Friday, July 18, 2014

The rich are different—they're "smarter"

The rich are not "smarter" as the following headline suggests — but they do attend elite universities and major in the more demanding academic fields.

When this article appeared in May, I was winding down my first year at an elite institution, in its business school. If many of my students are destined for wealth, is it because they are smarter, more gifted, harder working, born to the right families? What is it that takes someone from the middle-class (or nothing) to extreme wealth?

The rich are different—they're smarter, study says
—By CNBC's Robert Frank. | May 16, 2014 | 11:12 AM EDT

Economist Paul Krugman recently wrote that the multibillion-dollar salaries of top hedge fund managers proved that education plays little role in the growing wealth gap. The rich get rich, he said, because of the "runaway financial system" and investors making money from money.
"Modern inequality isn't about graduates," Krugman wrote. "It's about oligarchs."
But a new study offers a different view. Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at Duke University and part of the school's Talent Identification Program, looked at the world's billionaires and global elite. He found that billionaires are, as a group, very highly educated and have high cognitive abilities. About a third of the world's billionaires attended elite schools worldwide.

The study might explain how Wai determined "high cognitive abilities" but I do know that the R1 university where I teach does insist that admitted students achieve certain minimums on standardized tests. Even legacy admissions and faculty family members need to meet the standards, so one can't dismiss the test-taking abilities of those accepted into elite schools.

My students earned near-perfect (or perfect) scores on standardized tests. Many are extremely gifted, as we measure intelligence, and are in the top percentiles of test takers. If we use admissions into an elite institution as a metric for academic ability, that is a reasonable approximation.

Only a third of the billionaires attended such schools, but that does not mean those individuals would not have qualified for admission. The researchers know if the rich attended particular tier universities, but not why (or why not) a school was chosen.
Even among billionaires, the billionaires with higher wealth were more likely to have gone to a top college.
"The average net worth of those that attended an elite school was significantly higher than those who did not," the report said.
One problem with the idea that the super-wealthy correlate to institutions of higher education is that we cannot (easily) determine if the education or the social connections (or both) was the variable that led to wealth. But, the next paragraph does indicate education, not mere connections, matters.
An outsized number of billionaires and Davos attendees also majored in science, technology, engineering or math—also known as the STEM fields.
STEM degrees, I have admitted repeatedly, are much harder to earn than degrees in the humanities. I don't care how many times my colleagues in the arts and humanities argue otherwise, I know that passing an English or history class was much, much easier than earning a good grade in a physics or statistics course. Yes, "Math is hard!" and skills in math and science are worth more money.

Yet, there is the social aspect we must not deny:
Harvard, the study suggested, is the top billionaire-making machine. Among U.S. billionaires, more than 1 in 10 went to the school, and globally about 1 in 20 billionaires went there.
Harvard, for all its greatness, is unlikely to be that much better than Stanford, Cal Tech, MIT, or where I teach. In fact, ratings list the university where I teach higher in some STEM fields. There are social castes within the elites — and we cannot ignore that reality.
The report also said billionaires who inherited their fortunes were more likely to attend elite institutions than self-made billionaires—suggesting that privilege is often passed down by parents rather than earned through brainpower.
Legacy matters. But, wealth also grants access to the best secondary schools, the best tutors, and the best private test prep. If could be that wealthy parents who went to great schools see value in buying access to the best academic preparation for their children. I know that my wife and I would spare little expense to educate a child of ours. Many parents feel that way, I would hope.
Overall, Wai concluded that the wealth gap goes hand in hand with the education gap. The world's super rich, he said, are also "scary smart."
"I think we should deeply consider the implications when a select group of scary smart people also tend to hold a disproportionate share of global wealth and power," he said. "We depend on these people to make wise decisions for all of us. "
My students leave the university with job offers that place them, immediately, in the top half of income earners in the United States. Some will earn six-figures only a year or two out of college. And yet, few of these students were from wealthy families. These are young men and women who fled collapsing nations, corrupt governments, war zones, and situations I cannot imagine. Yet, these young people worked hard and earned their ways into a top-tier research university.

