Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Be Our Valentine?

So the Red Sox hired Bobby Valentine as their new manager. I guess they're working on the theory that there's no such thing as bad publicity? I know Valentine comes with a great knowledge of the game, and - according to his friend Tim Kurkjian - a whole lot more:
Humanitarian? Ballroom dancer? Science fair guy? Gourmet chef? Restaurateur? Director of Public Health? Valentine is all of these things. How? Where does he find the time? He told me 25 years ago, "Sleep is overrated,'' and it must be, because I don't know when he sleeps.
That all sounds great, but remember what they told us about Carl Crawford before he donned the scarlet hose? Yeah, that wasn't true and neither was this.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Great Conservative Books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs was probably a liberal. After all, she lived in Greenwich Village, considered suburban sprawl part of the "great blight of dullness", and moved to Canada to protest the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, she wrote one of the greatest conservatives treatises of the last century.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) is required reading today in any urban planning degree, and Jacobs' ideas receive lip service from the very profession against which she animadverts so vociferously in Death and Life. But the uninitiated reader will be struck by how Jacobs' criticism is directed not only at the content of centralized urban plans but at the entire concept thereof. To be sure, urban planners are far wiser for Jacobs' efforts, inasmuch as they submit their theories to empirical facts and actual people.

Writing against the backdrop of the massive postwar expansion of government-built and -run urban housing developments, Jacobs defends organic neighborhoods and fine-grained diversity in uses (residential, commercial, industrial, and public buildings). She coined the phrase "eyes on the street" and originated the idea that most of public security comes from neighbors, not from police. For anyone born in the last forty years, it's hard to remember that public housing developments were built to be the clean, safe, "middle class" alternative to slums; the very notion seems further fetched that moon colonies to a modern observer! Yet even after twenty-five years of failed public housing developments, the orthodox urban planners of Jacobs' time were still hoping to destroy such "slums" as Boston's North End and replace them with modern, correct housing developments.

Jacobs eviscerates these government experts, sitting in their offices with maps. If she had written today, she would have said that they planned cities like a kid playing SimCity 2000: zone this big swath residential, zone this big swath industrial, build a cluster of public buildings here, and build lots of parks. If housing values drop, build more parks. What else does a city need to make it successful? The work of urban planners in the 1960's was childish: rather than seek to understand functioning cities in all their complexity, they actively tried to destroy and replace them with models which their limited minds could comprehend. They were engulfed in the fatal conceit of central planning, believing that the latest-and-greatest urban plans had to be superior to the chaotic working of the system on its own.

The expert planners she mocks think of themselves as artists or architects, fashioning city blocks to look all the same for the sake of "visual order" (this attitude today is most prevalent in Europe, where uniformity is valued and enforced more than in the US). But Jacobs sees the beauty underlying the visual cacophony of lively cities (p. 391):
[Cities'] intricate order - a manifestation of the freedom of of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans - is in many ways a great wonder.
Freedom is better than uniformity; that's a high conservative value.

Jacobs was conservative because she claimed not only that she had a better way to do city planning, but that the mainstream approach was actually worse than doing nothing. Socialist-liberals view government as essential to the correct functioning of economy; Jacobs (like conservatives) sees it as a foreign element introduced into the natural order. It may be beneficial, but it need not be. With government officials as with doctors: first, do no harm. As John Cochrane points out, many non-Keynesian economists supported massive government stimulus during the recession simply because "we have do something", even if they didn't believe the "something" would help!

Jacobs was conservative because she saw the uselessness of huge, overall plans. No official, no matter how enlightened, can know the character, desires, tendencies, and trends of every neighborhood: and who can successfully plan for what they don't even know? A key part of her book is the need to devolve tasks to smaller units of government, which could comprehend their own area and its needs. This point has been glossed over by many of her would-be disciples, who want to preserve their jobs and their power, and thus continue to make citywide plans that they think Jacobs would approve of. But Jacobs disapproves of citywide plans!

