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Confronting Climate Change Suggestions I: Judith Curry

Adam Falk is making 2016-2017 the year of Confronting Climate Change at Williams. Let’s try to be helpful for a change and suggest some interesting speakers that he and Professor Ralph Bradburd should invite to speak. Today is Day 1 of five days of suggestions.

Judith Curry

an American climatologist and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research interests include hurricanes, remote sensing, atmospheric modeling, polar climates, air-sea interactions, and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for atmospheric research. She is a member of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Committee.

Seems pretty qualified to me. Judith Curry certainly knows much more about the science of climate change than many of the speakers that Williams is already inviting. In fact, she probably knows more about climate science than all of the current speakers put together! (With luck, some hard scientists will soon be added to the current list of activists, writers and ethicists.)

Curry blogs here and has a homepage here.

However, I bet that Professor Ralph Bradburd won’t invite her because she disagrees (pdf) with the consensus view of climate change. Prove me wrong!


Funding for Early Childhood Education

From last year:

Dear Massachusetts Lawmakers,

As you consider the FY16 budget, we, the undersigned economists, would ask you to increase available funding for early childhood education.

High quality early childhood education elevates the quality of the workforce; children who have had this education experience an improvement in their cognitive, social and behavioral skills, which allow them to make greater contributions when they enter the workforce.

The 85 economist signatories included from Williams: Roger Bolton, Ralph Bradburd, Sarah Jacobson, David Love, Peter J. Montiel, Greg Phelan, Michael Samson, John Sheahan, Anand Swamy and David Zimmerman. Alas, there is almost zero evidence for this claim. Consider a recent summary from those right-wing (!) loons at Brookings:

State investments in center-based school readiness programs for preschoolers (pre-K), whether targeted for poor children or universally implemented, have expanded more rapidly than evaluations of their effects. Given the current interest and continuing expansion of state funded pre-K, it is especially important to be clear about the nature of the available evidence for the effectiveness of such programs. Despite widespread claims about proven benefits from pre-K, there is actually strikingly little credible research about the effectiveness of public pre-K programs scaled for statewide implementation.

More background from the Washington Post here. Comments:

1) The underlying organization, Massachusetts Fair Share, seems fairly hard left, or at least Bernie Sanders socialist left. Is that a reasonable characterization?

2) The Economics Department has a (correct?) reputation as being the least politically liberal department at Williams. That is a standard situation at liberal arts colleges since economists are more likely than other PhD’s of being skeptical progressive ideas like single-payer health care and much more aware of concepts like opportunity cost.

3) Anyone else surprised to see old bulls like Bolton and Bradburd on this list? Maybe they really are fans of the Mass government spending more money on pre-K and, therefore, less on other worthy item X. Or maybe their signatures are more a polite nod to faculty colleague who was lobbying them for the cause. If so, which Williams faculty member is most heavily involved in Massachusetts Fair Share? My first (uncharitable?) guess would be Michael Samson.

4) Interesting to see Dukes Love involved with this. Hope he is more evidence-based when it comes to his new job as Provost!


Reasonings for Econ Changes

Many thanks and kudos to Professor Ralph Bradburd, the Economics Department and the CEP for permitting EphBlog to publish the official set of recommendations (all of which have been accepted, I believe) on changes to the economics major. See below the break for the entire report. Comments:

1) The more open and transparent that Williams is about these sorts of decisions, the better for all concerned. Why not publish all the recommendations that CEP received this spring?

2) The more you know about how Williams operates, the more proud you become of the institution and the people who run it. You might not agree with every decision here, but there can be no doubt that some experienced and thoughtful economists spent a great deal of time and energy on the topic.

3) On balance, these are good changes. They are consistent with the direction in which economics is evolving, especially in terms of more focus on empirical work. If I were a member of the department, I would have voted in favor.

4) It is still a shame that the department refuses to offer ECON 101, a one semester introduction to economics for majors and non-majors alike. A biologist or art historian looking for an overview of modern economics should not be forced to sit through 2 semesters.

5) I have strong opinions on how such a class should be constructed. Short version: classical readings (Smith, Marx), lots of writing, topical debates, and a dash of empirical work. Williams has never had a class like this. Longer rant some other day. I wonder if anyone in the department agrees?

CEP Report excerpt:

Read more


Bradburd on Theses

Professor Ralph Bradburd was kind enough to allow me to post some comments that he made on senior theses in economics, a topic we touched on here.

We will post, or post a link to, all those theses whose student authors agree to have them posted.

Again, kudos to Bradburd, Sheppard and the entire Economics Department. Note that other departments do not do nearly as good a job of advertising the work of their students. The only information that I can find about Political Science theses is here. Pretty pathetic. Why is it that Economics does so much better at this than other departments?

The college archives does this automatically. (There may be very good reasons for students to choose not to post their theses immediately. For example, some of our students have assembled original datasets through field interviews or archival research; we encourage such students to try to publish articles based on their theses, and making their data available via the web immediately might permit someone else to exploit the fruits of their efforts before they can do so.)

