Saturday, April 30, 2011

Texas A&M and the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough" Solutions, Part IV

This is the fourth part of my commentary on the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough Solutions" and their application to Texas A&M. (The first three parts are here, here, and here.) This post deals with Solution 3, which proposes to separate teaching and research in state universities funding and operations.

The stated goal of Solution 3 is:
Breakthrough Solution #3 establishes separate budgeting and reward systems for teaching and research, making it possible to reward exceptional individuals in each area.

Recognizing and rewarding extraordinary performance will not only attract the best and brightest students, teachers and researchers, but also encourage more transparency and accountability by eliminating inefficiencies and hidden crosssubsidies.
However, the Solution is actually much broader than it seems at first. The aim of the proposal is not simply to create separate ledgers for teaching and research at state universities. Its goal is to separate teaching from research by separating those who teach from those who research.

Here is how the Solution is to be carried out:
This reform would establish separate budgets and reward systems for teaching and research faculty, while preserving the option for faculty who are excellent teachers and productive researchers to
continue to do both.

1. Separate budgets and reward systems will be created to pay teachers to teach and to pay researchers to conduct valuable research.

Teachers will be paid based on the number of students taught with a significant bonus based on customer (student) satisfaction. Limits on the number of A’s and B’s will discourage grade inflation. Researchers will be paid based on the sponsored research dollars they attract from government, business and private donors.

2. Faculty with tenure would have the option of shifting to the new, more lucrative reward system but would not be required to do so.

No currently-tenured faculty member will have their annual compensation reduced as a result of the new compensation plan.

3. Departmental and college budgets would be based on the number of students taught and sponsored research dollars.

Departmental and college budgets will be based on the number of students taught and sponsored research funding attracted, with a significant bonus based on student satisfaction. Administrative funds will be set as a certain percentage of the total budget. Total university-wide budgets will be expected to remain at or near current levels, at least until efficiency gains appear.

4. Encourage a culture shift to performance pay.

Parking and offices will be assigned based on performance. Only faculty electing to participate under the new system would be eligible to serve in institution leadership positions.
The proposal really has two parts. The first part  is oriented around bifurcating the faculty into "teachers" and "researchers" and then paying teachers by the head and rewarding researchers based on the amount of sponsored research dollars won. The second part deals with changing academic culture, for lack of a better term, by linking compensation (monetary and otherwise) more clearly to tangible outputs.

I have previously discussed the pitfalls of focusing on head counts to evaluate teaching "productivity." I still think the built-in preference for teaching large numbers of students is awful:
Big (profitable) lecture courses have their place in higher education.  The instructor can transmit information and ideas to large numbers of students and be around as a resource to answer questions, advise, deal with current events, etc.  However, the size of those courses makes it impossible to provide much attention to individual students or their work.  Teaching a smaller course, I can meet with each student individually outside of class to discuss the readings and lectures, go over term paper ideas, review outlines and read drafts of written work, go over old exams, discuss prospective tests, etc.  That is physically impossible in a larger class.

The point is, larger classes offer higher numbers of less dense faculty-student interaction; smaller courses offer a smaller number of more dense interactions.  At the level of the student, much more teaching is packed into the average small course than the average large course. Lumping the high density teaching and low density teaching together in a faculty cost analysis is unreasonable and relies on an illusion created by the fact that the university charges students the same tuition for large courses and small courses.  We overcharge for big courses on a student-hour basis and undercharge for small courses.  In essence, the big courses subsidize the small courses.  If we unbundled the two, charging a lower rate for big courses and a higher rate for smaller courses, then the "value" of faculty who principally teach smaller courses would look much more like the "value" of faculty who principally teach large courses than it does with the lumped pricing structure in place.
I don't have much to add on that front.

My specific concern about Solution 3 is that its implicit assumption that teaching can and should be separated from research is incorrect.

Scholarly research in a university setting serves at least three purposes: generating new knowledge, facilitating and structuring professors' engagement with their field, and providing signals about faculty quality. A university that supports faculty research will, in general, provide higher quality education to its students than a university that does not as a function of these three benefits of the research endeavor. First, students at research universities have the opportunity to learn about cutting edge research---new finding and insights that won't work their way through academic books and journals for many months or years (or more) to come. Second, active scholars must be constantly engaged with their fields of study to keep their own scholarship relevant. Students reap positive externalities from this engagement by learning from those who are constantly critically reviewing and building upon the latest theories and evidence in their area of expertise. Lastly, research productivity is a signal about one's command of his or her field. On average, a productive scholar has a greater command of his or her area of expertise than someone who merely consumes and attempts to retransmit the work of others. By basing tenure and promotion decisions on research productivity and impact, universities are retaining and elevating those who have the most to offer as teachers.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation's representatives and publications, however, make academic research sound like a bunch of worthless busywork. TPPF Senior Fellow Ronald Trowbridge's recent column in the Texas Tribune  is typical in this respect:
A recent study issued by the American Enterprise Institute reveals, for example, that from 1980 to 2006, 21,674 scholarly articles were published on Shakespeare. Do we need the 21,675th?
So, do we really need the 21,675th article about Shakespeare?

