How to report the news

I love it when satire is 100% dead on.  This is brilliant.  (Viewer discretion advised for a bit of bad language about 25 seconds in]

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The anti-stimulus

I was sitting in on the discussion section (run by a grad student) for my American Government class today and one of the students asked how can it be that Obama is calling for thousands of new math and science teachers while at the same time North Carolina is anticipating firing thousands of teachers in the coming year.  Good question.  Of course, the problem is that unlike the USA, North Carolina (and most states) has to balance its budget every year and cannot rely on borrowing to do so.  Last year ended up being not so bad for the state budget due to a modest sales tax increase, but mostly the stimulus money.  This year, there’s no more stimulus money so NC is looking at a yawning $3 billion budget hole.  Given that most of any state’s expenses are on education (and law enforcement/prisons) you can guess where the bulk of these cuts are going to come from.  In essence, last year we had a illusory cushion and this year it’s all pulled away, leaving us the anti-stimulus.  And its not pretty.  Of course, we could keep the modest sales tax increase, broaden the sales tax base a bit, maybe raise the rate for highest earners just a bit, and that would go a long way.  Of course, not that Republicans are in charge of the legislature, it’s all about firing teachers (it’s not like they want to let non-violent drug users out of prison to save money).  NC State is, of course, protecting tenured and tenure-track faculty, but our students are going to have a devil of a time getting the courses they need and the quality will go down as course sizes increase.   As for K-12 education, I shudder to think of what might happen to class sizes and the impact on kids (hang out for a while in an elementary school classroom and tell me class size doesn’t matter).  It’s all very depressing.

Friday book post (Cancer edition)

Haven’t done one of these in a while, but I just finished reading a fabulous book I want to mention: The Emperor of All Maladies A biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.   Fascinating book that tackles the history, the sociology, and the science of cancer.   Took a lot longer to finish than I’d like, as the new baby cuts into reading time, but it was terrific.  I think the history of breast cancer treatment is particular interesting.  I knew a “radical masectomy” was removing a whole breast, but I had no idea how radical.  Surgeons were in a competition to see who could cut away more of a woman’s flesh to presumably get every last possible bit of cancer.  Of course, now we know that once cancer has metastaticized and spread beyond its local origin, it can go anywhere and it doesn’t matter how much tissue you cut away around the tumor.  Should you not be up to reading the book, there’s a great interview with the author on Fresh Air.

Also, reminded me of a seemingly unrelated science fiction novel that’s one of my favorites of recent years– Calculating God by Robert Sawyer.  The main theme of this book is the implications of discovering that amazing similaries with other extra-terrestial civilizations which would seem to prove the existence of God.  Really thought-provoking stuff.  A secondary plot, though deals with universality (in the broadest sense) of cancer where ever life is found and the implications for the relationship between cancer and life.  There were definitely some echoes of the cancer science in Sawyer’s work.

Anyway, two great and totally different books which you should both consider reading.

 

The dead filibuster and Alexander Hamilton

Well, any meaningful filibuster reform is now officially dead.  Details (and great conclusion) from Ezra:

But this process kicked offbecause Democrats were furious at Republican abuse of the filibuster. It’s ended with Democrats and Republicans agreeing that the filibuster is here to stay. And the reason is both simple and depressing: Democrats want to be able to use the filibuster, too. Both parties are more committed to being able to obstruct than they are to being able to govern. That fundamental preference, as much as any particular rule, is why the Senate is dysfunctional.

This reminded me of something I meant to post a while ago and never did.  Not only does the filibuster clearly have nothing to do with the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton actually wrote against the idea of super-majority requirements except for where they are explicitly called for in the Constitution.  Via the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg:

That’s bad enough in itself, but it becomes positively dangerous in times of serious trouble:

In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.

Emphasis mine, though I imagine it would be Hamilton’s if he had known how grotesquely his “conservative” heirs have disfigured the meaning of the Constitution he helped formulate and get ratified.