I've had two students graduate as millionaires. They had nothing but student loans (lots of those) and a work ethic that is unparalleled. They deserve to be successful.

Experience and observation suggest to me that many of the elites are smarter.

In a nation in which more than three quarters of the super-wealthy did not start life in the top income quintile, I still believe brains and grit do matter. A lot. No, life is not fair, but you also have to have the skills and passion to act when you do get opportunities.

Preparation means pushing yourself. That's what it takes to earn a STEM degree, certainly. If you followed a different path, don't resort to envy.

And as for Dr. Krugman. Didn't he earn his Ph.D. in a mathematically intense field? Now he earns more than $250,000 a year — and that's not a coincidence. Or does he imagine his success was all about luck?

Many of the wealthy were prepared when opportunities appeared.

Friday, July 11, 2014

New Play: A New Death World Premier

This is why I haven't been blogging a lot this summer. I've been working on several new plays… 


A World Premiere

By C.S. Wyatt

Directed By Kaitlin Kerr
Assistant Directed By Sarah McPartland

July 18 - July 26
The Grey Box Theatre
3595 Butler St, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15201



Andy Coleman 
Chelsea Faber
Hazel Carr Leroy
Eric Leslie 
Tonya Lynn 
Sarah McPartland
Jared King Rombold 
John Henry Steelman

Friday, June 27, 2014

Trends that Tell Nothing, But the Trend…

Richard Florida and his team are at it again, pointing to correlations and assuming causations. 

High-School Dropouts and College Grads Are Moving to Very Different Places

Cities like Washington and San Francisco are gaining the highly skilled but losing their less-educated workforce.
While I suppose I could live anywhere, my career somewhat demands that I be near either cities or at least college towns. It isn't that I love or even like cities — I don't — but I like being employed. I don't like the noise, light, or other pollution of cities. Employment: it beats the alternative. Don't imagine cities are "attractive" to every migrating household. No, they simply are where we must go, and we must demand higher and higher salaries to afford those very cities, pushing the inequality gap wider and wider. 

Want to live near the great university where I work? Expect to spend $700K or more on a little, old, problems-included, house. Invest another $100K or more in renovations. Gentrification? It means, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it." 

Add to this the trend of like-marries-like, and you get two college-educated people living together. That pushes us even more towards cities with sufficient jobs. 

Curiously, the biggest metros are losing people, something Florida glosses over. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are experiencing an exodus. Clearly, you cannot claim the "biggest" metros are growing, but that's what Florida claims:
Larger metros have the edge in attracting and retaining college grads. The size of the population was positively correlated to the net growth in the number of college grads (.30)
It would be more accurate to state that large metros, but not too large, seem attractive. I'm sorry, but there's a point at which a city is so big, it seems to fail. It might be geographically too large (Detroit) or the population is too large (New York) or some mix of both (Los Angeles).

Really, it is simple: I need a job. I go to where the job is, if I can afford to relocate. Young people, educated people, those with the means, can move. The poor cannot go chasing jobs easily, even though that might seem "reasonable" to some elites. Sorry, but moving from East L.A. to Charlotte isn't easy unless you have the financial means and no obligations to remain in L.A.

Florida is obsessed with his "Creative Class" and "liberal tolerance" theories. They might have merit, but he might also be overlooking basic economic sorting. If I can follow opportunities, I will. No matter where those might be.

Are Florida's team and their correlations accurate? Certainly, but models don't explain, they only can illustrate the data. The explanation is likely more complex than (paraphrasing) "Educated people seek out wonderful artistic cities with socially liberal views."

I sought a job. I doubt I'm alone.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Libertarians (small 'l') Need to Speak Up

We will always have articles accusing "libertarianism" of being everything from "fascist" (huh?) to "right-wring" to "juvenile." Those advocating for classical liberalism will be linked to racists, plutocrats, crony capitalists, and other perversions of limited government and negative rights. (I still hate the "negative" rights label, inherently a rhetorical device that insults various philosophical and political schools of thought.)

