Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Grade Inflation

George Leef has an interesting recent article about grade inflation titled, "A is for Average, B is for Being There." He presents some sensible explanations for the cause of grade inflation. The first is the desire of administrators to prop up reputation and revenue by preventing dropouts. When students get Fs or even Ds, they are apt to leave college, which both translates into loss tuition, but also a reduction in their rating due to high dropout rate. This leads to policies, such as making it difficult for professors to fail students. My school, for one, requires us to fill out paperwork justifying any F.

Of course, this paperwork could just be a preemptive defense against the second problem: students complaining about grades. If a student files a complaint about a grade it can create a lot of trouble for a professor. So, a sensible professor, in order to avoid the trouble, eventually learns to give better grades just to be safe. Also, the obvious upward bias of the complaints (students will only complain to have their grades raised; students will never complain if they think their grade is unfairly high) may also contribute to grade inflation.

Secondly, students who receive higher grades rank their teachers higher. Many schools put great stock in these student evaluations, and may use them to determine pay raises and tenure. A sensible professor will give higher grades to students in order to get better ratings and help their career.

After noting these causes, though, Leef recommends simply that professors take moral courage to give their students more accurate grades, as if the causes of the problem, which he mentioned, were merely incidental. Leef quotes Lee Gutkind
Educators must lead the way to take responsibility for the morals and ethics of students by taking a deep look inside themselves and their own actions, drawing their moral and ethical boundaries and honoring the mission with which they have been entrusted. It begins with honesty in grading—rewarding excellence and valuing achievement.
Of course, wagging your finger at professors and ask them to risk their careers just to combat such a problem is unlikely to produce results.

More sensibly, the problem should be attacked at its root. The main issues are really that students can cause trouble by complaining about grades, schools can lose enrollees, and professors need good student evaluations for career advancement. Schools should put the burden of proof much more on the student to prove unfair grading practices. To address enrollment, perhaps schools should encourage teachers to withdraw rather than fail substandard students (some schools already encourage this). And the schools should also improve teacher evaluations.

Evaluations definitely serve a valuable formative role, helping teachers get feedback and improve their teaching. But in their role of ranking teachers (their summative function) they're a bit more problematic. In addition to contributing to grade inflation, they also don't seem to correlate with actual content learned, and seemed to be based on more affective impressions. It's also been suggested student evaluations restrict academic freedom, by discouraging professors from defending controversial opinions. Professors can be evaluated poorly simply because the students don't like some controversial opinion the professor expresses.

Students evalutations tend to strongly correlate with evaluations by other teachers and by administrators, which suggests that they are valid measures of teacher performance. But this also suggests that evaluations for the purpose of advancement can be just as well done by these other teachers and administrators, and without the risk of grade inflation.

Schools might also take a direct assault on grade inflation by simply setting mandatory class averages for professors. A school could say that each professor has to reward grades of an average of 80% or 75% (or B- or C+ or C) for all students they teach per semester or per academic year. They wouldn't have to give identical averages for every class, but on average for all classes over an academic year is reasonable. Professors probably wouldn't like this, but it would very simply solve the problem.

I think grade inflation is a serious issue since it diminishes the value of the degree. Instead of an academic degree indicating hard work and an ability to learn, it simply indicates an ability to pay the tuition costs and show up to class. And so schools should address it in order to retain their reputation.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Originalism and regime uncertainty

Originalism is the legal doctrine that the meaning of legal texts, especially the US constitution, is determined by the original meaning and intent of the document. It's a generally unpopular position nowadays. I prefer it because, more strictly adhered to, it would severely limit the size and scope of the federal government, which would have numerous benefits. But besides this ends-based reasoning, I think there are better theoretical justifications. For one, we might justify it on contractual grounds. Namely, the constitution was a contract between the federal government and the states, ratified over 200 years ago, and that to adhere to that contract is to go back to the meaning at the time of ratification. We can change that contract, but that requires both participation from the state and federal governments, which is done through the amendment process. To reinterpret the constitution at the federal level is to effectively change the contract without the states' permission.

Another more pragmatic, ends-based, justification that I've been thinking about recently is on the grounds of Regime Uncertainty. This is a concept from the work of Robert Higgs, that the uncertainty created by political action hampers economic development. The idea is simple: people are less likely to invest in the future when there is uncertainty. When legislators or regulators are empowered to make decisions that will have decisive impact on people's fortunes, it increases uncertainty. People will take less risk, for fear of being thwarted by the whim of politicians and regulators.

