Friday, August 28, 2015

Countries with the greatest GDPs

Thanks to Syed Asad.

Our Kids -- Thoughts About Robert Putjnam's Book

I just read Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam. Robert Putnam is a very distinguished public intellectual. In this book he shows a great deal of evidence that the college graduates in America are bringing up their children to be as well educated and well off as they are themselves. While once people with a high school education or less were giving their kids better opportunities that they themselves had, this is no longer true. The increasing disparity between the kids of the college educated and the kids of the high school educated is of great concern to Putnam. The book convinces me that it should also be of concern to any American with an ounce of moral character.

The book includes a chapter on Port Clinton where Putnam graduated from high school in the 1950s. It then has chapters on families, parenting, schooling and community; each of these chapters focuses on a specific place: Bend (Oregon), Atlanta, Orange County (California), and Philadelphia. A final substantive chapter is titled "What is to be Done".

Chapters tend to have narrative sections based on extensive interviews that were carried out as part of the research. The authors interview young people and their parents, where one set of parents in each location had college educations and the other set had high school or less. Interviews include African Americans and Hispanic Americans as well as whites. The chapters also have analytic sections, drawing on a wealth of statistical data.

The American Dream

The myth of America, "the American Dream", is that America is the land of opportunity. We think that any American can become president because Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln rose from poverty to do so, because Jack Kennedy did so even though he was Roman Catholic, because Barack Obama did so even though his father was a black Kenyan. Similarly, we think that any child can grow up in America to be rich -- look at Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Bill Gates, all of whom were rich beyond most dreams of avarice and far, far richer than their parents.

Putnam points out that in fact the Adams, Harrison, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Bush families demonstrate that someone from the family of a president is far more likely to be president than someone who grew up in a powerless family. Similarly, the child of a family of great wealth is far more likely in America to grow up to have great wealth than is the child born in poverty. Indeed, relative mobility in America has been much like that in other developed countries.

What has been true through much of history is that the rapid development of America has meant that most American parents could reasonably expect their children to be better educated, more affluent, healthier, longer lived, and more influential than the parents were themselves. A rising tide lifts all boats!

The Dream Is Gone

The book advances the thesis that the children of upper class kids in America (typically defined in the book as the children of parents with college degrees) are now likely to do better than their parents; however, the children of lower class parents (typically defined as having high school education or less) are likely to be stuck in the same situation or worse than their parents. Putnam advances evidence to show that upper class parents use different parenting approaches than do lower class parents, that upper class parents tend to stay together to raise their kids while lower class fathers are more often not involved, that upper class families live in safer neighborhoods than do lower class families, all of which help make upper class kids more able to reach the upper classes themselves.

In discussing K-12 schools, Putnam indicates that input indicators such as per child funding and class size do not differ between schools in educated neighborhoods and those in uneducated neighborhoods; the very different outcomes from schools drawing from families with well educated parents versus those with poorly educated parents is the culture of the students themselves. Neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by class, and kids in I-23 usually go to neighborhood schools. The upper class kids are more motivated to learn and more docile in the classroom. Thus it is culture that counts. Moreover, classes full of upper class kids tend to be easier to teach and more rewarding to teachers than classes full of lower class kids. Since schools get equal financial inputs, schools in upper class neighborhoods tend to be more successful in teaching the kids that they receive. Indeed, teachers prefer to deal with docile, motivated upper class kids, and so the schools in richer neighborhoods are likely to recruit better, more experienced teachers.

The book also suggests that upper class neighborhoods are better places to raise kids in the sense that they are less violent and less troubled by drugs. Children growing up in neighborhoods ruled by street gangs are subject to more stress, and that stress has serious negative consequences.

This situation is relatively new. Neighborhoods today are far more segregated by the income and education of their residents than they were in the past. Due to the shipment of jobs overseas and the loss of income from unionized factory work people with little education who once would have had factory jobs with union wages and protection, now no longer do. Thus those without college educations tend to be poor and trapped in their situations. The kids who don't go beyond high school tend to have children earlier, have less stable marital relationships, more money troubles, and indeed more children than do college graduates of the same age.