21,674 articles over 26 years is an average of roughly 833 articles per year. Though some scholars of William Shakespeare's work are surely more productive than others, let's say that, on average, each is producing one article every two years, i.e. there are something like 1,600 people that we might reasonably classify as active Shakespeare scholars. That sounds like a lot of people, but consider that there are roughly 4,600 colleges and universities (including community colleges and specialized institutions) in the United States according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. If those 1,600 scholars of Shakespeare are spread out evenly, about two thirds of colleges and universities in this country will have no one on their faculties who could reasonably be considered an active scholar of William Shakespeare.

Of course, the reality is much more skewed. Some scholars are producing much more than one article every two years and some universities have much more than one active Shakespeare scholar. All of a sudden, the statistic of 21,674 Shakespeare articles translates into a handful of institutions, representing the tiniest fraction of higher education in the United States. Indeed, of the 4,600 American colleges and universities only 108 (2.3%) are classified by the Carnegie Foundation as "Research Universities--Very High Research Activity." That means, in general, if you want to go to college and take a class on the work of William Shakespeare from someone who is a scholar of Shakespeare---someone whose job is to intensely read, analyze, understand, and explicate his work, and someone who does that job well enough to produce original research on Shakespeare of sufficient insight and quality as to survive the peer review process and become published---you have about 100 choices of institutions to attend, including the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station.

Do we need the 21,675th article about Shakespeare? Maybe; maybe not. Who knows when genius will strike and someone will be able to share the next great revelation about Shakespeare? That's why we call it research, because we don't know how it will turn out.

However, I do know that we---as a state, nation, and civilization---need people who *understand* Shakespeare and care to teach his work to our best and brightest, just as we need people who understand American government, ancient philosophy, social psychology, engineering, physics, mathematics, and all manner of human knowledge and wisdom. I also know that understanding comes from research; not only from research, and not definitely from research, but uniquely and often enough to justify scholarly research as a companion to university teaching.

Of course, colleges focused more exclusively on teaching have some advantages. Faculty may devote themselves and their time more completely to teaching. Courses are taught more often. And, as a result, the things that are taught are sometimes taught more artfully than those at a more research-intensive institution. Faculty also often have more time to devote to advising students.

It is silly to ask which is better. The American university system and the state of Texas need both to fulfill the diverse needs of their students and citizens. Some students are best served by a research university and others are best served by a teaching college. We need Lone Star College, Sam Houston State University, the University of North Texas, and Texas A&M University to meet the demands of students ranging from remedial, technical, and vocational courses through supervised student research.

As TPPF and others have pointed out, though, research and its positive externalities come at a price. It is more expensive to operate a research university than a teaching college. A research university professor must divide his or her time between scholarship and teaching, which means fewer classes taught (though not necessarily fewer students per class) per faculty member than at an institution at which faculty only teach. Also, market wages for successful scholars are higher than those who are not active researchers. It is perfectly reasonable to ask whether the benefits of a research university are large enough to justify its marginal costs to the state.

One way to look at the problem is a direct economic impact analysis. Texas A&M University's President R. Bowen Loftin has written an editorial published in several prominent newspapers across the state state pointing out the positive return on the state spending for Texas A&M. Likewise, economist Richard Florida and his colleagues have documented the close association between research universities and regional economic development. This association is based on universities ability to develop and catalyze technological development, to attract and retain talent (both in terms of matriculating students and parents who move to have access to high-quality public universities for their children), and to promote tolerance and diversity. In this respects, the benefits to Texas for operating internationally prominent research universities are clear and dramatic.

Another way is to evaluate the quality of the value added to our students. Though, as I have discussed elsewhere in this series, there is much room for improvement in measuring learning at Texas A&M, most indications are that this university does an excellent job of preparing its students for careers, citizenship, and public service:
For example, the Wall Street Journal ranks Texas A&M as the second best university in the nation in terms of preparing students for employment (based on a survey of professional recruiters), and  Washington Monthly ranks Texas A&M second in the nation in terms of the university's service to the nation and the community (based on students' participation in ROTC, the Peace Corps, and community service)---not to mention Texas A&M's strong performance in reputation-based rankings like those reported by the NRC and US News and World Report.
A final way to look at the problem is less systematic, but perhaps more powerful. It is hopelessly subjective and even a bit hokey, but quite simply, Texans deserve a chance to send their children to great public research universities. The University of Texas and Texas A&M draw people to Texas and keep people here. They are both mechanisms and symbols of opportunity and progress. As long as UT-Austin, Texas A&M, and the other research intensive public universities in Texas exist in something like there present form, I have a practical vision of how to help them achieve whatever they want right here in this state. If those institutions go away, that vision---and the the attachments that go with it---go away.

