Thoughts on education, innovation, and teaching to the test.

This article is certainly worth a read.
A venture capitalist take on education

At a fundamental level there is a problem with the system *as it is*. Though I’m less likely to jump in the trenches of those that bemoan the specific loss of music class or art class. There is a merit to the thrust of the point schools do not reward dynamic or adaptive thinking, many schools do not offer or incorporate expressive and artistic subjects as part of the curriculum. In many ways we have an educational system in name only, huge diploma mills certifying compliance and an ability of children to regurgitate facts in the correct sequences.

On a very natural level the idea of an education predicated on just giving the right answer misses the point. It isn’t merely about “giving” the right answer, it’s about fostering the development of habits and processes unique to different people to facilitate their ability to create and communicate those answers with others. It should immediately strike anyone who is a business owner, entrepreneur, innovator, or artist that how we go about educating does little to encourage the development of skills and idea frameworks we need in our fields to be successful. By and large we learn (and functionalize) knowledge by emulating the processes of others. It has often been pointed out that the evolutionary and neurological machinery of the human brain isn’t geared so much towards discovering new knowledge in so much it is geared towards communicating, language (symbolism) and towards collaboration. Our brains are geared towards incremental social accumulation of knowledge. In a sense the hard drive for storing human knowledge isn’t kept on just one person, it’s distributed throughout the social system with every productively engaged person operating as a storage of a couple bits of information and a relay for a knowledge signal through that society.

Human success is far less about having the specifically correct answer at any time as much as it is about being able to ask for, communicate, and apply those answers to different situations. For instance by virtue of of social, cognitive, and communicative systems it is unnecessary that we all know how to make tires. Instead hundreds if not thousands of people spread out the world over all contribute a tiny bit into the productive process that produces tires. From the oil workers, to the transporters, to the factory workers at the steel mills and rubber production facility to the stock workers and technicians at the dealership, the ergo sum total of the knowledge needed for this process is non-local to any particular place. It is instead distributed in the extended order of social coordination. Our social and economic system relies on distributed, non-local knowledge, and operates as an extensive neural network of many people the world over coordinated through passions, profits, and purpose. Schools in their present form fall well short of meeting the needs of our system.

This article confirms a conversation I recently had one of the conversations was with a friend of mine who is now a primary school teacher.He pointed out the primary education public school model is highly bureaucratized and geared to teach to the test. Although he “teaches” his classroom, he cannot actually “run it” his curriculum goals are handed down, benchmark goals for test results handed down, his schedule is frequently and considerably manipulated by administrators and underlying his own practical concerns with management the curriculum doesn’t reward dynamic or original thinking. Educational goals are largely incoherent with an overwhelming emphasis placed on teaching to the schedule and pushing for mechanistic rote responses to test questions. He is routinely expected to sacrifice free time and unstructured activities so as to “make up” hours with rote education approaches for response and simple process questions tested for on the SOLs.

These kind of practical administrative restraints make innovative and alternative class structures difficult if not impossible. While perhaps not wholly reflective of a uniform set of experiences in all public schools the image of children as young as 9 years old expected to slog through rote lecture without recess or creativity oriented programs is mind boggling. Where is the innovation? Where is the focus on maximizing the potential of the future? Where is the awakening of the mind into cognizance, awareness that we are all little parts of a vast integrated and interdependent system? Where is the development of the sense of self, dignity, rewarding of curiosity and ingenuity?

What we see is a system not only out of sync with the economic and social needs of the larger human social system but we see a large bureaucratic machine slow to adapt, fixed on benchmark performances, and obsessed with the image of education rather than content. In some ways while the high school dropout rates have plummeted we’ve built a system that accommodates the lowest common denominator granting diplomas with little signal content distinction.

Zero Tolerance: More feature, less bug

Hey Liberals, #IStandwithAhmed Isn’t Only About Racism. It’s About School Zero Tolerance Insanity.
There are some good points here. Though taken in whole it appears in this case overt racism and religious fear certainly did play a role.
The point of this essay can’t be underplayed enough. Part of the conversation that has developed with an eye to post-ferguson attention to judicial and police reform is the School to Prison track where zero-tolerance policies for drugs effectively foster the criminal culture around distribution and many times those first offenses put children and juveniles into the *system*.

