And the Higgy Goes to… Alison Collins

April 17, 2021

It is time once again to (dis)honor the recipient of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  This year we had a small set of nominees, but compensated for that lack of quantity with exceptional quality. The pandemic has affected everything, including the number of nominees as well as the deadline for selecting the winner (and filing our taxes).

We had two nominees to consider: Anthony Fauci, nominated by Matt, and Alison Collins, nominated by Greg. While they are both very (un)worthy nominees, our (dis)honoree this year is Alison Collins.

Fauci, along with other public health officials, did much to bring discredit to themselves. They cannot be blamed for failing to be prepared for a global pandemic (even though that is in their job description). The scale and uncertainty of the pandemic were just too great for even the most capable public official to have fully anticipated. Instead, what public health officials can be blamed for is failing to accurately convey that uncertainty to us as if we were adult citizens of a democratic republic. Instead, they chose to convey false confidence in an ever-changing set of mandates in the belief that we would be reassured by their confidence. This was both a political and a scientific catastrophe.

While this would make Fauci and other public health officials Higgy-worthy, giving any of them the award would be misdirecting our upset. The pandemic is largely a natural disaster. It is progressive-technocratic hubris to believe that humans are responsible for failing to prevent or mitigate every natural disaster. We are all imperfect and I suspect that most of us would have made similar or different errors if we had been in Fauci’s place. Even during Higgy season we should maintain some appreciation for regular human failings, even if they affected irregular events. I know what road good intentions puts us on, but let’s remember that Fauci probably thought he was reassuring us with his false and ever-changing confidence.

Alison Collins’ behavior is harder to explain with good but mistaken intentions. School boards are often a vanity project for their members, but the San Francisco School Board might inspire Carly Simon to burst into song. No sensible person imagines that spending over a half million dollars to destroy a mural of George Washington and then renaming 44 schools were the top priorities for improving the city’s academically struggling schools. Even if your politics incline you to perceive these acts as virtuous, you’d have to admit that the signal to virtue ratio is exceptionally high.

While helping orchestrate this Jacobin orgy of sending (mostly mistaken) racist symbols to the guillotine, Collins has her own racist tweets surface. Rather than gain some humility about human imperfection, Collins brings an $87 million lawsuit against the school board on which she serves for taking away her committee assignments for her “spiritual” and other imaginary injuries. Collins really puts the petty in petty little dictator, making her a particularly (un)worthy recipient of The Higgy.

Anyhoo, Collins joins past winners, Mark DiRocco, Kosoko Jackson, John Wiley Bryant, Plato, Chris Christie, Jonathan Gruber, Paul G. Kirk, and the inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet.

Pass the Clicker: In & Of Itself

February 4, 2021

Last night we watched a film version of the stage show, In & Of Itself, on Hulu and I strongly urge you to watch it too. The trailer above does not really capture it well. It is basically a magic show with some story-telling and philosophizing. But that also does not capture it. It’s actually a remarkably powerful and moving performance that evades description, just as the performer argues that individuals evade description.

There are bits that feel a little clunky, with a narration of what is occurring in the show, that made me think of these parodies:

But In & Of Itself is trying to use the act of describing things and people to demonstrate how they really escape description and the show ultimately succeeds in making that point. And it does it with some really remarkable magic tricks. I mean REALLY AMAZING MAGIC TRICKS. Watch and you’ll see. Even if you don’t love the philosophizing, you’ll love the performance.

And the Winner of the 2020 “Al” is… Nat Love

November 2, 2020

We had another thin set of nominees for this year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.

Time-traveling Matt nominated Nick Steinsberger, who helped pioneer fracking techniques that greatly expanded global and domestic energy production, reducing manufacturing and consumer costs as well as exposing the US to fewer dangers to protect access to foreign energy. This is a very worthy innovation to receive The Al, but basically we already recognized it when we awarded the Al to George Mitchell, for whom Steinsberger worked.

Greg had two nominees: Charles Hull and Hans Christian Heg. Hull developed the 3D printer, which is admittedly really cool. But custom-manufacturing items one at a time is really handy on a space-ship where keeping large inventories would be impractical and re-supply is nearly impossible. It is almost certainly of much more limited utility here on earth. Manufacturing on a mass-scale is almost always going to be more efficient. So, I see 3D printing appealing to “maker-spaces” and niche industries, but otherwise a bit like the Boy’s Life promise that we would all one day have our own helicopters and helipads on every house. It’s really cool to think about but unlikely to happen.

