How to feel better about your country: Be confused about numbers


I listened to NPR news this morning while stuck in Boston traffic and heard three different reporters speak about how “the U.S. economy grew 3.9 percent in the third quarter [of 2014].” That’s an awesome 16.5 percent annual growth rate (like you might get if you implemented congestion pricing so that Americans didn’t get stuck in traffic and have to listen to NPR news after running out of books on CD…). However it turns out that the real number is closer to 1 percent and 3.9 percent is the annualized rate (BEA press release). As someone who has been reading about America’s educational system a bit lately (see my review of Higher Education?, also Academically Adrift, and the American schools section of The Smartest Kids in the World), I’m kind of curious about how people who spend the time to put together a story to be broadcast nationally could have missed the difference between 3.9 percent and 16.5 percent.

Extend a WiFi network originating with an omnidirectional antenna to a garage?



In setting up our new suburban paradise I would like to extend WiFi coverage to a garage that is a separate building. The signal must get through about 75′ of air and about five walls. The base station is an ActionTec router supplied by Verizon FiOS (i.e., an omnidirectional antenna). Measured with a Samsung Note 3 there is either 0 or 1 bar of WiFi strength in the location where I want WiFi. Since it is almost working between two omnidirectional antennae (ActionTec and phone) I am thinking that what would work is a repeater box with a directional antenna pointing at the ActionTec. Has anyone tried this? The locations have separate electric feeds from the pole so it would not be possible to use a powerline-based system.

Thanks in advance for any help!

Book review: Do Fathers Matter?


My latest read: Do Fathers Matter?: What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked. The author is an MIT graduate who has worked for decades as a science writer (Paul Raeburn background) and he does a great job summarizing the research frontier.

In most U.S. states the divorce system has an implicit presumption that a child’s interaction with the father should be cut back to an every-other-weekend experience (and in fact some states offer mothers a multi-million dollar cash incentive to become an official “primary parent”). For many children, especially if the mother decides to move to another state with the kids, this tends to dwindle down to no contact at all with the father. Raeburn gives some stats:

In 1960, only 11 percent of U.S. children lived apart from their fathers. By 2010, that figure had climbed to 27 percent. … Fewer fathers are living with or are in touch with their children now than at any time since the United States began keeping relatively reliable statistics. Those fathers who are separated, divorced, or never married—but who see their children regularly—are not likely to be involved in monitoring them or setting and enforcing rules, meaning they are not really playing a parental role.

Raeburn’s book is not about divorce, custody, or child support litigation, but it still is relevant to answering the question of “Is this a good idea for kids?”

It turns out that with most mammals, the answer would be “yes.” Other species evolved so that the fathers tended to wander off after contributing some genetic material. Why not in humans?

But they are among the most committed mammalian fathers of any species on Earth. There is no example of a human society in which fathers do not help raise the children. Admittedly, some fathers are better at this than others. Some abandon their families for other mates, and some for reasons we can never be quite sure of. But most human males, at the very least, put food on the table. It would be exciting to trace the evolution of fatherhood over the past few million years to find out whether men were always as invested in their children as they are now, or how that contribution might have changed over time. Did our earliest male ancestors put time, energy, and resources into offspring who would be heavily dependent on parental care for years to come? Or did they swiftly resume the search for other willing females, to multiply again and again, increasing the chance that some of their offspring would survive? And if so, when did that change, and why? Those are questions we will probably never answer. We’re not even sure exactly when, in the course of human evolution, males and females began to forge relationships with one another. But we have some hints, sifted from prehistoric remains examined by archaeologists and paleontologists. They tell us that among australopithecines—the earliest members of the human family, who lived 4 million to 1 million years ago—mates were involved enough for males to have provided food and care for infants and protection from predators. Long-term male-female relationships likely began with the appearance of Homo erectus about 1.5 million years ago. Fathers, mothers, and children slept together, so children could watch and learn from their fathers, and their fathers could protect them. In the Late Pleistocene period, about 120,000 years ago, men hunted for large game and often had multiple wives. They spent a lot of time in camp between hunts, and were often available to their children.

