My Debate with Randi

October 15, 2021

Today I had my event with Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, hosted by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. The video should be posted in a couple days after they finalize the transcript. In the meantime, if you’d like to see my opening remarks, here they are:

Public schools have been sticking it to many low-income and minority students since they were founded. Public schools have been segregated for most of their history by law. Even after state-compelled segregation was ended, public schools continue to be highly segregated because district boundaries were drawn with red lines separating communities by race. Outcomes for low-income and minority students remain abysmal despite huge increases in school spending, now exceeding $15,000 per pupil.

Public schools have been able to get away with this shocking mis-education of disadvantaged students because, despite all of their failings, public schools have managed to serve upper-income families reasonably well. As long as the public school system could maintain the support of advantaged families, the disproportionate political power of wealthier families protected public education from fundamental restructuring, including a significant expansion in school choice.

Upper-income families could pick suburban districts that gave them what they wanted and permitted greater parental input. The fact that wealthier families often supplemented their children’s education with enriching activities outside of school also helped mask any deficiencies in the quality or content of those suburban public schools.

These arrangements engendered a high level of affection for public education among these wealthy and disproportionately powerful families despite reports of severe difficulties in large, urban school districts. With limited direct experience of the dysfunction of urban public education, wealthy families were willing to believe that the problems stemmed from a lack of funding or from societal ills beyond the power of schools to control. Advantaged families were strongly disinclined to risk any disruption in their comfortable arrangements because of problems for other people’s children, especially when they could seize upon spending or social problems as rationalizations to leave the status quo intact.

The pandemic dramatically changed these political dynamics when the public education system failed to deliver what many advantaged parents wanted. Specifically, the public system broke faith with upper-income families by flagrantly resisting in-person instruction, prioritizing the needs of union members over those of parents. In addition, remote learning allowed upper-income families to see the instruction that their children were receiving and many were shocked by its low quality and radical content.

As suburban families organized to object to that radical content to their local school boards, they were further shocked to discover how unresponsive those school districts had become. And when the Biden Administration, with union support, issued a letter orchestrating an effort by the FBI and government agencies to investigate protesting parents as potential domestic terrorists, the inability of even wealthy parents to control the public education of their own children was laid bare.

Education is an extension of parenting and parents want significant control over how their children are raised and educated. The current arrangements of the public education system survived because wealthy parents believed they had that control. Once it was revealed that they also lacked this control, they mobilized politically to regain the autonomy they desire. This resulted in an enormous increase in educational choice over the last year, creating 7 new programs and expanding 21 existing ones in 18 states.

School choice is a one-way ratchet. Once people have experienced an expanded set of options, they are very resistant to having those options taken away. In addition, the broken faith between the public school system and advantaged families will take a lot of time and effort to restore even after schools return to in-person instruction and disputes over masks and vaccines fade. This means that the political pressure for further expansions of school choice remains strong for the foreseeable future.

This last year has given us a glimpse of the future and that future contains a lot more school choice. Because education is an extension of parenting and because parents are best situated to raise their own children, all parents should have control over where and how their children are educated. It is a shame that it took a pandemic and bad political miscalculations on the part of the unions to make advantaged families experience the same feeling of being out of control that poor families have long felt. But now that wealthier families are getting on board for school choice, all families can benefit from its expansion.

Al Copeland and the Legend of the Twelve Humanitarians

October 8, 2021

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

You know I’m a man of discriminating taste, because I literally just walked out of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which is great fun for the whole family as long as no one in your family is loyal to the Communist Party.

Anyway, the Nobel Peace Prize was announced today, so it’s time once again to give those who have contributed to bettering the human condition the highest honor known to humankind: the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award.

As the historical record below relates, we have now bestowed this incomparable honor upon twelve humanitarians. Who will be lucky number thirteen?

Not, of course, necessarily as lucky as Al Copeland himself.

Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee. If Jay likes it, he will post it with your name attached. A winner will be announced after Halloween.

The criteria of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award can be summarized by quoting our original blog post in which we sang the praises of Al Copeland and all that he did for humanity:

Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards.  Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997.  And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu.   Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists.  From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.

Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone.  By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian.  But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.

