Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ACA and college students

Here is my op-ed with Linda Christiansen. (It inspired this blurb and then, this essay which cited a list of [at least] 122 colleges impacted by the ACA-- a nice bit of investigative reporting...)


This is a story about four college students who have similar family situations. Whatever the intention of politicians, all four were harmed by the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as "ObamaCare."

Student No. 1 is a young graduate student still fully covered by both parents' health-insurance plans. He works as a graduate assistant (five hours per week for a small tuition discount and a little more than the minimum wage). He also is enrolled in the university's health insurance with no premium payments. He now has redundant insurance coverage from three plans. Surely, the university sees those premiums as part of his compensation. He derives no benefit from their health plan, however, and does not have the option to be paid more money instead. This is a lose-lose situation since the employer is paying an expense that the employee would prefer as cash.

Student No. 2 is an undergraduate putting himself through college and covered by his father's health insurance. He works as a resident's assistant (RA) helping in the dorms to pay his room and board. He was also working in the campus Internet Technology (IT) department. This is his major so it offered both compensation and relevant work experience. But because of ObamaCare's requirement to provide health insurance for those working more than 30 hours per week, the university forced him to choose between the two jobs. Since his RA job was so important to his current living costs, he dropped his IT job despite its value for his future.

Student No. 3 also is an RA with health insurance through both parents. The university requires RAs to report their work hours each week — to stay under the ObamaCare mandate on hours worked. Yet, during the weeks before classes she is "required" to work long days with no off days for training or student move-in — even though those hours are not counted for the purposes of ObamaCare.

Student No. 4 attended college for a while but decided to work and take time to think about what he would like to do in the future. He works part-time for a grocery chain and wants to work full-time. Although management thinks he is an excellent employee and might have a fine career with the company, they could not offer him more hours since the company can only afford a few full-time employees. In the meantime, he is covered by his parents' insurance.

All of these are perverse and largely-ignored consequences of ObamaCare. None of these students needs health insurance but all of them have been penalized by the legislation.

We see the same sort of outcomes throughout the economy. Three surveys by the Federal Reserve branches in Philadelphia, New York and Atlanta indicated remarkably consistent results: About 20 percent of firms are cutting jobs; 20-30 percent are shifting jobs to part-time; and about 20 percent are shifting higher insurance costs to employees.

From the employee's perspective, a recent National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper by Casey Mulligan indicates that 6 million-11 million workers can increase their disposable incomes by reducing their work hours.

Thanks to ObamaCare, there are many more contexts in which working less — and hiring people to work fewer hours — has become financially attractive. Aside from the amazingly slow pace of the economic recovery by historical standards, all of this also explains why we've had so much growth in part-time work and so little in full-time work.

The government has been heavily manipulating the markets for health care and health insurance for decades — subsidizing insurance through the workplace, restricting health care and health-insurance options, giving away a lot of "free" health care and so on.
ObamaCare did nothing to reduce the problems created earlier by the government. Instead, in its attempt to help some people, it extended those problems and added new ones — by multiplying and complicating the links between health insurance, work and family.

When we use unwieldy federal legislation to manipulate a complex, messed-up system, it's not surprising that the results are a very mixed bag.

Linda Christiansen is a professor of business at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany; D. Eric Schansberg is a professor of economics there and an adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thomas Sowell: Race and Culture

I finally got around to reading Thomas Sowell's classic book, Race and Culture.

Often a provocative and difficult/controversial topic, I appreciate the scholarly approach Sowell brought to the project, looking at various angles through separate chapters on culture (through migration and conquest) and race (and its connections to economics, politics, intelligence, slavery and history). He opens by poking at a predominant "social science" model that largely (and ironically) ignores various social factors (choosing to focus on a few, simple, favored hypotheses).
In our time, a similar irony is that we're often told about the importance of individual biology-- while we're told that aggregating individual biology to groups is somehow automatically troublesome.

One of the huge over-arching questions in play is "environment vs. culture". Sowell notes, "While we can all agree on the influence of 'environment' in some very general sense, there is a vast difference between (1) regarding groups as being shaped by immediate circumstances, including the people and institutions around them; and (2) regarding groups as having their own internal cultural patterns, antedating the environment in which they currently find themselves." (x). The value of international comparisons in this context? When we see patterns which recur across many countries, then we can more easily see what's internal vs. external (x). As such, the purpose of the book "is to demonstrate the reality, persistence, and consequences of cultural differences (xii).