Note that we humans are never as unusual as we believe:

Experiments have shown that even in species in which fathers have little or nothing to do with their young, males can be coaxed to rise to the challenge of fatherhood. Stephen J. Suomi of the National Institutes of Health has spent his career working with rhesus monkeys. “They are probably one of the worst species to study the effects of fathers,” Suomi says. “The females won’t let them get near their kids. They chase them away. But even these monkeys can be good fathers when the opportunity arises. To make the point, Suomi points to a forty-year-old study by William K. Redican at the California Primate Research Center of the University of California, Davis. Redican removed infant rhesus monkeys from their mothers and left them with their fathers. Because fathers can’t nurse, Redican hand-fed the infants. He collected data on the fathers and infants for seven months, in the absence of mothers and peers. When they were no longer being chased away by the mothers, the males became remarkably good fathers. They did almost everything the females would do with two exceptions. One, of course, was that the fathers couldn’t nurse the infants. The other was that they played with the kids much more than females do. “Mothers don’t do much of that,” Suomi says.

Thus the modern experiment in producing fatherless children is in fact an experiment. We don’t have any guide from history as to what kind of a society we’ll end up with.

Raeburn reports on research showing that fathers are more important than mothers to children’s language development. Fathers interact with children in a different way:

“Fathers often use objects in an incongruous way,” writes Daniel Paquette of the University of Montreal. During rough-and-tumble play like this, fathers tend to use playful teasing to “destabilize children both emotionally and cognitively,” which children like—despite the seemingly ominous implications of the word “destabilizing.” It might not sound like a good idea, but this destabilization could have a critical function. It could be helping our children confront one of their principal challenges: the need to learn how to deal with unexpected events. Children’s need to be “stimulated, pushed and encouraged to take risks is as great as their need for stability and security,” says Paquette. He describes fathers as having an “activation relationship” with their children that “fosters children’s opening to the world.” Fathers’ unpredictability helps children learn to be brave in difficult situations or when meeting new people. In one study of one-year-olds taken to swimming class, researchers observed that fathers were more likely to stand behind their children, so that the children faced the water, while mothers tended to stand in front of the children, the better to make eye contact.

There are some practical tips for us dads:

Ross Parke thinks the way a father plays is the key to healthy development in kids. He says that when fathers exert too much control over the play, instead of responding to their children’s cues, their sons can have more difficulty with their peers. Daughters who were the most popular likewise enjoyed playing with their fathers and had the most “nondirective” fathers. The children of these fathers also tended to have easier transitions into elementary school. Children whose fathers took turns being the one to suggest activities and showed an interest in the child’s suggestions grew up to be less aggressive, more competent, and better liked. These were fathers who played actively with their children, but were not authoritarian; father and child engaged in give-and-take.

Why do fatherless daughters turn out the way that researchers have found? (see Father-Daughter Relationships by Professor Linda Nielsen for a good summary). Raeburn explains a theory from evolutionary biology:

For Hill and DelPriore, that was a tipoff that something entirely different was going on. “Researchers have revealed a robust association between father absence—both physical and psychological—and accelerated reproductive development and sexual risk-taking in daughters,” they wrote. You might expect sexual maturation to be deeply inscribed in teenagers’ genes, and not likely affected by something as arbitrary and unpredictable as whether or not they live in the same house as their fathers. But the association is quite clear. The problem comes in trying to explain it. How could a change in a girl’s environment—the departure of her father—influence something as central to biology as her reproductive development? I put that question to Hill. “When dad is absent,” she explained, “it basically provides young girls with a cue about what the future holds in terms of the mating system they are born into.” When a girl’s family is disrupted, and her father leaves or isn’t close to her, she gets the message that men don’t stay for long, and her partner might not stick around, either. So finding a man requires quick action. The sooner she’s ready to have children, the better. She can’t consciously decide to enter puberty earlier, but her biology takes over, subconsciously. She enters puberty earlier, gets pregnant sooner, and has more children quickly. “This would help facilitate what we call, in evolutionary sciences, a faster reproductive strategy,” Hill said.

