Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Killing the Oxford Comma: This Is Pointless, Irresponsible, and Ugly

Via the MonkeyCage, I learn that Oxford University's PR Department has abandoned the Oxford Comma. The Oxford Comma is a bastion of permanence, reflection, and elegance in a world otherwise going to hell. As for me, you can have the comma preceding the conjunction before the final item of a list when you pry it from my cold, dead hand.

Ironically, the Guy Was a Dick: Final Thoughts on Anthony Weiner

My friend Alex Morin posts a link to a video of "The Best of Anthony Weiner."

I don't want to dwell on Weiner too much. I agree with Alex that his scandal was overblown, though I think he got his goose cooked more by the coverup than by the crime. I disagree, though, that Weiner was any sort of victim or that his resignation was anyone's loss.

He made his political living by being an irresponsible hatchet man. He was on standby to say almost anything about anyone or any topic on any cable news channel to advance his agenda. Anthony Weiner was---for lack of a better term---a dick.

He was a dick to his colleagues, his opponents, and the media. He yelled, screamed, mocked, oversimplified, demonized, and vilified for a living. When he recklessly gave his political opponents an opportunity to come after him, he had no reason to expect a quiet, respectful, nuanced, and even-handed treatment of his own shortcomings.

Anthony Weiner's combination of crass style and thin substance served very few people well in the long run, including, it turns out, Anthony Weiner. It is hard to feel sorry for a guy who spent so long digging his own grave, and it is hard to believe that there isn't someone better to take his place.

Monday, June 27, 2011

(Some) Conservatives Sound Like Over Gay Marriage

Late last week, New York approved legislation to permit same-sex couples to marry. I understand that opponents of same-sex marriage would have plenty to say about this, but I am confused and, frankly, put-off by criticisms of the process by which marriage rights were expanded in New York that have gripped some folks on the Right, especially at National Review Online.

William Duncan suggests that the legislature's actions were illegitimate because well-funded gay rights interest groups and libertarian organizations and individuals made it well-known that Republicans voting in favor of same-sex marriage could count of their support for future election campaigns. 
The New York Times editorial on the New York legislature’s decision to redefine marriage on Friday night provides the same-sex marriage advocate’s preferred explanation of the outcome — four courageous Republican senators bucked their hide-bound party to strike a blow for civil rights.

The background stories on the vote now emerging give us reason to be skeptical of that narrative. One of the senators who switched to give Governor Cuomo his vote told the Village Voice: “It’s not our job to be moral, it’s our job to be functional as a legislature.” What “functional as a legislature” means is not entirely clear, but we get some hints in the stories that detail the money spent by gay marriage advocates (including some wealthy libertarians) and the power-play by the governor and gay-marriage advocates. One lobbyist said there was “a ‘limitless’ amount of lobbying dollars and campaign contributions from gay marriage advocates.” The New York Daily News provides the not-surprising news: “Gay marriage advocates said they expect money from same-sex groups to flow to the four not just as a thank you, but also as a message to Republicans nationally.” The cynical might even think that flow might have affected the decision to jump ship. One Republican who had run on his opposition to same-sex marriage had taken a clear “no” position on the bill just a few weeks before. Another thought the appropriate way to express his “evolution” on the issues was a vulgar and self-righteous rant. Perhaps a sincere, if misguided, conversion explains the switching, but Ockham’s razor suggests a combination of money and power can’t be discounted as the more likely explanation.
 Kathryn Jean Lopez complains that the New York marriage bill was not submitted to the people in a referendum.
There has been much talk suggesting that the marriage vote in the New York statehouse was a democratic triumph. But even in New York, there was reason for Democrats to believe that this was their safest bet, that putting it to the voters wouldn’t have worked out for gay-marriage advocates.

