Sunday, April 28, 2019

Don Quixote

I just listened to a super long audiobook, and then realized I had listened to the story before. So, it wasn't just the pop culture knowledge that made it seem so familiar. However, this was a different narration of a different translation, so all was not lost. It was a 250 year old translation of a 400 year old novel, yet it felt like it could have been written a few years ago. Don Quixote is just that good. The narration by Robert Whitfield is excellently performed. The novel is very long, especially with book one and book two included together. At the start, Don Quixote becomes obsessed with knigths and sets off on adventures. Then we meets up with Sancho Panza and they have numerous adventures. He seems to believe that many things are "under enchantment" rather than that they are not "knightly". Many of his friends try to get him to believe the truth before his eyes. Finally, on his death bed, he acknowledges that he was delusional.
The length of the novel can be a turn off. However, this is akin to saying a couple seasons of a sitcom is longer than a movie. You could read just the first bit of the books and have a sufficient conversational understanding of Don Quixote. The additional chapters cover additional humorous episodes that further develop the characters. I found Sancho Panza to be the most intriguing. He is both dumb and whitty. He realizes that Don Quixote is crazy, yet he goes along with him anyway, in hopes of getting his great reward. He does get a taste of being a "leader of an island", but tires of it. However, in the process, he actually is a good leader.
Many of Don Quixote's friends try to help him with various ploys. However, none succeed. People do write about his exploits. In multiple occasions, Quixote and Sancho encounter people that have knowledge of them through the stories or written works. They try to correct their misunderstandings - but this often ends up displaying them in worse light.
There is so much to the novel, it is easily worth another long reread.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World

in Crashed, Adam Tooze explores the interrelated economic meltdowns of the past decade and the resultant political actions. The approach is perhaps too detailed. However, in some ways it needs the details to bring out the relationships between activities in many different companies and countries. He openly admits a left-of-center viewpoint with that calls in to question some of the decisions made. (The investment bankers that really triggered the mess were the ones to quickly recover their full bonuses. The average Joe, however, often suffered through demands of austerity.) Governments often have a "built in" stimulus that triggers increased benefits (such as unemployment) when the economy takes a turn for the worse. Cutting government spending for these can further extend the pain of the recession.
The economic malaise also triggered social and political issues, thus contributing to the refugee crisis. These factors contributed to a call for nativism in many developed countries. People wanted were upset with free trade and the largess of the investment bankers, and instead wanted politicians that would focus on the home. In Europe, this led to the rise of many far-left and far-right parties and Brexit. In the US, with the entrenched 2 party system, this led to a takover of the Republican Party by the Tea Party and then Trump. The "Liberal Technocrats" consider this to just be a blip, disregarding the desires of a great portion of the populace. The end result, however, it Republicans often pushing many of the same things that they had fought against when Democrats were in power (such as "stimulus")
The book does a good job of explaining why it is so challenging for democracies to run a global economic scheme.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Case Against Education

