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Sophisticated behavioral economics experiment reveals elites prefer policies that benefit elites

[ 83 ] September 30, 2015 |

rubin greenspan

Internet-required snark aside, this is actually a very clever study. Two of the authors describe the results in Slate:

Elite Americans are not just middle-class people with more money. They display distinctive attitudes on basic moral and political questions concerning economic justice. Simply put, the rich place a much lower value on equality than the rest. What’s more, this lack of concern about inequality among the elite is not a partisan matter. Even when they self-identify as progressive Democrats, elite Americans value equality less highly than their middle-class compatriots.

This finding has profound implications for public policy. Contemporary American politics presents an enduring mystery. Why does the public policy response to nearly five decades of rising economic inequality remain so tepid, even as large majorities of Americans consider inequality excessive, and even under a two-term Democratic president? Our study, published Thursday in the journal Science, co-authored with colleagues Pamela Jakiela and Shachar Kariv, proposes an answer: Regardless of party, the elite donors whose money dominates politics, and the elite officeholders whose decisions set policy, don’t value economic equality. When the American government abjures egalitarian policies, it is implementing the bipartisan preferences of the American elite.

The study used a variation of the dictator game, which measured both the basic selfishness and the efficiency maximizing preferences of a hyper-elite (Yale law students), and an intermediate elite (Berkeley undergraduates), against a baseline of the American population as a whole.

The experimental behaviors of these three subject classes—once again, making real allocations with real money—revealed stark differences between attitudes toward economic justice among ordinary Americans and among the elite. To begin with, the Berkeley and Yale subjects were twice as likely to be selfish as their compatriots in general. In this respect, intermediate and extreme elites stand together with each other, and stand apart from the rest of the country.

What’s more, elite Americans show a far greater commitment to efficiency over equality than ordinary Americans. And this time, the bias toward efficiency increases with each increment of eliteness. The ALP subjects split roughly evenly between focusing on efficiency and focusing on equality; the Berkeley students favored efficiency over equality by a factor of roughly 3-to-2; and the Yale Law students favored efficiency by a factor of 4-to-1.

Yale Law students’ overwhelming, indeed almost eccentric, commitment to efficiency over equality is all the more astonishing given that the students self-identified as Democrats rather than Republicans—and thus sided with the party that claims to represent economic equality in partisan politics—by a factor of more than 10-to-1. An elite constituted by highly partisan Democrats thus showed an immensely greater commitment to efficiency over equality than the bipartisan population at large.

The authors suggest these findings help explain why drastic increases in wealth inequality in America over the course of the last generation have generated such a tepid political response. Elite preferences have a vastly disproportional effect on political action than the preferences of the population as a whole, and what elites prefer is to grab ever-larger slices of the economic pie. That a lot of these people believe themselves to be deeply committed to egalitarian social policies would not, I suspect, surprise either Karl or Groucho Marx.

On a more parochial but all the more amusing note, Jeff Harrison suggests these findings help explain why so many law professors are such awful people (law professors being essentially Yale law students on steroids, or less metaphorically, Adderall):

Look at the law schools most law professors attended and you know the reason law schools are bastions of greed, self-promotion, self-interest, bogus conferences that are vacations, misleading resumes, demands to teach vanity courses, demands for special treatment including two day teaching schedules, truncated semesters, and extra pay for just doing the job.

It was never a mystery to anyone who thought about it but law school hiring committees fish only in the ponds of the greedy and hypocritical.


School’s bar passage rate collapses after it eliminates admissions standards; Dean blames kids today

[ 66 ] September 29, 2015 |


The debate of the moment in legal academia is regarding why bar passage rates are falling.

While it’s true this question involves various statistical confounders, at bottom it’s not terribly complicated: as the average quality of law students declines, fewer graduates will pass the bar. Indeed, since there’s a three-year lag between declining admissions standards and declining bar passage rates, we are likely to see even sharper declines in the number of law graduates who end up licensed to practice law.

