Responses to Reihan Salam by mattsteinglass
May 4, 2010, 3:59 pm
Filed under: Education, Liberalism, Libertarianism, US, War

Because Reihan Salam isn’t in my RSS feed, I missed the fact that he’d written responses to two things I wrote last month over at The Economist. I generally like Reihan Salam’s writing. But his first response to me mischaracterized something I’d written. His second response, I think, was kind of slippery, but I think what it comes down to is that I have a different interpretation of the term “free-riding” than he does. I believe it pretty much universally carries a negative connotation, like “freeloading”.

Salam’s first response came in answer to a few sentences I’d written about school choice. I had written that I found it surprising that Will Wilkinson, also a writer I find very interesting, picked school choice as one of the arenas in which he expected Democrats to become more sympathetic to a libertarian cause. I’m not opposed to school choice, or charter schools. But everything I’ve read indicates that there’s not a lot of strong evidence for the success of school choice programs, and that while many individual charter schools have proven successful, there’s no evidence that charter schools are on average any better than the public schools they replace; the latest broad study indicated that most were worse. This doesn’t mean that “school choice and charter schools don’t work”. What it does mean is that to say one supports school choice or charter schools is not at this point an adequate response to concerns about the quality of elementary education in America. The idea that giving parents the power to choose where their kids attend school will automatically result in widespread improvement in educational outcomes hasn’t systematically borne out in the places where it’s been tried. Here’s what I wrote:

What’s curious is that both of these initiatives seem to be several years past the point when they were the most convincing in intellectual terms, on the basis of theories and evidence. School choice was an idea that had a lot of proponents in the 1990s, but with well over a decade of large-scale pilots for various implementations, it doesn’t seem to be showing any results. And you have former top proponents like Diane Ravitch actually turning against charter schools.

Now, admittedly, I probably shouldn’t have glossed “there doesn’t seem to be evidence that school choice, on average, improves educational outcomes” as “(school choice) doesn’t seem to be showing any results”. The latter sounds more negative than I’d intended, though formally the statements are equivalent. But Salam doesn’t claim that there is strong unambiguous evidence for the success of school choice. He says, instead,

Randomized field trials in education are difficult to devise, and the number of large-scale pilots for various implementations is small, particularly when compared to the number and quality of experiments that preceded the welfare reform efforts of the mid-1990s. We do have a handful of natural experiments involving lotteries. These experiments face a number of limitations, including faulty record-keeping, a failure to properly separate treatment and control groups, and much else besides. But of the big randomized lottery experiments, we have seen nontrivial gains for African American students. We actually don’t have much data for non-black students, in large part because of ferocious resistance to further experimentation. Because these experiments have yielded nontrivial gains without an increase in resources, I’m hard-pressed to see why we shouldn’t field more experiments, ideally well-designed RFTs. The idea that this is a settled issue is … interesting.

Who said it was a settled issue? Not me. I, too, see no reason why we shouldn’t field more experiments. What I said was that since school choice hasn’t been getting such great press lately, owing in large measure to the failure, for whatever reasons, to generate strong findings of educational improvement across school systems (as opposed to at individual well-run schools), this seemed to me a surprising candidate for a new liberaltarian alliance at this time. Personally, I’m favorably disposed towards charter schools and cautiously favorable to some kinds of school choice, but I have been since the 1990s, and those ideas seem to me to command less support today than they did then, not more.

Salam’s second response addressed my criticism of his phrase “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power.” I didn’t, and don’t, believe that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia “free-ride” on American military power. In fact, I wrote, I can’t think of a country that the phrase “free-riding on American military power” fits. Mr Salam responds:


Note that I put “free-riding” is scare quotes. That, of course, is a subtlety that’s easy to miss. I was suggesting that free-riding isn’t the perfect term, but it is useful. Given the way Steinglass approaches issues relating to health systems, public finances, etc., I can’t be too surprised by his reaction. But I am disappointed.

