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June 2016 posts


By Jonathan B. Wight

Follow-up to the previous post:

Joshua Waitzkin, pondering his successes in chess and the martial arts, started The Art of Learning Project, with a related website. It tries to help identify learning practices that contribute to lifelong success.

One important part of this, as all parents know, is resilience.  How readily can students and children carry on after confronting failure, humiliation, or other trauma? 

There are some interesting ideas for developing resilience in our students.  One key way is by emphasizing process over outcomes (or results). This again is somewhat of a deflection away from the traditional Western economic approach, embracing aspects of Buddhist and other Eastern ethical orientations, as well, perhaps, of Kantian ethics.

Before hanging up on this idea, listen to Josh’s short explanation of how to use language to shape expectations about the learning process and build resilience in your students.

“Don’t Forget About the Love”

By Jonathan B. Wight

Joshua Waitzkin is the child prodigy and chess champion about whom the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer were written.

He since has gone on to become a world champion in the martial arts.

He’s been on the top of fame, surrounded by paparazzi, and yet somehow—he says through meditation—he’s been able to keep his feet on the ground.

His book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance is on my list of summer reading.

Until then, you might want to listen to his wide-ranging interview with Tim Ferrus about peak performance, life, balance, and other issues.

This is of interest to those interested in virtue ethics. Waitzkin does not begrudge the standard utilitarian logic of the cost/benefit approach to life and success. But he notices that at the top of any field this approach will (he claims) lose out to more holistic approaches that embrace intuition and emotion that are critical for creativity.

Waitzkin extols the feeling of intrinsic connection with the activity as critical to ultimate success.  He calls this love. If you are doing something simply for the extrinsic rewards, fame, fortune, and so on, you will miss out on that secret ingredient.

The key point he ends with is, “Don’t forget about the love.”

The Unanticipated Consequences of Parental Leave

By Jonathan B. Wight

The New York Times reports a recent study by Heather Antecol, Kelly Bedard, Jenna Stearns that is woefully disconcerting.

To help women manage the work/life balance, many universities have been granting parental leave for parents to care for newborns.  To be fair and inclusive to changing parenting patterns, and to avoid stigmatizing women who take the leave, fathers have been included in this leave policy.  The inadvertent result has been to leap-frog males over females in the tenure process.

In “Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies?” the authors demonstrate that in the top-50 econ departments in the U.S. “the adoption of gender-neutral tenure clock stopping policies substantially reduced female tenure rates while substantially increasing male tenure rates.”


How did this happen?  Well, I guess it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that women play a special role in upbringing for biological reasons, which includes carrying the child and all the attendant physical discomforts and illnesses, and includes nursing the baby after birth.  For sociological reasons women also continue to play a dominant role in home economics—food preparation, cleaning, child care, parental care, and so on.

When women get parental leave they disproportionately…take care of their child.

When men get parental leave they disproportionately…take care of their research.

The result is that males going up for tenure have a much stronger resume than they would have had without leave, but the same jump does not always happen for women.  In other words, “Giving birth is not a gender-neutral event.”

The results is that:

“After the implementation of a gender-neutral clock stopping policy, the probability that a female assistant professor gets tenure at that university decreases by 22 percentage points while male tenure rates rise by 19 percentage points.”

What’s to do?  One answer is that “gender-neutral” policies with regard to family leave are a mistake.  Better to take each situation of leave as a special case.  The presumption ought to be that women bear special burdens and should get leave; men with special family circumstances can also apply for it, without a guarantee. 


By Jonathan B. Wight

The project of globalization had already begun a slow decline before the vote yesterday in Britain to leave the EU.

The evidence for this is the failed Doha Trade Development round, promoted by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that started in … 2001! … and has languished for a decade and a half since.

Most of the “easy” trade stuff had already been accomplished, with the lowering of tariff barriers among the WTO’s 160 or so members.

Doha stalled because it called for hard sacrifices by rich country farmers who receive a variety of subsidies and protections, and hard sacrifices by poor country pharmacy consumers and others along intellectual property lines.

The world isn’t ready for free trade in goods, intellectual property, and capital when labor cannot flow freely and countries have vast disparities in property rights and legal protections for labor and human rights.

The divide that separates us along economic and political lines are the very factors that lead to the British divorce from the EU. Many pundits have made the connection between the Brexit vote (by angry aging white voters) and the rise of Donald Trump, who wants to build borders and unilaterally renege on existing trade deals.

Young people disproportionately wanted to remain in the EU, by the astonishing ratio of 72-19%, if pre-polls were accurate.  It’s not yet clear how intensely young people felt about this, or whether they voted in proportion to their share of the population. (I doubt it.)

Globalization on decline is likely a bad thing for income and wealth creation—I say “likely” because the claims of comparative advantage in trade theory typically greatly underestimate or ignore the costs of transitioning, with hidden losses to many.  

Or, said differently, the economic gains to greater globalization are likely less than predicted, since we do a poor job of identifying losers and the true costs of making a transition. One example is the loss of blue collar manufacturing jobs in the U.S., due partly to technological advances and partly to trade.

A greater loss than income or wealth is the change in the zeitgeist or spirit of the times, which, for lack of a better phrase I’ll call “globalization fatigue.” The notion that world countries can come together to solve common problems is on the decline, with jaded populations weary of wars and the lies of politicians. This is bad for human rights, the global environment, the war of terror, and other concerns.

Talk to Me

By Jonathan B. Wight

While the mourning in Orlando is on our thoughts, this might be a good time to talk about hatred.