Pollster John McLaughlin, who is based in his native New York, raises the question: “If they had brought the gay marriage bill to a public referendum, I don’t think it would have passed.”
George Weigl writes that the legislation is a tyrannical expansion of state power.
“Gay marriage” in fact represents a vast expansion of state power: In this instance, the state of New York is declaring that it has the competence to redefine a basic human institution in order to satisfy the demands of an interest group looking for the kind of social acceptance that putatively comes from legal recognition... if the state in fact has the competence, or authority, to declare that Adam and Steve, or Eve and Evelyn, are married, and has the related authority to compel others to recognize such marriages as the equivalent of what we have known as marriage for millennia, then why stop at marriage between two men or two women? Why not polyamory or polygamy? Why can’t any combination of men and women sharing financial resources and body parts declare itself a marriage, and then demand from the state a redress of its grievances and legal recognition of it as a family? On what principled ground is the New York state legislature, or any other state legislature, going to say “No” to that, once it has declared that Adam and Steve, or Eve and Evelyn, can in fact get married according to the laws of the state?

...that is an exercise of power that libertarians ought, in theory, to resist, not support.
New York State notwithstanding, the argument over marriage will and must continue, because it touches first principles of democratic governance — and because resistance to the agenda of the gay-marriage lobby is a necessary act of resistance against the dictatorship of relativism, in which coercive state power is used to impose on all of society a relativistic ethic of personal willfulness.

By my count, these guys are equating the legal and legitimate actions of interest groups and political contributors with bribery, playing up the will of the majority against the considered opinions of duly elected representatives in government, and bending over backwards to find "tyranny"and statism in a majoritarian process that changes the legal definition of marriage without imposing any burdens on religious or cultural understandings of marriage. These are crazy, conspiracy theory stuff, a rejection of Burkean trusteeship, and  a bizarre inversion of reality in which the arbitrary exclusion of same-sex couple from marriage enhances liberty. Make whatever principles arguments you care to about the wisdom of same-sex marriage, but the process by which it was achieved in New York was blameless and substantially preferable to the creation of same-sex marriage rights by judicial fiat.

To be fair, though, there have been voices of reason on the issue on the Right in general and at NRO in particular. Mike Poterma, in particular, had a very sensible critique of some of his colleagues' over-reactions.
There are a few high-fives, and fewer shouts; mostly a remarkably placid, well-behaved crowd enjoying the sweetness of a symbolic victory. And I stress symbolic: There is no actual change in what these folks are allowed to do in their private lives. The only difference tonight makes is that the people of New York decided, through their elected representatives, that the handful of gays who want to make the particular kind of commitment to each other known as marriage, can do so with our collective blessing. (With the proviso that some who object to this approval for religious reasons will not themselves be compelled to approve. The road from Stonewall, June 1969, to Stonewall, June 2011, was a trajectory of greater social acceptance of difference and nonconformity. It would be a betrayal of the deep American principles at work there if tonight’s victory for the gays resulted in the violation of the conscience rights of those who have religious objections. I’m sure the lawyers will weigh in with words-a-plenty on the specifics; have at it.)
Still, as happy as I am for those couples in new York who will now have the chance to marry, I remain sad and disappointed for those who cannot find some measure of comfort in a the process that brought these changes about or at least some happiness in the joy of those who will be able to celebrate their commitments to one another in a new, more meaningful, and more permanent way.

Romney's Pledges

So, Mitt Romney will not sign the Susan B. Anthony List's pro-life pledge because it "is overly broad and would have unintended consequences... [like] end[ing] all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America." Yet, he happily signs the Americans for Tax Reform so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which ATR interprets as preventing members of Congress from voting to end the ludicrously wasteful and damaging ethanol subsidies without creating an offsetting tax credit somewhere else.

For the record, I am glad that Romney did not sign the SBA List pledge, and I am a big supporter of lowering federal tax rates as part of a program that reduces spending and limits the size of the federal government. Yet, it is hard to square Romney's reasonable attempt at prudence on pro-life issues with his reckless, "read my lips" type promise on taxes.