The increasing separation of affluent from poor neighborhoods means that poor whites, poor blacks, and poor Hispanics are the members of the lower class. Putnam suggests that racism is no longer the problem as much as it once was, and today there are well educated blacks and Hispanics who raise their kids much as do well educated whites, and whose kids have about the same chance of themselves becoming well educated, parents in stable marriages as do the children of well educated whites.

I would note however that poverty is twice as prevalent among Hispanic/Latino populations and more than twice as common among African American and Indian populations than among white populations. Perhaps we need to focus more on the black, Indian and Hispanic populations' kids than Putnam would suggest.

The Internet

The book tends to pay little attention to the Internet and the social networking that it enables. I am in an unusual situation in that my parents were both immigrants to the USA and none of my maternal nor paternal cousins lives in this country. (My inlaws do live here, and I am in touch with them via the Internet.) I am in touch with cousins in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and Sweden via the Internet; for example, a cousin's widow and I were able to participate early this year in a project of a young cousin who is in college in Scotland via the Internet.

Similarly, I am fairly active on the Internet with my local community. For example, I used the Internet to keep up with the plans to change use of two local schools last spring, went to a community meeting about those plans that I learned about via the Internet, and sent email messages to my county council members requesting their help on the matter -- emails that were answered.

I belong to a local book club which meets once a month. While only a dozen or so member of the club show up at the monthly meetings, I send information about the books we read to about 100 via email each month, and correspond with several each month via the club listserve. There is a club blog where I post summaries of the club discussions, and those are being downloaded a couple of hundred times per month.

Thus, it is my experience that Internet mediated social networking has implications for the problems that Robert Putnam has identified.

I Focus on Culture and Cultural Change

I note that Asian Americans seem to still live the American dream. I also note that the well educated American family is different culturally than the families of Americans where the parents never went as beyond high school. I suggest that there are two subcultures, rather distinct, within the larger U.S. culture -- a culture of the upper middle class and a culture of the lower class. Both subcultures have the same federal government institutions, both have access to pretty much the same media, but in other ways the two subcultures have institutions that function in quite different ways.

Perhaps, then we should look at the cultural difference between suburban America and slum America. If the solution to the crisis in the American dream is too change the culture of the lower classes in the country, it will be hard and a long process. Cultural change is not easy to accomplish.

Putnam suggests that the change in these subcultures in American have occurred over time. When he graduated from high school in 1959 in the small town of Port Clinton, Ohio, neighborhoods were not nearly so segregated as they are today. The United States then had the strongest economy in the world and globalization had not begun the process of shifting manufacturing jobs out of the USA. Kids whose parents were college professors and kids whose parents were high-school-grad factory workers might well live close to one another, attend the same schools and belong to the same teams and clubs. This was before illegal drug use was common and drug dealers were common sights in poor neighborhoods. The research cited in the book focuses on the last 35 years, and suggests that the negative trends in the subculture of the poor were working during much or most of that period. Now families are less stable, gangs are more common, drugs are more available and more widely used, fathers are more often in jail in the lower class neighborhoods. The neighborhoods in which the college grads live have been much less damaged.

Source: Wikipedia "Income inequality in the United States"
Source: Wikipedia "Income inequality in the United States"
The top graph shows that we are in a new "Guilded Age": the portion of national income obtained by the very rich has reached levels now that are comparable to those reached before the Great Depression or the end of the Guilded Age. That portion had gone steadily downward from the stock market crash in 1929 until the mid 1970s, but rose again in the period covered by Robert Putnam's analysis.

The lower graph showed that the top fifth of Americans by income did significantly better economically after 1979 than did the the lower four quintiles. Wikipedia reports:
The income growth of the average American family closely matched that of economic productivity until some time in the 1970s. While it began to stagnate, productivity has continued to climb. According to the 2014 Global Wage Report by the International Labor Organization, the widening disparity between wages and productivity is evidence that there has been a significant shift of GDP share going from labor to capital, and this trend is playing a significant role in growing inequality.
I suggest that the high and increasing return to higher education is strongly related to the growth of income of the fifth quintile of income, and the low rate of economic progress of the working class is due to the low growth of incomes in the three lower quintiles.

