Category Archives: economics

I don’t work at a finishing school

David Brooks, in the New York Times:

On the left, less viciously, we have elite universities that have become engines for the production of inequality. All that woke posturing is the professoriate’s attempt to mask the fact that they work at finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent. Their graduates flock to insular neighborhoods in and around New York, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities, have little contact with the rest of America and make everybody else feel scorned and invisible.

It’s fun to track down a fact. More from the top 1% than the bottom 60%! That certainly makes professoring sound like basically a grade-inflation concierge service for the wealthy with a few scholarship kids thrown in for flavor. But it’s interesting to try to track down the basis of a quantitative claim like this. Brooks says “more students often come,” which is hard to parse. He does, helpfully, provide a link (not all pundits do this!) to back up his claim.

Now the title of the linked NYT piece is “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60.” Some is a little different from often; how many colleges, exactly, are that badly income-skewed? The Times piece says 38, including five from the Ivy League. Thirty-eight colleges is… not actually that many! The list doesn’t include Harvard (15.1 from the 1%, 20.4 from the bottom 60%) or famously woke Oberlin (9.3/13.3) or Cornell (10.5/19.6) or MIT (5.7/23.4) or Berkeley (3.8/29.7) and it definitely doesn’t include the University of Wisconsin (1.6/27.3).

We can be more quantitative still! A couple of clicks from the Times article gets you to the paper they’re writing about, which helpfully has all its data in downloadable form. Their list has 2202 colleges. Of those, the number that have as many students from the top 1% as from the bottom 60% is 17. (The Times says 38, I know; the numbers in the authors’ database match what’s in their Feb 2020 paper but not what’s in the 2017 Times article.) The number which have even half as many 1%-ers as folks from the bottom 60% is only 64. But maybe those are the 64 elitest-snooty-tootiest colleges? Not really; a lot of them are small, expensive schools, like Bates, Colgate, Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt — good places to go to school but not the ones whose faculty dominate The Discourse. The authors helpfully separate colleges into “tiers” — there are 173 schools in the tiers they label as “Ivy Plus,” “Other elite schools,” “Highly selective public,” and ‘Highly selective private.” All 17 of the schools with more 1% than 60% are in this group, as are 59 of the 64 with a ratio greater than 1/2. But still: of those 173 schools, the median ratio between “students in the top 1%” and “students in the bottom 60%: is 0.326; in other words, the typical such school has more than three times as many ordinary kids as it has Richie Riches.

Conclusion: I don’t think it is fair to characterize the data as saying that the elite universities of the US are “finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent.”

On the other hand: of those 173 top-tier schools, 132 of them have more than half their students coming from the top 20% of the income distribution. UW–Madison draws almost two-fifths of its student body from that top quintile (household incomes of about $120K or more.) And only three out of those 173 have as many as 10% of their student body coming from the bottom quintile of the income distribution (UC-Irvine, UCLA, and Stony Brook.) The story about elite higher ed perpetuating inequality isn’t really about the kids of the hedge-fund jackpot winners and far-flung monarchs who spend four years learning critical race theory so they can work at a Gowanus nonprofit and eat locally-sourced brunch; it’s about the kids of the lawyers and the dentists and the high-end realtors, who are maybe also going to be lawyers and dentists and high-end realtors. And the students who are really shut out of elite education aren’t, as Brooks has it, the ones whose families earn the median income; they’re poor kids.

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If you build it they will come and exploit it

There’s no way to build a program for people in need that can’t be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people who aren’t in need. I have a friend, an attorney, who used to work cases involving people who defrauded the foster care system, taking state money for the care of children who didn’t exist, or who weren’t really in their care. It’s maddening. She eventually quit that job, partially because it was so dispiriting to come in daily contact with people being awful. But what can you do? You can’t build a fence strong enough to keep out all fraud without making the administrative burden impossibly high for the many honest people doing the hard, humane work of raising kids who need parents. There’s some optimal level of vigilance that leads to some optimal level of fraud and that optimal level of fraud isn’t zero.