This also includes the whim of judges and justices. It doesn't just matter what laws are passed, but also how those laws are interpreted. When laws are vague, or clear rules have not yet been established, then companies will take a more conservative attitude, sometimes becoming excessively protective to avoid legal action. One can think of the all too obvious warning that one finds on food packaging: a nut container that says "this product may contain nuts" or a coffee lid that says, "contents may be hot." One is led to think, "Are we growing stupider that we need to be told these things." The answer is, no. It's just companies have grown excessively cautious to avoid litigation.

I can also think of the sexual harassment training that I went through in order to work at my school here. You'd think, by what they were telling us, that I could never speak to or even make eye contact with any of my co-workers without risking sexual harassment. It seems scary when you think of how easily you could potentially misstep, but the reality is that it is extremely unlikely for a sensible person who is considerate of others to be accused of sexual harassment. The people who design these courses are intentionally excessive--again, in order to avoid any risk of litigation. They don't know what ludicrous things someone might get offended at, and they want to avoid the legal fees, and they don't want to face an unpredictably judge or jury. The precedent on sexual harassment is unfortunately vague and rather generous to the victim, defining it as whatever the victim thinks is harassment. The concept of a "Rational Person" has been put in place to try to tame it. The idea here it is sexual harassment if a reasonable person would think it is sexual harassment. But in practice this just means that the judge or jury will determine whether they think it's sexual harassment, since most people will generally view themselves as a standard for a "rational person." This admittedly would exclude the most ludicrous sexual harassment suits, but it doesn't help too much in creating some certainty about what is prohibited and what forbidden.

Originalism has the advantage that one can actually know what the law is and says. One can know what a law means--what it limits, what it forbids, what it permits, and so on--with a high degree of certainty. If the law says, "interstate commerce" then you can say: "Interstate, that means between the states. And commerce means trade, perhaps also travel." Then, in light of the tenth amendment, you can say, "Thus, congress can't regulate intrastate commerce. Thus, the FDA can't regulate intrastate food and drug sale, the federal government can't prohibit medical marijuana that is entirely intrastate, the FCC can't regulate local radio station," and so on.

Admittedly, even adhering to a more originalist interpretation of the constitution, not all of it is completely transparent, but there is high level of confidence and a greater degree of certainty. And originalism will provide long term certainty. You know that the courts will not suddenly decide that certain forms of commerce are so important (or the judges dislike so strongly) that they can't possibly be intrastate.

This increased certainty will have economic benefits. It will adhere closer to rule of law, rather than rule of men.

The Problem of Complexity

I've been thinking about complexity while contemplating the question, which I asked my students, of what type of government Socrates would prefer. It's not obvious from what know (or at least think we know) of what Socrates thought. The obvious answer, I think, is that Socrates would favor something like Plato's Beautiful City, a fairly totalitarian communism run by the best and the brightest. But with Socrates' ready acknowledgment of his own ignorance and his statement that he is the wisest because he knows his own ignorance, Socrates might not prefer such a government.

Running even just a moderate size Ancient Greek city, even for a very smart and enlightened ruler would be a difficult task. Obviously no ruler can possibly micro-manage everything, and thus is going to have to let the city run itself to a degree, only intervening in important matters. But the temptation is to try to run and fix everything. Leaders can be tempted to think that things would be better if they had more control. But what they fail to see is the sometimes elusive complexity of even a small city. There will be thousands of individuals with their own actions, plans, desires, capacities,habits, and so on. Ultimately, a leader can see very little of this complexity, and thus can intelligently do very little to manage it. Many a leader though fails to see this complexity. Even worse, sometimes their smarts can get in the way. If they are really intelligent, they might begin to be over-confident in their ability. If they were wiser, as Socrates reminds us, they would be aware of their ignorance, and would not try to do more than they could handle. This leads me to think that, though Socrates would prefer a leader who is very specialized and expert in their particular job, a Socratic leader would be ultimately very hands off.

The problem is even more exaggerated when we talk about running an entire country with hundreds of million of people and a vast economy with billions of economic transactions daily. Not even a super genius can understand what's going on in this economy. Leaders are often made over-confident by their statistics and numbers by their expert advisors, and by their own intelligence and success. This can blind them to their ignorance. What we often fail to realize is, for example, is that these statistics and numbers only give us the vaguest outline of what's going on. Trying to fix the economy by means of this limited information is like a doctor trying to perform surgery with only a patients shadow--or even worse, like trying to manipulate a marionette doll to perform surgery from a thousand feet away.