When I read "Somalia is a libertarian paradise," I know the comment poster is either ignorant or intentionally lying. The basics of classical liberalism include:

  • Rule of law, with an egalitarian legal system;
  • Enforced contracts, protecting parties in transactions;
  • Property rights beginning with the individual's ownership of self;
  • Limited, effective, and reliable government.

Now, for the sad reality that libertarians in the United States need to address: there are horrible people who will hide behind "freedom" to be the jerks they are.

A bigot doesn't want to be told, by legal dictate, that all customers must be served. A crony capitalist will favor lower taxes (not really a "libertarian" ideal, by the way) and oppose (some) regulations. A gun-rights advocate will ignore history, context, and talk about "Constitutionally limited government" and "freedom."

You can't advocate for smaller government, simple laws, and personal freedom without the loonies rushing to join you. Therefore, libertarians with some knowledge of economics, history, and philosophy must speak up and explain that libertarianism comes in both left and right variations (whatever that means) and represents a focus on the individual over the collective.

I am for small government. And I know that sometimes jerks will abuse the freedoms I support. That fact compels me to speak out against hatreds and intolerance, even if I don't support regulations mandating decency. Bigots wrapped in the Constitution dishonor liberty and freedom. The American Civil Liberties Unions used to know this, which is why they defended the rights of some horrible people (Skokie, Illinois, comes to mind).

Government shouldn't care who you marry, what you ingest, where you worship, or any other personal choice that doesn't directly affect others. I'm not a fan of any legislated bigotries nor any legislated tolerance.

We already have a Fourteenth Amendment. Section 1 states exactly what we need:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

There you are: "equal protection of the laws" seems to apply to all laws, and all people. I don't understand how that simple language doesn't make racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, et al, laws and treatment illegal. "Constitutionalists" out there, it's pretty clear that you cannot discriminate or restrict basic rights. Get over it and start reading the Constitution beyond the Tenth Amendment.

Neither the Republican nor the Libertarian Parties in the U.S. represent the "libertarianism" or "classical liberal" views I embrace. But, the Democratic Party with its faith in government-based solutions is, at least on many issues, also far from my views. Like many, I find myself without a political home, convinced our two major parties are more interested in slow evolution of the status quo, more often reacting to social changes after-the-fact instead of either party actively promoting individual liberty accompanied by responsibility.

The GOP leadership won't stand up to religious moralism, ahistorical gun-rights zealots, corporate interests, xenophobes, and so much more. It's why I cannot and will not support the Republican Party. If you read, from cover-to-cover, the works of Adam Smith and the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, you find something more nuanced that political voices promote. F. A. Hayek was not Ayn Rand, either.

In advocating for simple laws, meaning clear, equitable, and enforceable, I am not advocating for lawless anarchy. Nothing disgusts me more than the common strawman that somehow libertarianism is anarchism. It is not. A simple, tiered progressive tax system with no exemptions, no special treatments, is not anarchy. It's easy to enforce and doesn't let any individual game the tax laws.

You can support maintaining roads and bridges without being a wild-eyed socialist. Pragmatism alone suggests roads are a good thing. Someday, we might have electric cars, powered by solar energy, but we'll still have roads — they aren't going away. And asking people who use the roads to pay for them is simplistic.

A capital-L Libertarian I know complained about his taxes supporting bridges he doesn't use. That's an example of intentional ignorance. He might not use the bridges around where we live (unlikely, unless he never travels), but almost everything he needs to live a comfortable life is transported over those roads. The clumsy rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren aside, we do rely on shared infrastructure and it must be paid for. But, that does not mean we can or should build pointless, ineffective, inefficient, infrastructure simply to create busy work.

I do not support California's high speed rail system. Why? Because transit within metropolitan areas stinks and should be addressed first. If we must pay for transit, we should subsidize workers getting to their daily jobs. High-speed rail won't do that. Just try to get from one side of Los Angles to the other, especially East to West. The bus lines and light rail are a mess. Fixing that would help far, far more people earn livings, pay taxes, and rise economically than building high speed rail might do.

Being a "libertarian" doesn't mean you give up sanity in the name of some perceived rights and self-sufficiency that never was.