Hans Christian Heg is a very strong nominee, given his commitment to abolition and sacrificing of his own life in the Civil War. But the fact that mostly white protestors in Madison are so ignorant of history that they would tear his statue down in their battle against institutional racism says more about their deficiency than his merit.

Instead, for the first-time ever, I will select my own nominee, Nat Love, as the winner of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award. Love most closely resembles Copeland in that his authentic accomplishment is mixed with embellishment. But Love is highly worthy of this honor because despite all that he had suffered and seen others suffer as a result of America’s original sin of slavery, he still recognized what was special and worth preserving and improving in this country. For Love and countless others, this has been and hopefully will continue to be a land of freedom, opportunity, and meaning. People experiencing the stresses of this moment appear too willing to forget what is great about America. Nat Love reminds us and is therefore deserving of “The Al.”

“Freedom is Sweet” — Nat Love for the Al

October 27, 2020

Nat Love was born a slave in Davidson County, Tennessee in 1854. As he recounts in his autobiography, “Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself: A True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the ‘Wild and Woolly’ West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author, ” after the Civil War his father became a share-cropper and the family struggled to feed itself, especially after his father passed away.

At the age of fifteen, he decided “I wanted to see more of the world and as I began to realize there was so much more of the world than what I had seen, the desire to go grew on me from day to day. It was hard to think of leaving mother and the children, but freedom is sweet and I wanted to make more of the opportunity and my life than I could see possible around home. Besides I suppose, I was a little selfish as mortals are prone to be.”

Love headed West to make his fortune and had a series of fantastic adventures. He worked as a cowboy, encountering Frank and Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Buffalo Bill Cody. He won a rodeo competition on the country’s Centennial in Deadwood, South Dakota, earning himself the nickname Deadwood Dick.

He was captured by Pima Indians after he ran out of bullets and was over-powered in manual combat. They nursed him back to health because, he speculates, they admired his bravery and identified with him racially, as many of them were of “mixed blood.” They soon offered him the daughter of the chief, Yellow Dog, as a bride, with a dowry of 100 ponies, which he feigned to accept while planning his escape. Eventually he found his opportunity, stole a pony, and rode 12 hours straight without saddle to return to his home in Texas.

He spent time in “Old Mexico,” where he quickly learned Spanish and was engaged to a Mexican beauty. But she died before the wedding and he drifted north to Denver, where he did get married. By that time, the railroads had taken over and the era of the cowboy was ending, so he became a Pullman Porter.

The Close of My Railroad Career

He crisscrossed the country on the railroad, receiving a $25 tip from a Rothschild, and marveling that “At present the American railway leads the world. In no other country does the traveler find so much comfort, so many conveniences, so much pleasure, safety and speed as does the dweller in this robust young country belonging to our Uncle Samuel.”

Scholars doubt the veracity of all of Love’s tall tales, but that really misses the point. Love, like Al Copeland, was quintessentially American. He was self-made, adventurous, and accomplished, even if some of those accomplishments were exaggerated. He had more than his share of hardship, but nothing could suppress his optimism for a better American future. As he put it, “I think you will agree with me that this grand country of ours is the peer of any in the world, and that volumes cannot begin to tell of the wonders of it. Then after taking such a trip you will say with me, ‘See America.’ I have seen a large part of America, and am still seeing it, but the life of a hundred years would be all too short to see our country. America, I love thee, Sweet land of Liberty, home of the brave and the free.”

