Income-based admissions to colleges would lead to divorces?

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The New York Times has a story about how colleges might switch from admitting students based on race to admitting students based on income. But what would stop a traditional married couple from getting divorced prior to their children applying to schools? In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley reported on Korean parents getting legal (but not practical) divorces in order to improve their children’s chances of admission to elite universities that had established preferences for children of single parents.

If two parents of a Harvard aspirant got a sham divorce, and only one of them had an income, the applicant could claim to be estranged from the high-earning parent and therefore be the child of a destitute family (this article says that the non-custodial parent’s income is not considered for calculating Federal and state financial aid).

A stay-at-home mother friend of mine often jokes about how if she and her husband would get legally divorced she could then obtain an array of valuable assistance from taxpayers, notably free health insurance and food (via SNAP or “food stamps”). Could the possibility of otherwise-impossible admission to the Ivy League for her children push her over the edge into implementation?

[Separately,  The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way notes that in the countries with high-performance education systems, there is only one way to get into a top college: score well on a national exam (a 50-hour essay-heavy test in Finland). Family background and wealth are not considered.]

One way for Massachusetts to catch up with Silicon Valley…

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Biotech remains strong in Massachusetts, but we’ve faded into obscurity when it comes to software. The City of Cambridge, however, has come up with one way to level the playing field: make it illegal to be a customer of a Silicon Valley success story. Here’s a posting from Uber about how the Cambridge city government is proposing effectively to shut Uber down within Cambridge. (There is a public hearing tonight.)

California may be ahead of us in grape production, but they are sour grapes and we do not want them.

[Separately, this relates to the Piketty postings. By definition taxi medallions tend to be owned by millionaires (since one medallion costs close to $1 million and in fact most medallions are owned by people who own multiple medallions). Uber drivers are trying to catch up to these rich folks, but government regulation can prevent them from earning any kind of living in this industry (other than, perhaps, the minimum wage job of working for a taxi medallion owner).]

Book review: Piketty’s Capital

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I’ve written a few posts about the trees inside Thomas Piketty’s verbose tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

Now it is time to look at the forest.

One reason that Piketty’s book deserves attention is that it is a book, not a paper. When a field is pre-paradigmatic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn) says that progress is made with books, not with journal papers. Is Economics a paradigmatic science like chemistry, biology, or physics? Due to its lack of predictive power, as evidenced by the fact that economists did not predict the Collapse of 2008 nor predict which countries would emerge from that event in the best shape, Econ is pretty plainly pre-paradigmatic (otherwise economists would be as rich as John Paulson). Piketty throws some rocks at his colleagues:

To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage to being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.

Piketty reminds us continuously that much of the economic growth for which politicians take credit is simply population growth. And also that national borders are substantial barriers to efficient deployment of capital:

If the rich countries are so flush with savings and capital that there is little reason to build new housing or add new machinery (in which case economists say that the “marginal productivity of capital,” that is, the additional output due to adding one new unit of capital “at the margin,” is very low), it can be collectively efficient to invest some part of domestic savings in poorer countries abroad.

the income of Africans is roughly 5 percent less than the continent’s output (and as high as 10 percent lower in some individual countries). With capital’s share of income at about 30 percent, this means that nearly 20 percent of African capital is owned by foreigners:

According to classical economic theory, this mechanism, based on the free flow of capital and equalization of the marginal productivity of capital at the global level, should lead to convergence of rich and poor countries and an eventual reduction of inequalities through market forces and competition. This optimistic theory has two major defects, however. First, from a strictly logical point of view, the equalization mechanism does not guarantee global convergence of per capita income. At best it can give rise to convergence of per capita output, provided we assume perfect capital mobility and, even more important, total equality of skill levels and human capital across countries—no small assumption. In any case, the possible convergence of output per head does not imply convergence of income per head. After the wealthy countries have invested in their poorer neighbors, they may continue to own them indefinitely, and indeed their share of ownership may grow to massive proportions, so that the per capita national income of the wealthy countries remains permanently greater than that of the poorer countries, which must continue to pay to foreigners a substantial share of what their citizens produce (as African countries have done for decades).

