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College Students: Learn Things You Can't Learn On Your Own

New York Times has a short group of blurbs on college advice from educators. Some of it is good, but some of it is shockingly bad.

Rabbit Trail: One professor tells students to read a good newspaper every day. He might as well tell students to check the typeset on their printing presses. If you want to make a point for someone to expand their horizons, tell them to actively seek out the opinions of those with whom they disagree and discover why they disagree or tell them to independently verify facts that they read in a news article once a week. Both these activities will expand your horizons far more than burying your face in a dead tree containing the collected daily writings of 400 people who voted for the same person in the last election.

Back to the point:

I thought the make-up of professors polled was fascinating. Out of 9 total professors, two of them were technical professors (biology and physics), and their advice is shoved down to the bottom of the page. If you considered “science” to be a single subject, it would have been as well represented as English, history or law. No engineering professors. No math professors either.

Here is the reason this kind of irks me: I got tons of terrible college advice from people who gave me some permutation of “expand your horizons”, “do what you like” or “follow your dream”. This led perfectly intelligent individuals to spend $60,000 on an education so they could get perfectly hideous careers taking customer complaints for American Express.

Most of my college classes were fairly technical (mathematics, chemistry, computer science, physics, statistics). But I always kind of bristled at the fact that so many universities basically discriminate against students with technical degrees. If you have a degree in something technical, the chances are you were forced to take a ton of humanities.

And I’m not talking English composition or public speaking classes, which every single person should take (or test out of) in order to be a functioning college degree holder. Every degree holder should be able to write in a manner appropriate for educated communication and everyone should be able to stand up in front of people and make some kind of speaking presentation. When I say “humanities”, I’m talking the often endless humanities, literature, history, and “society” classes that go far beyond basic proficiency.

Universities make technical students take all these humanities on the laughable premise that it will make them “rounded” individuals. On an informal survey of core curriculum at a half dozen major universities, a rounded individual takes twice as many classes in the humanities as he or she does in math and science.

What I am NOT saying is “humanities are worthless”. I’m an avid literature fanatic with enough books to take over one of the rooms in my house. What I AM saying is that a college education should be cost-effective. It is my opinion (and my advice to new college students) that students should make every effort to spend their time and money learning things that they can’t learn on their own.

If this survey is correct, students are paying $35,000 dollars for a private university (and ) on classes and fees this year. It is my understanding that out-of-state students to public universities are similarly priced. If a student takes a 15 hour workload (five 3-hour classes), they’re looking at about $3200 per class.

My guess is that most places have a core humanities curriculum that takes about 30-40 hours to complete. So, if you’re getting a science or engineering degree, you’re looking at about $30,000 – $40,000 to pay for classes that have nothing to do with your profession and (here’s the key part) are filled with things you could have figured out on your own.

Example: I took a survey of western literature and thought from the Reformation to the modern era. The key take away from that class on my side of things was the fact that the book we used had a wretched translation of “The Grand Inquisitor”, a portion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s opus “The Brothers Karamazov“. I knew it was a wretched translation because I had read “The Brothers Karamazov” the previous summer (it remains to this day my favorite novel) and vital imagery was toned down because the translators had no respect for the intelligence of their readers. Of all of the authors assigned in that class, I’ve re-discovered all but one in my own leisure time.

In fact, most of the stuff we learned in order to secure the calligraphic document that got us jobs were things quickly forgotten after the final exam. I have since re-learned far more than I was taught because of:

As a contrast, how many people in the audience figured out fluid dynamics all by themselves because they were curious? Calculus? Organic chemistry? These are topics that are very difficult to get into simply by hitting up Wikipedia for some info.

Don’t even get me started on Social Science classes. I was lucky enough to take a gender class my final semester in undergrad. We had several biology students in the class who tried to patiently argue with the professor that men were more aggressive than women not because society taught them to be aggressive but because men have more testosterone. Our professor refused to believe them. One of them suggested that the professor should investigate societies of lab rats. He did not get a good grade.

Every gender class should be taught with an evolutionary biologist and a neuroscientist sitting in the back row trying not to laugh.

Maybe if I wasn’t still paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, I wouldn’t feel this enormous resentment to the months I spent reading stuff I’d already read (or would read again when I wanted to) and talking about it in classes with 3 students who cared and 40 who didn’t. But the fact of the matter is that many students are going to college to get degrees to get jobs. For technical students, their progress is being slowed by humanities classes filled with readings they can do on their own time if they are so inclined.

College Students: Learn Things You Can’t Learn On Your Own

New York Times has a short group of blurbs on college advice from educators. Some of it is good, but some of it is shockingly bad.

