Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P.

Christopher Eric Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011) was an English[7] author and journalist[8] whose books, essays, and journalistic career spanned more than four decades. He was a columnist and literary critic at The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, World Affairs, The Nation, Free Inquiry, and became a media fellow at the Hoover Institution in September 2008.[9] He was a staple of talk shows and lecture circuits and in 2005 was voted the world's fifth top public intellectual in a Prospect/Foreign Policy poll.[10][11]
Hitchens was known for his admiration of George Orwell, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson and for his excoriating critiques of, among others, Mother Teresa,[12] Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Henry Kissinger. His confrontational style of debate made him both a lauded and controversial figure. As a political observer, polemicist and self-defined radical, he rose to prominence as a fixture of the left-wing publications in his native Britain and in the United States. His departure from the established political left began in 1989 after what he called the "tepid reaction" of the Western left following Ayatollah Khomeini's issue of a fatwā calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie. The September 11 attacks strengthened his internationalist embrace of an interventionist foreign policy, and his vociferous criticism of what he called "fascism with an Islamic face." His numerous editorials in support of the Iraq War caused some to label him a neoconservative, although Hitchens insisted he was not "a conservative of any kind."[13]

I think this was his last article. It's a good one that talks about things that don't kill you make you stronger. Or not. I loved Hitch.


Why Rewards Don't Work (Neither Does Merit Pay)

The Overjustification Effect

In 1973, Lepper, Greene and Nisbett met with teachers of a preschool class, the sort that generates a steady output of macaroni art and paper-bag vests. They arranged for the children to have a period of free time in which the tots could choose from a variety of different fun activities. Meanwhile, the psychologists would watch from behind a one-way mirror and take notes. The teachers agreed, and the psychologists watched. To proceed, they needed children with a natural affinity for art. So as the kids played, the scientists searched for the ones who gravitated toward drawing and coloring activities. Once they identified the artists of the group, the scientists watched them during free time and measured their participation and interest in drawing for later comparison.

They then divided the children into three groups. They offered Group A a glittering certificate of awesomeness if the artists drew during the next fun time. They offered Group B nothing, but if the kids in Group B happened to draw they received an unexpected certificate of awesomeness identical to the one received by Group A. The experimenters told Group C nothing ahead of time, and later the scientists didn’t award a prize if those children went for the colored pencils and markers. The scientists then watched to see how the kids performed during a series of playtimes over three days. They awarded the prizes, stopped observations, and waited two weeks. When they returned, the researchers watched as the children faced the same the choice as before the experiment began. Three groups, three experiences, many fun activities – how do you think their feelings changed?

Source: Benedikte on Flikr
Well, Group B and Group C didn’t change at all. They went to the art supplies and created monsters and mountains and houses with curly-cue smoke streams crawling out of rectangular chimneys with just as much joy as they had before they met the psychologists. Group A, though, did not. They were different people now. The children in Group A “spent significantly less time” drawing than did the others, and they “showed a significant decrease in interest in the activity” as compared to before the experiment. Why?

The children in Group A were swept up, overpowered, their joy perverted by the overjustification effect. The story they told themselves wasn’t the same story the other groups were telling. That’s how the effect works.

Self-perception theory says you observe your own behavior and then, after the fact, make up a story to explain it. That story is sometimes close to the truth, and sometimes it is just something nice that makes you feel better about being a person. For instance, researchers at Stanford University once divided students into two groups. One received a small cash payment for turning wooden knobs round and round for an hour. The other group received a generous payment for the same task. After the hour, a researcher asked students in each group to tell the next person after them who was about to perform the same boring task that turning knobs was fun and interesting. After that, everyone filled out a survey in which they were asked to say how they truly felt. The people paid a pittance reported the study was a blast. The people paid well reported it was awful. Subjects in both groups lied to the person after them, but the people paid well had a justification, an extrinsic reward to fall back on. The other group had no safety net, no outside justification, so they invented one inside. To keep from feeling icky, they found solace in an internal justification – they thought, “you know, it really was fun when you think about.” That’s called the insufficient justification effect, the yang to overjustification’s yin. In telling themselves the story, the only difference was the size of the reward and whether or not they felt extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. You are driven at the fundamental level in most everything you choose to do by either intrinsic or extrinsic goals.

Intrinsic motivations come from within. As Daniel Pink explained in his excellent book, Drive, those motivations often include mastery, autonomy, and purpose. There are some things you do just because they fulfill you, or they make you feel like you are becoming better at a task, or that you are a master of your destiny, or that you play a role in the grand scheme of things, or that you are helping society in some way. Intrinsic rewards demonstrate to yourself and others the value of being you. They are blurry and difficult to quantify. Charted on a graph, they form long slopes stretching into infinity. You strive to become an amazing cellist, or you volunteer in the campaign of an inspiring politician, or you build the starship Enterprise in Minecraft.

