classics as ‘other cultures’

April 8th, 2019
There are a lot of cultures very different from America [meaning the USA]. China was and is a civilization perhaps more distant from us than Rome.  And learning its language and culture is likely to be more instrumentally useful for most students in world where that nation is rising to challenge the United States in commerce and power.
John O. McGinnis, “How Classicists Undermine the Case for Classics“, Law & Liberty blog, 5 April 2019.
The author is Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012.

schooling is not learning

April 2nd, 2019

Many years ago I came across a book reporting an evaluation of children who completed primary school (grade five) in Pakistan (or perhaps it was Bangladesh) compared to classmates who had dropped out of school in their first or second year. The results were very clear: there was no difference between the two groups. Many students were warming seats in the classroom, but were not learning anything. Actually, the dropouts managed to out-perform graduates in mathematics. Apparently it is important for street kids to learn math, so that they can make change when selling products. I don’t recall the name or author of the book, or even what country I was in. I only remember that I read it in a library, and was unable to borrow or copy it. Sadly, I did not take notes because I was not working in the field of education at the time. Some day, I hope to find the book to refresh my memory of it.

This introduction is to explain why I was excited to discover a World Bank working paper that examines schooling in terms of what is learned (examination scores) rather than years spent warming a classroom seat. The researchers assess the effect of spending on access to schooling and learning outcomes, using the World Bank’s new measure of outcomes, known as Learning-Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS). Previously, it was common to rely on years of schooling, with no attempt to measure what, if anything, might have been learned. Read the rest of this entry »

Sci-Fi predictions of the future

March 16th, 2019

Zambian author Namwali Serpell has written an interesting essay for this week’s Sunday Book Review of the New York Times. She covers a lot of ground, including her own work. I particularly liked this example of predicting the future:

I write science fiction set in the near future, so I’m constantly testing my own powers of prophecy. I once wrote a story about a germaphobic couple who want to have sex without touching. They purchase the “TouchFeely” — my nod to the “Feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) — an apparatus that includes an electrified dildo and a sheath that respond remotely to each other. The year after the story came out, I learned about Hera and Zeus, “the world’s first internet-enabled” sex toys. These “teledildonic” devices uncannily resemble my fictional invention. I was a little disconcerted. My story is a satire about bourgeois disconnection. My characters each start affairs with the bot. One ends up choking on the dildo. But I’ll confess: I felt a perverse pleasure, too. It was as if I had conjured something into existence — the dream of every artist.

Namwali Serpell, “When Sci-Fi Comes True“, New York Times Sunday Book Review, 16 March 2019, page 15.

From Wikipedia, I learned that Ms Serpell (born 1980) moved to the US with her family when she was nine years old. Her father is a psychologist and her mother is an economist. She is associate professor of English at the University of California-Berkeley and visits Zambia annually.

communication technologies, from Gutenberg to Google

February 23rd, 2019

“We must root out printing or printing will root us out,” the Vicar of Croydon told his 16th century parishioners. The cleric was responding to Gutenberg’s discovery not just as a standalone technology, but as an information network. His lament differs little from what we hear about the effects of the internet today.

In my new book, “From Gutenberg to Google,” I examine the two great network revolutions of the past—the aforementioned printing press in the 15th century, as well as the combination of the railroad and telegraph in the 19th century—to put in historical perspective the confusion and uncertainty brought about by the internet today.

Tom Wheeler, “With new technology challenges, remember we’ve been here before“, Brookings Brief, 22 February 2019.

With new technology challenges, remember we’ve been here before

The full blog is much longer. Mr Wheeler (born 1946) is an American businessman and politician. He was Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from November 2013 to January 2017. His book was published this month by the Brookings Institution Press.

When I read Mr Wheeler’s blog today, I recalled that I drafted a paper on the same subject, for the International Symposium on Network Economy and Economic Governance, Beijing, China, 19-20 April 2001. A slightly revised, post-conference version was published in the Journal of Information Science, 28 (2) 2002, pp. 89–96, and is freely available here and here.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

The development of what one might call ‘modern’ systems of information and communication began with the Gutenberg printing press in the fifteenth century, and progressed through the pre-paid postal system, electric telegraph and telephone in the nineteenth century, radio and television broadcasting in the twentieth century, and most recently the internet. This essay focuses on the response of governments to these innovations, beginning with the printing press.