The 2020 winner of The Al was Nat Love, who overcame enormous adversity and injustice to live a magnificent American life: “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.” Love conquered all amid a field including Nick Steinsberger, who helped pioneer fracking; Charles Hull, who invented 3D printing; and Hans Christian Heg, an immigrant abolitionist hero whose statue had been torn down by a “justice” mob.

The 2019 winner of The Al was Mildred Day, inventor of the Rice Krispie Treat. In the fine tradition of Al Copeland himself, Day made the human condition better by bringing us great food. Her treats are not only delicious, they’re easy to make, so they are often among the first cooking projects that parents do with their children. Parents connecting with their children over something yummy is just about the best thing there could be. Day was favored over political pranksters Chad Kroeger and JT Parr, and Bob Fletcher, who helped three Japanese-American families in California keep their farms after WWII-era internment.

The 2018 winner of The Al was Joy Morton. Like Al Copeland, Morton promoted the good by doing well. It was known that small amounts of iodine could prevent goiters, but no one was doing anything about this until Morton saw a way to gain a competitive advantage for his salt company: adding iodine to salt, and advertising its health benefits. The bumper crop of nominees in 2018 also included Great Course lecturer Elizabeth Vandiver, musical disintermediator Leo MoracchiloliMagic: The Gathering inventor Richard Garfield, scofflaw tech recycler Eric Lundgren, lemonade-stand paladins Adam Butler and Autumn Thomasson, and George Henry Thomas, a Virginian general in the Union army.

The 2017 winner of The Al was Stanislav Petrov, who literally saved the world from nuclear destruction by refusing to follow Soviet orders to retaliate against what he suspected (as was later confirmed) was a false warning of a US strike. It’s not quite spicy chicken, but it’s close! Petrov was selected from an excellent set of nominees, including Whittaker Chambers, witness against communism, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, creators of Rick and Morty, and Russ Roberts, author and host of EconTalk.

The 2016 winner of The Al was Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who prevailed over a very competitive field of nominees, including Tim and Karrie League, founders of Alamo Drafthouse movie theaters, political humorist Remy Munasifi, and humorous political journalist Yair Rosenberg. Edmonds stood up against fascists at considerable risk to himself by declaring that he and all of his fellow prisoners of war were Jews, to foil the Nazis’ effort to separate Jewish prisoners. It is this type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.

The 2015 winner of The Al was internet humorist Ken M. Ken M did more to improve the human condition than just make us laugh by making idiotic comments on social media (although that would have been enough). His humor reveals the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet. Ken M’s humor is a useful reminder that many of the people reading your posts are probably not much swifter or influential than the Ken M persona. Ken M beat a set of strong nominees, including Malcolm McLean, inventor of shipping containers, Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, and John Lasseter, founder of Pixar.

The 2014 winner was Peter DeComo, the inventor of the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System. To save a life, DeComo drove all night to retrieve a lung machine from Canada, then thought quickly when border control officials at first denied him permission to bring it home because the device had not yet been fully approved by the FDA. DeComo won over a worthy field, including Marcus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, Ira Goldman, the developer of the “Knee Defender,” Thomas J. Barratt, the father of modern advertising, and Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, wine-makers who improved irrigation methods.

The 2013 winner of The Al was musical satirist Weird Al Yankovic. Weird Al brings joy to people of all ages, while puncturing the pretensions of puffed-up celebrity entertainers. He beat an impressive set of nominees, including performer/skeptics Penn and Teller, crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and WWII industrialist Bill Knudsen.

The 2012 winner of The Al was George P. Mitchell, a pioneer in the use of fracking to obtain more, cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Mitchell won over a group of other worthy nominees: artist Banksy, car creator Ransom E. Olds, first-down-line inventor and two-time Al nominee Stan Honey, and Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, the inventors of bubble wrap.

In 2011, The Al went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon. Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates. Haas beat his fellow nominees: Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.

The 2010 winner of The Al was Wim Nottroth, the man who resisted Rotterdam police efforts to destroy a mural that read “Thou Shall Not Kill” following the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist. He beat out The Most Interesting Man in the World, fictional spokesman for Dos Equis and model of masculine virtue, Stan Honey, inventor of the yellow first down line in TV football broadcasts, Herbert Dow, founder of Dow Chemical and subverter of a German chemicals cartel, and Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, developers of the disposable diaper.

The 2009 winner of The Al – in the first year the award bore that name – was Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag. She won over Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing, Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban, Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.

