Heretic Alert

Paul Embery is a self-described socialist writing at Unherd.  We always worry about self-descriptions like I’m a life-long XXX that can stand the current  XXX elected official.  Paul describes socialism as the traditional left so his idea of tradition left is much more left than our description.  Here is what he says about the family and the spineless politicians that won’t support families:

What is so difficult or revolutionary about making the simple argument that, as the evidence conclusively demonstrates, children are generally better-served by being brought up by both biological parents, and that it should be the job of government to use every available lever available to encourage this outcome?

This is not to decry lone parents, many of whom undoubtedly do a grand job. It is merely to recognise that we should encourage as best we can the model that is proven to work most effectively.

We agree entirely but he might ask James Danforth Quayle how standing up to such folks works.  We think that trying it now would create an even bigger firestorm.  We agree with Paul that politicians are often spineless but they would need titanium reenforced ones to follow his suggestion.

The good news is that Paul is a socialist that listens to data.  We hope that means he won’t be a socialist for long.

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Rewriting History

A recent Facebook post says:

On June 12, 1987, a defiant Ronald Reagan challenged Premier Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. He was applauded by both American political parties and earned the respect of most of the world for doing so.

Then the post goes on to discuss The Donald’s recent poor behavior.  When you start off with a falsehood it is hard to pay attention to your point.  To be precise, and to make the comparison relevant to The Donald, it was not a popular speech at the time.  Here is what Wikipedia says about Reagan’s speech:

The speech received “relatively little coverage from the media”, Time magazine claimed 20 years later.[12] John Kornblum, senior US diplomat in Berlin at the time of Reagan’s speech, and US Ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001, said “[The speech] wasn’t really elevated to its current status until 1989, after the wall came down.”[9] The muted response in the Western media contrasted with the reaction from the East: East German Politburo member Günter Schabowski considered the speech to be “absurd”,[13] and the Soviet press agency TASS accused Reagan of giving an “openly provocative, war-mongering speech.

How was it received in the US?  CBS news tells us:

“It was not well-received within the foreign policy community or the pundit class,” Brinkley [a history professor at Rice University] said, in an interview with CBS. “Many people called foul.”

Reagan’s speech got mixed responses from his party and negative responses from just about everyone else.  It was provocative.  After it turned out that he was right the speech became remembered differently.

None of this means The Donald is right in his current spats with Putin and much of Europe.  It means that history sometimes shines a different light on old controversies.  Reagan was right but he didn’t have to be.  It also means if you want to make a historical comparison you need to get it right.

Kids, Government And Climate

David French at NRO alerted us to this article by Roy Scranton, a professor at Notre Dame, in the NYT.  Roy’s title is Raising My Child In A Doomed World.  Really, we are not making this up.  David does a nice job calming folks down and reminding us that suicide is not the proper reaction to climate change.  You should read all both David, to see a reasonable response, and Roy to see what at least some of the climate folks seem to believe.

In case you don’t we will give you a taste.  Roy has just had a daughter and he is worried about climate change although his book mentioned in his introduction, we haven’t read it, is essays on war and climate change.  The section we found most interesting was this:

To stop emitting waste carbon completely within the next five or 10 years, we would need to radically reorient almost all human economic and social production, a task that’s scarcely imaginable, much less feasible. It would demand centralized control of key economic sectors [why just limit yourself to key sectors], enormous state investment in carbon capture and sequestration and global coordination on a scale never before seen,

Again, you should really read the whole thing to see that the above quote is not unusual.  Roy appears to believe that the only possible solution is 1984.  Roy is worried that he has doomed his daughter to live on a dystopian planet and his plan is to ensure that she does.

We hope that Roy’s daughter will never endure the government he suggests.

Government Versus Private

George Leef at NRO Corner is trying to get you to read an article at at the Martin Center.  He starts out with this:

It isn’t easy for any private institution to survive when it has to compete with government-funded institutions. That’s very much the case when it comes to private schools.

We suppose we could give George extra credit for the word easy.  It isn’t easy to compete with other private institutions either.  As we see it, it is easier to compete with government-funded institutions.  Federal Express and UPS seem to be doing fine.  Yale, Stanford, and Hillsdale seem to be doing just fine.