Ellis quickly discovered that there was something about fathers that gave them a unique role in regulating their daughters’ development—especially their sexual development—around the time of puberty. In a series of studies beginning in 1999, he found that when girls had a warm relationship with their fathers and spent a lot of time with them in the first five to seven years of their lives, they had a reduced risk of early puberty, early initiation of sex, and teen pregnancy.

What about making the salad versus firing up the grill?

Speculation about the social behavior of humans before recorded history is difficult to prove or disprove; we might never know what happened. Yet division of labor according to gender “is a human universal,” true in all cultures, says the Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham. That means it would have appeared at least sixty thousand years ago, before humans began to spread around the world and diversify into those different cultures.  … Women generally provide the staples and men the delicacies. One of the other notable features of their lives is that they pool their resources and share everything. … Researchers have looked for exceptions to this division of labor, but they haven’t found many. A study published in the 1970s looked at cooking and other family activities in 185 different cultures. It found that women did the cooking in 98 percent of those societies. … Even in the rare communities in which women did not do all the cooking, men cooked only for the community; women still cooked household meals. And the authors found one small exception in some of the groups: men often liked to cook meat.

How about child-rearing versus working?

It continued with the arrival of farming, some 10,000 years ago. Men tended the fields and women prepared the food. Women likewise provided most of the child care. The division of labor survived the establishment of the first nation-states about 5,000 years ago. … In that long prehistoric era, fathers taught their children how to work. Their children watched them work and often worked with them. … We no longer judge fathers exclusively on their ability to protect and educate their children, because we’ve turned those jobs over to the state. Instead, we judge fathers on their economic contributions to their families and on their caregiving. Fathers now earn the money they need to have someone else teach their children.

What do fathers do differently at home with the kids?

Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, … found that fathers were not only important in family life, they dominated their families. “Fathers added color, fun, informality and ‘accent’ to family life. Mothers were likely to worry, chastise, and punish. Fathers were playful … We were repeatedly struck by the ways in which the fathers who participated in our study enlivened and lightened the tone of family life.”

Conclusion: A very readable summary of some interesting research with some practical implications for current fathers of children under the age of 18.

More: Read the book.

IKEA assembly as corporate team-building


I’m trying to move into a new house in suburban Boston this weekend, in time to host a gaggle of cousins for Thanksgiving. There is a big stack of IKEA furniture in the garage, waiting to be assembled. It occurred to me that I could offer the assembly project as a corporate team-building exercise, charging $1000 per person per day so that four-worker teams could put together tables and chairs, enjoy a wonderful catered lunch, and then talk about (a) what they learned, (b) the value of diversity, (c) what went well, (d) what still needs work, (e) what strengths did each member bring, (f) what helped in accomplishing goals, etc.

Brilliant or stupid?

Awesome photorealism show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum


What’s visually different about cities compared to the natural world? Reflections and artificial light are two big ones. What’s different about photography and painting? Depth of field is one big difference. Everything in an oil painting can be equally sharp.

The Richard Estes show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is an excellent place to explore the above differences. Highly recommended based on my visit today.

“refined and sophisticated piece of federal legislation”


A friend sent me this New York Times editorial regarding electoral districts in Alabama. It seems that federal law requires states to figure out where black and white voters live and then draw district lines so that at least some districts will have a majority of black voters. Alabama allegedly didn’t do this in the right way, leading the righteous New Yorkers to weigh in on how the ignorant Southerners should behave:

It is up to the justices to reaffirm the law and, as the election-law scholar Justin Levitt has written, to stop lawmakers from turning “a refined and sophisticated piece of federal legislation into a cartoon.”

