Video of the day

Wonkblog followers have already seen this.  Totally freaky!  (And if you are my wife, you so don’t want to watch)

Map of the day

Loved this map that color codes the world population into fifths, thus emphasizing how many damn people live in China. And some nice context, too, at the Atlantic.



Finland’s secret to success

I’ve had this tab open on my browser for a long time.  Thought about putting it in a quick hit, but it really deserves its own post.  Anyway, the Atlantic’s Olga Kazan takes a look at what seems to make Finland so good in everything.   Or as the subtitle says:

The country has cheaper medical care, smarter children, happier moms, better working conditions, less-anxious unemployed people, and lower student loan rates than we do. And that probably will never change.

Anyway, as I’m a big fan of the subject of political culture, I wanted to highlight that part of the article (the whole thing, it goes without saying, is well worth reading– and reasonably brief):

Over time, Finland was able to create its “cake” — and give everyone a slice — in large part because its investments in human capital and education paid off. In a sense, welfare worked for Finland, and they’ve never looked back.

“In the Finnish case, this has really been a part of our success story when it comes to economic growth and prosperity,” said Susanna Fellman, a Finn who is now a professor of economic history at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “The free daycare and health-care has made it possible for two breadwinners — women can make careers even if they have children. This is also something that promotes growth.”

With this setup, Finns have incredible equality and very little poverty — but they don’t get to buy as much stuff. The OECD gives the U.S. a 10 when it comes to household income, the highest score, while Finland gets a measly 3.5

Like Finland, the U.S. also set up massive safety-net programs, in the form of Medicare and Medicaid, in the 1960s. But paradoxically, many Americans began developing a deep aversion to government handouts at the same time.

The 1960s saw a rise in poverty and children born out of wedlock, particularly in urban communities. Sensational media stories about families “abusing” welfare — especially when the putative abusers were portrayed as African-American — helped cement opposition to public assistance. One study found that in the early 1970s, nearly three-quarters of magazine stories about welfare or poverty featured images of African-Americans, even though African Americans comprised only about a third of welfare recipients.

“I do think that racial divisions are an important factor here — the sense among many people that universal benefits will take from ‘us’ and give to ‘them’ — to a part of society that is seen as different, less deserving, imagined as racially different,” Cook, from Brown University, said. “I think that many middle-class Americans favor social benefits for what they see as ‘deserving’ people who have worked and earned them — so Medicare is good — but universal health care would provide benefits for people who are imagined as not deserving.”

In a 1976 speech, Ronald Reagan made mention of supposed “welfare queens” who make six-figure salaries while drawing government funds, stoking a sense of outrage over perceived waste in public assistance. (It was later shown that he used an exaggerated anecdote). Arguing that social insurance dis-incentivized work, and prioritizing markets and individual liberty, the growing new conservative movement eventually joined together businesses and working-class voters in pushing for cuts in government programs.

Though we seemingly support spending on the sick, poor, and elderly, in 2006,46 percent of Americans still thought the government spent “too much” on welfare, even 10 years after a total structural overhaul of welfare had passed…

But in some ways, even the Finnish way of educating requires a strong welfare system as a foundation. The country has an extremely low child-poverty rate, which likely makes teaching without testing or score-keeping much easier. And how many American teachers would love to get a master’s degree but aren’t willing to take on the student loans that come with it?

“The easiest is to say that Finland seems to be a well-performing system overall, as far as the international rankings are considered,” Sahlberg told me. “So, it is no wonder the education system also works well.”

The no-testing model also makes sense for a culture that’s low on one-upmanship: “I think one of the more important things is that there’s less of an emphasis on competition in Finland,” Marakowitz said. “Many Finnish children don’t know how to read before they go to school, and you need a certain kind of cultural setting for that. Some U.S. parents would be quite freaked out.”

In short, the US will never be Finland because Americans don’t want it to be.  We value things differently.  With our much greater insecurity, instability, and inequality comes greater overall wealth.  Personally, I’d take Finland political culture with American geography.  But, short of that, surely there are some lessons we can learn from Finland that still have relevance within the American political culture.  Because what we’re doing now ain’t working so great.

