Two points of interest (to me)

1. High-achieving low-income students go to college at about the same rate as low-achieving high-income students (according to a new report that looks at National Education Longitudinal Study data). Which makes total sense when I think about all the dumb-asses at my high school that trotted off to [insert elite college here]. Feel free to comment about grade inflation and whatnot at high-poverty schools—you line ’em up, I’ll knock ’em down.

College-going rates

2. The Fundamental (except not really) Attribution Error. (Amy could probably tell you all about this since it’s a psych thing.) We talked about it briefly today in my Research Design class. Basically, people have a tendency to over-attribute people’s actions to their character.

For example, if a man steals a loaf of bread, they are more likely to say it’s because he’s dishonest or corrupt, and less likely to say it’s because of the situation he was in.

When (American) psychologists first discovered this, they named it the Fundamental Attribution Error. Later they tested for this in other countries and found out that—whoops—it’s actually mainly an American thing. In many Asian countries, they over-attribute people’s actions to their situations.

Just an interesting little insight into our national character.

Off to Texas for Thanksgiving tomorrow. Lots of family and friend bonding.

Fun reading

I love that I have a textbook with a section titled:

“The Miller and Cohen Estimate of the Cost of Intentional Gunshot and Cut/Stab Wounds”

Fast Food Nation

I just wrote a paper for my Leadership class about the extent to which this book overcame people’s denial (I’d post it, but it’s crrrrap). My opening line:

“I first read Fast Food Nation four years ago, after which I became a vegetarian for a month.”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I actually thought about going meat-free, realized I was totally unprepared to sacrifice steak (and turkey, and salmon, etc etc), and pledged to eat only organic, free-range stuff. Holding the hard line on that is what fell apart after a month—though I do still make an effort. You can see why I took a little poetic license and went with “vegetarian,” though. It makes a much snappier intro.

Anyway, I enjoyed refreshing my memory (read: basing my paper on hazy recollection and a wikipedia article) of the book, which I enjoyed a lot the first time around. So I’m quite pleased to hear that the movie doesn’t suck, as it’s so easy for movies of this sort to do. Maybe I’ll even go see it in the theater. Dropping $10 for it might assuage my burger-guilt.

Peddling Policy Analysis

I think it’s about time I introduced you all to the APA. Because you’re going to be hearing a lot about it for the next six months.

APA = Advanced Policy Analysis

I keep calling it my masters thesis since it serves that basic purpose in the school and gives people some frame of reference for what it is (i.e. it’s a big independent project that you spend the bulk of the spring semester working on, and that represents the culmination of your masters education). But it’s a little misleading since a thesis tends to be, well, academic, and an APA is not.

Essentially, you find some client (a non-profit, a politician, some sector of the government, etc) that’s interested in making some kind of policy decision (raising fuel efficiency standards, increasing the minimum wage, but realistically something less glamorous and more minute). You work as a consultant for them, usually getting paid some sort of stipend, and run all the fancy analysis you’ve learned how to do in the last year and a half. Then you write up your 50-odd page report, which they thank you for and probably ignore, and Ta Da! You’re officially a policy analyst!

Anyhoo, I’m still at stage one, which if you rewind through that paragraph you’ll see is “find a client.”

Brace yourself for future whining.


We’re talking about starting and sustaining a movement today in my leadership class, and for the life of me I can’t stop thinking: starting and sustaining a bowel movement.

And I’m proud, to be an American…

One of my readings for Cost Benefit Analysis this week was a paper analyzing the cost of the Iraq War, released at the beginning of this year. Just one more reason to thank Republicans for running the country into the ground. It begins with the nostalgic recollection of how one of Bush’s economic advisers got run out of town for suggesting before we went to war that it might cost as much as $200 billion. The paper attempts to account for the true costs of the war, as of November 2005, and extrapolating a couple of scenarios into the future.

The authors start out with budgetary cost of the war, including cost of the actual combat and support operations, payments to wounded veterans, costs of demobilization and rebuilding the military, and the interest on debt. Depending on the scenario, this brings us up to somewhere between $750 billion and $1.2 trillion. Sweet!