I’m not an expert on the facts of this case and hence can’t comment on the merits of either side, but I love the characterization of sorting Americans by skin color as “a refined and sophisticated piece of federal legislation”.

[The reason I had gotten the article was due to a recent trip that I made to Alabama. I posted a happy photo on Facebook of the $2.99/gallon gasoline price there, prompting a righteous New Yorker friend to respond with "We deprive our people of educational funds by not taxing at the pump, and pass the savings directly to you, the consumer!" (he attended New York State's public schools, perhaps the world's worst performing per dollar spent (see this NECS report), and therefore did not learn that gasoline taxes are not used to fund schools (except, oddly enough, in Texas and some other southern states (Tax Foundation)).]

Weekend activity for D.C.-area residents interested in divorce law


If you live in D.C. and have an interest in “family law” (i.e., divorce, custody, and child support litigation), you might want to come to the “Family Law Reform Conference” at the Alexandria Westin: brochure. I personally don’t like the word “reform” when people are talking about changing laws (the person receiving $200,000 per year in child support in Wisconsin would not characterize a Minnesota-style cap at $22,5000 per year for a single child to be a “reform”). However, there are some of the world’s leading experts on a variety of important issues, e.g., the comparative merits of sole versus shared parenting, the economics of what parents spend to support children, etc.

I’ll be there for the whole conference and would be happy to invite readers of this weblog to breakfast on Saturday or Sunday.

Don’t bug the mansion in Greenwich in August…


….because the suspect is probably in the Hamptons. That’s what I learned from reading “The Empire of Edge,” a New Yorker story about the government’s investigation of insider trading at one of America’s biggest hedge funds. There are three main characters in the story. One made about $100,000. One made about $10 million. One made billions. Guess which ones were imprisoned and/or had a career destroyed.

The billion dollars of premarital property Oklahoma divorce


Friends of mine who know that I’m working with co-authors on a book about divorce laws in the 50 states have been emailing me for thoughts on Harold Hamm’s $1 billion loss after a trial in Oklahoma (nytimes story).

Certainly the case proves what one lawyer told us, i.e., that it is “the American dream” to marry someone with money and then sue them for divorce.

The New York Times article is interesting because of the subhead: “Harold Hamm to Pay One of the Biggest Divorce Settlements in History”. The implication from the subhead is that there was a “settlement,” i.e., a voluntary payment from the defendant to the plaintiff in this lawsuit. In fact, there was a nine-week trial in the lawsuit started by Ann Hamm and the $1 billion is what the court ordered the defendant to pay. Somehow Americans don’t seem to understand that a divorce is a lawsuit, albeit one where the defendant is guaranteed to lose (since nearly all states have no-fault divorce) and one where the defendant is, in many states, much more likely to be ordered to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees (which enables the case to proceed until both parties’ assets are exhausted).

Angie Hallier, a top Arizona divorce litigator, explains this in the new book The Wiser Divorce:

the legal process itself is still designed to make divorce a battleground. Existing divorce law in the United States says the only way to end your marriage is for one party to file a lawsuit against the other. … you have to sue the person who has shared your bed, trusted you with life’s deepest secrets, and maybe even made babies with you. Divorce, by law, starts as an adversarial act. File a lawsuit. With that as the starting point, it’s easy to think the only outcome is: you will win, or you will lose.

Our legal system was set up to address wrongs. It deals with criminals. It decides who’s in the wrong when there’s a car wreck, or whether someone is guilty of medical malpractice when healthcare goes awry. When divorce laws were first written, somebody had to be in the wrong before a divorce could be granted. Somebody had to be cheating or abusing or otherwise be some kind of evil scoundrel before the other person — who was presumed to be the innocent victim — could file a lawsuit to be released from their marital hell. So historically divorce, like most other legal proceedings, addressed a wrong. Today, the litigation model of divorce still stands, despite the fact that no-fault divorce is the norm. … for the most part, the legal system, families, communities, and society still tend to treat the act of ending a marriage like something to be won or lost. This adversarial system helps no one in the end.