I know what a second-rate university system does. I left Tennessee after high school, in part, because the academic reputation of the University of Tennessee was so mediocre. I haven't lived in Tennessee since. Many of the best and brightest of my high school class also went to college out-of-state, and most have yet to return. It's not that UT-Knoxville was or is bad in any particular way---it just wasn't great, and great states with great futures have great universities.

Separating research from teaching at the state's flagship universities will undermine undergraduate education and ruin at least two of the great institutions that are helping Texas lead the nation and the world into the new century.

The second element of Solution 3---creating a culture of performance and responsibility among university faculty---is completely welcome. The bit about offices and parking spaces is a bit silly---there is almost no difference between the good faculty offices and the bad faculty offices, and it is rarely worth it to haul half a ton of books fifty feet down the hall to nab an extra 20 square feet. However, attaching bonuses or pay raises to measurable learning outcomes, specific scholarly products, etc. is not a bad idea. People respond to incentives, and money on the table is the best kind of incentive. I have some concerns about how teaching quality is measured, for example, but those are practical, nor principled, objections, and I am open to a wide-ranging discussion about what dimensions of "performance" would be most valued, how those things should be be measured, and how to structure compensation packages to encourage them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Bitherism and Strategic Responses to Polls

At The Atlantic's politics blog, Chris Good writes up a discussion with Gary Langer, who directs polling for ABC News, about polling data showing that growing numbers of Americans had been unsure about President Obama's citizenship prior to the release of his birth certificate---especially among Republicans. In a nutshell, Langer's take is that these responses, in large measure,don't reflect survey respondents' real beliefs about the fact of the matter---Obama's citizenship---but, rather, indicate the respondents' negative orientation toward the President in general:
Maybe, just maybe, those poll respondents don't actually think what they say they think, Langer suggests. Maybe they say all this for some other reason -- such as that they just don't like the president.
"I'd suggest that it's dicey at best to evaluate measurements on questions such as the president's birthplace as a 'belief,' as opposed to, for at least some respondents, merely an expression of antipathy," Langer wrote in an email. "We have called this 'expressed belief,' in contrast with 'affirmed belief.' The latter is an assertion of perceived factual reality; the former, message-sending."
As an example, Langer points to belief in global warming. While most Americans believe global warming exists, the fraction of global warming believers has shrunk over the past few years, according to polls, even as the scientific consensus has solidified in global warming's favor.
I think Langer is correct, but I would go even further. Surely, some people---we don't know how many---answer polls about beliefs about factual matter symbolically: a person may tell a survey researcher that she believes President Obama is a Muslim or Kenyan or a Communist just to register her (intense) disapproval or antipathy toward the president.

I would also add my suspicion that some respondents do this sort of thing consciously and strategically. If a respondent who opposes President Obama's policy goals is aware that survey evidence of widespread doubt about the President's birthplace will undermine his political position, he benefits at the margin by anonymously falsely expressing doubt about the Obama's place of birth. If a respondent knows that evidence of widespread belief in anthropomorphic climate change will support the adoption of cap-and-trade legislation of which he disapproves, he may express doubts about the human origins of climate changes that he does not really hold. These responses are more than symbolic misrepresentations of reality; they are intentional and instrumental misrepresentations. In other words, some people may be lying to pollsters to manipulate an important input into the national policymaking process.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Keynes v. Hayek Rap Battle, Part II

The EconStories guys do it again.

Let's not forget the original, though.

Great work, great teaching tools, great nerdy fun all around.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rick Perry's Boots Are Named "Freedom" and "Liberty"

Kevin Williamson has a great profile of Texas Governor Rick Perry at NRO. This may be my favorite part (and not just because of the footwear detail):

Here’s something you won’t hear an up-and-down-the-line conservative like Perry saying all that often: “If you don’t like medical marijuana and gay marriage, don’t move to California.” Don’t move to California is a major theme of Texas’s economic-development program, and in fact Californians are moving to Texas at a pretty good clip, as economist Arthur Laffer documented in his report “Rich States, Poor States” (see “Going Alamo,” National Review, July 20, 2009). Perry is content for Californians to let their freak flags fly, though he confesses that he recoils from some of the implications of his hard-line constitutionalism: The thought of flag-burning, for instance, makes Rick Perry one angry Eagle Scout. But his laissez-faire attitude is surprisingly broad, something he has in common with another distinguished governor, Sarah Palin, whose libertarian streak on questions like marijuana use is an underappreciated component of her political character. “Don’t make me accept it as normal,” Perry says, “and do not make me pay for it. But that’s classic Tenth Amendment, and I’ll fight to the death for California’s right to decide for themselves how they want to live.” And then he adds with an earnest, butter-wouldn’t-melt smile: “You want high taxes and an onerous regulatory climate, that’s your choice.” As he says this, he swivels around excitedly in his desk chair, the cuffs of his trousers hiking up to reveal a pair of cowboy boots emblazoned “Liberty” and “Freedom.”