The difference between private institutions and government-funded ones is that the former can go bankrupt while the latter get many more chances to survive.  Jim Geraghty’s The Weed Agency is a wonderful fictional account of how a government agency survives.  It is easier to compete with government-funded institutions because they don’t have an incentive to change.  Their centralized decision making process also makes it difficult for them to change.

What is true is that a poorly run government-funded school is more likely to survive than a poorly run or underfunded private school.  We think that is the advantage of private institutions.  We think George should appreciate that.

Student Decision Making

We previously discussed Barbara Oakley’s article in the WSJ about attracting students to STEM.  Her discussion ties into our expertise as we spent 40 years teaching and during that time advising was one of our specialities as a faculty member, internship advisor, and department chair.  There is another paragraph that deserves discussion.

Even when a professor isn’t working to recruit Sara to the social sciences or humanities, she might be recruiting herself. Grades mean something; if Sara’s working hard to get a C in calculus, but she earns an A in English with less effort, she’s going to experience a powerful pull toward the humanities.

There are three assertions here.  The first one is that grades are less inflated in math than English.  We agree.  Part of that is because so large a percentage of math student contact hours are requirements for other programs. It might not be true at every university but it has been true where we have been.  We often hear requiring a math course as a way to increase student quality.  It was a big discussion point in our college when we considered eliminating the calculus requirement.

The second point is that students suffer from what accountants and others call functional fixation.   In this case, students don’t know that an A in English is easy to obtain [it isn’t easy for us] and a C in calculus might be a better accomplishment.  We are not convinced.  Students are generally well informed about the relative difficulty of courses.

Sidebar: Finance for accounting majors was often an exception.  The core finance course is fairly difficult for the average student in the business school.  Students hear in the dorm that finance is a bear.  And it often is for the average student.  But accounting majors have different background and interest from the average student.  Thus, they usually do quite well in finance.  End Sidebar

The third implication (and it is tied to the second) is that students like easy courses and especially easy courses with easy grades.  We have heard this often in discussions about student evaluation of instruction or SEI.  We think that interactions overwhelm the main effects here.  Of course, there are all kinds of students.  Some are lazy, some are crazy, and other we can’t understand but we think we understand the tendancies.  Most students want the easy course that will fill the science requirement because they want to focus elsewhere.  Most students are willing to work hard in courses they see as useful to them.  Most major courses are seen as useful.  SEI scores are rarely highly correlated with grades or level of work.  Students don’t like courses they perceive as unfair or faculty members they see a playing favorites.

We are going to change Barbara’s example a little.  We have observed many students that have preferred a hard B in accounting to an easier A in other disciplines in the business school.  When we were chair the accounting faculty give the lowest grades in the college but the accounting students got the highest grades in the college.  We are not sure if it is still true but it provides evidence that students are not turned off by hard work.

Women, STEM, And Accounting

Barbara Oakley in the WSJ asks:

Why do relatively few women work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?

She is responding to an article by Stuart Reges (here) that she summarizes as:

University of Washington lecturer Stuart Reges —in a provocative essay, “Why Women Don’t Code”—suggests that women’s verbal and analytical skills lead to career choices outside STEM. Mr. Reges’s critics say he is making women feel inferior by implying they aren’t interested in tech. I’m a female engineering professor with decades of experience as well as a background in the humanities and social sciences, so perhaps I can lend some perspective to the controversy.

She thinks there is a missing parameter, professor influence.  Barbara says:

Professors have profound influence over students’ career choices. I’m sometimes flabbergasted at the level of bias and antagonism toward STEM from professors outside scientific fields. I’ve heard it all: STEM is only for those who enjoy “rote” work. Engineering is not creative. There’s only one right answer. You’ll live your life in a cubicle. It’s dehumanizing. You’ll never talk to anyone. And, of course, it’s sexist. All this from professors whose only substantive experience with STEM is a forced march through a single statistics course in college, if that.

Barbara is absolutely right but also incomplete.  We were convinced in our first university-wide committee that faculty in the other colleges resented the business college.  If that wasn’t enough, later one dean suggested that if we came into the building that housed his college that a bullet-proof vest was in order.  We suspect that Barbara is just being kind.