if we look at the historical record, it does not appear that capital mobility has been the primary factor promoting convergence of rich and poor nations. None of the Asian countries that have moved closer to the developed countries of the West in recent years has benefited from large foreign investments, whether it be Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan and more recently China. In essence, all of these countries themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital and, even more, in human capital, which the latest research holds to be the key to long-term growth.35 Conversely, countries owned by other countries, whether in the colonial period or in Africa today, have been less successful, most notably because they have tended to specialize in areas without much prospect of future development and because they have been subject to chronic political instability.

When a country is largely owned by foreigners, there is a recurrent and almost irrepressible social demand for expropriation. Other political actors respond that investment and development are possible only if existing property rights are unconditionally protected. The country is thus caught in an endless alternation between revolutionary governments (whose success in improving actual living conditions for their citizens is often limited) and governments dedicated to the protection of existing property owners, thereby laying the groundwork for the next revolution or coup. Inequality of capital ownership is already difficult to accept and peacefully maintain within a single national community. Internationally, it is almost impossible to sustain without a colonial type of political domination.

historical experience suggests that the principal mechanism for convergence at the international as well as the domestic level is the diffusion of knowledge. In other words, the poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill, and education, not by becoming the property of the wealthy.

In other words, a rich country will continue to invest in its industries, schools, and transportation network even though a much better return on investment is available from investing in a poor country (building a new road to a growing city in Brazil should have more value than repaving an existing road in the U.S.; building high-speed rail in China at a low cost per mile is a much better investment than building high-speed rail in California).

Piketty also notes that the more capital is accumulated the lower the return on capital tends to be, in the same sense that the availability of 1 billion skilled workers in China will tend to lower wages elsewhere or the discovery of natural gas fields will tend to lower the cost of natural gas.

After explaining these factors, however, Piketty pretty much ignores them and posits that returns on capital going forward will be just as good as they have been in the past. And then adds that rich people and organizations will get an even higher return than average schmoes invested in the S&P 500 and other public equities.

Piketty has collected copious data that he says shows that wealth inequality is high right now, comparable to conditions prior to World War I. Critics have said that he is misinterpreting, misquoting, and mistranscribing the data. But let’s suppose that he is right. Piketty argues that this means we are about to enter an era of soaring wealth inequality, the likes of which the world has never seen, in which the rich run away with it all. The top 0.1 percent will taxi their Gulfstream G-650s down Main Street whenever they want to buy a quart of milk. But perhaps Piketty, like Karl Marx, will prove to be a better historian than prophet. The same data could also be interpreted as evidence that capitalism is inherently self-correcting and wealth inequality over 200 or so years has swung between limits despite radically changed circumstances, governments, and technology.

As noted in a previous posting, Piketty’s call to action/arms is based on his prediction that wealth inequality is a runaway process that will lead to a handful of people owning virtually everything on the planet within 100 or 200 years. This prediction rests on the following assumptions:

  1. rich people get a better return on their investments than regular investors
  2. governments will stop taxing dividend and capital gain income
  3. the world economy will grow at best slowly for the next 50-100 years
  4. the return on capital will be high
  5. rich people won’t consume too much (which means most of their income gets plowed into additional investment)

All of these assumptions are questionable. Regression toward the mean has been one of the safest bets in finance, calling into question Assumption 1. Piketty doesn’t cite any examples of governments that have willingly given up a rich vein of tax revenue. When rates are cut it is typically by politicians seeking to increase actual collections, not in an attempt to shrink revenue.  Piketty’s book came out right about the same time that the U.S. added the 3.8% Obamacare tax to investment income, roughly a 25% increase in the tax on capital-based income (depending on one’s tax bracket and whether dividends were “qualified”). Finally, the U.S. actually already has a wealth tax. It is called the capital gains tax not adjusted for inflation. For example, suppose that you bought a stock for $1 million in 2000. The market hasn’t moved much since then, so let’s say that the stock has appreciated only at the official inflation rate. Now it is worth $1.38 million. If you sell it to rebalance your portfolio, you’ll pay federal, state, and Obamacare taxes of about 30%, depending on the state where you live. That’s a $111,400 tax on a non-existent gain, i.e., an 11.4% tax on the wealth that you had in 2000. If we use an inflation rate closer to reality for rich people, instead of the government’s CPI that is based on a lifestyle of consuming Chinese-made DVD players and Costco hot dogs, the stock might have gone up to $1.6 million and the tax would be $180,000 on what is, from the perspective of someone who is buying fancy houses, restaurant meals, hotel rooms, etc., a non-existent gain. That’s an 18% wealth tax.