Professor Bainbridge on the NFL

In response to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's oped in the Wall Street Journal, UCLA Corporate Law professor Stephen Bainbridge lowers the boom:
You've gotten away for decades with running a quasi-socialist cartel in which the owners share revenues without competition and the workers are exploited until they outlive their usefulness, at which point they are discarded, often with life-threatening injuries and illnesses. A dose of free market competition would do you good. As Milton Friedman once observed, "The economic miracle that has been the United States was not produced by socialized enterprises, by government-unon-industry cartels or by centralized economic planning. It was produced by private enterprises in a profit-and-loss system." Give it a try.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

University of Iowa Professor Tells College Republicans to "Fuck Off"

On April 18, the University of Iowa's chapter of the College Republicans sent out a university-wide e-mail announcing a series of events for "Conservative Coming Out Week." The e-mail had been approved for distribution by the Vice President for Student Services at U of I, and the events including an "Animal Rights BBQ," a blood drive, and a kickball game against the College Democrats. Ellen Lewin, a professor of Anthropology and Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies, replied to all recipients of the e-mail with a short note, "FUCK YOU, REPUBLICANS."

This started a sadly predictable cascade of responses and recriminations. The College Republicans responded with shock (shock!) that their e-mail had been much with such hostility. Professor Lewin responded by halfheartedly apologizing and then blaming her emotional response on the College Republicans expropriation of the language of "coming out," among other things. The College Republicans' faculty adviser, Professor Tim Hagle (Political Science), chastised Professor Lewin for her profanity without defending the content of the e-mail. And, U of I president, Sally Mason, sent out an e-mail affirming the university's commitment to the values of diversity and respect, defended everyone's right to speak their mind, and asked everyone to play nicely in the future without actually mentioning the specific events that prompted her e-mail.

A few thoughts:

1. What was Professor Lewin thinking? More precisely, what the fuck was she thinking? I don't know about the current political climate in Iowa, but the whole notion of public research universities is being seriously questioned down here in Texas and elsewhere across the country. The movement against public research universities is motivated, in part, by the perception of ideological and political biases in the academy. E-mailing the entire university to tell the College Republicans to "FUCK OFF" (all caps!) just confirms that perception. So, thanks.

2. Professor Lewin excused her actions, in part, by noting the offense she took over the College Republicans use of the language of "coming out" in support of their political activities on campus:
I should note that several things in the original message were extremely offensive, nearly rising to the level of obscenity.  Despite the Republicans’ general disdain for LGBT rights you called your upcoming event “conservative coming out day,” appropriating the language of the LGBT right movement.  
I don't think the College Republicans should equate announcing one's political conservatism with one's homosexuality, but I don't think it's unfounded to do so. University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has specifically equated the social pressures facing conservatives pursuing academic careers in his field with those faced by homosexuals in the 1980s. Indeed, Professor Lewin's e-mail proves the point. If a mildly provocative mass e-mail can generate a "FUCK OFF" (all caps!) in response, imagine what waits for a student who chooses to defend traditional marriage or critique feminism in one of Professor Lewin's classes. It is difficult for a college-aged student to express views and admit identities that he or she believes are contrary to the prevailing norms of their community. In the context of many academic disciplines, these kinds of conformist social pressures work against students expressing conservative political views or identities, and college faculty---above all---should be sensitive to that.

3. There must be some sort of software that generates mass e-mails for college administrators. I don't know what the algorithm is, but it clearly mandates references to unobjectionable "core values" and the academic trinity (teaching, research, and service) as well as total silence on all substantive questions. In any event, Sally Mason, U of I's president, clearly has the program:
Dear Members of the University Community:
The University of Iowa encourages freedom of expression, opposing viewpoints, and civil debate about those opposing viewpoints.  This is clearly articulated in our core values of Diversity and Respect.  Because diversity, broadly defined, advances its mission of teaching, research, and service, the University is dedicated to an inclusive community in which people of different cultural, national, individual, and academic backgrounds encounter one another in a spirit of cooperation, openness, and shared appreciation.
The University also strongly encourages student engagement in such discussions and supports students acting on their viewpoints.  Student organizations are sometimes formed along political lines and act on their political beliefs.  Even if we personally disagree with those viewpoints, we must be respectful of those viewpoints in every way.  Intolerant and disrespectful discord is not acceptable behavior.
Sally Mason

Sunday, April 24, 2011

When Is Someone Gay Enough for Gay Softball? Seriously

Dionne Searcy blogs about a story in the Seattle Stranger, which reports on a pending federal lawsuit over the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance's policy of permitting only two non-gay players per team in the Gay Softball World Series:

The National Center for Lesbian Rights filed suit on behalf of three D2 [a San Francisco-based gay softball club] team members who were later brought before a softball tribunal and asked questions about their sexuality. Some of the questions centered on whether bisexuality was considered homosexuality, and what per se defined homosexuality. One team member who said he was bisexual was declared “not gay” by the tribunal. The suit said the tribunal process violated players’ privacy and that they were discriminated against based on their sexual orientation and race. (Court documents describe them as “men of color,” The Stranger said.)

