Posts tagged ‘DNA’

SAT Variation by Income: The Test Prep Fig Leaf

I was not at all surprised to see that average SAT scores varied strongly by income bracket.  What has surprised me is how quickly everyone has grabbed for the explanation that "its all due to test prep."  It strikes me that the test prep explanation is a sham, meant to try to hide the real problem.

First, Alex Tabarrok says that most of the research out there is that test prep explains at most 20% of the variation by income, and probably less.  This fits my experience with test prep.  I have always felt that 90% of the advantage of test prep was just taking a few practice tests so when the actual test days come, the kids are comfortable they understand how each section of the test works and are not thrown by the types of problems they will face.  My feeling is that most of what you can learn in fancy test prep courses is in those books they sell for about $40.  We sent our kids to a course that cost a lot more than $40, but frankly I did not do it because I thought they would get any special knowledge they could not get in the book, but because I was outsourcing the effort to get them to do the work.  Seriously, I think a parent with $40 and the willingness to make sure their kids actually goes through the book would get most of the benefit.

Which raises the question of whether test prep is correlated to income because of its cost, or whether it is correlated to income because high income folks are more likely to place value on their kids testing well and make them do the prep work.  We will come back to this in a minute.

So if its not test prep, what does drive the difference?  I don't know, because I have not studied the problem.  But I can speak for our family.  My kids do well on SAT-type tests because they go to a tough rigorous private school.  Let's take one example.  When my daughter was a sophomore in high school, she scored a perfect 80 (equivalent of the SAT 800) on the writing and grammar section of the PSAT.  Now, my daughter is smart but no Ivy-bound savant.  She took no prep course.  My daughter aced the PSAT grammar because her freshman teacher drove those kids hard on grammar.  I am talking about a pace and workload and set of expectations that kids in our junior high school start talking about and dreading two years before they even get to the class, and this at a school already known for a tough work load.

This teacher is legendarily fabulous, so obviously that is hard to replicate everywhere.  But she is fabulous because my kids actually came away excited about Homer and other classics.  This is what I pay private-school money for.  But what she did in grammar, what got my daughter her perfect score, could be emulated by about any competent teacher...theoretically.  But in fact it can't happen because such an approach could never survive in a public school.  The work expectations are way too high -- parents and students would revolt.  It only works for those who self-select.

Well, it only works today for those who self-select and can afford a private school.  Unfortunately, we have an education system where everyone is forced to pay tuition to what is at-best a teach-to-the-mean school.  If one wants more, they have to be wealthy enough to pay tuition to a second school.  Which is why school choice makes so much sense.  Why should only the wealthy  have the ability to self-select into more intensive programs?  BUt this is a conclusion most the education establishment is desperate for people not to reach.  Thus, the hand-waving over test prep.

Of course, there are a million other wealth, genetic, and parental effects that come into this equation.  For example, my kids read for fun, probably in large part because my wife and I read for fun.  How many kids read 10+ books outside of school each year?  They do this not because my kids are awesomer than other kids, but simply because that was the expectation they grew up with, that we spend free time reading books.   Other families might spend their free time, say, doing home improvement projects such that their kids all grow up great woodworkers.  I am not sure one set of activities is superior to another, but my kids end up testing well.  Of course, I am not sure they can use a screwdriver.  Seriously, over Christmas break I asked my 20-year-old son to pass me the Phillips head screwdriver and he had no idea which one that was.

I was thinking about the question above of how one separates out parental expectations from all the other effects (like parental DNA and income and quality of schools, etc.)  I interview high schoolers for Princeton admissions, so I have come to learn that some public high schools have advanced programs, to allow kids some self-selection into a more rigorous program within the context of public schools (this is usually either an AP program, an honors program, or an IB program).  By the way, the existence of these programs at public schools correlates pretty highly with the average income of that school's district.

Here would be an interesting study:  Take high schools with some sort of honors program option.  We want to look at the income demographics of the kids who chose the honors program vs. those who choose the standard program.  We would therefore want to look only at high schools that take all comers into the honors program -- if they have some sort of admissions requirement, then this would screw up our study because we want to test solely for how demographics affect the choice to pursue a more rigorous, college-oriented program.  I would love to see the results, but my hypothesis is that test-prep is a proxy for the same thing -- less about income per se and more about parental expectations.

