Some thoughts on school safety

There has been a lot talk about arming teachers and administrators in schools to help protect kids. And, there are those who are against that.

Maybe I’ve missed it, but has anyone mentioned arming and training teachers and administrators with non-lethal weapons and techniques like bean bag guns, net shooters, batons, bullet shields, pepper spray and tasers?

It looks like at least one company is thinking this way, too, with a whiteboard that doubles as a bullet shield.

Some inventive people could probably come up with more stuff that can be integrated into classrooms and offer protection from attackers and deterrents.

I’m not sure if they make these, but it seem like some type of device that you throw to the ground and it lets out a smokescreen and expands into a trap that wraps around an attackers legs to trip and contain them might also help, maybe a foam that will seal around their feet and ankles when they step in it..

Rethinking school building design might help. Something like emergency exits on airplanes might work. Pull the lever and the window pops out with an inflatable ramp to exit the building.

Warren Buffett just doesn’t get it

Last summer, Warren Buffett wrote an op-ed piece supporting higher taxes on the rich to reduce the deficit.

Warren Buffett speaking to a group of students...

He's Bluffing

Many, including myself and Mitch McConnell, suggested that Warren put his money where his mouth is and make a voluntary contribution to the U.S. Treasury, since he thought so strongly that would help reduce the deficit.

Apparently, in response to our suggestions, Buffett is offering to match any contributions made by Republicans.  He’ll even match 3-to-1 anything contributed by Mitch McConnell.

The only problem is, it makes no sense.

Republicans, and others, who suggested that Buffett make a voluntary donation don’t believe that sending more money to Washington will reduce the deficit.

To believe otherwise ignores the well established record of government spending everything we send them and then some, which is documented by our government’s accumulated national debt and annual deficits.

When I suggested that Buffett make a voluntary donation, I was calling his bluff.  I don’t think Buffett really believes that giving more money to the government will reduce the deficit.

This would be like if I told you that I was 100% certain about the Broncos winning the Super Bowl.

You ask:   If you’re so sure, why don’t you place a big bet on it and make a lot of money?

Me, in my best Buffett impression:  I’ll match anything that you bet.

You:  Why would I bet anything?  I’m not the one who’s 100% confident.  You’re dumb!

Regarding Buffett, our whole point is that if Buffett truly believed his own nonsense, he would put his money where his mouth is.

In fact, he has quite an established record of putting his money where his mouth is.

That’s how he made his billions, by placing BIG bets on investments that he was reasonably confident would pay off.

That’s also what he has done with his philanthropy.  He decided to donate his wealth to charity and to have it spent relatively quickly so that it won’t just feed generations of charity foundation bureaucrats to come.

He is also trying to persuade other billionaires to voluntarily follow his philanthropic model.

So, given his established record of putting his money where his mouth is, why, when it comes to supporting getting more from the wealthy individuals, is his talk so cheap?


In this Econlog post, Bryan Caplan provides nine typical responses that might be given against a bill requiring us to give 20% of income to any sibling making below poverty.  He then asks:

If any of these are good arguments against being legally required to financially help your siblings, why aren’t they equally good arguments against being legally required to financially help total strangers?

What is a market? What is government?

We often speak in terms of markets and government without really understanding what we’re saying.

What is a market?  Individuals interacting voluntarily with each other through prices.

What is government?  Individuals interacting with each other through political power.

There are many other ways individuals interact.  A family is one example.  Our friend network is another.  Churches, home owners associations, PTA, work groups, trade groups, the drivers in the group of cars around us on the freeway are still more examples.

I think it’s useful to understand what motivates and facilitates our interactions in these various  structures.  As mentioned above, in markets prices are the coordinating medium.  There are other factors too, but prices are the linchpin.

That’s why markets work well for getting people in the extended order, that is the billions of people we don’t personally know in the world, to cooperate on so many of the things we use daily to improve our lives.  This is the meaning of the Adam Smith’s famous quote:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

The coordinating medium in government is different than markets.  It’s driven by elections, the structure for government decision-making (i.e. the constitution and/or generally accepted norms) and force.

What’s worse than a zombie apocalypse?

The CDC grabbed headlines recently for suggesting that we prepare for an imminent zombie apocalypse.  The self-admitted tongue-in-cheek campaign was meant to bring attention to their very real recommendations to have emergency supplies on hand, be prepared with emergency evacuation routes and such.  Nice PR idea.

It made me think about something that’s nearly as scary — a social norm apocalypse.  What would happen if a lot of people stopped living by the social norms that have emerged and evolved to help guide our behavior and give us a sense of right and wrong?