The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages and cites emotional distress suffered by the players. It also seeks a nationwide injunction against enforcement of the limit of two straight players per team in gay softball leagues.

The story has several fascinating aspects including a compelling debate between the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance about the need to preserve reasonably exclusively gay spaces and events and some discussion of the practical problem of figuring out who is and is not gay for softball purposes.

To me, though, there is an important (small "l") liberal issue involved here: the right of individuals to freely associate with whomever they choose and to form formal, private organizations that institutionalize those associations. If a group of people want to form a gay sports federation and impose limits on the participation of non-gay individuals (however the group chooses to define non-gay) in their events, it a gross violation of the freedom of association expressed in the First Amendment to require them to do otherwise. Ironically, this principle was affirmed by the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, which upheld the Boy Scouts of America's right to exclude homosexuals from service as Scout leaders.

Whatever its wisdom or lack thereof, the policy excluding non-gay players from the Gay Softball World Series would seem, to me, to be constitutionally protected. I am curious, though, whether a gay rights organization would make a free association argument to protect gay-only organizations even if it meant endorsing a position that enabled the exclusion of gays in other contexts.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Four Iowa Supreme Court Justices on the Road to Impeachment

At Gavel to gavel, Bill Rafferty reports:
The threats to impeach 4 Iowa Supreme Court justices for their same-sex marriage decision (Varnum v. Brien, 763 N.W.2d 862 (Iowa 2009)) is now a partial reality. Late yesterday HR 47, HR 48, HR 49, and HR 50 were filed against (in order) Justice Brent Appel, Chief Justice Mark Cady, Justice Daryl Hecht, and Justice David Wiggins. (The other three justices who ruled on the case were voted out of office in November 2010.)
I am supporter of judicial elections and a supporter of coordinate construction of constitutional meaning, but I don't support this impeachment effort.

The Iowa state constitution provides that, "The governor, judges of the supreme and district courts, and other state officers, shall be liable to impeachment for any misdemeanor or malfeasance in office." These justices are not accused of any crime or malfeasance in the sense of corruption or actions undertaken in bad faith.Impeachment is not, therefore, an appropriate constitutional remedy for a court's misinterpretation of the state constitution.

Instead, it seems to me that the appropriate legislative response is to create a new statute in opposition to the Varnum ruling and the state Supreme Court from deciding the constitutionality of the new law, which the legislature is empowered to do under Article V, Section 4 of the Iowa state constitution, which reads:
The supreme court shall have appellate jurisdiction only in cases in chancery, and shall constitute a court for the correction of errors at law, under such restrictions as the general assembly may, by law, prescribe; and shall have power to issue all writs and process necessary to secure justice to parties, and shall exercise a supervisory and administrative control over all inferior judicial tribunals throughout the state. [Emphasis added.]
As for the justices themselves, the people of Iowa will have the chance to retain them in office or replace them with new justices soon enough. That's what elections are for.

I should probably mention that I am, in fact, a supporter of same-sex marriage, and I believe that the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires states that license marriages to issue such licenses to homosexual couples on equal footing with heterosexual couples. However, I also recognize that this is an issue over which there exists substantial disagreement---for the time being---both in the sense of the even division of public opinion on the question and the intensity with which the two sides hold their beliefs. Such disagreement about the issue should support much deference to legislative actions and other democratic processes (e.g. referenda) with respect to marriage policy.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Window Blinds, Child Safety, and Willful Blindness to Opportunity Costs

The New York Times reports on new efforts by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to reduce or eliminate deaths from children strangling themselves with window blind cords.
For the last 25 years or so, manufacturers of window blinds have installed safety features and offered tips to parents to try to minimize the dangers from their products. Even so, children like Angel continue to strangle on the cords with grim regularity, an average of one a month.

Now, prodded by a Missouri mother whose daughter was strangled in a window blind, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has asked manufacturers to devise a way to eliminate the risks from window cords or perhaps face mandatory regulations. Critics of the industry complain that manufacturers have dragged their feet on addressing safety hazards for decades, making minor tweaks or putting the onus on parents to shorten cords or buy tie-down devices. Until recently, regulators have done little to crack down, they say.
I am a father of two young children, and I can't imagine anything more horrible or pointless than a child dying by being strangles in a window blind cord. Having said that, the story tells us that children are being strangled in window blind cords at a rate of one per month, i.e. twelve per year. Out of roughly 20 million children in the U.S. aged 0-5 (and roughly one billion window blinds in service , according to the NYT article), twelve are being killed each year by window blinds. That's a fatality rate of 0.0006%. That's a vanishingly small figure. (For comparison's sake, well over a thousand children under the age of 14 drown in swimming pools each year.) Twelve deaths a year must approach the theoretical limit of child safety for any widely-used consumer product.

So, what does the CPSC propose to do about this?

