Saturday, 22 January 2005

Grade inflation

Leopold Stotch at OTB is indignant over Princeton’s new policy of capping the number of A’s at 35% of the class. I’m a little new to academia, but I’m not sure the policy is as objectionable as he seems to think.

Administrators are limited in their ability to judge the performance of professors. The problem—and the reason many administrators will default to grade distributions as a measure of grade inflation—is that educational outputs aren’t easily observable, whereas grades are easily observable. To make educational outputs observable, administrators have to overcome a great deal of uncertainty and cost. The attempts include taking student surveys—which, not surprisingly, are strongly correlated (positively) with grades—and observing professors in class. This last item is quite expensive and may just result in the professor being on his best behavior when the auditors are present.

One of the reasons that research universities use publication to make tenure decisions is that publication is easily observable, as is the quality of the publication (an ‘A’ journal, ‘B’ journal, and so forth). In any case, this is a topic that will be with us a while, if not forever.

Social security reform

People really need to get their terminology straight. Apparently these LaRouchies think that privatizing part of Social Security is both fascist and anti-capitalist:

No organization is more responsible for the forced-march drive to privatize Social Security—stealing trillions of dollars of its funds for Wall Street accounts—than the Cato Institute, a multi-million dollar Washington, D.C. think tank. During the past 20 years, Cato has had more than a quarter of a billion dollars lavished on it in contributions by the most powerful Wall Street banks, and largest right-wing think tanks—led by the ultra-right-wing Koch group of foundations. Cato has spent this money on a host of projects intended to destroy the sovereign nation-state and implement fascist economic austerity. But the lion’s share has gone into the privatization of Social Security.
The title of the post: Cato Institute: Anti-Capitalist Clique Leads the Attack on Social Security.

With all of the partial information and misinformation out there, it’s tough to get a handle on the scope of the problem, and what should be done. Lately I’ve been opposed to the idea of private accounts, and remain so. They will have to be funded and will not reduce the unfunded liability.

Still, the case for reform is a good one and consider this from an earlier post about a NYT story (excerpt from original story):

Seniors now get an initial benefit that is tied to a fixed portion of their pre-retirement wages. If the index was changed, their pensions would be pegged to a fixed portion of a previous generation’s income. If this standard had been in force since the beginning, retirees today would be living like those in the 1940’s—like Ida Fuller, which would mean $300 a month in today’s dollars, as opposed to roughly $1,200 a month.
This raises a good normative question: how fair is it to expect workers to fund standard-of-living increases—and pay increasingly higher taxes—for each succeeding generation, especially with the baby boomers set to retire, when seniors are already a very wealthy demographic? One solution would be to just begin increasing benefits to keep up with the cost of living; another solution would be to give them half of the increase in real wages, instead of the whole as they get now. The second idea would reduce the amount of the unfunded liability while still raising the standard of living for retirees; just not at the pace of wage increases. It would lighten the burden on the economy as a whole.

Of course, any attempt at reform—including reductions in the automatic increases will be fiercely opposed by the AARP. Yet another reason I won’t be joining that organization when I hit fifty.

Hydrogen roundup

Lately I’ve been daydreaming a bit about the possibilities of replacing oil with hydrogen for fuel. A check of the news brings me back down to earth:

High-volume hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars are at least 25 years away, says Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.‘s top fuel cell expert.

Even General Motors, which had been pushing for fuel cell vehicles by decade end, seems to be backing off from its goal of mass production of fuel cell vehicles by 2010.

It’s a tad disappointing, but we’ve been surprised in the past. Hydrogen cars, as with everything from ink pens to the original cars, may start out as a luxury item in a few years and morph into a mass-market product a few years later. Here’s the POV of the GM tech guy:
“The Sequel is a real car and it’s doable in a manufacturing sense, but it’s still 10 times more costly than we would need it to be for volume production; we need to get down to about $50 per kW. By 2010 I really do believe that we will have a validated power system that will be down to $50 per KW. That’s what my boss has instructed me to do.

“I’m feeling confident because we’ve started to validate our feelings about the project. The fuel-cell vehicle has a tenth as many moving parts as an internal combustion car and engineers will tell you that moving parts are expensive to test and make.

He also adds this hopebul tidbit:
“Hydrogen infrastructure is not as big a deal as people seem to think it is. If you have hydrogen supplied at, say, 12,000 gas stations, which is about 10 per cent of all US gas stations, then 70 per cent of the population of the US would be within two miles of a hydrogen pump.

“That’s hydrogen available in the 100 largest cities and a station every 25 miles on the freeway. The cost would be $12 billion, which is half the cost of the Alaskan pipeline. Now why wouldn’t a US government want to do that?

We won’t replace $1.2 trillion worth of infrastructure (gas stations) overnight, but we can do it over a couple of decades. However, I don’t see why the government needs to be funding it, as he suggests at the end there. It seems the energy companies could handle that themselves.

In the more immediate future, we should have fuel-cell batteries within a few years:

THE day of the battery may finally be over as manufacturers usher in the age of the fuel-cell. To prove the point, an engineer from the Japanese electronics company Hitachi yesterday showed the world the pack that will power tomorrow’s mobile phone, laptop computer and personal organiser.

From his pocket he produced a miniature fuel cell consisting of a plastic canister of liquid gas slightly smaller than a cigarette lighter and plugged it into a metallic box slightly larger than a packet of cigarettes.

The cell, which will be on sale in about 18 months, will run all three machines for the length of a short-haul flight.

Of course, there will be a transition time—and regular batteries will remain useful for a lot of applications—but it’s good to see that some progress is being made.

Statism and the like

A couple of posts from Samizdata to consider. First:

This is yet another part of moving Britain into the more Napoleonic traditional in which the state is the core around which everything rotates in a politicised fashion and the highest virtue is political engagement (not a view I share, to put it mildly, given my view of politics).
A friend and I were discussing the low voter participation rate the other day. He’s from a foreign country—one that has not experienced liberal democracy yet—and was astounded by our low voter participation rate. He also sees the Iraqi election as being hopeful with a high participation rate. I mentioned that we have been an established democracy for centuries and there’s a tendency to take it for granted after a while. I also mentioned that there are a lot of people that shouldn’t vote because they don’t follow the issues.

I should have mentioned another point: though I’m a political junkie, as with the Samizdata quote above, I’m not too keen on the idea of having the world rotate around politics. It’s good that most people don’t have to make public policy a priority and can focus on their families and other interests. It’s a sign of our health as a nation.

An extension of the earlier quote, from another post:

When the state, as distinct from any political party, takes on the role of encouraging people to have the correct views and oppose the right habits, the liberty of everyone is made immediately more precarious. There is a very great supply of petty nannies with a favoured cause, and altogether more dangerous authoritarians and social engineeers with their own pet projects, who would love to get their hands on the power the NHS is now abusing. Rest assured, they will find ways of doing so if the precedent now being set is not reversed.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of material related to this idea, and I’m always reminded of the great C.S. Lewis quote:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
So true, and one of the reasons I’m glad that many of my fellow citizens are not fixated on politics, or even become quite angry when others try to lecture them on it. Three cheers for complacency!!