Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Against the Very Model of a Modern Major PhD

(If you squint, you'll see NYU philosopher David Velleman front and center, with his trusty side-kick Hartry Field on the right. Actually, I really do imagine that department breaking into song, on occasion.)
So, I don't know how many of our readers are aware of what graduate school admissions are like these days, but if you aren't, you should know that 'brutal' and any number of its synonyms are the only adequate descriptors that come to mind. (If you do have an idea, feel free to commiserate.) Speaking strictly to Philosophy - though, I believe from anecdotal evidence that the situation is generalizable to most other humanities and fine arts disciplines - admissions rates to top-twenty programs are in the neighborhood of 3 to 7 percent. Think, for a moment, on what that means. You're willing to abandon your friends, your family, and your entire present life, devote yourself to a profession that, for at least five years, will keep you bordering on poverty, for a degree that can be called "successful" if it secures for you a solidly middle-class salary. And you're willing to do this, only if you're comfortable saying that, for any randomly selected ten to fifteen applicants, you think none would be better than you are. 'Brutal' somehow don't hardly say it.
Now, I don't want to get in to a drawn out discussion of whether this prospect is sort of something I'm looking forward to. I want to make what I think is a bit of an interesting observation about how this institution - graduate schools and PhD programs - is structured. In Philosophy, currently, New York University is more or less widely regarded as the best graduate school in the U.S. (also, the world, with Oxford University running a close second). Rutgers runs a somewhat distant second, with Princeton running a close third, Pittsburgh (ah, would that they would have me!) a close fourth, and MIT, Harvard, and Michigan rounding out what we might call 'the top handful.' [NB: There are truly excellent philosophy programs admission to which I would give my left hand that are not in this 'top handful.' This discussion is focused on the Philosophical Gourmet rankings. I'm one of quite a few people, including the administrator of the Gourmet, who think that there's only so much that this particular survey can tell us about graduate school quality.]
Now, time was, within the last twenty to forty years, that three schools in heralded unanimity comprised the pantheon of the Philosophy PhD magisterium: Harvard, Princeton, and Pittsburgh. As one pretty quickly notes, only one of these schools (Princeton) is in the top-three presently. And two schools that almost no one once thought of as among the best have (again, more or less) decisively dethroned the giants of philosophy-graduate-school-past. These are wealthy graduate programs, with the wind of historical prestige at their backs. How could they have been o'ertaken by such unlikely upstarts as NYU and Rutgers?
Well, here's a shot at an explanation. I admit, there are other candidate explanations out there, but for my part, the premises here strike me as prima facie true, and the conclusion seems to follow from them naturally. So, here goes.
Philosophy Graduate School Axioms
I. Never hire graduates of one's own program.II. The best faculty members tend to work at the best graduate programs.
III. The best graduate students tend to become the best faculty members.
IV. The best graduate students tend to acquire their degrees from the best graduate programs.
ArgumentA (1) Suppose School A has the best philosophy graduate program.
So (2) The best graduate students will tend to acquire their degrees from School A. [A1 + IV]
So (3) School A's graduate students will tend to become the best faculty members. [So2 + III]
So (4) School A will not hire the best faculty members. [So3 + I]
So (5) School A, eventually, will not be the best graduate program. [So4 + II]
The idea is simply that, if you're the best program now but you refuse to hire your own students, you'll eventually cease to have the best program, since those students you wouldn't hire will eventually become the best faculty members. Capice?