Do I believe that European and East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense? No, I don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a meaningful concept. Military expenditures are a kind of self-insurance against an anarchic international environment. Choosing the “right” level of self-insurance is a thorny question that doesn’t have a clear answer. This is an environment with more than one imaginable equilibrium. The idea that a state can spend the right amount reflects a planner’s delusion….

The notion that there is free-riding going on doesn’t imply that it’s necessarily a bad thing: this is a core premise advanced by William Wohlforth and others who believe in “the stability of a unipolar world.” “Free-riding” in this vein is a feature, not a bug.

It seems that Salam and I agree, then: neither of us thinks European or East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense. But really, I think this is all a bit of a dodge. Like it or not, the term “free-riding” carries strong negative connotations. The claim that countries are “free-riding” on American military expenditures is descended from cold-war-era conservative arguments that European countries were failing to pull their own weight and were spending too much on domestic social programs rather than on mutual defense against the Warsaw Pact. Now that those countries face no external threat, the concept has outlived its usefulness. Contrary to what Salam says, I don’t think one can have “free-riding” if it’s not clear that the “free-rider” is receiving anything of value. If I choose to go out and spend a million dollars on a cannon emplacement in the center of Dupont Circle, and then claim that Reihan Salam is “free-riding” on my cannon-emplacement spending, I think Reihan Salam would regard my claim as ridiculous, since he believes he derives no benefit from my cannon emplacement.

The case is more complicated in the case of America’s allies, since they clearly do derive benefits from American defense spending. But obviously every country always derives benefits from the military spending of its allies; it seems absurd to use the term “free-riding” to encompass every relationship of military alliance. Or do we mean that every country “free-rides” on the defense spending of allies only if the ally spends more on defense? Do we mean this in nominal, or percentage terms? Is Israel free-riding on American defense spending, even though Israel’s defense spending is proportionally far higher? Or is America then free-riding on Israel’s defense spending?

To me, the phrase “free-riding on American military power” suggests that a country derives clear benefits from American military power, benefits that fit into the country’s own views of its interests (as opposed to “benefits” which America regards the country as receiving, but which that country itself may have no interest in), and that the country in question is clearly failing to make an adequate contribution to its own defense. I wrote in my initial post that I didn’t think that description fit any actual countries in the world at the moment. On reflection, I believe a case could be made for Taiwan and possibly Japan; but a case could also be made against either of those countries. Taiwan spends 3% of its GDP on defense, and while that may not be enough to fend off a Chinese amphibious invasion 10 years from now, the Taiwanese public’s conception of its relationship to China has shifted greatly over the past 20 years; if Taiwanese are increasingly interested in reunification, on whatever terms those entail, then their commitment to spending whatever it takes to fend off a Chinese invasion may be ebbing for political reasons that have nothing to do with “free-riding”. As for Japan…again, what is the military threat to Japan?

Salam wants to cast me as being possessed of an absurd certitude that reductions in American military spending will not lead to increased military competition in a multipolar world. I don’t pretend to such certitude, and I think it’s entirely possible that the future will involve both less overwhelming American military power and more military competition among other states. It’s also possible that less American military power might lead to less military competition among some states.

What I criticized, though, was Salam’s certitude: specifically, his phrase “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power.” He shouldn’t be using the word “fact” there. If he wants to make the case that some states free-ride on American military power, he should argue that case; I’ve a feeling I’ll probably disagree. But I won’t use interjections like “Sigh.”, because, as I said, I consider Reihan Salam a pretty interesting writer.


