Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Grading the WSJ's ideas

The WSJ recently invited some people to give their ideas for "renewing American prosperity". I will quickly grade them, after grouping them into general categories.

Category 1: Improve Infrastructure (A+)

Charles Murray: "Fix the way we do public works"
I have a which the government performs one of its few legitimate functions by repairing and improving the nation's public infrastructure—competently. In this dream scenario, contracts are awarded on the basis of cost and the contractor's track record, and not, as they are today, on whether the workers are unionized or have the correct ethnic and gender diversity. Decisions about projects in this dream are not subjected to review by 13 different environmental and development bureaucracies. Yes, a proposal to build a new superhighway across the Everglades gets a hard-eyed assessment, but a proposal to replace an existing bridge across the Hudson is evaluated on its engineering merits and routine eminent-domain concerns—and that's it. 
The inspiriting part of the dream is that as I drive down a highway that is being repaired in the middle of the day, I don't drive past a few miles of idle construction equipment while a lone bulldozer scrapes away. Instead, I see the level of activity typical at a commercial construction site. Projects that once took years are finished in months. Repairs that once took months are finished in weeks.

This seems like a big one. Murray gives the issue a conservative gloss by tossing in some right-wing keywords, but the basic principle is sound.

Category 2: Reduce Regulation of Technology (A)

Peter W. Huber: "Unleash molecular medicine"
Washington's drug-approval process, grounded as it is in a one-size-fits-all perspective on how drugs are supposed to operate, and anchored in clinical-trial protocols and statistical methods developed decades ago, is lagging far behind the science. We need a regulatory process that can keep pace with a rapid proliferation of highly customized therapies that are grounded in a mechanistic understanding of molecular biology. This will require fundamental changes in clinical-trial protocols and in the type of evidence that is required for drug approval.

Paul Otellini: "Liberate Uber (and the lemonade stand)"
What we need is neither hard nor unknown. First, review all of our regulations from the federal to the local level to ensure they make it easier to start and run businesses and employ workers while maintaining the essentials of health and safety that we have come to expect. Second, create competitive tax rates that incentivize U.S. companies to operate here and foreign companies to locate here.

These are great. I agree with these. Not sure they'll have quite as big an impact as infrastructure at the moment, but important nonetheless...

Category 3: Improve Education and Human Capital (A-)

Mike Milken: "Focus on developing human capital"
The focus in education should be on the classroom...We give Oscars to actors, Grammys to singers and Nobel Prizes to scientists... 
America's greatest health challenge, representing 75% of current health-care spending, is the burden of chronic diseases. Public-health programs emphasizing prevention and wellness will help reduce that burden... 
Immigration restrictions that keep out highly skilled workers, investors and entrepreneurs are counterproductive. These ambitious people can stimulate economic growth and create more jobs for all Americans. We should greet them with open arms.

Michelle Rhee: "Set this goal: A great teacher for every child"
How should we improve America's schools? It starts with great teachers. Research shows that teacher quality is the single most important in-school factor affecting student performance. We need rigorous, practical and accountable teacher-preparation programs. We need comprehensive classroom support and professional development to help teachers improve their craft. We need to recognize and reward the best teachers for their impact on students—not just how long the teachers have been on the job.
Wendy Kopp: "Transform education with the 'long game'"

These are big and good and important things, but good luck reforming America's education system! (I mean that unironically; I wish Michelle Rhee good luck. I am just not optimistic in the slightest.)

Category 4: Random Good Ideas That Seem Unlikely to Happen (B)

Juan Williams: "Move elections to weekends"

Cliff Asness: "Head off the looming pension tsunami"

As long as I'm wishing, I'd like a pony...

Category 5: General Structural Reform and Government Efficiency (C-)

George P. Shultz: "Return to constitutional government"

John Cochrane: "Limit government and restore the rule of law"

George Gilder: "Listen to Peter Drucker on regulations"

Kelly Ayotte: "Make a grand fiscal bargain"

Some good ideas, some bad, all small-bore, all politically difficult, mostly vague.