Now, if this argument is right, what sorts of hiring phenomena would you expect? Well, first, you'd expect the one I've already noted: the best graduate programs will cease to be the best graduate programs. Second, you might also expect that the 'formerly-best' institutions would have placed significantly more of their graduate students in the best philosophy jobs than the newly-best institutions. And lo, from Leiter, this is exactly what we find:
Distribution of Faculty Members from Top Philosophy Graduate Programs
New York University PhDs1. NYU: 0
2. Rutgers: 0
3. Princeton: 1
4. Pittsburgh: 1
5. Michigan: 0
6. Harvard: 0
6. MIT: 1
Total: 3
Rutgers University PhDs1. NYU: 1
2. Rutgers: 1
3. Princeton: 0
4. Pittsburgh: 0
5. Michigan: 2
6. Harvard: 0
6. MIT: 0
Total: 4
Princeton University PhDs1. NYU: 4
2. Rutgers: 4
3. Princeton: 5
4. Pittsburgh: 6
5. Michigan: 5
6. Harvard: 1
6. MIT: 5
Total: 30
University of Pittsburgh PhDs1. NYU: 0
2. Rutgers: 3
3. Princeton: 1
4. Pittsburgh: 2
5. Michigan: 2
6. Harvard: 2
6. MIT: 0
Total: 10
University of Michigan PhDs1. NYU: 0
2. Rutgers: 3
3. Princeton: 0
4. Pittsburgh: 2
5. Michigan: 3
6. Harvard: 0
6. MIT: 0
Total: 5
Harvard University PhDs1. NYU: 6
2. Rutgers: 0
3. Princeton: 4
4. Pittsburgh: 2
5. Michigan: 2
6. Harvard: 3
6. MIT: 1
Total: 18
Massachussetts Institute of Technology PhDs1. NYU: 0
2. Rutgers: 2
3. Princeton: 4
4. Pittsburgh: 0
5. Michigan: 3
6. Harvard: 4
6. MIT: 2
Total: 15
As you can see, apart from the little program that could, these results satisfy the prediction that the formerly-best programs would've outperformed the newly-best programs in terms of jobs placement.
But what's another thing you might expect? If these really are estimations of the best graduate programs producing the best students, you'd expect the above trends to begin to shift. And what might mark that shift would be, rather than the numbers of currently tenured faculty-members, an increased number of tenure-track faculty members from the newly-best programs. For while tenured faculty distributions would evidence the historical excellence among graduate programs, tenure-track faculty distributions are closer to graduate school, and so represent a more accurate rendering of the current rankings among graduate schools. And lo, the data confirms this as well. Again, from Leiter:
Distribution of Tenure-Track Faculty Members from Top Graduate Schools
1. New York University (13)2. Rutgers University, New Brunswick (8)
3. Massachussetts Institute of Technology (6)
3. Princeton University (6)
5. Yale University (3)
6. Columbia University (2)
6. Harvard University (2)
The idea here is that newly-hired faculty (untenured-but-tenure-track) are closer to the newer rankings of graduate schools. So, if a shift from the past had manifested itself in the ranking, the distribution of new hires would indicate such a shift. And, it does.
Okay, now, I admit that there are alternative theories that might explain this data. Maybe Rutgers and NYU just outspent the previously-top programs. Or (and this seems likely, to me) most of those 'tends to' in my axioms will allow for excellent philosophers to be produced by a host of programs, and since department sizes relative to the production of excellent philosophers is small-ish, and true excellence usually takes seasoning to emerge, there's plenty of room for programs by a combination of luck, smart hiring, and money to move up. Or perhaps ‘having the best faculty’ isn’t coextensive with ‘producing the best graduate students’ – though, the shift in recent hiring would need to be explained.
Anyway, the point is simply that a university’s commitment against hiring its own students seems, in addition to some pretty reasonable-sounding assumptions – to yield a recipe for the best universities eventually losing their top spots. And, if so, I suspect the recipe has been served in more disciplines than Philosophy.  Sacred Music, even?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Haggling Over the Price of the Hose

