Currently browsing the archives for September 2011

Less Than Thorough

A New Yorker article on Paul Krugman:

Krugman’s tribe was academic economists, and insofar as he paid any attention to people outside that tribe, his enemy was stupid pseudo-economists who didn’t understand what they were talking about but who, with attention-grabbing titles and simplistic ideas, persuaded lots of powerful people to listen to them. He called these types “policy entrepreneurs”—a term that, by differentiating them from the academic economists he respected, was meant to be horribly biting. He was driven mad by Lester Thurow and Robert Reich in particular, both of whom had written books touting a theory that he believed to be nonsense: that America was competing in a global marketplace with other countries in much the same way that corporations competed with one another. In fact, Krugman argued, in a series of contemptuous articles in Foreign Affairs and elsewhere, countries were not at all like corporations.

Krugman is right. (Thurow is class of 1960.)

When the Times approached him [Krugman] about writing a column, he was torn. “His friends said, ‘This is a waste of your time,’ ” Wells says. “We economists thought that we were doing substantive work and the rest of the world was dross.” Krugman cared about his academic reputation more than anything else. If he started writing for a newspaper, would his colleagues think he’d become a pseudo-economist, a former economist, a vapid policy entrepreneur like Lester Thurow? Lester Thurow had become known in certain circles as Less Than Thorough. It was hard to imagine what mean nickname could be made out of Paul Krugman, but what if someone came up with one? Could he take it?

What nicknames for Krugman would EphBlog readers suggest?


Made Me Question

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a bit of a blowhard. Here he disses an Eph:


Furthermore, such point has been proven empirically in Taleb (2009) where I showed, with 20 million pieces of socioeconomic data, that there is no stability in the estimation of probabilities of tail events from within the data (in other words, the data does not predict out of sample), which made me question the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel given to Robert Engle in 2003 for his work on fattening the tails (as well as the five other prizes for people whose work depends on the assumption of thintails).

Engle ’63 is probably not overly concerned that Taleb questions his Nobel Prize-winning research.


Lewis ’60 on Uncomfortable Learning

Great 1987 speech (pdf) from former Williams provost Steve Lewis about “Uncomfortable Learning.” Highly recommended.


Admissions Data for 2011

Interesting data (pdf) for the students admitted to the class of 2011.


Graveyard of Empires

Escaping the “Graveyard of Empires”: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan by Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter is looking even better now than it did two years ago, when it was originally published. Do we have any readers who would like us to keep tens of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan for another decade? I wouldn’t.

The other way to know that this is high quality research? They quote Williams professor David Edwards.

To win Afghan hearts and minds, the United States and the Afghan government not only have to compete with the Taliban’s shadow government, but also contend with the amalgamation of mullahs and warlords, such as Karim Khalili, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Haji Abdul Quadir, and others who have usurped the power of indigenous tribal chiefs. The issue of tribal and political rivalries has plagued the region for centuries. As David B. Edwards, professor of Social Sciences at Williams College, writes in Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier, “Afghanistan’s central problem [is] Afghanistan itself, specifically certain profound moral contradictions that have inhibited
this country from forging a coherent civil society.” Edwards continues, “These contradictions are deeply rooted in Afghan culture, but they have come to the fore in the last one hundred years, since the advent of the nation-state, the laying down of permanent borders, and the attempt to establish an extensive state bureaucracy and to invest that bureaucracy with novel forms of authority and control.”

Exactly correct. It is too bad that neither Bush nor Obama listened more closely to people like Edwards.


Required Reading

Interesting essay on the changes in a liberal arts education.

Take two political science majors at almost any elite college or university: It is quite possible for them to graduate without ever having read the same book or studied the same materials. One student may meet his general distribution requirements by taking classes in geophysics and physiological psychology, the sociology of the urban poor and introduction to economics, and the American novel and Japanese history while concentrating on international relations inside political science and writing a thesis on the dilemmas of transnational governance. Another political science major may fulfill the university distribution requirements by studying biology and astronomy, the sociology of the American West and abnormal psychology, the feminist novel and history of American film while concentrating in comparative politics and writing a thesis on the challenge of integrating autonomous peoples in Canada and Australia. Both students will have learned much of interest but little in common. Yet the little in common they learn may be of lasting significance. For both will absorb the implicit teaching of the university curriculum, which is that there is nothing in particular that an educated person need know.

Is this true at Williams? No. Is it more true than it was 25 years ago? Yes.

Are you worried about that trend?


Endowment Success

“Secrets of the Academy: The Drivers of University Endowment Success” (pdf) provides a useful overview of academic research on endowment performance.

