Frida Kahlo

In responding to a post by Uncle of ABCWatch, a while ago I accepted the premise of the post, namely that Frida Kahlo was a committed Stalinist. In fact, she and her husband Diego Rivera sheltered the exiled Trotsky and Kahlo had a brief affair with him. As this brief summary suggests, it’s a tangled story and I don’t want to claim that Kahlo was a saint, but it’s important to get basic facts straight.

Disasters

Am I just paying more attention to the news or are there even more disasters than usual? Two nightclub disasters in the US, the train fire in Korea and plane crashes in Iran and Pakistan among others. Then there’s the continuing pandemic of HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa and of course all the everyday tragedy of routine death that never makes the news.

As Me No No pointed out in a comments thread recently, it’s impossible to feel equal empathy for everybody. Instinctively, I feel a lot more empathy for Korean commuters than for Iranian ‘elite troops’, but obviously they all had families and loved ones. I don’t really have a point in all this, but I suppose it’s better to pay attention to such things than to adopt the natural response of ignoring them.

A crucial test on inspections

As just reported in the NYT United Nations weapons inspectors said today that they would order Iraq to destroy hundreds of ballistic missiles and rocket engines that were found to be in violation of the cease-fire agreement Iraq signed at the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

It’s clear that a refusal would lead directly to war, very probably with the backing of the UNSC. And, since such a refusal would be clear evidence that Saddam is irrationally devoted to his weapons, it would lead me to drop my opposition to war.

But, precisely because of this analysis, I anticipate that the demand will be accepted, though doubtless with very bad grace and after attempts to wiggle out of doing anything (offering to handicap the missiles perhaps) have failed. Once this happens, it will be very hard for the “coalition of the willing” to argue that inspections are useless. The case for taking another six months will be that much stronger. Even if inspections ultimately run up against clear non-compliance, Saddam will have been weakened by the loss of the rockets, and by the necessity to keep weapons so carefully concealed that they will not be readily available to him in the event of a war (one story has them on ships in the Indian Ocean!)

The CIS rejects economics

One of the odd features of the free-market thinktanks in Australia is their insistence that standard economic theory does not apply to education. The Institute of Public Affairs spent several years running the line that class sizes are irrelevant to educational outcomes. Now Jennifer Buckingham at the CIS has picked up the ball, taking almost the identical line.

The basis for the argument is the fact that it’s extremely difficult to detect effects of class sizes in statistical studies. This is not exactly surprising. It’s very hard to measure anything here. Ideally, we would like to be able to measure how ‘educated’ students are when they start a school year, how ‘educated’ they are when they finish and then take the difference as the contribution of the school. The best available measure, in most cases, is that provided by US standardised tests, which are notoriously unsatisfactory, being designed for cheap mass administration rather than careful assessment. Then there are the many other factors like teacher quality, some of which are even harder to measure.

American economist Rick Hanushek has tried to overcome these problems by collecting lots of studies and counting the results. He comes up with no effect, and is pretty strongly committed to the view that this reflects reality. But experts in meta-analysis have pointed out that Hanushek’s method of ‘counting studies’ is amateurish and unsatisfactory, and have proposed alternative methods that do find positive results.

As with lots of controversies involving statistics, the end result is inconclusive, and most people will go on believing whatever seems most reasonable to them. (Disputes over guns and crime provide a pretty good parallel.) With that warning in mind, you can read my summary of the evidence here.

For an economist, the answer is straightforward. Other things equal, more inputs mean more outputs. This is true, even in the presence of ‘distortions’, such as overstaffing or union restrictions on technology. Hence, unless education is a special activity not governed by the normal laws of production economics, we would expect to see an inverse correlation between class sizes and outcomes.

But wait, there’s more. The CIS (or at least, Jennifer Buckingham) is discarding consumer sovereignty as well. Thanks to the existence of private schools, we have market evidence (in the absence of tight zoning, we get similar evidence from the preferences of parents when they choose between state schools). If small sizes are valueless, we’d expect parents to prefer private schools to spend their money on other things, such as computers or study tours. But in fact there is very little difference between the proportions of resources allocated to teaching staff and other resources for private and public schools. The more money the school has, the lower the class sizes.

To rationalise this practice you have to assume that parents (all former students themselves, of course) not only have mistaken beliefs when they initially choose to send kids to schools with low class sizes, but are incapable of telling whether the education their kids are getting is good or bad once it’s underway. If this weren’t true, schools could gradually shift resources from teaching staff to other uses, and parents would see the benefits and keep their kids in school.

Of course, once you accept this, the whole case for any sort of choice (individual or collective) goes out the window. If as Buckingham explicitly asserts, teachers, parents and governments are all fundamentally mistaken about what makes for good education, the only reasonable policy option is to appoint people like Buckingham and Hanushek to make our choices for us.