Ultimately, a person aware of their own ignorance, is going to favor a more limited government.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Anti-Recession Legislation

Reason.com has an interesting chart about the the timing of anti-recession legislation and the end of recessions.



The pattern is that every recession from 1948 to 1991 has involved legislation designed to combat the recession passed either right as the recession is ending or after the recessions is over. Recessions aren't officially declared until considerable time has elapsed. The current recession began in January of 2008, but wasn't declared until December. And similarly we probably won't know when this recession is officially over until many months after. This is one of the big problems with anti-recession legislation to begin with--knowing whether there's a recession going on while it's going on.

Nick Gillespie whimsically quips that this could indicate that our current recession must be over, now that the stimulus bill is passed. Perhaps so, but I think the big lesson to learn from this is that the economy has recovered time and time again without help. You could add to that list basically every recession and depression prior to 1929, at which time government intervention in such affairs was still quite restricted by constitutional considerations. And the Congressional Budget Office already predicted that the current recession will end in the latter half of this year without the stimulus package. In fact the only two exceptions are the Great Depression and the 2001 recession (if you consider the last year's tax rebates stimulus, you could count this recession too). The Great Depression is by far the recession characterized by the greatest and swiftest stimulus of all. Hoover initiated stimulus in 1930, immediately after the stock market crash, and continued through 1931. When Roosevelt entered office, he continued with the New Deal in 1933 and then again in 1935-36. It leads one to think that perhaps eight years of economic stimulus may have made the thing worse, since all the other recessions and depression were much shorter and less severe. Looking at the data overall, the sensible conclusion would be that if Hoover had been as sluggish as Harding was in 1920 during that recession, then there would have only been a 1929-30 recession, and that if the governments of all those other recessions had been more swift from 1948 to 1990, then we may have had some really bad depressions.

There may be theoretical reasons to reject this conclusion, but that would require one to assume that the typical examples are in fact the exceptions and the exceptions are in fact typical.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Popularizing Philosophy

In class as we’ve been discussing Karl Reinhold’s Briefe ├╝ber die Kantische Philosophie (Letters on Kantian Philosophy), the issue cam up about popularizing philosophy. Reinhold’s whole purpose in this series of articles is precisely to popularize Kantian philosophy, to bring Kant to a wider audience. In many ways he succeeded. The Briefe are a collection of articles that were published serially in 1786, and subsequently collected together to form this book. They were pretty widely read and established Reinhold’s name enough that he was given the newly created chair of Kantian philosophy in 1787 at the University of Jena. On the other hand, we are reading them in a philosophy class not as a secondary source to understand Kant, but as an independent thinker on his own, since Reinhold in a way created a new philosophy in the process of what he thought was merely explaining Kant in a more readable and digestible form.

In other words, Reinhold’s writing brings up the question of whether popularizing a sophisticated and difficult philosopher is something that scholars and philosophers should attempt to do, and yet it also brings up the warning that you won’t be able to popularize without in some way corrupting the original in the process.

There’s nothing wrong with corrupting the original per se, unless we assume that the philosopher in question is some sort of prophet spewing truth at every syllable. Really getting at what a philosopher is trying to say in every detail is always a hard bargain. But, presumably, there are aspects of the original philosopher that make them great and make them worthy of study, and the threat is that these will be lost in the translation to the popular audience. Are the most insightful and brilliant aspects of Kant reflected in Reinhold? It seems that some are and some aren't.

Presumably if you’re going to do a good job of popularizing a philosopher, then you are going to be able to present their most interesting an insightful ideas, and you're gong to be able to do it in a clear and consistent way.

But, in class, objections were raised to the project of popularizing. One complaint was that if you only get the most important ideas without the supporting details then you aren’t going to get the real philosophy; e.g. Reinhold can’t present the real Kant. Another objection was that these ideas cannot be presented out of context without corrupting them—i.e. the ideas only make sense in the context of other supporting details. In short, both were saying that popularizing a philosopher inherently corrupts the ideas of that philosopher, and that you really need to study the original to get the ideas.

I made a very pragmatic objection here, that it’s unrealistic to expect that average persons are going to have time to study these philosophers in great detail. People have jobs to do and other concerns in their life, and we philosophy students are rather fortunate to have the leisure to study these thinkers. Your average Joe can’t afford to spend years studying Kant in detail, and thus reading Reinhold is the only practical option for most people. And at least to get this brief introduction will benefit most people intellectually by introducing them to profound and unique ideas that could stir up new thoughts.