The next president of the United States will almost certainly be forced to take drastic steps to restore some semblance of fiscal balance through some combination of a downgraded credit rating, a bond market revolt, a balanced budget amendment, or old-fashioned political pressure. That kind of balancing effort will almost certainly require major reductions in federal programs that will be politically impractical to implement given the ability of a determined Senate minority to obstruct spending reductions. The ATR pledge prevents a prospective president from  raising taxes to increase revenues and balance the budget, and, instead, binds its signatories to continued fiscal irresponsibility.

Mr. Romney is far-sighted enough to recognize that the SBA pledge would put him in an impossible position as president, yet he is apparently blind to the dangers of the ATR pledge, both for his political career and for the country.

It is little wonder than many Republicans remain unsold by Mr. Romney and have high hopes for another candidate to enter the GOP field.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

CBO: We Don't Estimate Speeches

A couple weeks back, I blogged about President Obama's persistent failure to offer any specific budget leadership, let alone an actual plan to address the deficit.
As you may recall, the President had initially proposed a budget for 2012---after having failed to pass a budget for 2011 with his party in control of both houses of Congress1---that actually increased the deficit and failed to include any serious entitlement reforms or revenue increases. Later in the spring, Congressman Paul Ryan proposed an alternative budget the would substantially lower the deficit and make serious changes to the Medicare program. In response, President Obama made arrangements to make a major speech on the budget in which, it was supposed, he would offer a new budget proposal in response to the Ryan plan. Instead, the President offered only vague statements about "reducing the cost of health care itself" and cutting "spending in the tax code." He could not bring himself to utter the phrase "raise taxes" let alone write actual legislation to enact his policy priorities.

Whatever the merits of Paul Ryan's budget, he at least put a serious plan on the table to address impending budget crisis. The President and his allies in Congress may complain all they want, but they have yet to offer an alternative. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not even debate budget legislation last year, and it has, so far, refused to do so this year. It even rejected consideration of President Obama's February budget proposal 97-0.
Daniel Foster links to a video showing Paul Ryan asking Doug Elmendorf, the chairman of the Congressional Budget Office and a well-respected economist who has held senior policy analysis positions under both Republican and Democratic leadership, if the CBO has scored (i.e. estimated the budget impact of) the fiscal "framework" described in President Obama's speech at GW.  Elmendorf replied, "We don't estimate speeches."

Here is a snippet of the exchange. It's totally worth the 27 seconds:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?

USA Today financial writer Matt Krantz answers to the question, is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme, with one of the weakest, wet noodles denials I've ever seen in "print."

After reminding us that:
A Ponzi scheme "is an investment fraud that involves the payment of purported returns to existing investors from funds contributed by new investors," according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Krantz tells us that:
Some investors think that the fact that Social Security pays existing investors with cash collected by new investors makes it a Ponzi scheme.
So, someone pays "purported returns" due "existing investors" from "funds contributed by new investors," he's running a Ponzi scheme. Social Security works by paying cash benefits to retirees and the disabled from taxes contributed by those currently working who are, int turn, promised benefits when they retire or should they become disabled. Neither a Ponzi scheme nor Social Security use contributions from "existing investors" to purchase assets that might provide returns to those investors. Instead, both a Ponzi scheme and Social Security depend on the contributions of new "investors" to redeem promises made to "existing investors." As a result, both a Ponzi scheme and Social Security will continue to make good on promises to "existing investors" so long as a sufficient stream of "new investors" are brought into its system. However, both a Ponzi scheme and Social Security will ultimately fail to pay promised returns if inputs from "new investors" are insufficient to cover the payments due "existing investors."

So, in every important, structural respect, a Ponzi scheme is identical to Social Security. So, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, right Matt Krantz? Nope, says Krantz, quoting Columbia Law School Professor Jack Coffee:
Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme because it wasn't an intentional fraud...
Say what?
Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme because it wasn't an intentional fraud...
[T]he system has worked as expected since its creation in the 1930s. What's happening now is that, like many corporate pension plans, Social Security is running the risk of being underfunded as obligations grow faster than contributions. But again, Social Security wasn't created with this aim, he says. "It was a system that was quite adequate for a long time," he [Coffee] says.
So, Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme because it was not intended to defraud its participants, but it is otherwise exactly like a Ponzi scheme.