This is highly implausible, at least in economics. First, just because the thesis itself is on the web, the student does not have to supply the actual data. Second, even if a student did supply the data, the odds someone using this to “exploit” her work are vanishingly low. I’d wager that Bradburd can not provide a single example of such exploitation occuring in all of economics, much less in the context of an undergraduate thesis. I have never heard of one.

Third, this is exactly the opposite of what the vast majority of the economics profession believe. Check out the pages of the professors in the economics department (e.g., Lucie Schmidt, Jon Bakija, Robert Gazzale, and others.) Why do these professors put their unpublished working papers on the web, vulnerable to exploitation by evil economists around the world, if there is any real danger in doing so?

The answer, of course, is that there is no danger. In fact, the central difficulty in academia is getting noticed, getting other people to read what you write and take it seriously. For any economics student considering going further in the profession, the more widely read her undergraduate thesis, the better off she is.

I would oppose any suggestion that faculty comments be posted. This is so for several reasons. First, we often make our comments orally or in comments written on the drafts of papers. It is not reasonable to ask faculty to spend what would be by necessity a very significant amount of time typing up comments so that a very small number of alumni might read them.

This is a reasonable concern. Typing up the comments would take more time. But the real issue is not the actual typing time, it is the fact that, if the comments were to be placed on the web forever professors would feel compelled to take much more time in preparing them. And, to my mind, that would be a good thing. The intellectual environment at Williams should be made more serious. One small way of doing so is to have professor comments be published.

Second, sometimes our comments have to be quite critical; I don’t think that it would be appropriate for such comments to be disseminated for all to see.

Really? What was the most critical thing said last week? I found it hard to believe that it was very harsh. I find it almost impossible to believe that it wasn’t professional. At worst, it might have been something like, “You have interpreted the regression results incorrectlty; they actually demonstrate that your thesis is false.” As long as the comments are consistent with what professors would say at any professional forum — say if they were commenting on a panel at a meeting — then I don’t see a problem.

Indeed, the very fact that such comments might be disseminated would almost certainly alter the candor with which criticism was offered.

Why? Is this because economics professors think that thesis students — 22 years old and about to step out into the world — are thin-skinned little babies who can’t take accurate criticism? I don’t think that this is true. And, even if it is, refraining from criticism is the worst thing that you can do for such students. The real world will not be so kind. To the extent that Williams students haven’t learned how to deal with constructive, if trenchant, criticism, the College has failed them.

Third, all of our honors presentations are advertised in the college calendar and we welcome attendance at our presentations. (We even provide free coffee, tea, water, and cookies!) The best way to see what our students are accomplishing is to attend those presentations.

Again, I have always thought that the economics department did a fine job of this. Alas, many of the people who would be interested in knowing what, for example, Gordon Winston had to say about Lindsey Taylor’s thesis are unable to make it to Williamstown in person.

The more “public” that intellectual discourse is at Williams, the more seriously it will be taken by all concerned.


Get a Life

Professor Ralph Bradburd, my teacher in ECON 251 twenty years ago this spring, has the following comments on EphBlog.

David, to be blunt, why don’t you “get a life.” Instead of spending your time worrying about whether Williams is too liberal, or too this or too that, or gives too much money to the town, or doesn’t give enough, whatever, just move on. Do you harbor some deep grudge? Do you think that Williams failed you in some way? Do you wish that you could somehow remake Williams in your own image? Do you think that the college is going down the tubes? Or that it WOULD go down the tubes without your constant monitoring? Let it go. If you really believe that the best possible use of your time and skills in this world is to fuss about Williams, then either your skills aren’t what they should be or you haven’t looked outside your window to see the real problems in this world.

I am fairly certain that Professor Bradburd’s comments are not directed EphBlog in general. I suspect he has no objections to postings about Eph engagements, Ephs in warzones or Williams in the news. Instead, what Bradburd objects to are my constructive criticisms [How about “wild-eyed rants“? — ed.] of how Williams is doing as an institution and how it might do better.

His is a fair complaint. I thank Professor Bradburd for taking the time to make it and for giving me permission to publish it. Much of the (meager!) success that I have had in graduate school and the business world is a direct result of the quality of the education that I received from Williams faculty like Ralph Bradburd — as well as Morty Schapiro, David Smith, Alan White and many others — so I take his comments seriously.

I hope to prepare a more substantive response in due course.


Save our Schools

Hayley Wynn ’06 has an excellent article in the Record on the budget crisis at Mt. Greylock Regional High School. She does an especially fine job of gathering comments from several faculty members. (I wonder how she decided which faculty members to interview?) Highlights included:

In spite of the College’s $250,000 gift to Mount Greylock Regional High School last spring, the high school is again facing a tough budget crunch and the possibility of more cuts in student services. While administrators stressed the importance of the quality of local education to the College, they were unwilling to say that more aid will be forthcoming.

Ahh, but the good citizens on the School Committee certainly think — wink, wink — that the College, if presented with an ultimatum, might very well put up some cash again.

Professors with children in the public schools have a personal stake in the issue. Steve Sheppard, professor of economics, has two children attending local schools, one in seventh and one in ninth grade. “The quality of local educational opportunities was a very important factor in my decision to come to Williams,” he said. “Sadly, I have to say that I think the quality of local schools has been hit by the cuts of the last several years, and is below what we, and most people, would expect of the hometown of the best liberal arts College in the country.”

