Archive for April 12th, 2010


Net Positive

April 12, 2010

Robert N. Watson, English Professor at UCLA, argues in this article that the humanities are a winning financial proposition for universities. I don’t have the numbers to confirm his calculations, but in a way, it makes sense to me. We teach a lot of classes, we don’t demand all that much, and we insist that our students wear togas. At least, that’s what we do at CU-Boulder. Here, read for yourselves:

But, according to spreadsheet calculations done at my request by Reem Hanna-Harwell, assistant dean of the humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities there generate over $59 million in student fees, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category). The entire teaching staff of Writing Programs, which is absolutely essential to UCLA’s educational mission, has been sent firing notices, even though the spreadsheet shows that program generating $4.3 million dollars in fee revenue, at a cost of only $2.4 million.


That isn’t an eccentric calculation. Of the 21 units at the University of Washington, the humanities and, to a lesser degree, the social sciences are the only ones that generate more tuition income than 100 percent of their total expenditure. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, recently cited a University of Illinois report showing that a large humanities department like English produces a substantial net profit, whereas units such as engineering and agriculture run at a loss. The widely respected Delaware Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity shows the same pattern.



April 12, 2010

The Randian kaleidescope is a powerful tool — an instrument too powerful for the lay-visionary. No, it takes a special kind of vision to observe, with all sincerity, that women in 1880 were freer back then than they are today. And yet, that’s what Bryan Caplan, one of these specially empowered visionaries, has been able to see in said kaleidescope.

Crooked Timber has the scoop.


Conservation Conversation

April 12, 2010

Gavin [Correction: David] over at RealClimate has taken up Paul Krugman’s recent NY Times Magazine piece — which is a very good piece, IMHO, and I’d like to say more about it in a bit…but not here, dear readers — and if you haven’t yet, you should head over there and do so.  The comments, as usual, are also worth the read. One point of note, however, was Gavin’s observation:

[Krugman] also seems to have missed the recent revelation that what really matters to climate is the total ultimate slug of emitted CO2, implying that unfettered emission today dooms us to more drastic cuts in the future or a higher ultimate atmospheric CO2concentration, which will persist not just for “possibly centuries”, but almost certainly for millennia.

I have a paper on a related topic that is currently making the referee rounds. In that paper, I engage the question of causal impotence — an esoteric discussion in applied ethics — but I also discuss what I think is a fundamental rift within the climate community. It’s evident right here, right in the first paragraph of the RealClimate post.

Namely, Krugman is an economist. He thinks in terms of costs and benefits, where these are characterized as units of welfare or preference satisfaction. It is entirely likely, therefore, that he’s thinking about mitigation in terms of “harms to people” or “harms to the economy.”

Gavin David, by contrast, is a climate scientist. He thinks in terms of climate systems and damage to, or interruptions in, those climate systems, where these are characterized as degrees from normal, deviations from expectations, and so on. It is entirely likely, therefore, that he’s thinking about mitigation in terms of “harms to the climate,” or some such.

This ambiguous focus of the climate discussion is, to my mind, a major rift that needs rifling through. As it happens, it’s primarily a philosophical discussion about ‘harms’, but it would behoove everyone to get clear on what, exactly, we’re talking about. We only vaguely know what we mean by a ‘harm’, and so far as I can tell, nobody’s bothered to spend much time exploring the issue.

If this were only an intellectual exercise, I suppose it might be one thing. But this is not a mere intellectual exercise. It has real-world implications. As a consequence of this ambiguity in the notion of ‘harm’, we’ve also not been particularly clear about what we mean by ‘mitigation’. I suspect that our lack of clarity gives rise to all manner of criticisms from all manner of quarters, including the Björn Lomborg sort. You see conflicts of the same sort appearing in the AR4 versus the Stern Review report.

Having said this, Roger also recently picked on Krugman’s piece as being muddied and confused, particularly with regard to alternative technologies. I personally don’t care much for the standard economic line on the environment, so I’m not, strictly speaking, a fan of Krugman’s suggested approach here. (I disagree with the reasoning, not the proposal; and there’s a lot about Krugman that I do like.) At the same time, I think it’s not entirely true that Krugman is guilty of the muddying and confusing that Roger thinks he is.

Simply because Krugman leaves the question of energy technology out of the discussion doesn’t undermine other reasons for promoting conservation — maybe, for instance, it is just reckless or greedy not to conserve. In this case, one can find a rationale for promoting conservation through economically grounded policy incentives without appeal to alternative technologies. To be more specific, Krugman isn’t just talking about decarbonizing the economy, he’s talking about conserving the energy resources that we have. That, I think, is also an area toward which the discussion could be moved.


Simply the Best, Statistically Speaking

April 12, 2010

Nate Silver, political analyst and emergent numbers nerd from the 2008 election, puts his fancy math skills to work ranking and sorting 50 neighborhoods in the five boroughs. Check out this phenomenal and comprehensive explanation of the bests and worsts of each neighborhood.

As he notes, the best part isn’t the article, but the killer applet that they’ve designed that allows a reader to personalize the rankings according to areas of interest. As it happens, I plugged in my faves and, presto!, my old neighborhood (the East Village) popped up as the best place for me to live. Hard to say, of course, what the direction of causality is here, as I effectively just lucked into my apartment. Some of my tastes were certainly shaped by my environment. Even still, I’d like to think that the place I lived was really the best for me. Ah, New York, much as I love me my new digs in Colorado, I do miss thee.