Category 6: Republiderp and Conservaderp (D-)

Paul Ryan: "Fix the job-killing tax code"

Heather MacDonald: "Encourage two-parent families"
Though many factors are at play, the biggest culprit is feminism's devaluing of males and the conceit that "strong women" can do it all. Reversing the trend of fatherlessness will require public figures, from President Obama on down, to violate feminist taboos...

Carly Fiorina: "Pull the plug on crony capitalism"
Wall Street bailouts, the housing crisis and the tragedy of ObamaCare are just a few examples of overbearing government.

Stanley Druckenmiller: "Cut taxes and watch the economy take off"

Arthur C. Brooks: "Inspire real hope, not the bumper-sticker kind"

Uh-huh. Yeah. Thanks a lot, guys. Whatever.

Category 7: Dark Enlightenment Trolling (F)

Harvey Mansfield: "Rediscover men and women's differences"
Amid the damage caused by bad ideas in our time, let us not overlook that done by the scourge of feminism—together with the male timidity and misplaced male gallantry that suffer it to proceed unopposed. Feminism has established the rule of gender neutrality in our society, a conclusion drawn from its doctrine that the sexes have no essential differences and are interchangeable. In practice, no one consistently follows this preposterous idea, endorsed neither by science nor by common sense. Only the minority of feminist women assert it (even while demanding special treatment for women). But it is a powerful minority that has been taught at our finest, and our average, institutions of so-called education. 
Gender neutrality presents itself in plausible guise as the way to avoid sex discrimination, so as to give women a fair shake in the competition for jobs. But it goes far beyond this reasonable goal to an attempt to erase sex differences. The two sexes are to imitate each other, and each to follow the worst in the other: Women are to imitate predatory and aggressive males, men to imitate passive and submissive females. 
The result of gender neutrality is to justify women in more extreme partisanship for their sex than they ever encountered in faltering male chauvinism. It is also to encourage them in the game of charmless, loveless sex that feminists offer in place of romance. The change we need is to rediscover our sexes and to make both of them more assertive of their differences, so that their attraction to each other becomes more interesting (and more fruitful) than under the grim domination of feminism. We may then find that men and women make couples, each sex making its contribution, rather than uneasy partners in selfish pleasure.

This probably deserves more of an "F U" than an "F". The proposal runs counter to American ideals of individuality and freedom, and if implemented would hurt the economy by reversing gains in female labor participation. And the statement of the problem itself is made-up bullshit. America does not need the ideas of Harvey Mansfield.


  1. Anonymous5:37 AM

    What I find truly astonishing is that a simple statement of the obvious, fixing infrastructure, has to be dressed up with neo liberal buzz words and gobbledygook just so the author doesn't get Tea Partied. The worlds gone mad. bill40

  2. I imagine that Mansfield's supposedly scientific sexism would also be subject to a lot of the same criticisms you leveled at academic racism. Besides, you know, just being hideously regressive.

  3. Anonymous9:43 AM

    Which part of Murray's proposal gets an A+? The simple idea that we should fix infrastructure? Or the idea that we should do it with less environmental review, and we shouldn't care about social issues like unionization and diversity? Or do you endorse the claim that private companies manage to complete projects substantially faster than the government with its one lonely bulldozer?

    Honestly, I have no idea about any of this stuff, but given Murray's track record I strongly suspect there's a good deal of standard anti-government bullshit here. I assume roads take a long time to fix in large part because you need to do the work when people aren't driving on them -- and hence when people like Murray are fast asleep.

    1. Anonymous10:47 AM

      Murray does have a point here. Significant infrastructure projects have a multi-year approval process (often closer to a decade than a year). There needs to be some streamlining here.

    2. Anonymous2:25 PM

      While I think we all agree with Murray that the current methods of completing infrastructure projects are inefficient, I don't think he successfully outlines any novel ideas to amend it.

      One idea that has been on my mind recently is to make data more transparent and allow problems with roads to be more readily reported. This will better allow journalism/third party organizations to evaluate the initial cost-benefit calculus of that construction proposal. Lastly, WHERE IS THE INNOVATION?

      Think how much we spend on transportation -- is the industry so concentrated that there is no room for new technologies (either materials or construction methodologies) that could improve the field?