Last year I wrote an article for the Atlantic, explaining in some detail how Infilaw, a for-profit law school consortium owned by Sterling Partners, a private equity firm, was hoovering up ever-larger piles of federal educational loan money, by slashing the already-low admissions standards of the three ABA-approved schools Infilaw owns.

At that time I predicted that the bar passage rates at these schools were destined to collapse, despite the radical steps the schools were taking to keep this from happening. Such steps have included bribing students not to take the exam, and even calling them up the night beforehand to encourage them not to show up.

Infilaw’s administration took great offense at the suggestion that throwing their doors open to anyone with a college degree and an LSAT score (any score) would lead to poor outcomes for their loan conduits graduates on the bar. Since then two more summers’ worth of bar exam results have become available.

Charlotte Law School graduate first time bar passage rate, North Carolina bar exam:

2010: 83.3%

2011: 77.9%

2012: 65.4%

2013: 60.3%

2014: 55.4%

2015: 47%

Note that almost all of the 2015 first-time takers were 2012 matriculants. Charlotte’s 2012 entering class had a median LSAT score in the 30th percentile, while one quarter of the class had an LSAT score in the 19th percentile or lower. These are somewhat lower test scores than the graduates who took the 2014 and 2013 bar exam, and far lower test scores than the Charlotte graduates who took the 2011 and 2010 bar exams.

So who does the law school’s administration blame for generating this striking and eminently predictable correlation? If you guessed “the students they chose to admit even though they had test scores that predicted most of them would fail the bar” you would be correct.

Remarkably enough, the class that took the 2015 exam and recorded an abysmal 47% first-time taker passage rate had far better entrance numbers than the class Charlotte admitted last year, which is scheduled to take the bar in the summer of 2017. That class had a median LSAT score in the 18th percentile, while a quarter of the class had an LSAT score in the 9th percentile or lower. So we’re probably a long way from the bottom yet.

And if you’re wondering whether an ABA law school’s bar passage rate can fall far enough to get it de-accredited, the answer is “technically yes, but in reality probably not.” The reality in this case is that the ABA accreditation standards are absurdly lax. For example, they allow the passing percentage of a school’s own graduates to count toward a calculation of whether a school’s bar passage rate is no more than fifteen (!) points lower than the state bar’s overall pass rate. Thus a school like Charlotte, which has grown at an enormous pace, can pump out so many graduates that the school itself can seriously deflate the entire state’s bar passage rate (and indeed it has), thus making it much more likely that the school will somehow find a way to stay in compliance with the ABA standards.

Speaking of the Second Amendment

[ 46 ] September 25, 2015 |

Kay Daly is running for Congress in North Carolina.

She has a son named Jack Reagan and a daughter named Reagan Joy. The family’s recently adopted albino cat is named Goneril.*

*The assertions in this sentence are products of ethnographic research rather than journalism or social science.

. . . Her webpage is what Stanley Fish might call a rich text. A sample:

Kay’s maternal ancestors arrived in North Carolina in the 18th century and served in the North Carolina Militia during the Revolutionary War. Two of her great great grandfathers – Joel Andrew Ray (whose kinfolk settled in Cumberland and Chatham Counties) and David Absolom Knox (whose kinfolk settled in Rowan and Mecklenburg Counties) – served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Through their mothers, who are first cousins five times removed, Kay is a blood relative of James Knox Polk, the 17th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and 11th President of the United States.

Best recommendation letter ever

[ 22 ] September 25, 2015 |

nash equlibrium

Short and to the point.


[ 33 ] September 21, 2015 |


This bar graph represents the ten best career touchdown to interception ratios among all NFL quarterbacks, past and present (minimum 1500 attempts).

Statistically, the number two man on the list is, at 2.79, a big outlier from numbers three through ten, who range between 2.26 and 1.96. Then you’ve got the #1 guy. (According to Sports Illustrated, four of his five interceptions last year hit the intended receiver in the hands first).

