Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Atlantic's Fifteen Ideas to Fix the World

The July/August Atlantic magazine offers this modest collection of brief essays, on ideas that range from reasonable to stupid, "15 Ways to Fix the World". One of the reasonable ones comes from Andrew Bacevich1, "Give Up on Democracy in Afghanistan". Here's the key excerpt:

[T]he attempt to create a cohesive nation-state governed from Kabul (something that has never existed in modern times) is a fool’s errand. Better to acknowledge and build on the Afghan tradition of decentralized governance. Let tribal chiefs rule: just provide them with incentives to keep jihadists out. Where incentives don’t work, punitive action—U.S. air strikes in neighboring Pakistan provide an illustrative example—can serve as a backup. Denying terrorists sanctuary in Afghanistan does not require pacification—and leaving Afghans to manage their own affairs as they always have will reduce internal instability, while freeing up the resources to allow our own country to tackle other challenges more pressing than the quixotic quest to modernize Afghanistan.

A couple of the stupider ideas come from Thomas Toch, co-director of a think tank called Education Sector, and Kerry Howley, a contributing editor at the libertarian magazine Reason. In Toch's essay, "Tell the Truth About Colleges", he offers these revelations,

Tuition has been skyrocketing for years, with little evidence that education has improved. Universities typically favor research and publishing over teaching. And influential college rankings like the one published by U.S. News & World Report measure mostly wealth and status (alumni giving rates, school reputation, incoming students’ SAT scores); they reveal next to nothing about what students learn.

Shocking, no? Toch must be wracking his brain wondering why so many students are desperate to apply to elite schools such as Harvard, which favor research and publishing over teaching. Apparently, no one has explained to Toch the signaling value of a diploma from an elite school.

On to Kerry's howler, "Welcome Guest Workers",

Say you’re a Bangladeshi taxi driver struggling to survive on your daily wage in Dhaka. A couple of nongovernmental organizations have offered you help, but you can pick only one form of assistance: access to microcredit[2], or a chance to work in the United States. What’s the better deal? According to a recent analysis by the Center for Global Development, microcredit loans might net you an extra $700 over the course of a lifetime. Working stateside, you’re likely to make the same amount in a month.

Howley goes on to describe a grand plan by Harvard economist Lant Pritchett to achieve "economic justice"3 by having every rich country "hand out enough work visas to increase its labor force by 3 percent" so that Bangladeshi taxi drivers can work as taxi drivers and such in developed countries such as the United States. It's tough to decide where to begin in responding to this one. The first thought that comes to mind is how politically tone-deaf Howley is to bring this plan up when the unemployment rate here is the highest it's been in a quarter century (Howley at least admits in her essay that the timing for implementing this plan would be a tad inauspicious now). That political tone-deafness must be common among libertarians, which may help explain why they never seem to win any elections. My next thought is to wonder whether Howley has ever considered why countries such as Bangladesh are poor in the first place. Is it really because not enough of their citizens have gotten guest worker visas to drive taxis in the U.S.? Has there ever been a country that pulled itself up to affluence by cashing in on the remittances of its citizens working as guest workers in rich countries?

If Kerry Howley cares about Bangladesh, she ought to donate some of her own money to WaterAid, the charity mentioned in this Financial Times article from last year, "How toilets transformed a Bangladeshi village". An excerpt from this article will demonstrate, I think, that Bangladesh has bigger fish to fry before worrying about getting its taxi drivers a temporary raise overseas:

It was 16 days since the chairman of the local council had been murdered by militants who swept in under the cover of a travelling circus to erase one of their political enemies. Now, as the Professor sat in his dried-mud dining area, eating a breakfast of last night’s rice, he was told that a group of strangers had arrived.

He headed to Mosmoil’s sole strip of asphalt, a road bisecting the riot of vegetation that has otherwise recolonised the village’s 63 iron-roofed homes in a tangle of crawling stalks and fat leaves.

The strangers had arrived on a motorcycle rickshaw. They carried documents and pens. They did not wear coloured lungis – the dress of men in rural Bangladesh – but the dark trousers of city dwellers.

“I suspected that because the murder had taken place, they were either government spies or members of a terrorist group,” the Professor recalls. Instead, they pursued an unexpected line of questioning. “Where do you defecate?” they asked him.

“It was the first time I’d heard such a thing,” he says. Overcoming his surprise at the question, he forgot his initial fears, allowed his curiosity to be tweaked, and gave an honest answer.