or "The Real Liquidity Trap"

I don't know whether anyone has heard, but there's supposed to be some kind of 'debate' happening amongst federal officials about how best to go about solving the U.S. 'debt crisis.' Sorry if the scare quotes identify me as an avid follower of Krugman's blog, but I am. I'm also trying to put the most charitable face on the Conservative position here as I can. To that end, try the following thought experiment.

Suppose your house is on fire. And, suppose a friend is willing to lend you water, even though you owe him quite a bit for the water you've already borrowed. Why might you shy from borrowing it now? Well, maybe you think that borrowing this water now will harm you in a time when you're in more dire need (a fire you really can't handle yourself, say), and in such a time the friend won't be willing to loan you any water, since you owe him so much as it is. So, spake the water-Conservative, thankyouverymuch, but I'll put out this particular fire on my own. I appreciate the offer, but save your water for later.

Okay, that seems sensible to me. Why borrow when you can pay for it yourself, already?

Here's my question, though. Doesn't the growth of the present fire, itself - and not necessarily the fact that you owe your friend a lot already - make your friend less likely to lend water to you in the future? That is, the growth of the present fire increases the value of the water-debt he holds on you already, since the growth of the present fire increases the risk of your defaulting on that debt (from your house burning down). Given this fact, isn't the water-Conservative's worry about future water-loans unfounded, if you can't, in fact, put out the current fire?

So, the parallels to the current debate seem pretty obvious, here. And, my suspicion is that the difference between (water) Conservatives and (water) Liberals is a disagreement about just what sort of fire it is we're fighting, and thus, just which sort of strategy will best combat it. If you're the Conservative, you think the fire is the threat of future availability of credit (after all, if we had an assurance of timelessly unlimited credit, we could borrow water like drunken sailors). If you're the Liberal, you think that the fire is joblessness and lost productivity. For my part, though, it seems like there's a sense in which fighting the Liberal's fire also fights the Conservative's fire: when you have increased employment and productivity, you generate increased tax revenues. But if what you're worried about primarily is the future availability of water, you can fight only the Conservative fight, since you can't borrow water to fight the fire of joblessness and productivity. But then, maybe you also believe in cutting in order to create jobs - tantamount to praying to the rain God, as near as I can tell.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Color-Coded Parking

So, here's another bullet point in the seemingly endless iteration of "Stuff that semi-educated-upper-middle-class-white-people thing get all hand-wringly about": "For any x, is x racist?"

Now, don't misunderstand me. Racism is the sort of thing about which semi-educated-upper-middle-class-white people should worry, in no small part because so many of us are so adept in the ways of white folk, while so few of us have ever read the damn thing (fewer yet, and I'm afraid I'm counting myself here, could probably be said to have understood it). We were raised in communities that were predominantly white, all the while eschewing acts of overt racism. But we were also raised or (if our parents were Republicans) educated to understand that the most pernicious and pervasive sorts of racism aren't overt. So, we come to believe that the kind of racist beliefs and behaviors we can pick out aren't the ones that are the most pervasive. I think that it's this condition that leads to the hand-wringing. Because any time that white people of a certain background talk about issues involving race, we aren't (or, at least, I'm not) sure whether we're saying or doing something racist.

So, let me say before launching into this post, I'm not really sure whether my commentary here is racist. It's for that reason, though, that I'm posting it. I know that it isn't overtly racist. (How? It doesn't look like this.) And if there are two sorts of racism, overt and subtle, then if this post manifests some sort of racism, it can only be subtly so. But as I said, it's the subtle racism that I don't think people with a background like mine are especially good at identifying, and it's because we aren't good at identifying it, though we know it exists, that we worry whether we're its perpetrators.

I guess that what I'm trying to say is, if this post is subtly racist, I want to know, and I want to know why. It's not because I'm prepared to say it isn't racist; rather, it's because I want to get better at identifying subtle racism, that I might get better at identifying and responding to instances of it in the future. But, if it isn't racist, it helps us narrow the set of topics covered by the phenomenon of subtle racism, and thereby helps us to better identify it, as well. Also, it's interesting.

* * *

Anyway. The post.

So, I read a mind-blowing study this week, one trying to make sense of the phenomenon of unpaid parking tickets issued by New York City police to diplomats from the United Nations. And, trust me - or don't, but just keep reading - this is an phenomenon, indeed.

First, some background. According to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, certain diplomats and consuls from foreign nations are exempted from prosecution for certain sorts of crimes that the diplomats may commit in the host nation. In the United States, for example, those exemptions include prosecution for unpaid parking tickets. This means that diplomats in the U.S. can be issued a ticket for parking their cars in any non-tow area (their cars can be towed) and find themselves under no legal obligation to pay the fine, since they cannot be prosecuted for failure to pay.

