Sunday, May 31, 2009

Private Universities as Charities

Yglesias rehashes a familiar argument:
If you want to give money to an educational institution, [my emphasis] do some research and find a charter school in your metropolitan area that’s obtaining good results with a demographically unfavorable group of kids. Or find help our a regional public college of little repute that provides valuable educational services and could really use the money. Sure, if your checkbook is fat enough to finance a research endeavor that could make a major contribution to discovering an HIV vaccine or something it might make sense to invest in a world-famous university.

The correct response -- viz. that Harvard is not primarily an "educational institution" -- was given at some length by Sean Carroll last year, before the endowments went bust:
But there is one misimpression that people seem to have, that might as well be corrected before any hasty actions are taken: the purpose of Harvard is not to educate students. If anything, its primary purpose is to produce research and scholarly work. Nobody should be surprised that the gigantic endowment isn’t put to use in providing top-flight educational experiences for a much larger pool of students; it could be, for sure, but that’s not the goal. The endowment is there to help build new facilities, launch new research initiatives, and attract the best faculty. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s hard to get alumni donations when you don’t have any alumni, serious consideration would doubtless be given to cutting out students entirely. [...]

Don’t believe me? Here is the test: when was the last time Harvard made a senior tenure offer to someone because they were a world-class educator, rather than a world-class researcher? Not only is the answer “never,” the question itself is somewhat laughable.

The implications of this defense for charitable giving should be understood. A lot of institutions in the fine arts are supported as charities; Harvard etc., seen primarily as research farms, are equivalent institutions in the humanities and sciences. A great deal of research in astronomy and pure mathematics, as well as most of what goes on in humanities departments (one should note that lots of Pulitzer Prize winning writers teach at Harvard, Princeton, etc. as a day job), is "worthwhile" because a small minority of the populace values the results. Such activities used to be funded by the patronage of aristocrats, and later by that of industrialists hungry for culture. This is, if you think about it, the only sustainable form of funding: such activities aren't profitable; besides, the public isn't interested in astronomy or poetry, and it's unfair to use their tax dollars to fund such frivolities.

On the other hand, the public does care about education, feeding the poor, curing AIDS, etc.; therefore, these are sensible enterprises for the government to run, and charitable giving serves largely as a figleaf for the state's more egregious failures. In an ideal world, the government would make sure that people weren't starving and that kids were able to attend a good college; however, it would still make sense for research universities to be sustained by charitable giving. In the real world, of course, there are lots of government failures and charitable giving to feed the poor is arguably necessary, but it's still reasonable for rich people who are interested in the arts and sciences to endow universities and museums.

Besides, as Carroll says,
Students will always keep applying to those places and trying to get in, because the aura of intellectual attainment produced by precisely those scholarly accomplishments will always act as a powerful draw. Such students are by no means making a mistake; the intellectual atmosphere at such places truly is intoxicating, and if nothing else the interaction with your fellow talented students can be a life-changing experience.
This is related to why overzealous attempts to recruit underprepared students to Ivy League universities are misguided. Nobel Laureates are, by and large, good at teaching classes on Chaucerian irony or quantum field theory to well-prepared students; however, remedial classes are best taught by people who are good at teaching, and don't end up at Harvard.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Let them be fed cake

Thus Grover Cleveland, anticipating modern wingnuttery:
After a drought had ruined crops in several Texas counties, Congress appropriated $10,000 to purchase seed grain for farmers there.[92] Cleveland vetoed the expenditure. In his veto message, he espoused a theory of limited government: "[...] the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood."

I.e. the government should let people starve, because to do otherwise would be unjustly to deprive other people of an opportunity to feel good about having been charitable.