Jacobs was conservative because she hated the power of unaccountable bureaucrats. On page 407 she writes:
The eight rulers who site behind the raised bench (we cannot call them servants of the people as the conventions of government have it, for servants would know more of their masters' affairs)

Jacobs was conservative because she saw people, regardless of education or station, as being the best ministers of their own good. Socialist-liberal types (you can always tell them at parties) believe that they (they themselves!) could make better decisions for the huddled masses, and know better what's best for those less fortunate. You, the interlocutor, will usually be admitted for politeness' sake to the class of the enlightened, but some "others" outside the conversation are not sophisticated enough to make good economic decisions. Jacobs is disgusted by this attitude among the urban planners of the time (p.271):
Conventional planning approaches to slums and slum dwellers are thoroughly paternalistic... To overcome slums, we must regard slum dwellers as people capable of of understanding and acting upon their own self-interests, which they certainly are.
She goes on to point out that slums remain slums because those who are successful want to leave, not because of some character of the people (black, immigrant) or the housing stock ("too dense", run down).

Jacobs had other ideas which are not characteristic of conservatism, but ought to be. She points out the myth in urbanized (now suburbanized) society that there is some rural, bucolic ideal which is better and healthier for humans. The myth is a conceit, imagined by city-dwellers who have forgotten the reality of how brutal nature is. Jefferson (a Democrat!) is the greatest culprit in imposing this myth in America. Jacobs writes (p. 444):
Jefferson's intellectual rejection of cities of free artisans and mechanics [was silly], and [so was] his dream of an ideal republic of self-reliant rural yeomen - a pathetic dream for a good and great man whose land was tilled by slaves.
This pernicious rural ideal pervades city planning. Jacobs mocks the city planners of her time (and often of the 2000's as well) whose solution to anything is MORE GRASS! Crime is high in public projects? They don't have enough grass! Children are poorly educated? They need grass! If only, goes the dream, children could grow up in nature (and not in human society) they would be good and great. (And enslave others, like Jefferson?). This is, after all, a conservative idea, too: people are basically selfish, and society has to harness and limit that selfishness. Socialist-liberals believe that people are basically good, and make terrible public policies founded on this notion. Jacobs points out that children grow up and socialize best by playing on sidewalks and streets - but social planners decry the presence of children on the street, and paternally try to force them off the streets and into playground cantonments. She cites an 'exhaustive American study of recreation' and comments (p. 84):
"The lure of the street is a strong competitor [for playgrounds]... It must be a well administered playground to compete successfully with city streets, teeming with life and adventure. The ability to make the playground activity so compellingly attractive as to draw the children from the streets and hold their interest from day to day is a rare faculty in play leadership, combining personality and technical skill of a high order."

The same report then deplores the stubborn tendency of children to "fool around" instead of playing "recognized games." (Recognized by whom?)
Jacobs is conservative because she is skeptical of scientific orthodoxy. Socialist-liberals often mock conservatives for being skeptics toward the latest scientific consensus, even though the scientific method itself is based on skepticism - and science (especially social science) has so often been wrong. Jacobs traces the origins of urban planning back to some late-19th century French architects, who imagined beautiful (but not functional) cities. The scientists worked backwards from their conclusion to create scientific justifications for it. (A side note: never let a socialist-liberal make fun of you for being anti-science: the Obama Administration ignores decades of economic research that shows stimulus spending doesn't work.)

Conservatives should read Jane Jacobs' magnum opus; so should liberals who don't understand why conservatives are so skeptical of government. Paradoxically, liberals usually love cities better than conservatives, and they will love the aspects of this book that celebrate unique neighborhoods and the liveliness of cities. Conservatives will love Jacobs' red meat about the incompetence of governments and the failure of central planning, and their minds may benefit from learning to love cities as expressions of freedom and getting over their Jeffersonian rural ideal.