The objection then was raised that in fact being introduced to new ideas is corrupting if you don’t have the right disposition. Confirmation bias leads people to seek idea that confirm their presuppositions. Being introduced to ideas that have the imprimatur of a great philosopher gives them the aura of authority, and thus it will make some people more arrogant in ther convictions. In other words, new authoritative ideas can corrupt people by making them more over-confident in their presuppositions.

This argument I don’t like. The main problem of course is that it doesn’t really bear on the original discussion about whether it’s good to popularize sophisticated philosophy, since confirmation bias applies equally to trained philosophers as much as the overall population. One can become arrogant in one’s presuppositions if one read Kant through Reinhold or Kant directly. The argument is ultimately saying it's not a good idea to be exposed to new authoritative ideas at all. This would only make sense if we assumed that only philosophers or philosophy scholars can handle these ideas, whereas others are in danger of being corrupted by them, which itself is incredibly arrogant for a philosopher to say (though some philosophers have). But also I think we’re talking more about individuals who are the exception. Most of us are going to be stimulated to think when we learn of new ideas, and even if we seldom will question our presuppositions, our thoughts will be affected. There are few people that are really afflicted with such arrogant myopia, and there’s nothing to prevent these people from getting PhDs in philosophy and become philosophy professors.

Thus, I can say that for me, it is a good thing to popularize sophisticated philosophers, since I will have value to people who really aren’t able, for whatever reason, to go to the primary source.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Is there theoretical justification for the stimulus?

The idea of economic stimulus through large spending is mostly just a theoretical proposition, with few actual historical examples to look to. Probably the only examples that one can turn to are the huge spending increase of Hoover, the New Deal of Roosevelt, the US entrance into the second World War, and Japan's stimulus spending in the 90s. The only one that seems to confirm the Keynesian paradigm is the example of the US in World War II (and even this criticized, for example by Robert Higgs, who questions whether the US "wartime prosperity" was real prosperity or is simply an illusion created by over reliance on economic indicators which at the time were unreliable). All the examples of when stimulus didn't work are usually criticized because not enough money was spent or because other ill-advised policies were intermixed. For example, last week the NY Times had an article about how some economists think that the attempted stimulus in Japan in the 90s was a failure because the stimulus wasn't big enough. The article maintains some critical distance, since this is very controversial in the economic community.

What does this mean for our current situation though? The fear is that we'll have the experience of Japan in the 90s, with trillions wasted and nothing to show for it. Even if we assume that their stimulus was merely too small, is the current stimulus big enough? Keynesian defenders of the current bill have also been criticizing it for being too small. According to theory, the current stimulus should actually be enlarged considerably for it to work.

Even if this was politically feasible, though, this is not practicable. Where do you get all that money? Obviously, we have to borrow it, but from whom? The current economic downturn is not local, and the rest of the world does not have a that much surplus income to lend to us. There is a question of whether we will be able to even borrow enough to cover the current trillion dollar budget deficit plus the 800 billion dollar stimulus package. You try to increase the stimulus to an amount that is supposed to be large enough to stimulate the economy and you guarantee that we won't find enough borrowers to cover our costs.

So, what theoretical justification of the economic stimulus is there left? The Keynesians must concede that it is too small and we can't borrow enough to make it bigger. And the non-Keynsians prefer different measures, and certainly oppose the voluminous pork in the bill. Does anyone with any expertise on this subject actually support this highly risky, blind spending spree?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Falsifiability and macroeconomics

Karl Popper's philosophy of science is probably the most influential philosophy among practicing scientists. Popper stressed doubt, and the importance of ideas improving through falsification. Falsifiability has become an important concept in the twentieth century and beyond for determining what can properly be called "science."

The concept of "science" has evolved over the centuries, in Ancient and Medieval times just meaning conclusions built upon rigorous logic and self-evident principles. Then, the importance of observation was added with the rise of the scientific revolution, and "science" began to mean more an empirical exercise, though still relying on self-evident assumptions and logic. But the old concept persisted in philosophical circles and was used by systematic philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Marx, who all viewed their highly speculative and abstract philosophizing as "scientific" (German for "Science"=Wissenschaft, which is different from Naturwissenschaft, "natural science" which includes things like Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc)

Macroeconomics also has made this claim to being "scientific," but again it really is not the same as we mean nowadays. Physicist Frank J. Tipler has an article from a few days ago comparing Macroeconomics to Astrology, and I think the comparison is very apt. One amazing thing about Astrology, as it is practiced is how "scientific" it can be, in one sense of the term. Many practicing astrologers are out there collecting data about what the alignment of planets and stars was when a person was born and how things turned out for that person and what type of person they are. They are using this research to try to refine the predictive power and improve the results derived from Astrology. Now, when astrologers do this sort of research, most of us find it a little absurd because we know that there's no way you can predict a person's fate based on the stars and this whole endeavor is fruitless. But much very sophisticated research and many very respectable journals are devoted to publishing research in Macroeconomics that's very similar in nature.

