30 October 2009

This Just In: The Heartland Institute

The Heartland Institute is non-profit think tank in Chicago that produces first-rate research and policy analysis exploring free-market-oriented solutions to pressing social, economic, and political needs. Its research has been influential in areas as diverse as environmental legislation to health care.

I am pleased to announce that the Institute has invited me to become a member of its Board of Policy Advisors, an invitation I was happy to accept. (Here is the link directly to the page they created for me.)

I look forward to working with the Institute, and I am happy to add their site to my blog roll at right. I also look forward to opportunities to head back to my beloved Chicago now and again.

22 October 2009

Pay Cuts for Rich People on the Government Dole?

The Obama Administration's "U.S. Special Master on Compensation" Kenneth Feinberg has decided to slash the pay and benefits of top executives at seven Wall Street companies that have received government bailout funds (here). The justification for that extension of federal power is that if those companies are going to take federal funds, it only stands to reason that the federal government should have some say in how they spend it; besides, we are not exactly talking about "charity cases," as Rep. Barney Frank pointedly put it.

That got me to thinking. Are there other wealthy top executives working for institutions that have received federal money, and who thus should perhaps also be targets of U.S. Special Master on Compensation Kenneth Feinberg's critical eye? Why, yes: American universities.

The top research universities in America receive hundreds of millions of federal, taxpayer-funded dollars every year in the form of research grants. That is a lot of money, and a lot of it goes to very wealthy universities who pay their top administration officials a whole lot of money. Many university presidents, for example, are paid more than $1 million per year (see here or here, for example), and the salary does not include the enormous perquisites--often including housing, expenses, cars, private planes, and so on--that come with the job. Are those administration officials worth it? Are American taxpayers getting their money's worth? Perhaps, but should Mr. Feinberg look into it just to be sure?

But hold on a second! There are even bigger fish to fry: coaches. They routinely make many millions of dollars per year, often more than anyone else at the university. And all the universities take millions in federal research grants, even so-called "private" universities (see here and here, for example).

(Now, don't respond that the coaches are paid out of booster or otherwise voluntarily-contributed or generated funds, not out of the federal monies: exactly the same can be said, and is said, for the Wall Street executives, whose salaries are paid out of the profit they generate, not from the federal funds.)

University presidents and Division-I coaches are not "charity cases" either, and many of the universities for which they work have endowments in the hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars (see here)--so they're not exactly hurting for money. Thus if the populist argument for federal oversight and restriction of pay for top executives at federally-supported institutions holds in one case, why not in these as well?

16 October 2009

A Gift for Parents: Stop Worrying So Much!

I am re-reading Judith Rich Harris's indispensable No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, which seeks to explain not why people are so much alike but, rather, why people can differ so much. Why, for example, can siblings with the same biological parents raised in the same household turn out to have such different personalities? Why can even identical twins raised in the same household be so different--as they commonly are?

Harris's answer is that people's personalities are not simply the result of genes combined with household environment. It turns out that children's peers have far more to do with the personalties they eventually develop than their parents do. If she's right, that is simultaneously relieving--and disconcerting--for parents. It is relieving because it means parents should not worry as much as they do to make sure the home environment is perfect. On the other hand, it is disconcerting because it means that much of the responsibility for how children turn out is outside the parents' control. Once the parents have contributed their genes, for the most part they are cut out of the picture.

There is more to the story, and Harris's full book is well worth reading. But here, to whet your appetite, is a selection of passages from the book:

1. "Differential treatment by parents--the tendency of parents to treat their children differently--accounted for only 2 percent of the total variance [in children's personalities]. Differential sibling interaction also accounted for 2 percent. Family constellation variables such as birth order and age differences between children accounted for only 1 percent" (p. 86).

2. "[...] the results showed sizable differences between siblings that could not be attributed either to genes or to aspects of the home environment they shared" (p. 86).

3. "[...] the results showed that parents were reacting to the genetic differences between their children, rather than causing their children to be different" (p. 87; italics in the original).

4. "Only highly abnormal conditions--conditions of severe deprivation--cause permanent deficits [in brain development]. The environment needs only to provide the bare minimum; beyond that minimum, there is no evidence that variations in quality or quantity make a difference" (p. 127).

5. "[...] interventions designed to improve parents' child-rearing methods might change children's behavior at home but will not affect their behavior at school" (p. 131). [I am not sure whether that makes me, as a parent, feel better or worse.]