Buy it for $11, or get it at your local library: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Every Five Days

Justin Verlander only contributed to his team every fifth day, when his turn in the rotation came. That's why it's so impressive that he won the AL MVP, over Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose "Signs" Bautista, Curtis Granderson, and Miguel Cabrera.

Aside from the merit of the individual players, the perennial complaint among an outspoken minority of MVP voters is that pitchers should not be eligible for the award. In this case, Verlander overcame the prejudice of two Cleveland-area reporters. (Incidentally, when the Red Sox's Pedro Martinez was the most electrifying honkballer in the world in 1999, he wuz robbed by two New York City reporters. Is this principal or bias? That's another question.) One of the justifications for prejudice against pitchers is that they are only involved "every five days". Even though he was masterful in his 34 starts, how could Verlander have the impact of a Jacoby Ellsbury, who played on offense and defense in 158 games?

Jim Ingraham of the Ohio Herald-News, enjoying his 15 minutes, explains his position:
I'd wrestled with this for a long time. If I was ever going to vote for pitcher for MVP, it would be him this year. He hasn’t appeared in 79 percent of their games, any starting pitcher really doesn’t appear in 79 percent of his team’s games in a year. Would you vote for an NFL quarterback for MVP if he only appeared in three of his team's 16 games?
The natural objection is that while Verlander only played 34 games, he was much more involved (and subjected to much more wear-and-tear) than anyone else in those 34. In fact, he pitched to an average of 28.5 batters in each game. By comparison, Ellsbury only faced pitchers 4.6 times per game and only touched the ball on defense 2.5 times per game. So how involved was each player? Ingraham's claim is that extensive involvement matters, but intensivity is no object. Why should that be the case? Would Ingraham vote for a player who pinch hit in all 162 games and batted .400? If not, then what's the logic?

In terms of sheer involvement, here's how the top 5 MVP candidates add up. I'm excluding errors from the defense metric, but they wouldn't make much difference.
PlayerBatter v. PitcherDefenseTOTAL
Looking at this table, we can see that (1) total number of defensive actions doesn't matter to the voters; otherwise they'd vote for an infielder(like Cabrera) every year. Most of baseball is determined by the duels of pitcher versus batter, and a durable starting pitcher like Verlander is directly involved in a good deal more of those duels than someone who is only involved in one out of every nine of his team's at-bats!

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Deleterious Effects of Inflation

Economists have long known that inflation is harmful. Christopher Drew's NYTimes article shows a new arena in which inflation is stunting growth.
The latest research also suggests that there could be more subtle problems at work [in creating the 40% drop out rate in science, technology, engineering, and math majors], like the proliferation of grade inflation in the humanities and social sciences, which provides another incentive for students to leave STEM majors. It is no surprise that grades are lower in math and science, where the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair. Professors also say they are strict because science and engineering courses build on one another, and a student who fails to absorb the key lessons in one class will flounder in the next.

After studying nearly a decade of transcripts at one college, Kevin Rask, a professor at Wake Forest University, concluded last year that the grades in the introductory math and science classes were among the lowest on campus. The chemistry department gave the lowest grades over all, averaging 2.78 out of 4, followed by mathematics at 2.90. Education, language and English courses had the highest averages, ranging from 3.33 to 3.36.

Ben Ost, a doctoral student at Cornell, found in a similar study that STEM students are both “pulled away” by high grades in their courses in other fields and “pushed out” by lower grades in their majors.
At the elite college where I teach, grades for our Principles of Economics class are strictly curved - the median must be a B or B+, guaranteeing that a lot of freshmen who never got less than an A- in high school are going to be staring a "C" in the eyes next month. But that's a gatekeeper class: only the top half are allowed to major in economics, and after Principles, the grading becomes lax. Students expect A's and B's; employers have come to expect that all decent students average at least a 3.0.

One of my students, discussing her C average in Principles, asked if she should leave economics. One of her friends - a senior - regrets studying economics: "If I had majored in Psychology, I would have gotten A's and been able to get into a better M.B.A. program".