Also noteworthy from 2009: History’s greatest monster, William Higinbotham, was declared permanently ineligible to receive The Al. He remains the only individual thus disqualified. In (dis)honor of Higinbotham, The Higgy award has been bestowed on (un)worthy candidates annually since 2012.

Al Copeland himself was honored in 2008 as the official humanitarian of the year of Jay P. Greene’s Blog. The award was renamed in his honor the following year.

Okay, you got me, that’s actually 13 people we’ve honored, because Copeland counts. What can I say? ”Who will be lucky number 14?” wasn’t catchy.

Happy hunting, fellow nominators, and remember: watch out for black cats and ladders!

Build on the Year of School Choice

September 29, 2021

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I don’t know about you, but I really dug the Year of School Choice. Let’s have another one! OCPA carries my latest:

There is no wrong time to do the right thing. But 2022 is also shaping up to provide unique opportunities to those who waited long for justice. Parents and voters are making their support clear. The excuse that we can’t do the right thing because it’s too politically difficult, while never especially savory, has now become positively untenable. If not now, when?

This year, 18 states enacted or expanded 30 programs. And there’s no reason to think the momentum is spent. On the contrary, the major factors that made 2021 a banner year are still going strong:

The pandemic is one reason so many new and expanded school choice programs were enacted in 2021. Starting when the pandemic hit in early 2020, the government school monopoly consistently ignored the wishes of parents and the best interests of children in order to do whatever served the whims of the system’s various political constituencies. The bottomless selfishness of the educational special interests, like teacher and staff unions, competed for public opprobrium with the spineless impotence and disarray of the school boards and other governing authorities whose job it was to rein the special interests in.

A sharp increase in polarization over the teaching of history and civics in 2020 also set the stage for school choice to begin triumphing in 2021. Large numbers of parents lost confidence that the government school monopoly could be trusted to teach the classic liberal principles that undergird our social order committed to universal human rights and constitutional democracy under the rule of law. Contributing factors included a sudden new prominence of extreme illiberal ideologies, and the willingness of mainstream institutions to airbrush away, or even to justify openly, violent lawlessness. (When you do it, it’s a “riot” or an “insurrection,” but when I do it, it’s a “fiery but mostly peaceful protest” or an “autonomous zone.”)

As the nation was debating COVID masks, for millions of Americans it was a different kind of mask that came off the government school monopoly. Parents were not exactly naïve about the government school monopoly going in; Americans had fewer illusions about the system at the start of 2020 than in 1980 or even in 2000. But from the sudden and sharp turn in public opinion during the year, it seems they hadn’t yet realized how bad things were.

Capitalize on the momentum of this blog post by letting me know what you think!

DEI Bloat at UVA and VA Tech

September 17, 2021
2 alumni make largest donation in University of Virginia history

James Paul and I had an op-ed yesterday based on our study of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) staff at universities. This piece features results from the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, which have two of the largest DEI staff in the country. Here are some highlights:

Hiring people to address problems related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has also built an army of political activists who demand that ever more positions be created. Not only has this vicious circle bloated the higher education bureaucracy, it has also strengthened a narrow and divisive vision of racial politics on campus.

Rather than being inclusive to students from all backgrounds—the ostensible goal of DEI—this has made campuses less welcoming.

We recently studied the number of DEI staff at 65 of the nation’s largest universities and found that two of the largest DEI bureaucracies can be found at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

We did not count faculty in ethnic or gender studies departments, whose primary responsibility is in the traditional areas of teaching and research, nor did we count staff required for compliance with federal civil rights legislation. We focused solely on discretionary positions—staff that universities choose to add, often in response to activist complaints.

The University of Virginia has 94 people with formal responsibility for promoting DEI. Only the University of Michigan has more.

To put that in perspective, U.Va. has more than 10 times as many DEI staff as it has staff devoted to providing services to students with disabilities—something universities are required to do by law. There are 6.5 DEI staff for every 100 UVA professors.

Virginia Tech’s DEI bureaucracy is nearly as large. Blacksburg’s 83 DEI staff is 4.6 times larger than its staff providing disability services. It boasts 5.6 DEI staff for every 100 professors.

The titles of these DEI officials is a shuffle of the same words, making it unclear how their responsibilities are not simply being duplicated.