Ditto on that emphasis.  Other than the sometime arcane language, Hamilton could have easily been writing about the modern usage of the filibuster.  As a Democrat, I’m actually fairly confident that the Republicans enacting their agenda unobstructed would lead to large Democratic electoral victories.  I’m willing to make that trade in allowing the Democrats to actually accomplish their goals while in the majority, which I think history suggests would not be repudiated by the public.  Plus, I’ve clearly got Alexander Hamilton on my side.

I speak the truth (at least in Slovak)

So, went to Pravda to check out my comments on the State of the Union.  Here they are:

Obama údajne v poslednom čase študoval prejavy Ronalda Reagana a duch bývalého prezidenta, povestného hľadaním lepších stránok vecí, sa ocitol aj v jeho správe. “Obama predstavil optimistickú víziu americkej budúcnosti, v ktorej aktívna, no štíhlejšia vláda bude zohrávať dôležitú úlohu prostredníctvom investícií do infraštruktúry, výskumu a vzdelávania,” myslí si Steve Greene, expert na americkú politiku zo Severokarolínskej univerzity. “Myslím si, že svoje slová smeroval k nezávislým voličom a že im trafil do nôty. Okrem toho sa prihováral aj médiám, ktoré pomáhajú formovať politickú diskusiu,” povedal Greene pre Pravdu.

Good stuff, eh!  Then, I used the handy Google translate feature:

Obama reportedly has recently studied the speeches of Ronald Reagan and former President of the spirit, the notorious site search of better things, he found himself in his report. “Obama presented an optimistic vision for America’s future, which is active, but leaner government will play an important role by investing in infrastructure, research and education,” said Steve Greene, an expert on American politics from the University of North Carolina. “I think his words directed to independent voters and giving them to hit notes. In addition, advocates and media to help shape the political debate,” Greene told the truth.

Nice!

Political bias and my bad advice

Nice piece by Shankar Vedantam in Slate about how powerful and psychologically ingrained our partisanship is.  It actually gets fairly close to my research on partisanship and social identity.   Here’s a sample (but you should read the whole thing):

New psychological research and insights from political science suggest parallels between partisanship and racism. Both seem to arise from aspects of social identity that are immutable or slow to change. Both are publicly decried and privately practiced. Both are increasingly employed in ways that allow practitioners to deny that they are doing what they are doing…

In recent years, a number of political scientists have argued that our party loyalties drive our views about issues, not the other way around. But if our views don’t make us Democrats or Republicans, what does? Consider this thought experiment: I have two neighbors, Jack and Jill. Jill is an African-American woman and a yoga instructor. Jack is a white man and an evangelical Christian. I’ve told you nothing about Jack and Jill’s views about abortion, government, guns, taxes, or foreign policy. Yet most of us would have no trouble guessing that Jill is a Democrat and Jack is a Republican. How do we know this? Because social identity—race, gender, religious affiliation, geographical location—play an outsize (and largely hidden) role in determining our partisan affiliations.

When partisanship is seen as a form of social identity—I’m a Democrat because people like me are Democrats, or I’m a Republican because people like me are Republicans—we can understand why so many blue-collar Kansans are Republicans and why so many Silicon Valley billionaires are Democrats, even though each group’s rational interests might be better served by the other party. Partisanship as social identity helps explain why, if you’re a black man in America, it’s reallyreally difficult to be a Republican. Same goes if you are a white, male, evangelical Christian in rural Texas who supports Barack Obama.

Okay, now about that bad advice bit.  One of my advisees might as well be termed “Mr. Republican” of NCSU.  Very passionate about politics and as politically engaged and plugged-in a student as I’ve had (not that we agree on much at all, of course, except a shared passion for politics).  Anyway, he recently asked for advice on his law school application letter.  He really downplayed his political activities.  It struck me as creating a less compelling personal statement because politics are such a central part of this student’s life and identity.  I told him he didn’t want to go to a law school where they would hold being a Republican against him.  True, but this finding from the Vedantam article gives me pause:

In a recent experiment, researchers assigned Democrats and Republicans to play the role of a college admissions director and asked them to evaluate the applications of two students based on their SAT scores, GPA scores, and recommendation letters. Some applicants were described as enthusiastic members of the Young Democrats or Young Republicans and were said to have been campaign volunteers for Democratic or Republican presidential candidates.