When we considered the top-performing university endowments and contrasted them with other institutional investors, several organizational features of the endowments stand out. First, the top-performing endowments have active investment committees, typically drawn from the ranks of alumni. These bodies typically see their role not as micro-managing the decisions of the investment staff, but rather in setting broad policy and serving as an informed sounding board. The contrast with public pension funds, where the bulk of the staff is drawn from rank-and-file employees, is particularly stark. Second, the staff of successful academic endowments typically has considerable experience and has often worked together for many years. Finally, the staff of successful university and college endowments has an academic orientation, which leads to a process of periodic self-evaluation. Many of these funds occasionally stop to consider the processes that led them to make investments that proved particularly successful or problematic. They often engage in an active dialog with their peers.

Highly recommended. Want to write a great senior thesis in economics? Study the history and performance of the Williams endowment.

Other interesting sections below:
Read more


Low Income Students

“Low-Income Students and Highly Selective Private Colleges: Searching and Recruiting” (pdf) by Cappy Hill ’76 and Gordon Winston is an interesting read.

The evidence, then, suggests that inadequate attention to geography and the incidence of ACT tests in their search and recruiting activities has contributed to a bias in enrollment against low-income students at highly selective private colleges and universities. Other factors undoubtedly play a role – especially, for instance, widespread
inaccurate information about actual prices at these schools – but these search and recruiting practices do appear to contribute to their relatively meager share of low-income

Perhaps. But the real problem lies in their initial assumption.

So it has been our assumption that these privileged schools should aim to have their student bodies include students from low-income families at least in proportion to their share in the national population of high ability students.

Why would you ever assume that the portion of Williams-worthy students in the richest 5% of US families is the same as the portion in the poorest 5%? Before looking at the data, I would assume the exact opposite. Smart people generally share two attributes: 1) Family income above the bottom 10% and 2) Smart children. Would anyone disagree? (I doubt that Hill and Winston would. At least I hope that they are not infected with the same ridiculous genetic egalitarianism that so hampers the empirical work of, among others, Schapiro and McPherson.)


How To Go Off Stage

Fay Vincent ’60 writes:

There is something sad and almost tragic about aging public figures who still believe they have not lost their fastball. One thinks of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., — ravaged by age and illness clinging to the speaker’s desk — while gesturing with badly trembling hand as he attempted to address the Senate.

I also remember having the same sense of sadness when Willie Mays, Yogi Berra and Warren Spahn, all long over the hill, tried to prolong their lustrous baseball careers by joining the New York Mets in the 1960s and 1970s when their skills were gone and they seemed embarrassingly out of place.

Similarly, great football players like Joe Namath and John Unitas tried to hang on long after it was obvious they were no longer able to play at a high level. Only a few icons, such as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, were able to see and accept the price age imposes and leave the game on their terms. Indeed Williams famously hit a home run in his last at bat. That is how to go off stage.

How will you go off the stage? How will I?


Racism 2.0

Professor Jacqueline Hidalgo wrote (in March 2009):

I write this editorial not solely out of concern that Beck and other Euro-Americans think that Obama’s election means we can stop talking about race. I also fear that those of us who hail from minoritized backgrounds have internalized racism 2.0. Many of us need to query the privileges we have had in life, but we also need to examine the ways we have internalized negative stereotypes about ourselves from dominant culture. I, for one, continue to perceive myself through the Dubois’ double-consciousness, ever concerned about my measurements according to others’ tape, feeling my plural identities ever unreconciled. This internalized racism also means that I never learned to feel, truly, that such double-consciousness is my strength and not my shame. Following some arguments in John L. Jackson’s recent book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, I have been unwilling to own my paranoia around matters of race in personal and public life as justified. While confronting new and complex racial realities, realities that cannot be adequately addressed through pre-civil-rights-era terminology, I, too often, fear that I misread and over-react. At the same time, in these trying economic times, I wonder if I can actually get a job given my “strangeness,” my ethnic and other non-ethnically specific behavioral deviations from established cultural norms. And the big question, if I do get a job, is it because of my skill set and unique abilities, or is it simply because my last name helped an institution fill a quota?

That those of us from historically dominated groups still must wrestle with racism 2.0, especially around the question of affirmative action, was made apparent to me in the weeks following Obama’s election.

Do you think that Hidalgo’s last name helped Williams fulfill a quota?

Or is she the only one who is allowed to ask that question?


Kitten Heels

From Jennifer Mattern:

I live on the outskirts of a land of big old money and gorgeous old houses and muted sweater sets and kitten heels and zealous committees and no visible midlife crises. I imagine I would be amazed by what goes on behind closed doors in the town next door. It is a glossy postcard of a place.

I live on the wrong side of the tracks, to be sure. Property values here are about a third, sometimes a fourth, of the values of very similar houses on the “right” side of the tracks. But the landscape is rougher here, spottier. We don’t have driveways or garages, so we pull our vehicles haphazardly up on the curb in the winter.

When I am in the right mood, the juxtaposition of the two towns—one home to the most expensive liberal arts college in the country, the other mentioned frequently over the past few decades as one of the Top Ten U.S. towns for teen pregnancy—is fascinating. We need a show like “South Park” to highlight the quirks. There would be a busy, cheerful border patrol, selling cupcakes and offering unusable financial advice to the unfortunates on the “Mexico” side. 401K advice is not helpful when you have 401 dollars to your name.