Are math majors better at reading than English majors? by mattsteinglass
April 21, 2010, 1:42 am
Filed under: Education | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Well, math majors do have the highest Reading SAT scores of any major, according to this study Kevin Drum pointed to yesterday. And this really isn’t surprising. That’s because, of all the majors in the study, math is the most selective on cognitive ability. In other words, basically anyone who can get into college can major in “soft” subjects like English or…economics. (Heh. It’s true; look at the data. Also, philosophy majors have slightly higher Math SATs than economics majors.) But just to do the coursework in math or physics, you have to have extremely high SAT scores, in both math and reading. In the researchers’ terms, math and physics seem to have a “cognitive threshold”: even if you’re very hard-working, without high SAT scores, you can’t “achieve mastery”, i.e. maintain a GPA above 3.5 and have a shot at getting into grad school:

To reiterate, SATM ≈ 600 seems to be the lowest score at which even a very motivated student has a chance for mastery. From the data one might guess that only for SATM well above 700 do students have more than a 50 percent chance of obtaining GPA > 3.5. That is, a student with average motivation or conscientiousness probably needs SATM well above 700 to have a high probability of obtaining mastery.

We were unable to find any similar threshold (either in SATR or SATM ) in other majors, including economics, sociology, history, philosophy, biology, chemistry, etc.

It’s amusing to note that math majors have higher English SATs than English majors, but it’s kind of a linguistic trick. The point is that math is simply the most cognitively selective major. Math majors also have higher Math SATs than physics majors, which isn’t particularly predictable and doesn’t tell us anything obvious about math or physics as disciplines. This is basically all selection effect. If you’re wondering whether studying more math will get your kid to read better…well, that’s entirely possible, but it requires a different study.

Subsidize new jobs for dislocated workers? by mattsteinglass
July 8, 2009, 4:08 am
Filed under: Economics, Education

Megan McArdle has an interesting idea: since job retraining tends to be pretty ineffective because it doesn’t offer real work experience, how about subsidizing $10-per-hour-and-up jobs for displaced workers? I find this interesting in part because it’s surprising to hear an idea like this coming from the laissez-faire side of the aisle, and it seems like an example of the way that productive compromises often emerge as part of the political dialog. (We have to do something for the unemployed; paying them permanent unemployment insurance seems less productive than retraining them for new jobs; job retraining doesn’t work very well because it lacks real work experience; how about subsidizing real jobs instead?)

But I also find it interesting because what Megan is talking about sounds like it fits more within the cadre of the German vocational education and apprenticeship system than within the American education and employment model. Germany has a much more widespread and comprehensive vocational education system than the US does, and apprenticeships are a mandatory part of the system. Large and medium-sized companies are obliged by law to take on apprentices in order to keep the system functioning. Germany’s system also goes along with legal requirements for professional qualifications that may seem ridiculous to Americans. (You have to have a degree to open a bakery, or even work in one. This creates a lot of rent-seeking behavior by professional guilds; there’s no need for the US to copy any of that.) Americans are rightly proud of the fact that the American employment culture allows people to change careers easily, and to go where the going is good as demand for skills shifts. But as Megan points out, career mobility in the US isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be; it can be almost impossible to get that crucial first job when you switch professions. Having the state sponsor an apprenticeship system seems like an excellent way to facilitate such mobility.

Learning math at Ukraine level: that’s a bad thing? by mattsteinglass
June 20, 2009, 11:08 am
Filed under: Education

Here’s a shocking stat, from AIR’s Gary Phillips via Matthew Yglesias:

Turns out that a few of our states are on par with the world’s highest performing countries when it comes to educational achievement. Massachusetts in particular stands out, and four other states–Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Kansas–received grades of “B,” up there with the likes of Japan. On the flip side, there were a bunch of C’s and one D+ in, of course, Washington, DC, where fourth graders learn math at the same level as Ukraine.

When I was in the USSR, it seemed to me that Soviet math education was approximately oodles better than that in the best public schools in the US. It seems like the educational system in Ukraine must really have collapsed over the past 20 years if their schools are now as bad at teaching math as the DC public school system is.

Ben Bernanke and Ty’sheoma Bethea share hometown by mattsteinglass
March 16, 2009, 11:55 am
Filed under: Economics, Education

Funnily enough, it seems Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and “we are not quitters” high-schooler Ty’sheoma Bethea come from the same small town.

