Testing Incentives

 

When W. became president, he had two major education initiatives:  vouchers, and "no child left behind."  It is unfortunate that in the face of formidable Democratic opposition, he abandoned vouchers, and stuck with "no child left behind."  The latter policy’s intent is noble, but some of its unintended consequences are perverse. 

Mandatory testing results in educational inefficiency:  teachers teach to the tests, and as the commentary quoted below reports, tests get jiggered to show good results.

The main harm though, is that some of the most important results of good education, like resilience, self-discipline, and creativity, are not readily measured in standardized multiple choice tests.  So programs, such as Montessori, that encourage such results, end up under-appreciated and under-rewarded.

What we most need is for parents to be free to choose in education.  That would result in far greater innovation and improvement in education than the current "no child left behind" standardized testing.

 

(p. A31) If teachers, administrators, politicians and others have a stake in raising the test scores of students — as opposed to improving student learning, which is not the same thing — there are all kinds of incentives to raise those scores by any means necessary.

. . .

A study released last week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association found that “improvements in passing rates on state tests can largely be explained by declines in the difficulty of those tests.”

The people in charge of most school districts would rather jump from the roof of a tall building than allow an unfettered study of their test practices. But that kind of analysis is exactly what’s needed if we’re to get any real sense of how well students are doing.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

BOB HERBERT.    " High-Stakes Flimflam."  The New York Times   (Tues.,  October 9, 2007):  A31.

 

 HerbertBob.jpg  Columnist Bob Herbert.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT column quoted and cited above.

 

United States Cotton Subsidies Hurt Poor African Farmers

 

Dan Sumner did his dissertation many years ago under T.W. Schultz, a great economist, and a great human being.  (Dan was a friend of mine in grad school–we were members of a club that gathered once a month to discuss the works of Bertrand Russell.) 

 

Eliminating billions of dollars in federal subsidies to American cotton growers each year would reduce American cotton production and exports, raise world prices by about 10 percent and modestly improve the incomes of millions of poor cotton farmers in Africa, according to a new study by Oxfam, the aid group.

Agricultural economists at the University of California, Davis, who conducted the study for Oxfam, found that a typical farm family of 10 in Chad, Benin, Burkina Faso or Mali — Africa’s major cotton producers — that now earns $2,000 a year would have an extra $46 to $114 a year to spend if American subsidies were removed.

“Fifty to a hundred bucks is a lot of money to these people,” said Daniel Sumner, chairman of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the university. “It’s not right to think that changing U.S. subsidies will turn very poor people into middle-class households by our standards. That’s a generational process. But it’s money in their pocket.”

. . .

Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard who is skeptical of the importance of reduced agricultural subsidies, said he found Oxfam’s new estimates credible, but said the gains forecast were relatively small.  . . .

. . .

But the authors of the report said that removing American subsidies would permanently shift the price of cotton upward, with prices subsequently fluctuating around a higher average. 

 

For the full story, see: 

CELIA W. DUGGER.  "Oxfam Suggests Benefit in Africa if U.S. Cuts Cotton Subsidies."  The New York Times  (Thurs., June 21, 2007):  A12.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

Johnston Book to Expose More Government Subsidies to Wealthy

 

  Source of book image:  http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51Zc90x8GDL._SS500_.jpg

 

Several days ago, I ran an entry that quoted a revealing and upsetting article showing how a lot of tax dollars are being used to susidize golf holidays for wealthy businessmen. The author of the article was New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston.

In response to my entry, Johnston emailed me to let me know that he has a forthcoming book that will expand on the subject of his NYT piece.

If Johnston’s article is any guide, his book should be of interest. Clicking on the reference below, will take you to the the Amazon page where the book can be pre-ordered in advance to its expected December 27, 2007 release:

Johnston, David Cay. Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill).  Portfolio, 2007.

 

Most New Jobs Are Good Jobs (High-Skill and High-Pay)

 

Stephen J. Rose, the author of the commentary quoted below, was previously an advisor to Democratic President Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.  He is currently a senior economic fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute.  The commentary is based on Rose’s report "The Truth About Middle Class Jobs."

 

Economic change is a messy process. New technologies open up many opportunities for those prepared to take advantage of them. At the same time, old firms and their workers are displaced and forced to start over. In 1900, for example, 40% of the U.S. work force was involved in agriculture. Today, that figure is less than 2%, and no serious observer would argue that we are worse off as a result of this transformation.

Yet many of today’s most prominent politicians and pundits are making an updated version of precisely this argument. They claim that the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs has led to the replacement of good middle-class jobs by low-skill, low-pay "hamburger-flipping" service jobs.

. . .

 Let us look at the distribution of earnings in 1979, compared with the distribution of earnings of the net new jobs created since that year.  . . .

. . .

Here’s the bottom line: For three-quarters of the workforce (women and the top half of male earners), economic growth translated into earnings gains. But for male workers in the bottom half of the earnings distribution, the decline of unionized manufacturing employment has led to the drying up of some middle-class jobs for those with no post-secondary education.

For the clear majority of the workforce, then, the job market has become more welcoming, not less so. But where are these jobs?

Using a framework that I developed in the 1990s, I find that most of the employment gains over the last 30 years have been in business-management activities (administration, sales, finance and business services) as well as in professional services such as health care and education. While the percentage of U.S. jobs derived from manual work in agriculture, mining, timber and manufacturing has declined, the share of jobs related to low-skilled retail and personal/food services has remained steady.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

STEPHEN J. ROSE.  "The Myth of Middle-Class Job Loss."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., October 24, 2007):  A21.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

Academic Entrepreneurs in a Toxic Wasteland

 

   The Berkeley Pit was once a copper mine, and now holds a lake of toxic waste.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

Here are a few paragraphs from a fascinating story about a couple of people who seem to be practicing what Taleb is preaching in The Black Swan:

 

BUTTE, Mont. — Death sits on the east side of this city, a 40-billion-gallon pit filled with corrosive water the color of a scab. On the opposite side sits the small laboratory of Don and Andrea Stierle, whose stacks of plastic Petri dishes are smeared with organisms pulled from the pit. Early tests indicate that some of those organisms may help produce the next generation of cancer drugs.

