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Sunday, November 30, 2008

I is smart

I hate the word 'smart'. To most economists, it is probably considered the highest compliment you can give/get, but whenever I hear an economist say that someone is really 'smart', I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes. This is because, in many cases, the person being admired is considered smart because they are great at doing complicated math or abstract theory. However, that same person may may be completely devoid of common sense, social skills, or any ability to communicate with 'regular' (i.e., non-economist) people.

As an academic, it's simply ridiculous how often I hear the word 'smart' used in this one-dimensional way. It is used to describe students, other academics, politicians, random people one happened to meet at a party, you name it, and it's always intended in a highly complimentary way. But for reasons I have never understood, it almost always means only one kind of smart - the kind of smart that gets good grades and can talk in a high-brow way about complicated abstract stuff. It rarely means creative-smart or verbally-smart or can-talk-articulately-about-traveling-the-world-smart. And it NEVER means can-figure-out-how-a-computer-works-smart or can-explain-complicated-concepts-in-simple-ways-smart.

A perfect example of this one-dimensional version of 'smartness' is David Broder's column this weekend about how good it is for the country that Obama is super-smart. Of course, I don't disagree with that sentiment at all but what bugged me was this paragraph:
So for several years, I have been arguing that there are traits much more important to the success of a president than brainpower. Self-confidence, curiosity, an eye for talent, the ability to communicate, a temperament that invites collaboration -- all these and more rank higher on the list of desirable presidential traits.
Broder seems to be suggesting that being 'smart' is something to be contrasted with 'self-confidence, curiosity, an eye for talent, the ability to communicate, a temperament that invites collaboration'. But can one really have these traits and NOT be 'smart'? Aren't most people these days at least familiar with the idea of multiple intelligences? Why is the idea that smart only means one thing so persistent?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fidelity Fiduciary Bank

In Economics for Teachers, I finally got around to teaching some macro. As a microeconomist through and through, I must admit I haven't exactly been looking forward to this part of the semester - it's not that I don't find macro kind of interesting (especially these days), but I haven't taught it in a very long time. I'm pretty sure I bored the heck out of my class for most of Monday and Wednesday but the one bright spot was using a clip from Mary Poppins to motivate our discussion of the banking system. I used the scene that includes the song "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" in which the Chairman of the Bank, and Mr. Banks, try to explain to the children that by investing Michael's tuppence, he can be part of "railways through Africa; dams across the Nile; fleets of ocean greyhounds; majestic, self-amortizing canals; plantations of ripening tea". In the end, Michael causes a run on the bank when he starts yelling 'give me back my money' to the old Chairman. So this led well into our discussion of how banks take people's savings and lend that money out to other people, and why it's a problem if everyone suddenly wanted to take their money out of their bank accounts.

One thing I love about using this clip was that most students have seen the movie but either had no idea, or had not thought about, what the heck the Chairman and Mr. Banks were talking about in the song.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Reflections on the election

[The following is an email I received yesterday from a dear friend from college. Adam lives in Los Angeles with his family and I asked if I could post his email because he expresses so well what is in my own heart but does it far more eloquently than I could.]

Dear Friends and Family,

Aman and I awoke this morning with unfortunately heavy hearts. We found ourselves unable to fully enjoy or celebrate Barack Obama's historic win, because of the heartbreaking passage of Proposition 8, which enshrined discrimination against gays and lesbians into our California constitution. We found ourselves thinking of our two beautiful children and of our own marriage, which 45 years ago would not have been possible in much of the country because of very similar ignorance and fear.

Proponents of Proposition 8 do not like it when parallels are drawn between same-sex marriage and interracial marriage. But the similarities are too overwhelmingly obvious to be ignored. Forty-five years ago, in much of the country, Aman and I would not have been allowed to marry and have a family. We would have been denied these rights because so many folks felt that interracial marriages were unnatural, contrary to tradition, contrary to how marriage has always been, and against God's will. Sound familiar? These same arguments were all heard from Proposition 8 supporters. The Yes on 8 campaign advertisements focused on allegations that children would be taught about same-sex marriage in the schools and that free speech rights would be limited because individuals and churches would be forced to officiate and accept marriages that they believed were ungodly. These were also arguments that were regularly voiced with respect to interracial marriages.