No arms, and very few legs [tasteless]

I was recently introduced to the genre of no-arms-and-no-legs jokes. Here are some good ones off the internet (multiple sites):

1. What do you call a guy with no arms and no legs on a pile of leaves?

2. What do you call two guys with no arms and no legs hanging around your window?
Curt and Rod

3. What do you call a girl with no arms and one leg shorter than the other?

And here's my contribution to the genre:

4. What do you call a girl with no arms and no legs who was maimed in the Rwandan genocide?


Oh, while on the topic of tasteless jokes, an addendum -- one of the most brilliantly tasteless jokes I know.

Mother. [to blind daughter] Close your eyes and count to twenty and you'll be able to see.
Daughter. Mommy I still can't see.
Mother. April Fool!

I got this one from W.H. Auden's essay "Notes on the Comic," in The Dyer's Hand.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My Sotomayor Problem

She seems generally OK if lackluster. However, this clown inadvertently dredges up a powerful argument against her:

As a woman, a Latina, a person who has faced a life-long serious illness

But, like, that defeats the whole purpose. Supreme Court justices are supposed to live and be liberal forever. I'm sure the disease isn't life-threatening as of now, but surely it pushes her life expectancy below 90.

Women and Warm Guns

I was going to shut up about that Stevenson-Wolfers paper, "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," because I'm skeptical that subjective happiness as reported on surveys is capturing anything meaningful. Predictably, however, the media won't let go and there's an annoying-as-fuck op-ed by Douthat in today's Times about how this means that we've got to encourage motherhood. The original paper itself is interesting but is being wildly overinterpreted. A few disconnected observations:
  • The data starts in 1972, which doesn't predate the women's movement. In particular, it isn't obvious that it would extrapolate linearly to the 1950s or the 1930s. It's possible that there was, for whatever reason, a spike in female happiness in the 1960s that has slowly been fading ever since.
  • The conclusion that there's a "new happiness gap" opening up is unsubstantiated. Women are roughly as happy now as men to within reasonable error bars.
  • That women are in the 49th rather than the 52nd %ile of happiness, does not obviously call for a policy response. If women were earning 98% as much as men, how many people would you see whining about a gender gap?
  • The European data are pretty flat. Yes, the slope is negative, but it's also tiny.
  • The authors suggest a plausible objection to the use of long-term trends in subjective happiness even if subjective happiness is treated as useful -- "It has been recognized that an individual’s assessment of their well-being may reflect the social desirability of responses and Kahneman (1999) argues that people in good circumstances may be hedonically better off than people in worse circumstances, yet they may require more to declare themselves happy. In the context of the findings presented in this paper, women may now feel more comfortable being honest about their true happiness and have thus deflated their previously inflated responses."
  • Another result that one ought to keep in mind -- "we disaggregate the fertility results to consider trends in happiness separately among single parents and married parents, and, to account for the duel burden of working parents, between employed parents and non-employed parents. Once again, we see similar trends in happiness across these groups, casting doubt on the hypothesis that trends in marriage and divorce, single parenthood, or work-family balance are at the root of the happiness declines among women." This fact is hard to account for on the basis of generic "traditionalist" theories.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


This is mildly distressing:
One of the many fascinating details to emerge from Andrew Lih’s The Wikipedia Revolution is that both Jimmy Wales and one of his first collaborators, Larry Sanger, are self-confessed and totally earnest ‘objectivists’, meaning followers of the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Sanger wrote his doctoral thesis at Ohio State University under the title ‘Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-Justification’. He and Wales first encountered each other on an internet forum Wales had established in 1992, which offered a ‘Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy’ and described itself as ‘the most scholarly of all Objectivist discussions available on the networks’. Other early contributors to Wikipedia learned about its existence through the community of online objectivists, and it was this bond as much as anything that drove the project forward in its initial stages.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Lit-Crit Defense of God

An effective way to discredit ideas in the humanities for being sensible is to associate them with the Enlightenment; there is always something bad -- colonialism (hence exploitation, the overuse of colons and subordinate clauses, etc.), property rights (hence the notion of authorship*, the fencing-in of emotions and couplets, the decline of enjambment, the advent of preposterous corsets), both of the above (the Enclosures; the desire to colonize, fence in, and rearrange the known universe; the widespread interest in physics; the obsession with water-clocks and gardens; the Industrial Revolution) -- about the Enlightenment that you can associate your target with.