Rabbit Trail: One professor tells students to read a good newspaper every day. He might as well tell students to check the typeset on their printing presses. If you want to make a point for someone to expand their horizons, tell them to actively seek out the opinions of those with whom they disagree and discover why they disagree or tell them to independently verify facts that they read in a news article once a week. Both these activities will expand your horizons far more than burying your face in a dead tree containing the collected daily writings of 400 people who voted for the same person in the last election.

Back to the point:

I thought the make-up of professors polled was fascinating. Out of 9 total professors, two of them were technical professors (biology and physics), and their advice is shoved down to the bottom of the page. If you considered “science” to be a single subject, it would have been as well represented as English, history or law. No engineering professors. No math professors either.

Here is the reason this kind of irks me: I got tons of terrible college advice from people who gave me some permutation of “expand your horizons”, “do what you like” or “follow your dream”. This led perfectly intelligent individuals to spend $60,000 on an education so they could get perfectly hideous careers taking customer complaints for American Express.

Most of my college classes were fairly technical (mathematics, chemistry, computer science, physics, statistics). But I always kind of bristled at the fact that so many universities basically discriminate against students with technical degrees. If you have a degree in something technical, the chances are you were forced to take a ton of humanities.

And I’m not talking English composition or public speaking classes, which every single person should take (or test out of) in order to be a functioning college degree holder. Every degree holder should be able to write in a manner appropriate for educated communication and everyone should be able to stand up in front of people and make some kind of speaking presentation. When I say “humanities”, I’m talking the often endless humanities, literature, history, and “society” classes that go far beyond basic proficiency.

Universities make technical students take all these humanities on the laughable premise that it will make them “rounded” individuals. On an informal survey of core curriculum at a half dozen major universities, a rounded individual takes twice as many classes in the humanities as he or she does in math and science.

What I am NOT saying is “humanities are worthless”. I’m an avid literature fanatic with enough books to take over one of the rooms in my house. What I AM saying is that a college education should be cost-effective. It is my opinion (and my advice to new college students) that students should make every effort to spend their time and money learning things that they can’t learn on their own.

If this survey is correct, students are paying $35,000 dollars for a private university (and ) on classes and fees this year. It is my understanding that out-of-state students to public universities are similarly priced. If a student takes a 15 hour workload (five 3-hour classes), they’re looking at about $3200 per class.

My guess is that most places have a core humanities curriculum that takes about 30-40 hours to complete. So, if you’re getting a science or engineering degree, you’re looking at about $30,000 – $40,000 to pay for classes that have nothing to do with your profession and (here’s the key part) are filled with things you could have figured out on your own.

Example: I took a survey of western literature and thought from the Reformation to the modern era. The key take away from that class on my side of things was the fact that the book we used had a wretched translation of “The Grand Inquisitor”, a portion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s opus “The Brothers Karamazov“. I knew it was a wretched translation because I had read “The Brothers Karamazov” the previous summer (it remains to this day my favorite novel) and vital imagery was toned down because the translators had no respect for the intelligence of their readers. Of all of the authors assigned in that class, I’ve re-discovered all but one in my own leisure time.

In fact, most of the stuff we learned in order to secure the calligraphic document that got us jobs were things quickly forgotten after the final exam. I have since re-learned far more than I was taught because of:

As a contrast, how many people in the audience figured out fluid dynamics all by themselves because they were curious? Calculus? Organic chemistry? These are topics that are very difficult to get into simply by hitting up Wikipedia for some info.

Don’t even get me started on Social Science classes. I was lucky enough to take a gender class my final semester in undergrad. We had several biology students in the class who tried to patiently argue with the professor that men were more aggressive than women not because society taught them to be aggressive but because men have more testosterone. Our professor refused to believe them. One of them suggested that the professor should investigate societies of lab rats. He did not get a good grade.

Every gender class should be taught with an evolutionary biologist and a neuroscientist sitting in the back row trying not to laugh.

Maybe if I wasn’t still paying off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, I wouldn’t feel this enormous resentment to the months I spent reading stuff I’d already read (or would read again when I wanted to) and talking about it in classes with 3 students who cared and 40 who didn’t. But the fact of the matter is that many students are going to college to get degrees to get jobs. For technical students, their progress is being slowed by humanities classes filled with readings they can do on their own time if they are so inclined.

Is Despair Deflating Unemployment Numbers?

Is despair deflating the unemployment numbers?

Spoiler Alert: The answer is not much.

In my previous post, I talked about how the unemployment for July decreased from 9.5% to 9.4% mainly on the merits of people leaving the labor force altogether. Basically, the number of people employed dropped, but the number of people who are unemployed dropped too (and dropped faster). So… if the unemployed people didn’t move into the “employed” column, where did they go?

Some people have suggested they are giving up in despair. Let me explain:

A person is “unemployed” for the purpose of labor statistics only if they have looked for work in the last four weeks. If they stop looking, they’re simply not in the labor force anymore. So, in theory, if people are at home sobbing uncontrollably because they can’t find a job, they’re not unemployed, they’re just not in the labor force.

