Learning by doing

Alex Tabbarok of Marginal Revolution thinks apprenticeships deserve more respect, as he links to and quotes from a Financial Times article about German apprenticeships. I agree.

According to the article, more than 40% of Germans become apprentices compared with 0.3% of Americans.

I think many Americans go through informal apprenticeships. It’s better known as on-the-job training. It’s just that we usually start these much later life than we need to. We should and could start at around 16 or 17 years old, but we generally delay it into the 20s occupying the ensuing 5 or 6 years with a heavy dose of marginally productive liberal arts programming sold on the notion it produces well-rounded individuals.

However, I’ve met plenty of well-rounded individuals who skipped the formal programming. They became well-rounded by pursuing their interests and fulfilling their curiosities, rather than checking off a list produced by unproductive do-gooders.

Innovative. Free. Very cool.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, George Mason University economists and co-bloggers at Marginal Revolution announced today that they will offer a free, online Developmental Economics course at their new online university, MRUniversity. Sign-up today.

I have a course suggestion: Drawing Conclusions from Comparisons.

This is a weakness I see at all levels, even the well-educated, who should know better. We often make comparisons between two populations and draw conclusions about the differences that happen to fit our biases and give too little thought to alternative explanations.

One example: Homeowners appear to be more responsible than non-homeowners. If we make it easier to buy a home, we’ll make a lot more people responsible.

Cue 2008 mortgage crisis that people are still trying to figure out, or still trying to blame on  free markets or deregulation.

Alternative explanation: Turns out before we relaxed the standards, responsible people were more likely to become home owners and that’s what explained the difference in responsibility between these two groups.

Folks who were able to meet the requirements to own a home did so by being responsible before they owned a home.

Short circuiting home ownership qualification tests (like being responsible enough to exercise financial discipline and save a down payment) ended bad. It allowed irresponsible people to own homes, and surprise, they continued being irresponsible.

It would have been nice to consider alternative explanations to the idea that started it all — that home ownership causes responsibility — before committing to it.

Great ground rules for dinner table discussions

From Bertrand Russell (via Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution via Brainpickings)

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

If we had a course or two in critical thinking and discussion in the junior high or high school curriculum designed to teach mastery of these ten ground rules plus some common fallacies, politically we’d be in better shape.

Similarly, an oath from Bryan Caplan of EconLog:

Blathering talk surrounds us, but I will take no part in it.  My word is my bet; I will always put my money where my mouth is.  When challenged, I will bet on my words, refine them, or recant.  When no one is present to challenge me, I will weigh my words and thoughts as if my fellow oath-takers were listening.

Similarly, several years ago a friend told me of a rule his workplace had implemented. It went like this:

If you are to point out a problem, you must follow it with, “…and this means we should do…” to show that not only have you discovered a problem, but you thought of a solution and you are willing to publicly advocate that solution.

At first blush, it may not be apparent how this last one is similar to the first two.

But, I’ve worked in companies that rewarded problem detection rather than problem solving. That led to a lot of, to use Caplan’s words, blathering talk as many people floated trial balloons of  problem detection in order to be rewarded for finding a problem. And, of course, they were not punished if it turned out that the problems they found were not problems at all. They were given credit for “at least, trying.”

My friend’s company had a similar problem. The leaders recognized it and put the new rule in place. It significantly cut the blathering talk. They correctly reasoned that if people were to have to present solutions along with their problems, that would be like asking people to put their money where their mouth was.

Why? Because it’s easy to see whether a solution solves a problem or not.

In other words, it’s easy to be a critic when you have nothing on the line.

One more story…I coach my kid’s soccer team. After a loss where our team looked scared of the ball, one grandparent told me after the game “You need to get them more aggressive, Coach.” I said, “I’d love to. Do you have any suggestions on how to do that? If so, I’m all ears.” He laughed and said “Nah” and I believe he realized that talk is cheap and it’s easy to criticize with nothing at stake.

How much of what you advocate, especially strongly advocate, would you bet on? Our opinions are typically much more refined in topics where we pay the direct costs of being wrong.

Through trial and error, I learned that paying a plumber to do what they know best is well worth the cost. It saves time, headaches and future catastrophes.

But, I can go on a whole lifetime holding damaging political beliefs, mainly because I never directly pay for the damage it causes. I can claim good intentions, without ever knowing whether those intentions actually ever helped.

Exit is more powerful than voice

In this post, I wrote about how competition and choice is important for encouraging bottom-up innovation. When we say things like “roads are socialized” we gloss over something very important. There isn’t a single road department. There are many. We have Federal highways, state highways, county roads and city roads.

Each department operates somewhat independently and tries different things to solve the problems they face. Every now and then, one happens across an improvement that works well and other road departments can choose to adopt it. That type of innovation would not happen as often if there was a single road department that pushed one set of standards.

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution makes this point well in this post about how education was rebuilt in New Orleans after Katrina, when describing the source of innovation in education:

What really drives innovation, however, is not a simple substitution of private for public but a system substitution of competition for monopoly.

I agree. In the comments of his post, I suggested re-framing this in terms of the benefit to the user (edited slightly here):

It is not a simple substitution of a choice between free-to-the user public and cost-to-the-user private, but a system substitution of more choice by the user.’

We often get hung up on the public/private distinction. That doesn’t matter as much as how free the users — the direct beneficiaries — are to make a choice.

The freer the users are to choose to exit their current option if it isn’t working for them, the better.

This dynamic drives innovation. Why, you might ask? Because the freer your users are to leave you, the harder competitors will try to give your users what they want to encourage them to leave and the more honest soul-searching you may do to figure out why your users are leaving you. If you can’t figure it out, you end up going away.

My parents decided to move to exit a school district that wasn’t giving them what they wanted. That choice was much more powerful than their voice would have been had they decided to stay and try to change the direction of the school district.

So, whenever we think about why one system works and another doesn’t, maybe we should think in terms of how free users are to choose.

All Sorts of Awesome

This is all sorts of awesome (from Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution).  

Key highlights:

  • Stanford computer science Prof offers online course on Artificial Intelligence.
  • 160,000 people take it.
  • On campus class size dwindles from 200 to 30, as more folks say they learn better from the online lecture.
  • Professor decides to change the goal of his course from weeding out students to teaching them.

Now for the awesome part:

  • That computer science professor quits Stanford and starts his own, online university, Udacity.