The problem is especially rampant in New York City, where many nations double-up on their number of diplomats, since all send representatives to the United Nations, and almost all nations with more than one embassy (their first is always in Washington D.C.) house a second embassy in the Big Apple. According to the study I mentioned, between 1997 and 2002, UN diplomats alone racked up a whopping $18 million dollars in unpaid parking fines within the NYC city limits. Fortunately for us, however, there are two very interesting aspects to this scenario. First, the diplomatic immunity from prosecution instead of permission to break the law means that we have a written record of the instances of illegality - for if diplomats had permission to break the law, there would be no cause to issue them parking tickets. And second, the fact that diplomats from so many countries send diplomats to this very small area has given the economist and business professor who authored the study an excellent 'natural experiment.'

"A natural experiment in what?" you ask. An experiment in linking culture and tendencies toward corruption. The study utilizes an earlier study that argued for what it called an "International Corruption Index," which listed countries according to how corrupt were their national governments. The researchers defined corruption as "the abuse of publicly entrusted power for private gains" - so, insider trading by government officials, awarding contracts in exchange for political donations, etc. Governments more likely to engage in those sorts behaviors were defined as more corrupt. What our second study intended to find was whether corruption within one's own nation tended to manifest itself in other countries - or whether the sorts of national corruption scrutinized by the first study were evidence of a 'corrupt culture' in which the corruption follows the members of the culture around the globe.

One can see why, then, the example of parking tickets for United Nations diplomats worked so well for the second study. 'Test subjects' were offered easy access to a corrupt benefit - personal gain (good but illegal parking) from publicly entrusted authority (diplomatic immunity). And numerous individuals from numerous countries were offered the benefit over a very long period of time, thereby controlling for the possibility of unusually corrupt individuals (I kid because I love) skewing the data. These conditions conspired to generate an environment that would show whether individuals from corrupt (and, indeed, from non-corrupt) nations behaved outside of their national boundaries; in particular, whether the corruption could be called "cultural" in making itself manifest outside of a particular set of national boundaries.

And, I'm not sure whether to call this surprising, the findings were as follows. The researchers found a significantly high correlation between the number of parking tickets per diplomat from a particular country and that country's ranking on the Corruption Index. And the rankings are as follows:

Table 1: Average Unpaid Annual New York City Parking Violations per Diplomat, 11/1997 to 11/2002 (citation again, here; also, the highlighting is mine)

Rank Country Tickets Per Diplomats

1 KUWAIT 246.2 9
2 EGYPT 139.6 24
3 CHAD 124.3 2
4 SUDAN 119.1 7
5 BULGARIA 117.5 6
6 MOZAMBIQUE 110.7 5
7 ALBANIA 84.5 3
8 ANGOLA 81.7 9
9 SENEGAL 79.2 11
10 PAKISTAN 69.4 13
11 IVORY COAST 67.1 10
12 ZAMBIA 60.4 9
13 MOROCCO 60.0 17
14 ETHIOPIA 59.7 10
15 NIGERIA 58.6 25
16 SYRIA 52.7 12
17 BENIN 49.8 8
18 ZIMBABWE 45.6 14
19 CAMEROON 43.6 8
20 MONTENEGRO 38.0 6


125 UK 0.0 31
126 NETHERLANDS 0.0 17
127 UAE 0.0 3
128 AUSTRALIA 0.0 12
129 AZERBAIJAN 0.0 5
130 BURKINA FASO 0.0 5
131 CAR 0.0 3
132 CANADA 0.0 24
133 COLOMBIA 0.0 16
134 DENMARK 0.0 17
135 ECUADOR 0.0 9
136 GREECE 0.0 21
137 IRELAND 0.0 10
138 ISRAEL 0.0 15
139 JAMAICA 0.0 9
140 JAPAN 0.0 47
141 LATVIA 0.0 5
142 NORWAY 0.0 12
143 OMAN 0.0 5
144 PANAMA 0.0 8
145 SWEDEN 0.0 19
146 TURKEY 0.0 25

