Monday, August 31, 2015

Arguments for a content bubble

First off a quick lesson in the importance of good blogger housekeeping. It is important to keep track of what you have and have not posted . A number of times, I've caught myself starting to write something virtually identical to one of my previous posts, often with almost the same title. At the other into the spectrum, there are posts that I could've sworn I had written but of which there seems to be no trace.

For example, living in LA, I frequently run into people in the entertainment industry. One of the topics that has come up a lot over the past few years is the possibility of a bubble in scripted television. Given all that we've written on related topics here at the blog, I was sure I had addressed the content bubble at some point, but I can't find any mention of the term in the archives.

One of the great pleasures of having a long running blog is the ability, from time to time, to point at a news story and say "you heard it here first." Unfortunately, in order to do that, you actually have to post the stuff you meant to. John Landgraf, the head of FX network and one of the sharpest executives in television has a very good interview on the subject of content bubbles and rather than "I told you so," all I get to say is "I wish I'd written that."

But, better late than never, here are the reasons I suspect we have a content bubble:

1. The audience for scripted entertainment is, at best, stable. It grows with the population and with overseas viewers but it shrinks as other forms of entertainment grab market share. Add to this fierce competition for ad revenue and inescapable constraints on time, and you have an extremely hard bound on potential growth.

2. Content accumulates. While movies and series tend to lose value over time, they never entirely go away. Some shows sustain considerable repeat viewers. Some manage to attract new audiences. This is true across platforms. Netflix built an entire ad campaign around the fact that they have acquired rights to stream Friends. Given this constant accumulation, at some point, old content has got to start at least marginally cannibalizing the market for new content.

3. Everybody's got to have a show of their very own. (And I do mean everybody.) I suspect that this has more to do executive dick-measuring than with cost/benefit analysis but the official rationale is that viewers who want to see your show will have to watch your channel, subscribe to your service or buy your gaming system. While than can work under certain conditions, proponents usually fail to consider the lottery-ticket like odds of having a show popular enough to make it work. And yet...

4.  Everybody's buying more lottery tickets. The sheer volume of scripted television being pumped out across every platform is stunning.

5. Money is no object. We are seeing unprecedented amounts of money paid for original and even second run content.

For me, spending unprecedented amounts of money to make unprecedented volume of product for a market that is largely flat is almost by definition unsustainable. Ken Levine takes a different view and I tend to give a great deal of weight to his opinions, but, as I said before, Langraf is one of the best executives out there and I think he's on to something.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The third reason Trump is so interesting

I think we've covered 1. and 2.:

1. Trump has brought a gun to a knife fight and has no intention of politely turning it in at the door. The threat of a third party run on an anti-immigrant ticket gives him exceptional leverage.

2. Trump is willing to take extreme positions that appeal to the base and present them in unvarnished terms even when they are repugnant to the general population;

But we haven't said much about  this:

3. Trump is also just as willing to abandon conservative sacred cows if they aren't popular with the base. We've mentioned preserving Social Security benefits but this hasn't gotten a lot of attention:

From Bloomberg:
"I would change it. I would simplify it," Trump told hosts Mark Halperin and John Heilemann from the lobby of Trump Tower on New York's 5th Ave. Specifically, Trump targeted hedge fund profits, which are currently taxed at a lower rate than regular income.

"I would take carried interest out, and I would let people making hundreds of millions of dollars-a-year pay some tax, because right now they are paying very little tax and I think it's outrageous," Trump said. "I want to lower taxes for the middle class."

Asked whether his proposed changes meant he was prepared to raise taxes on himself, the billionaire framed his answer in terms of fairness.

"That's right. That's right. I'm OK with it. You've seen my statements, I do very well, I don't mind paying some taxes. The middle class is getting clobbered in this country. You know the middle class built this country, not the hedge fund guys, but I know people in hedge funds that pay almost nothing and it's ridiculous, OK?" 
The underlying point I've been hammering away at in the naked emperor posts is that the political reporting of the mainstream press has become a mass of strange conventions and agreed-upon half-truths. It is not a robust system and Trump's campaign is applying stress from at least two different directions: when he rejects the Republican orthodoxy on taxes and Social Security, he points out how extreme those positions are; when he embraces popular positions within the base involving racism and xenophobia, he does it so openly  ("Obama is a Kenyan," "Mexicans are criminals.") that journalists can't spin it as anything but what it is.

p.s. I couldn't find a way to work in this very sharp analysis by Josh Marshall but you should read it anyway.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

An unintentionally informative sentence about the culture of the education reform debate

From a recent Upshot post by movement reformer Kevin Carey:

If Congress removes that authority, it will mark the end of an optimistic, expansive era of federal efforts to improve K-12 education for disadvantaged students, one that began with the desegregation battles of the mid-20th century and extended to the creation of challenging standards nationwide.

Quick history lesson. There is no real continuity between Brown v. Board of Education and the national standards mentioned above. With the normal caveats about assigning lineages to this sort of thing, the initiative Carey is talking about is part of a top-down, technocratic movement that basically started with a Reagan administration report that called for [emphasis added]:
    Content: "4 years of English; (b) 3 years of mathematics; (c) 3 years of science; (d) 3 years of social studies; and (e) one-half year of computer science" for high school students." The commission also recommends that students work toward proficiency in a foreign language starting in the elementary grades.

    Standards and Expectations: the commission cautioned against grade inflation and recommends that four-year colleges raise admissions standards and standardized tests of achievement at "major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work."

    Time: the commission recommended that "school districts and State legislatures should strongly consider 7-hour school days, as well as a 200- to 220-day school year."

    Teaching: the commission recommended that salaries for teachers be "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based," and that teachers demonstrate "competence in an academic discipline."

    Leadership and Fiscal Support: the commission noted that the Federal government plays an essential role in helping "meet the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students, and the handicapped." The commission also noted that the Federal government also must help ensure compliance with "constitutional and civil rights," and "provide student financial assistance and research and graduate training."

[The report also created some tension between the Department of Education and social conservatives, thus providing a bit of foreshadowing of things to come.]

In its current form, the most important figure in the movement came to education through the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, yet another group quite a few degrees of separation from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. If anything, you could find more continuity in certain parts of the opposition, particularly in places like New Orleans.

Despite this historical disconnect, Carey and other movement reformers routinely depict themselves successors to Dr. King, and while a few are probably just cynically exploiting the association, I'm sure Carey and most others sincerely believe their own rhetoric,

That is where so much of the trouble starts. If you honestly see yourself as leading the civil rights movement of the Twenty-first Century, your perceptions of allies and opponents will inevitably be colored in simplistic terms. You will tend to assume the worst about those who disagree with you while being vulnerable to sharp operators who claim to be on your side.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Did you know Happy Birthday was copyrighted?

This is Joseph

I did not.  Nor was I aware of a lawsuit trying to change this until quite recently.  But the actual arguments have become rather odd:
Last week, they submitted evidence that they called “a proverbial smoking gun”: a 1922 songbook containing “Good Morning and Birthday Song,” with the birthday lyrics in the third verse. While other songs in the book are given with copyright notices, “Good Morning and Birthday Song” says only that it appears through “special permission” of the Summy Company. Under the laws of the time, an authorized publication without proper copyright notice would result in forfeiture of the copyright, according to lawyers involved in the case. Furthermore, under the 1998 law, anything published before 1923 is considered part of the public domain.