Gun rights? Didn't any members of the NRA listen to or watch "Gunsmoke" or maybe read some Western history? Guns were banned, yes banned, in many small cities in the West. You turned them in as you entered town and retrieved the gun as you left. It was understood that you needed a gun out in the country, where lawmen weren't within cellphone range. But, nobody assumed you had a right to carry a sidearm in town. Dodge, Tombstone, Wichita, and even Houston banned sidearms in town. It was assumed you could trust the lawmen of the Old West to protect you in a city, and that everyone was safer with only a few guns in town. Beyond the city, you might need the gun for wild animals, highwaymen, rustlers, and general scoundrels. Also, you could have a rifle at home in most cities of the West. I suppose that's because you didn't walk around with the rifle.

As I have stated, repeatedly, I don't support the Democratic Party, and have no home elsewhere. I believe in capitalism, limited government, and meritocracy. I don't support government solutions to most problems. I never trust any large organization to do what is best for individuals.

Being pragmatic and an (almost) classical liberal is frustrating. But, such is life.

Read the following (yes, I realize they are imperfect):

Thursday, June 12, 2014

THEY are Evil… Ruining the U. S. of A

Over on Politico, the divisions we know exist are examined yet again, this time in a new Pew poll.
Pew poll: Polarization highest in recent history
Two decades ago, “a lot of Democrats and Republicans said they didn’t really like what the other party was doing, but they didn’t downright worry about them and see them as a threat in the way that we’re seeing from a lot of people today,” said Michael Dimock, Pew’s vice president for research.
On Facebook, my political friends are increasingly intolerant of other views. It is best to be neutral and ignore the political, or you risk having to choose sides when neither "side" is of much interest. The hatred, the name calling, the complete intolerance for "them" and a conviction that "they" are destroying this country is… destroying this country.

As a classical liberal, I'm the definition of a radical moderate. Leave me alone, and I'll support your right to be left alone. Let me be a heath-conscious, exercising, non-smoking, rarely-drinking, salad-eating nut, and I'll fight for your Big Gulp and Golden Corral fried food bonanza. Let me be with my wife and cats, and I'll fight for your right to live with any adult(s) you want. Just let me be free, too.

Republicans are not evil. Democrats are not evil. Politicians, however, of all parties… they are by definition narcissists convinced they know what's best and what must be right for everyone else. You can't be in politics and not believe, without question, your ideology. Most of us, though, are more ambivalent.

Politicians end up hypocrites, became they slip into the "ends justify the means" mindset. Decry whatever "they" do, while you have "no choice" but to do the same. Sorry, but politicians aren't most of us.

Most of us are moderates, but we're not as politically active nor are we as politically motivated. I have to admit, I can't tell you much of anything about how local governments work where we now live — though I understood California's system well enough. I can't (or choose not to) invest the time and energy to figure out the county, borough, city, township, divisions. There are boards that cross boundaries, and yet other board with other boundaries. I just don't want to invest months trying to understand who serves on what tiny little board.

Do you attend even two or three public board or council meetings a year? I don't. Should I? Probably, but politics is messy and I don't care for choosing sides every day. (Even "non-partisan" boards are highly partisan.) I don't want to hear how horrible and un-American "they" are.

It doesn't take a poll to reveal how far apart we are, with the political divides often measured in terms of miles from urban cores and Zip Code population densities. Plenty of studies bear out the urban-suburban-rural differences.
Three quarters of consistently conservative people said they’d “prefer to live in a community where the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.” Seventy-seven percent of consistent liberals said they’d prefer a community where “houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance.”
I find that curious, since my neighbors are more socially conservative than I am, but I have no desire at all to live in a city. We don't have children, but even when I was growing up in the country I would ride my bike to school. Excuse me, but "several miles" isn't a big deal if you're willing to ride a bike or walk a little.