Barbara is right that professors influence students against majors.  As department chair we have brought two departmental colleagues on the carpet for negative comments about majors other than accounting.   She forgets, however, that faculty influence students towards majors.  Students often change their majors in college and faculty have a big influence on those changes.

Sidebar: There is also cultural influences.  Everybody is cheering on women in STEM.  We don’t really need to list all those movies and books do we?  On the other hand, from Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters to Elementary (Our Time Is Up), accountants are always presented in a negative light.  End Sidebar.

Barbara has identified a real issue but not completed the picture.  Professors influence and often recruit students.  Some of them use negative messages while other use positive ones.  What she has missed is opportunity.  Opportunity is part of the explanation why women are now a majority of accountants in the United States, Canada, and Europe.  This is an enormous change over our 40 years teaching accounting that has not happened as completely in STEM.  Why did women surmount the barriers in accounting but not as much in STEM?  Part of the reason is because of university rules accounting faculty got more opportunity to spread the word while STEM got less.

Essentially all universities have requirements at the university level, college level, and department level.  We will call university level requirements general education (GE) and department level the major even though there are minors too.  Most GE programs include science and math but but those requirements are often so broad that students don’t get exposed to those fields or take courses that would not count towards those fields.  In our 40 years of advising students we doubt any of our advisees ever took physics.  Early in our career we advised taking chemistry because in our opinion it and accounting take the same skills.  Our success rate approximated zero and eventually we did not persist.  Students take calculus for social science (no trig), science for non-scientists, and other less technical courses to fill those requirements.  On the other hand, almost every student takes English composition, literature, and a diversity course.  STEM faculty don’t get the opportunities to recruit students that humanities faculty get.  They should accept part of the responsibility because of their course offerings in GE.

Accounting faculty get the opportunity to influence because of college requirement that all students in the business school take two accounting courses. In addition, there are major requirements that have a smaller impact.  For example, departments have chemistry and business or language and business.  These required accounting courses are generally taken in the freshmen and sophomore years so accounting professors get an early opportunity to influence students towards a major in accounting and the courses count towards their degree.  We know from our surveys that faculty are a big influence on students deciding to major in accounting.

We are not ready to conclude that the personal impact of accounting faculty is more important than the cultural sway of STEM yet.  What is clear is that professors have a big impact on majors and it is one of the reasons that women have prospered in accounting over the past half century.  We recommend free speech to Barbara.  Faculty need the opportunity to make their case with students.

Medical Pricing

Steve Cohen’s article on hip replacement prices in the WSJ struck a chord for several reasons.  We had a family member just get a new hip.  Transparent prices are critical to have effective markets.  Medical prices have always seemed very odd, especially for procedures that are pretty standard.

We often talk about expertise here and we plead guilty to lack of expertise on medical pricing.  Part of this post is to remind ourselves to find out more.

We want to discuss the oddity of medical prices.  In Steve’s article he says that he had both hips replaced and

[T]he hospital had charged $175,000 for my right hip and $180,000 for the left. The insurance company had paid discounted rates of $75,000 and $77,000.

The physicians and other professionals involved in these surgeries have amazing skills but the procedures are pretty standard with a variety of specialists making sure that the surgeon can be efficient.  We saw it in person for eye surgery and we were impressed by the capitalism at work in all the specialization.  Because of part of the specialization was to administer drugs we don’t remember all of the details but we were queued up like planes on a runway and rolled down to operating room for take-off.

The point is they need a full queue to maximize profits with all these specialists.  How does it benefit them to announce a price that is more than double the actual price?  We are sure that there is a reason for the difference but we don’t know what it is.  Our assumption is that essentially all of these procedures are covered, in large part, by insurance.  Perhaps it is a faulty assumption.  When we went in for our procedure we met with the financial person who looked at our insurance and said we don’t need to talk about prices other than this small blue bag you need to bring (we are not making this up).  It cost us a few bucks.  Perhaps the high list price is actually used but our priors are that there is a bureaucratic explanation.  We are open to suggestions and plan to look ourselves.