World economic growth in the 20th century was led by the U.S., a country with poorly educated people according to the PISA test. Since human capital is an important driver of growth, maybe the 21st century will be as strong or stronger now that countries with high PISA scores have market-oriented governments. Thus Assumption 3 may be wrong. If Piketty is right about Assumption 4, i.e., that the return on capital will remain high, he needn’t have wasted his time scribbling out a 700-page book. He could be making literally infinite money in the swap market (since the rest of the folks in finance think that the return on capital going forward will be low).

Assumption 5, that rich people won’t spend, seems questionable as I sit here at the Teterboro airport looking out at a forest of Gulfstreams. It may be hard to imagine that the owner of an Embraer Phenom 300 craves a Gulfstream G-450 or that the owner of a Gulfstream G-450 craves a Gulfstream G-650, but somebody is always buying those fancier planes. As business jets, luxury houses, luxury cars, etc., all depreciate over time, this is spending, not investment.  And when rich people bid up the price of houses and/or build new mansions, they end up paying out huge property taxes. Rich people may spend money involuntarily. Most of them will try to live the middle class dream of marriage and children, but this paper by Brinig and Allen predicts that they will be targeted by wealth-seekers and child support profiteers and are likely to face divorce/child support lawsuits, resulting in revenue for the divorce industry (most of whose employees are not super rich) as well as a redistribution of wealth to the person who married or had children for the cash. (Piketty spends a lot of time looking at historical wealth-seeking via marriage but doesn’t try to calculate its effect on wealth in the 21st century.)

One of the deepest problems with Piketty’s work is that he posits a homo economicus that behaves the same whether rich or poor. Piketty does not address the carefully researched A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Gregory Clark), which attributes economic growth to a growing individual propensity to defer consumption and invest in the future. Rich countries, according to Clark, may be rich because they include a lot of people with a tendency to save rather than to spend. Thus if governments followed through on Piketty’s advice, a huge amount of money would be transferred from people who like to save and invest to people who like to buy SUVs and flat-screen TVs, thus dramatically depressing future economic growth. Piketty doesn’t address the fact that millions of Americans, as soon as they accumulated some wealth in the form of home equity, immediately took out home equity loans and spent that wealth on SUVs, imported oil to fill up the SUVs, imported electronics, trips to Disneyworld, etc. What if we actually need rich people to hold onto our capital so that we don’t spend it?

Another problem is that Piketty proposes radical surgery, starting with a world government to collect wealth taxes, without investigating whether or not some simpler tweaks could work. Piketty is obsessed with taking away money from anyone who earns more than he does or who earns it in a way that he does not respect (e.g., the Qataris who found the cash under their sand dunes). Why not start instead with helping comparatively poor people catch up? Here are some ideas, some taken from my 2009 economic recovery plan for the U.S.:

  • make Finland-grade schools available to all young people in every wealthy country (I’m going to write a future posting drawn from The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, but the Finns managed to go from mediocre to excellent mostly by (a) shutting down their teacher colleges, (b) limiting entry to the teaching field to people who had been good students, (c) limiting school systems to education (as opposed to sports facilities), and (d) discouraging teachers and schools from looking into student backgrounds, family disadvantages, etc.)
  • liberalizing immigration rules so that well-educated hard-working people can move where their skills have the most value
  • reducing government regulation, which tends to favor the rich and established (see GE with their 975-employee tax department) over the poor and starting out
  • reduce the incentives for the rich and powerful to lobby politicians by scaling back government involvement in the economy
  • cut the military budget, since military spending tends to favor the huge (Elon Musk can make cars, but he probably can’t compete with Lockheed or Boeing to sell planes to the Air Force)
  • cut government spending in general, since, once again, the government disproportionately buys from big companies owned by rich people
  • limit the profitability of child support, as has already been done in most European countries, so that it is more lucrative to go to college and work than to target a high-income person from whom to collect child support (can be $50,000-200,000 or more per year, tax-free, in many U.S. states). People who have regular jobs won’t have to feel like chumps because they make less than someone who gets paid to take care (part-time) of his or her own child.
  • Singapore-style wage top-up program for people whose skills don’t enable them to earn a decent wage in the market (kind of like the Earned Income Tax Credit), instead of a minimum wage that discourages businesses from hiring. Help people to build skills by working so that one day the market may reward them with a high wage.
  • break up the cable monopolies instead of letting them merge (see Comcast/Time-Warner) so that Americans can get decent Internet service at a reasonable price; forbid local governments from offering local cable monopolies to cronies
  • redirect our education funding from inefficient face-to-face colleges and universities so that more is spent on server-based materials that can be used by people anywhere in the world (compare the value of Wikipedia, which has cost almost nothing, to the subsidized student loans that have sent Americans to crummy colleges for a few years prior to dropping out)

As noted in my economic recovery plan article, the government has been instrumental in allowing corporate managers to loot from shareholders. It could stop prohibiting shareholders from controlling the board (i.e., stop encouraging corporate boards that consist of the CEO’s golfing buddies) and also allow shareholders to directly select and choose a pay system for executives (as would not be uncommon in a private company). It seems doubtful that shareholders would voluntarily pay $50-100 million/year to an executive under whose management the company did not outperform benchmarks such as the S&P 500.

What if we did want to cut back on some of the most ridiculously wealthy people building dynasties? We already have an estate tax, though Greg Mankiw points out that raising it will discourage him from working (nytimes). Maybe the estate tax should be adjusted for age at death and also flipped around so that death taxes are paid by those who inherit rather than the person who died. The latter procedure is common in Europe. If you had $10 million and give $500,000 to each of 20 people, the tax is lower than if you give $10 million to one person. This encourages spreading the wealth. How about the age adjustment? Suppose that a person is working hard to accumulate some wealth for her children but she dies from cancer at age 45? Should she face the same tax rate as a person who died at 100 and had a lot of time in retirement to spend? So maybe the tax rate on estates should be much lower for young people who die, about the same for 70-year-olds (see the Bible), and higher for those who die at 90+.

Piketty argues that things are awful, about to get dramatically worse, and we need radical change now. But most of the changes that he proposes wouldn’t help those for whom life is truly materially awful, since the wealth transfers he proposes are primarily intra-country. A New York investment banker would be taxed so that an Indiana schoolteacher could drive a new BMW instead of a 5-year-old Honda Accord. A subsistence farmer in Mali wouldn’t see any of the dough.

The same data, however, can be used to show that things are actually remarkably good for most people on Planet Earth, with extreme poverty in retreat compared to 50 years ago, and with a lot of demand in most places for any worker who has a good education. Wealth inequality is high, but no higher than it has been at various other times in the past and the idea that 50 families will come to own everything requires accepting a lot of questionable assumptions. Instead of putting our energy into envy we could put our energy into improving our schools so that more people had the chance to achieve their potential.

Matt Guthmiller made it across the Atlantic; I made it to Teterboro

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Matt Guthmiller has made it across the Atlantic in a single-engine Bonanza (tracker). Inspired by his daring, I made it to Teterboro today, flying right seat in a friend’s Embraer Phenom 100 business jet. My favorite part of the flight was measuring 76 dBA of interior noise at 220 knots indicated and 16,500′.