The reason why both Macroeconomics and Astrology are not "scientific" as we usually mean it nowadays is that they lack falsifiability. They are operating according to these more antiquated notions of science: of concepts built upon sound logic and self-evident principles, possibly with observation also thrown in. Macroeconomics admittedly has done a lot better than Astrology, in terms of accuracy, but its predictive is still very weak. Macroeconomics logically is an incredibly rigorous discipline, with some of the most sophisticated math thrown in, but when it is forced to make predictions it fails, and yet the failure of these predictions don't quite doom the theories that propounded.

There was a recent piece on NPR about how Keynesianism is being given its first real world test with the upcoming stimulus. The immediate response to such a statement by many economists is, "No, Keynesianism has been tried many times and in many different ways and has failed." But the authors, Davidson and Blumberg reply that it hasn't really been tried. For example, what FDR was doing with his New Deal, though Keynesian in nature, wasn't Keynsianism proper because FDR didn't spend enough money. In fact, Keynes was quite critical of the New Deal. So, though it was sort of a failed Keynesian experiment, it can't disprove Keynesian, since it wasn't proper Keynesianism. This argument can always be made, and not just for Keynesianism, but for other macroeconomic perspectives. It makes these theories unfalsifiable and thereby not "science" as we mean it nowadays. Thus economics fails at being "science" according to the most rigorous standard.

Even the empirical side of Economics can be a little bit dicey. Empirical research in economics is notoriously slippery, because in economics we can't do experiments, with controlled conditions where we can isolate variables. Some new researchers in economics have figured out ways to find natural experiments, where they have huge data sets where in which many variables are held constant, so they can observe statistical fluctuation among the variables, and though these may hold promise, its hard to find many of these natural experiments, so its utility is limited. Ultimately, empirical research in economics is a difficult and highly speculative business. This mostly leaves economics with just being "scientific" in the sense of using rigorous logic and self-evident principles.

The failure of empirical research led economists in the Austrian tradition to reject "economic positivism," which is a concept that economics can be built up on empirical grounds. Hayek especially, who was a good friend and was influenced by and influenced Popper, saw the fatal conceit of economists and policy makers who thought that they understood how the economy works and even worse, thought they could manipulate and make the economy do what they wanted. Experience and history has shown that this is a dangerous delusion, and that things never work out the way economists think they should. Partly because the economic is too complex also because it is filled with living breathing humans who adapt and react to given circumstances. Economics suffers the same difficulty that a weatherman faces, of dealing with a highly complex system, but its even more difficult because every particle in the economic system is alive and is making decisions on their own.

Hayek wanted us to recognize that economics is a theoretical discipline and that fancy mathematics and statistical research cannot change the fact that economics is quite speculative and fairly conservative. All we need nowadays are for more policy makers and economists to recognize their limitations and come face to face with their ignorance and stop trying to think they have the magical formula to fix the economy.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The irony of lower standards for higher positions

The two tax evasion cases of Geithner and Daschle (I first brought up here), is that it shows something about how there are in a way lower standards for more prestigious positions. In looking for politicians to fill his cabinet posts, Obama is certainly going to have high standards in terms of political experience, expertise, political connections, and political views. Such high standards limits the pool of potential candidates to very few, perhaps even only one good candidate and a couple near substitutes. Because of this, Obama's standards are going to be low when it comes to other qualifications, like honesty, integrity, lack of corruption.

If any of the rest of us were found to have deliberately failed to pay so much in taxes, we would probably face a severe fine, perhaps jail time. If any potential employer found out about it, we'd probably be fired, and a prospective employer would probably be hesitant to hire us. But, that's because there are many other eligible candidates that have all the necessary skills. The pool of substitutes or near substitutes in terms of skills is large, so other considerations like ethics and integrity can become important.

Since we would be in a position of considerably less power our unethical behavior would certainly create less damage. Whereas Daschle and Geithner, both in positions of considerable power, have substantial influence in wielding their opportunistic and greedy attitudes. This is the irony. One can overlook the corruption, or the drug habits or the womanizing of a prominent politician or CEO or celebrity because they get the job done and are very hard to replace, even though their problems leave a bigger wake, but one can't overlook the small foibles of someone much lower down the totem pole, because that underling is easy to replace.