He told them that sometimes he used a “hanging toilet”, a metre-high bamboo structure built on the banks of a pond, where users climbed up a rickety ladder to a squat hole that was shielded imperfectly from view by a sack cloth cubicle. Other times he ventured into the paddy fields and betel groves that surround the villages of west Bangladesh and squatted, preferably out of the sight of others, over the soil.

“Do you know that you eat this goo?” one of the strangers asked, using a Bengali word for human waste, which spans the English spectrum of social acceptability from the scientific right through to “shit”. “If it rains now, it will wash some of the goo into the pond,” the stranger continued. “Then you bathe there, you wash your dishes there, and you wash your food with water from the pond, so you are eating it.”

The Professor was stunned. “That was the first time we realised we were eating our own goo and I felt something very strange inside,” he recalls. “Not hatred but disgust.”

That article goes on to explain that the "Professor" is, as you may have already suspected, not a real professor; he earned the honorific "Professor Goo" (i.e., "Professor Shit") by becoming an evangelist for the use of the composting toilets introduced by the NGO WaterAid. A nation that shits where it eats has some remedial work to do before it can waste time worrying about any of Kerry Howley's or Lant Pritchett's grand plans. Would Bangladesh be better off if Professor Goo were driving in a taxi in New York instead of teaching his countrymen how to safely and profitably4 dispose of their waste?

1Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, former Army officer, and Vietnam War veteran, had a son who was an Army officer as well. His son was killed in action in Iraq two years ago. Bacevich, who opposed the war in Iraq, wrote this Washington Post op/ed about it at the time, "I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty."

[2]This is more commonly called microfinance. We've blogged about its limitations in the past, e.g., here.

3I've long been skeptical of any phrase in which "justice" is modified by an adjective. "Justice" should stand alone. Once you put an adjective such as "economic" or "social" in front of it, you're really talking about a form of redistribution. If justice demanded redistribution, there would be no need to call for "economic justice"; it would be implicit in the term "justice". Since it isn't, it's up to the advocate of redistribution to demonstrate that redistribution is just. Saying it doesn't make it so.

4The article notes that the compost derived from human waste increases the villagers' vegetable yields, earning them more money at the market.


JK said...

"Toch must be wracking his brain wondering why so many students are desperate to apply to elite schools such as Harvard, which favor research and publishing over teaching. Apparently, no one has explained to Toch the signaling value of a diploma from an elite school. "

Not only that, but students at elite schools are often involved in this world class, first rate research and publishing, which is "real world" experience, and which trumps the quality of any classroom lecture. Not to mention there is the opportunity to network with the best and brightest in the country, and the fact that substantial aid (compared to non-elite expensive schools) is given to the less economically advantaged qualified applicants.

While his reasoning here is poor, I like his core idea:
"[the government, for schools receiving aid] should push for systematic public information on the quality of undergraduate learning, school by school. "

Even though his derision of elite-level education is poorly supported, I think there are a lot of middle-range schools where being able to compare this would help student choose a school, since the cost of education fluctuates wildy even not counting the Ivies.

DaveinHackensack said...

I'm not sure how much the undergrad students at elite schools are involved in research.

Re objective measures of school performance, I don't know. Learning at the college level is largely self-directed. Graduate business schools usually offer useful objective metrics on their graduates: percentage employed within X months of graduation, average salaries, etc. One idea might be for undergraduate colleges to offer something similar, broadened out to include metrics such as the percent of their grads that get accepted to top graduate or professional programs, etc.

In any case, why is it necessary for government to mandate tools to compare schools? If current rankings and comparisons are insufficient, surely some company would fill the market opportunity for a better comparison service?

JK said...

"I'm not sure how much the undergrad students at elite schools are involved in research."

Yeah, it depends on talent, interests, and connections I think. I've been in touch with a couple MIT undergrad students who were involved in some cool R&D stuff, but I don't know how common it is across the board.

And yes I don't know how the NSSE and CLA do what they do, but it sounds intriguing. As far as why a private company couldn't do the same thing, it would be for the same reason the nonprofits that do, can't release their results to the public. Participating colleges don't want to. The idea is that as long as colleges are being subsidized by the government by student aid packages, the government should help the taxpayer get more bang for their buck.

If they don't want to release the info, then they can follow the lead of Grove City college (one of my younger brothers attends school there) and not accept Stafford loans, grants, or any other aid. Grove City has a partnership through PNC bank for their student aid packages.