Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

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.

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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.?

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One thing bugs the shit out of me is the conventional wisdom that two-person opposite-sex biological parents represent the best environment for raising children. David Brooks raised the old chestnut again in his wacky piece about the decline in opportunities for the lower classes:

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world.

First, this may be true and it may not be. Research has been inconclusive, and difficult to extricate from simple socioeconomic trends. Additionally, some research has shown that high-conflict marriages are as bad if not worse than single-parent households, and that stability may be a better indicator than number of parents.

Second, even assuming the argument is correct and two parents are better than one, why wouldn’t three parents or four parents be better than two? As California prepares to address this with possible legislation to open the door to more greater-than-two-parent households, it’s not surprising that the usual suspects have crawled out to voice their opposition:

“This bill is a Trojan horse for the same-sex-marriage agenda,” Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, said.

“Advocates for same-sex marriage are very interested in separating parentage and marriage from biological parentage, because that’s the one thing same-sex couples can never achieve,” he added.

I mean, sure, but part of the core conservative argument against same-sex marriage is that two-biological-parent households are better than two-nonbiological-parent households. Why wouldn’t the introduction of more adults, including the biological parents not be better? In fact, we have been doing this for some time, with villages, tribes, and relatives often taking on the responsibility of childcare. Like, oh, I don’t know, this family.

If stability is the goal, why not include as many stable adults as we can find?

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Politifact reminds me of Michael Scott when he’s trying to roast; they are so eager to roast and find “lies” that they don’t do any deeper introspection on the substance of the statements they are evaluating.

Consider, for instance, their recent 4-Pinocchio rating for the old chestnut that “women make 77 cents for the same job as men.” Take this, exaggerating Obama:

The Obama campaign took a legitimate statistic and described it in a way that makes it sound much more dramatic than it actually is. The 77-cent figure is real, but it does not factor in occupations held, hours worked or length of tenure.


Well, except look at those caveats–(1) occupations held; (2) hours worked; or (3) length of tenure. If we look at BLS occupation figures, (warning: PDF!) we see that women are still pulling down less than men in a variety of categories, so how might those three factors play into this equation?

  • Occupations held: Well, this is a problem, except even in the most specific BLS figures the disparity exists. Female chief executives make 69% what male chief executives make. Unless there is some massive difference in the types of “first-line supervisors of retail sales workers,” women are still making 79% of what their male counterparts make. That’s a pretty specific job type, and yet, the disparity still exists. Now, there’s no way of knowing exactly which job they hold; (PDF) research suggests that within the same establishment, wage gaps are smaller, but the overall pattern still holds that women are paid less than men for similar occupations regardless of establishment. So is Politifact right that the 77-cent figure for “the same work” is false? I mean, maybe, but the real figure might be something like 80-cents. How much better is that?
  • Hours worked: Well, it’s hard to say for hours worked; those pesky women are always taking so much more time off! Or not. BLS figures show that there’s a small difference in aggregate hours worked, but the difference between 8.2 hours and 7.8 hours, even considering overtime, doesn’t make up for the 23-cent gap, and as part-time employees, women actually work more than men. Plus, in “white-collar” occupations where hourly wages don’t matter (managers, supervisors, chief executives, elementary school teachers, accountants, social workers), women still earn less than men. Maybe they’re also working fewer hours there, which is why their companies reward them less. Or maybe something else. But they definitely earn less for similar work, if not the same.
  • Length of tenure: This one pisses me off the most. Maybe those lower-paid women have not worked there as long. True! But is that “not the same job”? A seventh-year teacher and a third-year teacher/cashier/clerk/nurse are doing the “same work.” They do, however, have different levels of seniority. And it turns out that men get promoted at a much higher rate than women (10.6% of men get promoted, as opposed to 7.6% of women), even though their wage growth at each level of promotion is similar. Again, this could be because men are just much better, hard-working, committed, etc. to their jobs than women. Or, perhaps, it could be that there continue to be discriminatory hiring, firing, and promotion practices at these establishments.

