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Today’s Times details the extensive donations that Michael Bloomberg has made to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University — over 1 billion dollars! This is totally nutso. Yet, it is relatively common for highly selective universities to get giant donations from rich alums.

This is bad for a variety of reasons:

  1. College is probably not the best place to use your dollars if your goal is societal improvement. By the time you get to college, your life track, income, etc. is pretty much set within a narrow range of outcomes. It’s probably better to spend your money improving early childhood and elementary schools.
  2. If you assume that college is still quite important for other reasons, don’t fund Johns Hopkins (or Harvard or Yale or wherever). Your return-on-investment there is pretty bad, since these institutions coast on reputation. Why not give to community colleges instead — which are always hurting for cash and have lower attrition rates than four-year colleges? Additionally, the students that attend Hopkins or Harvard or Yale already have lots of breaks in their favor? Why not give a break to the students at the margins of success who need it more?
  3. Additionally, the highly selective undergraduate institution relies on cartelization to keep its prestige. Harvard, with its $34B endowment, could reasonably educate a lot more people than it does now. Instead, it limits who can attend with unnecessary precision. Can’t dilute the brand! If that’s the case, why keep giving so much to an institution that will do so little with your money?

So, if this is so bad, why do we do it?

  1. Sentimentality (or availability bias): Michael Bloomberg got a lot out of Hopkins; he wants to show his appreciation. He loves the place and has fond memories. As such, he wants to give money.
  2. Our tax code: By giving the money away, Bloomberg gets a legacy that he doesn’t have to lose upon death (estate tax). Additionally, he gets to deduct those donations from his massive income.
  3. Prestige: Rich people love giving away money when they can slap their name on it. (Not so much when they can’t, see, e.g., Donald Trump.) Additionally, we shower people with attention for their donations.

All these factors lead to a quite inefficient distribution of wealth to higher education. Hopkins has a $3B endowment; it educates 5,000 undergrads and 2,000 grad students a year. The University of Maryland-College Park has a $792M endowment; it educates 26,000 undergrads and 10,000 grad students a year. I can’t find statistics, but I would hazard that the parental income of a Hopkins student is higher than the parental income of a Maryland student. I would also hazard that the percentage difference in income of a student who was waitlisted at the university and got in vs. a student who did not is bigger at Maryland than at Hopkins.

Which is all a long way of saying that donations are vastly inefficient ways to redistribute wealth, and we should just tax people a lot more. I’m not saying that central planning is a better way to distribute wealth; plenty of this money could just be block-granted to states/municipalities with some strings (i.e. required income reporting, tracking students after graduation, etc.).

Philanthropy may sound good, but a system with a lot of big-dollar philanthropy probably isn’t equitably distributing wealth in the first place.

Look, I get it. A big majority of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, independent of any UN inspections. Congress voted with substantial majorities to authorize the use of military force.

But I can’t help but notice a similarity among the names touted for key administration positions: every single one favored the invasion of Iraq in 2003. John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Michele Flournoy, Susan Rice — they all supported the initial invasion. Yes, there are lots of reasons to pick someone for a job, especially one running a large bureaucracy. And I also dislike litmus tests generally; a good nominee will necessarily have some flaws.

Still, were there really no Iraq War opponents available? None? Zero? Couldn’t find anyone?

21 Senators opposed the AUMF. Were they just not “serious” enough? Want to appoint a Republican? How about Brent Scowcroft? Want to appoint someone with military experience? Maybe former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton is more your speed.

Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in no small part because of his opposition to the Iraq War from the beginning. It gave him liberal credibility against Clinton, and signaled a clear break from the Bush administration policies of preemptive war and a national security state run amok.

Instead, he has shown himself to be, on the state of our military and national security state, to be of a piece with his predecessor. Worse, he has shown that the only way for a Democrat to be taken “seriously” on national security is to be a hawk.

The term “black swan” refers to an event that has enormous impact and is rare and difficult to predict. The prime example used by Taleb is 9/11 — an event of outsize importance that typical risk analyses would have been unable to predict or identify. There’s a fair amount of focus now on black swans, how to predict and control for them.

Sometimes, though, we are looking for black swans when we should be looking for white ones — events that have enormous impact, but that are neither rare nor particularly difficult to predict. An event like the Newtown murders may feel like a black swan — who could have predicted? But the preconditions for the event make it more of a white swan than a black one. For one, mass gun violence is relatively common in America; about 80 people die every day from gun violence. Although it is tragic that 27 murders and 1 suicide occurred in one place, and that many of the dead are children, it is not extraordinary in a world where gun violence occurs with regularity.

As long as it is easier for a mentally disturbed young man to get a handgun than mental health treatment, President Obama’s exhortations that we will do more to protect children strike me as hollow. Gun control laws have been eviscerated by the Supreme Court, and the gun lobby’s loud voice in the public conversation make movement on that front almost unimaginable. Mental health treatment is only slightly more likely, and my guess is that such laws would be targeted at committing people to quasi-incarceration rather than actually providing therapeutic treatment.

We cannot predict mass murder with precision, of course, but we can say with some probability that murders with guns will occur regularly through the day, week, month, year, etc. Without concerted efforts to either reduce the availability of firearms or increase the availability and reduce the stigma of mental health services, mass murder will continue to be a white swan rather than a black one.

(On the gun control topic for a second, I get all the 2nd Amendment stuff — we need to have firearms in case we need to overthrow the government. Sure. But a state monopoly on violence goes a long way to reducing violence among the populace. If this is an explicit trade-off being made, then fine, but I don’t think we have properly costed in the price of lost lives and mental/physical trauma.)