I thought of my friend when I read this story, about developer Dan Gilbert getting an “opportunity zone” tax break officially intended for spurring development in impoverished areas:

Gilbert’s relationship with the White House helped him win his desired tax break, an email obtained by ProPublica suggests. In February 2018, as the selection process was underway, a top Michigan economic development official asked her colleague to call Quicken’s executive vice president for government affairs about opportunity zones.

“They worked with the White House on it and want to be sure we are coordinated,” wrote the official, Christine Roeder, in an email with the subject line “Quicken.”

The exact role of the White House is not clear. But less than two weeks after the email was written, the Trump administration revised its list of census tracts that were eligible for the tax break. New to the list? One of the downtown Detroit tracts dominated by Gilbert that had not previously been included. And the area made the cut even though it did not meet the poverty requirements of the program. The Gilbert opportunity zone is one of a handful around the country that were included despite not meeting the eligibility criteria, according to an analysis by ProPublica.

Maybe there’s no way to design a program like this without billionaires with phalanxes of lawyers and friends in high places being able to sop up some of the money. Even before the “opportunity zones,” Jared Kushner was able to game a similar program by drawing a gerrymandered “low-income district” that snaked its way through Jersey City to include the site of his luxury skyscraper and also some poor neighborhoods miles away. But I have to believe the optimal enforcement level is higher and the optimal malfeasance level lower than what we have now.

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In which I almost waste four dollars at Amazon

Instructive anecdote. I needed a somewhat expensive book and the UW library didn’t have it. So I decided to buy it. Had the Amazon order queued up and ready to go, $45 with free shipping, then had a pang of guilt about the destruction of the publishing industry and decided it was worth paying a little extra to order it directly from the publisher (Routledge.)

From the publisher it was $41, with free shipping.

I think it really did used to be true that the Amazon price was basically certain to be the best price. Not anymore. Shop around!

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Nebraska isn’t poor and Nebraskans aren’t naive

David Brooks writes in the New York Times that we should figure out how to bottle the civic health southwest Nebraska enjoys:

Everybody says rural America is collapsing. But I keep going to places with more moral coherence and social commitment than we have in booming urban areas. These visits prompt the same question: How can we spread the civic mind-set they have in abundance?


For example, I spent this week in Nebraska, in towns like McCook and Grand Island. These places are not rich. At many of the schools, 50 percent of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunch. But they don’t have the pathologies we associate with poverty.

Maybe that’s because those places aren’t high in poverty! The poverty rate in McCook is 9.6%; in Grand Island it’s 15%. The national rate is 12.3%. Here’s a Census page with those numbers. What about the lunches? 50 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch sounds like a lot, unless you know that slightly more than half of all US public school students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. (Brooks says “receive,” not “are eligible for,” but it’s the latter statistics that are widely reported and I’m guessing that’s what he means; apologies if I’m wrong.)

Crime is low. Many people leave their homes and cars unlocked.

Is it? And do they? I didn’t immediately find city-level crime data that looked rock solid to me, but if you trust city-data.com, crime in Grand Island roughly tracks national levels while crime in McCook is a little lower. And long-time Grand Island resident Gary Christensen has a different take than Brooks does:

Gary Christensen, a Grand Island resident for over 68 years says times are changing.
“It was a community that you could leave you doors open leave the keys in your car and that kind of thing, and nobody ever bothered it. But those days are long gone,” said Gary Christensen, resident.

One way you can respond to this is to say I’m missing the point of Brooks’s article. Isn’t he just saying civic involvement is important and it’s healthy when people feel a sense of community with their neighbors? Are the statistics really that important?

Yes. They’re important. Because what Brooks is really doing here is inviting us to lower ourselves into a warm comfortable stereotype; that where the civic virtues are to be found in full bloom, where people are “just folks,” are in the rural parts of Nebraska, not in New Orleans, or Seattle, or Laredo, or Madison, and most definitely not in Brooklyn or Brookline or Bethesda. But he can’t just say “you know how those people are.” There needs to be some vaguely evidentiary throat-clearing before you launch into what you were going to say anyway.

Which is that Nebraska people are simple dewy real Americans, not like you, urbanized coastal reader of the New York Times. I don’t buy it. McCook, Nebraska sounds nice; but it sounds nice in the same way that urbanized coastal communities are nice. You go someplace and talk to a guy who’s on the city council, you’re gonna be talking to a guy who cares about his community and thinks a lot about how to improve it. Even in Bethesda.