During these times of political turmoil, recrimination, and deep pessimism about America’s past as well as its future, we could stand to remember the model of Nat Love’s life. He saw America’s faults up-close and was unafraid to describe them:

We had as task masters, in many instances, perfect devils in human form, men who delighted in torturing the black human beings, over whom chance and the accident of birth had placed them. I have seen men beaten to the ground with the butts of the long whips carried by these brutal overseers, and for no other reason than that they could not raise to their shoulders a load sufficient for four men to carry. I have seen the long, cruel lash curl around the shoulders of women who refused to comply with the licentious wishes of the men who owned them, body and soul—did I say soul? No, they did not own their soul; that belonged to God alone, and many are the souls that have returned to him who gave them, rather than submit to the desires of their masters, desires to which submission was worse than death. I have seen the snake-like lash draw blood from the tender limbs of mere babies, hardly more than able to toddle, their only offense being that their skin was black. And young as I was my blood often boiled as I witnessed these cruel sights, knowing that they were allowed by the laws of the land in which I was born. I used to think it was not the country’s fault, but the fault of the men who made the laws. Of all the curses of this fair land, the greatest curse of all was the slave auction block of the south, where human flesh was bought and sold. Husbands were torn from their wives, the baby from its mother’s breast, and the most sacred commands of God were violated under the guise of modern law, or the law of the land, which for more than two hundred years has boasted of its freedom, and the freedom of its people.

But Love could see beyond these severe flaws and enjoy America’s potential. For exhibiting the determination to make himself and this country better, Nat Love improved the human condition and is worthy of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.

School Spending Research Needs More Skepticism and Humility

October 19, 2020

There has been a flurry of research recently claiming to find compelling causal evidence that increasing school spending would significantly improve student outcomes and avoiding cuts in spending would prevent significant harm.  This research has been embraced so quickly as settled fact that over 400 researchers and advocates signed a group letter citing it while urging the federal government to provide financial support to local schools during the COVID recession. The confident conclusion that spending more is the path to improving education is so appealing that the research behind that claim has received remarkably little scrutiny.

A new study by Jessica Goldstein and Josh McGee begins to remedy this lack of skepticism by carefully attempting to replicate the most recent school finance study co-authored by Kirabo Jackson with Cora Wigger and Heyu Xiong, which is forthcoming in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy and has appeared in Education Next.  Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong examine the effect of K-12 spending cuts during the Great Recession by comparing the downturn in states where much of the funding comes from state revenue to states where more funding comes from local sources.  The idea is that state revenue is more sensitive to a recession, and so cuts would be more severe in states that were more reliant on state sources, even when the effects of the recession on the state’s economy were the same. Using this technique, they conclude that K-12 spending cuts hurt student outcomes.

Goldstein and McGee are able to reconstruct what Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong report, but they find that their results are highly sensitive to the non-standard ways in which they construct their statistical model and disappear or even change direction when trivial changes are made.  Goldstein and McGee also highlight some serious problems with the data used in the original study. 

Because these may sound like minor technical disputes, let me describe some of the issues in non-technical language so that readers can more easily grasp how much this replication effort undermines confidence in the original claims.  As Goldstein and McGee put it, “Econometric models can be constructed in a variety of ways, and many modeling choices may be somewhat arbitrary or theoretically unimportant. However, if the model’s estimates represent the true causal impact, they should be consistent across many different reasonable ways of constructing the model.”  The replication effort convincingly demonstrates that the original results claiming significant harms from spending cuts are not robust to these kinds of changes.  Of the many theoretically reasonable ways the original study could have constructed their model, its authors managed to find one that would yield significant positive results out of the many that would have yielded null results.

To compare states that are highly reliant on state revenue for K-12 spending to those that rely much less, Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong divide the 50 states and DC into three groups: those with more than 67% of K-12 spending coming from state sources, those with less than 33 percent coming from state sources, and all others in the middle.  Dividing states in this way places only four states in the high-reliance group and three in the low reliance group, with the remaining 44 states in the middle. The main results they present are based on the difference in outcomes between the top four and bottom three states.  This thin slice of states contains the two strange cases of DC and Hawaii, both of which only have a single school district and where state versus local revenue is not at all meaningful.  Goldstein and McGee try changing the thresholds for states being classified into the high and low categories to see if the results remain the same if they compare top versus bottom quartiles or deciles of states.  The exact grouping of states into high and low categories should not make much of a difference, but the replication shows that researchers would get null results if they had tried these reasonable alternative ways of categorizing states.

Similarly, the original study recognized that it is important to separate the effects of spending cuts in certain states from peculiar changes attributable to the time periods for all states.  Ideally, they would introduce a dummy variable for each year, which they say they tried but it yielded insignificant results.  Instead, they choose to group years into pre-recession, recession, and post-recession periods to control for idiosyncratic effects of changes over time.  The years that they label as pre, during, and post-recession, however, are not consistent with the official designation of the recession by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  So, the replication makes slight adjustments in how years are categorized and discover that doing so yields null results, sometimes with negative estimated effects of spending on student outcomes.  Again, real results should not disappear when these kinds of trivial changes are made.