My wife and I like our garden, our flower beds, and our privacy. But, we won't be joining a local church, attending the NRA gun fest (or whatever it is called), or listening to country music.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Taking On Adam Smith (and Karl Marx) -

I tell my students, learn to tell a story about economics, not merely to report statistics. This is why:
Taking On Adam Smith (and Karl Marx) - Academic economics is so focused on getting the econometrics and the statistical interpolation technique correct, he said, “you don’t really think, you don’t dare to ask the big questions.” American economists too often narrow the questions they examine to those they can answer, “but sometimes the questions are not that interesting,” he said. “Trying to write a real book that could speak to everyone meant I could not choose my questions. I had to take the important issues in a frontal manner — I could not escape.” 
He hated the insularity of the economics department. So he decided to write large, a book he considers as much history as economics, and one that is constructed to lead the general reader by the hand.

He is also not afraid of literature, finding inspiration in the descriptions of society in the realist novels of Jane Austen and Balzac. Wealth was best achieved in these stories through a clever marriage; everyone knew that inherited land and capital was the only way to live well, since labor alone would not produce sufficient income. He wondered how that assumption had changed.
Tell stories. They educate people beyond the narrow specializations within our ivory towers.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Rhetoric of Populism vs. Traders and Technicians

On April 18, 2014, the city of Providence, R.I., added to the growing list of lawsuits against exchanges, brokers, and HFT specialists. This demonstrates the power of narrative. The Lewis book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, contains nothing new, no breaking story or previously unpublished information. But, Lewis' ability to tell a story and tell it well compels politicians to respond.

Remember, state attorneys general run for office; public officials remain politicians, not mere lawyers. As the media and voting public demand action, the financial industry faces growing pressures. This happened with tech stocks (how VC were taxed), the home lending industry, and now HFT. Laws pass on emotion, seldom offering good solutions to perceived problems. The lawsuits relating to HFT will culminate in regulatory changes, if not outright wins in court.
(Reuters) - Dozens of the largest U.S. stock exchanges, brokerages and high-frequency trading firms were hit with a class action lawsuit by the capital of the state of Rhode Island, accusing them of manipulating the U.S. securities markets.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office has been investigating high-frequency traders for several months. Schneiderman has personally spoken out about the issues, including penning a commentary in the New York Daily News about HFT on April 3.
Tamara De Silva, said that while the lawsuit wasn’t inspired by the Lewis book, her clients “felt vindicated” by it. De Silva, who didn’t cite any specific instances or evidence of two-tiered access in the complaint, is seeking class-action, or group status, on behalf of all users of real-time futures market data from those exchanges from 2007 until the present.
The power of rhetoric, the power of stories over data... and what you need to master in business or public service.

Having worked in banking compliance for several years, I caution my students against assuming these issues apply to others, not the technical teams. Investigators seize computers, source code, databases, and other technical properties first, not last. The technical teams answer questions first, and tend to be first released by firms under investigation. General Motors started releasing mid- and high-level managers last week to placate politicians regarding the ignition switch problems and their bankruptcy filing. Bankruptcy, a financial device, becomes "fraud" if you file in part to avoid legal liability. GM blames their "financial team" for some choices, now, since those choices were based on risk analysis.

Learn to tell your stories, I advise students interested in technical aspects of finance. Tell the narratives of what you do, in a compelling manner. People distrust complexity, and politicians exploit that distrust.
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Friday, April 18, 2014

Facebook, Twitter, and more

Instead of blogging everything I read or hear, I use Twitter to promote the better content I encounter online.

Twitter seems to be the replacement for RSS feeds, sadly. I miss the old, text-centric days of newsgroups, mailing lists, and feeds. Oh, well. The market has spoken. 
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Friday, April 11, 2014

The Great Sort's Result: The Middle is Dead in Congress. Really Dead.

The "Great Sort" at the local and state level, not the evils of redistricting, has changed our government — and, more importantly, our national discussions on all issues. And I do mean all issues, because studies show left/right; progressive / liberal / libertarian / conservative; secular/religious; North / South / East / West; and other ways to group people correlate to music choices, television viewing, trust in government, and much more.