From death’s soup, the Stierles hope to coax life.

“I love the idea of looking at toxic waste and finding something of value,” said Ms. Stierle, 52, a chemistry researcher at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.

For decades, scientists assumed that nothing could live in the Berkeley Pit, a hole 1,780 feet deep and a mile and a half wide that was one of the world’s largest copper mines until 1982, when the Atlantic Richfield Company suspended work there. The pit filled with water that turned as acidic as vinegar, laced with high concentrations of arsenic, aluminum, cadmium and zinc.

. . .

Mr. Stierle is a tenured professor at Montana Tech, but his wife gets paid only for teaching an occasional class or if there is a grant to finance her research. From 1996 to 2001 they applied for dozens of grants, but received only rejection letters. So they financed their own research, using personal savings and $12,000 in annual patent royalty payments. In 2001, they won a six-year, $800,000 grant from the United States Geological Survey.

“Their work is considered a very high-risk approach,” said Matthew D. Kane, a program director at the National Science Foundation. “It takes a long time to get funding, and some luck to find active compounds.”

Unlike scientists at large research universities, who commonly teach only one class a year and employ graduate students to run their laboratories, Mr. Stierle teaches four classes each semester at a college with 2,000 undergraduates and no major research presence.

. . .

The couple said they were negotiating privately with a pharmaceutical company to test some of the compounds they have discovered and possibly turn them into drugs. As they wait, they open another Mason jar filled with murky pit water, draw a sample and return to work.

“The pit very easily could have been a complete waste of time,” Mr. Stierle said. “We just had luck and worked our butts off. We take that first walk into the dark.”

 

For the full story, see:

CHRISTOPHER MAAG.  "In the Battle Against Cancer, Researchers Find Hope in a Toxic Wasteland."   The New York Times  (Tues., October 9, 2007):  A21.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

BerkeleyPitMap.gif   In the photo immediately above, Don and Andrea Steirle work in their lab.  The map to the left shows the location of the Berkeley Pit.  Source of the photo and map:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 

Entrepreneurial Capitalism is the Good Kind

 

   Source of book image:  http://ec1.images-amazon.com/images/I/41WVH9PAR3L._SS500_.jpg

 

. . .  capitalism as practiced in the U.S. is different from the capitalism practiced in, say, Singapore or Saudi Arabia. "Capitalism…takes many forms, which differ substantially…in their implications for economic growth and elimination of poverty," three economists write in "Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism." The book identifies four strains of modern capitalism and argues the U.S. version is particularly well-suited to creating and exploiting innovations that boost living standards.

. . .

The book was written by William Baumol, an eclectic New York University economist impressively energetic at 85 years old; Carl Schramm, president and research director of the Kauffman Foundation and a recovering health economist and insurance executive; and Robert Litan, an economist-lawyer who was a budget and antitrust official in the Clinton administration. (Disclosure: I recently spoke at Kauffman’s Kansas City, Mo., headquarters.)

. . .

Along the way, the economists make a point often missed in the romanticism about "small business." They aren’t talking about all small businesses — the corner dry cleaner, for instance — or all the self-employed. Their entrepreneurs are entities that provide a new product or service or develop methods to produce or deliver existing goods and services at lower cost.  . . .

It all sounds great — and compelling. A capitalism that cannot spur innovation and/or display flexibility to reorganize itself cannot be a model. In their book, though, the three touch too lightly on an issue about which Mr. Litan has written previously. As he puts it in an interview: "An entrepreneurial society is going to be more of a high-risk society."

The strengths of U.S.-style capitalism are apparent. No place in the past quarter century has better mixed the ingredients of talent, imagination, education, science and capital. But the risks are apparent, too: workers who lose jobs and find new ones that pay far less and lack health insurance, widening disparities between economic winners and losers, challenges posed by stiffening competition from low-wage, increasingly skilled workers abroad, and schools that aren’t improving as fast as the economy is changing.

Preserving the strengths of American capitalism requires finding a way to reduce the anxiety and harm posed by such risks without losing the entrepreneurial vigor. That’s the hard part.

 

For the full commentary/review, see:

DAVID WESSEL. "CAPITAL; By Capitalism’s Vigor May Hinge On Confronting Its Risks."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., May 10, 2007):  A2. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

Creative Entrepreneurship Helps U.S. Thrive in Globalization’s “Invisible Competition”

 

The passage below is an excerpt of a WSJ summary of an article in the  Autumn 2007 issue of The Wilson Quarterly.

 

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, says many U.S. accomplishments stem from Americans’ ability to thrive in competitive environments.  . . .

Mr. Cowen believes that the U.S. is particularly well-suited to the type of competition fostered by globalization, which he calls "invisible competition." Rivals in business, romance and life now compete anonymously and from a distance. Programmers compete with computer professionals across the ocean. Dating Web sites pit anonymous strangers against one other. Many American qualities suit the distinct challenges posed by invisible competition, says Mr. Cowen. A tradition of creative entrepreneurship is especially useful, since invisible competitors don’t have the same motivating power as rivals in the next cubicle or on the next block.

 

For the full summary, see:

"Informed Reader; ECONOMICS Divergent Views on Competition in the U.S."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., October 9, 2007):  B14.   

(Note:  ellipsis added.)