The ramp looks as though the 2 and 20 crowd robbed a Gulfstream store…

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Arc of feminism reflected in one life (Karen DeCrow)

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Atlantic magazine carries an interesting obituary of Karen DeCrow, who was president of the National Organization for Women in the 1970s but found that she couldn’t get on board with younger people who call themselves feminists. Now that I’m in the second half-century of my life I have seen a lot of people identifying with a political movement and watching with dismay as that movement pulls away from them. The 1970s parents in my childhood neighborhood (Bethesda, Maryland) grew their hair long, placed Save the Whales bumpers stickers on their Volvos, occasionally smoked marijuana, hung rows of love beads in their homes, and even said “groovy” from time to time. They would have considered themselves “liberals” but their beliefs on social issues would today likely be more aligned with politicians whom we identify as “conservative Republicans.”

School life in Korea

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I’ve started reading The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way and the author follows a Midwestern exchange student to high school in Korea. Here’s what it is like…

A few minutes later, he glanced backwards at the rows of students behind him. Then he looked again, eyes wide. A third of the class was asleep. Not nodding off, but flat-out, no-apology sleeping, with their heads down on the desks. One girl actually had her head on a special pillow that slipped over her forearm. This was pre-meditated napping. How could this be? Eric had read all about the hard-working Koreans who trounced the Americans in math, reading, and science. He hadn’t read anything about shamelessly sleeping through class.

Next was science class. Once again, at least a third of the class went to sleep. It was almost farcical. How did Korean kids get those record-setting test scores if they spent so much of their time asleep in class?

Soon he discovered the purpose of the teacher’s backscratcher. It was the Korean version of wake-up call. Certain teachers would lightly tap kids on the head when they fell asleep or talked in class. The kids called it a “love stick.”

At ten past two, Eric left school early. Since he was an exchange student, he was exempt from having to experience the full force of the Korean school day. He asked one of his classmates what would happen after he left. “We keep going to school.” Eric looked at him blankly. “Until when?” “Classes end at ten after four,” he said.

Then he went on: After classes, the kids cleaned the school, mopping the floors, wiping the chalkboards, and emptying the garbage. The kids who had received demerits—for misbehaving or letting their hair grow too long—had to wear red pinnies and clean the bathrooms. Work, including the unpleasant kind, was at the center of Korean school culture, and no one was exempt. At four thirty, everyone settled back in their seats for test-prep classes, in anticipation of the college entrance exam. Then they ate dinner in the school cafeteria. After dinner came yaja, a two hour period of study loosely supervised by teachers. Most kids reviewed their notes from the day or watched online test-prep lectures, as the teachers roamed the hallways and confiscated the occasional illicit iPod. Around nine in the evening, Eric’s classmates finally left Namsan. But the school day still wasn’t over. At that point, most kids went to private tutoring academies known as hagwons. That’s where they did most of their real learning, the boy said. They took more classes there until eleven, the city’s hagwon curfew. Then—finally—they went home to sleep for a few hours before reporting back to school at eight the next morning.

Even over summer break, libraries got so crowded that kids had to get tickets to get a space. Many paid $4 to rent a small air-conditioned carrel in the city’s plentiful supply of for-profit self-study libraries. Korea’s sky-high PISA scores were mostly a function of students’ tireless efforts, Lee [an education minister] believed, not the country’s schools.

How far have they come?

the country had no history of excelling in math. In fact, the vast majority of its citizens were illiterate as recently as the 1950s. When the country began rebuilding its schools after the Korean War, the Korean language did not even have words for modern concepts in math and science. New words had to be coined before textbooks could be published. In 1960, Korea had a student-teacher ratio of fifty-nine to one. Only a third of Korean kids even went to middle school. Poverty predicted academic failure. If PISA had existed back then, the United States would have trounced Korea in every subject.

Listening to Lee, I realized that the rest of the world could learn as much from what worked in Korea as from what didn’t work. First, countries could change. That was hopeful. Korea had raised its expectations for what kids could do despite epidemic poverty and illiteracy. Korea did not wait to fix poverty before radically improving its education system, including its teacher colleges. This faith in education and people had catapulted Korea into the developed world.