When evaluators were not told about the applicants’ partisan affiliations, 79 percent selected the candidate with the strongest scores. When the evaluators were told about the applicants’ partisan affiliations—and the partisan affiliation of the candidate with the strongest score conflicted with the partisan loyalty of the evaluator—only 44 percent of evaluators chose the candidate with the strongest score.

The bias was evident among both Democratic and Republican evaluators. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology and authored by Geoffrey D. Munro, Terell P. Lasane, and Scott P. Leary.

That’s really pretty depressing.  I mistakenly presumed people in admissions positions would work harder against their own biases.  I know I certainly do, but perhaps that’s because 1) I actually understand them so well since that’s what I study and 2) I get practice getting past my own biases every single time I grade tests and papers.   Anyway, I suppose the student can now blame me if he doesn’t get into the law school he wants.

Parenting– stop trying so hard

So, I’ve been meaning to do a post for a while on parenting due to all the hullabaloo over the Asian Tiger Mother business.   Originally, I was just going to comment upon this really cool article about the actual science of parenting that Big Steve led me to.  Big Steve gives too much credit to the Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island.  I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest his parents should have more strongly encouraged him to take some of that time watching TV and spend it practicing an instrument or something.  Of course, Amy Chua is a nut.  For one, her daughters have two Yale Professors as parents– they were already going to do well, even if she didn’t threaten to sell their favorite toys or reject handmade birthday cards.   Anyway, The Scientific American article points out that there’s actually no scientific evidence that many of Chua’s favored methods (i.e., an absolute ban on TV, demeaning her children) actually do any good).   And there’s lots of really good research on parenting now (obligatory Nurtureshock plug here.  Really, just read it, okay?).

Anyway, as I just alluded to above, what ultimately most caught my interest was this post from Jonah Lehrer on the Socioeconomics of Parenting:

For a paper in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia looked at 750 pairs of American twins who were given a test of mental ability at the age of 10 months and then again at the age of 2. By studying the performance of identical versus fraternal twins, the scientists could tease out the relative importance of factors such as genetics and the home environment. Because the infants came from households across the socioeconomic spectrum, it also was possible to see how wealth influenced test scores.

When it came to the mental ability of 10-month-olds, the home environment was the key variable, across every socioeconomic class. But results for the 2-year-olds were dramatically different. In children from poorer households, the choices of parents still mattered. In fact, the researchers estimated that the home environment accounted for approximately 80% of the individual variance in mental ability among poor 2-year-olds. The effect of genetics was negligible.

The opposite pattern appeared in 2-year-olds from wealthy households. For these kids, genetics primarily determined performance, accounting for nearly 50% of all variation in mental ability. (The scientists made this conclusion based on the fact that identical twins performed much more similarly than fraternal twins.) The home environment was a distant second. For parents, the correlation appears to be clear: As wealth increases, the choices of adults play a much smaller role in determining the mental ability of their children. [emphasis mine]…

One telling analogy for this phenomenon is the genetics of height. It’s long been recognized that genes play a much larger role in shaping the height of individuals in developed nations. This is largely because people from developing countries can suffer from inadequate nutrition, which stunts their physical potential. In contrast, the dietary variations among Americans are mostly insignificant – getting enough calories isn’t our problem – which is why genetics has become the crucial factor. In any case, I think this research is a sobering reminder that the contingencies of childhood (such as the income and education of our parents) play significant role from the earliest days of childhood onwards. Life just ain’t fair.

If you are reading this blog post, it is a safe bet that come from (or will someday establish) a fairly wealthy household.  Reading political blogs is not exactly a regular pursuit of America’s underclass.  Thus, the good news: stop worrying too much about your kids’ success.  Most of it is already determined by the genes you contributed.  I always like to claim that I don’t need to worry about my kids– the best predictor of success is mother’s education level and theirs has a PhD.  Then again, maybe if I worried more, I wouldn’t have so many damn problems (like yesterday when I got an email from the teacher that an un-named child of mine picked his nose into a nosebleed during testing– parenting: the fun never ends!).

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