Warner argued that while earlier versions of the birthday song may have been published, they were not authorized by the sisters themselves. Also, no copyright covered “Happy Birthday,” the label argues, until it was registered in 1935, so there was no copyright to be invalidated in 1922.
So a song that was extant in 1922 can be copyrighted in 1935 -- making the term of copyright last until 2030 (presuming no additional extensions).  This is 108 years past the original songbook and 95 years after the formal copyright. 

I think intellectual property protections are extremely important.  Many artists depend on these rights in order to make a living by producing works of lasting value.  My question is becoming more one of "what is the socially optimal length of a copyright".  I am suspicious that we are on the wrong side of the curve (copyright increases innovation by increasing reward but stifles it by setting up things that others cannot use without cost/permission).  In this case, the copyright term extension act didn't even incent this innovation -- all of the prior copyright holders had innovated under the previous reward levels (including this song). 

Now I don't want to go too far here in proposing solutions.  But I think a robust discussion of 50 year terms for artistic works might be of great help in this debate.  That would make things in the mid-1960's leaving copyright now, which seems like a decent run to allow compensation for innovation. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hopefully not followed the next day by a BBC segment on what it feels like to be going to Mars

Two MIT students just schooled a company trying to send people to Mars

Two MIT engineering students just faced off with a private company that wants to send people on a one-way trip to Mars — and one group won by a landslide.

The debate stemmed from the students' scathing critique of Mars One's plan to set up a permanent human colony on Mars. That report, published in 2014, triggered widespread criticism of the company's too-low $6-billion budget, unrealistic timeline, and general lack of preparedness for the challenges of Mars.
In case you're coming in late, here are some links to the Mars One mega-thread.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"... while Governor Bush's attire was tastefully sheer and minimal"

As mentioned before, the mainstream press faces a difficult choice. For reasons of substance and style, most members of the press would very much like to see Trump drop out, but over the past few years they have gotten so reluctant to call out Republican politicians (who tend to push back), that they have essentially signed off on most of the same policies that makes Trump objectionable.

Here's how I summed up the situation before:
Over the past couple of decades, the press has gotten stunningly good at not noticing things they don't want to notice. You can get journalists to ignore all sorts of lies and bigotry if you just give them an out, but that's just the thing Trump refuses to do. His whole campaign up to this point has depended on being as memorable and entertaining as possible, the ultimate reality show villain in what is arguably the ultimate reality show.

There have been other naked emperors on the stage recently but they've all played it at least a little coy. Trump is basically running around, grabbing his crotch, shouting "Hey, baby, do you want a piece of this?" then skipping away singing "I'm naked, naked, naked."
Barring a sudden outbreak of journalistic self-aware, the two most likely responses to Trump are ignoring the other naked emperors on the stage or pretending that the other emperors aren't naked, which brings us to...

Dueling Town Hall Meetings Add Distance to Jeb Bush-Donald Trump Gulf

[emphasis most definitely added.]

MERRIMACK, N.H. — At a serious and sober town hall meeting here Wednesday night, Jeb Bush dropped statistics like New Year’s Eve confetti.
Indeed, a mere 20 or so miles separated them on Wednesday: the bombastic developer from Queens, and the wonky son of a president.

But the dueling town hall events here by Mr. Trump and Mr. Bush, who are polling at No. 1 and No. 2 in the state’s crucial Republican primary, highlighted just how wide a gulf exists between the two men — in substance, style, experience and temperament.
Mr. Bush, taking a different tack, was measured and thoughtful, even in his attacks on Mr. Trump, choosing to focus on a record that he warned was insufficiently conservative.

First off, to acknowledge the elephant in the room. This is an inexcusably biased piece of reporting. Bush is sane, sober, thoughtful, measured, and wonky. (It was that last one that set Dean Baker off.) The article leaves no question as to whom the authors want you to vote for, but it still tries to maintain the pretense of objectivity. An editorial trying to pass for a news story.

I can understand writers' concerns over Trump (I share some of them), but that is no excuse for them lowering their standards and ethics. The single best defense against bad candidates is good journalism. Unfortunately, mainstream political journalism, particularly at the New York Times, has gotten so bad that fixing the flaws would be tremendously difficult and painful and would require a great deal of soul-searching.

Instead, the NYT and company are largely operating on the assumption that they can wiggle their way out of this situation but dropping their standards even further, basically hoping that the new lapses will cancel out the old. We get a Steven Rattner op-ed piece that consists entirely of headless clown arguments where Trump is singled out for holding positions that all of the other Republican candidates share and we get puff pieces like this.

Worse still, it's not even an honest puff piece. The authors could have done a slanted but otherwise respectable pro-Bush article focusing on immigration and diversity. The serious/thoughtful/wonky angle, on the other hand, has got to address the point raised by Jonathan Chait:

Jeb Bush has made the ludicrous promise that, if elected, his still to-be-determined economic program will launch the United States into 4 percent economic growth. Reuters reported out the genesis of this promise a few months ago. “There were no fancy economic models or forecasts when former Florida Governor Jeb Bush first tossed out the idea that 4 percent annual growth should be the overarching goal for the U.S. economy,” it revealed. Just a bunch of guys on the phone pullin’ numbers out of thin air:

    That ambitious goal was first raised as Bush and other advisers to the George W. Bush Institute discussed a distinctive economic program the organization could promote, recalled James Glassman, then the institute's executive director.

    "Even if we don’t make 4 percent it would be nice to grow at 3 or 3.5,” said Glassman, now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. In that conference call, “we were looking for a niche and Jeb in that very laconic way said, 'four percent growth.' It was obvious to everybody that this was a very good idea."

(George W. Bush’s policies didn’t produce anything close to 4 percent annual growth, but the Bush Institute has made 4 percent growth its major theme, in keeping with the general Republican practice of acting like the Bush administration never happened.)
At the risk of over-sharpening the point, serious, thoughtful, wonky politicians don't base their campaigns on wildly unrealistic numbers they simply mode up.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trump's first gaffe? (tone of voice:tentative)

I don't have time to write this up today in detail, but events are moving quickly and I did want to get my stake into the ground. I'll lay out my arguments in more fully next week but the bare outline is that the illusion of Trump "defying political gravity" (particularly in the case of McCain) is mostly the result of flawed meta-perceptions on the part of the political establishment and mainstream press. They assumed wrongly that what offends them offends us.

The challenge for Trump has always been to keep being more and more outrageous while keeping the ugliness of his racist, xenophobic message in the background. He has gotten a lot of help on that front from journalists who are more interested in his PMS jokes than in his appeals to birthers and white supremacists, but eventually though, I believe we should see a break in the triviality and stories like the following will take a toll.

From TPM (which has been providing arguably the best analysis of the Trump campaign):

Two days after a Boston man allegedly cited Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric as a reason for beating and urinating on a homeless Mexican immigrant, the presidential candidate finally condemned the crime on Friday.


Scott and Steve Leader were charged on numerous counts, including assault with a deadly weapon on Wednesday. Police said that Scott Leader mentioned Trump and said he took part in the assault because the man was Hispanic and homeless. 
The fact that Trump backed off of his original statement is also worth noting.

Wishful Analytics

As mentioned previously, Donald Trump's campaign has definitely strained the standard assumptions of political reporting, Though this is an industry wide problem (even Five Thirty Eight hasn't been immune), it is nowhere more severe than at the New York Times.

The trouble is that the New York Times is very much committed to a style of political analysis that takes the standard narrative almost to the formal level of a well-made play. The objective is to get to the preassigned destination with as much craft and wit as possible. Nate Silver's problems at the NYT generally came from his habit of following the data to conclusions that made his editors and colleagues uncomfortable (by raising disturbing questions about the value of their work).

