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The world is a better place

Posted: May 28th, 2014, by Kevin

So in my twitter and Facebook feeds today I see lots of quotes from Maya Angelou – which means either it’s her birthday, or she has assumed room temperature. As it turns out, it’s the latter.

Let’s see…

  • Angelou was a big-time supporter of Fidel Castro, a man whose opulent lifestyle would have made Croesus blush. Castro’s conspicuous consumption was built on the backs of those Cubans he did not have killed or imprisoned. That should shed some ironic light on singing caged birds.
  • Angelou was a supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted cop killer and NPR commentator.
  • Angelou was a supporter of terrorists like the PLO.
  • Angelou was a supporter of affirmative action – the belief that blacks aren’t bright enough to obtain a job, an education, or a voter ID without the paternalistic help of white liberals.
  • Angelou was a supporter of Head Start – a program which has wasted millions and, based on several research studies, has had no verifiable impact on the lives of those children it was supposed to help.
  • Angelou was a supporter of “social justice,” which is the belief that anything in the world that is not as she would arrange it, is totally unfair. Of course, every believer in “social justice” believes that only their vision of a just world is truly just. “Social justice” is incompatible with actual justice.

This woman was every bit as vapid as her writing, and the world is a better place now that she is no longer a part of it.

Lessons Not Learned – Housing, Education, and Hubris

Posted: January 7th, 2013, by Kevin

Experts have a poor understanding of uncertainty. Usually, this manifests itself in the form of overconfidence: experts underestimate the likelihood that their predictions might be wrong.

Nate Silver – Herman Cain and the Hubris of Experts

Nate Silver is, first and foremost, a great statistician. I may not agree with his politics, but it’s hard to argue with his methods and his results. I chose this quote because I just finished reading Debunking Economics – Revised and Expanded Edition: The Naked Emperor Dethroned? by Steve Keen. I was most interested in his chapters about the housing debacle and the recession that followed it. While I think Keen has many valid points, I also have several issues with his critique of free-market economics.

My principal argument is this: While Keen (and other critics of Capitalism) blame the crisis on banking deregulation and unfettered Capitalism, and few (if any) mainstream economists predicted the depth of the recession, a number of free-market economists did predict it (such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, among others). Keen lumps together characters like Bernanke and Samuelson and Greenspan and Volcker under the same general heading of mainstream economists – which Keen seems to see as a hybrid of Keynesian and Chicago schools of economic thought. I think that’s a stretch, to say the least. Samuelson is a Keynes apologist, through and through. Volcker was a monetarist, and none of them represent the Chicago School – especially Bernanke. It is difficult to imagine Milton Friedman supporting “quantitative easing” – a.k.a. printing money – as a solution to a recession.

There is no one single event that created the housing bust – but there is one central culprit – the Federal Government. While it is easy to make this broad assertion, it becomes rather more difficult to prove. Others have already done that (see Thomas Sowell – The Housing Boom and Bust).

What is amazing to me is that despite the colossal failure of federal housing policy – whether we are talking about the Boom and Bust, or Urban Renewal, or Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – our political class has learned nothing from any of these disasters. And all of these disasters share a common theme – hubris: The propensity of politicians to believe they can determine better outcomes than the forces of the free market.

We are seeing it again in the education biz. American education policy is built around several goals:

  • We should do everything possible to reduce the rate of high school dropouts to zero. Anyone who has ever seen a bell curve knows that the only way to do that is to lower standards to the point where a high school diploma is pretty much meaningless.
  • Every student should attend college/university. Again – that pesky bell curve. Every year the percentage of college students requiring remedial coursework is increasing.
  • Government must make college affordable through generous grants and loans.

Let’s spend some time on that third point – especially in light of the housing debacle. Through a combination of easy credit and tax policy, the federal government was one of the prime movers in driving up the prices of single-family dwellings. (The other significant culprits were local and state laws making it difficult to increase the supply of housing). Increased demand because of easy credit and restricted supply means prices rise – pretty basic economics. We have an analogous situation in education. Easy credit and lowered standards lead to increasing demand for education. In light of this, colleges and universities keep raising tuition rates, creating a situation where many students graduate with worthless degrees and few prospects – while carrying student loan debts in the neighborhood of $100K or higher. This will inevitably lead to unsustainable default rates, which will, in turn, stick taxpayers with yet another bill for government hubris.

fiat lux!

More Stupidity from the Ed Biz

Posted: January 3rd, 2013, by Kevin

The charge is often made against the intelligentsia and other members of the anointed that their theories and the policies based on them lack common sense. But the very commonness of common sense makes it unlikely to have any appeal to the anointed. How can they be wiser and nobler than everyone else while agreeing with everyone else?