Constantly they are thinking: Does this help my town or hurt it? And when you tell them that this pervasive civic mind-set is an unusual way to be, they look at you blankly because they can’t fathom any other.

There’s Brooks in a nutshell. The only good people are the people who don’t know any better than to be good. By saying so, he condescends to his subjects, his readers, and himself all at once. I don’t buy it. I’ll bet people in southwest Nebraska can fathom a lot more than Brooks thinks they can. I think they probably fathom David Brooks better than he fathoms them.

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“The Great Ph.D. Scam” (or: Academy Plight Song)

Thanks to the Wayback Machine, here’s my piece from the Boston Phoenix on the MLA, the first feature piece I ever wrote for publication, twenty-one years ago last month.

Who knows if the Wayback Machine is forever?  Just in case, I’m including the text of the piece here.

The Phoenix gave this piece its title, which I think is too fighty.  My title was “Academy Plight Song.”  (Get it?)

I think this holds up pretty well!  (Except if I were writing this today I wouldn’t attach so much physical description to every woman with a speaking part.)

Melani McAlister, the new hire at GWU who appears in the opening scene, is still there as a tenured professor in 2018.  And all these years later, she’s still interested in helping fledgling academics navigate the world of scholarly work; her page “Thinking Twice about Grad School” is thorough, honest, humane, and just great.

Here’s the piece!

The great PhD scam
by Jordan Ellenberg

“We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time of life when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent . . . ”
— William James
“The Ph.D. Octopus,” 1903

By nine o’clock, more than 200 would-be professors have piled into the Cotillion Ballroom South at the Sheraton Washington hotel, filling every seat and spilling over into the standing space behind the chairs. They’re young and old, dressed up and down, black and white and other (though mostly white). They’re here to watch Melani McAlister, a 1996 PhD in American Civilization from Brown, explain to a committee of five tenured professors why she ought to be hired at Indiana University.

Everybody looks nervous except McAlister. That’s because, unlike almost everyone else here, she doesn’t need a job; she’s an assistant professor at George Washington University. This interview is a mock-up, a performance put on to inform and reassure the crowd of job-seekers. As McAlister cleanly fields questions about her thesis and her pedagogical strategy, the people in the audience frown and nod, as if mentally rehearsing their own answers to the similar questions they’ll be asked in days to come.

This is night one of the 112th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, the national organization of professors of English, comparative literature, and living foreign languages. Ten thousand scholars are here in Washington, DC, to attend panels, renew acquaintances, and, most important, to fill open faculty positions. A tenure-track job typically attracts hundreds of applicants; of these, perhaps a dozen will be offered interviews at the MLA; and from that set a handful will be called back for on-campus interviews. For the people who are here “on the market,” that is, trying to become professors of English and so forth, the MLA is the gate to heaven. And, as everyone in the room is aware, the gate is swinging shut.

Continue reading

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Not even the most poorly paid shipping clerk

One more from Why Men Fail:

Not even the most poorly paid shipping clerk would dream of trying to make his own shirts, and confidential investigation would probably reveal that mighty few darn their own socks.  Yet the cities are full of women on march larger salaries who not only make their own clothes, but cook their own meals and do their own laundry.

So in 1927, it was more unusual to cook for yourself than it was to make your own clothes?  When did that flip?

 

The furniture sentiment

Today’s Memorial Library find:  the magazine Advertising and Selling.  The September 1912 edition features “How Furniture Could Be Better Advertised,” by Arnold Joerns, of E.J. Thiele and Co.

Joerns complains that in 1911, the average American spend $81.22 on food, $26.02 on clothes, $19.23 on intoxicants, $9.08 on tobacco, and only $6.19 on furniture.  “Do you think furniture should be on the bottom of this list?” he asks, implicitly shaking his head.  “Wouldn’t you — dealer or manufacturer — rather see it nearer the top, — say at least ahead of tobacco and intoxicants?”