The replication also considers the original study’s claim that spending cuts reduce college-going in the year following the spending change.  The theoretical mechanism by which this effect is produced is unclear given that college-going is likely the result of more than a decade of educational investment, not just the previous year’s spending.  Goldstein and McGee offer an alternative pathway by which college-going might be reduced, which is state expenditures on higher education.  As it turns out, states that rely heavily on state revenue for K-12 spending are also places where higher education relies heavily on state spending.  When those states cut K-12 spending during the Great Recession, they also cut higher education funding.  The replication substitutes higher education for K-12 spending in the original model, which yields similar effects on college-going rates.  This clearly demonstrates that the original study had not isolated the causal effect of K-12 spending cuts from the similar effects of higher education reductions. 

Lastly, the replication reveals several problems with the data used in the original study.  For example, the original study reports Vermont as having 68.3% of K-12 spending coming from state revenue while the Census, the data source they cite, indicates that figure should be 88.5%.  Similarly, Arkansas’ state share of spending is listed as 75.7%, which is consistent with the Census figure, but is almost 20 percentage points different from the number provided by the National Center for Education Statistics.  It is not obvious which is the better figure to use and these disparities reveal that identifying the state share of K-12 spending, on which the entire analysis depends, is problematic.  Most alarmingly, the results Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong produce in Figure 3 of their Education Next article claiming to show the effects of comparing results for states above and below the national median of reliance on state revenue could not be replicated by Goldstein and McGee (see Figures 7-9) and are almost certainly in error. Done correctly Figure 3 should show no effects on student outcomes from spending cuts.

It is disconcerting that neither the reviewers at AEJ-Policy or the over 400 researchers who signed the group letter were able to detect these data problems or raise questions about the unusual way in which states and years were grouped in the original study.  Before quickly embracing desired findings, the field needs to restore the traditional scientific virtues of skepticism and humility and apply those more generally to the new research on school spending effects.

The Wile E. Coyotes of Ed Reform Strike Again!

June 1, 2020

I was raised on a steady diet of watching Looney Tunes. Sitting inches away from the screen every Saturday morning, bathed in its blueish glow, I learned how to recognize the Wile E. Coyote-types who have become too common in the Ed Reform movement.  Overconfidence in their own genius inevitably leads to the backfiring of the convoluted schemes they concoct.

After going all-in with a progressive strategy of courting Democrats by heavily regulating charter schools, we’ve seen Democrats completely unswayed by this courtship.  The party’s standard-bearer, Joe Biden, recently declared, “If I’m president, Betsy Devos’ whole motion, from charter schools to this, are gone.” Despite this failure, Ed Reform keeps doubling down on its progressive, heavy regulation approach.  As Robert Pondiscio cheekily observed, “What I learned today on Twitter: Joe Biden could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot a charter school and not lose any ed reform voters.”

If having the presumptive Democratic nominee threaten to shut-down charter schools was not enough, perhaps this  study just published in Urban Education by Ian Kingsbury, Robert Maranto, and Nik Karns might have some effect.  They examine whether higher levels of charter regulation differentially reduce the likelihood that Black and Latino applicants are granted charters. That is, increasing burdens to entry to operating a charter school may make it significantly harder for minorities to lead charter schools, just as greater licensure barriers disproportionately keep minorities out of various occupations, from medicine to hair-braiding.

Kingsbury and colleagues use the National Association for Charter School Authorizers’ (NACSA) rating of the charter approval process as a proxy for how heavily regulated it is.   They then examine every charter application in eight states and New Orleans between 2010 and 2018 to see if higher regulatory burdens have a discriminatory effect.  They do.  In general, tougher charter regulation reduces the likelihood that Black and Latino charter applicants will have their proposals approved and be allowed to operate a charter school.  This is true even controlling for the educational attainment and selectivity of higher education institution applicants attended.  That is, minority charter applicants who are equally qualified on these observed dimensions are significantly less likely to be allowed to operate charter schools when the authorizing process is deemed by reformers to be tougher and “higher quality.”