 

It's All About Control

I can't think of any justification for the FDA's shutdown of 23andme's genetic testing service except one of pure control.  It is yet another case where you and I are not smart enough or sophisticated enough to be trusted with information about our own bodies.  Because we might use the information in some way with which Maya Shankar might not agree.

Let me be clear, I am not offended by all regulation of genetic tests. Indeed, genetic tests are already regulated. To be precise, the labs that perform genetic tests are regulated by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) as overseen by the CMS (here is an excellent primer). The CLIA requires all labs, including the labs used by 23andMe, to be inspected for quality control, record keeping and the qualifications of their personnel. The goal is to ensure that the tests are accurate, reliable, timely, confidential and not risky to patients. I am not offended when the goal of regulation is to help consumers buy the product that they have contracted to buy.

What the FDA wants to do is categorically different. The FDA wants to regulate genetic tests as a high-riskmedical device that cannot be sold until and unless the FDA permits it be sold.

Moreover, the FDA wants to judge not the analytic validity of the tests, whether the tests accurately read the genetic code as the firms promise (already regulated under the CLIA) but the clinical validity, whether particular identified alleles are causal for conditions or disease. The latter requirement is the death-knell for the products because of the expense and time it takes to prove specific genes are causal for diseases. Moreover, it means that firms like 23andMe will not be able to tell consumers about their own DNA but instead will only be allowed to offer a peek at the sections of code that the FDA has deemed it ok for consumers to see.

Alternatively, firms may be allowed to sequence a consumer’s genetic code and even report it to them but they will not be allowed to tell consumers what the letters mean. Here is why I think the FDA’s actions are unconstitutional. Reading an individual’s code is safe and effective. Interpreting the code and communicating opinions about it may or may not be safe–just like all communication–but it falls squarely under the First Amendment.

I know that libertarians want to kill the FDA altogether.  That is never going to happen.  But what might be more realistic is to shift their governing law from validating that medical treatments are safe and effective to just safe.

Brad Warbiany has more, including real life examples of how 23andme's service has been useful to his family.

Corporate DNA

Almost exactly seven years ago (amazing how long I have been blogging) I wrote an extended piece about how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I was writing about GM but also used Wal-Mart as an example.  Part of this piece read:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

Megan McArdle makes some very similar points as I about Wal-Mart and how hard it is to change corporate DNA.  I recommend you read the whole thing.

California Vote on Death Penalty

I have migrated from being a death penalty hawk 30 years ago to being against the death penalty.  In short,  if I don't trust the government to be able to make decisions on alternate fuel loans, I don't trust them to make life and death decisions.  I grew up in Texas where governors in political races would compete with one another on who has or promises to execute the most people.  Literally they were running on body counts.  This is not an environment conducive to good decision-making.

Further, the death penalty does too much to cut off one's full appeal rights.  A black man in Mississippi in 1965 was never going to get his full Constitutional appeal rights.  Men have been executed that later improvements in racial tolerance or DNA evidence might have exonerated.

Apparently, some of the original supporters of California's death penalty expansion in the 1970's* are now promoting its repeal, and are trying to woo other Conservatives to the cause

Thirty-four years later, another initiative is going on the California ballot, this time to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life without parole. And two of its biggest advocates are Ron Briggs and Mr. Heller, who are trying to reverse what they have come to view as one of the biggest mistakes of their lives.

Partly, they changed their minds for moral reasons. But they also have a political argument to make.

“At the time, we were of the impression that it would do swift justice, that it would get the criminals and murderers through the system quickly and apply them the death penalty,” Mr. Briggs, 54, said over tea in the kitchen at his 100-acre farm in this Gold Rush town, where he grows potatoes, peppers, melons, cherries and (unsuccessfully, so far) black Périgord truffles.

“But it’s not working,” he said. “My dad always says, admit the obvious. We started with 300 on death row when we did Prop 7, and we now have over 720 — and it’s cost us $4 billion. I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?’ ”

*For those who did not live through the 1970's, it is hard to describe how much the culture was absolutely steeped in the notion that city streets were Road Warrior-esque free-fire crime zones.  The Dirty Harry movies, the Charles Bronson vigilante movies, Escape from New York, the Warriors, etc. etc all promoted this notion that we were too soft on crime and that we had allowed criminals to run wild.