(Ann Hamm, with an additional $1 billion in her checking account after two years of litigation, might disagree with that last sentence…)

The Times article is also interesting for its misleading presentation of the legal issue:

The money a spouse earns while married can be part of a divorce settlement if it is made through skill. If, on the other hand, the increase is attributable to “changing economic conditions, or circumstances beyond the parties’ control,” as the state’s Supreme Court put it in a 1995 case, then that money is off the table.

If in fact he had earned this money while married in a conventional W-2 sense, there would have been no question that the petitioner (what Oklahoma calls the person who starts a divorce lawsuit; a “plaintiff” in most states) was entitled to a substantial share. From reading the Memorandum Order (linked to from the Times article) the issue seems to be that the property which the plaintiff sought a share of was acquired prior to her marriage. In Germany, a simple checkbox at the time of marriage would have sufficed to keep this separate at the time of the divorce. In Wisconsin, on the other hand, Ann could have married Harold on a Sunday morning and sued him for 50% of his pre-marital savings on the following Monday morning. Oklahoma is like a lot of other Western states in saying that generally the separate property should remain separate but appreciation in that property can be divided. Oklahoma has an addition exclusion that if the appreciation is purely due to market forces then it can’t be divided (see paragraphs 409-413 of the Memo).

Under these rules, inflation and market volatility can lead to tremendously increased profits for a plaintiff. Let’s consider volatility first. Here’s a section from our forthcoming book:

Attorney John Eckelberry of Colorado: “In a divorce case the court has to consider an increase in separate property. If it goes up $500,000 she is entitled to an equitable share. If it goes down $500,000 the court can just look at it as an economic circumstance. In reality the court doesn’t take the loss into account. Another way to look at it is the $500,000 in appreciation has to be on a property spreadsheet but an equivalent loss cannot be placed on the property spreadsheet.”

In states where a divorce plaintiff is entitled to a share of any increase in the value of a premarital asset during the marriage, random movements in asset prices can lead to large profits. Consider a plaintiff who marries a defendant with three $1 million investments. In a zero-volatility and zero-inflation environment, if she sues him for divorce after five years she gets nothing from these assets. However, suppose that the value of the investments is volatile. One goes to zero. One stays at $1 million. The third goes up to $2 million. After five years, the plaintiff gets 50 percent of the $1 million in appreciation or $500,000 net. This is much more lucrative even though the defendant’s three investments are worth a total of $3 million in both cases. Judson Kidd of Arkansas said “If I were representing the defendant I would argue that the losses should be figured against the profits, but it could go either way.”

Inflation is helpful to plaintiffs because courts work with nominal dollars, not real dollars. If an asset goes from $1 million to $10 million during a marriage but is actually worth less in real terms, that means 90 percent of the asset can be divided.  So a plaintiff who would have gotten nothing in a zero-inflation environment gets $4.5 million in an inflationary environment. How did inflation play a role here? Oil was about $12 per barrel in 1988 when these litigants were married. At the time of the trial it was about $90 per barrel.

An interesting angle here is the care with which money is handled by America’s family courts compared with what happens to children. Attorneys told us that custody cases, in which a child may essentially lose one parent (once a court declares that Parent A is “primary” (the modern name for “custodial”), a typical outcome, the officially “secondary” Parent B usually begins to fade from the child’s life (according to academic psychologists’ studies)), are decided in motion hearings as short as 10 minutes. No witnesses testify, just attorneys speaking on each side.  Assuming that a nine-week trial was 30 hours per week on the record, as much time was devoted to figuring out exactly how rich these two rich people should be as would be devoted to the custody decisions for about 2000 children (1620 motion hearings; assume just over 1 child per hearing (sometimes siblings are disposed of together)).