    3. An example: In 1994, Northridge California got hit by a 6.8 scale earthquake which did significant damage to Los Angeles-area freeways and overpasses, Construction crews were at work making repairs within 24 hours, working around the clock. Nobody at all made a big deal about needing 3 years of environmental studies before broken roads and buildings were restored to operation, And nobody complained subsequently about cronyism in the placement of contracts, the racial composition of the work crews, or shoddy repair work.

      Infrastructure work can go very quickly if government really wants it.

    4. How much of the government approval process requires cost benefit analysis based on totally bankrupt Econ theory nonsense?

  4. Don't be ridiculous Noah.

    Ponies poop everywhere (I'm guessing). You don't want a pony.

  5. Educational improvements in principle are a good idea but do you have the slightest bit of evidence that they are an quantitatively important in "renewing American prosperity" and not just a back door to undermine public education and teacher's union. Inquiring minds...

  6. Encourage two parent families could probably be moved up to Category 5. It's not really derp but it is difficult and vague (and exactly what one has in mind determine whether it's good or bad).

    1. It was originally there, but the notion that dissing feminism will do anything to encourage 2-parent families is so precisely 180 degrees wrong (see Charles Murray's book for proof) that I downgraded it.

  7. I actual favor two parent homes and think the government should support them, that is some of the reason that I am in favor of gay marriage.

  8. Anonymous10:22 AM

    John Cochrane actually wrote "restore the rule of law"? Does he know that it hasn't been abolished? Smart people say such stupid things when it comes to politics.

  9. Anonymous10:28 AM

    This is really just a ranking of liberal to conservative ideas, where you give the liberal ideas an A and the conservative ones an F.

    1. Reaganism is not an ideology, but rather a series of empirical claims about the world that turn out, as it happens, to be false.

  10. MightyMike10:47 AM

    Two-parent families are probably better for kids, on average, than one-parent families. If the government can find a way to reduce teenage motherhood, that would be good. On the other hand, I'm not sure what can be done to reduce divorce.

    Regarding Carly Fiorina's statement about crony capitalism, we must keep in mind the fact that her industry was built on corporate welfare.

    1. A way to reduce teenage motherhood is known. Unfortunately, it involves easier access to contraception, which takes it off the WSJ list.

  11. Bill Ellis11:48 AM

    "Murray gives it a conservative gloss..." So what is the liberal gloss ? It' s a problem for liberals that we don't have one.

    I would like to nominate promising to cut cost by getting rid of rent seeking and game rigging by the elite as our polish .

    1. The liberal gloss is:

      1) We need to spend more, period.

      2) No-bid and rigged contracting raises costs hugely.

      3) Rich NIMBYs block infrastructure projects. They must be stopped.

  12. Re"Category 2: Reduce Regulation of Technology (A)". Whatever you think generally about tech innovation & regulation, biotech is crucially different. Genetic engineering if done in a potentially self-replicating way is much riskier. Get drone regs wrong & some planes might crash. Too much genetic experimentation with bacteria (self replicating bio-nano-bots) means we could be on the wrong end of a planetary reformat... e.g. all the oxygen we breath is due to The Great Oxygenation Event .
    So let's not deregulate & unleash biotech

  13. I see you like to grade on a curve. There are plenty of levels of F that a single grade can't capture.

  14. Anonymous4:49 PM

    Regarding Michelle Rhee's comment on great teachers -

    I spoke this morning with a close friend and a retired great teacher, and she told me that no matter how great the teacher, she cannot often make much of an impact on a child with a terrible family.

    1. We know, empirically, that education has exactly two variables that matter: teachers and families. Teachers pointing at families is better than all the other nonsense they talk about, but it still obscures the point about doing something about the part we control.

  15. "Juan Williams: "Move elections to weekends""

    A ginormous one -- Everyone gets registered to be sent a mail ballot for every election, big and small, presidential, midterm, everything, whenever they submit official government forms, like taxes, drivers license, social insurance, etc.

    Obviously Republicans will fight this tooth and nail, but why don't Democrats fight hard for this? You can fund state initiative campaigns, etc., with a lot of money and succeed in a lot of states really changing things. And Democrat's hold all the branches in some states. Why not way more effort on this potentially super high and profound return thing?