What happens when it is time for college?

University admissions were based on students’ skills as measured by the test. Full stop. Nobody got accepted because he was good at sports or because his parents had gone there. It was, in a way, more meritocratic than many U.S. colleges had ever been.

It was an extreme meritocracy for children that hardened into a caste system for adults. Even when more universities opened, the public continued to fixate on the top three.

How much does it cost?

Per student, Korean taxpayers spent half as much money as American taxpayers on schools, but Korean families made up much of the difference out of their own pockets.

Are the students happy?

One Sunday morning during that school year, a teenager named Ji stabbed his mother in the neck in their home in Seoul. He did it to stop her from going to a parent-teacher conference. He was terrified that she’d find out that he’d lied about his latest test scores.

According to his test scores, Ji ranked in the top 1 percent of all high school students in the country, but, in absolute terms, he still placed four thousandth nationwide. His mother had insisted he must be number one at all costs, Ji said. When his scores had disappointed her in the past, he said, she’d beaten him and withheld food. In response to the story, many Koreans sympathized more with the living son than the dead mother. Commentators projected their own sour memories of high school onto Ji’s crime. Some went so far as to accuse the mother of inviting her own murder. A Korea Times editorial described the victim as “one of the pushy ‘tiger’ mothers who are never satisfied with their children’s school records no matter how high their scores.” As for Ji, he confessed to police immediately, weeping as he described how his mother had haunted his dreams after he’d killed her. At the trial, the prosecutor asked for a fifteen-year prison sentence. The judge, citing mitigating circumstances, sentenced the boy to three and a half years.

Is a country where every bureaucrat is good at math able to sort out bad teachers from the good ones?

To elevate the profession, Lee rolled out a new teacher evaluation scheme to give teachers useful feedback and hold them accountable for results.

Korea’s teacher evaluation scheme did not include student test-score growth; officials I talked to seemed to want to use this data, but they didn’t know how to assign accountability, since so many students had multiple teachers, including outside tutors, instructing them in the same subjects.) Under Korea’s new rules, low-scoring teachers were supposed to be retrained. But, as in U.S. districts where reformers have tried imposing similar strategies, teachers and their unions fought back, calling the evaluations degrading and unfair. Pretty policies on paper turned toxic in practice. As a form of protest, some Korean teachers gave all their peers the highest possible reviews. In 2011, less than 1 percent of Korea’s teachers were actually sent for retraining, and some simply refused to go.

What does the author think that we can learn from this system?

As Eric [the exchange student from Minnesota] had noticed on his first day, Korean schools existed for one and only one purpose: so that children could master complex academic material. It was an obvious difference. U.S. schools, by contrast, were about many things, only one of which was learning. This lack of focus made it easy to lose sight of what mattered most.

it was clear that the real innovation in Korea was not happening in the government or the public schools. It was happening in Korea’s shadow education system—the multimillion-dollar afterschool tutoring complex that Lee was trying to undermine.

More: read the book.

Smart People at Huntington Theater

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Four thumbs down from our group this evening at Smart People, a play put on by the Huntington Theater. The play has two black characters, an Asian-American woman who is a Harvard professor, and a white guy. Our little group included an Asian-American woman who is a Harvard professor and yet the situations did not seem credible or interesting. Some of the dialog was good and the actors did complete justice to the script, but the idea that putting white, black, and Asian people together in the same country immediately leads to compelling tensions is questionable.

Much of the play concerns Barack Obama’s 2008 election. Yet it is unclear that Barack Obama’s racial background plays a part in what he is doing day to day any more than King Bush II’s racial background did.  The name “Obama” appears four times on the New York Times front page right now. Once is an article about “the Obama administration” denying a request for military assistance from the Iraqi Prime Minister. Was it denied because of Obama’s race? The article does not say that it was. Occurrence #2 is in an article about a woman whom the Times identifies as “African-American” and works as a Broadway usher who went to her workplace to see Obama attend a play despite the fact that she was not scheduled to work that day.  She was fired. It was the Times reporter who chose to assign a racial identity to the usher, however. It wasn’t part of the event per se. The third mention is a 2:46 video about “Obama’s Cold War”. The reporter says that “Obama fits the mold of Republican Cold War Presidents” and doesn’t mention the race of any of these people or explain how race might have been a factor. The last mention on the front page concerns Obama trying to get money from 50 rich people in Weston, Massachusetts. There is no mention in the article of anyone’s race. Would Obama have done something different with these 50 rich people if his racial background had been different?