Good news for furniture lovers:  by 2012, US spending on “household furnishings and equipment” was  at $1,506 per household, almost a quarter as much as we spent on food.  (To be fair, it looks like this includes computers, lawnmowers, and many other non-furniture items.)  Meanwhile, spending on alcohol is only $438.  That’s pretty interesting:  in 1911, liquor expenditures were a quarter of food expenditures; now it’s less than a tenth.  Looks like a 1911 dollar is roughly 2012$25, so the real dollars spent on alcohol aren’t that different, but we spend a lot more now on food and on furniture.

Anyway, this piece takes a spendidly nuts turn at the end, as Joerns works up a head of steam about the moral peril of discount furniture:

I do not doubt but that fewer domestic troubles would exist if people were educated to a greater understanding of the furniture sentiment.  Our young people would find more pleasure in an evening at home — if we made that home more worth while and a source of personal pride; then, perhaps, they would cease joy-riding, card-playing, or drinking and smoking in environments unhealthful to their minds and bodies.

It would even seem reasonable to assume, that if the public mind were educated to appreciate more the sentiment in furniture and its relation to the Ideal Home, we would have fewer divorces.  Home would mean more to the boys and girls of today and the men and women of tomorrow.  Obviously, if the public is permitted to lose more and more its appreciation of home sentiment, the divorce evil will grow, year by year.

Joerns proposes that the higher sort of furniture manufacturers boost their brand by advertising it, not as furniture, but as “meuble.” This seems never to have caught on.

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It will not be an easy or a simple task

From “Automation and Unemployment:  A Management Viewpoint,” by Malcolm L. Denise, vice president for labor relations, Ford Motor Company, 1962:

As a result of these developments, together with a vast growth in capital investment, we have managed to increase our productivity, as measured by output per man-hour, at an average rate of about 2.2 percent per year in the total private economy.  To permit a similar rate of productivity increase over the next fifty or sixty years, we must have new developments as dramatic, as far-reaching, as inconceivable as the developments of the past 60 years would have seemed in 1900.  Work will not soon be obsolete because we have learned how to build computers and employ electronic controls.  Indeed, it will not be an easy or a simple task even to maintain the past rate of productive increase from our present high base.

Indeed.

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Why would anyone want to become a security analyst or portfolio manager?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jason Zweig frets about the popularity of index funds:

If investors keep turning their money over to machines that have no opinion about which stocks or bonds are better than others, why would anyone want to become a security analyst or portfolio manager? Who will set the prices of investments? What will stop all stocks and bonds from going up and down together? Who will have the judgment and courage to step in and buy during a crash or to sell during a mania?

First of all, it hardly seems like the entire stock market is liable to become one big Vanguard fund:  as Zweig says later in the piece, “indexing accounts for 11.5% of the total value of the U.S. stock market.”  Big institutional actors have special needs which give them reason to actively manage their funds.  And an institution like Wisconsin’s pension fund, which manages about $100b, isn’t giving away 2% of its money per year to a manager, the way you or I would.  (This document says we spent $52.5 million in external management fees in 2013; percentagewise, that’s less than I give Vanguard for my index.  Update:  I screwed this up, as a commenter points out.  Our external management fees increased by $52.5m.  They present this as a substantial percentage of the total but I can’t find the actual amount of the fee.)

But second:  am I supposed to be upset if it becomes less attractive to become a portfolio manager?  One out of six Harvard seniors goes into finance.  Is that a good use of human capital?

(By the way, here’s a startling stat from that Harvard survey:  “None of the women going into finance said they would earn $90,000 or more, compared to 29 percent of men in finance.”  Is that because men are overpaid, or because we lie about our salaries the same way we lie about sex?)

 

 

 

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Ordinary business expense

From today’s NYT:

But even if Hyundai is eventually forced to pay the full amount of the damages, the punishment could be substantially reduced through a tax loophole that permits the company to save millions of dollars by deducting any court-ordered punitive damages as an ordinary business expense. The result, critics say, is that taxpayers are in effect subsidizing corporate misconduct.

What’s terrible about this isn’t that companies are allowed to claim the fines they pay for malfeasance are an ordinary business expense.  What’s terrible is that it’s true.

Update:  I misspoke, as a commenter points out.  A “fine” — that is, a penalty you pay to the government — is not deductible.  What may be deductible are punitive damages, paid to people you injured or whose river you despoiled.  Prepare your return accordingly!

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