As a society, we spend a lot of money on education. However, the benefits received are fleeting. Looking at the numbers in isolation, it appears that each year of education provides a significant increase in lifetime earnings. However, diving deeper into the data, the results are much less compelling. Instead of a gradual increase based on years of education, the data shows huge increases at graduation and much smaller increases per year of education. This helps support the thesis that education works primarily as a signalling mechanism. A degree shows that somebody is intelligent and conforms to societal norms. The actual learning is less important. (And many of the things learned in school are never used in the workforce.) Correcting for ability further amplifies the point. When poor students get more education, they don't see the bump that an excellent student would see after completing the same level of education.
We also must consider the cost side of the education equation. Time spent in school is time that is not spent in workforce. There is also the expense of providing the education. This is born by society in the case of public education, though often shared by the individual student in higher education. Is the payoff worth it? For an individual, the ability to signal that you are a capable employee may be worth it. However, signalling just differentiates people and provides no overall benefit for society. We would generally be better off if people obtained only the appropriate education needed for their job.
Vocational education is perhaps the one exception. It gets people trained in needed schools that can be immediately applicable, and does not waste time on as many useless classes. It seems in a quest to make college available for all, we make it worse for people that do not want college. They would have been better off with legitimate training for a job they could do, rather than stuck with more classes they do not like. (You could even argue that many of the tech jobs of today are actually modern "blue collar" vocational jobs.)
Right now education is in a "bubble". There is too much money sloshing in there and a societal impression that it is "good" (regardless of the political views or evidence.) This leads to colossal waste of money and high price inflation. Simple solutions would be to just have the government get out of the education business. The easiest fix would be to stop subsidizing student loans. In fact, do away with them altogether. If financial institutions do not accept the risk of a student, they probably should not be spending that money in school. Since much of the benefit of higher education is "signalling", simply making it more difficult for people to attend college will make college less important. (If everyone has a BA, a masters is needed to set you apart. If everyone just has a high school diploma, a BA would sufficiently set you apart.) Online education is available today that could provide the actual "learning" if desired.
Current events help to further prove his thesis. People are paying half a million dollars to get their kids into the desired universities. (Some of these are not even the "Top Tier Ivies", but second tier selective schools.) There is seen great value in attending schools and getting a degree. You could view almost an entire degree's worth of classes from the most prestigious universities online for free. You could even wander into classes at most college and attend the lectures without objection. In spite of this, it is the degree that really counts, not the learning. This knowledge should instruct policy.
Caplan presents a very compelling thesis. Education is able to draw huge amounts of funding and public support by presenting itself as a job training program. However, it actually functions more like a "private club", providing the connections and membership that employers want. The biggest fault is that he provides too much evidence. It feels that the same argument is made from many different angles. Perhaps the best version of the argument is a "dialog" he has with many the different education viewpoints. It does present hard lessons for society. Credential inflation merely requires people to have more education, not for them to be more educated.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Death Comes to the Archbishop details the life of a French priest who is assigned "missionary duty" in the American Southwest. The territory is newly annexed by the United States, but still has a large "Indian" and Mexican population. The priest eventually becomes the archbishop over the region. He is tasked with overseeing many local Catholic priests who have taken advantage of the remoteness of the territory. There also many people that need help in different ways. Near the end, he is even tasked with bringing in mining prospectors into his fold. He has a companion for many years that also helps him out. He interacts with many scoundrels and well meaning people. There are a few protestants in the area, as well as some natives that have become marginally Christian, while still maintaining a lot of their old ways. He also befriends Kit Carson. In the process, he gains a greater appreciation for the new world, and eventually decides that will be his final place of retirement. The book itself is easily accessible and provides a good view into early America. There are a mix of people that are actively trying to do good and those that are merely trying to enrich themselves. Everyone has their flaws. Even the good actions may at times result in less than ideal outcomes. However, those that can keep their baseline values strong while adapting and adjusting to the circumstances can have a positive impact.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Walden Two

In Walden Two, B.F. Skinner outlines a modern "Utopia". A perfect society is created through social engineering. People are trained to not have "hard" feelings towards each other. They also are required to work, but have the option of choosing what they do. There is a mixture of "hard" and "soft" labor, with the manual labor required by everyone and used as a form of exercise. People have to pass a medical physical to be admitted. (Oops! That will not be allowed to pass muster today.) They also have a basic form of eugenics, with the unfit encouraged not to reproduce. (Another thing that will be regulated out.) Children would be raised by society, rather than families. Young people are encouraged to marry and have children at a very young age. However, they do not often have too many children. They are not encouraged to have bonds to their particular children. The work week is very short because people are all dedicated to efficient, productive work that they enjoy. People make use of all the latest innovations to make work more efficient - and then spend more time in personal pursuits. The society is slowly replicated in other Waldens (Walden Three, etc.) The pace of growth is deliberately slow as to not experience growing pains. It is also specifically part of the modern world.
The book uses some of the visitors to Walden Two to voice objections. Some of the visitors are just not convinced. They believe that Frazier, the "founder" has just created himself as another dictator. (The book was written shortly after World War II). They even accuse him of deifying himself - a claim that he acknowledge is somewhat grounded in truth. He does not deny religion, but sees science as a similar, great power. Tehy also object to Frazier's denial of freewill. The primary narrator, however, is convinced and decides to go live in Walden Two.
Science is seen as a savior that can eliminate all hardships. Behavioral engineering will allow people to live productive lives without experiencing harmful emotions or bad experiences. In theory, it sounds great. However, a half-century later, science is still not up to the task. With many supercomputers we can now predict the weather a week into the future with accuracy a little better than random guessing. As for behavioral sciences, scientific advances seem to help us understand how little we understand. I doubt we could engineer a few willing participants to behave in the utopian fashion. Add in the necessity of dealing with rebellious, unwilling participants and actively hostile "outsiders" and you are set for an impossible task. It makes for a nice dream, but is no where near practical.