It’s weird that the left tends to miss that the system rules are a feature not a defect of the problem. With zero tolerance policies we carve out these massive delegations of social and economic authority to unelected bureaucrats which then after can impute whatever bias they might have into the process and magnify the effect of bigotry while concealing it under the guise of following the rules.

It’s like the conversation that develops around “cops aren’t racist” well why then is there this massive statistical distortion that pretty clearly indicates instances of repeated bias?
“They’re just enforcing the law”
Well there is the problem, the laws are vague enough that we can have unarmed people gunned down on camera in broad daylight and enforcing the law is a sufficient defense to claim no wrong doing. Zero-tolerance, and aggressively enforcement schemes share a common underlying quality, that the laws cease to serve a function of offering distributional justice.

I am encouraged though the way the news of the arrest of the Ahmed in Texas has gone over elicits a weird mixture of encouragement and oddity.
Virtually everyone I’ve seen can see the obvious injustice at play. In a way though I wonder if folks will be consistent and committed enough to seriously challenge the developing security-police state.

A lot of folks focus on the religious and racial elements. I think they miss the other more foundational injustice that we have built a system with such bad rule sets as a product of the broad adoption of zero tolerance policies that they can be easily and readily perverted to destroy ingenuity and development.  Simply stating the obvious that his suspension and arrest was founded in racism isn’t enough, to successfully follow through we must understand that this is only a recent example of the perverse consequences of zero-tolerance policies and the underlying shift to a police-security state.
The suspension of Ahmed represents a kind soft tyranny of rule by bureaucratic dependents. Who needs overt fascism when we can get nitpicked, nannyed, and cajoled into compliance?


Local update: On zoning.

Looking at a map of the comprehensive plan in Chesapeake for 2035 and transportation plan for 2050.

One of the things that really strikes me is the impact of zoning restrictions on development and the secondary impact of creating suburban uniformity as well as large socio-economic cliffing. Zoning (especially housing and light commercial) strikes me as deeply unfair to older, frequently less wealthy communities, while inadvertently perpetuating geographic barriers to entrepreneurship.

When I look at this map I see that virtually every piece of land that was changed from Agricultural designation to residential or commercial zoning has been sold and is presently under development. This suggests in my mind that zoning has at least locally, broadly under-provided the market demand for homeownership, rentals, and shop space.

What also jumps out is how these programs can persist although benefits aren’t entirely clear.
The classic public choice explanation is Rent capture. The big thing about zoning is it localizes and concentrates poverty while it protects large developers by excluding low level development or density oriented re-development.
Politicians like it because behind the charade of NIMBYism they can deliver favors to their political handlers. Builders and developers collude with local governments to limit the supply of new construction raising prices for land and building.11224512_10102440507355647_6651586348419660157_o (1)

Thoughts on Immigration: The moral and economic views of refugees.


As part of the ongoing conversation about immigration policy recent attention to developing refugee crisis in Europe has recentered the debate from one of Domestic US policy to a broader discussion of refugees and mass immigration. My thoughts regarding immigration to Europe run along the same lines of the subject of immigration to the US. The literature discussing the economic impact of immigration supports a fairly firm conclusion that immigrants tend to (at least in the US) be less dependent on welfare than comparable native populations. While many other economists note that immigrants tend to fill complementary jobs to natives, or tend towards sectors of employment (such as agricultural work) that are relatively underprovided by natives at comparable skill and education levels.

Despite the relative abundance of evidence that immigrants tend to be hard working, that enclave communities integrate socially and economically, and that politically are not significant drivers of the expansion of welfare programs misconceptions on both the right and the left persist. Economic nationalists insist, contrary to the foundational insight of comparative advantage and division of labor the father of modern economics Adam Smith elucidated in The Wealth of Nations, that labor substitution of immigrants for natives operates along an axis of direct skill and educational parity. This foundational insight of how labor markets operate by allowing average costs of existing services to fall (presumably by an increase in labor supply) permits the savings by capital owners (producers) to be reinvested in new capital processes (such as complimenting a lawn service company with tree pruning services) Adam Smith’s insight of the division of labor points out that cost savings afforded by increases in the labor supply afford future investments into new businesses and further economic diversification and specialization. This remarkably simple point tends to be missed in many debates, not as a consequence of contrary empirics (most economists, even those such as Borjas that are generally  pro-immigration restrictions) tend to concede that the long term effects of immigration is a general net economic positive.  No, the real reason people revile this position lays outside of economics and depends on a varied composition of post-hoc rationalizations (such as the law says their illegal, deport them), and a misunderstanding of economics. As such pro-restrictionist views tend to be inconsistent in the logic used to arrive at the positions they adopt, but resolute in the seriousness of those positions. Going one level deeper I think it can be fairly concluded that some not insignificant degree of these views suffer from confirmation bias and a crowding effect created by the more vociferous, least sober minded pro-restrictionists such as republican presidential nomination candidate Donald Trump.