This family of objections is not a recent or an academic one; it dates back to Blake ("London"), and persists through Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Dickens (e.g. Hard Times) to a mid-20th cent. poet like A.R. Ammons in "Corsons Inlet." Yeats condemned the "modern" attitude as

A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard's eye.

(You don't have to be Yeats to parallel saints and drunkards, Bertrand Russell famously said around the same time that "From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes.") On the whole, though, Romantic poets are satisfied with grumbling about reason as such. What's different about the academics is that they use ideas like the "theory-ladenness" of observation to claim that all coherent theoretical wholes, including the saint's and the drunkard's, are equally valid from a rational point of view. At least, that's what Stanley Fish does in his Times blogpost today:
Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. [...] But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? [...] I am not affirming this view, [...] I am just observing that there are many who hold it, and that for those who do the evidence provided by printers’ records or letters or library holdings will not be evidence at all; for they do not believe in the existence of the entity — the conclusively identified individual author — it aspires to be evidence of.

Fish goes on to say that this is how religious people think about religion so religious people are deconstructionists and religious belief is justified. Of course, religious people are not deconstructionists by and large, and nor is Fish, really, with regard to scientific truth or at least the more humdrum parts of it. (Would he throw a baby off a cliff? Why not? What's different in kind about evolution?) A closer literary analogy to the average religious moderate is a critic who believes in authorship in all cases except when the author is John Keats, but insists that Keats is "a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates." Which would be muddled if it weren't so transparently dishonest.


* This association is true. Voltaire and Swift had strong feelings about pirated editions.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A question about twin studies

A relatively obvious objection to twin and adoption studies -- I feel like I've seen this mentioned from time to time but don't remember where -- is that adoptive families don't really have much socio-economic variation, esp. in terms of education, settledness, marital status etc.; in samples without a lot of environmental variation, the remaining differences are genetic because that's all they could be; therefore, twin and adoption studies don't prove any general claims about heritability. This argument strikes me as correct if you grant the premise, so either citing adoption studies is disingenuous or the premise is false. So my question is whether anyone (Dice? Grob? James?) knows of studies testing the premise that adoptive families are all alike.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lepore on Poe

I'm an admirer of Jill Lepore's stuff in the New Yorker. Her new piece on Poe is a tour de force of the postmodernist punning style, which works beautifully here because (1) she's writing about Poe, who was obsessed with riddles and puns, and (2) the prose is smooth enough that you can skate right past some of the puns. This bit, for example [my emphases]:

Jupiter tells a spooky story: Legrand has discovered a strange beetle and, ever since, has been puzzling “a syphon wid de figgurs on de slate—de queerest figgurs I ebber did see. Ise gitting to be skeered.” (Poe’s racism ran very deep.) Jupiter is the gothic tale-teller inside “The Gold-Bug,” not unlike Juniper, the gothic-tale-writing baboon of “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” In both stories, Poe divested himself of what he considered to be the darker side of his own authorship.

“The Gold-Bug” is a tangle of puns, many of them, as the literary scholar Marc Shell has pointed out, having to do with currency. Legrand has found a bug the color of gold. “De bug is a goole bug,” Jupiter says. In other words, a ghoul bug. It looks as if it were made of gold. It is not. “Dey aint no tin in him, Massa,” Jupiter says. There’s nothing in him—no tin, and no gold, either. Legrand has also found a parchment, made of goatskin, kidskin. It contains a map showing where a treasure was buried on the island by the pirate Captain Kidd. This pun Legrand himself has to figure out, in order to find the buried treasure. (Kidd’s map, in this sense, is itself a guide to Poe’s tales. Is Poe kidding or not?)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Animal Spirits, Vegetable Math