Professors know that tough grades lead to worse "teaching evaluations" by consumer-minded students. Students know that many employers use a fixed GPA cutoff as a filter to cull the hundreds of applications they get for coveted entry-level jobs. The equilibrium in this game is grade inflation, where A is the new B, and A- is the new C. And it's not as though the elite institutions are holding the line: at Harvard, the modal grade is an A.

The solution to grade inflation is for leading schools - the top liberal arts or research universities would be a natural starting place - to agree to a school-wide grading scheme. It's probably too demanding to say that every class must have the same average grade, but perhaps each major or department could be required to run the same average each semester, with some classes having lower and others higher averages, but none outside some set range.

In order to ease the transition, it might be wise to leave the old A-B-C-D-F system, with its awkward weighting (an "A" is worth four "C's"!). Switching to a ten- or one hundred-point scale, with a fixed average at 5 or 50 would allow equal room at the top and bottom of the scale, and recognize that student outcomes are normally distributed. It would also tell employers and grad school, "I come from a school with a fixed-median grading system. You can trust this GPA."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Starving Somalia

Jeffrey Gettleman has a probing 'news analysis' article in the NYTimes today about the slaughter in Somalia being perpetrated by the Shabab militia in the name of Islam. This isn't news, and echoes much of what we learned from Gettleman three months ago.

But the situation hasn't gotten better:
I heard many bad stories about the Shabab in these camps. Most people here fled Shabab zones, often starting out their journey with five or six children and arriving in Mogadishu with just one or two left. There is nothing else they can do. They either buried their children along the way or left them dying under a tree.

I heard many bad stories about the Shabab in these camps. Most people here fled Shabab zones, often starting out their journey with five or six children and arriving in Mogadishu with just one or two left. There is nothing else they can do. They either buried their children along the way or left them dying under a tree.
It is abundantly clear that this is only a "humanitarian" crisis in the sense that the deaths of Jews, Gypsies, Communists, and others in Nazi concentration camp were humanitarian crisis. Indeed, people are suffering. But the problem is political, not climatological. Save the Children reports a fraction of donations for better-publicized disasters. That makes sense: donors don't even know if their money can get to those suffering in Somalia!

Gettleman points out that while the Shabab are the problem, it's not clear that the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu is the solution:
[The T.F.G. is] a divided, unpopular collection of politicians and former warlords based in Mogadishu, Somalia’s bullet-riddled capital... Many analysts say the T.F.G. has performed dismally in responding to the famine (and to the Shabab), and in recent weeks, government militias have looted food and shot starving people.
'Government militias'. Got that?

The U.S. is making a mistake in propping up the notion of Somalia. This artificial country, cobbled together out of a British and an Italian colony, has a population that seems homogeneous only to outsiders. The clans - despite sharing a language - hate each others' guts. And at least two regions (Somaliland and Puntland) have successfully governed themselves independent of Mogadishu for twenty years. But rather than recognize functional self-government, the West showers money on the warlords who have been least able to make peace with each other!

A better response to the crisis would be for the U.S., E.U. and others to withdraw recognition from Somalia. No law says that every inch of the world has to belong to some country (Antarctica doesn't), and we should take a skeptical approach to a region that has nothing approximating a state. At the same time we should formally recognize Somaliland and Puntland and help them negotiate their border disputes, help them develop strong institutions and trade ties, and generally become productive members of the world community.

As for the lawless part of Somalia? Offer assistance to authorities (tribal, elected, whatever) that govern with the consent of their people, that allow economic freedom, freedom of speech, and provide security. In areas without such an authority, the international community can conquer specific refugee towns, and secure them itself. If threats to basic human need and security recede, the international presence can likewise recede.

Humanity existed before government, and just government proceeds from the consent of the governed. This can't be forced - it must be demanded by the people. Until the southern Somalians begin to build their own society, outsiders will be powerless to have any influence beyond the physical realm.