Got it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Are Texans Opposed to a Perry Presidential Bid?

Blogging at The Atlantic, Eileen Smith has a post entitled "12 Things Texans Know About Gov. Rick Perry That You Should, Too." The very first thing is that, "few Texans would vote for him."
As people have been saying, Perry's not exactly popular in his home state (but, as he told Neil Cavuto last week, "a prophet is generally not loved in their hometown."). An independent poll released June 16 showed that only 9 percent of likely Republican voters in Texas would support him for president.
The independent poll in question was run by the Texas Lyceum, which is a fine public service organization. It surveyed 707 Texans between May 24 and May 31 of this year. The "Perry only polls 9%" bit comes from this question:
If the 2012 Republican primary for president were held today, which of the following possible candidates would you vote for, or haven’t you thought much about it?*
Likely Voters (n=147):
16% Mitt Romney.
14% Sarah Palin.
10% Ron Paul.
9% Rick Perry.
8% Herman Cain.
7% Tim Pawlenty.
4% Newt Gingrich.
4% Rick Santorum.
4% Michelle Bachman.
1% Mitch Daniels.
0% Jon Huntsman.
22% Haven’t thought much about it.
The headline is only 9% of Texas would vote for Gov. Perry for president, but the fact of the matter is that in a survey that included only 147 likely Republican primary voters in Texas, 9% of respondents named Gov. Perry as their preferred candidate well before the current Perry for President buzz reached its current pitch and when Perry was (as he remains) an undeclared candidate for president.

Two things about this should give you serious pause. First, the sample size of 147 likely voters is incredibly small. One hundred forty-seven interviews out of a several hundred thousand person primary electorate means a margin of error north of 8%. There is no way to distinguish the level of support offered to Governor Perry from nearly any other candidate covered by the survey with great statistical confidence. Second, "haven't thought much about it" is the modal response. Even taking the poll at face value suggests plenty of room for a candidate to move up in the polls or appear from outside the list and still be competitive for or win the Republican primary in Texas.

The right way to read this poll is not to read it. The primary is too far away, the sample size is too small, the field of serious Republican candidates has yet to solidify, and Governor Perry has yet to announce whether or not he is running in the first place. Asking a few doze people about his candidacy last month is not likely to yield much worthwhile insight into Perry's standing against the current field of Republican presidential candidates.

If you must read it, saying "only 9 percent of Texans would support him for president" is a pretty silly way to do it. By that rational, there is not a single Republican candidate that more than 16% of Texans would support. You could write the same headline about any member of the GOP field. Instead, the best reading of the limited data is that the Texas Republican primary is wide open, in general, and that there is plenty of room for Governor Perry to develop and solidify a base of support in his home state should he decide to enter the race.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

More on Faculty Productivity

Blogging at The Education Optimists, Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, has some comments on my analysis of teaching productivity data from the University of Texas.

To make a long story short, Richard Vedder, an economist from Ohio University, produced a report analyzing teaching at UT. The Vedder report grabbed headlines by finding that there are sharp disparities in the distribution of teaching duties at UT. I summarized these findings in my essay:
A report on teaching productivity at the University of Texas at Austin by Richard Vedder and his colleagues at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) concludes that there is a “sharp disparity in the teaching loads for individual faculty members” at UT. Strikingly, they find that the top 20 percent of “faculty with respect to teaching loads teaches 57% of all student credit hours” while the bottom 20 percent teach “only 2% of all student credit hours.” On this basis, Dr. Vedder and his coauthors argue that substantial financial savings are available to UT by increasing the average teaching loads of faculty and eliminating a large number of positions held by “the least productive” faculty members.
Analyzing the data myself, I found that Vedder's report was misleading. Accounting for the part-time status of many faculty members, faculty assignment to nonteaching duties, variance in class size, and differences in academic programs showed a much more reasonable distribution of teaching duties. Part-time teachers taught less than full time faculty members. Faculty who are assigned to academic support, advising, and administrative duties teach less than faculty who are assigned to a full teaching load. People teaching large classes taught moire total credit hours than those who taught smaller courses. Faculty in colleges that are principally or exclusively oriented toward graduate education (e.g. law and public policy) teach smaller classes and fewer credit hours than colleges that mostly serve undergraduates. And so on.