Satisfactorily, though I strongly encourage people to familiarize themselves with the academic literature surrounding immigration, one can tend to conclude that economically there isn’t much of a case for strong immigration controls. This leaves another, less clear but no less relevant topic to consider, that of the moral dimension.

In a conventional (or at least American sense) we tend to limit to discussion of immigration policy to drier areas of legality and economic feasibility. The composition of most immigrants to the US are not what we would typically consider political refugees fleeing war (though some from central America could make some case) many are instead seeking to immigrate for economic and social opportunity, because of this we tend not to entertain in public discourse the moral component of immigration. On the other hand the immigration crisis presently facing Europe is distinctly different from our own. A review of the composition of the immigrant flows to Europe clearly indicates that in full terms many of them are refugee immigrants, people without opportunity or overtly hostile home countries, driven out by war, famine, and persecution. In this sense the European immigration crisis adopts a deeper moral dimension.

Set aside a moment your copy of “The Wealth of Nations” and instead pick up Adam Smith’s often overlooked but no less relevant text “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, in TMS Adam Smith discusses a view steeped in the rich tradition of enlightenment humanism that moral beliefs are tightly intertwined with the sympathetic, and contextual character of individual identity. As Smith develops his point the moral fabric of societies is connected to reciprocation and repeated coordination of social norms in a sense moral fabrics are created through the developed ability to sympathize action and communicate shared principles of justice throughout a society.

This view of humanistic morality is deeply connected with the commercial and social underpinning of Western Civilization. As Deirdre Mccloskey has convincingly made the case in her scholarship on the moral underpinnings of capitalism, the thought of Adam Smith, and  book the “Bourgeoisie Virtues,” the application of these broad moral insights that are predominately egalitarian, individualistic, and liberal lead directly and in many cases provided the sustaining drive for economic and social development over the past 300 years. The development of common and prosaic views of morality based on inclusive criteria develops alongside the increased complexity of economic arrangements. Where this moral sentiment comes into play is that as the economic and social complexity of a society increases, the exposure the new ideas and *tests* of those ideas increases the possibility and opportunity for a broader moral basis.

But let’s step back a bit. How does this relate to refugees?

Well let’s think this through.
A feature of the underlying moral basis of Western Civilization is the ability to apply general, self-affirming principles, to both the person and to see them reflected in the social grammar of other people. With relationship to immigration this brings sharply into focus a reality that they, immigrants, are also people that add into the moral and practical matrix they must be afforded dignity and moral rights that are recognized and tolerated. Western liberalism does not ascribe new or imagined rights that obligate others to forgo the same sets of rights. What this finds is a basis of enfranchisement, and in the case of immigrants (especially refugees) the reciprocal moral relationship between comfortable western people, and displaced population must be seen in terms that they still maintain similar rights to direct and express their autonomy for their own benefit. We benefit because the moral credo that underlays western civilization reinforces the ability of people to self direct and identify the ability to influence and innovate in a world, just as they are free to risk their economic capital on a new business (and reap the profit, or loss thereof), people can also determine the political and geographic allegiance to which they will pledge themselves.  To carry forward the incumbent proviso of many enlightenment thinkers one could generate some qualifiers such as help is due to those most absolutely disadvantaged relatively more so than others, the liberal position is not to argue further that society writ large is obligated to demand assistance to those destitute, but that liberal proviso would also qualify that society is not permitted to prevent the free movement of people and their rights to resettle peacefully (as most, indeed the overwhelming majority) have done.