The point of this whole exercise is to illustrate that Politifact’s urge to get Obama in a hits-generating BOOM! ROASTED! moment has actually obscured the truth behind the statement. Just because it is difficult to get an exact comparison of apples-to-apples, doesn’t mean that women aren’t working for less pay doing essentially the same job. The bottom line is: women are promoted less often than men, earn less money than men in similar occupations (or “the same work”), and are subject to discriminatory hiring, promotion, and pay. Even if the 77-cent figure did take into account those three missing factors, it would still hit pretty close to the mark.

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The Summer Olympics are almost upon us, which means Olympic fever the world over. Soon, people will be glued to their TV sets to watch feats of human athleticism. I’ll admit that I enjoy watching many of the events, particularly track and field, gymnastics, swimming, and judo.

Unfortunately, the Olympics represent much that is wrong with the modern sports and entertainment apparatus, and a troubling blend of nationalist jingoism, shortened attention span, and corporate exploitation. Rather than a celebration of human achievement, they are increasingly a competition of sponsors, heavily subsidized national training programs, and unpaid labor.

Why do the Olympics suck so much?

  1. The athletes get hosed: Today, the Olympics no longer cares about only admitting amateur, non-professional athletes, which is fine, I guess. Unlike professional meets, the Olympic-organized events do not offer a purse for winners (some countries, like the U.S. do), which means that unless you’re Michael Phelps, you’re not getting steady income. Meanwhile, corporate sponsors for the Olympics (not to mention the highly corrupt IOC… which is such a foregone conclusion that it doesn’t even warrant its own bullet point) make tons of money off of the Olympics ($4B for the 2001-04 quadrennium), along with the various ancillary businesses that surround the Olympics. The only people not making money on the billions in revenue are the people competing. “OK,” you say, “but isn’t it great that the athletes are motivated by more than money?” I do, indeed! But that is all the more reason to making it easier to do what they love, rather than forcing them to beg for sponsorships to continue competing for our benefit.
  2. No one cares about these sports outside of the Olympics: Outside of, say, basketball, tennis, and maybe boxing, no one cares about these sports. They are amazing feats of stretching human achievement to the limit, but we pretend to enjoy them once every four years anyways. And why? Because they are “our” team, or because we like the way they look, or because they have a great narrative. But once the lights dim, our attention flits elsewhere. It’s a great international corporate lovefest, but it’s all a short-term fling, one that vanishes as quickly as it appeared.
  3. It professes apolitical ideals, yet encourages jingoism: Yeah, so I’m a big party pooper. Yelling “USA!” at the screen is half the fun! But I’m bothered by the fact that politics is carefully managed at the Olympics in a way that encourages only a certain kind of nationalism. These days we just gleefully cheer for our colors–the ones we had no part in supporting in a game we don’t care that much about. The narrative of triumphalism in athletics as triumphalism in foreign policy leads to all sorts of unfortunate ties between athletes and the countries they represent, as if someone’s most important identity were the flag over their head rather than their personal achievements. Meanwhile, when the “wrong” type of politics makes an appearance at the Olympics, there is always hell to pay. It’s a white-washed version of the world that not only ignores, but denigrates those who dare to speak out. Making an statement of protest = bad; kow-towing to nation-states and stereotypes = good.

Watch this (somewhat melodramatic) documentary on the 1968 Olympics’ black power salute to get an idea:

And if you think this kind of thing is over, Peter Norman, the silver medalist Australian who shared the podium with John Carlos and Tommie Smith, was not even invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Last year, these clowns still won a silver medal.

In short, the Olympics exploit athletes, have only fleeting connection to its “fans,” and obsessively censor any sign of political unrest or turmoil. No wonder totalitarians everywhere have always loved them.

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William Saletan atSlate always has these big pseudo-scientific questions that he thinks are deeply thought-provoking but are actually pretty schmeh.

For example, he has a long-standing (and probably wrong) hypothesis about race-linked intelligence. (I have previously noted the goofiness of this “scientific” discovery here.)