How can we prove that redistricting isn't the villain behind our political discourse? Easily: we look at the Senate, which should represent entire states, not statistically modeled and gerrymandered districts. Yet, the Senate, supposedly the great deliberative body of our government, has become little more than yet another left-right battleground.
The ideological middle is dead in Congress. Really dead.
April 10 at 11:08 am

More intriguing — and harder to explain — is how the middle has dropped out of the Senate, which is not subject to redistricting and, because Senators represent entire states, self-sorting should be less powerful.

Well more than half of the Senate fit between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat in 1982. For the last two years, there has not been a single Republican with a more liberal voting record than any Democrat and not a single Democrat with a more conservative voting record than any Republican. Not one.
Personally, and purely anecdotally, I have experienced the Great Sort. More illustrative, I've been a part of it. The result is that entire regions are growing more homogenous, with islands of urban progressives dotting a nation of conservative rural and libertarian exurb voters. You can draw rings around many cities, with the "beyond" areas socially, fiscally, and internationally conservative. The outer rings are more libertarian, with white-collar workers who are fiscal conservatives, social liberals, and foreign policy isolationists. And then, you have the cities, where progressive ideologies hold sway.

The result is that states are sorting based on which states are rural and which are more urbanized. Red gets redder, blue gets bluer, at least in terms of election results. Even a slight majority of one extreme or the other leads to the election of Senators representing polarized views and depending on voters from their individuals states' majorities. Senators now ignore constituents with moderate views and those unlikely to ever support the Senators' parties.

As Chris Cillizza observes:
Taken together, there are four -- FOUR -- members of the ideological middle out of the 535 members of the House and Senate combined. That comes out to approximately .7 percent of the entire Congress. In 1982, by way of comparison, more than 75 percent of Members of Congress were part of the ideological middle.

So, in the last 30 years, the middle has lost 74 percent of its membership in Congress. And when the middle is represented by less than one percent of the entire Congress, it's not an exaggeration to say the center is gone.
I am a exurban resident. I live in a single-family home, in a limited access (single-entry, no gate) neighborhood, among college-educated white-collar professionals much like my wife and me. We are the muddled middle, unrepresented by the parties, unrepresented at the local, state, or federal levels.

Sorting occurs, naturally, in most ways. We select careers that represent our ideologies. We select workplaces that are comfortable. We choose to live among people at least more like ourselves than unlike us.

I'd be unhappy in a city, and I'd be unhappy in complete isolation. I want my space, my house, my land, but I don't want to be entirely cut-off from the comforts of the suburbs. My ideology also reflects that desire to balance independence and community.

Where I teach, and what I teach, also represent my ideological biases. I teach in a business school, at a university known for technology and research. My workplace reflects my views on work; even the school motto fits my ideology: "My Heart is the Work." That's not an institutional motto most of my colleagues in the liberal arts would embrace with zeal.

How sorted is your life? It might be more sorted than you realize.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Notes on Economic(al) Writing

As the school year began, I started to outline a basic handbook for writing within economics. That process was interrupted by life, yet I still consider the handbook a valuable endeavor for my students and for others interested in how thinkers transmit the ideas in this field.

What are the rhetorical traditions within economics? How are these traditions shaped by other disciplines? How has the shift within economics from philosophy towards mathematical models ("science") altered the rhetoric of economists? How effective are the works of economists and scholars interested in economics?

It seems to me, and this is not based on quantitative research, that only a few economists remain influential beyond the academic realm. Yes, there are economists advising political leaders, but how effective are they as economists — versus their effectiveness as ideologues?

Helping students communicate effectively might, or might not, improve policy debates. Economists of great note were lousy communicators, though. Good communicators with minimal economic knowledge have greater influence than their scholarship (or lack of) merits. This frustrates me, and I'm sure it frustrates many who are passionate about economic research and rigor.

By academic measures, neither Marx (a philosopher specializing in Epicureanism) nor Keynes (a mathematician) were "economists" with degrees in that discipline, yet we recognize that both philosophy and math shape economics as a field. These men do prove that writing well results in a lasting influence.

This summer, I intend to complete a first draft of my handbook for writing in economics. Ideally, it will be useful.