As we sat with our two kids early this morning - they got us up at 5:00 a.m. again - we found ourselves wanting to fully celebrate what President Obama's incredible victory represents for this country. But we found ourselves unable to fully do so because of the heartache of knowing that yesterday Californians enshrined discrimination into our Constitution by denying certain Californians the right to marry the person of their choosing.

For those who think that the same-sex marriage issue was pushed too fast and too soon, I would point you to the poetic words of Langston Hughes who said:

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow's bread.

Our hearts ache this morning for all our gay and lesbian friends and family members who last night were told by the people of California that they can not marry the person that they loved -- that they can not fulfill their dreams in the same way that the rest of us can.

Our hearts ache for the gay and lesbian boys and girls who are struggling, as all young people do, with who they are and what their place is in the world. Last night, the people of California once again told these young people that they were unnatural and deviant, and that they are not entitled to the same rights as the rest of us.

Our hearts ache for our two children, whom we love more than anything. Last night the American people helped to make the world a better place for our children by electing Barack Obama. But last night, the people of California said not so fast, there is still much work to be done.

Just like the struggle to allow interracial marriage, the struggle for full marriage equality for all will not be won overnight. These fights began with individual couples who refused to give up on their love and their dreams just because others said that such love was unnatural and wrong. They spread to friends and family who become allies in the cause. As they picked up strength, political leaders began to speak out, the courts came around, and eventually the general public did as well we are obviously still working on this last step with respect to same-sex marriages.

What we learned from last night is that we still have a lot of work to do especially in low-income communities and communities of color. At root, I believe that opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in fear and ignorance. Fear of something that for generations we have been describing as icky and unnatural. Ignorance of the love and commitment that infuses so many same-sex unions. We can change these things. We will change these things.

There is hope in the exit polls from Proposition 8, which found a massive generation gap: the under-30s voted for marriage equality by 67 to 31 percent; the over-65s voted for discrimination by 57 to 43 percent. I have no doubt that there will be many other struggles that we will bequeath to our children. But this will not be one of them. It will take longer than we had hoped, and that makes us sad. But, make no mistake about it -- this is a fight that we will win.

Although we feel much anger and sadness, Aman and I are still hopeful. Barack Obama is correct when he says that much of America's genius lies in its ability to change. In his speech last night -- which was as inspiring as he so often is -- Obama used many lines that were used by Martin Luther King. At one point Obama referred to "the arc of history." After the famous march to Selma, King was asked how long it would take to achieve justice. His answer is well worth remembering at times like this:

How long? Not long. Because the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

In solidarity and love,

Adam Murray
Executive Director
Inner City Law Center

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day!

Please vote! If you aren't sure where to go, Google makes it easy: go to http://maps.google.com/vote and enter your address. I'm actually a permanent mail-in voter but I'm taking my ballot to a polling place today so I can get an "I voted" sticker to put on my Obama pin!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Daily points

[This is the email I sent to my students today, with my solution to the attendance problem I wrote about last week. Coincidentally, InsideHigherEd has an article today on clickers that summarizes some of the issues with using them.]

Dear students,

As I mentioned on Friday, I have been considering how to re-structure the points for the clicker questions. The failure of the clickers this past Wednesday, the number of people who left at that point, and the relative quiet of the ensuing class, made me realize that by attaching points to clicker questions, I may have been doing you all a disservice. I don't want anyone to feel that they "have" to come to class just to get points. Obviously, I would hope that my lectures are sufficiently engaging and useful that you would see the benefit of attendance but I have always believed in treating my students as adults and as we discussed at length at the beginning of the semester, everything in life is a choice, including coming to class. If you don't feel that the intrinsic benefits of class attendance exceed the costs, then I would certainly expect you to do the rational thing and not come.

