Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Age of Reform, Chapters 5 and 6

I am part-way through chapter 6 and I don't have a lot to say.  These are chapters on how the mood of the elites turned against an even bigger elite.  While there are some meaningful parallels to be drawn between the Progressive Era and today, particularly regarding inequality, the mood also feels different in certain ways.  This key quote sticks out for me:
One of the primary tests of the mood of a society at any given time is whether its comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged.  In a large and striking measure the Progressive agitations turned the human sympathies of the people downward rather than upward in the social scale.  The Progressives, by creating a climate of opinion in which, over the long run, the comfortable public was disposed to be humane, did in the end succeed in fending off that battle of social extremes of which they were so afraid. (pages 241-242)
Something feels different today.  Although there is a feeling of precariousness among some in the upper-middle class, in the academic world where I have my best chance to feel the pulse it seems that the mood is more of downward benevolence rather than solidarity.  Now, solidarity can manifest in some pretty patronizing ways, but there's less a feeling of shared precariousness than a feeling that We can save Them. Credentialing is the solution.  Maybe that's a fearful response to precariousness, a belief that we have to make ourselves relevant and can best do that by offering ourselves as the solution to social ills.  I think that's part of it.  But there's something else along with it.  The interest in quick fixes, practices that academics would quietly shun for the sorts of schools that they'd want to send their own kids to, tells me that we don't really identify downward.  Not yet, anyway.

Everyone wants some magical solution for their problem and everyone refuses to believe in magic

A new study from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University (a college that Hofstadter spent some time mocking in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life) gives us a magic fix to community college retention and graduation rates:  Students should take 15 units in their first semester, instead of the 12 units that some people recommend as a gentler start.  Their study shows that taking 15 units in the first semester predicts student success.

There's just one problem:  We don't know if the students who take 15 units do better because their more rigorous first semester provides them with a good foundation for success, or because being able to take 15 units means that they don't have a lot of family responsibilities and don't have to work long hours.  If the former case is true then people should absolutely advise students to take 15 units in their first semester.  If the later case applies then taking 15 units is just spitting in the wind.  In reality it is almost certainly some of each, but we don't know to what extent each effect applies, or if one is much stronger than the other.  We can hazard informed guesses, but this study does not actually offer any evidence in favor of one guess or another.  This is conceded in footnote 6 (page 10 of the .pdf) and confirmed in Table 2 (page 20 of the .pdf) where they show which variables they control for.  None of the variables are direct measures of a student's outside work hours or family responsibilities.  Yes, they control for gender, and gender can be a proxy for greater outside responsibilities, but it's a very crude proxy.  They also control for high school GPA, and certainly a higher GPA may be a sign of a favorable family environment, but many families expect more from a person once they finish high school, and high school is a much more structured environment than college, so high school GPA is a poor proxy for family and work responsibilities.

Nonetheless, this study is getting a lot of attention, because everyone wants to believe that there are easy fixes.  Even worse, they want to believe that these easy fixes are rational, so that they can get magical solutions without magic.  Alas, there are no secret tricks, no correct politics, just liars and lunatics.

It is worth noting that this is pretty much part for the course when it comes to elite discourse about the lower classes.  The world wants to believe that there's a cheap and easy way to help the disadvantaged.  Having them take one extra course isn't all that hard in the grand scheme of things, or at least it isn't that hard for the people telling them to do it.  Whether or not the fix works is less important than the fact that it has been identified and they've been told that they better go do it.

Just another day in technocrat paradise

Neil deGrasse Tyson knows even less about philosophy, economics, and policy than I do.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Silicon Valley Bros of their time

On page 141 of The Age of Reform, Hofstadter quotes Progressive journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd as saying:
Our great moneymakers have sprung in one generation into seats of power kings do not know.  The forces and the wealth are new, and have been the opportunity of new men.  Without restraints of culture, experience, the pride, or even the inherited caution of class or rank, these men, intoxicated, think they are the wave instead of the float, and that they have created the business which has created them.  To them science is but a never-ending repertoire of investments stored by by nature for the syndicates, governments but a fountain of franchises, the nations but customers in squads, and a million the unit of a new arithmetic of wealth written for them.  They claim a power without control, exercised through forms which make it secret, anonymous, and perpetual.
This reads like a condemnation of the arrogance of hyper-macho Silicon Valley types talking about disruption.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.