If nothing else, Smart People proves that talking about race does not make the conversation profound or even worth having.

[Separately, we enjoyed our dinner at Stephi's on Tremont beforehand.]

Honda Odyssey 2014: a tribute to manufacturing engineers

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Last week Isaac Jordan of Boch Honda delivered a 2014 Odyssey to my front door in Cambridge. Given the number of systems in the vehicle it impresses me that everything seems to work perfectly (i.e., as designed), including the software.

It was going to cost about $2000 extra to have a GPS, so I figured out that a RAM mount placed on the shelf underneath the factory nav screen (you get the expensive screen even if you don’t pay $2000 for the $15 GPS chip and database) works well.

The one thing that doesn’t work is integrating a Samsung Note 3 mobile phone with the car, but I don’t think Honda could have anticipated that Google Contacts/Samsung Contacts would broadcast a “contact” that is just an email address (of a person to whose email I might have replied 6 years ago, for example). Consequently there are literally tens of thousands of “contacts” stored in the car now, most of which do not have any associated phone number. The voice recognition doesn’t work because the Honda engineers didn’t anticipate that a driver would be speaking one of potentially tens of thousands of contacts. It should work fine with an iPhone, though.

But mostly I am posting this to thank the manufacturing engineers who worked out how to deliver a perfect product. Why can’t we software engineers do as well?

[I do recommend Boch Honda and Isaac Jordan, by the way. The price was lower than at other dealers and it was a reasonably no-nonsense transaction.]

Related: my review of the 2011 Odyssey. (The things that were bad about the Odyssey in 2011 are mostly still bad. They did add an RFID key system. The car still isn’t smart enough to protect children left indoors on hot days. It is still noisier on the highway than a normal sedan. The crazy expensive entertainment system for the kids has about one quarter the resolution of the phone in your pocket (800×480!). Will it play Blu-Ray? No. The car desperately needs iPad/Android tablet docks.)

Why is California’s teacher tenure unconstitutional?

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A judge has ruled that Californa’s laws giving school teachers tenure after 18 months is unconstitutional (nytimes) on the grounds that it means some students will be taught by incompetents. But why does that follow? Californians love to pay 50-year-old retirees $100,000+/year for not working (see this article for some statistics; this article, on the other hand, indicates that it is tough for the newly retired to get more than $200,000 per year; this article has some data on what yet-to-retire workers earn). If a school administrator decided that a 24-year-old tenured teacher was incompetent, why would it be against state tradition to pay that person $50,000-100,000/year to stay home and play Xbox? It would cost taxpayers more, admittedly, to send tenured-but-ineffective teachers home and hire replacements, but that’s an accounting/efficiency problem, not a constitutional one. And California taxpayers have a demonstrated willingness to pay public employees without regard to their contributions/efforts.

So why can’t California school systems meet their commitments to teachers (pay without regard to performance) and also to students (teachers meeting a minimum standard in each classroom) simply by adding some more tax dollars?

A great way to grow the GDP (me on TV)

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It would be nice if modesty prevented me from linking to this WBZ TV interview regarding an unfortunate encounter between a Southwest 737 winglet and a JetBlue Airbus A320 horizontal stabilizer at Logan airport (CNN).

To prepare for the interview I tapped into my vast store of aviation knowledge and… Google. From a Boeing Web site I learned that a pair of winglets costs about $1 million. Presumably a replacement for this plastic-reinforced-by-carbon-fiber part is cheaper but it occurred to me that if this were to happen every day we could generate some beautiful GDP growth numbers.

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