The title of the paper is “Government policies toward information and communication technologies: a historical perspective”.

Nick Rowe, exemplary professor of economics

December 25th, 2018

Carleton University professor Nick Rowe received a well-deserved tribute, on his retirement from teaching, in The Economist magazine. I was fortunate to have known him as a colleague, but regret that I never had the opportunity to enroll in one of his macroeconomics courses. Sadly for me, he completed his PhD in 1985, long after I did. Current and future generations of economists will also miss the opportunity of learning from him. But all of us can continue to benefit from reading his many posts online at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative (WCI).

Professors may find themselves ill-prepared for the macro classroom. To become academics they had to answer erudite questions posed by more senior members of the discipline. To become good teachers of introductory macro, they have to give clear answers to muddled students. That requires an intuitive feel for the subject. It is not enough to crank through the equations.

Indeed, Mr Rowe attributes part of his success as a teacher to his shortcomings as a mathematician. He quotes Joan Robinson, another clear expositor of macroeconomics: “I never learned maths, so I had to think.” Because the answers did not leap out at him from the equations, he had to dwell on the economic behaviour underneath the algebra.

Anonymous, “Mangonomics“, The Economist, 9 August 2018.

universal pensions and retirement savings in New Zealand

November 25th, 2018

New Zealand has a simple, very successful pension system that could serve as a model for other countries. Unfortunately, despite its simplicity, few understand how the system works. The Government of Ireland, which is reforming its system, is an example of this misunderstanding, Susan St John points out.

New Zealand recently added an auto-enrolment, voluntary savings scheme, known as KiwiSaver, to its pension system. KiwiSaver has many shortcomings, is fiscally costly, and and is considered by many to be unnecessary since nearly all residents of New Zealand are guaranteed a basic old-age pension for life. Read the rest of this entry »

universal vs targeted transfers

November 11th, 2018

Two Boston economists, Rema Hanna from Harvard and Benjamin A. Olken from MIT, have drafted a paper on basic incomes for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a publication of the American Economic Association. They argue that, though a universal basic income (UBI) might be appropriate for wealthy countries, it is not appropriate for developing countries.

The paper is well-written, but fails to support their thesis. In fact, drawing on a phrase from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, they “hoist themselves with their own petard”.  A “petard” is a small bomb. Shakespeare, writing in the singular, referred to a case in which a bomb-maker is blown up (“hoisted”) with his own bomb. The phrase came to be used more generally, to indicate ironic reversal or poetic justice.

My point is simple: the text of the paper provides abundant evidence that universal incomes should be preferred to transfers that are limited to the poor. Read the rest of this entry »

universal pensions in Georgia

November 4th, 2018

The Social Security Administration (SSA) of the USA informs us that Georgia, a former member of the Soviet Union, will require workers to contribute up to 6% of their wages to private pension funds beginning January 2019. Georgia is adding a second tier to its first tier: a universal, government-financed pension of 180 tlari [US$69] a month for men from age 65 and women from age 60. The SSA describes this as a “subsistence-level benefit”, but Georgia is a poor country, so the pension amounts to about 20% of per capita GDP. In the US, a benefit equal to this portion of per capita GDP would be nearly one thousand US dollars a month. Read the rest of this entry »

Priests, Mounties and poverty in indigenous Canada

October 31st, 2018

Maria Campbell’s memoir, Halfbreed, is short (157 pages) and free-flowing. It is a shocking, true account of what it is like to grow up poor and mixed-race in Canada. The book today is read almost universally by school children in Canada. Read the rest of this entry »

targeting old age benefits in the Philippines

October 17th, 2018

The older persons of Bangued, a city with a population of nearly 50,000 and capital of the Philippine province of Abra, celebrated this year’s National Elderly Week by questioning government officials on distribution of benefits intended for the poor, in accord with the Expanded Senior Citizens Act of 2010. The targeting is by household, regardless of whether individual members of the household receive adequate care and nutrition. Even with perfect targeting, many senior citizens would be left in poverty. And the targeting is far from perfect. Read the rest of this entry »