Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Stuff I liked

Very cool stop-motion animation in a Toronto bookstore: The Joy of Books

Creative use of language by Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw, after his team's defeat of LSU yesterday: “I’ve got to say, we outphysicaled them today”

Newest religion officially recognized by the Swedish government: the Church of Kopimi. Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V are their sacred symbols.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Education as a principal-agent problem

The Atlantic has an interesting article by Anu Partanen on its website: "What Americans keep ignoring about Finland's schools success." The basic argument is that Finland implemented education reform about a generation ago in order to achieve equity, and that excellence is, in some sense, a fortuitous by-product.

Of course, equity (in this case, equal access to the same quality educational resources for all children, regardless of wealth, ethnicity, location, etc.) is a hard sell in the United States. As a result, Partanen suggests, the dozens of fact-finding missions that come to visit Finland each year almost willfully ignore the key lesson of Finland's model.

Partanen repeatedly cites a top Finnish education official, Pasi Sahlberg, who has written the book Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? I have not read the book, so I may be kicking in an open door here, but it appears to me that Partanen's representation of Finland's model risks overlooking its most important attribute.

Consider education as a principal-agent problem. The state would like high educational achievement for all its citizens, and can be seen as the principal. The agents who, in the end, make this goal possible are the teachers. (In between are intermediate principals/agents such as state education boards and the like, but I'm ignoring those for the sake of simplicity.)

Assume that being a good teacher has two components: learnable (a skill set) and exogenous (for example, liking children) and that only a subset of the population of possible teachers has the requisite exogenous characteristics. How do you maximize the chances that your agents are all good teachers?

There are two obvious strategies to adopt: require serious training, and offer a salary (plus non-salary perks such as 'prestige') sufficiently high to attract enough people with the exogenous characteristics needed. This is what Finland appears to have done. It is also what some of the better private schools do in the United States, with pretty good success.

Of course, both training and higher salaries cost money. How might you try to achieve the same goal more cheaply? Well, you could try to specify precisely what students need to learn, and how, and then hire agents to do exactly, and only, that. And make sure they do so by administering ever more frequent standardized tests.

These agents won't need as many skills, and they won't necessarily need the exogenous characteristics, because you have specified exactly what they'll be doing anyway. So you can pay them much less. And you'll get a large number of unmotivated, relatively unskilled teachers. You'll still get a bunch of superb teachers as well, of course, but you risk demotivating them too, since they will not be able to deploy their own capabilities to their fullest extent. This situation would seem to exist in rather too many public school systems in the United States.

However, while Finland's focus on equity may be ignored by American educational reformers, the importance of higher salaries (and prestige) and better training are not. Education reformers have been calling for both for years. In contrast to Partanen, I would bet that you could retain the system of public and private schools the United States has at the moment and still achieve much better results, as long as you were willing to commit to paying for higher teacher salaries and more extensive training.

The problem, of course, is that while the state is the principal in my little model, it is also an agent: it is the agent of the American public. So we would need to convince the American public to spend more (perhaps considerably more) on teachers. And that is perhaps an even harder sell than equity.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"He's voted for foreign aid repeatedly"

Another reason not to support Ron Paul. His son, Rand, going on the attack against Santorum, said on Tuesday, on CBS's The Early Show: "On economic issues, like foreign aid — he’s voted for foreign aid repeatedly."

Now I don't actually have any idea about Santorum's general stance on foreign aid. (I suspect that, like most of the Republican candidates this election round, he's largely opposed to it.) Regardless, I find it offensive that Paul is trying to imply that any support of any foreign aid at any time is obviously wrong.

Interestingly, Paul's statement also illustrates an argument about the framing of aid I make in my book. Paul clearly sees aid as an economic issue. I don't think he is being strategic here (though he might be): he really thinks of aid in those terms. More importantly, I would argue he thinks of it in those terms not because he is a libertarian (many libertarians in Europe think of aid in humanitarian terms, and support it), but because he is an American. Foreign aid has been framed in economic or security terms in the United States for decades, much more so than is the case in other donor countries. As a result, if Americans think aid serves no economic purpose, they're much more likely to reject it than are their counterparts in, say, Denmark.