Thomas Sowell – The Vision of the Anointed

So a kid points his finger at another kid and says, “Pow!” And gets suspended??? Seriously??? res ipsa loquitur.

fiat lux!

More Bullshit from Congress

Posted: January 2nd, 2013, by Kevin

I used this quote a couple of years ago, but it’s time to resurrect it in light of the fiscal cliff scam.

It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

Federalist 62

So the Senate voted in the wee hours on a 150+ page piece of legislation they received only 3 minutes prior to the vote. The bill can be found here. The bill is called (with no intentional irony) the “American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.” In the 150+ pages, only about 10 pages provide anything like tax relief (extending the Bush tax cuts for most people). Over 120 pages are little more than corporate pork, providing various exemptions and deductions to favored businesses.

All of which goes to another point I’ve made repeatedly: There is no such thing as a corporate tax. Corporate taxes are just another business expense passed on to consumers. And the consumers most likely to be impacted the most are the ones in the bottom quintile, who are most likely to spend everything they make just to get by.

That bullshit legislation, with 120+ pages of corporate graft, is yet another reason why lobbyists have so much influence in Washington. As long as legislation is used for choosing winners and losers in the market (which is what those 120+ pages of graft is all about), instead of being directed to the purpose of raising revenue in a way that is least damaging to the economy, there will continue to be graft in the guise of legislation.

fiat lux!

A New Year

Posted: January 2nd, 2013, by Kevin

Well, it’s a new year, and I’ve already missed on my first resolution, which was to post something every day. OK, so I’ve already revised it to posting something at least five times a week.

Anyway, while I’ve been off between Christmas and New Year, I’ve been catching up on Penn & Teller’s Bullshit program on Showtime. One of the episodes I had not seen was the one they did on taxes. And if you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. One of the points made in the episode (by Dick Armey, no less) is a point I’ve made in the past several times – namely that the sole purpose of taxes is to raise the money necessary for the government to carry out is Constitutionally mandated functions. So this is one of the themes I will be posting on this year: The capriciousness of the tax system. It seems especially appropriate given the current “Fiscal Cliff” scam.

The other theme I will stress in the inadequacy of our education system. I was fortunate in that our parents sent us to private schools instead of public schools. Many might find that ironic considering that my Mom was a public school teacher. But, as it turns out, two of the professions most likely to send their kids to private school are politicians and public school teachers. Makes one wonder what they know that so many parents don’t.

fiat lux!

Why can’t we all just get along?

Posted: April 27th, 2011, by Kevin

God I hate that question. But during another FB conversation, I was confronted with that idiotic platitude. Not in those exact words, but that was the sentiment.

In response to one of my slightly disparaging remarks about BHO (peace be unto him), someone said this:

one more thing… we as a people have to get over this REP/DEM thing… and unite to do what is right for ALL OF US… that is the TRUE reason why we can’t move forward!

Well, we can’t just get along because our visions are diametrically opposed. It’s not a question of being republican or democrat, it’s a question of support for or opposition to constitutional government.

People like me want the government to be smaller, less intrusive, and restricted in power to those specifically enumerated in the constitution. BHO (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) believes that the government should meddle in all sorts of things they are not empowered to do. McCain-Feingold was unconstitutional on its face. “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” It could not be more simple. Yet BHO (May Allah honor him and grant him peace) and McCain both voted for it. And Bush signed it, even while acknowledging its dubious constitutionality.

So it’s not a “DEM/REP thing.” It’s a pro- or anti- constitution thing. BHO’s (may his name be blessed) obvious disdain for the constitution is shown in his choices for the supreme court, his unconstitutional czars, his socialist health care plan, and his contemptuous treatment of private industry.

We’re not interested in moving forward if that means being stripped of the liberties bestowed upon us by our Creator, and supposedly protected by the constitution. When politicians ignore their oaths to uphold the constitution, it is we who suffer. And whether that politician is republican or democrat, if they defy the constitution, then those who honor the constitution will do everything in their power to remove those politicians from office.

So no, we can’t get along with those who would destroy our constitutional republic. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that Benjamin Franklin, as he was leaving the constitutional convention, was asked, “Dr. Franklin, what have you given us, a republic or a monarchy?” To which he supposedly replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

I pray we can keep it. I fear we will lose it.

fiat lux!