It could get ugly.  Some reasonable depictions of this exists in the countless zombie genre movies.  Many of those shows end up being more about how the few remaining humans get along with each other when the game has changed.

Isolated incidents of crime are social norm failures that could turn into outbreaks.  Thankfully, our social norms usually kick in to minimize the spread.   Certainly, we grant authority to law enforcement to maintain social order when all else breaks down, but we often play a key role ourselves by following generally accepted behavior, teaching our kids to do the same and reinforcing good behavior with something as simple as a smile.

It makes me feel better when groups of private citizens organize after a crime wave to call for end to it.  Just as a smile can positively reinforce good behavior, shame can minimize bad behavior.  If you haven’t altered your behavior in response to shame, then you could be a sociopath.

Major social norm failure outbreaks have occurred numerous times in recorded and unrecorded history.   Give it some thought and you can probably think of a few.

It’s interesting and educational to think about what happened in those times and places that caused social norms to breakdown with such widespread and disastrous results.

In many cases, you will find that power had concentrated into a single point of failure and it took enough authority to override the social norms.

That characteristic is present even in isolated crime incidents.  Murder is nothing more than the murderer taking absolute authority over another life and choosing to override the social norm against murder.  Likewise for stealing.

At least in a zombie apocalypse, most of us wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with the ensuing breakdowns in social order.

“Like” buttons

Speedmaster, at the Pretense of Knowledge, points out Bill Clinton’s support for an agency to “do something about misinformation” floating about on the web.  In other words, he wants a centralized and corruptible version of the Like button.

I’m willing to bet that Clinton couldn’t understand how Like buttons could be more effective (though not absolutely perfect) than such an agency.  I can imagine that he would argue that such an agency would be able to assemble experts that would do better than the everyman Like.

Make it, take it

In the Wall Street Journal Opinion section today, Stephen Moore writes a slightly different take on rent-seekers or freeloaders in his piece called, We’ve Become a Nation of Takers, Not Makers.

His statistics are eye opening.

If you want to understand better why so many states—from New York to Wisconsin to California—are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, consider this depressing statistic: Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government.

And, it’s not just manufacturing.  Moore takes a closer look at states known for other things:

Iowa and Nebraska are farm states, for example. But in those states, there are at least five times more government workers than farmers. West Virginia is the mining capital of the world, yet it has at least three times more government workers than miners. New York is the financial capital of the world—at least for now. That sector employs roughly 670,000 New Yorkers. That’s less than half of the state’s 1.48 million government employees.

Moore goes onto to discuss something near and dear to my heart — managing inputs rather than outputs, which leads to declines in productivity:

After setting the table to show that productivity (i.e. output per employee) has increased dramatically over the last several decades in the private sector, Moore writes:

Where are the productivity gains in government? Consider a core function of state and local governments: schools. Over the period 1970-2005, school spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, doubled, while standardized achievement test scores were flat. Over roughly that same time period, public-school employment doubled per student, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington. That is what economists call negative productivity.

But education is an industry where we measure performance backwards: We gauge school performance not by outputs, but by inputs. If quality falls, we say we didn’t pay teachers enough or we need smaller class sizes or newer schools. If education had undergone the same productivity revolution that manufacturing has, we would have half as many educators, smaller school budgets, and higher graduation rates and test scores.

And we may yet see that with innovations like Khan Academy.

Bottle deposits

On a recent business trip, a conversation arose with the locals  about the state’s beverage container deposit and refund policy, which is meant to encourage folks to recycle.

It’s also caused a cottage industry for people to collect containers in neighboring states that do not require deposits and transport them into the state to collect the deposit fee.

To solve this problem, the state wants drink makers to produce unique packages that will only be sold in that state.

Regulation begets regulation.  The deposit/refund scheme causes abuse, so more regulation comes along to fix the abuse.  This will likely result in more unintended consequences and more regulation and bureaucracy to fix those.  Few people question whether the whole scheme is worth it or not.

However, the locals recognized the special container fix would likely raise prices for beverages in the state as manufacturers have to separate batches of beverages made for that state and change their distribution processes to make sure only outlets in their state get those containers.  It may also result in less choice as smaller players may opt out of selling in that state.

I mentioned that my state has no such laws, yet people there seem to recycle just fine.  It made me wonder if anyone has studied whether a container deposit scheme results in any more recycling or if states and localities just adopt such schemes because they sound good.  Anybody know?

One more thing, even if the scheme produces more recycling, how would we know if it’s worth it or not?  Certainly, some folks will say we must conserve landfill space at all costs, but that’s easy to say when you don’t have to pay the costs.  I wonder if those same people would conserve landfill space if they were directly faced with the costs.

