect the poor people of, e.g., Mississippi from the hostility of state governments doing the bidding of bigoted majorities and exploitative employers whose business model is based on employees with no alternative to poorly-paid work but starvation or theft. That would have the side-effect of reducing one perverse impact of the current system, which ties poor people to high-cost-of-living areas where the social safety net tends to be less frayed. A family barely scraping by in Section 8 housing in the Bronx could live rather comfortably in Arkansas if it could cash out the value of that housing subsidy as part of a national income guarantee.

I have no idea whether Matthews is right that a guaranteed income is poised to become a mainstream political issue. But it’s a nice possibility to think about.

Pub Quiz

This quiz is made up of questions that have an obvious at first blush answer that is wrong, i.e., the sort of thing many people would blurt out without thinking. For each question your challenge is to get BOTH this obvious wrong answer and the right answer. For example, the question “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” has an obvious wrong answer (Ulysses S. Grant) and a correct answer (Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia). If you guessed them both you would get 2 points, if you got just one you would still earn one point.

Google not and do your best. Please post scores at the end as well as any comments and critiques.

1. Who is Barloff Karloff playing here?


2. What is the world’s largest desert?

3. In Great Britain, who currently holds the title of First Lord of the Treasury?

4. Which state contains the southernmost point in the U.S.?

5. Who is this debonair, leonine voiced actor who rode an upper crust English accent to fame by playing a freelance detective in ten installments of The Falcon movie series in the 1940s?


Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Trotsky

Rise, comrades, from your slumber! A rousing film of the people awaits you this weekend! Ok, maybe not. But at least it’ll give you a good chuckle. This week’s movie recommendation is Jacob Tierney’s recent offbeat independent Canadian film The Trotsky (2009).

Leon Bronstein, played by the stoner-comedy staple Jay Baruchel, is a quirky high school student in Montreal. He’s a bright kid with a peculiar dress sense, theatrical flair, and fervid empathy with the plight of the worker. Understandable, really, when you consider that he’s the re-incarnation of Leon Trotsky. Ok, again, maybe not. But even if his belief is misplaced, he certainly takes it seriously: he takes his impassioned effort to cultivate class consciousness to the oppressed laborers at the local factory, where he hopes to organize a hunger strike.

Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 11.19.00

There’s a small hitch. Leon’s dad (played by Saul Rubinek) is the oppressive factory owner from whom Leon petitions for the liberation of the workers. When the hunger strike barely crosses over from nuisance to inconvenience, dad sees a teachable moment. He pulls Leon from his plush private school and enrolls him in public school. This is all for the best, as it gives young Leon a ripe opportunity to sharpen his wits against the oppressive regime of Principal Berkhoff, played by Colm Feore, who sports an uncanny resemblance to Lenin. The rest of the film is about Leon’s efforts to rise to the occasion for which he feels destined, and this includes unionizing the school pupils, falling in love with an older woman named Alexandra, and hopefully being exiled from his home.

Part of the comic conceit is that young Leon’s efforts to emulate the life of the real Trotsky so obviously take priority above actually making good on the promises Trotsky might have made – when all’s said and done, if there’s a choice between gaining publicity for himself and liberating the oppressed, Leon seems to care more about the former than the latter.

Nonetheless, one of the heartwarming take-away messages is that the difference between boredom and apathy – the accurate diagnosis of which preoccupies much of Leon’s interactions with his fellow schoolmates – is that between people who are either yet to be roused to action, or those who cannot be so roused. If boredom is the affliction, then Leon fancies himself as the man capable of delivering the necessary message. And while Leon’s efforts throughout the film certainly seem self-indulgently theatrical, there’s a charm in his fanciful charade. For this, the role of Professor McGovern (played by Michael Murphy), a political theorist who’s wistfully nostalgic for his days of agitation at Berkeley in the ‘60s, is a useful foil: by the end of the film, the older characters are forced to wonder when they decided that the kind of futile idealism that Leon characterizes switched from something they encouraged to something they now view as pie-in-the-sky petty insurrection.

Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 11.20.13Part of the fun in a film such as this is placing the references: some of them are straightforward (Trotsky’s search for an intellectual soul-mate by the name of Vladimir who will fill the role of his Lenin), while others are less so (the positioning of the characters is sometimes a little artificial, and held just long enough to evoke a propaganda poster). But the film does a good job of playing to different audiences with varying levels of familiarity with Trotsky lore. The lower threshold of audience familiarity with communist history is set invitingly low to ensure that only very few people will feel left out. If you’re one of those people whose knowledge of the real Trotsky’s life extends only as far as ‘something about a czar’ and ‘something else about a pick-axe,’ don’t worry: the bulk of the rest is covered within the film itself. There are, however, plenty of inside gags for those with more than merely a passing interest (a recurring nightmare of Leon’s, usually stimulated by some interaction in which another character has made him feel infantilized, is a nice witty reference to Battleship Potemkin). But there are plenty of base guffaws littered throughout to keep anyone entertained.

The supporting cast is wonderful, with particular highlights from Leon’s father and Principal Berkhoff. Sure, it’s a high school comedy, but the audience extends far beyond the usual stoner crowd that forms the main draw for most films of that ilk and for which Baruchel often appears as a principal character.

Military education, apparently,…

is to education as military music is to music, as the old joke about military justice goes.

When we don’t need to kill people (and I do not diss the military function of the military), our armed forces still create value for our society by modeling a code of honesty and personal honor, just like professional sports; people we can look up to and try to emulate, who do it the hard way and don’t cheat, and who know we all depend on each other and go out of their way to share credit for their accomplishments. Right?

Oops.  Poor Walsh is being savaged as a plagiarist, and I think there had better be something in the UCMJ that would support a court martial. But that isn’t even the big outrage in this story (HT member of a private listserv).  There’s no evidence in this story that Walsh’s behavior is typical or common; anything as big as the Army will have some number of cheats, liars, sexual abusers, and whatnot.  What we should be up in (figurative) arms about is what the story does indicate to be a convention: our government is operating a “college” that regards fifteen pages with no original thinking or insights as a master’s thesis.  I read and supervise these things in my day job: this is not a master’s thesis, nor an undergraduate thesis, and (close to) not a course term paper, and wouldn’t be any of those things if Walsh had actually written it.

Where is the accreditation committee for the Army War College? Where is Darrell Issa when we need him?

The Enduring Myth of “Killer Heroin”

I was at a meeting with the Australian drug addiction researcher Shane Darke last week, which gave me the chance to congratulate him for publically predicting correctly that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s autopsy would show that the actor’s tragic overdose death was due to a combination of drugs and not an unusually strong or contaminated batch of heroin.

I talked with Harold Pollack recently about how careful research on overdoses destroyed my prior belief in “killer heroin” hype:

There’s a very nice paper just out by Professors Shane Darke and Michael Farrell, who are two of the world’s leading experts on the topic…toxicology studies of overdosed people very rarely find that impurities played an important role…victims didn’t particularly receive high doses, either. Such findings surprised me. The fact that we’ve got 16,000 people a year dying from pure, legally-manufactured opiate analgesics shows you that it’s really not about the unpredictability of illegal markets, it’s about the drugs per se.

The killer heroin/impure heroin narrative sounds plausible on its face, but the data completely undermine it. Data notwithstanding, here it is again from Isaac Campos in a recent article by German Lopez.

The most dangerous thing about taking heroin right now is you don’t know what you’re really taking. You don’t know how pure it is, which makes it very easy to overdose,” Campos says

I can’t be judgmental of Campos as I would have said the same thing, with confidence, at one point (particularly before the nation was flooded with pure, consistent, labeled opioids like Oxycodone and the result was…an overdose epidemic). But I would respectfully ask him and everyone else to look at the data on overdoses and have a rethink. Successfully tackling the overdose crisis — which is now causing almost as many deaths in the U.S. a year as AIDS did at its peak — will not be facilitated by incorrect assumptions about the nature of the problem.