International intervention: Why Libya and not Syria?

Philip Gourevitch has an interesting post at the New Yorker on the situation in Syria: The Arab Winter. It is striking to me how much stamina the protesters in Syria have displayed, given how little headway they have been able to make on their own against Assad's security forces, and how little international assistance, or even attention, they have received.

Gourevitch concludes that although the Arab League has taken some action on Syria, and has monitors on the ground now, these are likely to remain toothless. He does not deem it likely that more will happen: "Qadaffi was uniquely reviled, and uniquely disposable, and disposing of him was the easy part of the revolution (as it was with Mubarak in Egypt). With Assad it’s trickier—and the Syrian people remain hostages of that trickiness."

It is also worth thinking about geopolitics here (Gourevitch does so a little, but it is not the focus of his argument): chaos in Libya is much less worrisome to all kinds of key actors in world politics than is chaos in Syria, as a simple look at the map makes clear. What would instability in Syria mean for Israel, for Turkey, for Iraq, and for their various allies?

Still, there cannot be many other countries at the moment where the government is killing its own civilians at the same rate as Assad's troops are doing (an average of about 20 citizens per day since March, Gourevitch calculates). For those who argued for intervention in Libya on purely humanitarian grounds, that ought to mean something.

(Interesting idea for an undergraduate research project: compile data on rates of death-by-government-forces in authoritarian countries and see what kinds of patterns, if any, one can find. There are datasets on total deaths, so rates should be not that hard to deduce. But I can't think, off-hand, of anyone who has looked into them. Be the first!)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Understanding war

Interesting op-ed in yesterday's New York Times by John Tirman, of MIT: "The forgotten wages of war". Tirman points out that Americans rarely debate, or even think about, civilian destruction caused by their war efforts. This is problematic because, as Tirman argues, "The consequences of how we fight wars reveals [sic] a great deal about how and why others fight us."

Tirman has an important point, but I think he overlooks a deeper issue, one that bears on why the United States has shown rather less reluctance to go to war than have European countries in recent decades. In the American imagination, a war is something you go out and fight elsewhere; for many continental Europeans, a war is something that comes and destroys your country, and nobody is immune. Different experiences during World War II and the Cold War account for most of this difference, so it may be waning. Perhaps that is too bad: as Tirman points out, a greater understanding of what war means to those who have it visited upon them is salutary.

(By the way, Tirman has apparently written a recent book about the issue: The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s War, which looks at American wars going back to World War II. The table of contents looks pretty interesting.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Democracy, hunger, aid

The famine in Somalia this fall received a fair amount of press, which likely helped increase aid flows to the country. Aid efforts appear to have helped forestall a worst-case outcome, which is great. Of course, the fact that a famine erupted at all is due in large part to the absence of a functioning government (and continual fighting between groups aspiring to be the government) in the country.

Amartya Sen famously pointed out in his classic Poverty and Famines that famines are exceedingly unlikely under a functioning, democratic government. Hunger, however, does happen; moreover, being less extreme than famine, hunger is generally under-reported. The New York Times performs a valuable service today, highlighting hunger in the Democratic Republic of Congo (in an article by Adam Nossiter).

Congo is, at least nominally, a democracy. Indeed, elections were held in November, albeit with lots of problems and irregularities. The article gives a striking illustration both of Sen's thesis and of one mechanism that might undermine it.

On the one hand, Nossiter notes that the government is interested in enriching itself, not its citizens, investing nothing in the agricultural sector. In fact, one expert suggests that all agricultural projects undertaken in the country are funded by foreign aid donors rather than the national government. This is the kind of behaviour one might expect from autocratic governments that need not rely on public support. Moreover, it is the kind of behaviour that one could imagine leading to a famine at some point in the future.

On the other hand, Nossiter suggests, the daily struggle for sustenance may make it possible for such blatant disregard for the lives of citizens to co-exist with regular (albeit rather flawed) elections. So is a famine possible in democracies with rulers who have farmed out the "caring for the survival of our citizens" to foreign aid organizations? And if so, what can/should aid organizations do about this?