Fortunately, I discovered that the Bureau or Labor Statistics has been gathering a very useful statistic for the last 15 years called “Persons Who Currently Want a Job”. This is basically a count of people who have given up looking, but would still like to have a job. I suppose you could call this either the “despair index” or the “laziness index” depending on how cynical you are.

Here’s  a graph of the “Want a Job” number over the last 5 years.

WantAJob5years

So the number of people who wish they had a job but have stopped looking has increased dramatically this year, which is somewhat reducing the unemployment rate.

The number of people who aren’t looking for a job but still want one has increased about 1,000,000 in the last year, representing by far the largest increase in since we started tracking the data.

HOWEVER!

If you look at the unemployment rate with and without the “Wants a Job” crowd, they look pretty much the same. In other words, there’s not really that much hiding in the numbers here. There’s maybe a .3-.4% increase in the unemployment rate that can be attributed to despair. Or at least, attributed to new found despair, since we normally have between 4.5 million and 5.0 million people in this category anyway.

What is really weird is that it looks like a lot of people are just up and leaving the work force, either through retirement or due to going back to school. Only a quarter of the decrease in the work force over the last couple months is attributable to an increase in the “Wants a Job” demographic. Even if you added them back into the labor force… the labor force is STILL decreasing.

So… while there is a case to be made for the “despair thesis” (as I’m now calling it), it looks like we’re also just seeing a good number of people who don’t much care for work anymore, thank you.

I Hate the Healthcare Debate

I’ve been working on some videos concerning the healthcare reform issue over the last couple weeks and I’ve come to the conclusion that I hate this topic.

The reason I hate it is because it is so hard to find solid data on almost anything. Identifying the problem is nice and easy:

The US spends more per capita on healthcare than almost any other country, but we don’t necessarily get better results.

That statement is easy to prove with numbers.

Actually, I take that back, the first part is easy to prove with numbers. The second part of that is extremely difficult because judging the efficacy of health care is not an easy thing to do. Some metrics are easy to make judgements on. Wait times for CT Scans and MRIs are not dependent on whether or not the patient is skinny or fat, sick or healthy. How many people you can shove through a machine is far more dependent of scheduling efficiency, the availablility of personel and equipment, etc. In other words, there are few outside variables that are going to screw with your results.

But other metrics like life expectancy are heavily dependent on variables outside the health care system. Life expecancy for latinos, blacks, asians, whites, jews, arabs… near as I can tell they are different for all these groups even when other variables are controlled for. This makes it a very messy metric to use when trying to determine the efficacy of only one of those variables like health care.

As for controlling the cost of healthcare, there is one surefire way to do it: stop paying so much money. But this will result in less care and almost certainly lead some level of health care rationing.

The other ideas that have been thrown out there are not surefire ones, they are either educated guesses or “if I believe in it enough it will happen” wishes. Some of these ideas may work… but we’re not entirely sure which ones.

Which brings me to my preferred solution, which isn’t really a solution so much as it is a suggestion for identifying good policies a little more accurately: I think we should take the ideas that the Obama administration has and separate them out into a) ideas that can be applied to Medicare and Medicaid immediately and b) ideas that require a larger scale implementation.

Medicare and Medicaid are enormous programs with more than 70 million beneficiaries. It is absurd to say that they aren’t big enough to introduce some cost reduction programs without adding another 39 million people to government insurance programs (which is essentially what the Obama administration is saying).

Second, I think the government should set up some kind of public health care metrics program to gather the data that is currently so difficult to gather. Imagine if you could go online and look at hospitals around your city to see which ones deliver better outcomes and how much different procedures cost at different hospitals. This would go a long way toward inspiring competitive pricing in health care.

Third, I think we need to do away with the tax exemption for employer provided health insurance. Not a popular position, but it seems obvious to me that this policy has led to a large part of our health care overconsumption.

So… that’s all I’ve got for now.

I’m still working on some concepts that can be boiled down into something that is both accurate and striking. But the fact of the matter is that in healthcare we can trust very few of the numbers being tossed around right now. They are educated guesses at best and the Obama administration has a pretty bad track record at being able to predict the future.

Michael Steele Invites Political Math To Washington DC

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5afhNBcdmg&hl=en&fs=1&]

I’m pretty excited, it should be fun.

I’ll keep as much as possible updated via Twitter (@PoliticalMath) and the blog.

Searchable Data For Chrysler Dealerships

OK… now anyone who wants to look at this is more than welcome to it. 

This is an Excel file into which I’ve managed to put all the information about the closed and open Chrysler dealerships. Because wordpress is stupid, I can’t upload an excel document, so I had to rename it so that it is a Word document. Just download it and change the extension to “.xls” and you’re set to go.