The Prescription

Putnam offers a number of suggestions that might improve life chances for poor kids. Some of these seem past due for implementation in the USA. For example, we have far too many men in jail, facing long sentences for relatively minor crimes; sentences should be shorter and greater efforts should be made to reintegrate the sentenced people into their homes and communities after they serve their sentences. Similarly, many countries (and virtually all developed countries) offer more generous leave for new parents than does the United States; improving leave policies for new parents seems a useful approach to improving parenting. Offering long term contraception for at risk teens in order to prevent kids too young to provide child care and in need of time to develop their own economic potential from having babies as teenagers.

However, I doubt that Putnam's approach will work very well. It fails to deal with the underlying economic issues that created the underclass culture. My reading of history also suggests that it takes a major disruption to break the political power of the very rich, and today the very rich Americans are richer than ever, have more political power than usual, and don't seem disposed to do much for the underclass.

The book does not talk much about individual talent and potential. I suspect that in each socio-economic class there are kids born more and less gifted. However, the talents of the poor are not being adequately recognized and developed in the subculture of poverty. How much does the nation lose if a Lincoln or Jackson fails to develop because he comes from poorly educated parents and grows up in a bad neighborhood, attending schools that teach badly? A new Henry Ford or Thomas Edison? What if we miss the next Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez? I think it important not only that kids be given a fighting chance to do better than their parents, but that the nation be given a fighting chance to develop the best minds and characters in each generation, no matter how poor the parents of those kids.

Final Comments

I recommend this book highly. Robert Putnam seems to have described a serious social problem in the United States, one that has not had nearly enough attention.

I guess I am a policy wonk, and I found the sections of the chapters presenting statistical evidence from national studies to be very good -- detailed information, well sources, presented succinctly.

I also found the ethnographic material helpful. I am a 1955 high school graduate with three university degrees, so I found the material about Putnam's school companions and the recently college educated folk to be relatively familiar (although those discussions provided me some fresh insights to the families of my more affluent nieces and nephews). However, I found the materials on the high school educated moms and dads and their kids very helpful in trying to understand the problems that they face and how they try to deal with those problems.

Remember the Know Nothing Party? Looks like they are back.

Would you say that you trust, don’t trust, or are unsure about scientists as a source of information about [vaccines/climate change]?

Trust in Scientists by Issue and State

Chris Mooney, in a new article, provides the graphs above noting?
As you can see, while traditional Republicans and Tea Party supporters in these locations trust scientists considerably more on vaccines than they do on climate change, they also trust them on both issues considerably less than Democrats do. 
“The vaccine results were something new, and what was unexpected there was that they followed a very similar pattern to climate change,” says Hamilton. He acknowledges that conducting the survey in two U.S. states is not the same as conducting a nationally representative survey. But he adds that finding a similar result in two quite different parts of the U.S. represents “a fairly broad replication.”
This is quite worrying to me. It is a study done in only two states, but it suggests that only half of Tea Party supporters trust scientists on the findings relating to climate change, and only a small fraction trust scientists on vaccines. Tea Party voters tend to have significant weight in selection of Representatives to Congress from "safe" Republican districts. Thus there is a wing of the members of the lower Chamber of the Congress that don't trust the consensus of scientists on two important issues (and perhaps more issues that were not subjects of this study). Moreover, the Democrats tend to trust scientific consensus more than Republicans, but Republicans are in the majority in both chambers of the Congress.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Circles in Los Angeles When the Movie Business was LA's Major Business

Don Factor (son of Max) and I -- with a couple of friends -- produced the first edition of Nomad magazine in 1959.

Don Factor produced the movie That Cold Day in the Park. Luana Anders acted in the movie.

Luana was a friend from high school; we graduated in the same class.