Dr. Goldrikc-Rab writes that my analysis misses the point:
A rebuttal from a Texas A&M political science professor tries to bat down the accusations. But he seems to miss the point of Vedder's approach, which is to say that every decision about staffing matters-- so we should lump together faculty in different categories given that theoretically the distributions could be changed. Case in point: "First, much of the skew in teaching duties observed by the CCAP report authors is simply a function of the fact that UT employs a large number of part-time faculty." Well, yes, but that's part of the point-- and a big problem. Universities do that NOT to serve students better but to save money on benefits. PT faculty are perfectly good at teaching but are overworked and underpaid so don't have time for out-of-classroom interaction. His second point, that there's a potential consequence for education quality is right, in theory, yet he cites not a single study showing that large class sizes are associated with diminish instructional quality in higher education. And that's because he can't-- such studies don't exist. Doug Harris and I covered this at length in our La Follette working paper released last year. I do agree that there should be adjustments by field, but this needs to be carefully done because decisions about offering fields with lower enrollments are also strategic decisions and institutions have to be accountable for them. I'm not saying don't offer them, but you can probably only do it if you high-demand fields are very productive. Finally, I see nothing about the use of our resistance to technology, especially blended learning, about faculty in the professor's rebuttal. Technology breaks the iron triangle between access, quality, and costs -- it makes it more possible to offer a high-quality lower cost accessible education. I'm on-board with that and it may be one thing that sets me apart from most other professors.
I have a couple of points to make in (sincerely good-spirited) reply.

First, the point of the Vedder report is quite clear and very difficult to miss. These are the first two bullet points in the report's executive summary.
20 percent of UT Austin faculty are teaching 57 percent of student credit hours. They also generate 18 percent of the campus’s research funding. This suggests that these faculty are not jeopardizing their status as researchers by assuming such a high level of teaching responsibility... Conversely, the least productive 20 percent of faculty teach only 2 percent of all student credit hours and generate a disproportionately smaller percentage of external research funding than do other faculty segments.
I take the point to be that most of the faculty are shirking their professional responsibilities, including a sizable proportion who are barely working at all. So, the logic goes, UT can safely ditch the bottom fifth of its faculty in terms of student credit hour productivity, reshuffle teaching duties, and save a boatload of money without the university losing out in terms of teaching or research.

In response, I attempted to show that the faculty aren't dodging their teaching responsibilities, by and large. There is simply enormous variance in what those responsibilities are, particularly in any given academic year. A full-time faculty member in the College of Science who teach two introductory chemistry courses to 400 students each semester is not 100 time more productive than the adjunct professor of law who shows up to teach a seminar on estate law to 16 third year students every spring. One is full-time; one is part time. One is teaching an introductory courses to undergraduates; one is teaching an advanced course to professional students. Likewise, the political scientist who teaches four sections of American government each year to 300 students at a time is not doing 100 times the work of the professor of nursing who is supervising a dozen students in clinical rotations, for example. One is teaching material that can generally be delivered effectively in a large lecture hall; the other has to look over students' shoulders while the insert IVs and give injections. Naively looking at credit hour productivity loses critical information about subject matter, course levels, and so on and leads to misguided conclusions about what is going on at a university and how it might be managed more effectively.

The Vedder report spends few words and shed few tears for the part-time contingent faculty, and so I speant little time on the issue myself.

I am very sympathetic to worries about the shift towards college teaching by part-time contingent faculty and away from teaching by full-time faculty with research responsibilities up to a point. First, contingent teaching faculty are often "over-worked and under-paid" with little job security. Second, over-reliance on a teaching faculty that is distinguishable from the research faculty undermines a university's mission. Indeed, the idea of a research university is that the faculty conduct research to generate new knowledge and inform their teaching to improve the quality of education received by their students. The more that university teaching is done by an instructional faculty who are not actively engaged as scholars (or practitioners in some professional fields), the less the enterprise of a research university is justified in the first place.