    It's like night and day with effortless registration, and a mail ballot that just shows up at your door and takes ten minutes to fill out, pop in the envelope, and put in your mailbox.

    For more on this see:

    1. If you've ever voted mail ballot, you see how ridiculously easier and less time consuming it is. But for someone who wanted to vote in person, you're allowed to drop off your mail ballot at the polls.

    2. Honestly, we vote everything, even drain commisioner, every primary, no matter how small, because it's so easy. It comes in the mail, we read the candidates and initiatives; you can quickly google them for more info, fill in the bubbles, sign it, seal the envelope and put it in your mailbox for the postman to take.

      It's comically easy compared to going to a polling place and waiting in line, and you simply can't forget an election; the letter with the ballot always reminds you.

    3. What the hell does weekend voting have to do with increased prosperity? Is there any evidence that the two are related? My understanding is that Switzerland, which has a high quality government, has turnout comparable to the US while Italy has high turnout and awful government.

    4. "What the hell does weekend voting have to do with increased prosperity?"

      It is more democratic -- much more, but economically, just a few more percent voting for Democrats would revolutionize the country and the economy, dislodging the hold of the extreme right, and their dominance for the last generation. It would end so much profoundly harmful stupidity, anti-thinking, and plutocracy, from flirting with planetary (and economic) devastation from global warming to starving public investments crucial to long term economic growth.

  16. Charles Murray is right about IQ, the meritocracy, and race, but America doesn't need more infrastructure boondoggles. Name one infrastructure project that was on time and on budget.

    I will add another category: Fed policy and bailouts. Those are much more effective the the stuff listed.

    The last item about male and female differences has some valid points. Feminism has bleed into the fabric of society, making it weaker. To understand why women perform worse in the sciences, and or are underrepresented, we have to understand and accept that men and women, cognitively, are not the same.

    1. Anonymous8:45 PM

      Name one about a little thing caled the Hoover dam? 2 years early and on budget.
      The thing with people like you is that you have not actually looked at any facts, so you are reduced to spouting your prejudices.

  17. My problem with infrastructure spending is that the lefty position simply seems to be "spend more," while I think the evidence suggests that a broad rethink in our approach is in order. Just look at some of the projects here in DC. Arlington County recently built a bus stop for $1 million. The Silver Spring transit center is two years overdue and tens of millions of dollars over budget. The H St. streetcar is years overdue. The Silver Line on the metro has suffered delay after delay after delay. And you can't say that this is all due to inept and wascally Republicans who don't believe in the power of government to do good -- this is deep blue territory.

    If we're serious about infrastructure why do we insist on paying union wages which drive up costs? Why do we first send $$ from states to the federal government and then redistribute back to the states, introducing a middleman which drives up costs? Why don't we rely more on toll roads? Why do we have a port authority in NY which is in charge of office buildings? Why can't we privatize airports as has been done in places like the UK, Spain and Brazil? Shouldn't we also reconsider how infrastructure dollars are spent rather than just pushing for more of them? For example, funding more suburban sprawl seems like a mistake, while cities are able to get more bang for the buck through density. This should all be part of the discussion.

    I don't pretend to have all of the solutions, but I reject the notion that we should simply proceed with the existing paradigm but simply throw more money at it. Let's first have a conversation about what infrastructure should look like and how it can be more efficient, then we can talk about increased spending.

    1. You're against suburbs? You must be one of those liberals. Liberals like city living, conservatives prefer suburbs (that's true, BTW) and you're for cities; therefore, you must be a liberal.

    2. People think delays and cost overruns never happen in the private sector. They are quite wrong.

  18. Anonymous9:14 PM

    "The tragedy of Obamacare." Lol.

  19. Anonymous10:30 PM

    Here's my three cents:

    1. Repurpose peacetime armed forces to the engineering and maintenance of a public, carbon-free electricity utility (mostly nuclear, but other stuff is OK too). This way we can maintain the personnel level required of a massive military (so no one claims we'll be overrun by China) without having to invent a war every few years to justify it. Putting nuclear power under federal control avoids the main thing that prevents it from succeeding: it's difficult or impossible to find a few billion dollars for an investment that won't pay off for decades and could be shut down at any time for political reasons.