Cohn's articles on Trump have been an extended study in wishful analytics, starting with a desired conclusion then trying to dredge up some numbers to support it. He really, really, really, really, really wants to see Trump as another Herman Cain. Other than both being successful businessmen, the analogy is strained -- Cain was a little-known figure who surged well into the campaign because the base was looking for an alternative to an unacceptable presumptive nominee – but Cohn brings up the pizza magnate at every opportunity.

In addition to reassuring analogies, Cohn is also inclined to see comforting inflection points. Here's his response to the McCain dust-up.
The Trump Campaign’s Turning Point

Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge. Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline.

Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments — a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.

Paul Krugman (like Silver, another NYT writer frequently at odds with the paper's culture) dismantled this argument by immediately spotting the key flaw.
What I would argue is key to this situation — and, in particular, key to understanding how the conventional wisdom on Trump/McCain went so wrong — is the reality that a lot of people are, in effect, members of a delusional cult that is impervious to logic and evidence, and has lost touch with reality.

I am, of course, talking about pundits who prize themselves for their centrism.


On one side, they can’t admit the moderation of the Democrats, which is why you had the spectacle of demands that Obama change course and support his own policies.

On the other side, they have had to invent an imaginary GOP that bears little resemblance to the real thing. This means being continually surprised by the radicalism of the base. It also means a determination to see various Republicans as Serious, Honest Conservatives — SHCs? — whom the centrists know, just know, have to exist.


But the ur-SHC is John McCain, the Straight-Talking Maverick. Never mind that he is clearly eager to wage as many wars as possible, that he has long since abandoned his once-realistic positions on climate change and immigration, that he tried to put Sarah Palin a heartbeat from the presidency. McCain the myth is who they see, and keep putting on TV. And they imagined that everyone else must see him the same way, that Trump’s sneering at his war record would cause everyone to turn away in disgust.

But the Republican base isn’t eager to hear from SHCs; it has never put McCain on a pedestal; and people who like Donald Trump are not exactly likely to be scared off by his lack of decorum.

Cohn's initial reaction to his failed prediction was to argue that the polls weren't current enough to show that he was right. When that position became untenable, he shifted his focus to the next inflection point:
Mr. Rubio, the senator from Florida, has a good case to be considered the debate’s top performer. A weaker Mr. Bush probably benefits Mr. Rubio as much as anyone, and if Mr. Bush raised questions about whether he would be a great general election candidate, then Mr. Rubio added yet more reason to believe he could be a good one. Mr. Rubio still has the challenge of figuring out how to break through a strong field in a factional party.

Mr. Walker won by not losing. In a lot of ways, the moderators’ tough, specific questions played to Mr. Walker’s weakness. He didn’t have much time to emphasize his fight against unions in Wisconsin. But he handled several tough questions — on abortion; on relations with Arab nations; what he would do after terminating the Iran deal; race; and his employment record — without appearing flustered or making a mistake. His answers were concise and sharp.

Mr. Kasich also advanced his cause. He entered as a largely unknown candidate outside of Ohio, where he is governor. But he was backed by a supportive audience, he deftly handled tough questions, and he had a solid answer on a question about attending same-sex weddings. His answer might not resonate among many Republicans, but it will resonate in New Hampshire — the state where he needs to deny Mr. Bush a path to victory and vault to the top of the pack.

It was Donald Trump, though, who might have had the weakest performance. No, it may not be the end of his surge. But he consistently faced pointed questions, didn’t always have satisfactory answers, endured a fairly hostile crowd and probably won’t receive as much media attention coming out of the debate as he did in the weeks before it. If you take the view that he’s heavily dependent on media coverage, that’s an issue. Whatever coverage he does get may be fairly negative — probably focusing on his unwillingness to guarantee support for the Republican nominee.
You might want to reread that last paragraph a couple of times to get your head around just how wrong it turned out to be. Pay particular attention to the statements qualified with 'probably' both here and in the McCain piece. The confidence displayed had nothing to do with likelihood – all were comically off-base – and had everything to do with how badly those committed to the standard narrative wanted the statements to be true.

This attempt to prop up that narrative have become increasing strained and convoluted, as you can see from the most recent entry
Yet oddly, the breadth of [Trump's] appeal and his strength reduce his importance in shaping the outcome of the race.

If Mr. Trump were weaker, or if his support were more narrowly concentrated in either New Hampshire or Iowa, he would play a bigger role in shaping the outcome. In that scenario, a non-Trump candidate might win either Iowa or New Hampshire — and he or she would be in much better position than the second-place finisher in the state where Mr. Trump was victorious.

If Mr. Trump were to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, the second-place finishers would advance as if they were winners. Assuming that one or both of the second-place finishers were broadly acceptable, the party would try to coalesce behind one of the two ahead of the winner-take-all contests on March 15.

In the end, Mr. Trump almost certainly won’t win the Republican nomination; the rest of the party will consolidate around anyone else. He can influence the outcome only if his support costs another candidate more than others. But for now, he seems to be harming all candidates fairly equally.

First off, notice the odd way that Cohn discusses influence. If I asked if you would like to “play a bigger role in shaping the outcome” of something, you would naturally assume I meant would you like to have more of a say, but that's not at all how the concept of influence is used in the passage above. Cohn is simply saying that a world where Trump was behind in one of the first two primaries might have a different nominee but since Trump wouldn't get to pick who would beat him, it's not clear why he would care and since there's no telling who would win in Cohn's alternate reality, it's not clear why anyone else would care either.

But even if we accept Cohn's framing, we then run into another fatal flaw. Put in more precise terms, “harming all candidates fairly equally” means that each candidate's probability of becoming president would have been the same had Trump not entered the race. This is almost impossible on at least three levels:

Trump has already produced a serious shift in the discussion, bringing issues like immigration and Social Security/Medicare to the foreground while sucking away the oxygen from others. This is certain to help some candidates more than others;

For this and other reasons, the impact on the polls so far has been anything but symmetric;

And even if Trump's support were coming proportionally from each of the other contenders, that still wouldn't constitute equal harm. Primaries are complex beasts. We have to take into account convergence, feedback loops, liquidity, serial correlation, et cetera. The suggestion that you could remove the first two primaries from contention without major ramifications is laughably naive.

Finally there's that “only.” Even if Trump isn't the nominee (and I would certainly call him a long shot), he can still influence the process as either kingmaker or spoiler.

While Cohn's work on this topic has been terrible, what's important here is not the failings of one writer but the current culture of journalism. This is what happens when even the best publications in the country embrace conventional narratives and groupthink, adopt self-serving but silly conventions and let their standards slip.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Who's Afraid of Lonesome Rhodes?

A Face in the Crowd is a memorable and entertaining film powered by a force-of-nature performance by Andy Griffith. It is also, in retrospect, rather silly.

What used to be called the intelligentsia (a word peaked about the time this film came out, by the way) was deeply disturbed by the rise of Arthur Godfrey. These days, Godfrey is what Andrew Gelman would call a member of the class Foghorn Leghorn, largely remembered only through the parodies and satires he inspired. Among broadcasters like Ken Levine, however, he is generally described in terms like this:
Before [Bob] Crane established himself as a fine comic actor, he was a truly great radio personality and here’s why: He really knew how to communicate one-to-one with his listeners. He was warm and funny and talked directly to YOU. Very few announcers understand that concept. But the great ones, like Arthur Godfrey, Paul Harvey, Dan Ingram, and Vin Scully do.
Godfrey was arguably the first to fully grasp this concept and almost certainly the one to master it most successfully. In the late forties and early fifties, he was the most influential and bankable broadcaster in television and radio.