Luana, began her career as an actor immediately after high school, but like many young actors had to take non-acting jobs to make ends meet. She was a messenger. She also attended the acting classes given by Jeff Cory. She convinced a fellow messenger to attend with her. He was Jack Nicholson.

Luana and Jack acted together in Easy Rider. Also in Easy Rider was Dennis Hopper.

Dennis Hopper acted in Blue Velvet with Dean Stockwell. The two became best friends.

Dean was my next door neighbor for some six or seven years when we were kids. We were friends at the time.

Anthony Linick was also involved in the production of the first issue of Nomad with Don and me. He has been a friend of mine since childhood. He also knew Luana in high school and was in the same graduating class.

Anthony's father was head of the script department for MGM. Dean was on contract with MGM when I knew him.

Anthony's grandfather, who had been the owner of a string of movie theaters, was a friend of Louis B. Mayer. My uncle and aunt worked for Mayer's daughter and her husband, William Goetz, a movie producer and studio executive.

Anthony's stepfather, Ingolf Dahl, was a well known musician who occasionally worked as a studio musician (e.g. he ghosted Schroeder playing the Pathetique Sonata in the Peanuts cartoon). I knew Ingolf quite well; he took a group including Anthony, me and some of our friends mountain climbing and camping from 1949 to 1955.

Ingolf was a friend of Sol Babitz, who among other things was the first violinist for Fox Studios. I knew Sol slightly, introduced by Ingolf. I attended some of the funtions Sol organized.

Sol was the father of Eve Babitz. I met her a few times at functions arranged by her father, when she was a young girl. She later became a reporter for Rolling Stone.

Eve Babitz appeared on the film, The Cool School, about the Los Angeles art scene. Also appearing in the film were Don Factor, Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell.

I could go on and talk about the links through my Dad, who for a while was the office manager for the Screen Actors Guild (under George Murphy and Ronald Reagan) or those via my mother's employer, Shepard Mitchell, named partner is a law firm that was deeply involved in the movie industry, or my friend in the college days, Paul Glass, whose father was production manager at Fox studios. But you get the point. I lived in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1959, and at that time it was much smaller and making movies was a big part of what went on there. Not only did people you came into contact with work in the movie industry, but people you knew in one place came to meet people you know in another place due to their common links to the movies.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Lets do something about student debt

Source: The Economist
I quote from an article in The Economist:
Student debt in America now totals $1.2 trillion, up more than threefold over the past decade. On August 10th Hillary Clinton announced a $350 billion plan to reduce this sum. It would increase federal subsidies granted to state-school students, and help existing borrowers refinance their liabilities. New loan originations have decreased every year since 2010, and default rates have stabilised.
I started at a campus of the University of California in 1955 when it was essentially free. I completed my last degree at another campus 20 years later, when fees were still quite low. I worked during college, and got a couple of scholarships, but I finished each stretch in residence on campus with more money than I started. I didn't have any student debt. There was nothing wrong with a university system that made that possible then, and I don't see why a system that at least makes higher education more affordable is not possible now. Lets reduce student debt, especially for majors where the earning potential does not justify the debt. 

Caesarian sections can save lives, but also waste lives and money

Source: The Economist
There are many things that can be said about this data. Perhaps the first is that maternal mortality is unconscionably high in the developing world. In many rich countries it ranges from 1 to 10 per 100,000 live births; in poor countries it tends to range from 100 to 1000 per 100,000 live births. The maternal mortality in Chad is 1000 times higher than that which is attainable.

Note that the lowest maternal mortality is achieved with about one in five births by Caeserean section. Yet there are countries with higher maternal mortality rates that see half of all births by Caeserian. Now I don't really want to intervene if private patients and their ethical doctors choose to have an unnecessary Caeserian, pay the costs, and accept the added risk. I do object to policies that encourage families to choose a more expensive, higher risk procedure, and I do object to physicians finding financial incentives to encourage patients to have unneeded surgery.