As one might expect/hope, Sowell provides a ton of examples on differences (e.g., p. 2-4) and why culture matters (e.g., p. 85). On the former, see: the prevalence of Jews in the apparel industry, Germans with pianos, Italian fishermen and architects, India's entrepreneurial Gujaratis, Scots' medical knowledge, and the difference between particular subgroups of Scots who settled in Appalachia. On the latter, Sowell notes the differences in Jewish and Christian Sabbath practices and the implications for operating a factory while avoiding/engaging in "discrimination".

Sowell even wrestles with "cultural superiority". One should be careful-- and judgments might be contingent-- but at times, it should be safe to say that X is superior to Y. "Arabic numerals are not merely different from Roman numerals; they are superior..." (5) The punchline, as opposed to cultural relativism: "It is not necessary to claim that a particular people or a particular culture is superior in all things or for all times...but neither is it necessary to deny the greater effectiveness of particular cultures for particular things at particular times and places..." (6a, 225).

On "conquest", Sowell cautions against a simplistic view of conquest for purely economic/financial motives (73-75). Certainly, those motives are in play at times, but Sowell notes the importance of political motives, even at the expense of economics/finance. "The reductionist notion that economic motives can be automatically inferred behind conquests of the modern capitalist era is ironically applied to a period-- the 19th and 20th centuries-- when non-economic influences were especially strong, particularly in the case of much of sub-Saharan Africa. European officials responsible for the public treasury were often opposed to the development of a colonial empire in Africa, which they correctly saw as having little capacity to repay the cost of conquest..." (74) In terms of outcomes, Sowell notes the abuses of the colonists, but also that exports and imports grew dramatically during the colonial era.

Sowell also discusses "statistical discrimination"-- a term used by economists to describe the inevitable/universal stereotyping of people and situations, given highly-imperfect and costly-to-obtain information. For better and for worse, members of the "good" (bad) group will tend to be viewed (un)favorably-- at least until more accurate information emerges about the individual.

Such decision-making is regrettable at some level, but unavoidable given the limited info at hand. As a result, all of us discriminate in this way. We rely on generalizations that are, generally, true-- to help us make relatively effective decisions in a low-information world. For example, we tend to have more respect for the intellect of a Purdue grad in Engineering with a 3.5 GPA than an Indiana State grad in a social science with a 2.5. And so on.

On occasion, these measurable/proxies can be gender or race-- when that attribute correlates with success or failure. Sowell provides examples-- e.g., 19th-century Irish with alcohol problems, saying it was common for employers to routinely and openly discriminate against the Irish based on this generalization (89). And he quotes WEB Dubois on the same thing with respect to blacks in late 19th century America-- that the group's low productivity on average was hurting the perception of productive individuals (90).

On the minimum wage, Sowell notes the theory and empirical work of its impact on unskilled labor, which has been disproportionately minority. In 1950, the minimum wage jumped up considerably and has been much higher since then (in real terms) with more extensive coverage. Sowell observes that the black and black teen unemployment rates were comparable with whites until then-- and diverged sharply after that (94-95). Of course, there are many reasons why workers are unskilled-- from education to family structure/stability. (And there are many causes of unemployment that might vary by race-- at least in theory.) But increasing the cost of unskilled labor should be expected to decrease the number of unskilled hired-- and thus, to disproportionately cause unemployment among groups with more unskilled workers.

On the politics of race, Sowell makes three prescient observations: First, it's ironic that we claim to want to see individuals as individuals-- but we measure success by group outcomes. Second, democracy alone is not nearly enough (124-125). Third, discrimination-- even when a secondary factor-- will often be an attractive hypothesis politically, in comparison to the hard work of dealing with thornier and more sensitive primary causes. "Factors such as inter-group differences in demographic characteristics, geographical distribution, skill levels, or cultural values tend to be ignored, however demonstrably important they may be in a cause-and-effect sense. Thus, while the black population in late 20th-century America suffered greatly from soaring rates of violent crime, from having much of its newborn generation raised by [single] teenage mothers, and from widespread drug addiction, its political leaders have focused their efforts on correcting the failings (real and presumed) of the white population..." (139-140)

On race and intelligence, Sowell opens by noting the difficulty in discussing the topic dispassionately and in measuring race or intelligence (156). His discussion was helpful although surely out-of-date on at least the data. I did find one thing quite helpful: moving away from incendiary references about general intelligence (e.g., an IQ test) to narrower examples: the Chinese over Jews and blacks on "spatial conception" (162, 169).