When I've brought up Godfrey in previous posts, it has usually (always?) been for some McLuhanesque discussion of different media, but what got me thinking about him recently was the reaction to the Donald Trump campaign.

One of the recurring points on the ongoing Trump thread is how crazy the Donald makes his critics. On the right this mostly comes down to concerns about electability and the threat of a third party run. For the rest of the press, though, the reaction is harder to explain. In terms of policy, he's representative of the Republican Party except for issues like monetary policy and health care where he, if anything, is a bit more moderate.

I've suggested that part of the mainstream press's antipathy comes from the way Trump flouts the conventions those journalists rely on so heavily, but I wonder if another element might be a longstanding distrust of the general public. Since the advent of mass media, intellectuals have been convinced that we were just one fast talking demagogue away from dystopia,  and yet somehow we continue to dodge that bullet.

The subtext of Face in the Crowd and similar cautionary tales is not just that the masses are gullible and easily lead in absolute terms but in relative terms as well. The elites either underestimate or cynically exploit someone like Lonesome Rhodes. Intellectuals play Cassandra. They may fall victim to the demagogue, but they don't fall for his spiel.

But one of the things that our thought leaders are, if anything, easier to fool than the masses, not because they have, on average, significantly less than average intelligence, but because a combination of overconfidence, laziness and convergent thinking have left them open to the most transparent of cons. The same people who believed in Iraqi nukes and the Ryan budget are afraid that the rest of us will fall for Donald Trump.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Donald Trump as stressor – – Five Thirty-eight edition

As previously argued,  the Donald Trump candidacy is providing the kind of stress that highlights flaws in our journalistic system.

On the right, we have seen a blatant alliance of the Republican Party and right-wing media in an attempt to force out a popular but embarrassing candidate. On the center/left, we have seen newspapers like the New York Times loudly point out that the emperor has no clothes while carefully avoiding the fact that he is standing in the middle of a nudist colony. (The bizarre alliance between Fox News and the New York Times on derailing the Donald Trump candidacy is a fascinating topic that will have to wait for another post.)

On the analytic side, where we are supposed to be above this sort of thing, more and more of the coverage is sliding into drunkard's light post territory: using data for support but not illumination.

I'm going to pick on Five Thirty-eight now, not because they are particularly bad, but because they are particularly good. In many ways, Nate Silver and company have set the standard for analytic political journalism, so if they have started making groupthink mistakes, you can be pretty sure that the pods have now absorbed everybody.

One of Nate Silver's big innovations in political reporting was that he understood the innate complexity of the problem and had the appropriate analytic tools to deal with it. That tradition makes the simplistic approach of this piece by Harry Enten all the more troubling.
Candidates In Donald Trump’s Position Have A Terrible Track Record

Polls show Donald Trump leading in the Republican presidential primary. He’s leading nationally. He’s leading in Iowa. He’s leading in New Hampshire. That’s right — Donald Trump may end up winning … “Polling Leader for the Summer of 2015.”
I have a lots of issues with this, but to keep things moving, I'll limit this post to just one. If you read this argument carefully (or at least, not carelessly) you will notice a substantial disconnect between thesis and argument. The shift is a fairly standard bit of statistical Three-card Monte. We start out with Trump ahead in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally. Enten then shows us a long list of candidates going back to the eighties who were ahead in the summer by comparable margins before the primary but lost the nomination anyway, but if you keep your eyes on the queen, you'll notice something funny – none of his “examples” were actually ahead in Iowa, New Hampshire AND nationally.

Using Enten's own data, since 1980 it appears that no candidate has ever gone three for three and not gotten the nomination and only one candidate has gone two for three. That would be Hilary Clinton in 2008, and if you'll remember, she had a pretty good run, hardly the stuff of terrible track records.

Enten opens his piece with “Polls show Donald Trump leading in the Republican presidential primary. He’s leading nationally. He’s leading in Iowa. He’s leading in New Hampshire.” According to Enten's own data, for the past thirty-six years, every candidate in that group has gone on to win their party's nomination.  In other words, his data point in the opposite direction of his conclusion.

So, am I saying that Trump is likely to be the Republican choice in 2016? Of course not. With the threat of a third party run, he did make things interesting by bringing a gun to a knife fight, but the primaries are a long way off and the election farther still. Between now and then, I strongly suspect that the feedback loop will peter out, the joke will grow old and the negatives will catch up with him.

We don't need polling data to tell us this and, more to the point, we don't have it.

[minor update: just corrected a small typo -- from 'inmate' to 'innate' -- but otherwise everything's the same.] 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

More on Joseph the unclear

This is Joseph.

As a follow-up to this post, there is a guest post on Mathbabe pointing out how painful the new technology of monitoring is.  Consider:
A huge issue right now is surveillance. Inward-facing cameras that keep a constant watch on the driver may soon become the norm. Swift Transportation (the largest carrier in the U.S.) began installing them in all its company-owned trucks a few months ago.
Most OTR drivers are allowed to drive up to eleven hours per work shift and seventy hours every eight days. Their actual driving hours frequently reach these limits. That’s a lot of time to be in front of a running camera, never knowing for sure who might be watching you.
And also this piece:
Most OTR drivers are paid by the mile—the more miles they drive, the more money they make. This provides a strong incentive to use all eleven driving hours per work shift. With paper logs, if a driver needs to exceed the limit by a few minutes to get to a safe place to sleep (versus stopping after say ten hours, possibly sacrificing some pay), they can. With ELDs this same scenario might force the driver into choosing between (1) sacrificing pay, (2) sacrificing overnight safety by stopping wherever, or (3) recording a logging violation to get to the safe place.
Now you might think that these rules protect drivers but:
The hours-of-service rules never said anything about time of day until a new rule was introduced in 2013 requiring two 1 AM to 5 AM periods in every thirty-four-hour rest break (such breaks reset hours driven to zero). Strong industry resistance caused this rule to be suspended in December 2014.
The reason I am quoting this so extensively is that it makes it perfectly clear where the issue are with the industry.  For example, how much can the in-cab camera improve productivity?  Being constantly watched by camera isn't a fun experience and it's hard to see how it actually increases productivity by enough to make it work the psychological effects.

The driving time rules seem naive in a work with unexpected traffic issues.  One would need to work less than eleven hours to be certain of never being caught in a traffic jam and being unable to reach the next rest stop.  The lack of time of day rules seem to also suggest that the rules are not being designed in the interest of the drivers.

So the question I have is why these things are introduced without any compensating increase in compensation (presuming that these are productivity enhancements).  And if they don't improve productivity then why are they being done?

This is a question I would like to understand better.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Quote of the day

Ezra Klein:
Take spending cuts. It's table stakes in a Republican primary to talk about how you'll cut spending on Social Security and Medicare. The GOP's policy apparatus loathes both programs and considers their long-term cost to be among the most pressing economic threats facing the nation. Any Republican candidate who wants to be taken seriously by Republican Party elites needs to show they understand the urgency of cutting Social Security and Medicare spending.

One problem? Republican voters don't understand the urgency of cutting entitlement spending. In fact, they oppose cutting entitlement spending. More Republicans want to increase spending on Social Security and Medicare than decrease it. They think keeping entitlement benefits at current levels is more important than reducing the deficit.
Trump is the only Republican running who actually agrees with the GOP base on this one. "They're gonna cut Social Security. They're gonna cut Medicare. They're gonna cut Medicaid," he said on Fox & Friends. "I'm the one saying that's saying I'm not gonna do that!"
 It is very conventional to assume that the high polls garnered by Donald Trump are due to his more extreme statements.  But in a world where "everyone" in politics agrees that social security needs to be cut, maybe that is the source of his popularity.  After all, the median voter may or may not be impacted by a lot of the policy changes.  But lots and lots of people will be impacted by a later retirement on less money.