Extrinsic motivations come from without. They are tangible baubles handed over for tangible deeds. They usually exist outside of you before you begin a task. These sorts of motivations include money, prizes and grades, or in the case of punishment, the promise of losing something you like or gaining something you do not. Extrinsic motivations are easy to quantify, and can be demonstrated in bar graphs or tallied on a calculator. You work a double shift for the overtime pay so you can make rent. You put in the hours to become a doctor hoping your father will finally deliver the praise for which you long. You say no to the cheesecake so you can fit into those pants at the Christmas party. If you can admit to yourself that the reward is the only reason you are doing what you are doing – the situps, the spreadsheet, the speed limit – it is probably extrinsic.

Whether a reward is intrinsic or extrinsic helps determine the setting of your narrative – the marketplace or the heart. As Dan Ariely writes in his book, Predictably Irrational, you tend to unconsciously evaluate your behavior and that of others in terms of social norms or market norms. Helping a friend move for free doesn’t feel the same as helping a friend move for $50. It feels wonderful to slip into the same bed with your date after getting to know them and staying up one night making key lime cupcakes and talking about the differences and similarities between Breaking Bad and The Wire, but if after all of that the other person tosses you a $100 bill and says, “Thanks, that was awesome,” you will feel crushed by the terrible weight of market norms. Payments in terms of social norms are intrinsic, and thus your narrative remains impervious to the overjustification effect. Those sorts of payments come as praise and respect, a feeling of mastery or camaraderie or love. Payments in terms of market norms are extrinsic, and your story becomes vulnerable to overjustification.

Marketplace payments come as something measurable, and in turn they make your motivation measurable when before it was nebulous, up for interpretation and easy to rationalize.

The deal the children struck with the experimenters ruined their love of art during playtime, not because they received a reward. After all, Group B got the same reward and kept their desire to draw. No, it wasn’t the prize but the story they told themselves about why they chose what they chose, why they did what they did. During the experiment, Group C thought, “I just drew this picture because I love to draw!” Group B thought, “I just got rewarded for doing something I love to do!” Group A thought, “I just drew this to win an award!” When all three groups were faced with the same activity, Group A was faced with a metacognition, a question, a burden unknown to the other groups. The scientists in the knob-turning study and the child artists study showed Skinner’s view was too narrow.

Thinking about thinking changes things. Extrinsic rewards can steal your narrative.

Save America's Internet: Kill SOPA Now!!

What Happens When The Edu-Bubble Bursts? Jeff Bryant Tells Us

What Happens When The Edu-Bubble Bursts?

By: Jeff Bryant
Heard the term "edu-bubble" yet? Chances are you will soon.

No doubt you've heard of the "dot-com bubble." And if you're like millions of Americans, you may be currently experiencing the ravages of the "housing bubble." But the edu-bubble?

During the dot-com bubble, from 1990-2000, speculative capital drove up the wildly inflated prospects of internet-based businesses. The speculation was driven to a great extent by venture capitalists and MBA-types who argued persuasively that the amount of "eye-balls" attracted to an internet site could be "flipped" into a revenue stream by "monetizing" the passing fancy of people searching the world wide web for just about everything other than haircuts.

But not every business could make the flip. While gambling and porn did fine, selling real goods like healthcare advice, groceries, and pet supplies didn't always do so well, and the whole market came crashing down, and millions lost their jobs and retirement funds.

Some successful businesses -- Cisco, SAS, Dell -- were "forged in the cauldron of the dot-com market," so to speak. And we all got iPhones. So business leaders and policy makers went blithely on their way to the next capitalist wet dream.

The housing bubble followed much the same trajectory as the dot-com forebearer. To a great extent, the wild speculation on real estate that inflated home prices was driven, again, by nefarious "flippers." First, banks and finance firms figured out that worthless mortgages could be monetized into derivative investments on Wall Street, which drove the market for low down-payments and sub-prime mortgages. Then, unbridled real estate investors of all kinds looked to flip the low-down-payment-subprime-loan properties into quick cash.

Again, the whole bubble burst, but this time the consequences were far more severe than the dot-com fallout. Compared to the dot-com bubble, millions more not only lost their jobs and retirement funds but are now in danger of being kicked out of their homes, and jobless rates in the US remain stubbornly high.

Much like the aftermath of the dot-com implosion, the few who benefited the most from the housing bubble are left to go merrily on their way while business leaders and policy makers make excuses and blame the masses for being "irresponsible." And in the meantime, the bubble cycle is pumping up all over again.

According to The Wall Street Journal nonfinancial corporations alone are sitting on over $2 trillion in liquid assets. And it's simply got to have some place to go.

Behold the next victim of capitalism's game of Russian roulette: education.

What better target than a $1 trillion market with a 30+ percent growth rate?

Furthermore, with most of the funding of education controlled by state governments that are now predominantly in the hands of Republicans intent on cutting education, there's a lot of excess demand to be had.

If you doubt at all the edu-bubble is something really happening, then you need to read a recent series of articles from the Miami Herald that report on the $400 million a year charter school industry in South Florida. Driven by real estate developers and politicians, the charter school sector has gotten so big that it now operates as a "parallel system" to traditional public schools, only these schools can collect taxpayer dollars while avoiding much of the oversight that typical public school have to operate under. So they get away with things like shackling schools to exorbitant lease payments, charging students fees, withholding supplies like textbooks, or blatantly under-serving students who happen to be black, poor, or disabled.