Private solutions

I agree with Aaron McKenzie’s take on the recent 8-1 Supreme Court decision regarding the Westboro Baptist Church.  The Supreme Court ruled that members of Westboro Baptist can do their thing without government interference, per the First Amendment of the Constitution.

I agree.  This is a clear cut case.  Restricting speech isn’t the job for government.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t effective private solutions.  One private solution is that groups of motorcyclists show up at these events and use their engines to drown out the voices of the haters.

I know of another private solution that’s worth a try.

A retired college professor, Ed, invented it.  While still a prof, he looked out of his office window one day to see members of a hate group demonstrating on his campus when an idea came to him.

He grabbed some posterboard and made his own sign and went out stood next the protesters with it.  His sign read, “These guys are idiots” and had an arrow pointing to them.

Ed’s sign drew enough snickers from the crowds that the other demonstrators decided to leave.  Ed didn’t stop there.  He runs a private group called Hatebusters.

Ed now has thought up another private solution to this problem.   Ed also supports Westboro’s freedom to speak without government interference, but now he recommends donating money to an organization that Westboro hates, in Westboro’s name, whenever they demonstrate.  Nice going Ed.

Alternative Education

Thanks to Forbes magazine’s The Names We Need to Know in 2011 for bringing the Khan Academy to my attention.  From the Forbes article (emphasis added):

Salman Khan was a hedge fund analyst educated at MIT and living in Boston in the summer of 2004. The job was okay but he so much more enjoyed recording Web videos to tutor his younger cousins in New Orleans in math and science. Other people started asking him for tutoring help so started putting math videos up on YouTube. He’d put 70 videos up in a row on algebra, geometry and calculus. Soon a lot of people started watching  the Khan Academy

Since Khan started putting videos up, his Khan Academy videos have been watched 24 million times. You Tube told him he has the most popular open-course video library on its site, with more views than MIT, Stanford or UC-Berkeley. Khan has produced 1,600 videos so far, all simple 8- to 20 minute takes on subjects such as torque, ebitda, debt loops, probability, exchange rates, the Paulson bailout, binomials and the battle of Trafalgar.

Sal Khan at Gel 2010 (founder, the Khan Academy) from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

The video of Mr. Khan presenting at the Gel conference was worth 20 minutes.

Here are some of my thoughts:

If true, it’s amazing that this one person has more people watching videos than MIT, Stanford or UC-Berkeley.  But, applying my analytic mind it could be that his videos target a wider audience.  Even so, it’s still a commendable accomplishment.

Khan’s relative success also could be evidence of a few things:

  • Repackaging the same product (lectures) for a different distribution channel (youtube) isn’t as effective as a format tailored specifically for the distribution channel.
  • Folks don’t attend MIT, Stanford and UC-Berkeley just learn specific skills, but also for the social affiliations (value proposition).
  • Folks on youtube go to Khan Academy to learn specific skills and not so much for the social affiliations (value proposition).

In the Gel video, Khan explains how he started by recording videos to tutor his cousins and it seemed to work for them.  He accidentally stumbled upon his tutorial format and it seems to work better for his students than other formats.   That’s a black swan.  A relatively cheap one at that.

I particularly like the reason his voice, not his image, appears on his tutorials.  When he started, he didn’t have a camera and that worked well for his cousins (market testing).  From that accidental experiment emerged the knowledge that not showing the tutor made it easier to learn.

While watching Khan’s video, I thought about the debate on paying teachers based on performance.  When folks discuss whether pay for performance would produce higher quality education, they tend to assume that the people who would teach under pay for performance would be the same people who teach today.  Then they cannot imagine how pay for performance could motivate these same teachers to do better.

They fail to consider that pay for performance might draw other people into the profession.  Khan is a good example.  He initially chose to be a hedge fund analyst because it paid better, even though he liked teaching.

Khan found an innovative, productive and far-reaching path into teaching.  Which brings up another point, he doesn’t appear to have teaching credentials, though I could be wrong about that (I didn’t research that thoroughly).  I think credentials are an unnecessary barrier to becoming a teacher, a barrier that benefits holders of those credentials more than students.

I don’t think the Khan Academy will replace schools just yet (but after hearing the last letter Khan read in the Gel video, I’m not so sure).  The Academy already appears to be a great supplemental resource.  It could further evolve into a better alternative for education and others might choose to get in the game with different variations that will be even more successful.  Perhaps large swaths of secondary and college course work could be commoditized.

I will be interested to see what emerges.  It seems promising.   I might even try producing something similar with some of my topics of interest.

In the meantime, I have a few Khan tutorials I plan to watch.