Lazy idlers on the dole grilling up T-bone steaks instead of working for an honest wage

[ 82 ] September 14, 2015 |


So sayeth Mitch McConnell in this hard-hitting interview with Tiger Beat on the Potomac:

Asked about the improving economy, McConnell scoffed: Business leaders tell him they have “a hard time finding people to do the work because they’re doing too good with food stamps, Social Security and all the rest.” Rather than cut deals like centrist Democrats of the past, he said, Obama wants to “Europeanize America” with a diet of “massive debt, high taxes on the most successful people, over-regulation.”

Average monthly food stamp benefit per participant:

United States $133.07
Alabama $128.82
Alaska $172.90
Arizona $123.62
Arkansas $120.86
California $151.44
Colorado $135.11
Connecticut $138.65
Delaware $127.90
District of C $135.17
Florida $138.39
Georgia $136.40
Hawaii $217.49
Idaho $127.30
Illinois $137.99
Indiana $131.49
Iowa $116.28
Kansas $124.68
Kentucky $127.33
Louisiana $131.18
Maine $122.79
Maryland $127.39
Massachusetts $130.92
Michigan $136.65
Minnesota $116.25
Mississippi $123.77
Missouri $128.04
Montana $124.65
Nebraska $122.71
Nevada $123.57
New Hampshire $115.76
New Jersey $134.97
New Mexico $128.58
New York $147.75
North Carolina $121.85
North Dakota $126.10
Ohio $133.50
Oklahoma $128.48
Oregon $127.43
Pennsylvania $128.32
Rhode Island $140.29
South Carolina $131.47
South Dakota $132.18
Tennessee $132.11
Texas $122.35
Utah $125.15
Vermont $124.37
Virginia $127.75
Washington $125.64
West Virginia $119.88
Wisconsin $116.56
Wyoming $124.80
Guam $216.15
Virgin Islands $173.10

Average monthly social security disability check: $1,022

Average monthly social security old age benefit check: $1,290

A hero for our time

[ 57 ] September 12, 2015 |


Who else does this describe?

“I have always gotten much more publicity than anyone else,” Trump boasts, which, as his exaggerations go, is probably one of the more accurate. This ability seems rooted in a seemingly inexhaustible need for attention. D’Antonio reports that “Trump begins each day with a sheaf of papers detailing where and how often his name has been mentioned in the global press. . . . This need to be noticed, and his drive to satisfy it, has made him a singular figure worthy of close inspection.”

It also makes him pretty much a classic case of narcissism, and D’Antonio cites several textbooks in which Trump serves as an example, including “Abnormal Behavior in the 21st Century” and “Personality Disorder and Older Adults.”

Narcissists typically enjoy conflict and will readily lie or exaggerate to gain the upper hand. Trump’s life can pretty much be summed up as an unending stream of conflicts, some real, many manufactured, all good copy. Trump tells D’Antonio: “I always loved to fight, all types of fights . . .

In the age of social media, where everyone is the star of his own Facebook page, “we no longer agree that intense self-­regard is a sign that something is wrong,” D’Antonio concludes. On the contrary, it’s a virtue.


Trump is trying to troll his way to the presidency. That this outcome is still considered impossible represents a failure to fully appreciate the spirit of the age.

Rick Perry drops out

[ 49 ] September 11, 2015 |


“We have a tremendous field, the best in a generation, so I step aside knowing our party is in good hands, and as long as we listen to the grassroots, the cause of conservativism will be too,” Perry planned to say according to remarks released by his campaign.

Perry suspended his struggling campaign while strapped for campaign cash and stuck polling at near zero.

Some might liken this to being the first player cut by the Seattle Pilots.

Apropos of nothing in particular: the Pilots traded essentially all of Lou Piniella’s major league career to Kansas City (Seattle had picked him up in the expansion draft), for John Gelnar and Steve Whitaker. Date of trade: April 1st, 1969.