So one interpretation of the polls might be that the Overton window has been shifted on this policy so far that it makes it possible for an outsider to show up.  Even Democrats, like the current president, have been considering cuts to these programs

This fits well with other recent discussions on this blog.  After all, just protecting some popular programs might actually be what voters wants, and this would drive the elites crazy (as they are all convinced retirement is silly -- which it may well be when you have a high pay, fulfilling job). 

More naked emperor reporting -- at this point, the NYT is just trolling us

If they knew I was alive, I'd think they were just screwing with me. I post something on how Trump highlights the mainstream press' naked emperor problem and the very next day the New York Times (the ever reliable epicenter of this sort of thing) publishes a minor classic of the genre.
Trump’s Economic Muddle
by Steven Rattner, AUG. 14, 2015
DONALD TRUMP’S economic views may not have garnered as much attention as his misogynistic statements, but they are equally unpalatable, evincing a lack of understanding of basic economics that is startling for a billionaire businessman.

While Mr. Trump has not provided specifics much beyond the “Make America Great Again” slogan featured on his often-present baseball cap, strands of Trumponomics have trickled out amid the stream of braggadocio and ad hominem attacks on his critics.

And what bizarre views they are — a curious mélange of populism and hard-right conservatism, inherently contradictory perspectives that often lie far outside the boundaries of accepted economic thought.

Rattner casts his net wide and deep, going all the way back to the late nineties to find these unpalatable comments (rather surprising given that Trump's normal speaking style resembles a sitcom version of Tourette syndrome) and he defines the term rather broadly to include not just the wrong but also the inconsistent. This inclusive approach give Rattner lots of ammo for his attacks on Trump, most of which are completely valid, and yet, in the entire piece, doesn't supply a single example of an unreasonable or extreme position DT holds that is in any way out of line with the rest of the Republican field.

With the possible exception of protectionism (which in this case probably has more to do with xenophobia than economics), every major criticism that Rattner makes about Trump would be more valid about some other viable GOP candidate. Groundless complaints about debasing the currency (everyone does know there's another Paul running, right?). Climate change denial/skepticism (Hell, even Kasich has jumped on that bandwagon).

As for numbers that don't add up, let me refer you to Jonathan Chait:
But there’s a weakness in basing your economic message on pulling a crazy number out of thin air: Another candidate can always pull an even crazier number out of thin air. And now Mike Huckabee has done it. The obvious choice would be to one-up Bush by promising 5 percent growth. But Huckabee, thinking two steps in advance, probably realized that if he went with 5 percent, another candidate could still leapfrog him. So he went with 6 percent growth:

Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, who is running as an economic populist, said 6 percent growth or more — notably upping the ante over Jeb Bush’s promise of 4 percent growth — would be possible through what he calls the Fair Tax, a type of national sales tax. Economists have expressed skepticism at Mr. Bush’s promise of 4 percent growth, so Mr. Huckabee’s 6 percent plan may cause even more raised eyebrows.

The beauty of this is that Bush can hardly call Huckabee’s promise unrealistic or made-up, without having to concede his own promise is also unrealistic and made-up, just less so. Bush has no grounds to argue against Huckabee here. Think about it. You walk into a caucus, you see 4 percent growth sittin' there, there's 6 percent growth right beside it. Which one are you gonna pick, man?

There are a couple of examples in the New York Times piece where Trump takes positions that set him apart from the rest of the contenders, when he acknowledges the potential advantages of single payer health care or suggest devaluing the dollar, but those are issues when Trump is actually more moderate than his peers. Based on Rattner's own standards, Trump is, at worst, average on economic issues and might well be the leper with the most fingers.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Rolling back the Civil Rights Movement one school district at a time

Exceptionally good and important reporting from the Tampa Bay Times.

Failure factories

In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.

First they abandoned integration, leaving the schools overwhelmingly poor and black.

Then they broke promises of more money and resources.

Then — as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse — the board stood by and did nothing.

Today thousands of children are paying the price, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

They are trapped at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — five neighborhood elementary schools that the board has transformed into failure factories.

Every year, they turn out a staggering number of children who don’t know the basics.

Eight in 10 fail reading, according to state standardized test scores. Nine in 10 fail math.

Ranked by the state Department of Education, Melrose is the worst elementary school in Florida. Fairmount Park is No. 2. Maximo is No. 10. Lakewood is No. 12. Campbell Park is No. 15.

All of the schools operate within six square miles in one of Florida’s most affluent counties.

All of them were much better off a decade ago.

Times reporters spent a year reviewing tens of thousands of pages of district documents, analyzing millions of computer records and interviewing parents of more than 100 current and former students. Then they crisscrossed the state to see how other school districts compared.

Among the findings:

■ Ninety-five percent of black students tested at the schools are failing reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.

■ Teacher turnover is a chronic problem, leaving some children to cycle through a dozen instructors in a single year. In 2014, more than half of the teachers in these schools asked for a transfer out.
At least three walked off the job without notice.

■ All of this is a recent phenomenon. By December 2007, when the board ended integration, black students at the schools had posted gains on standardized tests in three of the four previous years. None of the schools was ranked lower than a C. Today, all the schools have F ratings.

■ After reshaping the schools, the district funded four of them erratically. Some years they got less money per student than other schools, including those in more affluent parts of the county. In 2009, the year after resegregation, at least 50 elementary schools got more money per student than Campbell Park.

■ Other districts with higher passing rates are doing far more to aid black students, including creating special offices to target minority achievement, tracking black students’ progress in real time and offering big bonuses to attract quality teachers to high-minority schools. Pinellas does none of those things.
The full article is quite long but well worth your time.

I'd also recommend this NPR interview with the reporters.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Yes, it is possible to lose money doing this

'Fantastic Four' Could Lead to $60 Million Write-Off for Fox

Whenever a corporation uses this much money this quickly and this publicly, there is an inevitable wave of second guessing. Lots of people will tell you they saw it coming all along. Some of them may even be telling the truth, but, viewed from sufficiently high up, there is no obvious explanation for how this film turned out so badly, either critically or financially. It was based on Marvel characters; the hot young cast was coming off or going into high profile projects like Whiplash, House of Cards, and the Rocky reboot Creed; it did not go wildly over budget; as far as I know there were no major disasters that beset the production.

(It's true that studio execs started getting nervous late in the game, but being able to spot a disaster 100 plus million into the process doesn't actually help.)

Going into this, movie studios had developed the attitude that they had finally arrived upon a safe formula for producing blockbusters. It was a costly formula and you had to have access to a relatively small set of established licensed characters, but within those constraints, you were more or less guaranteed a steady stream of huge hits .

As mentioned previously, this is not the first time Hollywood has convinced itself that it'd found the secret to success:

There's an old and very common saying in Hollywood that the biggest money-losing film ever was the Sound of Music. The joke here is that though the film did rather well...
Upon its initial release, The Sound of Music briefly displaced Gone with the Wind as the highest-grossing film of all-time; taking re-releases into account, it ultimately grossed $286 million internationally. Adjusted to contemporary prices it is the third highest-grossing film of all-time at the North American box office and the fifth highest-grossing film worldwide.
... The films it inspired lost a lot of money. That's a bit of an oversimplification. Music was just the last of a string of hit musicals in the early Sixties ( West Side Story, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins) but it was the biggest and it suggested an upward trend and, to the extent that it was responsible for what followed, it might well justify that money-losing title. 
The commercially and/or critically unsuccessful films included Camelot, Finian's Rainbow, Hello Dolly!, Sweet Charity, Doctor Dolittle, Star!, Darling Lili, Paint Your Wagon,* Song of Norway, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Man of La Mancha, Lost Horizon and Mame. Collectively and individually these failures crippled several of the major studios.
I don't want to push the analogy with comic-book movies but there are similarities, particularly regarding the budgets and the stories executives told themselves to justify them. 
We are probably still a ways from Song of Norway and Mame, but FF is not going to be the last superhero film to lose money. (My superpower is acknowledging the obvious.)