Require blinds manufacturers to add additional safety features to blinds or eliminate cords from blinds altogether. The second option would roughly double the retail price of window blinds.

The article reports that there are about a billion window blinds in service in the United States and that these are replaced, on average, every seven years. So, adding $1 to the cost of blinds for a new safety feature would constitute a hidden tax of $1 billion every seven years, or about $140 million annually. What else could be had for $140 million dollars a year that would save more lives or improve child welfare in other ways? How many kids could be saved from drowning for $140 million in swim lessons every year? Or saved from bike accidents by $140 million in crash helmets every year? Or diverted from obesity by $140 million in gym classes and salads every year? And, of course, these questions merely get sharper as the costs of regulatory compliance pushes the price of blinds up beyond $1.

Making window blinds safer is a huge mismanagement of scarce resources for child safety and wellness. Huge. In fact, if you could track all the money that people have to take away from spending on other things that would make their kids safer and healthier that will (prospectively) be spent on ostensibly "safer" window blinds, I would be willing to bet that more children will die prematurely by trying to make blinds safer than by accepting the status quo.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Texas A&M and the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough" Solutions, Part III

This is the third part of my commentary on the Texas Public Policy Foundation's "Breakthrough Solutions" and their application to Texas A&M. (The first two parts are here and here.) This post deals with Solution 5, which deals with "learning contracts" among students, faculty, and universities.

[I had hoped to include a discussion of Solution 3 in this post, also, but I haven't had the time. I'll cover it next time.]

The "goal" of Solution 5 is:
Research has shown that students are excellent judges of the learning that takes place in a classroom. This is particularly true if the deliverables for a course are clearly stated. This reform would require colleges and universities to develop contracts between deans, department heads, and teachers so that the promises of each degree program are clearly stated to each and every student.

A secondary benefit of this reform is that it provides an effective, institution-based accountability tool rather than a top-down, one-size-fits-all test or other system imposed by federal or state governments.
This would be implemented by:
Signed contracts will be established between the university, dean, department head, teachers and each student.
1. Universities will provide each applicant with a “learning contract” that discloses, at a minimum:
a. the graduation rate, placement rate and average starting salaries for a student with the equivalent entering admissions test scores (SAT) and major
b. the average class size
c. teaching evaluations for the faculty who will be teaching their classes
d. grade distributions
e. the skills, tools and lessons that the curriculum is designed to transmit
f. how educational value added will be measured.
All enrolling students will need to sign and return the learning contract to the school before admittance.
2. Teachers will provide for each student enrolling in a course a classroom learning contract that discloses, at a minimum:
a. the skills, tools and lessons that the course is designed to transmit
b. the grading policy for the course
c. the method that students will use to evaluate the course and teacher on whether the learning promise was met.
To remain enrolled in a course, students must sign a copy of the contract and then have it returned to them signed by their teacher.
This is really two "reforms," though. The first is a requirement that universities provide prospective students about institutional performance and requirements at the start of a degree program. The second is a requirement that individual instructors provide information to students about learning objectives, evaluations of students by the instructor, and evaluations of the instructor by the students for each course.

As "breakthrough" solutions go, this is pretty mild stuff.

At the institutional level, most of the information that universities will be required to disclose is already readily available for Texas A&M, though not in a convenient one-stop-shopping document. Graduation rates are public. Average reported starting salaries by major are available from the university career center (though I doubt information is tabulated by SAT scores). Grade distributions for all courses are available from the registrar and are aggregated by instructor by several private organizations, including There university's core curriculum is described on its website and in its printed catalogs. And, I am pretty sure that course evaluations are standardized at the department level, so anyone who wanted to know how a particular class's instructor would be evaluated by students should be able to find out.

There is no harm in aggregating this information into a single resource and providing it to students. There is also no harm in requiring students to acknowledge their receipt of that information as a requirement for enrollment.

At the instructor level, items (a.) and (b.) are already required elements of every syllabus at the university. The syllabus is supposed to state the course's learning objectives and explain how course grades will be assigned. Adding a description of the methods that will be used to evaluate an instructor's performance is easy and, once again, harmless.

My reservations about the reforms are about as mild as these reforms themselves.

I have some mild administrative questions about the reform---We have roughly 50,000 students at Texas A&M taking roughly 4-5 classes a semester. What happens to the quarter of a million "learning contracts" generated every semester? Where are they stored? how are they audited?---but my primary concern here is aesthetic. The description of the reform implies that information about graduation rates, careers, and courses are not available. Yet, there are huge amounts of information about the university and its curriculum, faculty, courses, requirements, students, former students, etc. available for the asking (or web searching). Putting some important pieces of information together into more accessible packages may be worthwhile, but its hardly a game changer.