Read the whole thing. There is no better writer in all of Eph Planet.


Blogosphere is a Goldmine

From Felix Salmon:

Really good journalism is being written about such things every day — it’s just that a lot of it isn’t coming from old-school media outlets. Vanity Fair’s Bethany McLean was also at the breakfast, and she confirmed that the blogosphere is a goldmine for people like her who want to understand the crisis, both in hindsight and as a way of working out what people were thinking and saying contemporaneously.

The fact is that a huge universe of great material is being published every day, by old media and new media alike. And increasingly, tools like Twitter are doing a good job of helping the public find the really good stuff. It might be a smaller percentage of the whole than we’re used to, and there might even be less of it on an absolute basis than there was in the past. But there’s much more great journalism available to the average member of the population than there ever used to be. In the olden days, if you didn’t get the NYT or the WaPo, you didn’t read their journalism.* Nowadays, when they publish something great, you read it. Just like when Gawker publishes something great. Or Yahoo blogs. Or some guy in Australia with a blogspot account who can move a stock 20% overnight by sheer force of argument alone.

Still, the biggest thing that’s missing in the journalistic establishment is people who are good at finding all that great material, and collating it, curating it, adding value to it, linking to it, presenting it to their readers.

And the same applies at Williams. As an institution, Williams should be creating very little new content. Doing so is too expensive and time-consuming. Instead, Williams — meaning the Alumni Office, Public Affairs, Admissions, the Dean’s Office and any other department that need to communicate, either externally or internally — should be linking and collating, organizing and transmitting. That is the future of communication in the world of elite academics. When will Williams figure that out?


Dudley ’89 Trustee at MCLA

Professor Will Dudley ’89 is now a trustee at MCLA, the Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts, the former North Adams State.

What should he do?


First Bank of the Living Dead

Dan Drezner ’90 reviews books about the financial crisis in The National Interest.

EARLIER THIS year, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein attempted to justify his professional existence, proclaiming, “We’re very important. We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. . . . We have a social purpose.” This all sounds good enough, except that finance went from being responsible for 2.5 percent of GDP in 1947 to 7.7 percent in 2005. And at the peak of the housing bubble, the financial sector comprised 40 percent of all the earnings in the Standard & Poor’s 500. The incomes of the country’s top-twenty-five hedge-fund managers exceeded the total income of all the CEOs in that index. And by 2007, just about half of all Harvard graduates headed into finance jobs. If capital markets merely serve as conduits from savers to entrepreneurs, then why does such a large slice of them get siphoned off to compensate people like Lloyd Blankfein? To put it more broadly, what is the role of finance in a good and just society?

Read the whole thing.


Lee ’75 Worth $185 Million?

According to Wikipedia, Jimmy Lee ’75 “has a personal net worth of 185 million dollars in 2010.” Comments:

1) Lee (and his Eph wife) have already given generously to Williams. The richer they are, the more they have to give.

2) The Wikipedia entry provides no citation, so who knows if this is true. Then again, why would some random surfer make up such a specific number?

3) $185 million seems high to me. Lee is, of course, very rich, but I doubt that his annual income is about $30 million. In 1999 he made $12 million. Assume $15 million per year over last decade, and that is only $150 million. But don’t forget taxes! Even if you make $150 million, the government takes around 40% to 50%.

4) Then again, we don’t know what sort of investments Lee has been making over the course of his career. If he invested a lot of his compensation from the 1990s in the best private equity deals, he could easily be worth $185 million.


Rainbows and Sunshine

Recall ebaek’s comment on housing policy from 2010.

If we can’t even live in the same building with people who have different lifestyles and habits than us, how are we expected to create and maintain a community that’s both diverse and unified?

Even with all the hoops that the current housing system has put for the students to jump through, the little subgroups around the campus have all managed to find some kind of central housing for the members by sophomore year. As much as we would all love the school to be this place full of rainbows and sunshine where everyone knows and gets along with everyone, that would not be diversity. We should be clashing if we really all have diverse values and views– this should be the way we learn to treat people with respect and know when to compromise.

So what if the college has put some restrictions on the students to make sure that at least there is some kind of effort to gain this kind of learning around here? It’s frankly quite possible for the college to further these restrictions by, say, forcing each class to live together and assigning rooms randomly, as we had been placed here during freshmen year. I find that it is a privilege to be given the chance to pick my roommates and have a say in where I’ll be living for the next year.

And if my neighbors next years get too loud partying while I’m trying to study? I’ll just ask them to turn the volume down.

Easier said then done.

By the way, what is the current state-of-play with regard to housing for next year? Never too late to implement the Kane Plan!


Alumni Giving Across NESCAC

The head agent for my class passed along this chart of alumni giving rates across NESCAC. Is that data correct? Does anyone have access to more recent numbers? Any explanations for the differences across schools?