For example, in addition to its “vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion, and community partnerships,” U.Va. also has a “senior director for equity and inclusive excellence” and an “associate dean of students and director, multicultural student services,” each with an assortment of assistants, coordinators, and communication directors.

This university-wide DEI infrastructure is then replicated within almost every college in the university.

U.Va.’s Darden School of Business has an “assistant dean for global diversity, equity, and inclusion” as well as a “senior associate dean & global chief diversity officer.”

The school of law has an “assistant dean for diversity, equity, & belonging,” while the schools of medicine and of nursing each have an “associate dean for diversity and inclusion.”

The College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has an “associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion” along with a paid “director of diversity, equity, & inclusion” in each of its 33 academic departments.

Despite nearly 100 DEI officials with this word-salad of titles, 49 percent of U.Va. students reported in a 2020 survey that they personally experienced or witnessed racial/ethnic harassment or discrimination.

After reviewing a number of student satisfaction surveys, we found that in general, universities with larger DEI staffs did not report better campus climates than at universities with smaller DEI staffs. If anything, the institutions with large DEI staff had worse climates.

None of this should be surprising when we remember that hiring staff is just the way many universities mollify angry constituents. It doesn’t mean the bureaucracies they create are efficiently designed to actually solve problems.

State legislators, boards of trustees, tuition-paying parents, and other stakeholders should demand accountability for these symbolic hiring sprees. They should insist that universities produce evidence of the effectiveness of maintaining an army of DEI staff or cut those headcounts to lower university costs.

We suspect that lower tuition would do far more to promote diversity and inclusion on campus than massive DEI staffs with important-sounding titles.

School Choice and Viewpoint Diversity, the Conclusion

September 10, 2021

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Heterodox Academy carries the conclusion of my exchange with Robert Pondiscio on the relationship between school choice and how classrooms handle viewpoint diversity.

I go through Robert’s essay point by point, but I would say this is the nut of my response:

Robert seems to think he is disagreeing with me when he says that “viewpoint diversity within schools, not merely between them, is indispensable,” but that is exactly what I said in my essay. My argument is that political conflict is undermining schools’ — especially public schools’ — ability to provide this. I support choice not only because it is necessary to serve students who have diverse needs and preserve a diverse society — because pushing all families into culturally homogenized schools, in obedience to what Charles Glenn calls “the myth of the common school,” entails the suppression of cultural minorities — but also because it is necessary even to preserve viewpoint diversity within the classroom. The attempt to force families that do not share one another’s beliefs and educational priorities to share culturally homogenized schools breaks the bond of trust between parents and schools, and forces parents into a permanent state of political war (such as the one we are now experiencing over critical race theory) for control of the schools that are forming their children. Teachers and schools will not feel safe allowing real viewpoint diversity to happen in their classrooms unless they know parents trust and support them. 

Of course, Robert also gets his innings against me. Go give HxA a click and find out what he has to say! Then let both of us know what you have to say.

I’m grateful to Robert for the opportunity to exchange views on this important – and increasingly so by the month – subject.

School Choice and Viewpoint Diversity in K-12

September 8, 2021

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Heterdox Academy carries part one of a two-part debate between me and Robert Pondiscio on whether school choice would contribute to better handling of viewpoint diversity in K-12 classrooms. I argue yes:

From top to bottom, our school system is built on the idea that every child in a given location ought to attend the same school and be educated according to a uniform, standardized curriculum and pedagogy. But if one size must fit all, it seems impossible to avoid endless, educationally destructive culture wars about which way is the “One Best Way.” Certainly the long track record of political firestorms about the content of education over the past century does not justify much hope for a standardized, uniform education that isn’t a subject of constant culture war….

Educators, wanting to avoid getting entangled in political conflicts over their classrooms, are highly incentivized to reduce this politically radioactive element of the curriculum to a minimum. K-12 public school teachers in Wisconsin, and in any of the growing number of states where these conflicts are emerging, risk becoming a legal test case or a social media scapegoat if they prioritize open and free exchanges of opinion in the classroom. The only safe thing to do if you’re a teacher in this environment is to cover the touchy subjects as quickly and as superficially as possible, with minimal opportunity for potentially dangerous critical thinking or open discussion, and move on….