Yesterday September 9th the American Conservative ran an article that detailed the impact of US foreign policy in the region. The article available here traced the impact of the US led invasion of Iraq, subsequent involvement in fomenting and aiding the opposition to Assad in Syria, and the acute ongoing consequences of the policy of shadow diplomacy  the US is still presently engaged in. One does not need to think particularly deeply to see that at the minimum a considerable burden of responsibility for the present state of affairs in the Middle East has been caused by US policy. The ongoing civil war in Syria, rise of the radical Islamic State in Syria, have in many ways driven millions of Syrians from their homes and laid waste to cities, some thousands of years old. Approximately 4 million people are now presently displaced, neighboring countries, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon have taken in about 3 or so million so far. Today, just as yesterday we read in the news that thousands, tens of thousands now wait to enter the European Union in hopes of resettlement.

Yesterday I read an article run on the news service Breitbart posted to Facebook by a conservative somewhat libertarian associate. The article, in Breitbart’s characteristic tilted fashion reported the eruption of riots between refugees seeking asylum and the police on the Greek island of Lesbos. The article made no mention of the fact that asylum seekers had been detained on the island by Greek bureaucrats and prevented from leaving for more than a week, all the while kept in squalid conditions with no clear hope of release. The point of the article was an attempt to implicate the broadly peaceful, though destitute, wave of asylum seekers as violent dependents. My suggestion to the problem posed by the prospect of rioting immigrants was fairly simple. Let them pass Germany, Austria, France, and the United Kingdom has already indicated a willingness to take the refugees in, given Greece’s recent reluctance to honor their international obligations it wasn’t a huge surprise that they had imagined some new bureaucratic barrier to refugees. After being pressed on these two points my interlocutor then shifted to a separate argument that resettlement of refugees carry an inherent risk of introducing a terrorist, to host countries.

Really, Terrorism?
There are 4.2 Million people displaced from a country that until 2010 enjoyed relative wealth and education and since then has literally been reduced to dust and twisted metal with bombs bought by the Gulf Arab states and the West to fight a war that has spread across a swath of the middle east from Irbil in Iraq to along the border of Turkey to Jordan, into the streets and neighborhoods of the burnt out husk of a city once known as Damascus, and the worry is that a terrorist might be among any of those millions? This is perhaps the most soundly absurd and ought to be the most passionately derided justification ever imagined by the pro-restrictionists.

There are two readily understandable moral implications to this kind of argument.
The first is that that pro-restrictionists do not understand that housing large numbers of refugees in semi-permanent camps has historically offered the social and economic conditions to develop the support networks conducive to tolerating radical groups (hence the longer people remain without formalized legal status the less committed they are to host countries) and that the perpetuation of impermanent residency effectively limits the degree of economic and social capital that can be accumulated effectively retarding the ability of societies to create stable equilibria of broadly liberal beliefs compatible with western society.
The second is a far more stark possibility that the use of this rather remote possibility as a counter argument against receiving refugees is simply meant as a tactic of refusing refugees for the sake of refusing refugees. Instead of as a serious concern this is introduced as a purposefully deceitful ploy to manipulate the fears of the unknown so as to forcibly and necessarily subjugate the human rights of some (refugees) to the fears of others. This argument attempts to implicate entire peoples as responsible for the possibility an extreme minority may be undesirable. At it’s very core this possible argument is repugnant to the moral foundations of civil, just, society and ought be seen as what it is which is deeply and cynically immoral.

There may well be a rehabilitated point somewhere in the mix here. A few conservatives, aside again from the nativist populists, might point out that the cultural mix of new immigrants may present some problematic challenges to assimilation. This is an old and well worn argument, at least domestically this ground has been covered at least since the early waves of the German and Irish immigrants of the 19th century many of which were viewed with a deep cultural distrust by the resident, predominately  Anglo-Saxon culture of early settlers. Indeed as a microcosm for world wide immigration the US is a good test lab of the habits in cultural assimilation. Though the remainder of this article is not intended to delve deeper into this topic, suffice to say the impacts of successive waves of immigrants to the United States (and there have been many, some of which amounted fully to 1% of the native population per year) have resulted in no firm deformations of the political or cultural institutions. More recent ones such as the Vietnamese and Hmong refugees during the 1970s and early 80s are a good rough comparison to those of the Syrians presently attempting to enter Europe. Recent experiences with large numbers of refugees supports generally the understood view that cultural assimilation takes 2 generations and that even large numbers of immigrants can, and usually will, result in diasporas across host countries as enclaves breakdown when immigrant communities shift from communal capital accumulation schemes to private capital accumulation schemes.