    2. Compulsory national service (2+ years) that can be deferred for 4 years for undergraduate education. This creates a huge pipeline for Teach-for-America-ish programs to provide college-educated, temporary teachers to serve in challenging teaching positions. Obviously this doesn't fix education problems... skilled, career teachers are better, but it helps. What's needed is...

    3. Tie any federal funding for education to a requirement for states to pass laws requiring all education to come from the state and provide equal education quality statewide in public schools. No local education funding by property taxes.

  20. Noah, I've enjoyed some of David Glasner's posts about the WSJ over the years:

    But this is my favorite:

    "Why The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page is a Disgrace"

    Just from the title alone... of course that's a bit dated now. I wonder how he'd grade them today.

  21. "Research on VAMs [Value-added measures] has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers. This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences."

    -American Statistical Association

    1. Anonymous12:07 PM

      This is obviously true, and somehow goes unmentioned in the debate about teachers' unions, etc. It is interesting to note that Rhee always includes some form of the caveat "in-school factor". This is slight-of-hand, because the most important factors are not in school, so even if she's right, you are ignoring the most important factors and focusing entirely on less important, but politically motivated, ones through selective framing.

      Regarding the quote, a full citation would be nice.


      The article also states, "Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions."

  22. Anonymous1:15 AM

    Hey Noah, are you actually going to formulate an argument against Heather and Harvey, or do you think moral sanctimony about gender issues is the only way you're going to get laid?

    1. You have a weird conception of what it takes to get laid.

    2. Anonymous11:02 AM

      Right. That's the joke.

    3. You also have a weird conception of what constitutes a joke.

  23. Be very, very careful with "grounded in a mechanistic understanding of molecular biology." All attempts to develop new medication start with a biological mechanism, but only a very tiny fraction prove both safe and efficacious when carefully tested in humans. Its like 0.01% that make it from mechanism to market.

    I agree that the FDA's approval procedures could be drastically improved, but as long as there is a huge public outcry against very rare safety issues (ala Vioxx), FDA will remain cautious.

  24. "Renewing American Prosperity," eh? Big topic, lots to consider. Let's look at what wasn't considered.

    1. A beefed up space program. Bases on the moon, colonies on Mars, mining in the Asteroid Belt.

    2. Sea floor mining projects.

    3. Economical fusion power, or inherently safe fission power systems.

    4. Nanotechnology.

    5. 3-D manufacturing, and engineered materials such as improved aerogels.

    6. Improved educational methods.

    7. Climate-resilient agricultural crops. Genetic engineering to increase crop yields and to create new agricultural products from existing but unutilized planets.

    8. "Genetically engineered" babies which are less prone to schizophrenia, Alzheimer's. and other impacts of aging -- and their impact on health care costs..

    None of your experts wasted a moment of thought on any of these possibilities. Does the idea not occur to you, that you live in a Dark Age? that several centuries hence, intelligent educated people will look back on our era and scorn our ignorance, our self-chosen ideological narrowness, our appalling stupidity?

  25. Would freeing molecular medicine include stem cell research? It should.

  26. I agree very much with Ryan's call to reform the job killing tax code. Just not with a lot of his reasons why it's job killing. Above all US taxes are stupidly complicated and full of perverse incentives.

  27. "We need a regulatory process that can keep pace with a rapid proliferation of highly customized therapies that are grounded in a mechanistic understanding of molecular biology. "

    I might be for this if I had any idea what it means. Anyone have any notions?

    1. Pharmaceutical firms will soon be filing zillions of patents on slightly different varieties of drugs created by "robotic" procedures. For instance, at lab space 23 oxygen will be squirted into the chemical mixture at step 34; at space 24 nitrogen will be squirted in at step 34 , at space 25 it will be carbon monoxide, etc. No thinking is involved, just the rote performance. The resultant products will be tested against a variety of cultures-- again "robotically" -- to see if metabolic processes are altered in interesting ways. Government patent procedures, based on old fashioned human examiners, will not be able to keep up with the flood of new drugs, and something better will be required -- perhaps patents should be granted automatically to any major pharmaceutical firm which has filled out the proper paperwork.

      Wouldn't that be exciting? You can see instantly how that would revitalize the American economy, and indeed capitalism in general.

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