Then they get into the economic costs—i.e. costs beyond just what the federal government pays—and here’s where it gets fun. Adding the cost of reserves, fatalities, loss due to brain injuries and other serious injuries bumps us up another $200-300 billion. And then there are the macroeconomic costs, which include some fraction of the increased price of oil, the increased defense expenditures, and the increased insecurity caused by the war. As responsible analysts, the authors try to stay quite conservative with these estimates. The social scientists’ dilemma is always determining the “counterfactual,” or what the world would have looked like without the Iraq War. To determine what oil prices would have been, for example, the authors looked at futures markets before the war, which were forecasting that prices would remain between $20-30 per barrel, as well as other economic factors. They conclude that the Iraq war is probably responsible for the bulk of the $25/barrel increase in price, but in their analysis only attributes $5-10 to the war. Assuming the prices will remain inflated for five to six years, the increased cost to the U.S. economy of Iraq-inflated oil will be $125-300 billion. Then they mention that there are significant additional costs associated with the volatility of oil prices, but they don’t include those in their model.

They go on with their macroecon analysis, which you should definitely read if you’re interested in that sort of thing (F…). The punch line is that macroeconomic costs add somewhere between the overconservative $187 billion and the more moderate $1050 billion…bringing our grand total bill for the Iraq War to between $1-2 trillion. Then, just for good measure, the authors list all the costs they omitted—not least the costs to other countries (like, say, Iraq).

But at least it was for a good cause, right?

On a related note, did you see the article in the NY Times about how Bush II has lost a generation for the Republicans? Well, that’s not really what the article’s about, but that’s the part I liked, and identified with. “Voters typically develop a party preference based on the political atmosphere at the time they come of age and grow more attached to that party over the course of their lives.” There’s a neato chart of party identification based on the president in office when that cohort turned 20. This is just more bad news for my family members who bet I’ll become Republican when I get older and come to my senses.

What everyone needs is a policy degree

The professor in my research design class mentioned regression to the mean yesterday, which reminded me of this post about concepts journalism students should be exposed to before they go spewing ignorance everywhere. (I found my way to it, as usual, though WashMo.)

Here’s the list:

1. Institutional culture*
2. Regression toward the mean*
3. Moral hazard*
4. Expected value (of an uncertain outcome)*
5. Present value (of a stream of gains and losses over time)*
6. Statistical control*
7. Correlation v. causation*
8. Benefit-cost analysis and willingness-to-pay*
9. Cost-effectiveness*
10. Separation of powers
11. Mill’s “harm principle”
12. Rent-seeking*
13. Opportunity cost*
14. Cognitive dissonance
15. Milgram experiment (you’ve heard of this—it’s the one about obeying authority and administering electric shocks to unseen victims)

I’ve starred items that are explicitly taught in policy school. While I could have come up with some semi-plausible definition for many of those before, it’s nice to feel truly conversant in all that. It’s also true that Wikipedia will tell you everything you need to know about each one of these, and for free.

Follow Up

We’re discussing high stakes testing in my education reform workshop today (with Alan Bersin, CA’s Secretary of Education – I wish I were not so impressed by names and status, but there it is), and our stack of preparatory readings included another on IQ testing. Hoo-ray. No more lectures, I promise, but I did enjoy this quote from a “founding father” of testing:

“It may be said in all soberness that…most indigents who produce children thereby commit crimes against humanity which are fully as serious as many acts now considered felonies. They have no moral right to produce such children, and therefore should have no legal right to immunity from punishment that constructively ‘fits the crime,’ such as some form of painless sterilization of both guilty parents…”

CRIMES against HUMANITY. Which you read and think, oh sure, eugenics, the 1930s, yadda yadda, but no. It’s from a letter to the ETS in 1972.

And the latest anecdotal counter to the “schools can’t make a difference” line: Baltimore experiment curbs drop-out rate. (Apparently I’m not above linking to USA Today.)

Take off that RED SHIRT!

Go Bears!


We scaled “Tightwad Hill” today for our first Cal game and discovered:

a) a whole Berkeley subculture of fans who climb a dusty, slippery hill rather than buy tickets, who clean up after themselves despite dangerous levels of drinking, who share whatever food and drink they brought, and who harrass anyone who shows up with a red article of clothing (Stanford colors, you know).
b) four people can drink 5 beers and 2 bottles of wine before halftime, no problem.
c) we went up completely the wrong way, and you don’t actually have to scramble on your hands and knees for an awesome view.

After perhaps fifteen minutes of skinned elbows and sliding through the dirt, we finally found the real Tightwad Hill: a clearing in the trees overlooking the stadium, the city, and the Bay. (When the game was dull, we could watch the cloudbank creep over San Francisco from the ocean.) Even the offical hill was steep and dusty, but it was possible to shift the dirt and gravel enough scoop out a bit of a seat. And if at some point you noticed erosion had taken its course and your butt-slot, such as it was, became compromised, there was plenty of alcohol to sooth the discomfort. (At least one fan became a bit too comfortable, and would start to slide down the hill at regular intervals.)