Having said that, I think that lumping together all "non-tenure track" faculty together into one big bundle obscures the issue of tenure status and teaching and makes it difficult to assess just how big of a problem is involved. It is easy to lament the position of a part-time lecturer who is otherwise unemployed or a visiting assistant professor who work year-to-year with little job security for a very modest salary and few benefits. It is harder to critique the status of an adjunct professor of law, who works full-time as a lawyer and teaches part-time on the side, or an advanced Ph.D. candidate, who is teaching her own class for the first time under the supervision of her dissertation adviser in preparation for the academic job market. The use and treatment of lecturers and so-called visiting faculty deserves much scrutiny. Teaching by professionals as adjuncts or advanced graduate students making reasonable progress through their degree programs is less troublesome. The UT data makes no distinction among these groups, and so it is difficult to evaluate the issue for the University of Texas.

Lastly, the Vedder report expresses no views on the feasibility of improved economies of scale in teaching by making use of new teaching methods or technologies. So, once again, I didn't address the issue in my Tribune essay.

I am very excited about the prospects for developing new ways to teach---and to teach larger numbers of students---with evolving communications technologies, but I am deeply skeptical about the technology-teaching interfaces that are available at the moment (at least those that are available to me). I am certainly not an expert on technology-enhanced teaching, though, so I would be curious to know what else is out there beyond posting lectures online and having online class discussions.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bloomberg Hit Piece on the Texas Jobs Machine

Bloomberg "reports":
The Massachusetts labor market deteriorated less than in Texas from 2008 to 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Massachusetts was the fourth most-friendly state for employment in the period, the data show. Texas, where Republican Governor Rick Perry has touted his state’s title as Chief Executive magazine’s best for business, was sixth...

Perry, the longest-serving Texas governor, told a $1,000-a- plate dinner of the New York County Republican Party in Manhattan June 14 that the U.S. needs low taxes, reduced spending and less regulation to end its “economic misery.” Perry, 61, said May 27 he was “thinking about” running for president.
So, is there a Massachusetts miracle? Is the Texas jobs machine a myth?


If nothing else, Bloomberg's own analysis ranks Texas 6th in the nation on its "Employment Index" for the period 2008-2010. California is 43rd. So, taking the Bloomberg rankings at face value, Texas is doing pretty damn well in comparison to the rest of the country.

But, the Bloomberg rankings should not be taken at face value.

Clicking over to the rankings themselves lets us know that:
To identify the states with the best employment conditions from 2008 to 2010, we used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Each state was ranked on a scale from 1 to 50 on the changes in the estimated total employment for all occupations, the unemployment rate, and the annual median salary for all occupations in the state. Scores were created by summing the individual ranks. The higher the score, the better the employment conditions in the state from 2008 to 2010.
A quick look at the included, however, shows that Texas outperforms Massachusetts on 2 out of three of the indicators it includes. Total employment has shrunk proportionally less in Texas than it has in Massachusetts in the observed period (-2.9% compared to -3.6%) and the median salary has increased more in the Lone Star State than in the Bay State (6.0% compared to 5.5%). Massachusetts does outperform Texas in the change in unemployment rates, increasing only 60.4% compared to 67.3%).

It gets worse, though.

First, the data on the rate of change in the rate of total employment and unemployment are essentially meaningless since they tell us nothing about the baselines from which they are derived. If Texas started out at 5% unemployment ended up at 10% unemployment, while Massachusetts started at 10% unemployment and ended up at 15%, both states would have added lost jobs at the same rate, but Massachusetts rate of change would only be 50% compared to 100% for Texas. Comparing the rates of change in the unemployment and employment rates without telling us the underlying figures is worthless.