One notes from these results, at least, what I noted in green. That in the top twenty offending nations, fourteen are African; in the bottom twenty-one, just two are African. The authors of this study - and yours truly - take this to imply that, relative to most East Asian and European cultures, African cultures are notably corrupt. One might think this for at least the following reason. Given the 192 UN countries, the fact that Africa has 53 nations represented would suggest that, if cultural corruption were distributed equally around the globe, African countries would account for slightly more than 25% of the observed corruption. But, in fact, according to this study, African countries account for more than 70% (or at least, they constitute 70% of the most corrupt countries) of the corruption in this bracket, and less than 10% of those nations with zero observed corruption. **

The point being, there is something corrupt in African cultures that is not corrupt in other cultures, and further that it is more likely that Africans will behave corruptly than it is that many non-Africans will behave corruptly. Such an observation, naturally, has numerous policy implications - where foreign aid might most effectively be directed, for instance - even though there are probably numerous ways to read the data (I've no special acuity with sociological data gathering).

So, first thing, how interesting is that? Second thing, how racist is it, if it is at all? Is it racist to conclude that African nations are culturally corrupt in a way that many non-African nations appear not to be? Or, is the more racist thing yet to think that it might be racist to say that data suggestive of a culture of corruption might be invalidated, simply because its findings correlate with otherwise racist attitudes?

A sticky set of questions, indeed.

**Addendum (added 2o April, 10PM)
Here's another reason - or really, the idea behind the study's conclusion. We know from the International Corruption Index (ICI) that some countries are more corrupt than other countries. There is, however, an open question about what is the relationship between culture and legal enforcement mechanisms in producing corruption. Are non-corrupt countries so simply because they have adequate measures of enforcement? Are corrupt countries so because they exhibit a cultural preference? This study provides an experiment that eliminates the legal enforcement disincentive for corruption. So, if the reason why non-corrupt countries were so was that they had adequate enforcement mechanisms, one would expect their members to behave in the non-enforcement context of diplomatic immunity just as corruptly as members of those countries that lack adequate enforcement as a matter of course. What this study shows is that this is not the case. In the non-enforcement context, countries that scored low the ICI continued to respect the law, in the absence of a legal disincentive for breaking it. What this suggests, then, is that in countries that have high scores on the ICI, those countries are corrupt not because they are inadequate enforcers, but because they express a cultural preference for corruption.

Or as the authors write in the paper's abstract:
Diplomatic immunity means there was essentially zero legal enforcement of diplomatic parking violations, allowing us to examine the role of cultural norms alone. This generates a revealed preference measure of corruption based on real-world behavior for government officials all acting in the same setting. We find tremendous persistence in corruption norms: diplomats from high corruption countries (based on existing survey-based indices) have significantly more parking violations.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why We Suck - Vol. 459

With the advent of Opening Day in Major League Baseball, I read a great, great piece in Slate this week, excerpted from a Mister Bill James's new book Solid Fool's Gold. That's Bill James of Moneyball and "Baseball Prospectus" fame; the man who popularized the science of baseball statistics, and who revealed the vital impact that near-ignored standards of performance had on success in America's great summer pastime. (Incidentally, if you haven't read Michael Lewis's account of Bill James and the revolution that his discovery effected on Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, you could do much, much worse.)

In the excerpt, James gives a pretty compelling account of just why our country has so perfected - and, ahem, imperially implemented - the science of athletic cultivation and recruitment while simultaneously neglecting what would almost certainly prove an equivalently successful science of (say) literary cultivation and recruitment. And he's no pessimist. He argues that there are valuable lessons to learn from our success in the field of athletics that could be equally well-applied to any field in which we presently perceive a dearth of successful participants. And it is an analysis not dissimilar from the one I gestured at a few posts ago when I discussed the constant (relative to other genres) level of excellence of classical music.

Anyway, I'll leave James to make his own points, but it's worth wondering just what sort of background conditions are necessary in order for us to start, say, nationally valuing some activity as we have football or basketball. For if James thinks that sports utilizes a process that's generalizable to other areas of human activity, why are sports one of so few human activities to utilize it - and perhaps more importantly, what we would have to do to shift those conditions to another activity entirely?