School choice would get political culture wars out of the classroom. When people are convinced that all children — and especially their own children — are being indoctrinated into the other side’s propaganda, no force on earth will stop them from fighting tooth and nail to seize political control of education in order to prevent this indoctrination. But if different schools could take different approaches, with parents able to decide which schools their children attend and thus the approach under which they are educated, schools would be free to educate independently of culture-war pressures.

Robert demurs:

This betrays a view that the only stakeholder in a child’s education is the child and their family. It elides almost entirely the fact that the cost of educating the nation’s children is socialized. You pay school taxes, directly or indirectly, whether you have one child enrolled, 10, or none at all. This is a feature, not a flaw, of our system. It reflects the belief that a free country depends on a well-educated citizenry capable of self-government. We are literally invested in the outcome of all children, not just our own. 

That shared stake in the education offered to all students is also an argument for at least some shared curriculum across even schools of choice, again something Forster demonstrates no patience for. Instead, he indulges perhaps the greatest misapprehension about American education: the assumption that children move in lockstep through a state- or district-mandated curriculum. Forster creates a strawman of it, contrasting choice with “One Best Way” schooling, even capitalizing it to ensure the derision is lost upon no one….

Not incidentally, the strongest argument for common curriculum has nothing whatsoever to do with political indoctrination or a desire to tamp down viewpoint diversity. For more than 40 years, E.D. Hirsch Jr. has demonstrated convincingly that language proficiency in a diverse society rests on a shared body of knowledge, cultural allusions, and idioms. Perhaps for this reason, the common curriculum Forster disdains is a standard feature of pluralist systems.

Part two, in which I reply to his reply, and then Robert replies to my reply to his reply, is coming your way on Friday.

Meanwhile, you can reply to all these replies right now. Create some viewpoint diversity and let us know what you think!

School Choice Saves Money for Government Schools – and Governments

September 2, 2021

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my latest on how school choice saves money for government schools, as well as state budgets:

That choice “drains money” from affected government schools is a canard. If I choose to have my appendix taken out at St. Paul’s Hospital, I am not “draining money” from the budget at St. Peter’s—not robbing Peter to pay Paul, as it were. If the government sues my business for declining to make a wedding cake for a man who’s marrying a shoe, and I choose to hire Atticus Finch to defend me, I am not “draining money” from Perry Mason. The government school monopoly is the only place anyone ever thinks of people as “draining money” from every service provider they don’t choose to work with.

Many JPBGers will be familiar with the reason choice typically improves the budget situation in affected government schools: variable costs, which go down when a student leaves, are much larger than variable revenues. This means that when schools lose a student, while their revenues go down, their costs go down even more.

A large body of empirical research confirms this. See this recent major study by Marty Lueken.

There are, of course, a few provisos and a couple of quid-pro-quos:

Whenever a choice program is enacted, education special interests wail to the cameras about the enormous proportion of their budgets supposedly made up of fixed costs, which remain in place when students leave. It’s a funny thing, though; when state legislative committees get together every year to set funding formulas for state support that’s based on enrollment, those same lobbyists suddenly get a strange form of amnesia. They wail to the committees about their need for big per-student allotments from the state to cover their enormous variable costs….

It’s also true that children who enter a choice program when they are beginning school for the very first time do not save government schools money, although they do save states money (because they never enter the more-expensive government school system). The evidence finds this isn’t a big enough effect to remove the net savings. Also, if a choice program gets high participation, we can expect local governments eventually to adjust their tax burden—but that’s very unlikely either to happen quickly or to remove all the savings.

Above all, you know who is in the details. The specific design of each choice program determines how much is saved. Some programs are revenue-neutral for schools and/or states. A few even cost small amounts rather than saving money, because the program design didn’t prioritize savings.

This is yet another reason to favor ESAs, which – unlike vouchers or tax-credit scholarships – allow us to know in advance precisely how much money each participating child will cost, thus allowing us to exert very fine control over the fiscal impact of the program when we design it.

It will cost you nothing to let me know what you think!

The Real Danger of Universities Growing Non-Instructional Staff

August 25, 2021

At Daily Signal I have a piece about the new ACTA report on the huge increase in non-instructional spending at universities. The ACTA report emphasizes how non-instructional spending is driving tuition higher without improving student outcomes. That is true and worrisome.

But the larger danger of hiring an army of non-instructional staff is that they fundamentally distort the mission of higher education. Rather than focus on the pursuit of truth through open academic inquiry or the development of capable young adults ready to assume their responsibilities as citizens and in the economy, non-instructional staff are restricting academic freedom while infantilizing students.

