My strengths

I was talking with a student the other day who was raving about the Clifton Strengths Assessment she had done.  Unsurprisingly, this piqued the skeptic in me and I did a little research whether there’s any scientific validity behind this.  Short version: not much.  Did not find all that many good takes, but this from Harvard Business Review seemed pretty good:

1) There’s no scientific evidence that it works. Despite popular belief, the strengths-based approach to management is not grounded in science. I have seen no scientific studies (independent research published in peer-reviewed academic journals) to support the idea that developmental interventions are more successful if they ignore people’s deficits or provide no negative feedback.

Of course, absence of evidence does not necessarily imply evidence of absence. But the main postulates of the strengths-based approach are incongruent with well-established academic findings. For instance, meta-analytic evidence shows that negative feedbackand lower self-estimates of ability do improve performance. Furthermore, high-performing leaders tend to get better by developing new strengths, not just enhancing old ones.

Moreover, although the pioneers of the strengths movement argued that traditional development and training programs — which are not focused on strengths — were doomed, scientific meta-analyses show that they are in fact rather effective. The average psychological interventionfeedback session, or executive coachingsession improves desirable work outcomes, such as job performance, by half a standard deviation. That means that 70% of individuals in a control group — who did not receive any feedback or coaching — would perform below the average of the intervention group. How would this compare to a strengths-based intervention, specifically? We simply don’t know. To date, I have yet to see any independent peer-reviewed studies providing evidence on this. (If you know of any, please add them to the comments section below.)

Of course, me being me, I had to do a strengths assessment.  No way was I going to pay money to Gallup for the Clifton Strengths, but this free Via Strengths seemed as valid as any other.

And the results were shocking!!  Kidding.  The results were totally unsurprising.  It’s almost that after 47 years, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what my strengths and weaknesses are.  And because inquiring minds want to know…

  1. Love: Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing & caring are reciprocated; being close to people.
  2. Judgment: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one’s mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly.
  3. Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks.
  4. Humor: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people; seeing the light side; making (not necessarily telling) jokes.
  5. Hope: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about.

Yep.  Eye-rolling names aside, that is pretty much me.  So, kudos, I guess, to the assessment.  On the other hand, pretty sure I could have told you I really value human connection, humor, weighing evidence, etc.  And I suspect most people who know me could have come up with something similar.  And, arguably, I’d be better off knowing my weaknesses and working on them (for the record, humility and perseverance are at the bottom of my list– again, not surprising).


The reality of college admission

If you got all your news from places like the New York Times and the Atlantic, you’d think college admissions was more like the Hunger Games.  A ton of journalists at elite media went to elite universities and hang-out in social circles where they strive to get their kids into these universities.  But the lived reality for the vast majority of Americans is remkarkably different. Nice corrective from Alia Wong in the Atlantic:

Every year at this time, headlines reveal once again what everyone already knows: America’s top institutions are selective—very. Harvard took a record-low 4.5 percent of the applicants to its 2023 class. Yale accepted 5.9 percent, the same as the University of Chicago.

These numbers—albeit wild—are outliers, representing an almost-negligible slice of the United States’ higher-education ecosystem. Approximately 10.8 million undergraduates were enrolled in the country’s more than 2,500 four-year universities in the fall of 2017, according to an Atlantic analysis of raw figures from the Education Department’s data center.

The majority of students—more than 80 percent—attend schools, such as Texas A&MRutgers, and Simmons University, that accept more than half their applicants. In 2017, our analysis shows, roughly 3 percent of the country’s bachelor’s-degree candidates were enrolled at a four-year university that accepts fewer than a quarter of undergraduate applicants; only 0.8 percent of undergraduates were attending one of the handful of universities that accept fewer than one in 10 applicants.

Most schools are not these highly selective institutions, and the application process for millions of students is not the stress-inducing nightmare that gets so much public attention. Excluded from the narrative are the thousands of four-year colleges that serve millions of undergraduates, including many historically black colleges and universities—not to mention the 1,000-plus community colleges.

This graph is super-instructive:

Also, this:

Another often-overlooked feature of higher education in the U.S.: community colleges. Of the nearly 2 million bachelor’s degrees granted last year, roughly half of the recipients had community-college credit. In some states, a solid majority of bachelor’s-degree recipients at some point attended community college—in Texas, for example, the rate last year was three in four. In the fall of 2017, 5.8 million people were enrolled at community colleges, most of them as part-time students.

This is the real story of higher education and college acceptances.  It’s a shame it is so ignored in favor of the super-elite desperate to get their kids into Ivies.


Concentrated interests (almost) always win– tax filing edition

One super-powerful lobby you might not think about when it comes to your taxes is the tax preparation lobby.  But Turbo Tax, H&R Block and all them, are absurdly influential.  A near-perfect example of concentrated interests getting their way as they lobby and get huge benefit, and, as society, we all pay a cost, but it is pretty diffuse across all of us.  There is a great Planet Money on a professor who tried to take down the tax preparation lobby and came close, but failed.  And a nice article here that captures the story that I assign to my Public Policy class when we discuss Interest Groups.

he United States is one of the few countries—and the only wealthy country—that forces taxpayers to gather up tax forms and calculate their own bill. The reason why is a uniquely American mix of lobbying by tax preparation companies—who worry about demand for their services—and anti-government sentiment. 

I.e., Turbo Tax & friends and Grover Norquist.  Great stuff– read it.

Anyway, the latest, via Pro Publica:

Just in time for Tax Day, the for-profit tax preparation industry is about to realize one of its long-sought goals. Congressional Democrats and Republicans are moving to permanently bar the IRS from creating a free electronic tax filing system.

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee, led by Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.passed the Taxpayer First Act, a wide-ranging bill making several administrative changes to the IRS that is sponsored by Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Mike Kelly, R-Pa.

In one of its provisions, the bill makes it illegal for the IRS to create its own online system of tax filing. Companies like Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, and H&R Block have lobbied for years to block the IRS from creating such a system. If the tax agency created its own program, which would be similar to programs other developed countries have, it would threaten the industry’s profits…

Those efforts have been fueled by hefty lobbying spending and campaign contributions by the industry. Intuit and H&R Block last year poured a combined $6.6 million into lobbying related to the IRS filing deal and other issues. Neal, who became Ways and Means chair this year after Democrats took control of the House, received $16,000 in contributions from Intuit and H&R Block in the last two election cycles.

Alas, it was a bipartisan effort, too.  Enjoyed Brian Beutler’s take on that:

The bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly today over progressive objections, would permanently ban the IRS from creating free software Americans could use to file their taxes online—a response to relentless lobbying from tax-preparation companies like TurboTax and H&R Block which profit and thrive on the complexity of the tax code, and their lack of competition from the government. Of all the evil bad guys in 2019, bet you didn’t think you’d be furious at TurboTax!

Democrats say other provisions in the bill, including protections against private debt collectors and millions of dollars in assistance for low-income taxpayers, were too good to pass up, which would be a good excuse if Democrats didn’t control the House and couldn’t just pass the bill with all the bad shit stripped out of it.

So, this is a great example of how so much policy gets made.  If you are not directly in this industry, a fan of Planet Money, or in my PS 310 class, chances are you had no idea of this and how the public is getting screwed.  And even if you did learn about it, it’s not worth your while personally, for a pretty small direct benefit if the problem is remedied.  But if you are Turbo Tax, this is pretty much everything to you, so you will fight like hell (and spend like hell) for this policy.  And they won.

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