In a smaller class, I would not be so concerned about "forcing" people to come to class who do not want to be there. In a smaller class, the effect of such people on others, who do want to be there, is negligible. But in a class this size, disinterested students create an externality, and that external cost is borne by the students sitting around them. This is partly my fault - I have not been as diligent as I should be about asking people to stop talking, and I intend to be stricter about this. But I also am going to change the way points are assigned. Beginning on Monday, there will be quizzes posted on Blackboard that are similar (not exactly the same, but quite close) to the clicker questions asked in class. The set-up will be the same as with the clickers in that there will be one or two questions where half the credit depends on getting the answer right, and two or three questions where you simply have to answer in order to get the points. Thus, you can either get the 5 daily points by answering clicker questions in class or by answering the questions on Blackboard (you can do both but only one score will count). The Blackboard quizzes will also replace the open-ended Do-It-Yourself questions and they will be available until just before the next class meeting (e.g., Monday's quiz will be available until 11:45AM on Wednesday). Please note that in order to avoid double-counting in the Blackboard gradebook, I will be consolidating the CPS grades and the BB quiz grades but that won't always happen immediately.

My primary concern is that you learn economics, and how to be productive workers after you graduate, but I recognize that everyone learns in different ways and I do not want to insist that you must learn by sitting in class and listening to me. I hope that this approach will lead to a better learning experience for everyone.

As always, if you are struggling with any of the material, I encourage you to come see me, either in office hours or email me to set up another time to meet. My TAs also have office hours (posted on Blackboard), and the econ department has free tutoring (you just need to sign up in Nasatir 305).

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Economics as a 'real science'

Freakonomics has a Q&A with Sean Masaki Flynn, author of Economics for Dummies. The whole thing is interesting but I thought his response to a question about "why is economics considered more of a real science than psychology?" was one of the best explanations of this issue that I've seen. It's a long quote but I think worth repeating:
The most important philosopher of science of the 20th century, Karl Popper, argued that economics was the only social science that had turned into a real science. To him, economics was the queen of the social sciences just as physics was the king of the physical sciences.

But why did he think this? Because economics was, to him, the only social science that engaged in systematically testing hypotheses about how the world works. Doing so is actually much easier if you engage in a lot of mathematical modeling. Why? Because in a math model it is crystal clear what your assumptions are, and also what implications follow from those assumptions.

Thus, you can say: “under assumptions X, Y, and Z, we get outcome B but not outcome A.” That sort of very clear statement allows for experimental science.

You simply go out into the real world and find a situation where X, Y, and Z are happening and see if indeed the outcome associated with them is B rather than A. If it is, then this actual phenomenon is consistent with your hypothesis. That doesn’t mean your hypothesis is right, just that it hasn’t been overturned yet by the facts. And if people go out year after year after year constantly trying to overturn the hypothesis and they can’t, then it gains more credence. It never becomes truth; but it gains credibility and may pass into becoming referred to as a theory or even a law.

On the other hand, if you observe outcome A — the outcome that the model said wouldn’t happen — then you know the model is wrong and that you have to start over trying to find some other model of how things work.

Economics was the social science that most early on embraced math modeling and therefore was the social science that led the way in terms of making very precise, testable predictions that could be compared with the real world to see if they held up. That is why economics got the reputation of being more of a real science than psychology.

To see what I mean, think about any of the Sigmund Freud’s writings. Is it at all clear what his assumptions are? What are his X, Y, and Z? And then, is the logic that he uses to get from his vague assumptions to his often-vague conclusions totally air tight? Not really. And then, are his predictions about human behavior in a given situation very precise? No. So, if we went out to test his “model” against what happens in an actual situation would we be able to? Not at all.

But before I get slammed by sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and others, let me say that much has changed. All the social sciences are now very much more mathematical and precise and thus very much more able to produce models that make precise, testable predictions. So these days, I can’t really say that economics is more of a real science than many of the others. But I would say that we were first, and that we led the way, and that that was a very good thing.