That’s Just Your Opinion

Posted: March 18th, 2011, by Kevin

Several years back, when I was doing some software training at a company in Green Tree, we (the trainers) were all standing around the reception desk during the students’ morning break. Our supervisor came by (a former trainer, and an Ed major), and passed around a resume for us to look at as a potential hire. Everything about the resume was of no particular interest to me except the following two pieces of information: the applicant’s degree was from a public college of education, and the applicant’s GPA was 2.67. So I stated the obvious. I said that if I had graduated with an Education Degree, I would never admit to a 2.67 GPA. My boss and half a dozen coworkers were glaring at me. One of the trainers (M. Ed., PSU) said, “Why not?”

Shit.

Oh well – in for a penny, in for a pound. I explained that education majors have the lowest standardized test scores and the highest GPA’s of any major. And while grade inflation is bad in most departments at American colleges and universities, it is particularly egregious in public colleges of education. An Ed major with a B- probably could not even finish a real degree.

My mother was right. A career at the State Department was never in my future.

So now my boss and coworkers were glaring at me, and, before turning their backs, one of them (B. Ed., Pitt) said, “That just your opinion.” The rest nodded in quiet affirmation and walked away.

Now, to understand this, it really must be heard. It was not said in anger, more like dismissively. And the emphasis was not on the word “your.” It was on “just.” As in, I heard what you said, but it’s merely an opinion.

And there’s the crux of the biscuit. I was surrounded by seven people holding a total of eleven degrees, all of them in education, and not a single one of them was aware of the difference between a falsifiable statement and a non-falsifiable statement. Or, for you state school ed majors, a statement of fact and a statement of opinion. It was the sort of thing I learned in elementary school.

The other day, I posted rather a lengthy piece on why education costs so much, and was having an online conversation with the person who posted the original message that got me wound up in the first place. Eventually, this was posted to the discussion:

…i appreciate your view on this topic kevin but we will continue to just state our opinion..and believe the way we want…

I was not dealing in opinions, but rather facts. And facts are stubborn things. You can’t wish them away. Allan Bloom describes the problem succinctly:

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

And, if you are both curious and self-motivated, you can verify my statement about Ed majors, GPA’s, and test scores at the web site of the US Department of Education. It’s not just my opinion.

fiat lux!

Cutting the future away…

Posted: March 16th, 2011, by Kevin

So I’m going through Facebook tonight and I see the following:

Way to go Gov. Kasich cut 132 million from the schools and laying [off] many teachers…just keep cutting the future away…

So what are the actual facts? Let’s start with something I heard Huckabee say a while back. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist was that governors spend 90% of their budgets doing three things: educating, incarcerating, and medicating. A quick look at the Ohio budget shows this to be entirely accurate. When you add up education (32.2%), health and human services (52%), and justice/public protection (6.2%), you get 90.4% of the state’s budget. The cuts have to come from somewhere. While $132 million sounds like a huge cut, it actually amounts to 1% of the state budget for primary and secondary education. That’s right, 1%. If you can’t cut 1% from a budget, you’re just not trying.

Remember, the State of Ohio does not educate anyone. Local school districts do that. So money is collected from citizens all over Ohio, sent to Columbus, then redistributed among the school districts. Why do local dollars have to go to Columbus first? So it is the local school districts that are going to lose state money, and this might result in some layoffs. Oh well. All over private industry, workers are facing layoffs, or, if they are lucky, just pay cuts. So why not teachers? Or janitors? Or local administrators?

Of course, there are other considerations here as well. First, there is no correlation between the amount of money that governments throw at something, and the efficacy of the solutions. Americans spend over $9300 per pupil for public education, an increase of 23.5% over the past 10 years. This has not resulted in anything like a 23% increase in test scores. In terms of real dollars (that is, adjusted for inflation), spending since 1970 has doubled 1 in terms of dollars per pupil. American students are not twice as bright as they were then. In fact, if you look at the percentage of college freshmen requiring remedial courses (over 20% on average, as high as 75% at CUNY’s community colleges), it’s easy to see that primary and secondary education are failing our children despite these huge increases in spending.

This leads to two really obvious questions: Why does it cost so much and why are we getting so little?

The first thing to look at is how teachers are paid. They are paid not on their results, but rather on two things, years of experience and years of education. For each year a teacher teaches in a district, their pay increases. However, those increases are not equal. A teacher moving from their first year to their second will see an increase in the neighborhood of about 1% – not even enough to keep up with inflation. However, a teacher will see an increase of about 5% per year in the last few steps of a contract. The net result is that a teacher at the highest step makes about twice what a teacher at the lowest step makes. For instance, looking at the Mt Lebanon collective bargaining agreement, a first year teacher with a Bachelor’s degree will make $45,000, while a teacher with 17 years experience and the same degree will make $89,600. All things considered, not a bad rate of pay for a job with summers off (as well as long breaks at Christmas and Easter). Excuse me – a spring break and a winter break.