Putting these aside, though, I think there may be some "ceremonial" value to student learning contracts. Oddly, even though students (and their families) pay to attend classes, many students do not take their classes very seriously. Starting each semester by making a contract between each student and the instructor certainly provides an opportunity to institutionalize the dissemination of information from the faculty to the students, but it also provides an opportunity for a student to make a specific commitment to each course and to avow an understanding of what that course will require. If the metaphor of the contract is taken seriously, it will bind both parties, the teacher and the student, perhaps providing some extra social or personal incentive to the student to take the course seriously and to get the most out of it. (It worked for Mr. Miyagi---right around the 1:00 mark.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Electoral College and the National Popular Vote Compact

Vermont and California are apparently poised to become the seventh and eight states (along with the District of Columbia) to join the National Popular Vote Compact. Member states have enacted legislation awarding their states' Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote (effective once the legislation has been enacted by states controlling a majority of the electoral college votes).  The Compact would create a de facto national plurality election for the presidency.

Blogging at the Corner, Tara Ross worries about the National Popular Vote movement:
Tom Golisano of NPV [National Popular Vote] celebrated the decision in Vermont, declaring that NPV will allow all votes to count “while preserving the Electoral College and the intent of the Founding Fathers.”

What an odd thing to say. NPV preserves the intent of the Founding Fathers? Would these be the same Founders who explicitly rejected a national direct-election system for the American presidency? NPV conveniently forgets that the original small states — states just like Vermont — would not have ratified the Constitution if a direct-election system had been included. NPV also ignores the fact that its plan sidesteps a constitutional-amendment process that would require ratification by 38 states before such radical change to presidential elections can be implemented.
I completely agree with her about the oddity of contemporary small states' political impulses to ditch their disproportionate influence over presidential elections. I also worry about whether the NPV is actually constitutionally enforceable by the states since, it seems to me, that---though states may select electors by whatever mechanism they may prefer---the elector is free to cast a vote for president for whomever they wish. A state law constraining a federal elector's vote would be no more constitutionally valid than a state law directing a member of Congress to cast a vote in a particular way. The only remedy for an unfaithful elected official available directly to constituents under the federal Constitution is to decline to return a person to office at a subsequent election.

This brings me to my point of contention with Miss Ross. The Electoral College is an odd place to make originalist arguments. We are already incredibly afield from the Electoral College the Founders had in mind for the Electoral College (completely leaving aside the fact that the Founders themselves didn't like the original setup of the Electoral College and reformed it substantially in the 11th Amendment). The Founders' Electoral College was a set of deliberative bodies, selected by state legislatures (themselves elected by a narrow franchise) to choose the finest men of national reputation to serve as president. Prior to the advent of national political parties, the inherent coordination problems involved in choosing a single person (other than George Washington) of sufficient national prominence to win majority support from the state electors created a substantial likelihood that presidents would be chosen by the House of Representatives. The Founders' Electoral College was, therefore, the second step (after the election of state legislatures) in a deliberative process designed to filter and refine the nation's political leadership to designate the person of the highest quality and character to be president.

That system was corrupted long ago by mass political parties and the decisions of state legislatures to hand over control of the process of selecting candidates to their electorates. The combination of mass political parties (with presidential nominating systems) and electing electors took the process of deliberation and candidate selection away from the Electoral College and gave it, first, to party leaders and eventually to party voters through the caucus and primary systems. The deliberative functions of Electoral College have been dead for two centuries, leaving only the residual skewness in how electors are awarded to states. Its hard to defend that skewness in the absence of the deliberation that was supposed to accompany it.

Also, the National Popular Vote Compact does not require a constitutional amendment. States are constitutionally empowered to designate members of the Electoral College by whatever mechanism they choose. I suppose the plan does "sidestep" a formal amendment, but this is not an illegitimate mechanism for doing so.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

146th Anniversary of Lincoln's Assassination

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is among the most tragic moments in American history. Had Lincoln lived, the dark history of Reconstruction likely would have been much different and the even darker history of institutionalized racism and segregation in the South may have been much different, as well. The tone of Lincoln's second inaugural address makes clear his commitment to an equitable peace:
...If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Walt Whitman was right to lament his passing:

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won; 
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, 
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring: 
    But O heart! heart! heart!        
      O the bleeding drops of red, 
        Where on the deck my Captain lies, 
          Fallen cold and dead. 
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; 
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills; 
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding; 
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; 
    Here Captain! dear father! 
      This arm beneath your head; 
        It is some dream that on the deck,
          You’ve fallen cold and dead. 
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still; 
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will; 
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done; 
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won; 
    Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells! 
      But I, with mournful tread, 
        Walk the deck my Captain lies, 
          Fallen cold and dead. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Wisconsin's Supreme Court Election and Caperton v. Massey

In Caperton v. Massey (2009) the United States Supreme Court ruled that the failure of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin to recuse himself from a case in which a major campaign supporter was a party constituted a violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Though there was no evidence or allegation of an actual quid pro quo arrangement between Massey's CEO and Justice Benjamin, the Court reasoned that the unusually large contributions on behalf of Justice Benjamin by the CEO of Massey Coal created "a risk of actual bias" because the judge had a "direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest" in the outcome of the case. Since there is no evidence that Justice Benjamin was personally remunerated for his performance on the West Virginia Court, it is implicit that campaign contributions may constitute a "direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest."