Now Slate has two stories about a study finding that children of gay parents at a time when being gay and having children was/is maligned can be stressful and difficult. That’s pretty understandable. Saletan’s take is probably more line with mine in that he thinks it still proves gay marriage is a good outcome (two parents, loving household, financial support, etc.). Still, he takes the study as methodologically sound (some criticisms here).

That said, let’s presume, for the sake of argument, that the study is right and two same-sex parents are actually in fact worse for the child than two opposite-parent biological parents. So what? Lots of children are raised in households without two opposite-sex biological parents; couldn’t a two-parent same-sex household still be better than, say, single parents? Couldn’t some alternate arrangement (let’s say, oh I don’t know, three parents in a household, or a two-parent biological household with grandparents in the home to provide childcare) provide even better results than the two-parent biological household? Should the government or society encourage such behaviors? Maybe, but maybe not. Attacking the “worst” child-rearing environments probably yields the most returns for society; certainly two-parent same-sex households are better than, say, institutional housing or constantly shifting foster care. Since there is high demand for same-sex households to have children, maybe we should be encouraging lots of adoption by any combination of two-parent households.

My point is that much like any presumed difference in intelligence between races (which, as I’ve noted, is probably wrong on its face anyways), the difference between a two-parent same-sex financially-supported household and a two-parent opposite-sex financially-supported household is probably so marginal that the policy implications are nil compared to the differences between a two-parent household and a no-parent household, or a two-parent household and an institutional care facility, or the difference between a poor family and a rich family.

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Do they need our charity?

President Obama has released his tax returns–that ever-strange feature of American politics. Yet, the tax return gives us an interesting view into one bit of our tax law that needs substantial reform: the charitable donation. As you’ll note from my shoddy circling, President Obama donated $5,000 to Sidwell Friends School. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the President’s daughters attend that school.

Now, Sidwell Friends School is a private school with high tuition ($31,960 a year). Do they really need additional funding? Or perhaps, put differently, do they deserve tax-deductible charitable giving?

Furthermore, to what extent can this really be considered charitable giving? Presumably, this is much closer to a quid pro quo relationship — the school, I imagine, strongly encourages parents to donate additional money to the school. Might those parents donate expecting special or different teacher? Might the school have incentives for treating the students of donors differently than those who merely pay tuition?

I’m not impugning the President’s motives here, but his public tax returns give us an opportunity to take a magnifying glass to someone’s tax returns other than our own. Consider that the President and First Lady gave as much money to Sidwell Friends as to any other charity, save the Fisher House Foundation (an excellent organization that runs comfort homes for military and VA hospitals). Does an elite private school really deserve an extra $5,000? Does an Ivy League university? And more importantly, should the American taxpayer be partially financing these types of donations?

We have a system that encourages charitable giving, but does not interrogate closely the reasons or purposes of the charities themselves. As a result, non-profit organizations and charities can easily serve as tax shelters to fund trips, meals, and other expenses for their operators.

The charitable deduction is not necessarily a way of funding charities; it is definitely a way to subsidize (mostly) the rich to make decisions about investments they wish to make. After all, only the rich benefit substantially from the itemized deduction; those of us taking the standard deduction (about 70% of taxpayers) don’t deduct much for our charitable donations. Should we really allow people to deduct for donating to, say, the opera (an organization that overwhelmingly benefits the rich)? The Center for American Progress or the Federalist Society (essentially political advocacy organizations)? Churches and other religious organizations? A private dinner club?

Again, I’m not saying that giving to charity is bad; I myself donate to charities. But, we do need to think more about why we subsidize charities and the outcomes that those subsidies create. Are we OK with subsidizing the ability of the rich to give money to organizations they like? Are the bad outcomes (such as non-profit bloat, fraudulent organizations, tax shelters, and charities that benefit the rich and privileged, etc.) worth the good ones (such as civic participation, communitarian values, market-driven donations, and charities that benefit the poor and underprivileged)? Like I said, I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it’s important that we ask them rather than act as if the charitable deduction must be a universal positive.

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