Not a good start

Google’s takeover of Blogger has been followed by the disappearance of large numbers of Blogspot sites – I think this may affect everyone who hasn’t paid for the premium package. I hope this is not a taste of things to come!

According to Pyra, those affected should try republishing their blogs.

Dead-trees, bloggers and Lotts

Bloggers have done most of the spadework in exposing the curious misrepresentations of John Lott/Mary Rosh. But the dead-tree media have their strengths, notably including a reach that puts even Instapundit to shame. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, stories on Lott have been appearing in major US newspapers with circulations in the millions, recently including Chicago, where he supposedly conducted his survey. By now the story ought to have reached the attention of dozens of respondents to the putative survey, not to mention the student volunteers who supposedly conducted it. Yet the only person to come forward as a participant has been a pro-gun activist with a record of sharp practice to match that of Mary Rosh.

I think we can conclude with a high degree of confidence that no survey was ever undertaken. This raises the question of whether Lott still meets the ethical standards of the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a visiting scholar. A few years ago, he would undoubtedly have been shown the door. But the AEI has gone a long way downhill, and Lott is probably safe for the moment.

Coffee again

In my last post about my American likes and dislikes, I mentioned the resurgence of the coffee wars. Walt Pohl has sprung to the defence of American beer, hamburgers and coffee, saying “The U.S. makes a fine beer, just not Budweiser, Coors, Miller, or any other brand you’ve ever heard of. ” Among the alternatives he mentions, I’m pleased to say I have sampled Anchor Steam, which is pretty good. Similarly, with hamburgers, the place to go is not McDonalds or Wendy’s, but a bar and grill.

On coffee, though, Walt is forced to narrow his defence to his hometown of Seattle, and its ‘thousands of fine coffeeshops’, as opposed to its export product, Starbucks, the only sample of Seattle-style coffee known to the great majority of the coffee-drinking world.

At this point I’ve been meaning to mention an advertising letter I got, suggesting I might want to attend a commercial telecoms conference in London. Normally this kind of stuff goes straight in the circular file, but this one was headed “Wake up and smell the coffee”, and there were enough other references to give you the impression that either the conference or the marketing material I got was specifically aimed at caffeine-addicted telecommunications economists. So, is this a niche large enough for its own conference or has the promise of individually targeted marketing material finally been realised – perhaps other people got a letter with references to real ale instead of coffee.

Update There’s already a lively discussion in the comments thread. At the risk of not delivering, I’ll foreshadow a post in which I plan an explanation of the success of the US in exporting chains like Starbucks and McDonalds based on economic rather than cultural factors. Those interested can try and anticipate my line.

Bidding for Turkey

Like the NYT, I was stunned by reports on negotiations over Turkish support for war with Iraq. Turkey is demanding $US 32 billion in cash, as well as a deal that will put them ahead of the Kurds in the postwar carve-up. The Administration has apparently made a ‘final offer’ of $26 billion and enough concessions to thoroughly alarm the Kurds, although the details are unclear. This seems to have quite a few implications.

First, when I discussed this question a while ago, Steven Den Beste proved with maps and topographical arguments that no sensible military commander would bother with the Northern option. I accepted this at the time, but was obviously premature in doing so.

Second, estimates that the war would cost $50 billion to $100 billion must now be viewed as conservative. If it’s reasonable to payTurkey $26 billion rather than rearrange the plan of attack, the total cost must be immense.

Third, if the Turks are worth $26 billion, what about Kuwait and Qatar? Neither government has yet given official approval to a war as far as I know, and if Turkey pulls out, they’ll acquire a veto power that would make the French green with envy. Kuwait would probably be too scared of Saddam to exercise it, but Qatar might see things differently. And maybe Howard should be asking for an upfront payment in the form of unrestricted access to agricultural markets.

Finally, I’ve seen some reports (no links) that some more excitable elements in the US are suggesting that if the Turks don’t roll over,they’ll be enrolled in the Axis of Weasels, cut off from US aid etc. Those tempted by this idea might remember that the Turks still have an ace up their sleeve. Turkish ground bases may be optional, but Turkish air space is not.

Quiggin on America

I’ve had two Ozploggers accuse me of anti-Americanism today,
and the famous coffee dispute has also revived. So I thought I’d do one of
those self-analysis exercises where you list things you like and don’t like. It
turns out, at least by my accounting, to be a pretty even balance

Things I like about America

Things I don’t like about America

Foreign policy (under Carter & Clinton)

Foreign policy (under Reagan, Bush I, Bush II)

Apple

Microsoft

The First Amendment

The Second Amendment

Rock & Roll

McDonalds

Higher education policy

Economic policy

San Francisco

LA

The New York Times

The Washington Times

Bloggers

Warbloggers

To tip the balance, I’ll throw in the biggest cliché of the
lot. I like Americans.

Sorry about the dreadful formatting on this post. I plan to learn about HTML tables soon.