Question: In the movie Interstellar, what is the one thing that an advanced human race can not accomplish?
- Building a five dimensional tesseract allowing people to cross time itself.
- Making a wormhole connecting distant parts of the universe.
- Colonization and exploration of new planets.
- Letting the Black Guy live to the end of the movie.
If you said 1, 2 or 3, then you know jack about science fiction. TV Tropes has a great list: The one guy killed in The Shining is Dick Halloran; in Deep Blue Sea, Samuel Jackson is eaten by a shark; X-Men First class kills the only black character very quickly; in the Alien films, Black characters die early and fast; and so forth. Recent film isn’t much better. The last Riddick film had only 8 characters – and all 4 people of color die. At least they let Jeffrey Wright live in The Hunger Games – but only after crippling him and putting him in a wheel chair.
I had my hopes up for Interstellar. Dr. Romilly is the dude with the most brain power. You’re going to need a Ph.D. in astrophysics if the human race will be saved. So I’m like, ya, this guy will live to the end. But no!!! Blown up by Matt flippin’ Damon, fer cryin’ out loud. At least they could’ve softened the blow by tossing in Affleck.
Henry Mintzberg raises the hypothesis that business schools aren’t terribly good at training managers:
This is one question these centers of research do not study. We made an exception. A decade after its publication in 1990, I looked at a book called Inside the Harvard Business School, by David Ewing. (The first line was “The Harvard Business School is probably the most powerful private institution in the world.” Unfortunately he might have been right.) The book listed 19 Harvard alumni who “had made it to the top”—the school’s superstars as of 1990. My attention was drawn to a few people who would not have been on that list after 1990.
So Joseph Lampel and I studied the subsequent records of all 19. How did they do? In a word, badly. A majority, 10, seemed clearly to have failed, meaning that the company went bankrupt, they were forced out of the CEO chair, a major merger backfired, and so on. The performance of another 4 we found to be questionable at least. Some of these 14 CEOs built up or turned around businesses, prominently and dramatically, only to see them weaken or collapse just as dramatically.
Mintzberg also notes that few people seemed interested in his analysis. It’s like a medical school ignoring a study showing that all their graduates kills their patients.
My view on these findings is (a) I need some counter factuals – do non-MBA holders do any better? and (b) an assessment of selection effects – maybe at risk companies tend to over-recruit MBA’s in a desperate attempt to save the ship. Mintzberg is definitely onto something important. It is not entirely clear how a lot MBA training translates into making the tough decisions that CEO’s are often faced with.
Andrea Campbell has an article in Vox about the often perverse consequences of means testing in social policy. If you really need help, then means testing creates an incentive to completely spend all your assets so you can qualify. She uses the tragic case of her sister-in-law who was left paralyzed after an auto accident and now requires round the clock medical care:
Brian continued: Marcella qualified for Medi-Cal because she is disabled, but because Medi-Cal is for poor people, Dave and Marcella have to be poor to receive it-they have to “meet” the program’s “income test.” Counterintuitively, meeting the income test doesn’t mean having enough income (as in doing well on a test), but rather having low-enough income. The income test is actually an income limit.
Moreover, because Dave is employed, he and Marcella would be in a particular version of the program called “Share of Cost” Medi-Cal. It works this way: as a family of three with one disabled member, they are allowed to keep $2,100 of Dave’s $3,250 monthly earnings to live on. The rest of Dave’s earnings, $1,150, would go to Medi-Cal as the family’s share of cost. That is, any month in which Marcella incurred medical expenses, she and Dave must pay the first $1,150. To our surprise, if Dave earned more money, the extra amount would also go to Medi-Cal: the cost sharing is a 100 percent tax on Dave’s earnings. I figured out later that the $2,100 my brother and sister-in-law are to live on puts them at 133 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three. Essentially, the way they meet the income test is for Medi-Cal to skim off Dave’s income until they are in fact poor. Brian noted that they are “lucky” that they are allowed to retain that much income; if Marcella weren’t disabled, the amount they’d be allowed to retain would be even lower than $2,100. And this is how things will be indefinitely. In order to get poor people’s health insurance, Dave and Marcella must stay poor, forever.