When education becomes a business

[ 162 ] September 8, 2015 |


William Deresciwicz, author of Excellent Sheep, has a provocative and fascinating essay in Harper’s on the baleful effects of transforming education, and American undergraduate education in particular, into yet another a neoliberal training ground for “leaders,” as opposed to thinkers:

A couple of years ago, I sat down with the newly appointed president of a top-ten liberal-arts college. He had come from a professional school (law, in his case), as so many college deans and presidents now seem to.

I started by telling him that I had just visited an upper-level class, and that no one there had been able to give me a decent definition of “leadership,” even though the college trumpeted the term at every opportunity. He declined to offer one himself. Instead, he said, a bit belligerently, “I’ve been here five months, and no one has been able to give me a satisfactory definition of ‘the liberal arts.’ ”

I offered the one I supplied above: those fields in which knowledge is pursued for its own sake. When you study the liberal arts, I added, what you’re mainly learning to do is make arguments.

“Scientists don’t make arguments,” he said (a statement that would’ve come as a surprise to the scientists on the faculty). “And what about painters? They don’t make arguments.”

I tried to explain the difference between the fine and the liberal arts (the latter are “arts” only by an accident of derivation) with little success. “So what do you think the college should be about?” I finally asked him.

“Leadership,” he said.

If college is seldom about thinking and learning anymore, that’s because very few people are interested in thinking and learning, students least of all. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report in Academically Adrift, the number of hours per week that students spend studying for their classes has been falling steadily for decades and is now about half of what it was in 1961. And as anyone associated with a college can tell you, ambitious undergraduates devote the bulk of their time and energy, and certainly of their passion, to extracurriculars. [Steven] Pinker, in the response I mentioned, wonders why he finds himself addressing half-empty lecture halls. I can tell him why: because his students don’t much care about the things he’s trying to teach them.

Why should they, given the messages that they’ve received about their education? The college classroom does or ought to do one thing particularly well, which is to teach you to think analytically. That is why a rigorous college education requires you to be as smart as possible and to think as hard as possible, and why it’s good at training people for those professions that demand the same: law, medicine, finance, consulting, science, and academia itself. Nor is it a coincidence that the first four of those (the four that also happen to be lucrative) are the top choices among graduates of the most selective schools.

But business, broadly speaking, does not require you to be as smart as possible or to think as hard as possible. It’s good to be smart, and it’s good to think hard, but you needn’t be extremely smart or think extremely hard. Instead, you need a different set of skills: organizational skills, interpersonal skills — things that professors and their classes are certainly not very good at teaching.

As college is increasingly understood in terms of jobs and careers, and jobs and careers increasingly mean business, especially entrepreneurship, students have developed a parallel curriculum for themselves, a parallel college, where they can get the skills they think they really need. Those extracurriculars that students are deserting the classroom for are less and less what Pinker derides as “recreational” and more and more oriented toward future employment: entrepreneurial endeavors, nonprofit ventures, volunteerism. The big thing now on campuses — or rather, off them — is internships.

All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are a lot of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office — rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next — to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.

They certainly cannot count on much support from their administrations. Now that the customer-service mentality has conquered academia, colleges are falling all over themselves to give their students what they think they think they want. Which means that administrators are trying to retrofit an institution that was designed to teach analytic skills — and, not incidentally, to provide young people with an opportunity to reflect on the big questions — for an age that wants a very different set of abilities. That is how the president of a top liberal-arts college can end up telling me that he’s not interested in teaching students to make arguments but is interested in leadership. That is why, around the country, even as they cut departments, starve traditional fields, freeze professorial salaries, and turn their classrooms over to adjuncts, colleges and universities are establishing centers and offices and institutes, and hiring coordinators and deanlets, and launching initiatives, and creating courses and programs, for the inculcation of leadership, the promotion of service, and the fostering of creativity. Like their students, they are busy constructing a parallel college. What will happen to the old one now is anybody’s guess.

The whole thing is very much worth reading.