Steve Sheppard came to Williams in 2000! Isn’t it a bit much for him to discover now that the local schools aren’t up to snuff? I am ready to believe that Mt Greylock Regional High School (MGRHS) is not as good a school as Sheppard would like it to be, but I am highly suspicious of the claim that its quality has dropped significantly in the last 4 years. I’ll try to contact Professor Sheppard to see if there is any evidence of this that I am not aware of.

Karen Kwitter, professor of astronomy, expressed similar concern. “When my family moved here almost 25 years ago, people were already saying that Mount Greylock, while not as stellar as it had been, was still a first-rate school,” she said. “That was important, because I was never interested in sending my kids to a private school…I would say the situation now is critical – teaching positions are gone, and students have to pay for being in a play or participating on an athletic team.

Kwitter, as a long time faculty member, has more standing than Sheppard if it is true that MGRHS has gone downhill over the last 20 years. I am unaware of any evidence that it has in fact done so. But if the best she can do is to whine that “students have to pay for being in a play or participating on an athletic team,” then I am suspicious here as well.

Student activity fees are not a MGRHS-only phenomenon. Such fees are now the norm across Massachusetts, including my own lovely town of Newton. Perhaps these fees are a bad thing (representing the decline of public education in America). Perhaps they are a good thing (charging people for the resources that they use). But, in either case, they are, essentially, universal.

Neither Sheppard nor Kwitter nor the nameless professor-that-Williams-wants-to-hire have a lot of other options, at least in Massachusetts, that would avoid sports-fees, budget battles and the like. And Massachusetts is not the only state where this is going on.

As always, if you are a Williams professor — especially one, like Schapiro, Bradburd, Sheppard and (I think) Kwitter with students in MGRHS right now — the optimal answer is that the College spend a large amount of money immediately. Any deleterious effect that this had on the endowment or on fundraising would never affect you.

Note that this is also the best answer if you are just a resident of Williamstown. Threaten the College with a low school budget and watch it pony up some extra money.

Everybody wins!



Professor Ralph Bradburd was kind enough to send in these thoughts on the College’s charitable gifts to Mount Greylock High School in response to this post.

I see that you’re still up your old tricks. So, why should the college
ever give, indirectly, any of your hard-earned donation money to the local
schools? The answer is enlightened self-interest. You may or may not
remember that Williams College is “nestled in an idyllic valley” in the
Berkshires. That’s great for many students, but it isn’t so great for
faculty who are single, and it isn’t so great for faculty in dual-career
relationships. (As Prof. Roger Bolton once quipped, “There are two kinds
of faculty that Williams has a hard time hiring: single faculty and married
faculty.”) The result? Many departments in the college, Economics one of
them, have a difficult time hiring faculty of the quality that you enjoyed as an undergraduate and that, I presume, you would want undergraduates to continue to enjoy today and in the future, and this means that the effort
and expenditures that go into hiring each year are frighteningly large.

One thing that the college’s location does offer, relative to many other
higher educational institutions, is a rather family-friendly town. It’s
pretty safe here. Drugs aren’t too much of a problem. And, very
importantly, the schools are good. Not “great,” mind you, just “good.”
Unfortunately, even the current level of quality of the local schools is in
great jeopardy because of a combination of factors, important among them the small size of the local tax base and the substantial decline in state funds for our local schools.

If the quality of the local schools declined much from its current level,
they would cease to be an acceptable option for faculty and senior staff.
(Should you believe that this is unlikely, I suggest that you speak with
some of the older retired faculty. They will inform you that prior to the
creation of the Mt. Greylock Regional High School District, virtually all
faculty members sent their children off to boarding school for high
school.) What would be the consequence? Some people would not even
consider coming to teach at Williams because they simply would not be
willing to send their children off to boarding school. Others might still
come here, but the college would have to raise salaries enough to
compensate them for the cost of sending their children to boarding school,
the annual cost of attending which now approximates the cost of attending
Williams. A private school tuition benefit would be taxable if it was not
extended to ALL faculty and ALL staff, raising the gross cost of
effectively providing it, and extending the benefit to all staff would
clearly be very expensive. The impact on town-gown relations of such a
policy could also prove quite costly to the college.

So sure the college could make you happier by not giving any money to
support the local schools, but doing so would be penny-wise and
pound-foolish. I would think that if you learned anything in your
economics courses here, it would have been that money should be expended to the point where the marginal benefits equal the marginal costs. On that basis, supporting local schools is a good use of the college’s money.

Professor Bradburd’s reference to my “old tricks” refers to my, uh, campus activism in the 1980’s. [Don’t you mean “loud-mouth political blow-hardery”? — ed That was the old me! I’m not like that anymore. Sure — ed.]

In any event, Professor Bradburd’s comments seem as sensible today as they did 20 years ago. Whether or not I learned “anything” in my economics courses at Williams is, alas, a matter of some dispute, but whenever one of my students doesn’t understand something, I always blame the teacher first.



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