Tuesday, 25 January 2005

Law student humor

The which intentional tort are you test is making the rounds today; like TigerHawk and Will, I too am “trespass to chattels.” Perhaps more importantly, I am also glad to have never attended law school.

Germany's historical school of economics

Hmm. It seems that the German feudal system that suppressed Carl Menger’s work is only now dying (link may require subscription):

PUT five economists in a room, on Winston Churchill’s arithmetic, and you get five opinions—unless one is Keynes, when you get six. In Germany the sums have usually been simpler: you get just two opinions, with four economists sharing one point of view, and the fifth a token Keynesian, sent by the trade unions. Yet German economists are becoming more like their peers abroad. The typical specimen is becoming more empirical, pragmatic and ready for controversy, after a period when he was usually long on theory and reluctant to criticise colleagues.

This change has now reached the pinnacle of Germany’s “five wise men”, the country’s council of economic experts. Earlier this month, a public dispute erupted among the five (actually they are four men and one woman). What is more, they are likely to pick as their next chairman Bert Rürup, a hands-on, down-to-earth academic. This could have an influence on policy, for the underlying row among the five wise men was really about how to get the economy growing again. One of them, Peter Bofinger, even called for wage increases in line with productivity growth.

German economists have long had the knack of going their own way. Until the second world war, they hailed mostly from the “historical school”, which held that there was no such thing as economic rationality. In contrast, most are now wedded to neoclassicism, declaring that macroeconomic policy is ineffective and preferring to focus on supply-side issues. Labels such as “Keynesian” or even “pragmatist” have been insults. This partly reflects Germany’s cultural fondness for consensus, not a competition of ideas. Michael Burda, an American economist at Berlin’s Humboldt University, argues that German economics is only just escaping the middle ages.

Their escape is long overdue, it would seem.

Grade stagflation

Since before Robert’s post on this topic, I’ve been pondering grades in general, prompted by this post by Will Baude relating his experience at Yale, where he hasn’t yet “taken any classes that attempt to draw actual distinctions among the students.” Indeed, the very purpose of grading (as opposed to marking, as my Canadian colleague refers to it) is to discriminate among students on the basis of their academic performance. Thus all of the participants in the debate are right in their own ways, but I think they (individually, at least) miss the big picture.

Leopold Stotch and Steven Taylor both bemoan the administrative meddling in grade assignment inherent in Princeton’s decision, a sentiment with which (as a fellow political science professor) I must concur, lest we become like those emasculated law profs who not only no longer control their grades but also lack control over their own exam conditions. On the other hand, Nathan Novak thinks it’s a non-issue, due to the widespread use of class rank to compare students from different institutions; Andrew Samwick makes a similar point, although he acknowledges that grade inflation does lead to compression of the grade range. At the extreme end of the scale, the Grouch thinks grades don’t matter at all; I wouldn’t go that far, due to reasons of path dependence, but I can see his point—few people today care what grades I got in high school or as an undergraduate, but I wouldn’t be a professor today if I hadn’t gotten mostly A’s and B’s.

I think what Princeton is trying to do (rightly or wrongly) is address the “compression” problem that Andrew talks about—if 50% of the class are getting A’s, ny meaningful discrimination among those students has been eliminated; in other words, there’s been a loss of information in the process. If the purpose of grading is simply to drop passing students in buckets based on their absolute performance, giving 50% of students A’s might be appropriate; on the other hand, if the purpose of grading is to determine the relative merit of students, putting 50% of them in a single category isn’t very helpful.

The trouble is, we expect grades to do both of these things. The Millsaps college catalog, for example, requires all political science majors and minors to earn C’s in all of their coursework for the major (which leads to its own sort of compression effect, since effectively the minimum passing grade is raised from a 60 to a 73), and students must maintain a 2.0 GPA to participate in various and sundry extracurricular activities—the C and 2.0 represent absolute standards. But we also use grades to evaluate relative achievement, for election to honorary societies such as Phi Beta Kappa and for awarding other honors.

I don’t know that there’s a simple answer to these problems, although perhaps including measures of central tendency and dispersion along with assigned grades (as is at least partially the case at Dartmouth, according to Andrew) might be a good start.

Jefferson was right

The more I look at the rest of the world, the more I think we should not involve ourselves in it. Instead, we should just keep tariffs low (or nonexistent) and let them live their own history. After we’re finished with Iraq, of course.

By the way, just because the rest of the world disagrees with us doesn’t make them right.

Ah, to live in Rankin County

It’s always nice to see our state legislators up to business as usual:

Some Mississippi lawmakers are scheduled to speak Thursday to the Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “a patently white supremacist group.”

Well, isn’t that special. Even better, AP reporter Emily Wagster Pettus manages to track down one of the nitwits expected to attend this speaking engagement; unintentional hilarity ensues:

State Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, said he’s scheduled to speak at the CCC gathering Thursday. He said he’ll talk about issues to be considered during the current legislative session.

Moore said he didn’t know anything about the group’s position on race.

“If I find out for certain they are a racist organization, I am going to confront them,” he said.

“You hear that the NAACP is racist, but that wouldn’t keep me from talking to them,” Moore said.

One is forced to conclude that Moore’s invites to the Rankin County NAACP chapter meetings must have gotten lost in the mail. But it gets better.

He said he had never looked at the CCC‘s Web site, but he sat with an AP reporter and scrolled through it. After looking at the question-and-answer section on race, Moore said: “I didn’t get any indication from this that they were racist.”

You know, there’s a joke just begging to be made here about the reading comprehension of Mississippi State graduates, but it’s not even funny in this context. The people of Brandon ought to be embarrassed to have this guy allegedly representing them in the legislature. (þ: memeorandum)