As the researchers conclude:

Regulation imposes significant barriers to entry for standalone applicants, African Americans, and Latinos aspiring to open charter schools. The former could be by design: CMOs and EMOs pose less risk of failure, at least as regards test scores. Yet generally, higher levels of regulation of authorization may pose costs regarding representation, and ultimately legitimacy (Meier & Rutherford, 2017; Morel, 2018; Pitkin, 1997). Given researching indicating the benefits of teacher-student and principal-student race-matching, this lack of representation may have additional educational costs (e.g., Crow & Scribner, 2014; Egalite, Kisida & Winters, 2015; Lomotey & Lowery, 2014). In short, as with other services, higher barriers to entry in the provision of charter education favor those with greater resources to negotiate those barriers, and those who resemble the regulators, with substantial and likely unintended costs.

It should also be emphasized that there is no evidence that raising the barriers to entry for charter operators improves their quality for students.  Ed Reformers thought that pushing the “best practices” favored by NACSA would lead to better outcomes while reducing political risk with charter opponents.  Instead, charter authorizing processes favored by NACSA make no difference for educational outcomes and harm political support by excluding minority community leaders from operating charter schools.  This reform strategy feels like a contraption Wile E. Coyote could have built.

Pass the Clicker: Cults of Various Kinds

May 20, 2020

Like many of you, we at Casa Verde have been watching our share of streaming entertainment.  We are watching the entire Star Wars canon, in chronological order within the Star Wars Universe.  We have our Israeli/Jewish shows, like Fauda and the Plot Against America.  But in case you are looking for something different to try, let me recommend a few series we’ve come across about cults of various kinds.

The first is a fictionalized limited series on the Waco stand-off and assault involving the ATF, FBI, and followers of David Koresh.  The series is remarkably sympathetic to Koresh’s followers and to the efforts of the FBI negotiator who attempted to avert bloodshed.  It raises interesting questions about what, if anything, distinguishes a cult from other religious movements, and about the dangers of getting on the wrong side of government force.

The second is a documentary about followers of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh who settled in a rural area of Oregon, coming into social and political conflict with the nearby town of Antelope and the broader political establishment of Oregon.  Things escalate rapidly and in unexpected ways.

The third is a documentary about a completely different kind of cult — the sunny optimism of post-war corporate America.  A writer for the Letterman show comes across records and footage of Broadway-style shows created and performed for industry conventions and corporate retreats.  They’re hilarious, but also endearing.  The musical is the American art form and musicals about how to improve corporate profits is the most American of that American art form.


California’s Common Core Apologia

May 14, 2020

(Guest Post By Ze’ev Wurman & Williamson Evers)

His first point goes to the fidelity of NAEP as a measuring tool, since it is not perfectly aligned with Common Core. Indeed it is not—purposely! NAEP was not designed to be aligned with any particular state standards and that has been true for decades. This hasn’t blocked states from exhibiting improvements over time, sometimes smoothly, sometimes in spurts. But the results on NAEP almost never—never!—declined.

Under Common Core, in the 2015, 2017, and 2019 administration of NAEP scores broadly and significantly declined across most states, including California.

Then Dr. Kirst turns to argue that California has made significant improvement since Common Core.  His evidence? A 10% improvement in grades 3 and 4 over four years of SBAC administration. What was politely glossed over is the fact that half of this change occurred between the first administrations, when young students first confronted new ways to answer computer-based items with new formats and a new interface, and the second administration when they had an opportunity to practice and adjust to them. If we remove the first SBAC administration, the change from 2015 to 2019 are rather unimpressive 5-6% in early grades that declines to essentially zero or even slightly negative by grades 8 and 11.

Independent Institute
Source: Independent Institute

Yet this raises another question. Is SBAC test even valid, both facially (do its items sample actual subject matter content?) and psychometrically (does item format allows us to reliably interpret the results, give the new fancy and untested formats introduced by it?). The answer is nobody knows, as no external experts were given access to validate that test.

Here is the little we do know–since California abolished under Common Core almost any continuous measure of achievement.

During Common Core, California students taking Algebra I in grade 8 dropped from 54% in 2013 just before Common Core started, to 18% by 2019. A two thirds drop in six years!