* This film is included under protest. I refuse to make fun of any musical that stars Lee Marvin.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Symbiotic relationships, non-aggression pacts and naked emperors

I did a post a while back arguing that Fox News was partisan rather ideological. I didn't get very far into the obvious ethical concerns associated with having a major news and entertainment conglomerate in partnership with one of our two major political parties. Fox is able to maintain this symbiotic relationship and still keep up at least a facade of independence and respectability partially because most of the mainstream press has entered into an unspoken but remarkably well-observed non-aggression pact with Fox and the Republican Party.

Writers for papers like the NYT still criticize conservatives, but only in measured and indirect ways. They won't come out and say that an emperor is naked. Instead, they come up with all sorts of ways of saying sheer and flimsy and overly revealing.

This system has worked fairly well as long as their subjects have met them halfway. Even bomb-throwers like Ted Cruz kept up at least enough pretense of seriousness that the journalists could maintain some plausible deniability.

The problem with Donald Trump is that he doesn't give journalists any cover. He isn't actually that ideologically extreme compared to the other GOP candidates on most issues (if anything, he's to the left of the field on health care, monetary policy and the Iraq war). His comments about immigrants and support of birtherism are clearly designed to appeal to racist elements in the party, but it's not like we haven't seen other racist candidates recently and the press was remarkably OK with it.

Over the past couple of decades, the press has gotten stunningly good at not noticing things they don't want to notice. You can get journalists to ignore all sorts of lies and bigotry if you just give them an out, but that's just the thing Trump refuses to do. His whole campaign up to this point has depended on being as memorable and entertaining as possible, the ultimate reality show villain in what is arguably the ultimate reality show.

There have been other naked emperors on the stage recently but they've all played it at least a little coy. Trump is basically running around, grabbing his crotch, shouting "Hey, baby, do you want a piece of this?" then skipping away singing "I'm naked, naked, naked."

The press can't ignore Trump's behavior, but if they want to maintain any credibility and consistency, they really need to stop ignoring a lot of other candidates' behavior as well.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mark Thoma and the Sesame Street MOOC

I've been arguing for a while that we should broaden our thinking about MOOCs. Apparently some folks at NBER are thinking the same thing.

From Mark Thoma:
Interestingly, one of the first MOOCs that attempted to address the educational needs of preschoolers has hardly been studied. As economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine noted in recent research at the National Bureau of Economic Research: "In essence, Sesame Street was the first MOOC. Although MOOCs differ in what they entail, Sesame Street satisfies the basic feature of electronic transmission of online educational material. Both Sesame Street and MOOCs provide educational interventions at a fraction of the cost of more traditional classroom settings."

Their research attempts to do two things: examine whether MOOCs can improve educational outcomes, and assess the degree to which early intervention programs can promote student success later in life.

When Sesame Street was first introduced more than 40 years ago, it was broadcast on PBS stations using UHF technology. This type of transmission doesn't produce a very strong signal. As a result, reception was poor for some households, and about a third of them couldn't get the signal at all.

Thus, how far a household was from a transmission tower (this was pre-cable) determined how good the reception was. The hypothesis is that children who grew up further from transmission towers and unable to watch Sesame Street wouldn't do as well in subsequent grades, and would do worse in the job market once they finally graduated.

The results are encouraging. The researchers found a significant impact of the Sesame Street MOOC on educational attainment in the early school years. "This effect is particularly pronounced for boys and black, non-Hispanic children and those living in economically disadvantaged areas."

However, when the analysis is extended to labor market outcomes (children were tracked to see what types of jobs, etc. they eventually obtained), the researchers couldn't find evidence of "substantive improvements in ultimate educational attainment or labor market outcomes."

Although the improvements brought about by Sesame Street appear limited to the elementary school years -- eventually the effect wears off -- this research still has two important messages.

First, early childhood intervention and the availability of universal prekindergarten programs do help prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds for elementary school education. That's a key finding.

Second, MOOCs appear to work. The cost of providing Sesame Street was "around $5 per child per year (in today's dollars)," the researchers found, far less than other means of providing the same education.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

When the channeling of information goes awry

As a corporate statistician, I cut my teeth on targeted marketing and discriminatory pricing and I still tend to think in terms of different messages for different segments of the audience, particularly when I read something like this (from the New Republic). 
Conservatives have joined the fight with relish, under the not-insane assumption that Planned Parenthood’s allies would lose the ensuing public opinion battle, creating an opportunity for the right to advance pro-life causes, or (more feasibly) to punish Democrats. What they’ve done instead, using ghoulish propaganda, is convince myriad religious conservatives that Planned Parenthood is making a business of harvesting baby flesh, and that something must be done to stop them. Against the backdrop of the presidential primary, this is turning a public relations nightmare for Democrats into an intractably escalating political crisis for Republicans.


Anti-abortion zealots are now demanding that Republicans in Congress refuse to appropriate money for government operations unless Planned Parenthood’s funding is abolished—a new test of Republican pro-life bona fides. To force Congress’ hand, they’re admonishing Republican presidential candidates that the anti-abortion vote will only follow those who support the shutdown effort. The purpose of Erick Erickson’s above tweet, alerting the candidates to his question days in advance, is to eclipse the instinctual aversion many of them will have to promoting a government shutdown, and get as many of them on the same page as possible.

When working from a customer database, marketers frequently try to divide consumers into three basic groups:

Those will not buy your product no matter what kind of marketing you use;

Those who will always buy your product regardless of what kind of marketing you use;

And those who can be moved from the non-buying to the buying camps with the proper approach.

These distinctions become particularly important when talking about things like price cuts and coupons, but even with traditional marketing, you can see the disadvantage of spending money on either the first or second groups.

It looks like we have something similar here, albeit a bit more complex. I would argue that, in terms of political issues, a party would like its opponents to be a zero on the passion scale, but would prefer for its supporters to be an eight or nine out of ten. Eights and nines are maxed out in terms of showing up to vote and giving you money but they are less likely to demand extreme positions that cost serious political capital compared to the tens .

And obviously you want to persuade the persuadables.

Fetal tissue research will make most people uncomfortable, even those who support it. If you were a Republican marketer, the ideal target for these Planned Parenthood stories would be opponents and persuadables. By contrast, you would want the videos to get as little play as possible among your supporters. With that group, you have already maxed out the potential gains – – both their votes and their money are reliably committed – – and you run a serious risk of pushing them to the level where they start demanding more extreme action.

With all of the normal caveats -- I have no special expertise. I only know what I read in the papers. There's a fundamental silliness comparing a political movement to a business -- it seems to me that in marketing terms, the PP tapes have been badly mistargeted. They have had the biggest viewership and impact in the segment of the voting market where they would do the least good and the most damage (such as pushing for a government shutdown on the eve of a presidential election).

