View Full Version : Free Will: Predictably Irrational

02-25-2008, 10:55 AM

Bloggin' Noggin
02-25-2008, 11:07 AM
This is bizarre. Bloggingheads diavlogs have in the past sold me on a number of books. It appears that in this case they've done it again, only this time effect preceded cause. I just got the audio version of Dan's book on Saturday and just started listening to it this morning.
For those who are skeptical of backward causation, I suppose that Dan's book is a pretty obvious follow up for someone who bought Tim Harford's book, and that makes it likely that Audible.com would feature Dan's book for me, and that I would actually buy the book. Still, I find it pretty spooky.
Can't wait to view the diavlog itself.
Can't give much of a review of the book so far, except to say that it seems quite well written and interesting so far (and the narrator of the audiobook is good).

uncle ebeneezer
02-25-2008, 01:49 PM
Bloggin', buy Alterman's book while you're at it, so we can get him back on BHTV.

02-25-2008, 03:43 PM
Will is impressive for what a good natured guy he is in these Diavlog's especially when confronted with Dan's seeming myopia regarding how a market in education might actually produce better results (i.e. Why would markets produce a better result? Paying people more wouldn't increase motivation.).

The main problem with drawing too many policy conclusions from behavioral economic research (which Will alludes to throughout in a variety of subtle ways) is that even if individual people and corporation are "irrational" they are still better of acting out that irrationality in relatively unfettered markets. The market itself reflects the aggregate wisdom of the crowd, even one composed of less than rational actors. This is especially true when the practical alternative is: a few irrational individuals exercising government power to compel their conception of a rational result.

That being said, the value of behavioral economics is, as discussed as the end, in enabling people to design institutions aimed at overcoming limtations on people's own decision-making. In this respect, Cass Sunstein's suggestion that default options be set to what people would likely choose if they took the time, seems like a modest, helpful policy suggestion.

Jay J
02-25-2008, 06:24 PM
I have several concerns about school vouchers. I'm not closed off to the possibility that they're a good idea, but I really do have problems seeing my way through to being for them. I realize that voucher proponents deserve as much good-faith as anyone, so I'm not dismissing them out of hand as people who wish to destroy public schools, I'm just not clear on some things. Perhaps this is because the idea is faulty to begin with, or perhaps this is because of my ignorance. Either way, maybe I can begin to find out with this post:

1) I have faith that school choice would improve the quality of many schools. And I have faith that this would work the same way it does with many other products. The problem I'm having is a similar one I have with arguments against Universal Health Care which say stuff like, "The U.S. has the best health care system in the world, and this is because of our system." A friend summed up my feelings well by pointing out that this would be like saying, "Russia has the best police force in the world," even if Russia couldn't protect a sizable portion of its citizenry. The "best" part would refer to the totally awesome guards who keep Putin safe. But "best" to many of us would also mean that virtually everyone had roughly equal access to it, unlike many consumer products, which people don't have equal access to (unequal access to consumer products doesn't bother me so much, whereas unequal access to education does bother me).

I just don't see how I can be confident that market forces are going to create the kind of equal access that I desire, even though I don't doubt that market forces would create some great schools under the right circumstances.

2) I don't understand the funding system. What I'm about to say may be a caricature of the funding schemes, but the versions I have heard propose something like dividing the school's total budget by the number of students who attend the school, and then giving the resulting amount to parents as "their contribution" so they could go and use it for tuition at another school. But of course it's impossible to say that a school can easily part with this money just because one student has left. I mean, it can't be quantified at that marginal level. What, can we like, weigh all the school lunches he would have eaten, see how much better the buses gas mileage is without a kid's 75 pound body riding in it every day, figure in the cost of one less desk? Obviously, we can't. This seems to get at the difference between marginal and average costs.

3) While I see nothing constitutionally wrong with "school choice," since sectarian (of all types) and non-sectarian schools would have to be given equal consideration, this still leaves me uneasy. I really don't have that big a problem with someone taking tax dollars and using them to go to an Episcopal school or something. But how bout "Taliban Junior High?" I know this seems far fetched but we have to deal with it in the abstract since we may be committing ourselves to letting people use tax dollars to fund these types of schools. I know the theory is that it's their own tax dollars they're entitled to, but obviously this won't be the case for everyone, since many people don't pay much of the types of taxes that fund schools.