And here are California NAEP scores for that period. With the exception of fourth grade reading, the results are flat or negative.

Independent Institute
Source: Independent Institute

Incidentally, we also know that successful Black AB Calculus takers dropped by almost half between 2014 and 2018, and successful Black BC Calculus dropped by one third. That is what we know about California achievement from objective sources since Common Core took over in 2014.

We don’t know how many students successfully took Algebra 1 in middle and high schools—that test was eliminated in Calfornia under Common Core. We don’t know how many students successfully took Geometry or Algebra 2—those tests were eliminated under Common Core. We don’t know how many students are truly ready for the California State University System—that customized test for CSU was replaced by some arbitrary passing score on SBAC.

So we don’t know a lot. The public can no longer track what is really occurring in California education. Clear test-based accountability has been replaced by meaningless colorful dashboards based on the single unvalidated test: the SBAC.

So this is California reality, rather than the tiny improvement sliver Dr. Kirst attempts to present as the whole picture. But what about the future? Kirst promises that things will just get better, instructional materials exist (well, they existed at least since 2014, many of them free), and the future is bright.

Is it?

In 2011, the authors of this article talked with Dr. Kirst to make sure he understood the problems with the Common Core validation by David Conley, and that the previous California standards were judged superior. Nothing was done.

In 2013 Kirst was informed by us in detail as to why the New Generation Science Standards were inferior to the then-current California science standards. This was at the time of a scathing report in June 2013 from the Fordham Institute showing the NGSS to be, effectively, content-empty. Kirst assured us that he was aware of these drawbacks and that California would not adopt NGSS.

In September 2013 Dr. Kirst presided over the adoption of NGSS for California.

Today in California, after 8 years of Dr. Kirst’s state board presidency, we have a system that has no external accountability, where everything is being based on an internal secret test. We have inferior science standards and a system that has seemingly declined in performance. Denigrating NAEP, the only external measure left, is not a very good argument.

Ze’ev Wurman is a former senior adviser at the U.S. Dept. of Education.  Williamson Evers is a senior fellow at Independent Institute and director of its Center on Educational Excellence.

And the Higgy Goes to… Mark DiRocco

April 15, 2020

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 10.33.25 AM

It is time once again to (dis)honor the recipient of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  This year we had an exceptionally strong set of nominees, perhaps because difficult times reveal the worst (as well as the best) in us.

We had four nominees to consider: Bruce Aylward, nominated by Greg, Charles Lieber, nominated by me, Nancy Gibbs, nominated by Matt, and Mark DiRocco, nominated by Jason.  While they are all very (un)worthy nominees, our (dis)honoree this year is Mark DiRocco.

While Nancy Gibbs surely did a dis-service to journalism by awarding lousy reporting at the Arizona Republic, journalism is already so beaten down and discredited that it hardly needs our tap dancing on its grave. Will the last reader of the Arizona Republic please turn off the lights on their way out?

Aylward and Lieber were particularly strong contenders given their sycophancy for a murderous, oppressive regime.  But that’s precisely why I decided not to choose them.  While both Aylward and Lieber were excellent examples of PLDDs, their service to a BSDD made their actions too menacing for a our little award.

Especially in these troubling times I thought we needed a Higgy winner who was more familiar and less menacing.  Mark DiRocco’s callous treatment of students as mere revenue units for the schools he represents by seeking to deny Pennsylvania’s children access to existing online services offered by charter schools is just the sort of edu-blob activity we are accustomed to seeing.  It is like the comfort food of PLDD behavior that is exactly the kind of Higgy we need this year.

If you’ve been carbo-loading a bit too much to appreciate the comfort food metaphor, I’d suggest that DiRocco is the Goldilocks of Higgy nominees.  He is neither so weak and irrelevant as a journalism professor, like Gibbs, nor so scary as servants of an authoritarian regime, like Aylward and Lieber.  This year DiRocco is just right.

Anyhoo, DiRocco joins past winners, Kosoko Jackson, John Wiley BryantPlatoChris ChristieJonathan Gruber, Paul G. Kirk, and the inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet.