Benjamin Friedman, in the NYRB, on what's wrong with behavioral economics:
The more important question is whether what Akerlof and Shiller have offered in Animal Spirits amounts to "a theory" in the sense that it could stand in place of the current theories that they criticize for being based entirely on rational responses to economic motives. There is a difference between a series of ideas about different aspects of economic behavior and an integrated account of macroeconomic fluctuations. Akerlof and Shiller are surely on the right track in pointing to elements that are missing from today's conventional models, and in arguing that incorporating them into mainstream macroeconomic analysis would help. But they have neither done this nor shown others how to.

In fact, it's worse than that. Here's Friedman a few paragraphs earlier:
[F]or purposes of macroeconomics—the study of the economy as a whole—most of the standard models do not admit the possibility of unemployment. The reason is not that no one knows unemployment exists. Rather, no one has figured out how to allow for it within the confines of sufficiently simple mathematics; and faced with the choice between excluding unemployment and sacrificing analytical simplicity, most macroeconomists have opted for the former.

But "Opted" suggests they had more of a choice about it than I think they did (or do). Tractability is essential; without it, you have laundry lists of effects that you can't quantify, like Akerlof and Shiller. On the other hand, if the price of tractability is complete irrelevance, that's problematic too. What makes people think macroeconomics is solvable?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Are admissions officials actively anti-Asian?

Yglesias cites "expert" (in this case, propagandist) Kevin Carey saying that "It’s clear that, given the opportunity, elite American universities are prone to implement discriminatory admissions policies that artificially limit the number of American students of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent." MY continues: "But the quota system appears to have merely re-emerged with Asian-Americans as the victims. And nobody talks about it, though the discriminatory mechanisms are only slightly more subtle."

There are two issues here that need to be kept distinct. The first is whether Asians and middle-class whites are losing out at the expense of minorities, legacies, broken-family cases, etc. The second is whether Asians are discriminated against relative to whites of similar socioeconomic status.

I continue to be somewhat skeptical that the second kind of discrimination is rampant. The data from SAT scores is not well-controlled for socio-economic effects, nor is it controlled for whether students were legacies or athletes. If there is evidence that it's appreciably harder for middle-class Asian students to get into college than for middle-class, non-legacy, non-athletic, whites, I haven't seen it. From anecdotal experience -- the people I knew at college, for instance -- I would consider the claim fairly implausible.

A universal characteristic of quota systems is that they lead to a large disparity in abilities between the limited group -- Asians, in this case -- and the non-limited group, especially at second-tier institutions. If Harvard got the very best of everybody, you wouldn't see this disparity there even if they had a quota system. However, as you moved down the pyramid, you'd see the quality of Asian students exceeding that of white students; the distributions would completely separate at some point, as they do for international students at second-tier grad schools. I would have expected Amherst (roughly 9-12 on most people's lists) to show signs of this disparity, but I never saw any. There were no bimodal distributions with an "Asian" peak; neither the summa list nor the PBK list was abnormally heavy on Asian names; etc. There were, on the other hand, a disproportionate number of international students -- a group that was openly discriminated against in the admissions process -- graduating summa.

It might be that one has to move further down the US News list to see this effect clearly, or it might be that the apparent bias against Asians is an artefact of Asians belonging disproportionately to categories that gain nothing from affirmative action (relatively few athletes, legacies, etc.). If the former, this provides an upper bound on how serious the effect is (one shouldn't lose sleep over Asians who should've gotten into Dartmouth ending up at Cornell); if the latter, that brings us to the general question of whether affirmative action is justifiable. I think it is, in principle, though most institutions do a mediocre job of implementing it.

(Should note, btw, that this is all about Asian-Americans. Admissions for foreign students are an entirely different story, given that colleges are unfamiliar with most of the high schools, grading systems, etc. involved.)