02-25-2008, 09:58 PM
Professor Ariely is connected to Koch Industries too. Both Charles and David Koch graduated from MIT and David Koch has donated more than a $100 million to the university.

02-26-2008, 02:15 AM
I am curious if there are examples of diversified (if that is the right word for a mix of private and public) education systems in a state that do very well in international evaluations of students at the primary and secondary levels. I don't mean places where there are just individually brilliant students but where even the worst students are fairly well educated. I happen to live in Finland where I am a teacher. Finland produces, according to some measures like the PISA (and I would admit that these measures tend to focus on the "basics" and might miss some less tangible skills), very skilled students in languages as well as maths and sciences. Education is completely free from kindergarten on up, including tertiary education, and there is virtually no private education in Finland. Teacher salaries are not higher than in the US and there are no special incentive systems in place for teachers to get their students to perform well. In fact, it would be hard to fire a teacher in Finland because of the strong unions and the very secure systems of tenure. But the teachers are obviously highly motivated. One "benefit" they receive from their employers--that American teachers may not--is time and space to teach without someone staring over their shoulders. There is a great amount of social trust built into the system. The teachers also share a high level of education themselves--all have a masters degree of higher. Ariely's point about the unintended consequence of small incentives rings true to me. My guess is that there would be huge resistance here among teachers to individual incentives for the same reason. We would see that as undermining the whole shared project. I should admit I am not sure that this system works as well here at the tertiary level where we might actually want to focus more on producing brilliant individuals.

02-26-2008, 03:47 AM

Thanks for the input. Very interesting perspective.

I do agree with one point of yours in particular -- here in the U.S., there is entirely too much deadweight of administration and oversight weighing the teachers down, especially in primary and secondary education.

I think another problem we have in this country, and I have no idea how to address it, is that there are large chucks of the population who place little or no worth on the value of learning. Not only does this hamstring the business of education, it permeates the homes of the students. I am often bored to tears with debates about "fixing our schools," because few seem willing to admit the problem goes much deeper.

Jeff Morgan
02-26-2008, 04:00 AM
What Will Wilkerson is looking for out of an education system under market forces requires the ability to measure how good the product is. One of the core problems of Education is: what is our product exactly, and how can it be measured.

This problem is hairy as all hell and nowhere near resolved enough for market forces to be able to select better education.

Also how this is chunked matters.

Is this per teacher performance, per school performance, or state performance? I think each has a different incentive dynamic.

And the education 'products' are often time-delayed. For example two different teaching methods could yield indistinguishable results on the test at the end of the year, but the efficacy of learning the next year's material could be significantly different, leading to diverging results in future years. That time delay in market dynamics can cause lot's of volatility.

Anyways, all that really doesn't matter I think because this is analogous to hospital services; you know, why can't market forces weed out expensive methods?

02-26-2008, 04:50 AM
I do agree with one point of yours in particular -- here in the U.S., there is entirely too much deadweight of administration and oversight weighing the teachers down, especially in primary and secondary education.I agree that thee is way to much money waisted in administrative costs. But the oversized bureaucracy not only leads to wasteful costs it also leads to excessive interference in the abilities of the teachers to innovate by stifling over regulation to justify the existence of the enlarged bureaucracy.

Detroit is lately in the news,Detroit schools grad rate: 32% (http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080225/SCHOOLS/802250382) while it spends considerably above the per student average for the state (http://www.greatschools.net/cgi-bin/mi/district_profile/346/#finance) and while not a direct comparison we seem to spend more than Finland Report: U.S. No. 1 in school spending (http://www.cnn.com/2003/EDUCATION/09/16/sprj.sch.education.compared.ap/)

The report cited Australia, Finland, Ireland, Korea and the United Kingdom as examples of OECD nations that have moderate spending on primary and lower secondary education but high levels of performance by 15-year-olds in key subject areas.

riku:...I think another problem we have in this country, and I have no idea how to address it, is that there are large chucks of the population who place little or no worth on the value of learning. Not only does this hamstring the business of education, it permeates the homes of the students. I am often bored to tears with debates about "fixing our schools," because few seem willing to admit the problem goes much deeper.Perhaps Bill Cosby has at least part of that answer with his call to personal responsibility instead of constant shouts of victimization and the constant drumbeat of negativity reflected in the pop culture that is pushed by Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general.