6. "Because children discriminate sharply between situations, the way to improve their behavior in school is not by modifying their parents' behavior but by modifying their environment at school" (p. 135).

7. "[...] the assumptions that underlie popular theories of personality development--that learned behaviors transfer readily from one situation to another, that children learn things at home which they automatically carry with them to other settings, that their experiences with their parents will color their subsequent interactions with other social partners--are incorrect" (p. 140; italics mine). [The last, italicized part of that passage I found particularly striking.]

14 October 2009

Brief Addendum on Traffic

Since I have been reading and thinking about traffic recently, I thought I might relate this recent experience:

Yesterday, I was driving my son to football practice along a two-lane road. The car in front of me slowed to turn left, and, as I slowed to wait for the car to turn, the car behind me honked at me, apparently because I did not pass the car in front of me on the right. There was no lane on the right, only a narrow shoulder. The car behind me decided not to wait, however, and so passed both of us--half on the shoulder and half on grass--while honking and giving me (and my son) the finger, apparently for delaying him.

Approximately three minutes later, I saw this person again, since it turns out he was the father of another player on my son's team. I would estimate he arrived at the practice field some fifteen seconds before we did. (When he saw me, I think he was embarrassed, since he immediately looked away, pretending not to have seen me, and hurried off.)

13 October 2009

Interesting Words: Tom Vanderbilt

I am reading a fascinating book entitled Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. Here is one intriguing passage:

For those of us who aren't brain surgeons, driving is probably the most complex everyday thing we do. It is a skill that consists of at least fifteen hundred "subskills." At any moment, we are navigating through terrain, scanning our environment for hazards and information, maintaining our position on the road, judging speed, making decisions (about twenty per mile, one study found), evaluating risk, adjusting instruments, anticpating the future actions of others--even as we may be sipping a latte, thinking about last night's episode of American Idol, quieting a toddler, or checking voice mail. A survey of one stretch of road in Maryland found that a piece of information was presented every two feet, which at 30 miles per hour, the study reasoned, meant the driver was exposed to 1,320 "items of information," or roughly 440 words, per minute. This is akin to reading three paragraphs like this one while also looking at lots of pretty pictures, not to mention doing all the other things mentioned above--and then repeating the cycle, every minute you drive. (pp.51-2; emphasis in the original)

This sure puts driving into perspective, doesn't it? Vanderbilt goes on discuss the enormous, and perhaps insurmountable, difficulties researchers are having trying to develop a practicable auto-piloted vehicle. Given the above, it is not surprising.

09 October 2009

Adam Smith and the Future of Capitalism

I was pleased to give a presentation last night as part of a panel on the topic of "The Legacy of Adam Smith and the Future of Capitalism" at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. The host and moderator was Professor Daniel Cullen. The other speaker was Professor Peter McNamara of Utah State University.

The discussant, Art Carden, who is a professor of economics at Rhodes, posted a notice of the event here.

I hope to post some comments about the presentations later.

Mercer University Talk on Smith

I gave a talk at Mercer University last week under the title of "The Scottish Enlightenment on the Promise and Perils of Commercial Society." I was invited by the Center for Undergraduate Research in Public Policy and Capitalism and by the Center for the Teaching of America's Western Foundations. (Here is an official notice of the talk; here is an unofficial one.)

It was an honor to speak there, especially as the inaugural speaker for the new CURPPC. Thank you to my gracious hosts, and to the students and faculty who attended the talk and asked such engaging questions.

After I gave my talk, one of my hosts, Scott Beaulier, who is a professor at Mercer and also the director of the CURPPC, posted a series of questions he would have asked me if he had had the opportunity. His questions are excellent (as Gavin Kennedy at Adam Smith's Lost Legacy notes here), and they are worthy of thoughtful replies.

I will post in a separate entry some thoughts about Professor Beaulier's questions.

05 October 2009

This Just In: The Fund for American Studies

I am delighted to announce that I have been named the Charles G. Koch Senior Fellow at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, DC.

I retain my position as professor of philosophy and economics at
Yeshiva University, and this new association will not interfere with my duties at YU. I will work with the Fund as it seeks to expand its range of activities and as it seeks support to fund them.

If you don't know about the Fund, have a look. It has several excellent programs for students, both during the summer and during the regular academic year, and its Washington internship programs are second-to-none.