In summation my point is this. The present refugee crisis in Europe is acute, has a relatively apparent solution (let them go to Germany, France, England, Austria, Sweden) and when considered on its practical merits has a strong moral case for liberalizing immigration restrictions. Instead of persistently and wrongly arguing that refugees and immigrants represent an existential threat to Western Civilization a sober realistic view of history firmly reveals that the moral judgement supports the reception of refugees. While for the time being we here in the United States can right now view this crisis with the attitude of an observer we should not. Instead the morally courageous and economically sensible reaction is to reform our refugee programs and offer the safe harbor we have repeatedly done in the past century to those fleeing poverty, war, and destructive political regimes.

A few thoughts on former Presidents.

Earlier today I came across this article in one of my favorite publications “The Freeman” by FEE. My friend Daniel Bier has written an article examining some of the policies adopted during the widely derided presidency of Jimmy Carter. As it turns out some of those policies became the seed bed for entire industries (such as craft brewing) and in the long run had positive impacts on economic freedom and the continuing diversification and development of industries today.

The following are some thoughts of mine that developed while I read his article and is not intended as a critique or even review of Mr Biers fine article. I hope you enjoy my thoughts, and that you enjoy Mr Biers article.

I’m not usually a huge fan of ranking former presidents. Generally speaking it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and the mild hagiography political partisans ascribe to their tribes representatives makes clear history difficult. Politics are complex, some presidents like Bill Clinton clearly did not have ideologies consistent with the eventual policies that came to fruition during their presidency. Welfare reform is for instance a good example of a useful policy that was passed with considerable opposition from the Clinton administration that turned out well. At times this question of “who is leading?” can make it unclear as to whether presidents, the congress, or such as with same sex marriage the courts (and a few highly motivated, committed litigants) are really the driving forces of policy. Popular presidents do not necessarily make productive, or effective presidents, and the value sets myself and others that generally share my political view points tend to be fairly distinct from popular values.

That said I think that at least in the post Vietnam era of Nixon onward Jimmy Carter tends to rank very low among libertarians and conservatives, while Reagan ranks fairly high. Generally I think this is unfair, Reagan, while decisive was fiscally irresponsible and there is little if any clear evidence his carry a big stick foreign policy produced much good. Indeed his administration’s most cynical and colossal failure of foreign policy was playing both sides of the Iran Iraq war. Ultimately the US government funded and armed both the Iraqis and Iranians and instigated a war that went on to eventually consume 15 million lives in one of the largest conventional wars of the post WWII era. Because it involves parties generally no deemed sympathetic the significance of the damage done by this war in moral, economic, and strategic costs tends to be heavily discounted if not ignored by many conservatives. The war entrenched the authority of the Ayatollah while it also armed and bolstered the Hussein regime. On the same token while Richard Nixon was a deeply corrupt and paranoid president that laid much of the economic policy groundwork (such as price controls) that eventually precipitated the economic crisis that the Carter and Reagan administration we challenged with undoing. Nixon did to his merit open US policy to China, a relationship that has in the past 40 years brought immense improvement to the average quality of life for nearly a billion people worldwide, great wealth to some, and a healthy trade relationship that while at times is uneven is generally peaceful. I think that at least in a moral and practical view, a failure of clear understanding of history and a lack of moral courage is displayed when people adopt romantic views of the presidency and subsume serious discussion about the value of policies proposed to party allegiances or personality cults such as that cultivated by Donald Trump.

I admire Mr Bier’s effort to examine the Carter administration more soberly. This is the kind of effort of even handed deliberate analysis that we should invite into our otherwise noisy discussion of politics.

Oh and my quick ranking of post Vietnam presidents
Nixon 1/2-meh
Ford- less meh but still meh
Carter- mehlight
Reagan 1- mehlight
Reagan 2- meh
Bush Sr- meh
Clinton 1- mehlight
Clinton 2- less meh but still meh
Bush Jr 1- meh
Bush Jr 2- meh
Obama 1- meh
Obama 2- meh