Omar Mateen, the man who murdered 49 people, seemed not so much to be on a jihad for ISIS as on a ritual of self-exorcism of his own demons.  It seemed a crime for someone with personal torments rather than political or religious ones. 

Qasim Rashid is an important voice of moderation and tolerance, mentioned before on this blog (here, here, here, and here).  His first book The Wrong Kind of Muslim: An Untold Story of Persecution & Perseverance (2013), proved a moving account of Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination and violence in Pakistan. 

Talk to meHe has just come out with another one: Talk to Me: Changing the Changing the Narrative on Race, Religion, & Education that offers practical solutions for dealing with the scourge of humanity—hatred arising from perceived human differences. While not explicitly dealing with homophobia, the principles expounded remain the same.

The book has personal vignettes from Qasim’s and other’s lives, written in a down-to-earth fashion that is enjoyable even as the subject is profound. 

It is a powerful antidote to those who focus on the varieties of human expression as evil.  The book is highly recommended from a public intellectual who is addressing the intersection of Islam and the West. 

Universal Basic Income

By Jonathan B. Wight

Charles Murray is pushing the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all Americans over 21, an idea he got from Milton Friedman’s “negative income tax.”

This has some commendable features and troublesome quirks.

First, this proposal seeks to reduce economic uncertainty in an era of widespread resource reallocations (which is econ speak for workers getting outsourced and the fundamental nature of jobs changing). 

No longer can we assume that workers coming out of high school will get a middle-class job that will tie them to a company for their careers and a union to represent their interests.  The new normal is part time or contractual jobs that can be terminated at will, subject to market forces. The new normal may well be robots and drones taking over many menial tasks.

Reducing uncertainty in this environment may produce large positive spill-overs in health, since stress produced by anxiety and uncertainty are surely one cause of physical and mental illness. 

Out of the $13,000 annual bequest that Murray proposes, $3,000 would compulsorily be spent on health insurance. The rest could be spent as the recipient chooses. The $10,000 a year is $833/month, which is barely enough to live on, but it would provide a cushion for many families. It is hardly a disincentive to work, although there will be inevitable cases of it.  How this disincentive compares to the disincentives in the current mish-mash of safety net programs is unclear, but it's hard to argue it would be worse.

Second, to pay for this Murray proposes eliminating all other welfare or safety net programs.  Get rid of housing, food stamps, agricultural subsidies, and corporate welfare.  He doesn’t mention the home interest mortgage deduction and gasohol programs, but he should. The administrative costs of these programs are onerous, and too often provide negative incentives.

But Murray goes too far, I think, in advocating eliminating Social Security and Medicare. That isn’t going to fly and skewers the whole deal. I also would make exceptions for programs targeting at-risk kids.  Let’s make real progress on reducing economic distress and bureaucracy but not think we must eliminate everything.

David Freedman has a good article arguing against the UBI. 

[Thanks to Doug Monroe for the initial link.]

Adam Smith’s Dinner

By Jonathan B. Wight

We all know the delightful Smith passages that are quoted on end, such as this one:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

How much mischief arises from these pithy quotes?

Now along comes Katrine Marçal with an apparently wonderful book on Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story About Women and Economics (Pegasus Books 2016).

You see, Smith’s dinner actually came mainly from his widowed mother, who labored out of love and devotion.  To equate her service and sacrifice with self-interest alone ignores Smith’s own critique of Mandeville for this crass and shallow analysis.

Annie Lowrey, in her review of the book in the New York Times notes that:

“Marçal does not just rail against an economy that disadvantages such women and discounts their work — and, oh, does the economy discount it. Anybody who has ever changed a diaper, bathed an aging parent or scrubbed a house clean knows that it is work, though work that comes without a paycheck, overtime or sick days, and work that women often end up doing even when perfectly capable men are available.”

“Marçal also rails against the study of that economy, meaning economics, our favorite latter-day science-religion. Because that care work often happens without any dollars and cents changing hands, it does not show up in G.D.P. reports or economic outlooks — and does not figure as prominently in our own minds as it arguably should. Canada’s statistical office took a stab at figuring out the value of uncompensated care, and came up with roughly one-third of the country’s annual G.D.P. Here in the United States, that would mean something like $6 trillion a year.”

Lowrey goes on to critique Marçal for attacking a straw man, so to speak.  Selfish individualism and measurement problems have been addressed (to some degree) by advances in behavioral economics, ethics in economics, and most importantly, feminist economics.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud thinking about who literally cooked Smith’s dinners?  Bravo to Marçal for bringing the feminist critique into focus.

[Addendum: This came to my attention today, in a passage from Luke 8:

"After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him,and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means."

While 12 men sat at the last supper, how many women labored to make this ministry possible?  Could we ask the same thing about Gandhi?  These movements had "invisible hands" at work--but not the kind often celebrated in economics books!]

Trump – The Caudillo Clown?

By Jonathan B. Wight

Those of us who have spent time living in and/or studying about Latin America will appreciate Stephen Wrage’s recent article in The Globalist, “Donald Trump is a Latin American Demagogue at Heart.”

Can there be a clearer connection between populist disasters like Hugo Chavez and Trump?  I don’t think so.  Both are caudillos, or “strong men” who make grand promises to followers and vicious attack their opponents in rude, disrespectful, and exaggerated ways.

The press is repressed. They are populists in name, but there is no truth, accountability, or sensible policies, only economic disasters as found in Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, and elsewhere.

This is a lovely analysis, worthy of a read:


[Image credit: http://elestimulo.com/climax/hugo-chavez-y-donald-trump-de-tribilin-a-rico-mcpato/]