The Age of Reform, Chapter 4: Making connections

I'm party way through chapter 4.  The argument of Chapter 4 thus far is that the Progressives of the late 19th/early 20th centuries were mostly small-town or urban upper-middle class people who picked up the causes of the rural/agrarian Populists and put them in more genteel form.  The upper-middle class was enjoying comfort in this time, but they knew that they were being eclipsed by the growing industrial interests, and that while they were comfortable they were suddenly less important than they had been.  They felt this keenly.  This dovetails to some extent with a point that Hofstadter made in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:  That in the late 19th century giant new commercial interests emerged and had little use for the formally educated.  In that book Hofstadter focused mostly on the self-made industrialists who had little education.  Here he gives a more nuanced take, noting that plenty of the men who made money in that era were from comfortable classes, but they took positions in massive commercial interests of national prominence when the country was becoming more integrated, and these national interests eclipsed the upper-middle class professionals who had formed a sort of social glue.  While he doesn't specifically address education here, certainly the traditional elites are going to be more traditionally educated and have more traditional sympathies than the titans of new industries.

We see some of this today, in an era of increasing economic inequality. We see the rise of tech companies founded by college dropouts, so people start talking about how nobody needs college, they just need MOOCs. And even the upper-middle class now feels precarious, as evidenced by the profile of the support for Bernie Sanders or the number of private college grads in Occupy Wall Street.  Whatever you think of the merits of their proposals (I will not claim to be a big fan of all of Sanders' policy proposals) the precariousness felt by certain classes is reminiscent of the forces that Hofstadter identified as giving rise to the Progressive Era.  It might also explain why a physics professor has felt the need to spend more than a year blogging about the curiously low respect for expert voices in our current culture...

(Incidentally, many of my economic sympathies are somewhat conservative/free market.  One might wonder why I care about economic inequality.  My answer is that in competitive markets competition tends to reduce the returns to all sellers, to the benefit of buyers.  It is therefore strange that the sellers of certain categories of labor are making more and more money in an allegedly competitive era.  There is something amiss in our society and economy, but it is not something that higher education can fix. This is outside our bailiwick, not the least because we are in the business of naming things after the fantastically wealthy. Also, parents are better predictors of academic success than anything that professors might do.)

"This One Quick Trick!" didn't replicate

I haven't had time to digest this article, but the latest PNAS has a report of a failure to replicate a study that supposedly showed that simple little tweaks of wording could increase voter turnout.  Since the modern zeitgeist is big on the idea that tiny little linguistic nudges matter, it is satisfying to see this sort of research out there.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Age of Reform, Chapter 3

Blah, boring.  The partisan politics and economics of late 19th century farmers.

Chapters 4-6 hold promise, though.  Chapter 4 is titled "The Status Revolution and Progressive Leaders" and the sections are titled "The plutocracy and the mugwump type", The Alienation of the professionals", and "From the mugwump to the progressive."  Sounds more like ideas and psychology than agricultural economics.

The Age of Reform, Chapters 1-2

Not much to say here. Chapter 1 is spent debunking the myth of the self-sufficient yeoman farmer. Hofstadter argues that for most of US history, and certainly by the early 19th century, farming was a capitalistic enterprise, where families were not farming merely to produce for their own table but to produce a surplus that they could sell for profit.  The idea of a farm where people grew all of their own foods, raised the sheep or plants that produced their clothing, did their own blacksmithing, etc., was largely a myth.  Of course, since farming was a for-profit endeavor in a wider economy it was subject to ups and downs, bubbles of land speculation, and all of the other risks that come when rewards go up.

He also spends a lot of time in the first two chapters arguing that the myth of the virtuous farmer as some simpler, purer being than city folk came from a lot of romantic speculation that never matched reality, including speculation by plantation owner Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson could only be considered "self-sufficient" if (1) you ignore the fact that he used slave labor and (2) had 300 people working on his plantation, i.e. enough people that they could specialize in different things, so what he had was less a model of self-sufficiency than a model of a diversified and specialized (though thoroughly unfree) local economy.  The myth of the self-sufficient and virtuous farmer only grew larger as family farming declined, the industrial economy rose, and farmers and immigrants alike left their homes for American cities.  That era saw a lot of xenophobia, and a lot of militarism in isolationist guise:
On the surface there was a strong note of anti-militarism and anti-imperialism in the Populist movement and Bryan democracy.  Populists were opposed to large standing armies and large naval establishments; most of them supported Bryan's resistance to the acquisition of the Philippines.  They looked upon the military as a threat to democracy, upon imperialist acquisitions as gains only to financiers and "monarchists", not to the people.  But what they chiefly objected to was institutional militarism rather than war itself, imperialism rather than jingoism.  Under a patina of pacifist rhetoric they were profoundly nationalistic and bellicose.  What the nativist mind most resolutely opposed was not so much war itself as co-operation with European governments for any ends at all. (page 85)
I didn't intend to use this blog to talk about Brexit or Trump, but all of this has happened before and will happen again.