The only solution, I suggest, is to cut back significantly on federal subsidies for higher education. Only financial scarcity will allow tuition-payers and state legislators to exercise influence to get universities to shift the focus back to professors and classes rather than baby-sitters and political commissars.

Daniel Buck Mischaracterizes My Views

August 19, 2021

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In a post that ran today on Gadfly, Daniel Buck attributes to me views that I do not hold, and mischaracterizes the content of the articles he links to by myself and Neal McCluskey.

I reached out to Fordham to ask for an opportunity to run a response, but they refused. I even offered to revise my response to meet concerns they might have, but they refused to allow me to run any response.

The premise of Buck’s article is that “the essential question” under debate in the exchanges he links to is: “Is school choice sufficient to reform American education?” However, the only people he names or links to on the side that supposedly answers “yes” to this question are Neal and myself. Buck links to one article by Neal, two articles by me, and a tweet by Neal. He neither names nor links to any other sources. And neither Neal nor I asserted that school choice is sufficient to reform American education.

In fact, I asserted the opposite. In both of the articles that Buck links to, I argued that one of the primary reasons school choice is so valuable is that it greatly increases the political leverage of other efforts to reform the government school monopoly. Obviously this is premised on the view that other reform efforts are necessary and good, a view that I explicitly endorsed repeatedly in both articles.

Buck is just making false statements about what Neal and I said.

In one paragraph, Buck describes views held by “libertarians” who are “disciples of Milton Friedman.” He does not name any names, and links only to an article by me. But I am not a libertarian. The libertarian idolatry of “markets” that Buck describes, in a paragraph that links to me as its only example, is actually a view that I have been arguing for some time the choice movement needs to move away from.

I will plead guilty as sin to having known, admired and loved Milton Friedman. But, as Milton would have been the first to insist, that does not make me his “disciple.”

Anyone can make an innocent mistake. I’ve made tons of mistakes in my career that were far more humiliating than this one. The best policy is to be willing to admit a mistake when you’ve made it; I hope Fordham adopts that policy soon.

Dishonesty in Nudge Experiment on Dishonesty

August 18, 2021

If you needed any additional evidence to treat evidence on the benefits of nudge interventions more skeptically, check out this detective work that appears to find dishonesty in a behavioral econ experiment on how to improve honesty. The widely-cited experiment by high-status researchers claimed to find that people were more likely to report the mileage on their car odometer more honestly if they had to sign at the top of the form affirming the veracity of their report rather than at the bottom of the form.

This study fueled the Obama Administration’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team in their effort to construct a nudgocracy run by people who are way smarter and better than everyone else. It’s for your own good that the nudgocrats shove, er… I mean…, nudge you into doing things that they’ve decided are better for you. To oppose this is to deny science.

But it turns out that nudge research, like a lot of other research in social science, is plagued by problems with replicability and applicability when tried on scale in the real world. As readers of JPGB may remember, texting nudges meant to improve educational attainment by disadvantaged students ended up reducing their likelihood of completing college. Another nudge intervention meant to increase savings by making contributions to retirement plans the default ended up reducing net savings by encouraging people to take on greater debt.

As a recent review concluded, “nudges fail more often than is reported.” Nudges fail for many reasons, including the fact that it is extremely hard, even for very smart and well-intentioned people, to anticipate how others will respond to seemingly innocuous and subtle interventions. Even worse, many failed nudges are never published, contributing to an over-confidence in the effectiveness of policies shaped by behavioral economics. Researchers simply assume they must have designed the intervention wrong when they get the unexpected result, discard the finding, and try again after tinkering with the nudge in the hopes that it will be more effective. They repeat until they get the desired result and then proclaim eureka!

But the nudge on honestly reporting odometer mileage appears to have gone wrong in a less innocent way. With some clever sleuthing, these investigators uncovered evidence that data were fabricated and otherwise manipulated to get the desired result. Given how difficult and unrewarded this type of detective work is in academia, who knows how widespread these less innocent causes for flawed research really are.

Before the nudgocrats expect us to obey them, they might want to invest considerably more in strengthening confidence in their work. Perhaps we need to shove, er, I mean, nudge them into greater humility about the policy utility of behavioral economics.

%d bloggers like this: