Monday, January 16, 2017

Anytime Soon

In a post about something completely different, Freddie deBoer makes the following sobering observation about political discussion today:

None of this is about plausibility. It’s fine to debate outcomes you can’t achieve. There’s a debate that’s been raging in my weird little political circles about whether we should support a universal basic income or a job guarantee, and it has become nasty in some instances, with accusations of one side being useful idiots for libertarians, the other for corporatists. On first blanch, this is silly – we’re not going to get either of those things. Not anytime soon. But I still value the debate because we need to define our goals for the future, and whatever else is true, the people debating have clear differences in what they want to happen. That’s important.

As I said in my comment to his post, I’ve long tried to figure out how to respond to this (very sensible) point. But what do we really mean by "not anytime soon". The only way to implement a UBI, as far as I can tell, is to phase it in over at least two decades, while phasing out the corresponding means-tested welfare payments. "Not anytime soon" can mean we’re not going start moving in the right direction in the foreseeable future, or just that we won’t have it fully implemented within a generation. I'll easily grant the latter, but I think we can start the process very soon indeed.

I agree with deBoer that we should be discussing this now, but not just because we need to have articulate goals. We should be debating the goal in a way that amounts to debating how to implement it. Some people are against basic income, not because they oppose the end goal, but because they can’t see how to get there from here. They need to be shown a 20-year plan in which welfare payments are replaced gradually with a UBI (from $1000/year and increasing over a decade or to around $12000/year) that is taxed back from working people so they feel no difference in take-home pay. (And there would be no bottom line difference on the budget.) They would only feel a difference the day they lose their job and are now automatically insured. (That is, instead of having to apply for unemployment benefits, they would simply lose the wage component of their income, keeping the basic component.) That, roughly, is the plan that should be discussed.

Now, I also believe that we should talk about phasing out all taxes other than a land tax. And I think it would be great to run the two processes in parallel. Ideally, you'd have a twenty-year period with ordinary economic growth, increasing UBI, decreasing wages, decreasing income and sales taxes, and increasing taxes on land. Also, you'd want to replace the debt-based monetary system with one in which the money is created as purchasing power, i.e, the UBI + government spending. (The only check on inflation would be the land tax. Indeed, that would be the primary purpose of the land tax, which would ensure that money had "value", namely, as the only legal means landowners would have to cover their taxes. If you want to own land you'd have to satisfy demand in the population.)

But my tax proposal is only something that can plausibly be argued once the basic UBI implementation makes sense. Interestingly, in my mind at least, once someone has granted that the UBI can be implemented in something like the way I propose, the end of income taxes follows naturally.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Scissors or Zipper?

The gender gap in the sciences is often illustrated with the "scissors diagram". It represents the fact that there are generally more undergraduate women than men, rough parity among graduate students, but then increasingly more men as we move up the career ladder to full professor. But perhaps "scissors", with its connotation of "pivot" and "leverage" is the wrong metaphor. Look at this overlay of two "scissors" from 2007 and 2013 (taken from this 2015 report):

It looks like the "pivot" is moving to the right, i.e., up the career ladder, as one would expect if the gap is being closed over time. And what this suggests is not that doctoral programs are a pivot that exerts leverage on women, keeping them out of academia, but rather that it is, today, the point at which the male and female populations are converging. There is no reason to think this process won't continue.

No one, I think, expects the gap to close overnight. So any disagreements here are really about the rate of change not the current "status of women". My question to feminists*, then, is simply this: in so far as the current (or 2013) situation is "problematic", how far to the right do you think the zipper should have moved by now (or 2013)?

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*Update: It has been (and may still be) fashionable to argue about the definition of "feminism". Who am I addressing this question to? I don't consider feminism to be merely the belief that "men and women are equal" but rather an ideology and a movement that aims to bring about that equality. That is, I take feminism to be the view that men and women ought to be but are not yet treated as equals. Specifically, in this post, I point out that feminism is a particular kind of impatience with the actual "status of women" in society (here, specifically, the part of society that does science). In that sense, I am not a feminist. To me, the data shows that moral and political equality has been achieved, and we're merely waiting for the effects of this equality to work itself out over a generation or two. We do not need any particular ideological or political labor to maintain the process and, certainly, not to expedite it. That is, I don't think we "need feminism" any longer. Feminists, of course, disagree about this. And I'm here basically trying to gauge the seriousness of that disagreement. After all, I expect the zipper to close the gap to within 20% (in different directions for different disciplines) within about thirty years. I think that outcome is perfectly acceptable, and I definitely think anything above 50% (e.g., 75% male) is very likely an effect of discrimination. The point is just that it's an effect of past discrimination, which was very overt. Not the sort of "implicit bias" that today's feminists are fighting. I believe that that fight does more harm than good.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Motivation and Feedback

Andrew Gelman has left a thoughtful comment on my post joining Freddie deBoer's applause for Doug Hesse's prescriptions for composition. My response is going to be a bit disjointed, but I've already left it longer than I wanted.

I definitely agree with Andrew's general point that "motivation to practice" is important. The intrinsic motivation to practice specifically writing is that being able to write down what you know is a valuable skill. Not just in school, but in life. But what's the role of the teacher in motivating students? Where should the value of writing come from? How can it be demonstrated to the student?

Andrew emphasizes feedback. I agree that feedback is important but I want to stress that there are all kinds of feedback that don't need to come from teachers. Students can give themselves and each other feedback simply by reading their texts out loud. Moreover, in my experience, the issue of feedback is a resource allocation problem. An teacher who spends a lot of time providing detailed written feedback on assignments is often wasting much of their time. Many of the students don't read the feedback very closely. Many of them don't understand it. Many students end up merely letting it confirm their suspicion that they don't know how to write.

What is needed is a way of giving feedback to students who are, let's say, motivated to use it going forward. My model is simple. Tell students to write individual paragraphs at pre-determined times. Then have them share those paragraphs with their fellow students. The students who are giving feedback should do simple things like read the paragraph out loud back to the writer and point to the key sentence. They should say something about whether they took the paragraph to elaborate or support the key sentence. They should tell the writer what they got out of it and whether they "liked" reading it.

This gives the student a little more information than they could give themselves. But reading your own paragraph out loud does immediately tell you a great deal about how well it is written and which sentences aren't working. Now, whether it comes from you or from someone else, the important thing is not to take feedback as some sort of final judgment. It is merely input that will inform what you are doing in your next few writing sessions. That's absolutely crucial: you can only use feedback if you are practicing deliberately, one paragraph at a time, for weeks and weeks. If you simply throw a text together the night before and give it to your teacher, you are not being told anything about how good are at what you are doing. Properly speaking, you aren't doing anything very specific.

A good way of motivating students to receive feedback is to begin with a rewriting instruction. The students submit their work and you read it. Then, instead of telling them "what's wrong with it" (or even what's good about it), tell them to rewrite the paragraphs that you want to talk about. Ask them to spend an hour doing it again (i.e., rewriting three paragraphs, 18 minutes each). Your "feedback", in the first instance, is now simply to suggest that they will learn something by rewriting a particular paragraph. You might ask them to notice something—like the length of the sentences, or the use of references, or even just spelling—but you're mainly saying that there's something there to notice in this paragraph. Something that their writing suggests they are able to see, but perhaps don't quite understand the importance of.

And this brings us back to intrinsic motivation. Feedback should identify the skills a piece of writing demonstrates that the writer almost masters. It should direct them towards those skills and thereby give them the experiencing of getting it right. If this sort of feedback is done right, the student the will immediately feel the value of the skill they are learning. This will key into their intrinsic motivation to write better.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nat Hentoff

I read Onwards! when I was taking a year off before grad school. I remember wanting to like it because it was written by someone who knew a great deal about jazz. I also remember not liking something the professor said to his activist student. I think it was probably because the professor was right and I identified with the student. Anyway, here's something else Hentoff once wrote, which I just found while reflecting on his passing.

Nearly ten years ago I declared myself a pro-lifer. A Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer. Immediately, three women editors at The Village Voice, my New York base, stopped speaking to me. Not long after, I was invited to speak on this startling heresy at Nazareth College in Rochester (long since a secular institution). Two weeks before the lecture, it was canceled. The women on the lecture committee, I was told by the embarrassed professor who had asked me to come, had decided that there was a limit to the kind of speech the students could safely hear, and I was outside that limit. I was told, however, that I could come the next year to give a different talk. Even the women would very much like me to speak about one of my specialties, censorship in America. I went and was delighted to talk about censorship at Nazareth.

It is sad that our cultural conversations don't automatically include voices like Hentoff's. Instead, it seems, we first have to be chosen to be on one of the "teams"—the Left or the Right.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Adventures in Toxicology

We can, I hope, all agree that sexual harassment poisons organizations. That is all the more reason to be accurate in our measurements.

To take the literal analogue, suppose you read a newspaper article that reported that researchers have found that over 75% of sampled tap water in your city contains toxins of a particular kind. Concerned, you track down the study and find that the real value is 57%. Looking more closely at a table in the report, however, you realize that this number is actually an adding mistake. Only 32% of the samples actually contained the toxin in question; all the other samples were completely free of it.

Looking still more closely, you realize that the study didn't just detect the presence or absence of the toxin but actually measured the concentration of the toxin and classified it according to health risk. The levels were "none" (68%), "low" (19%), "moderate" (11%) and "high" (2%). "Low" here means that, while trace amounts could be detected, no action needs to be taken to protect yourself from the toxin. "Moderate" means that something should be done to bring the level down (to "low") within a few months (i.e., only continuous exposure over many years constitutes a health risk) and "high" means that the water should not be used for human consumption unless boiled first.

Moreover, it turns out that the 2% of samples that contained a "high" concentration of the toxin were all localized to a particular neighborhood, suggesting a common source, and therefore a straightforward solution. It's even possible that the samples with lower concentrations are all "downstream" from this source will therefore have the same origin.

My point in making this comparison is to counter those who would dismiss my "pedantry" about the CSWA workplace climate survey as missing the larger point that people did, in fact, report harassment. What difference does it make, these critics say, whether it's 75% or 57% or 32% that report it? Or whether they report that it happens "rarely" or "often"? Surely we have to do something about the 2% who report experiencing verbal harassment often?

Yes, of course. But a report that over 75% of the tap water in the city is "poisoned" in some unspecified sense might well lead everyone to boil their water before using it. This constitutes not just a moderate inconvenience for individuals, but an enormous energy cost for the city as a whole. If the real solution is to find and extract one dead rat from a water tower somewhere, and only 2% of households actually needed to boil their water, then the exaggerated report will have wasted a lot of resources. These are resources that could have been used more effectively elsewhere.

Similarly, there seems to be a willingness on the part of administrators in the sciences to do something about sexual harassment. It is very important that they don't make their decisions on the basis of inaccurate measurements of the problem they are trying to fix. In the case of the CSWA survey, it is very possible (given what we know about the study) that the occasional behavior of a handful of bad actors accounts for virtually all of the reported harassment. We can't know for sure until the report is made public.