A new podcast about the election! You bet!

We discuss:

  • Why pundits hate Nate Silver
  • Why issues don’t end up mattering
  • Ballot initiatives
  • What will happen if/when Obama wins
  • Our picks
[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/14175885/Podcast9.mp3]

Last night was the “foreign policy” presidential debate, which takes place in a magical fairyland with no connection to the real world.

The President’s signature foreign policy — drone strikes and targeted killing — received a brief mention and total agreement from Mitt Romney.

Both Obama and Romney “talked tough” on China, but failed to mention that a currency war with China would mean 20% inflation. But let’s ignore that, why not?

Both Obama and Romney said that they would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons using diplomacy, but failed to mention what concessions the United States might make. After all, in negotiations, if one side gives something up, the other side has to give something up.

As bad as Romney was, Obama was almost as bad — dodging every question of substance (Iraq/Afghanistan draw-down, military funding, Syria, Libya) and pivoting to areas of strength.

Obama has always prided himself on treating the American people like adults. In the case of foreign policy, unfortunately, there is nothing but demagoguery, jingoism, and rah-rah over-the-top patriotism.

Is there any hope for the foreign policy debate? Goofy though they are, at least the domestic policy debates give some notion of the kind of economic policy the candidates espouse. The foreign policy debates are simply untethered from reality.

One solution might be the questions asked. Schieffer did all right, but consider what was not discussed. Our allies? Forget them. Free trade agreements? Never heard of ’em. Latin America? One platitude by Romney. India? Nonexistent. Japan? Only mentioned in a question about Israel. Although geopolitical hotspots are of great importance to us, America’s success in the next century will have more to do with our allies than our perceived enemies. Instead of just asking questions about how best to warmonger, we should be considering America’s full foreign policy when asking who will lead us.

Foreign policy wonks seem to believe that the American polity simply can’t handle nuanced foreign policy discussions, but that strikes me as massively cynical. The only way to combat this is with genuine engagement with the issues by public figures, like, say, presidential candidates. Otherwise, we may as well just give the presidency to the guy who waves the flag the hardest.

A new study shows that homeless young people use Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks as often as college students. The author of the study (available here; subscription needed) hypothesizes that this means that the “digital divide” is overblown, and primarily a generational, rather than income-based, one.

But this assumes that simply using technology is where the divide exists. When I taught high school, my students struggled with the very basics of word processing: touch-typing, setting the margins, spellcheck. When it came to online research, copying and pasting from Wikipedia was par for the course. They could play plenty of Flash games, but they had trouble accessing information useful in their lives — banking, local resources, scholarships.

We need to think about the use case for technology and how to make it useful for low-income families and young people, rather than just patting ourselves on the back for having access across demographic and income groups. How could we better connect them to job training and placement, political groups, continuing education (that isn’t a scam), etc.?

One of the arguments in favor of affirmative action is that the pool of talented individuals is large enough to accommodate fairly wide variations in how one defines “the best” and still get a good leadership cadre, freshman class, etc. Put differently, if Harvard, instead of admitting the 5.9 percent that they do admit, admitted the next 5.9 percent — the ones who “just missed the cut,” they would still probably be fine.

With the release of the Pitchfork “People Power” list, Jody Rosen at Slate has skewered Pitchfork’s readership for its selection of mostly white, overwhelmingly male, indie rockers. At the very least, it’s boring and predictable. Unsurprisingly, all the albums on the Top Ten got good reviews in Pitchfork.

So, OK, what happened? One is that women didn’t make a lot of lists, but I think that may have to do with a distaste for the kind of listmaking mania that often captivates music nerds and snobs. (See, for example, High Fidelity‘s “Top Five” obsession.) Additionally, there may be less consensus on female artists than on male ones, and the nature of averaging out lists ends up yielding fewer women. (This may be giving Pitchforkers too much credit.) Similarly, there may simply be fewer female artists regularly making music; there are probably a variety of reasons for that, but if we were to take a random sample of rock bands, I bet we would find a low rate of female participation. This may be the result of choice, prejudice, or some combination thereof, but it probably exists nonetheless. This is purely a hypothesis, of course, so no evidence exists one way or the other.

Because all list-making is arbitrary by nature, I’m going to pick an alternate canon of Top Ten albums that could theoretically have been in Pitchfork’s Top Ten (that is to say, they fit within the Pitchfork ethos, got good Pitchfork reviews, and are listened to by mostly indie rock nerds), but that represent a more female list. Much like those next 5.9 percent of Harvard rejects, this is a set of albums that I think Pitchforkers could reasonably say are as good as any of the albums in the Top Ten. I am generally a fan of quotas, because I think people don’t embrace diversity in almost any setting unless they are forced to. So here goes:

  1. Lauryn Hill – Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
  2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (It’s Blitz could probably go here too)
  3. M.I.A. – Arular
  4. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
  5. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
  6. Aimee Mann – Bachelor No. 2 (or, the last remains of the dodo)
  7. Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine
  8. Robyn – Body Talk
  9. PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
  10. Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose

Other alternates: Any number of Sleater Kinney albums; I’m not a huge Bjork fan, but any number of Bjork albums could go too.

Because all lists are inherently arbitrary, without a requirement for some other characteristics than “what’s good,” a bunch of mostly white male rock nerds inevitably pick a bunch of mostly white male rock music to be “the best.” Take a look at any compendium of “best ever” albums lists and you’ll see the skew in effect.

But if that were my Top Ten list from the 1996-2011 time period, I’d be pretty happy.

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