Of course there were rules: be friendly, pick up your own trash, end sentences with “Go Bears,” and for god’s sake, don’t wear anything red. I’m just delighted to once again have access a world where red and blue shirts matter. After a year without Sureños and Norteños, I was beginning to be nostalgic for a time when shirt-color could start a fight. Some poor guy who had the misfortune to wear a red hoodie was first subjected to group chanting—“Take off that RED SHIRT! Take off that RED SHIRT!” He was obviously bewildered. A helpful drunk bystander deduced that the instructions would sink in more quickly if he was sprayed with some alcoholic concoction from a 2-liter bottle of Squirt. Red-shirt’s friend responded in kind with a shaken-up can of Old English. Harsh words were exchanged. Posturing ensued. Fortunately, before things came to blows, the self-designated “Mayor of the Hill” came over to settle things. Hands were shaken. Beers were exchanged. The peace of Berkeley prevailed.

It was sunny and we had brought hats. Red ones. Needless to say, we did not take them out of our bag.

(more pics here)

What I’m learning in school: IQ

I’ve never known much about IQ tests or how useful it is as a measurement, though I’ve had the vague impression that the whole concept was outdated and problematic. So I was quite interested to learn about it in my data collection/research methods class this week. I won’t subject you to the real topic of the lessons (factor analysis—only interesting to psychometricians and the wonkiest of wonks), but here are some highlights of the questions/current research on IQ that I thought were pretty nifty to think about.

What do the tests really measure?

Intelligence? What does that even mean? Verbal or math skills? Problem-solving? Mental agility/reaction time? (Western) cultural literacy? Then there’s Gardner with his 7 kinds of intelligence, and Sternberg with analytical, creative, and practical. It’s a big old hairy mess just defining terms.

The truth is that no one really knows what IQ tests measure, so they give it a letter. Whatever it is those questions are testing for, let’s call it “g.”

How do you write a test to measure g when you don’t even know what it is?

Easy, as it turns out. Over the years, you just throw out questions on the test that aren’t correlated with each other. If most people who score well on the test get #17 wrong, you throw out #17—it’s not measuring the same thing as all your other questions. Eventually, you end up with hundreds of questions that seem to test for the same indefinable skill (g). Ding! An IQ test.

What the hell good is g?

Even though no one is quite sure what kind of “intelligence” g is, it does seem to be strongly correlated with all sorts of things we’re interested in. There are plenty of crappy studies on IQ, but some have held up to a lot of scrutiny. One example: IQ is one of the most powerful predictors of job performance—more powerful than several other measures of ability, resume quality, and almost three times more powerful than interviews (a stat I would like to share with my future potential employers). Ignoring such a useful measure entirely doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Are IQ tests biased against African Americans?

Yeah, here’s the juicy stuff. As a good liberal, I totally bought that tests were biased, but damned if I knew why or how, so I was quite interested to hear a more informed perspective. The short answer is yes, probably, but not nearly as badly as they used to be, and not in the ways you might think. In the past, the tests were extremely class-biased, requiring such cultural literacy as knowing something about Goethe and Schubert. Such obvious problems are gone in today’s questions. Yet the group IQ average of African Americans remains significantly lower than the white average. Do white people really have more g? Unlikely. What seems to drive the differences is self-handicapping during test taking, in response to the “Stereotype Threat.” Essentially, people do worse on tests when they think the results will be used to evaluate their group’s performance against another group that’s expected to do better. This phenomenon is not unique to IQ tests: many fun experiment-based studies document its effects in all kinds of situations. Women do worse on math tests; white men do worse when they believe Asian men will do better; senior citizens do worse on memory tests when they think the results are used to evaluate memory loss among the elderly. One of my favorites: black men do worse at golf when told it measures “sports intelligence,” and white men do worse when told it measures “natural ability.”

In regards to IQ tests in particular, there are more interesting results. First, there is a lot of evidence that African Americans have a much higher stress level before and during the tests—less sleep the night before, lower ability to focus, and a higher sense of stress and belief that the test is unfair. They do significantly better on the tests when they are administered by African Americans. They also do better following a writing exercise at the beginning that reaffirms a sense of personal adequacy. Finally, in experiments where people were told the IQ test was a puzzle, not an intelligence test, the racial gap disappeared completely.

So, IQ. There it is. Other potential topics for this space were the litigation history of school segregation (conclusion: not good, my friends, not good) or a brief evaluation of the different ways to calculate high school dropout rates.

I love school.