The Overreach of Economics

April 13, 2020

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a review of a new book that looks like a must-read.  The central argument of the book is that economists have wandered into offering solutions on every type of policy problem.  Economists have become the new priests of our secular age and we are inclined to consult them as the ancients might have consulted the Oracle of Delphi.  They read their entrails and give us answers, but as the reviews says, we should be wary of seeking the wisdom of economists:

The main advice to emerge from this book is: Don’t ask an economist. Economics has claimed for itself the right to address health policy and many other issues outside its usual orbits. “Radical Uncertainty” reminds us how inappropriate that is. Chemists, plumbers and doctors identify problems within their subject areas, then develop tools with which to solve them. Economists appear unbidden on any doorstep they please with a box of mostly useless tools in search of problems….

There’s a place for those tools, but economics habitually overreaches. Modern economists assume that whatever outcome their models predict must be axiomatically rational. When human beings fail to act according to these predictions, it is taken as a failure of the people, not the model.

This insulting assumption, Messrs. Kay and King point out, is at the heart of microeconomics’ behavioral turn and the proliferation of “nudge” quackery in policy-making circles.

The problem is that almost every policy decision has to be made in the midst of “fundamental uncertainties” about the basic facts that the economists’ models require.  The tools of economists were derived from probability theory that was developed to gain an edge in gambling.  As the review says:

Card games are “small worlds,” in a phrase from the mid-20th-century economist Jimmie Savage that the authors use throughout. The rules are well-defined, all possible outcomes known, the inputs fully quantifiable and the games run repeatedly.

None of that is true for a “large-world” event such as a pandemic or a financial crisis. Decisions must be made before basic facts, such as a disease’s rate of transmission or what proportion of the infected develop symptoms, are understood. Meanwhile politicians no longer seem to know what questions they want answered. Probability can tell you how likely you are to win a hand of blackjack because you know what “winning” means. But should we define winning against Covid-19 as the minimization of infection? Or merely slowing the flow of new cases into our hospitals—and if so, to what rate?

Unlike with blackjack, we’re dealt only one hand. The terrible truth is that every time a politician makes a decision, families might lose a parent or child, or be cast into an economic tailspin from which they may never recover. Faced with such radical uncertainty, “real households, real businesses and real governments do not optimize; they cope.”

These fundamental uncertainties aren’t unique to a pandemic, although the stakes are unusually high. Writing before the new coronavirus, Messrs. Kay and King find plenty of other examples. Corporate-strategy documents, they note, are designed to lend a false air of probabilistic precision to what is at best a guess about the market. Economists measure the economic impact of public-works projects by feeding invented numbers into faulty models, deriving outputs that enter the public realm with an undeserved aura of certainty.

There is an alternative and historically common way to solving policy problems — politics.  In Failure Up Close, Mike McShane and I argue that the kinds of solutions economists offer to education problems fail so often because these approaches typically refuse to consider politics.  The review makes the same point:

The authors argue instead for a return to a narrative form of decision-making that pretends to less precision and offers more scope for human intuition. Lloyd’s of London operated in such a way for centuries, we are told, setting premiums to insure against unquantifiable risks—such as the likelihood that a rare art collection might be stolen—through the hunches of individual human underwriters.

Politicians appear to be taking this approach to Covid-19. Britain’s early, relatively laissez-faire approach didn’t respond adequately to the intuition of voters worried about a fatally overstretched health service; a lockdown ensued, justified by only one of several available models. President Trump’s tug-of-war with himself over reopening the U.S. economy by Easter can be read charitably as an attempt to take the narrative temperature of the American public.

This approach makes use of a powerful tool economists despise—politics—to settle on a decision the public finds tolerable.

The review also notes that one of the other harmful effects of the overreach of economists is a bossy inclination to design optimal solutions for everything.  He could have included nudging students into college as another example:

Alas, another fruitful solution to decision-making is largely absent from the book: not making policy at all.

This may not be possible or desirable in special circumstances such as a global pandemic, but most things our governments do aren’t that special. Must they really nudge us toward optimal soda consumption via taxation, or manage the economy’s growth and contraction through the manipulation of interest rates, when they don’t really know what constitutes “optimal” in either case?

If you’re radically uncertain about what to do, doing nothing is often the best option.

The good news is that I think many people, including elite decision-makers, have been learning through hard experience just how useless many economists are in effectively addressing policy problems.  If economists are the priests of our secular age, their cult is fading.