On slavery, Sowell is helpful in promoting a broader understanding-- in particular, that's it not simply (or even primarily) a Western or U.S. institution. Arguably, it's most interesting in the West, given our supposed political values! But "the irony of our times is that the destruction of slavery around the world, which some once considered the supreme moral act in history, is less well-known and less-discussed among intellectuals in either Western or non-Western countries, while the enslavement of Africans by Europeans is treated as unique-- and due to unique moral deficiencies in the West." (222)

Moreover, focusing on slavery solely in the West will almost certainly lead one into various errors (219). For example, one is more likely to imagine that contemporary problems for African-Americans are largely caused by the "legacy of slavery". But this doesn't stand up to empirical analysis or anything beyond simplistic, univariate analysis (220).

Sowell notes that slavery was long viewed by "both the secular and religious moralists of societies around the world ...as something requiring no special moral justification" (186). It was done in Africa-- and by Africans trading with Europeans (188). North Africans and Middle Eastern nations dominated the trade for centuries before the Europeans got involved (189). There are contexts where families preferred "slavery" for their daughters rather than a life of poverty but "freedom" (208). (This is reminiscent of the mass immigration to South Africa by blacks, even with Apartheid.) He describes the end of slavery (in the West!) as the result of "moral revulsion" by those in the West, particularly Christians (210-211) and military might (212-214), with the English imposing their moral standards on others, particularly the Ottomans (222, 250)

Finally, Sowell also has an interesting section on the impact of geography (235-240)-- on everything from resource availability (as a secondary cause of prosperity, at best), transaction costs (e.g., the wide-open U.S. vs. countries geographically-bound by mountains or land-locked by political boundaries). Although he does not tease out many particulars, he notes that it would not be surprising if such constraints and opportunities did not shape individuals and societies-- in terms of culture, work ethic, etc. "It would take an almost miraculous coincidence for all these factors to balance out..." (240). If so, then we would expect to find cultural differences.

Other related work on the complicated relationship between biology, culture, etc.:

1.) WSJ article on autism by ethnicity and birth nation

2.) Sue Shellenbarger in the WSJ on the interplay between language (part of culture) and math (comparing English and Chinese, in particular).

3.) Nicholas Wade in the WSJ and a longer essay in Time on race and biology-- as excerpted from his book, A Troublesome Inheritance. (Try googling the article's title, "Race has a biological basis" to get the full WSJ article.) Wade argues that evolutionary theory requires race to be a consideration-- if not a significant factor. (Here's a snarky reply with two deeper cites from PZ Myers; h/t: Chris L. Maybe it's proper to dismiss it, but it doesn't seem like it can be this easy. And if it is that easy, why is that not a problem for the comprehensive-Evolution narrative folks?) 

Monday, October 13, 2014

on subsidizing WalMart's wages

a really nice article as the topic relates to the ACA...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

reflections on teaching hybrid and the MOOC's influence on the future of higher ed

"Hybrid" (H) and on-line (OL) courses are all the rage these days. H is a relatively conventional class, where face-to-face (F2F) interaction is reduced quite a bit-- say, by 25-75%. OL can refer to aspects of a conventional or an H course. But fully OL implies no F2F with an instructor (except perhaps for exams)-- what I'll discuss here.

In particular, "MOOCs" (Massive Open On-line Courses) are getting the lion's share of attention in the media, since they are making a splash at the larger, more-famous universities-- and they have the potential to fundamentally alter the landscape of higher ed. Along with continued decreases in state subsidies for higher ed and a growing focus on student debt, the market for higher ed will change somewhat (or perhaps substantially) in the near-term and the long-term. 

As one would probably expect, the outcomes within MOOCs (and their more modest cousins, H and small OL courses) have been mixed. Some of the mixed bag is due to the fixable foibles of early adapters. But the rest is due to the inherent limitations of the medium. (From my files, here is an "early report card" on outcomes; an article on SJSU reducing their MOOCs after 50% F's; and a blog post reporting the experience of an effective teacher taking a MOOC.)

At smaller schools and those that focus moreso on teaching, MOOCs are far less common. But H and modest-sized OL courses are certainly in play. And even if a school doesn't offer many of these courses, they certainly must worry and accommodate their burgeoning presence in the marketplace.

My direct experience? I haven't taught an OL course yet--and I doubt that I ever will. (I have an administrative load; mostly teach upper-level classes at a teaching school; and thoroughly enjoy F2F teaching.)

I have taught two H courses. Both courses are upper-level economics courses. Labor Econ relies on reading quite a bit and is not particularly technical. (Labor can be more technical at a school where Intermediate Micro Theory is a pre-requisite.) Econometrics is a homework-intensive course that culminates in an ambitious project. It is a technical course, but is taken by math-comfy people, so the need for in-class coverage is reduced. I've done both as "independent study" courses, so both can be accomplished without much interaction from me. In a word, both are easy to construct as H.