It’s unfair to criticize the author of a magazine essay for not undertaking a comprehensive analysis of a complex topic, so I merely note that it’s unfortunate that Deresiewicz’s argument here avoids the question of cost, except to make at the end of the essay what is under current social circumstances a deeply utopian gesture (a high quality liberal arts college education should be available for “free” to everyone).

An accurate analysis of cost questions is critical as illustrated by the comment to the article chosen as the best by Harper’s readers:

I’m surprised at how much this misses the mark for me. From even my limited vantage point as a young staff member at a university – I can see where this essay is neglecting the real drivers of what the author terms neoliberal education. It’s not some conspiracy or weakening of the educational establishment types or changing of vague mission statement language that led to the present situation, it’s a matter of economics.

State and federal support of higher education has plummeted, the fact that most universities are driven more and more by tuition is incontestable. With that tuition on the rise, it’s only natural that the decision of what to major in became an economic cost/benefit analysis to students. Administrators and Faculty respond as best they can to this new economic reality, which has produced the outcomes you decry.

My point is this: higher education did not ‘sell its soul’, it had its soul ripped from it by forces external to it.

This of course is the standard response of university administrators to criticisms that they’ve turned colleges and universities into tax-exempt profit-maximizing enterprises. It also happens to be totally false, and indeed a precise inversion of the truth. “State and federal support of higher education,” is now higher, per college student and in real dollars, than it ever has been before. (This is true whether one considers both direct and indirect subsidies, or only the former).

If tuition, government support, and endowment income have all skyrocketed since Deresiewicz’s golden age of the 1960s (and they have), where has this immense pile of loot been going? Not to the people doing the teaching in these institutions: per capita salaries for college faculty are down sharply since 1970, primarily because of adjunctification (salaries for tenure-track faculty are only slightly higher than they were 45 years ago).

What Deresiewicz calls “neoliberalism” could perhaps more accurately be called “crony capitalism,” and American universities have captured by it just as surely as our other major social institutions.

President for a week

[ 223 ] September 7, 2015 |


After exceeding his $1 million crowd-funding goal, Harvard Law School professor Larry Lessig announced today on “This Week” that he is running for president.

“I think I’m running to get people to acknowledge the elephant in the room,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “We have to recognize — we have a government that does not work. The stalemate, partisan platform of American politics in Washington right now doesn’t work.”

If elected, he says he will be the first “referendum president,” promising to serve only as long as it takes to pass his Citizens Equality Act of 2017 — a bill aimed at reforming campaign finance, voting rights, and Congressional representation. Once the bill is passed, Lessig said he would then step down, handing over the reins to his vice president.

His second in command, according to Lessig, has to be “consistent with the values of the Democratic Party” and should be able to excite the base. While he did not name a running mate, his website has a vice president poll featuring the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, Jon Stewart, and Hillary Clinton.

The concept of a referendum president is new, but Lessig said if elected, fixing the “corrupted system” should be his first and only priority.

“If you have seven other issues that you’re running on, that of course you get into Washington and everybody thinks your mandate is one of this or one of that,” he said. “That’s not going to make it possible to take this on.”

While critics have accused him of “dumbing down” the debate, Lessig believes his plan will actually “elevate” it above the partisan divide by taking on an issue he said Americans agree on: campaign finance reform. Lessig said his proposed platform “would fix this democracy and make it possible for government to actually do something without fear of what the funders want them to do.”


(1) As a law professor who blogs on a site founded and administered by political science professors, this is all rather embarrassing.

(2) It says something about something that Lessig thinks the problem with American politics is that it’s too partisan, and that it would be dominated by reasonable people like Larry Lessig if you could just get money out of it.

You’ve just been selected as the new dean of Acme Law School

[ 44 ] September 1, 2015 |

test pattern

This is a test. This is only a test.

Acme Law School is part of the main campus of a state university. State appropriations make up a very small part of the campus budget — less than 5% — and this figure is expected to go to zero within a few years. So for fiscal purposes the university is almost a fully self-funded entity, meaning that any academic unit that spends more than it generates in revenue is to that extent being cross-subsidized by the rest of the university.