Or you should read the article in this week's New York Times reporting on the explosive growth of for-profit online schools. The largest of these enterprises, K-12, Inc., has been a hot item on the stock market despite offering a sub-standard education to school kids because, as the article states, "kids mean money."

How did this happen?

Partially at fault are federal government mandates that force school districts into hiring consultants and developing elaborate and expensive data systems. Many school systems that win federal grants from Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant contests end up spending the bulk of those outlays on outside vendors and services.

But there's a much bigger system at work here.

The first essential step to hyping up the edu-bubble was to find something new to monetize -- something that could be flipped from a public value into a private commodity that could be bought and sold. Except for small-time scandals and dishonest public officials, education had been walled-off, mostly, from large profiteers. So speculators had no proven business models for how to ramp up public education into a private money making machine.

For sure, the "value" on education has long been calculated in terms of what it means to a child's earnings as an adult and how this benefits the economy in the future. But speculators needed something that could pay out in the here and now.

Most of the money in education is tied-up in just two areas -- physical plant and personnel. Those two expenditures alone account for well over 80 percent of what a typical school spends. But with no "revenue" to show in the other side of the balance sheet, venture capitalists were at a loss for how to make schools a matter of financial speculation.

Case in point, one notable edu-venture was Edison Schools which lost millions of dollars every year, showing a profit in just one quarter of the 10 years it was publically traded.

Then education reform advocates -- either unwittingly or intentionally (does it matter?) --gave the venture crowd a huge gift by decreeing that student scores on standardized tests would define the learning "output" that schools would be accountable for. And all of a sudden everything monetarily related to schools -- operations budgets, teacher salaries, classroom costs, government funds, grant money -- could be related to a test score output.

This in effect turned student learning -- and by extension, the students themselves -- into a commodity that could be speculated on. Now that edu-venturists had something they could put on the other side of the balance sheet, they could now "flip" student test scores into a speculative market. And all sorts of "reform" schemes and start-ups -- from starting charter schools to lowering teacher salaries to closing schools -- could be rationalized on the basis of test scores.

In a recent op-ed in the education trade publication Education Week, history teacher Jonathan Keiler explained how this works, at least in relationship of linking test scores to teacher salaries. Once teacher evaluations are tied to test scores, Keiler points out, there is a "system that turns student scores into a market and, as such, creates cheating, disreputable practices, and dislocations."
When student scores become like orange juice, pork bellies, or yen, the people with the greatest incentive to cheat are the weakest teachers and administrators. These people might be weak, but that doesn’t mean they are stupid. Weak but clever educators will inevitably find ways to game the system, sometimes by cheating, but more often by coming close, but not stepping over the line: Educators could turn their courses into nothing but test-prep machines; they could refuse to collaborate with colleagues; they could curry favor with students to encourage better results; or take other steps we can’t imagine. Many of these weaker teachers, even short of cheating, might well end up with excellent “value added” scores, while stronger teachers who are honest and don’t play the sharp game end up looking bad.
This is not just a possible bad outcome, it is inevitable. It is inevitable because markets generate such behavior and dislocations, and the more volatile the market, the greater the undesirable behavior and dislocations will be.
Of course, much like the "eyeballs" from the dot-com bubble and the mortgage derivatives of the housing bubble, test scores driving the edu-bubble are of marginal value.
In the book, The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do,
Phillip Harris, Bruce M. Smith and Joan Harris explain that standardized tests are less objective than many people believe, they don’t adequately measure student achievement, they don't tell you which schools and teachers are more "effective," and they “inadvertently” lead young people to become “superficial thinkers."

It's true that test scores can give individual teachers insights about their students that can then lead to instructional decisions. And using tests in a diagnostic way to draw conclusions from random samples of students can be very helpful. But making systemic decisions based wholesale on mass testing is an idea that's yet to produce much evidence of being beneficial to students.

Nevertheless, standardized test scores are now the "currency" of education that enables all sorts of resource swaps that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, including charter schools for traditional public schools, online learning for race-to-face teaching, and experienced, tenured teachers for Teach for America amateurs.

It must be noted that many of the fascinations of the reformists don't actually yield the same test score results as traditional approaches. But as long as a reformist can point to at least one, he can crow about "knowing what works."
So what's wrong with all this?

To begin with, an edu-bubble driven by test scores is most likely to produce schools that are, back to Keiler, "little more than test-preparation institutes, ignoring subjects and skills that are not assessed, with faculty members who resent and distrust one another."

And whereas the dot-com bubble ruined Silicon Valley, and the housing bubble ruined the American economy, the edu-bubble will destroy our nation's future. Our children's education has such profound consequences on what their adulthood will be like. And when the edu-bubble bursts, as it most certainly will, there's apt to be a whole generation that will have been robbed of its potential well-being. Do you think having iPhones will compensate for that?
h/t Jeff Bryant


Tuesday Cartoon Fun: Whole, Not Hole Edition

Crony Capitalism Illustrated


Total Pageviews