This defies rationality on so many levels. First, let’s consider other union workers – specifically, the building trades. While there is a substantial difference in pay between apprentices and journeymen, once an apprentice becomes a journeyman, those differences disappear. A journeyman pipefitter of 10 years makes the same as one with 5 years or 20. The differences, when they occur, are the result of increased responsibility (foremen make more than journeymen, and general foremen make more than foremen) or from differences in environment (construction tradesmen make more than those in fabrication shops). These differences seem reasonable and rational.

Yet why should a teacher moving from year 16 to year 17 get a 5% increase, while one moving from year 1 to year 2 sees only a 1% increase? If anything, the greatest marginal improvements in teaching skills are likely to come early in a career rather than later. And why, as a parent, would I want my child in the rookie’s classroom as opposed to the veteran’s? If there is really that much of a correlation between pay and performance, then why would I allow my darling angel to suffer the indignity of learning from a rookie when the veteran is right down the hall?

Why is a Master’s degree worth only a $2,000 pay boost to a rookie, but almost $5,000 to a veteran teacher? Is there really any evidence that says your child is getting a $65-150 more in educational value because of that master’s degree2? I have yet to see a study that says teachers with master’s degrees are that much better than those with just a bachelor’s degree. In fact, the one factor most correlated with the attainment of educational outcomes has nothing to do with the educational level of either the students or the teachers – it is the infectious enthusiasm of the teacher for the subject. Anyone from Monroe who took any class from Mr. Straub can attest to that.

Ever since the days of Alfred C Marshall, economists speak in terms of margins. You may have heard of the phrase “diminishing returns.” The correct wording is “diminishing marginal returns.” Basically, this means that if I spend 10% more money, am I getting 10% more value? If I get 12% more value, than it’s worth spending the 10% more money. If I get only 8% more value, than it is not worth it. This is something businesses deal with every day. But while the decision process in business is affected by the bottom line, in the public sector it is a question of politics. No rational businessman would keep someone on the payroll who will cost 5% more unless that person can deliver at least 5% more value. Yet public institutions do exactly that. One of Governor Kasich’s proposals is to get rid of the LIFO (last in first out) principal in determining which teachers should be laid off. These layoffs, should they become necessary, should be based on the marginal cost of keeping an employee versus the marginal value they bring to the job, instead of the seniority based system that is currently in place.

The simple fact is that teacher pay has little or nothing to do with teacher performance, which should at least partially answer the question of why education costs so much. As to the second question I posed, why are we getting so little?

That question is a little more complicated. Let me start with an illustration. I have a friend who went to Texan A&M University, and started as an Education major. She soon became fed up with the pop psychology and labor relations (read: pro-union drivel) that was being taught in her required courses, and changed her major to engineering. She was fed up with bullshit.

Here is an uncomfortable fact: Among college students, education majors have the highest GPA’s and the lowest standardized test scores of any major. The highest standardized test scores are found in the hard sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc.) and in areas like Math and Economics. The only area that approaches Ed majors in terms of low test scores are some of the Business majors (specifically, those in Human Relations).

Here is another illustration: At Robert Morris University, as well as most other universities, many courses come in three distinct flavors. Let’s take statistics (as an example). First, there is real statistics. This involves an intimate knowledge of calculus, and is beyond most students except for those majoring in Math, Engineering, and Economics. Then there is Business Statistics. This involves knowledge of algebra only, and is within the grasp of anyone taking accounting or working on an MBA. Finally, there is Stats for Ed majors. There the students read stories of how statistics work and answer questions about the stories. And most of them struggle with the course.

Finally, one last illustration. My mother, who went to Columbia University, described 120th Street in New York as the “Widest Street in the World,” because it was the street that separated Columbia University from Columbia Teacher’s College. And that was 50+ years ago. It’s only gotten worse.

The reasons for this are more complex than the fact that we are saddled with dumb teachers in public schools. Part of the reason can be found in a Stanford University study that has this to say:

The roots of this lack of connection between K-12 and higher education reflect the fact that they were created as two separate systems. In 1900, the educational systems were briefly, if loosely, linked because the College Board set uniform standards for each academic subject, and issued a syllabus to help high school students get ready for college entrance subject-matter examinations. This K-16 academic standards connection later frayed and then broke open…. This is an American phenomenon: there is a much greater disjuncture between secondary and postsecondary education here than in most other nations.