A few reflections:

1.) It is difficult to do these courses well. (I'm tempted to say that teaching them could be easier, but I don't think that's true. At minimum. constructing any sort of hybrid or online course requires some upfront effort. And if someone wants to put in low effort in F2F-- use the same old notes; tell a lot of stories; give multiple-choice tests-- it doesn't get much easier than that! For lazy teachers, the prospective advantages would be increased schedule flexibility-- and for some, less contact with students.)

Assuming that away, these delivery methods require a lot more effort. First, since they are not our traditional delivery methods, they require thinking in new ways. Second, they require different assignments-- to engage the material without as much F2F time. Third, they typically require more grading-- the bulk of the work, and toil, of teaching. As one of my colleagues used to say: I'd teach for free, but they pay me to grade.

Bottom line: Perhaps it varies by field, but my guess is that if someone tells you that OL is far easier, then they're probably not doing a good job. 

2.) Thus, the push for non-traditional delivery methods is unlikely to come from professors. (According to a CHE report cited by Harpers in May 2013, 72% of professors teaching OL do not think students should receive credit for them!) The most likely candidates are A.) schools that want to compete with traditional universities, given the technological advances that make this delivery more feasible; and B.) related to that, consumers who are interested in less F2F or the lower-cost/quicker/lower-quality educational attainment provided by these schools. Which students will find H and OL more attractive? Those who are more interested in education as a credential; those who want the flexibility; and those who have (or imagine that they have) higher levels of self-motivation.

3.) H (and OL) courses are more challenging for me to teach, because I have high expectations but little time to build relationships with students. I learn my students' names in the first week and in a standard semester, get to know them relatively well. They're more likely to sense that I want the best for them, when I've had more time. With less relationship and high standards, the likely of me being mis-perceived are greater. 

4.) The challenges of H and OL vary by discipline and level. It would be quite different to teach a first-semester principles course at a liberal-admissions university vs. a second-semester principles course vs. an upper-level course. In our former E150/200 set-up, the first course was easier but the troops were green. The second course was much more challenging/technical, but the troops were more seasoned. H and OL were feasible in each, but the challenges were quite different. Returning to the standard Micro/Macro combo, we'll start with a tough course and rookies-- very challenging to communicate the info and to engage many students who are not high on self-motivation. Not an enviable task!

5.) Related, one must be more careful with the syllabus and communicating expectations. First, you have less time to communicate such things in person. Second, you won't want to spend time on such things vs. material. Third, again, they don't know you as well, so the written word become more important. A nice article: "10 rules" (including the importance of a clear and more-detailed syllabus and forming community within the class). See also: impressing the importance of on-line etiquette and the inherent challenges of communicating on-line with little personal relationship. 

6.) H and OL courses require a (large) degree of "flipped-ness"-- where students' first look at the material is before class, as they engage concepts through reading, homework, etc. (In non-flipped, traditional, students' first exposure to material comes from the prof's lecture: lame, boring, and inefficient.) Since I've always used a rigorous-graded version of "Socratic Method", I've done flipped forever. So, this part of the adjustment would be relatively easy for me. But others will find it difficult even to imagine what to expect. (See; articles on how to flip on-line and a few specific strategies.)

7.) MOOC's can do some things relatively well. (For a look at market innovations in areas of comparative advantage, see: Greg Beato's essay in Reason.) But if what you're doing can be easily replaced by a MOOC, then you haven't been doing your job very well and deserve to be replaced. (In the same issue of Harpers, they cite an AAUP report that 3/4 of teaching positions are filled by graduate students or adjuncts. Some do fine job-- and perhaps many do a better job than profs who focus on research-- but...) Going with the extreme for illustration purposes: If your approach to teaching is a lecture with multiple-choice tests, then a videotape of a more theatrical performer would be preferable, right? If they get tired, they can hit pause-- or if they get lost, they can hit rewind.

8.) Related to this, professors and schools need to emphasize their "comparative advantage" in F2F if they have it. Sure, such schools should make H and OL available. But there will be a demand for F2F for the foreseeable future-- and those who are skilled at this should not shy away from its provision. In Touchstone, Arthur Hunt argues that "flesh-and-blood" should have a number of advantages because of what we know from theology.

Higher ed is entering a time of significant change. But when trying to anticipate the changes, make sure to consider the many different models of university. At the end of the day, I expect MOOCs and smaller on-lines to change the landscape-- but modestly, and mostly, for larger, research schools. (On avoiding doomsaying [although not the greatest analysis], see: this very recent CHE article.) The value of F2F-- if done well-- for the many students who lack self-control, is simply too high to be replicated by MOOCs. 