NC School funding

Not quite sure why I can only find a link to an ugly PDF rather than a nice webpage, but nonetheless, this NC Education fact sheet is quite damning.  Take this chart, for instance:


Or this set of facts:


Now, of course per-student funding is not the end all and be all of school performance,  But, everything else being equal, it surely does matter.  And it’s not like simply taking away teacher tenure makes it magically matter less.  



Photo of the day

This is really cool– 20 historic black and white photos, colorized.  It’s amazing how completely real most of these look in color.  Since I was actually reading just a little about Albert Einstein last night, I’ll go with this one.  Definitely check out the whole gallery.


Colorized by Edvos on Reddit



Interesting post in the Times about how heart surgeons are still massively over-using aortic stents despite increasingly clear evidence that for most of the patients they use them in they perform no better than drugs.  Why?  Surgeons like to do surgery– that’s what they do.  When it is in your economic interest to continue a practice that doesn’t seem that hard to justify might be doing some good for your patients– your’re going to keep doing it.   Which is why we need government regulation– yes, government bureaucrats overseeing medical decisions, like in the rest of the advanced world– instead of doctors.  Another great example of free market failure in health care.

Every year, more than half a million Americans undergo procedures to have a narrowed coronary artery propped open with a small metal mesh tube, or stent. In an emergency, when someone is having a heart attack, the operation can be lifesaving.

But far too often, studies show, stents continue to be implanted in patients who stand to gain little if any benefit. Last month, two of the country’s largest medical organizations identified the procedure commonly used to place a stent — called a percutaneous coronary intervention, or angioplasty — as one of five highly overused medical interventions.

Their report focused only on elective procedures performed on patients with stable coronary artery disease, a type that can cause chest pain and other symptoms during physical exertion but generally not at other times. Studies show that in these particular patients, inserting a stent is generally no better at preventing a heart attack or an early death than taking medication alone…

For some doctors who see an isolated narrowing or blockage on an angiogram, it can be hard to resist the urge to fix it, a phenomenon medical journals call the “oculostenotic reflex,” said Dr. Grace A. Lin, an associate professor of medicine and health policy at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

In a study published in The Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. Lin found that some doctors performed elective angioplasty procedures because they believed it would alleviate a patient’s anxiety. Others felt that new and better stents would make a difference, or they worried they would feel guilt if they did not operate and a patient had a heart attack down the line. But some simply could not accept the idea that opening a narrowed artery would not be helpful.

“One of the beliefs among primary care physicians and cardiologists is that if you see a blockage and you open it, it must help in some way even if the data suggest otherwise,” said Dr. Lin. “If you’re thinking of the arteries as plumbing and you see a narrowing, then your response is to try to open it.”

Now, this study did not compare overuse in other countries.  But if your only health insurer is the national government and they look at the studies that say it doesn’t actually work, they’re not going to pay for it.  And not only is that good for the national budget (and all taxpayers!) its good for the patient.  Overtreatment is a very serious problem.

Less with less (how to destroy a great university)

So, I learned today that my department will need to cut its budget 15% (and maybe 20– a little unclear) over the next three years.  Yes, that is insane.  It’s not like we haven’t been living under austerity for years.  There’s simply no fat left to cut.  There is fat left in the university– it’s called bloated administration— but in the real world bloated administrators have official positions and long term contracts and cannot rapidly be eliminated to meet huge short-term cuts.   Yes, NC State– like pretty much all universities needs to work on that– but these cuts aren’t going to do that.  Rather, department by department, they will significantly diminish the quality of the education we provide.

There are a number of options for how my department (and the many others going through similar cuts) might respond and all of them lead to a diminished educational experience for our students.  You can be guaranteed larger class sizes (and believe me, that really does make a difference).   There will be less classes.  More students will be pushed to on-line instead in-person classes (yes, I teach one and will readily admit that as good as I do, it’s not the same).  We may very change our curriculum and make it less academically rigorous.  We will probably have more classes taught by graduate students and face lots of pressure to have graduate students teach classes before they are ready to.  I would say more classes from adjuncts, but we’ve already cut those down to almost zero– it just means fewer opportunities for our students.

In short, maybe not quite a slow-motion disaster, but a slow-motion damn shame for the quality of education at NC State.  Thanks for voting Republican– welcome to Mississippi.

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