In other words, American high schools seem to be unaware of the requirements of American colleges and universities. To say the least, this is a little bizarre. Is this the fault of under-prepared teachers? Or is it because of administrators whose decisions regarding high school curricula are screwing the students? I can’t really tell, yet. I will delve more into this in the next post, when I have had a chance to do more research.

fiat lux!

1. U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, Tables 102 & 171.
2. This figure is obtained by dividing the differences in pay by a classroom of 30 students.

The Morality of Unions

Posted: February 28th, 2011, by Kevin

So I tried to watch the Oscars last night. After the third acceptance speech were somebody said something complementary about their union workers I decided I had had enough.

In terms of economics, what exactly is the function of the union? In order to understand that, let’s consider the following scenario. You own a bar. Tony Soprano comes up to you and says, “If you don’t use our service for collecting your trash we will put you out of business. And if you don’t use my cousin to buy your booze we will put you out of business.” Now, most people will rightly recognize this as extortion pure and simple. Basically, Tony wants you to pay more than market prices for commodity goods.

When a single person or company holds a monopoly on a good or service they can charge a higher price than would exist in a competitive marketplace. By restricting access to market choices they force their customers to pay more than they would otherwise pay.

Now let’s look what happens when union thugs are involved. The thugs come up to you and tell you that if you don’t use them as your sole source of labor, they will put you out of business. In my view, there is no moral distinction between the union thug and the Mafia. In each case, you are forced to pay more for a good or service that it would be worth in a free market, and it is backed up with the threat that failure to do so will result in bankruptcy.

When companies are forced to pay more for labor than it is actually worth, the difference between the value of the labor and the cost of the labor is passed onto the consumer in higher prices. The only difference between the Mafia scenario and the union scenario is that the latter is sanctioned by the government.

So every time some Hollywood actor makes a fuss over the unions, he or she is basically telling you that they want you to get screwed every time you buy something.

Just something to think about next time you go to the movies.

fiat lux!

Islamic Democracy Movement?

Posted: January 29th, 2011, by Kevin

Of all reporting on the events happening in the Islamic world, the most disturbing is the notion put forth by the American press that these protests are in any way pro-democratic. In Islamic nations, the notion of democracy includes none of the rights that are associated with Western democratic countries – specifically such rights as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association. To them, democracy means one man, one vote, one time.

Never has a revolution in an Islamic country led to a more tolerant, modern, secular state. Once the clerics obtain power, all secular government is obliterated. This is in line with the Qur’an, which states, “What! Do those who seek after evil ways think that We shall hold them equal with those who believe and do righteous deeds,- that equal will be their life and their death? Ill is the judgment that they make” (45:21). And this: “It is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger to have any option about their decision” (33:36).

Finally, consider 9:3, which says, “…Allah and his messenger are free from obligation to the unbelievers….” In other words, constitutional secular governments hold no power over true believers. Remember, the whole idea of moderate and radical Muslims is a creation of the western media and groups like CAIR. In Islamic countries, there are only believers and unbelievers.

The early writings of Mohammad stated that religious belief should never be a matter of compulsion, and that Muslims should live side-by-side with their non-believing neighbors. Later, Mohammad himself abrogated these early writings, replacing them with hate-filled urges to kill or convert non-believers. These later writings heavily influenced the Hadiths (collections of writings on Mohammad’s life and deeds, but not actually the words of Mohammad himself). And these writings have great influence over today’s clerics. On the subject of tolerance, a typical passage is this: “The Day of Resurrection will not arrive until the Moslems make war against the Jews and kill them, and until a Jew hiding behind a rock and tree, and the rock and tree will say: ‘Oh Moslem, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!’” (Sahih Bukhari 004.52.176).

I believe with all my heart that unless the patriarchs of Islam, as a group, repudiate the virulent screeds of Mohammad, along with the more virulent Hadiths, and re-frame their their religion along the earlier views of Mohammad, then there can never be peace between Muslims and non-Muslims.

During his campaign, BHO stated that he is uncomfortable with the idea of victory in war. In the last few days, BHO has stated that violence is not the answer. This is an insane and naive view. Just ask the the survivors of Auschwitz whether violence settles things.

Nothing good will come from the overthrow of Mubarek and the likely chain reaction in other Muslim countries, whose clerics see their own political leaders as corrupt only because they will not destroy Israel and because they have dealings with the West.

It is time to world to compel the repudiation of the virulent aspects of Islam, and compel the formal surrender of Islam’s patriarchs. Until that surrender occurs, there will be no peace.

fiat lux.