Jonathan Chait wields the power of logic

Alerted by the lovely and ferocious Jane Hamsher, I was treated to the display of Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, promising to deploy the power of logic. badteacherJC defends eliminating teacher tenure standards, joining a movement that is now spurred by the recent not-Sophia Vergara court decision in California. (Showing my mad SEO skillz.) I regret to report that his use of the power proves somewhere short of awesome.

JC notes correctly that due to tenure restrictions a government’s need to lay off teachers in the teeth of the Great Recession causes the bad to be released along with the good.

This immediately raises two issues with which JC’s power of logic fails to reckon. One is, who says there had to be all those lay-offs? My answer is Federal policy that failed to backstop the inevitably pro-cyclical (meaning counter-productive — lower spending/higher taxes) state fiscal policy during the economic downturn. Two is, supposing there is no tenure, how do we know that administrators, given the opportunity, would effectively cull the chaff from the wheat, in terms of teacher effectiveness? Who after all are these administrators, but people who decided they’d rather do something other than teach?

It should be noted that tenure rules vary by state. Many teachers lack union protection. Even with tenure, there could be a probationary period of years that provides principals the opportunity to reverse their bad hiring decisions. Insofar as there are bad teachers, this apparently hasn’t worked. If principals have been bad at managing teachers, why would higher-level administrators be good at managing principals, who as managers have no tenure?

A third question that JC does consider is, assuming some job security protections are eliminated, how would the public sector attract better teachers? JC suggests that weaker job security could be accompanied by higher pay. My question, following his logic, is do we observe this in practice, ever, or more than occasionally? In that case, are we observing genuinely elevated pay scales or mere hyping of limited bonus schemes? I don’t know the answer. I would like to.

A settled fact about public sector employment is that workers accept somewhat reduced salary in exchange for greater job security. I suggest that low turnover among teachers is a good thing, and a move towards more of a spot market in teachers goes against the grain of stable employment.

JC relates a theory that is out there:

The liberal education-reform theory is that the public will be more open to higher taxes to support higher levels of teacher pay if teachers are accountable for their performance. Likewise, those dollars will be spent more effectively if they are related to performance rather than to years on the job.

Which raises another question: can performance be effectively measured? JC thinks so. I am skeptical. Sadly, this is not susceptible to JC’s power of logic. It is a matter of empirical evidence. Jesse Rothstein is your go-to guy on that issue. (Here’s Jesse on not-Sophia Vergara.)

Then JC offers an explanation of the labor market:

In most fields, your pay is based on your perceived value rather than on the number of years you have spent on the job. 

Sorry, this logic is simplistic to the point of being just . . . wrong. Labor is not a spot market. Labor markets do not inexorably march towards equilibrium. The marginal product of labor is a non sequitur. The public sector is not a profit-maximizer. Both the seller and buyer of labor comprehend non-monetary factors, not the least of them being job security. Wrong wrong wrong. To this ever so slightly advanced level of labor economics I would propose my own maxim: a government that manages tenured employees badly will hire and fire untenured employees inefficiently as well, since bad governments are going to be . . . bad.

How many bad teachers are out there? JC offers a report written by his wife, which connubial support I think is commendable, no snark intended. The evidence for the frequency of bad teachers cited in the report consists of surveys of teachers and administrators. It is thin. Moreover, the magnitude of bad teaching as claimed and summarized here is also not much. After all, one has to weigh the negative impact of reduced job security on the majority of teachers, evidently not-bad in light of the report’s evidence, against the benefits of nailing the purportedly bad teachers. Ms Chait provides estimates of the benefits of removing bad teachers but a) assumes you can accurately single them out in the first place, and b) test scores are a legitimate criterion for success.

Powerful economic forces beset the teaching profession. Those with the capacity to be good teachers can make more money elsewhere. The public sector and the labor market in general are going backwards in labor standards. The effectiveness of schooling depends hugely on factors outside of the school, as Jesse’s pappy has written. And finally, education reform schemes can be taken up under a lack of supporting evidence.

Check your credibility


Herein an odd recap of the New Left (circa 1968-72). The differences suggested between Lefts, ‘New’ and Newest are more superficial than real. Most of it has to do with the novel terminology one finds today, which I assume stems from arcane post-modernist academic discourse.

As in the olden days, characteristics of a tiny minority of the already tiny left tend to be attributed more widely than is justified. When you say New Left, a frequent association is to bombings by the Weatherpeople. This was a minority faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that became even smaller when they started running amuck in 1969. SDS actually had an extended sequence of different vintages of Left, starting in the early 1960s, ranging from old-fashioned democratic socialists inside the Democratic Party to a smorgasbord of assorted Marxist and anarchist factions. One such faction, the widely reviled Weatherpeople (a minority, in numbers), were responsible for some tragic deaths, including a few of their own people, though compared to the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the Japanese Red Army (sic), Weather was a bunch of bratty teenagers.

Today you can find talk of “intersectionality,” “positionality” and privilege checking, but this too is a feature of a minority of a minority. Typically the setting for this discourse is not activism. It is the pastime of people who tweet. I’d be amazed to hear there were challenges of privilege checking at gatherings of Moral Monday in North Carolina. Or the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building. Or the sit-ins of the Dream Defenders in Florida. To quote an old old lefty, it’s a “hurricane in a drop of water.”