I expect the increased focus on student debt (and higher tuition prices-- from lower state support) to encourage students/parents to be more careful when sending Johnny/Jenny off to college-- again, impacting more expensive schools and driving people to less expensive alternatives (e.g., living at home and attending regional public schools such as IU Southeast). 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

a sad ending, still unfolding...

A good essay from Matt Welch in Reason on the trajectory of the Obama presidency and its rhetoric...

One would have reasonably expected his presidency to be mediocre at best, given...
-the public's choice of anyone who wasn't a Republican (given Bush's lame presidency);
-the emphasis of style over substance in the campaign and his campaigning while in office;
-the odd prevalence of people who obsess about sin X and struggle with the same sin (e.g., transparency; peace; post-racial rhetoric);
-the executive branch experience of a senator and community organizer;
-the pursuit of power and politics over policy

Then, you throw in a second term where a man of few ideas must govern as a lame-duck with few previous successes. A sad ending to his presidency, really. Hopefully, the last 2+ years won't be any worse.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Everything Is Obvious (once you know the answer)

A fun, provocative, little book by Duncan Watts...

Watts is a sociologist, but this book ranges far into psychology-- with a number of interesting applications to marketing, social networks, and even, to people's beliefs about religion and history (including evolutionary mechanisms).

I learned about the book from a review in the WSJ by Christopher Chabris. (Well, at least, I have the review tucked into the book.) Quoting Chabris, Watts' conclusion is that "common sense is a shockingly unreliable guide to truth and yet we rely on it virtually to the exclusion of other methods of reasoning." In this, Watts runs counter to more popular works by Malcolm Gladwell.

One of the symptoms is ex post story-telling. We see something happen and then arrive at what we see as a compelling explanation. But we often fool ourselves into thinking that 1.) our stories are explanations; and 2.) what seems compelling is merely reasonable (and often, ultimately, wrong).

The root problem: profound information problems. We know so little-- in general and with respect to any given aspect of life. Drawing inferences with little info, we (implicitly) use a ton of "faith" (or whatever term you prefer, if you're allergic to that one) which is based on our inevitably-flawed worldviews and our inherently-limited theories.

Of course, humility and self-correction (often with the help of others) are potential remedies. But humility is difficult to embrace. And self-correction is easier said than done, especially when we a.) choose evidence selectively; b.) read narrowly; and c.) find it relatively difficult to shift from one paradigm to another. (Struggles in all of three of these are a mark of fundamentalism-- common in both religious and secular settings.)

Watts identifies "what is arguably the central intellectual problem of sociology...the micro-macro problem...the outcomes that sociologists seem to explain are intrinsically macro in nature...[but] all these outcomes are driven in some way by the micro actions of individual humans." Beyond sociology, he notes that something like this "comes up in every realm of science". Watts then illustrates the concept with claims about "emergence" and the supposed development of life through evolutionary mechanisms. "How do you get from one 'scale' of reality to the next?" The chosen approach: "Historically, science has done its best to dodge this question, opting instead for a division of labor across the scales." (61-63)

More broadly, much of what Watts offers is applicable to beliefs about evolution, especially as a comprehensive "explanation" for the development of life. Watts spends a lot of time on such "explanations".

Watts (27): "What appear to us to be causal explanations are in fact just stories-- descriptions of what happened that tell us little, if anything, about the mechanisms at work. Nevertheless, because these stories have the form of causal explanations, we treat them as if they have predictive power. In this way, we deceive ourselves..."

Other considerations: "the combination of the frame problem [the inherent circularity of drawing inferences from context about context; p. 45-46] and the macro-micro problem means that every situation is in some important respect different from the situations we have seen before" (110). Thus, "it is all too easy to persuade ourselves that we have learned more than we really have" (111).

"Historical explanations...are neither causal explanations nor even really descriptions-- at least not in the sense that we imagine them to be. Rather, they are stories." (131) Continuing: "Scientific explanations often start out as stories as well...[but] in science, we perform experiments that explicitly test our 'stories'...however, our inability to do experiments excludes precisely the kind of evidence that would be necessary to infer a genuine cause-and-effect relation. In the absence of experiments, therefore, our storytelling abilities are allowed to run unchecked... (133). 

Evolution, on a "micro" level (or again, whatever term you prefer), can be tested in many cases. But, on a "macro" level (or choose your own term), it's difficult to imagine how it could (really) be falsified. 

Moreover, it's odd (and unreasonable) to expect science to carry that type of load. The upshot: "Expecting history to obey the standards of scientific explanation is therefore not just unrealistic, but fundamentally confused." (133) Why the fundamental confusion? A failure to understand "science" or a need to have one's beliefs validated by something with authority.