Second, the Bloomberg index is based on summing rankings. Small differences in actual economic performance may yield big differences in rankings if states are performing relatively equally. In contrast, large differences in performance may yield small differences in rankings if variance among states is high. Rankings are simply not good input for this kind of index (or most indices, for that matter).

Lastly, the index totally ignores the fact that Texas's population grew a fairly astonishing 3.8% between 2008 and 2010 (second in the nation behind Utah's 3.9%) while Massachusetts population grew only 1.33% (28th overall). So, even though nearly a million new people showed up in Texas over this two year period, Texas has managed to beat Massachusetts in two out of three components on Bloomberg's index, and yet it is still ranked lower in Bloomberg's index than Texas?

The index is junk. Its rankings are junk. The conclusions the accompanying article's authors draw from it are transparently political. The whole enterprise is low-end hackery. Don't buy it.

For my money, if you want a model for job creation, Texas is still a much better place to look than Massachusetts.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Brilliant, Insightful Analysis of Texas Higher Ed Data

Yesterday, I published a guest column in the Texas Tribune analyzing some public data on teaching at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). The piece was a response to a report based on the same data produced by Richard Vedder and his colleagues at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP). To make a long story short, the CCAP report concluded that there is substantial skewness in the distribution of teaching duties at UT. I replied that the CCAP analysis was accurate but failed to account for the part-time status of many faculty members at UT and reasonable variance in the size of courses taught at UT. As a result, "the CCAP report creates a false impression of inequity in the assignment of teaching duties at UT and overstates the feasibility of reducing faculty costs without undermining the quality of UT’s academic programs."

I have one quick follow-up on the column. I included three tables reporting on the distribution of teaching loads at UT. I had included an explanatory note for the third table that was not included in the article when it was published online. Here it is for anyone who is interested.
Note: The number of students taught for each instructor is estimated by dividing the total number of student credit hours taught by each faculty member in each college by 3.0, by far the modal number of credit hours earned for a typical class section at UT-Austin. The weighted average column is the mean for all faculty in the indicated college or colleges of the estimated number of students taught by each faculty member (total student credit hours divided by 3.0) divided by his or her appointment’s percent effort and multiplying the result by 100 [(Estimated Students/%Appointment)*100]. These figures exclude faculty of programs in undergraduate studies, intercollegiate studies, and those for whom teaching data and/or percent effort data are not available.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Chrysler, the Budget, and Bullshit

The Washington Post fact-checks President Obama's speech touting the success of the government bailout of Chrysler:
With some of the economic indicators looking a bit dicey, President Obama traveled to Ohio last week to tout what the administration considers a good-news story: the rescue of the domestic automobile industry. In fact, he also made it the subject of his weekly radio address.
We take no view on whether the administration’s efforts on behalf of the automobile industry were a good or bad thing; that’s a matter for the editorial pages and eventually the historians. But we are interested in the facts the president cited to make his case.
What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.
I don't think the President is a liar, but he is a bullshitter (in the academic sense). His speeches are more often concerned with the response of his audience rather than the truth of what he says or the consequences of the commitments he makes while speaking. Of the bullshitter, Harry Frankfurt writes:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
I am also reminded of the President's  budget speech at George Washington University. As you may recall, the President had initially proposed a budget for 2012---after having failed to pass a budget for 2011 with his party in control of both houses of Congress1---that actually increased the deficit and failed to include any serious entitlement reforms or revenue increases. Later in the spring, Congressman Paul Ryan proposed an alternative budget the would substantially lower the deficit and make serious changes to the Medicare program. In response, President Obama made arrangements to make a major speech on the budget in which, it was supposed, he would offer a new budget proposal in response to the Ryan plan. Instead, the President offered only vague statements about "reducing the cost of health care itself" and cutting "spending in the tax code." He could not bring himself to utter the phrase "raise taxes" let alone write actual legislation to enact his policy priorities.