Chrysler Dealers (Closed and Open) 

There are four sheets to the file. Two sheets are the raw data as best I could translate it. The other two sheets are the data cleaned up a little bit to make it more readable. 

WARNING: For anyone who hasn’t worked with this kind of data before… data is ugly. Some stuff is missing, some things are misspelled, names are inconsistent and addresses haven’t been parsed. This isn’t meant to be the most perfect data source of all time. It’s just a format for the data that can be more easily organized, sorted, parsed, and analyzed.

So… go at it. From Excel, you should be able to export as a CSV (comma delimited), which is nice and fun to work with from a visualization point of view.

To Adjust Or Not To Adjust… (Calling Economists)

Sadly, not all problems can be solved by the careful application of mathematics.

I’m currently trying to figure out how to appropriately calculate the yearly increases in the GDP over the past 100 years. The reason is because, according to President Obama’s budget estimates, after we get out of the recession, we will have four consecutive years of +5% growth. I’m trying to compare that growth to economic growth we’ve had in the past.

What I need to know is that, when we calculate past growth, is it properly calculated using inflation adjusted dollars or with unadjusted dollars? I seems to me that adjusted is the only way to go, but if there is an economist out there somewhere who can help me answer that question, it would be helpful in getting the statistics right. 

Of course, it makes all the difference in the calculations. If we don’t adjust for inflation, then the biggest sustained growth we’ve had in the last 50 years was 1971 – 1981 in which we had 10 years in a row of +8% growth. But  inflation was so bad that for a couple of those years, it actually outpaced that growth and then some, turning 8.8% growth in Carter’s last year into -4.2%.

Ultimately, if we take Obama’s numbers as adjusted for inflation, he is predicting that his policies will bring the largest sustained growth this nation has seen since the Baby Boomers started entering the workforce in the early-to-mid sixties. This would be quite a trick, since it would be happening while the Baby Boomers are leaving the work force. 

If we don’t adjust for inflation, he is predicting about the same kind of economic recovery we saw from 2003 – 2006.

I’d like to know which one it is.

The National Debt Road Trip

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5yxFtTwDcc&hl=en&fs=1&hd=1]

In this video, I wanted to take a close look at the historical nature of the US debt. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say all I wanted to say or it would have been three times as long and I would have bored myself to death trying to make it.

First of all, I would like to state that I am not trying to defend President Bush’s spending. I personally think Bush was spending far too much. My preference would be to reduce the debt… or at least stay put and let inflation take it’s toll on the debt. My point in this video is that it is the most absurd hypocrisy for someone to complain about how much Bush spent and then yawn when Obama is spending so much more.

A close look at the numbers reveals that this isn’t even a “We’re in a recession, we have to spend that money” issue. Obama’s high deficit plans continue long after the recession is projected to end.

Next, I want to give some pointers to the data I used and then I want to clear up some of the muddier issues in the video.

This video uses the US Treasury’s data on the national debt for the debt numbers and adjusts each year for inflation using the inflation numbers on this site.

In order to understand where the debt would be in 2016, I used the the President’s estimate in his latest budget proposal. These numbers are generally accepted to be optimistic (the Congressional Budget Office has them pegged at much higher), but I didn’t want to put the president at an unfair advantage.

Actually (and I would do this over again if I could) I calculated the future debt with regards to inflation (I assumed about 1.0% inflation per year) so that President Obama is going slower than if I just used his own numbers. I tried to bend the numbers to Obama’s advantage,  not because I agree with him, but so that there is no room for the accusation of number fudging.

In retrospect, I think it would have been more fair to assume that the President’s team had already assumed the inflation calculation and that their 2016 debt data was calculated in 2016 money and not 2008 money.

So that’s all about the calculations… now I’d like to make a note about some other decisions I made. I thought it was important to keep in mind which party held Congress. The reason is because it is actually more accurate to say

“Under President So-and-so, the debt increased by X amount”

due to the fact that the president only proposes the budget and must work with Congress in order to get a budget passed.

In 1994, we voted in a Congress that was remarkably fiscally conservative… so much so that they fought a protracted battle with President Clinton in 1995  trying desperately to get him to agree to a lower budget. The press ripped the Republican Congress (particularly Newt Gingrich) to shreds over it and they (the Republicans) ended up conceeding the matter.

On the other side of things, Reagan tried to pass smaller budgets, but the House of Representitives was heavily Democratic and added to his proposed budget until he refused to sign, leading to another government shutdown.

Long story short, the budget is a combined effort of what the president proposes and what the Congress decides, so I thought it was only fair to mention both sides of the equation once the debt really started increasing drastically. This, of course, is only more damning to Bush and Obama, since both of them have (or had) a situation in which their party is in complete control of the government.

Please… feel free to leave questions and I will answer them as quickly as I can.