[Note that if the custody decisions were made in Massachusetts, using the child support guidelines, this would be about the same amount of court time per dollar in dispute. If the average custody and child support defendant in Massachusetts was earning $100,000 per year (higher than average, but it is hardly sensible to sue someone who earns less than average), the children would yield about $20,696 (tax-free) per year times 23 years, or $476,000 total. The cash value of the disputed children would then be $952,016,000, pretty close to the $995 million in "property division alimony" that Ann Hamm won from her lawsuit. In Oklahoma, however, obtaining custody of a child is not as profitable. The same $100,000 per year defendant yields about $11,172 per year in tax-free child support (table) and only for 18 years, a total of $201,096 for one child. So the 2000 children that the Oklahoma court could have allocated in nine weeks of judge time would have had a total value of about $402.2 million.]

I don’t think this case is too surprising. There was a lot of money and, due to the length of the marriage and Oklahoma’s subjective statutes, ownership of the money was uncertain.

What has been more surprising to us (authors) is the amount of resources that family courts will devote to the question of child support to be paid to from one rich or high-income person to another rich or high-income person. Here are a couple of excerpts from our book:

Maryanne Sorge sued her husband Joe Sorge [later the director of the movie Divorce Corp.] in Wyoming in 2000. She got assets that were worth about $14 million, joint custody of children, and $96,000 per year in child support. Seven years later Maryanne, who had remarried (to a husband of unknown wealth and income), sued her ex-husband in California seeking “to modify the child custody and visitation arrangement” for a 14-year-old (i.e., a child who had only 4 more years in the child support system in Wyoming and California). Part of her lawsuit was that the former husband should have been disclosing to her, on a continuing basis, any changes in his income. After three years of litigation, in 2010, Maryanne won an order for $216,000 per year in child support plus payment of $200,000 in her legal fees. Assuming the child support order was retroactive, and compared to the $48,000 per year that she had been receiving for the single child, she netted $672,000 on the lawsuit. In upholding this award, the appeals court noted “California has a strong public policy in favor of adequate child support” and talked about the “needs of the child.” The IN RE: the MARRIAGE OF Joseph and Maryanne K. SORGE case was finally decided in 2012, when the child yielding the support payments was presumably 19 years old and no longer a child. I.e., the litigation over how much money a person with $14 million in assets (and a new husband) needs to support a part-time child lasted longer than the kid’s childhood.

From “Men Receiving Alimony Want A Little Respect” (Anita Raghavan, April 1, 2008, Wall Street Journal): “Sara Lee Chief Executive Brenda Barnes is paying no alimony to her ex-husband … Until their youngest child recently turned 18, Ms. Barnes, who earned a total of $8.7 million in fiscal 2007, was receiving child-support payments from her former husband, according to court records.”

Why is the Sorge case is more interesting than the Hamm case? You have two parents each of whom is worth literally tens of millions of dollars. Yet somehow the divorce industry was able to keep them as customers (albeit one of them unwillingly) for 12 years to answer the question of “Who will pay for a 14-year-old’s T-shirts and skateboard?” And legislators and judges will tell you that it is “in a child’s best interest” to have a system where the child can generate enough cash to interest someone with $14 million and where the parents can continue to fight over who owns the cash generator (using time, energy, and money that, in an intact family, would be devoted to actual child-rearing).


Ivy League professor on the priority given to teaching undergrads


Doug McKee, a thoughtful economist (oxymoron?) at Yale, has published an article regarding the extent to which it is possible to balance teaching and research. When young people tell me about their aspiration to attend a top research universities, such as Harvard, I typically respond with “You say that you’re smart and you tell me that you want to pay $50,000 per year to go to a college where every minute that a professor is talking to an undergraduate he or she is damaging his career?” [A look at this page reveals that I need to update this to $60,000 per year.]

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