We Interrupt This Communist-Caused Pandemic to Bring You an Important Bulletin

April 29, 2020

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Chinese Communist Party’s national computer system for managing surveillance is actually called Skynet.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled communist-caused pandemic.


Coronavirus Isn’t Ushering in the Cool-Kids Future or the Homeschooling Past

April 17, 2020

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My latest for OCPA considers whether digital learning or homeschooling will see big boosts from the current public health emergency, when millions of parents suddenly found themselves thrust into both these alternative modes of education. Admittedly, it’s a unique moment:

Oklahoma’s largest virtual charter-school organization, EPIC Charter Schools, even offered free training to teachers and schools in traditional school districts. Despite their rhetoric about how “everyone in public education must come together,” it’s a little like watching Nixon sell grain to the Soviets.

But having to do this under emergency conditions is not necessarily giving people a representative experience of what digital learning and homeschooling are normally like.

With a callback to a classic Matt Ladner meme, I argue that while digital learning has long-term promise, techno-futurist hopes for a quick digital-learning revolution remain as overblown as they were ten years ago:

Today, we can see that the edu-futurists—Matt Ladner dubbed them The Cool Kids—were right about the direction, but wrong about the scope. Or, if you prefer, you can say they were wrong about the timing; perhaps technology really will revolutionize the whole education landscape, but if so, it didn’t do it on the timetable The Cool Kids predicted…Models that explain how people behave when they buy copper wire—“the market is a huge bubble right now, it’s about to burst”—turn out not to explain how people behave when it comes to the rearing of their children.

Homeschooling has more to gain from the current crisis, because it will no longer feel weird and abnormal in the same way – people will have looked in the closet and found out there was no Boogeyman in there. But don’t get your hopes up for radical change here, either:

Institutional schooling was not imposed upon American society by some kind of totalitarian regime. Homeschooling is the right choice for some, and perhaps the right choice for more than choose it now. But radicals who view institutional schooling as a false consciousness that everyone will suddenly wake up and realize they never really believed in are a little like the “heteronormativity” theorists who think people are only attracted to the opposite sex because society programs them that way.

Bottom line, education policy is still political, and politics is still the same as it was.

Franchise movies in summer 2021 and street signs in St. Petersburg on Dec. 26, 1991 are also part of the story. Let me know what you think!


And the Higgy Goes to… Mark DiRocco

April 15, 2020

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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.


For the Higgy: Mark DiRocco

April 8, 2020

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The COVID-19 crisis has brought out the best and the worst in humanity, from heroic health care workers risking their lives to save others to horrible hoarders who think of no one but themselves.

The same is true in K-12 education, which is facing an unprecedented nationwide shutdown. Some teachers are going above and beyond in trying times to provide their students with a quality education despite trying circumstances. Some are even driving by their students’ homes to offer encouragement.

And then there’s Mark DiRocco.

DiRocco is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. His main concern? Making sure that families DON’T have educational options outside of what his system provides.

As Mike McShane and I detailed in the Washington Examiner today, DiRocco is just one of a number of educrats who have forgotten that our education system is intended to serve students, not the other way around. Policymakers in three states have blocked or restricted access to online charter schools out of a fear that parents might avail themselves of such options while their kids are cooped up at home. DiRocco just made the mistake of saying the quiet part out loud:

“You have got to give the school districts time to make some decisions, make plans, and put alternative learning delivery systems together,” DiRocco told Pennsylvania public radio, arguing that it is not fair to “allow the [online] charter schools to say, ‘Well we are open for business now.’”

When DiRocco talks about what’s “fair,” he’s not talking about what’s fair for or in the best interests of children. Rather than allowing students to access an already-existing schooling option, the forces of the educational status quo want to hoard them as if they were the last roll of Charmin at Walmart.

Hoarding toilet paper is bad enough. Hoarding kids is grotesque.

Ever since 2012,” The Higgy” has highlighted ” individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.” By actively blocking families from meeting their children’s educational needs during a global pandemic and treating kids as mere funding units for district schools, DiRocco has proven himself deserving of The Higgy.


Have Fun Mocking Nationalism for Only $10

April 8, 2020

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

We interrupt this Higgython to bring you an opportunity to enjoy making fun of nationalism for just $10. Isn’t spontaneous social coordination awesome?