Much that is old has become new again. Intra-left racial exchanges today echo the split in the civil rights movement that launched Stokely Charmichael’s “black power” message and black nationalism more broadly. The original Black Panthers, with their interest in cross-racial coalition, actually did a lot to offset that divisiveness, until the cops shot them up.

Gender conflicts originally broke out as women’s groups started forming around 1969, if memory serves, in reaction to cloddish behavior and deficient analysis by radical men. (Men’s groups formed quickly after, but as a much less common activity. You couldn’t have dragged me to one at gunpoint.) Since then gender identification has gotten much more complex. So that’s one genuinely new thing that would have mystified a time-traveler from 1968.

Finally, class. The New Left was substantially middle-class or greater, though this tends to be exaggerated. It should not be forgotten that there was parallel, connected agitation in the labor movement and among veterans. No less than today, the class issue provoked endless navel gazing, since the objects of New Left students’ organizing were racial minorities and/or the working class. Historically, the leaders of insurgencies often come from privileged backgrounds. How much time is it worth dwelling on this? I’d say not much. It’s old news. A fair amount of the self-examination focused on racial bias. I wouldn’t say that none of it was productive. It’s certainly not new.

How much of the problems with the left today are due to bias stemming from the racial, gender, or ethnic identities of its members? I would suggest for all practical purposes none, zero, nada, zilch. The left’s problem is that it is small. You might quickly note the left is also fragmented, not least by identity-connected concerns. I suggest that if the left was larger — if it had larger, all-inclusive organizations — the fragments would come together to advance their concerns, and legitimate concerns would be well-served. How to grow the Left? Damned if I know.

The masses are not abstaining from left politics because of identity bias within the left. Rather, a certain notion of identity in the white middle class or working class, particularly in the South, has become a pole of attraction that animates the GOP and a nasty assortment of neo-fascist groups that blow up buildings, shoot doctors, and assault people with dark skin. That is the principal identity problem in the U.S.

The recent Stephen Colbert brouhaha is instructive. What began as Colbert’s sortie against racism out in the world, through SC’s defense of native Americans against racist epithets, was preempted and transformed into a complaint about Colbert. That sort of intervention does not contribute to any plausible concept of progressive activism. It is at best a distraction, at worst a modern echo of COINTELPRO.


The thoroughly modern macroeconomics of Stephen D. Williamson (SDW), Part I

First in a series. I’m reading his intermediate macro textbook (fourth edition). Cost me ten bucks (including shipping). It is somewhat of a novelty among intermediate texts because he adheres to a “Real Business Cycle” (RBC) perspective. SDW blogs here. What is RBC? That’s the subject of this series. The eminent MIT professor Robert Solow describes it archly:

The preferred model has a single representative consumer optimizing over infinite time with perfect foresight or rational expectations, in an environment that realizes the resulting plans more or less flawlessly through perfectly competitive forward-looking markets for goods and labor, and perfectly flexible prices and wages.


To be fair, adherents to RBC would answer, our models get much more complicated than that; and they will, in time, provide more accurate predictions of the economy. Being able to predict is what ultimately matters anyhow.

The RBC folks can be a little sharp themselves. Here, for instance, the eminent Robert Barro contrasts his own “regular economics” with irregular Keynesian economics.

Here is RBC guru Edward Prescott, pulling rank:

I don’t know why Obama said all economists agree on [the need for a stimulus bill]. They don’t. If you go down to the third-tier schools, yes, but they’re not the people advancing the science…

And Prescott again:

It is an established scientific fact that monetary policy has had virtually no effect on output and employment in the U.S. since the formation of the Fed . . . 

I find the above a little breathtaking, purely in terms of arrogance. We’ll try  to get to the substance in this series. Full disclosure: I did well in my macro comprehensives in grad school, but that was in 1984. I’m trying to get up to date. After following DeLong and Krugman’s ongoing jihad against modern macroeconomcs’ “dark ages,” I thought it would be worthwhile to get the Full Monty “Real Business Cycle” (RBC) side of the story. As the quotes above should indicate, RBC is the mortal enemy of traditional Keynesian economics, and vice versa.

A few fun bits to get warmed up.

In the “Key Terms” section at the end of Chapter One, SDW defines the term “Keynesian” as “Describes macroeconomists who are followers of J.M. Keynes . . . ” By contrast, RBC theory is defined as “Initiated by Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott . . . ” So Keynesians are like children following a dead Pied Piper, RBC’s founders don’t have “followers.” They do the serious work.

On financial bubbles, or by SDW, “bubbles,” we get:

Some economists argue that the rapid increase in the price of housing up to 2006 was an asset price “bubble.”

By contrast:

Alternatively, according to the fundamental view, market prices of assets can always be explained (maybe through some hard thinking and research) by factors affecting supply and demand . . .

Get the difference, bubbleheads?

I’ll end by noting SDW’s principal exception to GDP as an indicator of well-being is its omission of household production, which is fine as far as it goes, though the failure to mention non-market environmental amenities up front is curious. As I said, we’re still in the throat-clearing phase of the book, so some suspension of judgment is called for.

Lastly, on unemployment, SDW lists four factors affecting it: aggregate economic activity, the structure of the population, government intervention, and sectoral shifts. The first one looks circular (As in “When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results.” — Calvin Coolidge), but as noted above this is an introductory chapter so we will withhold judgment. The RBC view of unemployment is kind of notorious. We will unpack it at our leisure.