Base Historical Stories on Evidence, not current Ideology

The Economist published an essay this week titled "The Unquiet Past". It suggests that Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister, is seeking to change the perception of electorate of the World War II history of their country. Speaking of the "Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" concept advanced by his country in World War II:
Mr Abe believes that Japan’s pursuit of fukoku kyohei was essentially right then and still is today, and that its resumption is the key to making Japan what some would call a “normal” nation again. It is what Mr Abe chooses to call “the post-war” which is the shameful historical exception, with its reliance on American tutelage and a constitution that clips Japan’s wings abroad.
The article begins describing the Yasukuni Shrine that commemorates 2,466,532 Japanese who died in wars following the Meiji Restoration. They are termed imperial protectors, their names inscribed in the "Book of Souls".
But in 1978 the priests of Yasukuni surreptitiously enshrined 14 political and military leaders, including General Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister, who had been found guilty by the Tokyo War Crimes Trial of planning or prosecuting the military aggression of the 1930s and 1940s. All 14 had either been executed by Japan’s new American overlords or died in prison.
Emperors Hirohito and Akihito thereafter stopped attending ceremonies at the shrine as did other national leaders. Shinzo Abe, however, does attend the festivals there honoring the Japanese leaders executed for war crimes as well as other persons more appropriate for his salute.

The article also notes that it was Chiang Kai-shek, and his Kuomintang (KMT) that led the Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion of China, while the Communists were less involved in that resistance, secure in their redoubts in the interior. After the Communist victory over the KMT, the official history of the war tended to ignore the sacrifices of Chiang and the KMT. Now, however, people in regions of China that bore the heavy brunt of the Japanese attack and that tied up Japan's military (so that it could not be used in other theaters) are beginning to claim credit for their regions' sacrifices and successes.

Of course, the revision of official history is not new. Recently in the news some have sought to remind the German speaking people of the debt that they owe to other Europeans for the Holocaust and German/Austrian aggression in two World Wars. In the United States, as Confederate flags continue to be flown in the South, many seek to remind those venerating the Stars and Bars that the Confederacy was founded on the principal that African-Americans were inferior to European Americans and that it sought to make the institution of chattel slavery permanent in the Confederacy; indeed, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in a war in which those who fought under the Stars and Bars were doing so to keep other people enslaved.

History Should Be Based on Evidence, Not Emotion

Of course, Historians have changed the dominant interpretation of past epochs. However, professional historians are continuing to mine original sources, publishing their findings in peer reviewed journals and well sourced books. The body of evidence -- including factual evidence -- on many historical epochs continues to increase in volume and improve in quality.

I expect that historians will have increasing difficulty challenging existing paradigms without adducing new and important evidence to support novel assertions.

When politicians and government officials offer new views of history, they should be tested against the prevailing historical ideas and especially against the evidence. Substitution of ideology for knowledge is not a good way to make successful policies.

Of course, policy makers views should be based more widely on knowledge. It appears that both the Japanese and Chinese governments have gotten their economics wrong in the recent past. Economists too are building impressive edifices of factual evidence, and are increasingly defending their ideas with such evidence.

One hopes the two governments are drawing on expert sociological knowledge, the Chinese to project the implications of the one child policy that their country followed, and the Japanese to project the implications of an aging population increasingly supported by a smaller workforce. Again, sociologists are strengthening their field by gathering and organizing factual evidence, and supporting theses with evidence.

When I think of the region of the world from Syria to Pakistan, I can only wonder at its complexity and at the willingness of Americans to intervene in the region with very little understanding of the history, culture or religion of the region. The willingness to intervene seems to continue as does much of the ignorance. Of course, there are many in America who have lifetimes of experience in these countries, having immigrated from them; unfortunately, those sometimes most willing to speak from such knowledge to power only do so to advance their own interests. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A thought about Annual Performance Reviews

My doubts about APRs began when someone I had not seen for two years, who lived and worked on a different continent than I did, wrote my APR. He wasn't my supervisor, nor was I told that he would write the thing.

I suspect that one thing the APRs achieve is to train people over the years to improve the appearance of their APRs.

I hated writing the things, and disagree with the practice on principle. I can not imagine that there has ever been a valid study that indicated that they improved organizational performance.