I’ve spent the last two years designing a card game, Presidents versus Trump. It’s an action-packed, fun-filled, 30-minute game for 1-4 players. The American presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, are so offended by Trump sitting in their chair that they’ve all come back together to kick him out. But while the portal to the past was open, a rogue’s gallery of villains from American history, from Benedict Arnold to Bull Connor, have come back to defend Trump. The battle for the honor of the American presidency is on!

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The game is designed and ready; check it out here. What it needs now is amazing art, like the sample cards from our artist that you see here. This game won’t be what it should be until we get this kind of art on all 130 cards. That’s where we need your support.

So I just launched the game on Kickstarter. For $10 you get a digital copy of the now-amazing-looking game!

Head on over to Kickstarter now to check it out, click that button and support us today. Spread the word and let’s make this game happen together. Thanks for your support!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Higgython.

-Greg


Nancy Gibbs for the Higgy

April 6, 2020

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few years ago a friend of mine asked one of the Arizona Republic’s reporters why they were engaging in so much of what many former/potential Republic subscribers regard advocacy journalism. He reported to me that she shrugged her shoulders and said “it wins you awards.”

So it’s bad when newspapers go into full advocacy mode, worse still when folks at an Ivy League University can’t see through their tricks and hand them what perhaps used to be prestigious awards. Recently the Harvard Kennedy School gave the Arizona Republic, USA Today and the Center for Public Integrity an award for Copy, Paste, Legislate. The story made clever use of plagiarism detection software to selectively document the use of model bills by state lawmakers. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) serves as the bete noire in their story. “This fantastic reporting sheds light for the public and local media on the origins of legislation that gets passed in statehouses across the country” the above video proclaims from the judges of the Goldsmith Prize with what sounds like a string quartet playing somber music in the background.

Okay so what should the Harvard folks have been able to see through with this story? Well, not long after the publication of the piece Harvard Kennedy School graduate Pat Wolf noted on twitter:

@USATODAY spreads the deception that copycat legislation is an epidemic. Source of the problem is that @azcentral hid the fact that 99% of the bills they examined were NOT copycats. 1% is a rounding error, not a crisis.

That’s just the beginning of the problems with this story- but it’s a big problem. A few others: Trent England from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs helpfully noted that model legislation has been around since 1892, and all kinds of groups create model bills. The story authors airbrushed the largest center-left source of model legislation (the National Council of State Legislatures) out of their analysis, comparing the right of center ALEC to a couple of very young and very small progressive model bill groups. TA-DA! Most of the model bills become right wing! If you are keeping score at home, so long as you are willing to ignore the 99% of bills that don’t come from models and also a large majority of groups who do model legislation, this looks scary to a left of center reader.

Unless…unless you pause to think for a moment and realize that model bills go through exactly the same legislative process that any other bill goes through. Either it passes through committees and chambers and receives the assent of the governor, or it doesn’t. Since anyone and everyone can and often do write model bills and they go through the normal democratic process so:

There are other problems, including factual errors which remain uncorrected, which you can read about here. I’ve simply had to accept that much of journalism has gone down the road of overt advocacy. It’s unfortunate, but as the Arizona Republic’s readership has continued to decline they seem to be attempting to play to the predispositions of their remaining subscriber base. It doesn’t seem to be working as a sustainability strategy: Arizona’s population continues to grow, the Republic’s subscriber base continues to shrink and the handwriting is on the wall. As a long time Republic subscriber who admires the work of multiple people at the paper, this is very sad. It feels more than a bit like watching Nick Cage drink himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas.

Which brings us back to the Higgy. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” the expression goes. I guess I can’t be too upset with USA Today and the Arizona Republic if they fall prey to the temptation to engage in sensationalism when they get rewarded for it. It would not have been past the analytical powers of a mildly skeptical Harvard sophomore to have spotted the flaws in this reporting, given a study of pluralism and policy diffusion. You know-the kind of things you ought to study at the Harvard Kennedy School as a sophomore. Figuring this out alas seems well beyond the power of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and their judges. I don’t know a thing about Nancy Gibbs other than what is in the above youtube video, but if newspapers are going to go they should die as they once lived- as something reasonably close to a neutral community institutions. The newspapers have more than enough problems without grandees tempting them to do slanted work with prizes.