Monday, August 10, 2015

"Since John Harvey Kellogg gave C.W. Post his first enema" [Now with working link}

Check out the new post over at the food blog that discusses an assortment of flakes ranging from the cereal kings of Battle Creek to the nuts of Silicon Valley to this guy:
On Monday, software engineer Rob Rhinehart published an account of his new life without alternating electrical current -- which he has undertaken because generating that current "produces 32 percent of all greenhouse gases, more than any other economic sector." Connection to the power grid isn’t all Rhinehart has given up. He also doesn’t drive, wash his clothes (or hire anyone else to wash them) or cook anything but coffee and tea. But he still lives in a big city (Los Angeles) and is chief executive officer of a corporation with $21.5 million in venture capital funding.

That corporation is Rosa Labs, the maker of Soylent, a “macronutritious food beverage” designed to free its buyers from the drudgery of shopping, cooking and chewing. In the 2,900-word post on his personal blog, Rhinehart worked in an extended testimonial for Soylent 2.0, a new, improved version of the drink -- algae and soy seem to be the two most important ingredients -- that will begin shipping in October.

There is nothing more dangerous than a data-driven system designed and administered by people who don't understand statistics

 From the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss
 A veteran teacher suing New York state education officials over the controversial method they used to evaluate her as “ineffective” is expected to go to New York Supreme Court in Albany this week for oral arguments in a case that could affect all public school teachers in the state and even beyond.

Sheri G. Lederman, a fourth-grade teacher in New York’s Great Neck public school district, is “highly regarded as an educator,” according to her district superintendent, Thomas Dolan, and has a “flawless record”. The standardized math and English Language Arts test scores of her students are consistently higher than the state average.

Yet her 2013-2014 evaluation, based in part on student standardized test scores, rated her as “ineffective.” How can a teacher known for excellence be rated “ineffective”? It happens — and not just in New York.


Testing experts have for years been warning school reformers that efforts to evaluate teachers using VAM are not reliable or valid, but school reformers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, have embraced the method as a “data-driven” evaluation solution championed by some economists.

Lederman’s suit against state education officials — including John King, the former state education commissioner, who now is a top adviser to Duncan at the Education Department — challenges the rationality of the VAM model used to evaluate her and, by extension, other teachers in the state. The lawsuit alleges that the New York State Growth Measures “actually punishes excellence in education through a statistical black box which no rational educator or fact finder could see as fair, accurate or reliable.”

It also, in many aspects, defies comprehension. High-stakes tests are given only in math and English language arts, so reformers have decided that all teachers (and, sometimes, principals) in a school should be evaluated by reading and math scores. Sometimes, school test averages are factored into all teachers’ evaluations. Sometimes, a certain group of teachers are attached to either reading or math scores; social studies teachers, for example, are more often attached to English Language Arts scores, while science teachers are attached to math scores. An art teacher in New York City explained in this post how he was evaluated on math standardized test scores and saw his evaluation rating drop from “effective” to “developing.”

A teacher in Florida — which is another state that uses VAM — discovered that his top-scoring students actually hurt his evaluation. How? In Indian River County, Fla., an English Language Arts middle school teacher named Luke Flynt told his school board that through VAM formulas, each student is assigned a “predicted” score — based on past performance by that student and other students — on the state-mandated standardized test. If the student exceeds the predicted score, the teacher is credited with “adding value.” If the student does not do as well as the predicted score, the teacher is held responsible and that score counts negatively toward his/her evaluation. He said he had four students whose predicted scores were “literally impossible” because they were higher than the maximum number of points that can be earned on the exam. He said:

    “One of my sixth-grade students had a predicted score of 286.34. However, the highest a sixth-grade student can earn earn is 283. The student did earn a 283, incidentally. Despite the fact that she earned a perfect score, she counted negatively toward my valuation because she was 3 points below predicted.

Affidavits of numerous experts supporting Lederman have been filed — including from Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond — and you can see them here. Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard Wednesday, Aug. 12. Should Lederman successfully challenge the New York teacher evaluation system, state officials might have to revamp it.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

And you thought they were kidding

Comment would be superfluous. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Joseph is unclear

This is Joseph.

There was a lot of confusion on this post.  This was my lack of recent writing practice.  So the sequence was:

~2010: Truckers have flexibility and ~$50 K salary
Micro-monitoring is introduced to improve efficiency
~2015: Truckers have constant monitoring, no flexibility, and a $50K salary

It's also the case that any monitoring system will, because it is based on general rules, be incorrect for a lot of specific situations.  For example, sitting in a traffic jam instead of having a longer rest break and then driving later (because the breaks are timed). 

Now the reason for monitoring is mostly about increasing productivity (safety improvements are also a form of productivity increase).  Either the system improves profits or it doesn't.  If it doesn't improve profits enough to increase salaries then maybe it is a bad idea?  If it is possible to increase salaries with the higher efficiency, then why is it so hard to consider sharing the benefits of increased productivity?  In particular, why is reducing the training requirements of the workers the path to increased safety?

Mark pointed out that we are seeing the same thing with UPS drivers

Increasing productivity is good but so are working conditions.  If there are huge gains made from this type of monitoring (like one sees in a call center) then it only makes sense to share these with the workers, who will then be able to see the monitoring as a source of higher wages.  You can imagine the "make $60 K with monitoring" versus "make 50K without" being a great way to make people decide they are willing to put up with the hassle of being tracked by devices that can't always convey complete information. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Retirement age

I missed this issue when it was raised about a month ago but it is a rather good point:
Raising the retirement age is a strange prescription for countries suffering from mass youth unemployment. When I made that observation on twitter the other day, I got a lot of pushback from people accusing me of a "lump of labor" fallacy. But please note, I didn't say that countries suffering from mass youth unemployment should lower the retirement age. What I said is that if you have a country -- Greece, say, or France -- where youth unemployment is very high, it's strange to decide that raising the retirement age is the cure for your economic woes.
I am also always a touch mystified as to why this policy prescription is quite so popular to deal with actual economic crises.  It is not that you cannot set the retirement age too low (you sure can), but that it does seem counter-productive to always seek to increase it when there is a shortfall in demand and high unemployment.  Does it make sense to pump out money to people who can spend it (retirees) and generate new employment among the young (who produce services to the retirees). 

What I think I really want to see is some sort of evidence that the existence of retirement programs hurts national productivity in an important way.  What is the alternative?  Can people really work into their late sixties and early seventies across a wide range of professions? 

Plus, these programs allow us to have experiments in other programs -- like a 401(k) plan -- without leaving people destitute if they prove to be bad policy.  In this sense, social security acts as a sort of innovation insurance, to allow us to try and improve retirement programs.  That seems like a feature to me. 

Parking requirements

This is Joseph.

Okay, I read this article on Mike the Mad Biologist's site and I wanted to comment because I think the author is completely missing the implications of the piece.  Consider:
But at Velo Apartments—a new, 171-unit, fully leased building located at 3635 Woodland Park Avenue North in Seattle's Fremont area—just 100 out of 128 parking stalls have been rented, according to Rob Hackleman, associate development and asset manager for Mack Urban, which developed the building. Using the estimated $20,000-to-$50,000 per-stall calculation, that's about $560,000 to $1.4 million worth of unnecessary parking spaces. Ironically, Velo Apartments is marketed as "bike-friendly," with "bike-focused amenities" and close access to the Burke-Gilman Trail. The development's logo includes an old-fashioned bicycle, and its website states, "Your Ride Starts Here." Hackleman said five unused parking stalls were converted to create more bike storage because the existing bike storage wasn't enough to meet demand.
I work in Seattle with a lot of young professionals.  Many of them bike commute.  I struggle to find any without cars.  My wife and I share a single car.  This is actually the most common pattern among those with low rates of car ownership.  So why are stalls going unsold? 

Because on street parking is free.  Drive around Fremont and try to park.  I dare you.  Especially on an evening or weekend.  I avoid things I really like in Fremont because bus service is terrible and it's simply impossible to park.  Side streets tend to be three cars wide -- you can end up facing another car with no room to go around because both sides of the street are completely full of cars.  Driveways are often blocked (another reason one might not want to pay money to have one).  If many people pay > 30% of their salary on rent they may be economizing by trying not to have to pay for a parking stall.

Now Seattle wants to increase density.  But the state of Washington keeps cutting public transportation.   So how are people supposed to get around?  Biking is a nice idea, but the weather isn't always that good and many people may be elderly or disabled.  It is scary to be on a Seattle bike trail if you are not a fast rider. 

The real reason that costs are suddenly rising is a not a policy that has been in place since the 1950's.  It is that more people are moving to Seattle, often for well-paying jobs, and increasing the demand for housing.   This isn't a complicated issue.  Now, how one handles it might be.  But I would suggest that the place to start is figuring out a sensible transit policy.  But Seattle is the fastest growing city in the United States -- does it not make sense to decide how we are going to handle transit.  I would love more bike lanes (which, to be fair, is happening) and better transit services.  But I want to see a plausible way for this to happen (given it is the state that keeps cutting public transit) before I think that we should make the parking issues worse! 

As for bike lanes, the current city trick to make them work is to get rid of the on-street parking (to make it two lanes, a turn lane, and two bike lanes).  One might suspect that simply doing more of this (and making biking safer) could well lead to fewer unrented stalls. 

It is not that I think that parking requirements, as is, are necessarily optimal.  But it is worth thinking about these issues. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Growth fetishists are an optimistic lot

The other day Marketplace did a long segment on investors' obsession with growth in the tech sector. It was well done and more balanced than most reporting in the area (financial journalists tend to get very starry-eyed on the subject), but the show's best quote on the topic was buried deep in an entirely different piece.
This growth shows no signs of slowing. This year Shake Shack made its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange and was valued at $21 per share. That number has tripled since then, with even higher peaks in the interim. The company says it plans to build only 450 locations, but investors are already predicting bigger expansion.
 I really wish I had a transcript of the interview -- this summary doesn't capture the disconnect that comes through in the actual conversation -- but you can still see the problem here. The CEO (who comes off as quite sharp in the interview) says they have a hard limit on growth because expanding too quickly would severely damage the brand.

In the murky world of investing, this is the closest you will get to a clear boundary. Senior management has publicly committed to it repeatedly and it is baked into the business model, but analysts have gotten so good at creating these wishful thinking feedback loops that even
CEO of the company in question can't disrupt the flow.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Harsh Discipline and No-excuse Charters continued

[I posted this at the teaching blog a few months ago, but it's a natural follow-up to the previous post on harsh discipline.]

When discipline crosses the line

I've been meaning to write this up for a while now, but recent news about attrition (see here and here for the conversation up to now) has brought the issue back to the forefront.

When you take a close at the increasingly dominant charter model (the "no-excuses" school) and some of the highly touted success stories (such as the KIPP schools), you will soon notice how extreme some of the discipline can be.
A tiny padded room at KIPP Star Washington Heights Elementary School was a real-life nightmare for two young boys who were repeatedly detained in the tot cells, the Daily News has learned.

The students, who were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade at the highly regarded charter school, were both removed by their parents in the past two weeks after they suffered anxiety attacks as a result of their confinement.

“He was crying hysterically,” said Teneka Hall, 28, a full-time Washington Heights mom whose son, Xavier, was rushed to the hospital after he panicked and wet himself while he was holed up in the padded room. “It’s no way to treat a child.”

The school’s so-called “calm-down” room is small, about the size of a walk-in closet, said Hall, who visited it with her son at the start of the school year. It’s empty, but for a soft mat lining the floor and a single light on the ceiling.

The room’s only window is an approximately 2-foot by 3-foot panel in the single door. It’s partially covered so staffers can look inside, but children cannot. Students were placed in the room, alone, for 15 to 20 minutes at a stretch, their parents said.State law requires that children placed in a time-out setting be in a space where they can be seen and heard “continuously,” but it does not require adults to be in the room where children are stashed.

When 5-year-old Xavier was confined to the room on Dec. 3, he suffered an anxiety attack so severe that staffers called for emergency workers to take him to the hospital.

“I was scared,” said Xavier, who was taken to New York Presbyterian and released to his mom, who pulled him from the charter and enrolled him in another school immediately.
There are two points that cannot be overemphasized here.

The first is how rough, even traumatic, this and other policies of the get-tough, "no excuses" schools can be. There are kids who thrive in highly structured and disciplined environments, but there are many others who respond with varying degrees of anxiety, depression and/or anger. Then, to add injury to injury, this psychological toll is matched with an educational one. These kids are denied instruction through suspensions then forced out and sent to other generally underfunded schools, often in the middle of the year, a practice which maximizes the disruption and minimizes the chance to learn.

The second is the way the incentive system of the reform movement encourages these often brutal policies. They are an extraordinarily effective way of getting rid of kids whom you can't handle or who put a drain on you resources. The result is that the very thing that traumatizes these children produces promotions for administrators and funding increases for their schools.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Harsh Discipline and No-excuse Charters

One of the disconnects I've noticed between educators and many education researchers (particularly those who come from outside of the field) is that the educators tend to have a more complex, multivariate view of student outcomes, while the researchers are often prone to a particularly severe form of the tyranny of measurement where they ignore not only the difficult-to-measure but also the easy-to-measure if it isn't part of their small set of approved metrics.

Emotional damage is notoriously difficult to quantify, but we should all be able to agree that needlessly traumatizing students is a bad thing. Unfortunately, under the current system, the consequences of excessively harsh discipline basically serve as externalities. The schools reap numerous benefits while the kids pay the costs.

Just how big is the externality?

From the Boston Globe:
Boston charter schools are far more likely than traditional school systems to suspend students, usually for minor infractions such as violating dress codes or being disrespectful, a high-risk disciplinary action that could cause students to disengage from their classes, according to a report released Tuesday.

Of the 10 school systems in Massachusetts with the highest out-of-school suspension rates, all but one were charter schools and nearly all of them were in Boston, according to the report, which examined the rates for the 2012-2013 school year. The report was released by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, a nonpartisan legal organization in Boston.

From the Chicago Tribune:
As it continues to modify strict disciplinary policies in an effort to keep students in the classroom, Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday released data showing privately run charter schools expel students at a vastly higher rate than the rest of the district.

The data reveal that during the last school year, 307 students were kicked out of charter schools, which have a total enrollment of about 50,000. In district-run schools, there were 182 kids expelled out of a student body of more than 353,000.

From Chalkbeat
New York City charter schools suspended students at almost three times the rate of traditional public schools during the 2011-12 school year, according to a Chalkbeat analysis, though some charter schools have since begun to reduce the use of suspensions for minor infractions.
Overall, charter schools suspended at least 11 percent of their students that year, while district schools suspended 4.2 percent of their students. The charter-school suspension rate is likely an underestimate because charter schools don’t have to report suspensions that students serve in school.

Not all schools had high suspension rates. One-third of charter schools reported suspending fewer than 5 percent of their students, and many schools said they did not give out any out-of-school suspensions. But 11 charter schools suspended more than 30 percent of their students — a figure likely to draw added scrutiny amid a nationwide push to reduce suspensions and a debate over allowing more charter schools to open statewide.