To make issues worse, California has an arcane system of means tested programs that make it hard to even understand what you might, or might not, be qualified for:
So much for helping my brother and sister-in-law navigate the system. Medi-Cal is a collection of more than 100 programs, each with its own income methodology and rules. A person familiar with Medi-Cal likened the program to the Winchester Mystery House, the San Jose mansion constructed continually over four decades by the odd widow of the Winchester rifle fortune: there is no master plan. “All the ‘rooms’ added on over the years makes it very difficult to see which rules apply to which groups and to follow them all the way through,” this observer told me. And even if Dave and Marcella could retain a bit more income to live on, they are still subject to the asset limit and all of Medi-Cal’s other strictures. They are still trapped in an eccentric’s mansion, where the stairways lead to ceilings and the doors open onto walls.
Campbell nails it on the head when she notes that social policy is a bizarre contraption of programs. Lesson: Make social policy simple and with wide coverage. Otherwise, don’t bother.
Last week, fivethirtyeight.com put up a piece titled, “Economists Aren’t As Nonpartisan As We Think.” Beyond the slightly odd title (do we think they’re nonpartisan? should we expect them to be?), it’s an interesting write-up of a new working paper by Zubin Jelveh, Bruce Kogut, and Suresh Naidu. It went up a week ago, but since it gives me a chance to write about three of my favorite things, I thought it was still worth a post.
Favorite thing 1: Economists
The research started by identifying the political positions of economists, using campaign contributions and signatures on political petitions. This suggested economists lean left, by about 60-40. Not surprising so far. Then Jelveh et al. used machine learning techniques to identify phrases in journal articles most closely associated with left or right positions. Some of these are not unexpected (“Keynesian economics” versus “laissez faire”), while others are less obvious (“supra note” is left, and “central bank” is right).
The Guardian recently ran an article about Shimer College, a tiny great books college in Chicago, Illinois. Originally, the authors wanted to know why it had been ranked so low by the Department of Education. The answer is that there is a fair amount of non-completion, people leave with debt, and they don’t get great jobs. Why? Shimer College takes all kinds of students and makes them go through this unique curriculum of great books for four years. It sounds like a wonderful institution, but not one that produces the “right numbers.” It’s also a college that is very close to closing due to extremely low enrollments.
When I finished reading the article, I realized that Shimer College represented a puzzle. Normally, in a large market, like higher education, we see an explosion of organizational forms catering to different market segments. And to some extent, that’s exactly what happened in higher ed. We have research schools, tribal colleges, cosmetology schools, and an army of biblical colleges. But the liberal arts sector keeps shrinking and shrinking. Is it really all that hard to find 200 people in a nation of 300 million that wants the free wheeling inquiry of Shimer College?
Here’s my solution to the issue. Start with the observation that there’s a negative association between price and risk tolerance. When college is cheap, people will try out all kinds of college experiences. As it becomes more expensive and tied to the labor market, there is a huge pressure for conformity. You get diversity when there is a strong social identity supporting an institution (e.g., ethnicity or religion) or when students simply can’t be shoe horned into existing structures (e.g., cosmetology students don’t need football stadiums). Thus, liberal arts schools exist only for a market segment that (a) needs the four year credential, (b) really, really doesn’t want the standard package offered by the big universities, and (c) has the cash to pay for such a specialized service. You also have some liberal arts schools that are bankrolled by others (e.g., Deep Springs or Berea). You probably get down to a few thousand students per year at most and there is stiff competition for their money. And as prices keep going up, the market gets smaller.
So yes, there are probably tons of students who would love the liberal arts education, but not many who would pay the full sticker price. I hope that people can create a model where you bring people back to this type of education at a more reasonable price.