The television show, including footage of the Fed chief visiting the rural South Carolina town where he grew up, gave Bernanke an opportunity to make the case he understands the anxieties of ordinary Americans.

“I come from Main Street,” Bernanke said near the building where his father owned a pharmacy in Dillon, South Carolina.

I wonder if Bernanke went to her high school? Because somehow I don’t think that school is going to produce any more Fed chairmen until Mark Sanford cowboys up and spends the money to fix the roof, so the English classes can move out of those double-wide trailers next to the train tracks.

Add.: It looks like Bernanke did indeed attend Dillon High School, where he was valedictorian in 1971. Surely he has something to say about Sanford’s refusal to fix the roof at his alma mater.

Early childhood education research for non-poor people by mattsteinglass
August 26, 2008, 8:36 am
Filed under: Education

There’s been a teaching staff switchover at the generally great Dutch-language afterschool program we send our kids to (subsidized and certified by the Dutch Overseas Education Foundation), and the new teachers have established what looks to me like a very dubious schedule: one three-hour lesson per week for each group of kids. It’s pretty hard for me to imagine my four-year-old son concentrating on a lesson plan for three hours straight, or retaining much from one week to the next. My six-year-old daughter has been in the program since she was 4, with 1.5-hour lessons twice a week, and she’s now reading well above grade level in Dutch, so that seems like the more logical schedule to me. And I remember when I was in elementary school, the classes you had irregularly — science class, which would show up unpredictably every week or two, it seemed — just devolved into vague playtime; you could barely remember anything you’d learned there in the previous class.

So I went out looking for scholarly research on the ideal length and frequency of instruction for early childhood education programs. And I can’t find anything. The National Institute of Childhood Health and Development has been producing research since the early ’90s based on a big longitudinal study of child care and preschool programs called SECCYD, but the study and the papers authored around it seem to concentrate overwhelmingly on things like whether child care harms mother-child attachment, whether quality child care can boost cognitive attainment or improve behavior for poor kids, etc. I can find research on early childhood intervention to remediate autism. But nothing so far on how long and how frequent classes should be for cognitive results in 4-year-olds. The research all seems to be oriented towards what Foucault would probably call “deviant” categories, people we find in some way problematic.

I even asked someone who teaches at the famous Banks School for advice, but what she came up with was references to Piaget and Vygotsky. Which is great. But on this particular issue, it shouldn’t be too hard to get some solid quantitative data. There are a lot of issues for which good quantitative data isn’t possible, but cognitive effects of different lengths/frequencies of instruction doesn’t seem like one of those issues.

I was kind of wondering whether this is suggestive of a problem with the early childhood education and care debate in the US, that we tend to discuss it in the context of how to fix all those pesky poor people, or as a possible threat of some kind to “our” (rich people’s) kids’ sanity. At this stage, having your kids in some form of child care and early childhood education from 3 years old seems to me to be the norm for middle-class people and up. Maybe we ought to drop these debates that problematize the whole issue, and start concentrating on ideal methods instead. As for the social justice question, it should just be one of whether it’s fair to poor 3-year-olds to put them at a disadvantage against rich 3-year-olds.

Ph.D.s are not in your DNA by mattsteinglass
August 13, 2008, 2:03 pm
Filed under: Education

Why do American women want to conceive babies with sperm donors from Scandinavian countries? Tell us, Washington Post!

The Nordic donors were popular because of their blue eyes and blond hair, and their tendency to be tall and have advanced degrees.

“The demand was huge,” said Peter Bower of Nordic Cryobank of Copenhagen, which had supplied California Cryobank. “In addition to being tall and well educated, their motivations for donation are quite sincere — they want to help childless couples. They tended to sell out very fast.”

Something about the belief that Scandinavian sperm is better-educated than American sperm seems to me to speak deeply to the pathologies of the American cultural moment.