Whatever the merits of Paul Ryan's budget, he at least put a serious plan on the table to address impending budget crisis. The President and his allies in Congress may complain all they want, but they have yet to offer an alternative. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not even debate budget legislation last year, and it has, so far, refused to do so this year. It even rejected consideration of President Obama's February budget proposal 97-0.

The saddest part of whole budget issue, though, is that President Obama had a chance to be a leader and take serious steps to address the budget problem. After the Republicans put their "no new taxes" budget on the table, President Obama had a chance to offer a real alternative. A budget that balanced the budget with real spending cuts, entitlement reform, and progressive tax increases would have been a political titan. Off the top of my head, legislation that, say, reinstated the Clinton tax rates, gradually raised the Medicare and Social Security eligibility ages, tightened Medicaid eligibility for adults, raised the cap on income subject to payroll and Medicare taxes, and moved discretionary spending back to 2000 (or even 2004 or 2008) levels could put a serious dent in the deficit, extend the life of the major federal entitlements, and put the president and his party on a course to own fiscal issues for the foreseeable future. President Obama could have been the budget balancer, the savior of Medicare and Social Security, and the most successful and important peace-time president since Lyndon Johnson (maybe even Theodore Roosevelt).

Instead, he took the Jimmy Carter path, doing nothing except chastising us for not getting with the program and proving himself inadequate for the challenges of his office.

There is still time for the president to stake out new ground, take the country's fiscal problem's seriously, offer a concrete proposal, and revive his fading star. The primaries don't start until the new year, and the ongoing budget debates mean an ongoing opportunity for the president change course. I hope he does.

Friday, June 3, 2011

I Like My Beer Cold, My T.V. Loud, and My Gay Softball League Participants Sufficiently Homosexual

About a month ago, I wrote about a pending federal lawsuit over the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance's decision to vacate a San Francisco team's second place finish in the Gay Softball World Series because a team competed with too many non-Gay members. A federal district court judge in Seattle has ruled that the Alliance's rule restricting the number of non-Gay players is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. The Seattle Times reports:
U.S. District Judge John Coughenour found that the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Association, which sponsors the yearly event, can keep its rule. The First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression and association allow organizations like the softball association to limit membership to individuals with like-minded beliefs in order to promote a broader agenda — in this case, ensuring gay athletes have a safe and accepting community in which to play, he ruled.
However, the judge also ruled that the allegedly insufficiently homosexual players' lawsuit---the three plaintiffs are bisexual---against the Alliance may proceed since the organization may have applied its rule in a discriminatory fashion under Washington state law. In part, the case revolves around whether the Alliance violated Washington state law by failing to include bisexuals within the scope of term "gay." (Apparently, policymakers at the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance share Homer Simpson's views on the appropriate conduct of its  athletes.)

The suit was backed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, which had framed it as a push for bisexual rights. It contended the rule discriminated against bisexuals by not including them in the definition of "gay."

Coughenour rejected that contention in the broader sense by not issuing an injunction against the rule, but said "treatment of bisexuals remains of central importance to this case" and that the association "could still be liable for its actions" under the Washington Laws Against Discrimination for actions at the 2008 games.
The article notes, however, that the Alliance has since revised its policies to specifically include bisexual and transgendered athletes to participate in its events.

On its face, I think Judge Coughenour has made the right call. The First Amendment's freedom of association should be interpreted broadly. A private organization should be able to establish its own policies for membership or participation in its activities, and, moreover, it is completely reasonable for a organization dedicated to serving the gay community to establish rules and procedures that establish and protect safe spaces for homosexuals. However, organizations may not apply their rules in an arbitrary, capricious, or prejudicial fashion, and the enforcement of a protected rule may still cause harm to an individual if the procedures used to ensure compliance are demeaning or unreasonably intrusive. So, permitting a lawsuit that seeks damages from the Alliance for its conduct, and not for its policies, strikes me as the correct balance.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Perfect YouTube Video

Catchy, clever, genuinely funny, and homemade.

The singer and songwriter is Jessica Frech, a student at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She's just starting out, so maybe take a moment to like her Facebook fan page or follow her on Twitter to help her along a bit.