Jeff Morgan
02-26-2008, 04:59 AM
bjkeefe: you are certainly right.

On dead-weight administration... This is an organizational problem, that is, there is an incredible lack of organization.

In one sense, think of an analogy with the Iraq occupation where it's all soldiers on the field and no Generals, strategy, or a support structure in general. The soldiers are teachers.

The soldiers do what they can in their locality, probably making decisions for short-term effects, without coordination with other soldiers, and a given Iraqi is affected by multiple soldiers as they move around. It would become apparent that you can't just try to run around chasing disrupters of the peace, you have to prevent the will to disrupt the peace. How do measure the degree you are doing that? Soldiers can only weakly learn from other soldiers mistakes and successes, and they're all trying to design strategy. To top it off, the mission is fuzzy, not well-defined.

This is the price we pay for our complacency of localism. Teachers are coordinated in small local groups with a (crappy) support structure (i.e. admin), and this is replicated countless times over large regions. One school tries something new and gets better results, but there is a crippling drag for this idea to diffuse to other schools. This is a nice article on ending localism from The Atlantic last month. (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200801/miller-education)

Jeff Morgan
02-26-2008, 05:31 AM
On motivation:

An essential task for education is to motivate more learning. This is task is basically unaddressed in school. The education experience can definitely be redesigned to address this, but it's generally viewed as not the job of the school despite the fact that it'll increase performance. That general view enables the avoidance of fundamental changes, which is desirable to administrations (and parents) across the country.

Note though that education in general is not restricted to school. We learn everyday watching t.v., talking with people, having to do random tasks. What you learn on bloggingheads, they don't teach in school! Our motivations are similarly formed in and out of school. If it increased performance, should our education system train new parents to raise their kids to want education?

Our real limitation for all this stuff, the rate-determining factor, is what we are willing to do.

It would help if the economic incentive was more vivid. Education pays back in salary at a ridiculous rate, but we are still in a filter/selection mindset. That there will always have to be garbage men and not everyone can be engineers so that makes lack of achievement acceptable. The problem of course is, in our global town the industrialized nations are becoming the white-collar neighborhoods, and less developed nations are becoming the blue collar neighborhoods. But barely anyone in the States seem to notice!!

People aren't used to thinking of a labor economy that is fluid, but it's estimated that today's kids will have 10-14 different jobs before they are 38 years old. That means when the factory closes down, you get another job; and get used to it! The very question, "what do you want to be when you grow up" evokes a blindness of our current labor economy since the question suggests the answer is a singular role.

Labor markets rise and fall at an accelerating rate, and economic efficiency and stability increasing depends on the fluidity of labor. That applies to the micro (individual) and macro. But I don't think that's being integrated into parents' and children's expectations (key ingredient to motivation).

02-27-2008, 06:50 PM
For the life of me, I can't figure out why Will holds his red ink pen up at this point in the conversation:

Why would he do such a random thing?

03-12-2008, 05:34 PM
0) Contrast "wish to destroy public schools" with "wish to improve education" even if at the expense of public school budgets.

1) You are worried that the best schools will get better w/ school choice, but the worst schools won't get better (by as much), thus widening the relative performance gap. If I was a student in one of the best public schools, I wouldn't want to use vouchers very much. If I was a student in one of the worst public schools I'd be desperate for an improvement. I think the parents and students at the worst schools are much more concerned with improving their own absolute performance than with the idea of equal outcomes. Equal outcomes seem more important to citizens-as-political-participants than to citizens-as-users-of-education.

2) Schools have to deal with changes in attendance and funding all of the time.

3) School choice only for net-tax-payers? The poorest are also the ones worst-served by our current system. If schools must teach something objectionable to someone, that's an argument for no tax funding of education at all.

03-12-2008, 05:41 PM
"why can't market forces weed out expensive methods?"

Third party payments like insurance and Medicare, and FDA regulations that demand that new techniques must be more effective than older ones.

03-12-2008, 05:43 PM
Perhaps if the Iraqis could select from many defense providers and fire incompetent ones, there might be more innovation. Right now they're just stuck with American and Iraqi forces. Blackwater seems to do pretty well, in its domain.