ALS currently generates $25 million per year in revenue. Nearly 95% of this revenue comes from a combination of tuition and gift income (gift income is made up of about 80% endowment revenue and 20% annual unrestricted gifts). The rest comes from grants and miscellaneous sources such as building rentals.

Revenue sources appear to be nearly maximized for the time being, although some marginal enhancement may be possible via other degree programs, having law faculty teach summer undergraduate courses, and the like.

ALS currently spends $30 million in direct expenses. About two-thirds of this is made up of payroll, while the rest is comprised of operations and maintenance.

Currently, ALS’s parent university nominally charges about $5 million to the school for its share of indirect university expenses: that is, for university-wide expenses that are not incurred directly by any academic unit (central administration, health and recreation facilities, etc.). This is a nominal charge, because obviously ALS isn’t paying anything close to its direct expenses, so its nominal share of university-wide expenses isn’t being paid by the school.

You have just been named dean. Naturally, when you negotiated your offer, you asked the central administration to guarantee that the school’s current level of subsidization would not be reduced. Naturally, the central administration refused to do so.

You took the job anyway because you like a challenge. What should you do, given that law school applications have declined by 40% over the past five years, although there are some signs of potential stabilization?

(1) Try to convince the faculty that it would be prudent to try to reduce the budget deficit gradually over the next few years, even though, given constraints on revenue increases, this course of action would require quite a bit of somewhat to very painful cost-cutting.

(2) Do whatever you can to protect the status quo. Don’t give anything back until they take it from you. Conduct business as usual as much as possible, i.e., replace departing faculty members with new hires, maintain at least COL increases in regard to law school spending, and so forth.

(3) Who says 2/7 unsuited is a busted hand? Play loose aggressive! Maintaining the status quo is for suckers. Press for a couple or three new lines for maximal synergy in areas of strength and/or to shore up areas of weakness, or both. Start a new center or initiative or three. Build a monorail. The more you have, the more you’ll be able to keep when they start taking things away.

It’s pretty easy to anticipate which of these strategies will be most palatable to the faculty. And it’s far from clear, from a purely self-interested point of view, which makes the most sense for either individual members of the faculty, or the ambitious new dean (The answer will turn in large part on how inattentive/tolerant the central administration will be, which is always hard to predict, on the seniority and tenure status of individual faculty members etc.)

Of course you could really complicate this picture by considering things like what would be best for the students and staff, but let’s not go crazy. Things are complicated enough as it is.

How long will people born in 2015 actually live?

[ 25 ] September 1, 2015 |


The answer to this question depends on being able to determine the probable life expectancy of a birth cohort, rather than the cohort’s life expectancy at birth. The difference between these two numbers is that life expectancy at birth (LEB) isn’t a prediction: it’s a statistical fact, that is, it’s a statement of the mean number of years that will be lived by members of the cohort if the current age-specific mortality rates in the population as a whole remain steady over the cohort’s entire lifespan. Of course to the extent that age-specific mortality rates change over that time, life expectancy at birth won’t reflect the actual life expectancy of the cohort.

To give a concrete example, LEB in the US was 47 in 1900, but it’s certain that the actual average life span of people born in the US in 1900 ended up being quite a bit higher, because age specific mortality rates have dropped pretty much continually since then (they are currently dropping most sharply among the oldest members of the population). But how much higher?

If one is trying to predict how long the average American born today will live — which, for practical purposes, is a much more important number than LEB — how would one do it? Did people in 1900 end up living 10% longer than their LEB? 15%? More? And whatever the spread between LEB and actual life expectancy was, how likely is it to be replicated for people born in 2015? (In the developed world, the increase in LEB has been remarkably steady, with exceptions for a world war or two, for nearly two centuries now).

Anyway, a 15% increase between LEB and actual life expectancy would mean the average American born today will live to be 91, which probably means that in a few decades Zombie Robert Samuelson will be arguing that the social security retirement age should be raised to 83.

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