This raises and interesting question regarding the recent judicial election in Wisconsin.

Given the Greater Wisconsin Committee's unprecedented $1.3M support for JoAnne Kloppenburg in the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election, would Caperton require her to recuse herself from cases in which the Greater Wisconsin Committee has a clear interest in the outcome (including litigation over Gov. Walker's union legislation), even if that interest is principally ideological?

I think it is fair to say that the Greater Wisconsin Committee's support was based on an attempt to influence the Wisconsin Supreme Court's behavior on a specific prospective set of cases. Indeed, its website is quite clear on this point. Moreover, its future support of Justice Kloppenburg (presuming she ultimately wins) undoubtedly relies on her reaching particular sets of conclusions in those cases. By making a set of outsized expenditures on her behalf, the Greater Wisonsin committee has created a "direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest" for future Justice Kloppenburg that would seem to require her recusal under Caperton.

For whatever it's worth, I don't care for Caperton, and I think the hypothetical case of Justice Kloppenburg illustrates the substantial shortcomings of requiring recusals based on interests defined in terms of legal support for a political campaign. Nevertheless, the case stands, for now, and the obvious distinctions between Massey Coal and the Greater Wisconsin Committee---i.e. Massey is an actual party (not just an interested party) in Caperton and that Massey is a for-profit corporation---don't remove the issue of creating a risk or probability of biasing the judge based on her gratitude and desire for continued electoral support tied manifesting itself in a particular prospective case or cases in which the donor has a strong interest.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Federal Deficit and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Reading this weekend's news about the impending release of the House Republicans' budget proposal for FY2012, I couldn't help but think of the Prisoner's Dilemma.  (Totally random aside: shouldn't it be punctuated "Prisoners' Dilemma"?)  For the unintiated, the Prsioner's Dilemma is a classic problem in game theory which is often used to represent the negative social consequences of individuals' rational efforts to pursue self-interest.  Wikipedia summarizes the setup, which should be pretty familiar to most viewers of Law and Order:
Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation.
To minimize the total amount of time the suspects spend in jail, both of them should keep silent, i.e. both should play the cooperate strategy.  However, each suspect is better off individually if he rats out the other suspect (i.e. plays the defect strategy)---no matter which strategy the other suspect has chosen for himself.  If the second suspect stays silent, the first suspect can avoid jail altogether by defecting and testifying for the prosecution.  If the second subject rats him out, the first suspect reduces his prison sentence from ten years to five years by also working with police.  In game theory jargon, ratting the other guy out (defecting) is a "dominant strategy."

There are some obvious parallels between the Prisoner's Dilemma setup and the current politics of the federal deficit.  Unless you are Paul Krugman, the federal deficit (and the related problem of the national debt) is an objectively dire public policy problem.  Eliminating the deficit (and paying down the debt) will require substantial reductions in federal government spending (including spending on popular entitlements like Social Security and Medicare as well as outlays for national defense), increases in federal revenues (raising taxes), or some combination of the two.  Neither cutting spending on programs that people like nor raising taxes is likely to endear a political leader or party to the voting public.  Yet, we are collectively up a creek without a paddle if the deficit is not resolved.

I am afraid that our two major political parties find themselves in the following situation.  Each party may seriously participate in an effort to eliminate the federal deficit (cooperate), or it may opt substantively out of the process and demagogue the other party's efforts to balance the federal budget (defect).  If both parties cooperate, they could eliminate the deficit (in some sense, creating a public good) and split the electoral liabilities for making a compromise that includes difficult and unpopular choices.  However, if one party defects while the other cooperates, the balanced budget will go away and the defecting party will reap the electoral rewards of ensuring the worried mass of voters that they may continue to receive their lunches for free (while the patsy party collects the more modest benefits that accrue from trying to actually address the budget problems).  If both defect, the balanced budget is gone, but the parties are able to split the electoral liabilities of failing to address the deficit.  Presuming that both parties value short-run electoral advantage over long-term (and less certain) public goods, both parties have a dominant strategy to defect and leave the budget situation largely unresolved while they continue to squawk at one another.

If this is the setup, we are screwed, quite frankly.

I hope the setup is wrong in at least one of two ways.  First, I hope that my assumption about the parties' preferences is wrong.  Even if parties are generally more sensitive to electoral imperatives than policy outcomes, I hope that the magnitude of the deficit-debt problem tips the balance in that calculus and create rational incentives for cooperation.  Second, I hope my assumption about the electorate's response to defection is incorrect.  The bad defect-defect equilibrium is a product of the asymmetry in electoral incentives for serious policy work relative to those for cynical attacks on difficult but necessary policy decisions.

I want to believe in statesmanship and the wisdom of ordinary citizens, but I am not exactly optimistic about either one at the moment.