It's Hard To Change Corporate DNA

Especially when the government is doing all it can to damp the forces of evolution and extinction.  Via Mickey Kaus

Dysfunctional–or at any rate, not-functional-enough–corporate cultures are hard to change. That would include both the culture of the Old GM and that of many of its suppliers. Obama should have been more skeptical about “New GM’s” ability to turn itself around with its same old workforce and same old union

I warned of something similar long before GM was rescued by Bush and Obama:

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM’s DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM’s of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM’s DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM’s assets from GM’s control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe’s productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe’s most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Mind of the Prosecutor

All I can say is, Eek!

Back in 2007, the Grits for Breakfast blog noted that Williamson County, Texas, District Attorney John Bradley gave some curious advice on a discussion board to another prosecutor. The other prosecutor was asking about how to construct a plea agreement in a way that would forfeit any future right to DNA testing. Bradley responded, “Innocence, though, has proven to trump most anything.” How unfortunate! He then added:

A better approach might be to get a written agreement that all the evidence can be destroyed after the conviction and sentence. Then, there is nothing to test or retest. Harris County regularly seeks such agreements.

We give prosecutors strong incentives to take away people's freedom and put them in jail.  Guilt or innocence is not part of their incentives, only closing cases and locking people away.  Given these incentives, we should be particularly careful to circumscribe their behavior.  In reality, we give them a virtual free pass.  Prosecutors are almost never held accountable for even the most abusive and illegal behavior.

To Which I Would Add One More Concern

Don Boudreaux had these two rejoinders to the notion that the GM bailout is a success simply because GM is making a profit.

Economically literate opponents of the Detroit bailout never denied that pumping hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into Detroit automakers would restore those companies to health.  Instead, they argued, first, that bailing out Detroit takes resources from other valuable uses.  Because he doesn’t even recognize that other valuable uses were sacrificed by this bailout, Mr. Dionne offers no reason to think that the value of saving Detroit automakers exceeds the value of what was sacrificed to do so.  No legitimate declaration that the bailout is successful is possible, however, without evidence that the value of what was saved exceeds the value of what was sacrificed.

Economically literate bailout opponents argued also that it sets a bad precedent.  By signaling to big corporations that government stands ready to pay the tab for the consequences of their poor decisions, big corporations will more likely make poor decisions in the future.  It’s far too early for Mr. Dionne to conclude that this prediction is mistaken.

I would offer a third concern -- that the government has kept hundreds of thousands of skilled workers and billions of dollars of physical assets under the management of the same group that have decidedly underutilized these assets in the past.  A bankruptcy without Federal intervention would likely have shifted assets and skilled workers into new companies with different management teams and cultures pursuing different strategies with different information.

I always have trouble explaining this issue to people.   Think of a sports team with great players but a lousy coach and management team.  Having the government ensure that the lousy management stays in control of the great players is a waste for everyone.  I explained it more in depth in this post, where I concluded

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case – Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA...

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM’s of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM’s DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM’s assets from GM’s control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe’s productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe’s most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

But I Am Sure This Would Never Happen in Climate

Wow, suddenly skepticism, and even outright harsh criticism, of peer-reviewed work is OK, as long as it is not in climate I suppose.

On Thursday, Dec. 2, Rosie Redfield sat down to read a new paper called "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus." Despite its innocuous title, the paper had great ambitions. Every living thing that scientists have ever studied uses phosphorus to build the backbone of its DNA. In the new paper, NASA-funded scientists described a microbe that could use arsenic instead. If the authors of the paper were right, we would have to expand our....

As soon Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. "I was outraged at how bad the science was," she told me.

Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. "It would be really cool if such a bug existed," said San Diego State University's Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, "none of the arguments are very convincing on their own." That was about as positive as the critics could get. "This paper should not have been published," said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

The article goes on to describe many potential failures in the methodology.  None of this should be surprising -- I have written for years that peer-review is by no means proof against bad science or incorrect findings.  It is more of an  extended editorial process.  The real test of published science comes later, when the broader community attempts to replicate results.

The problem in climate science has been that its proponents want to claim that having research performed by a small group of scientists that is peer-reviewed by the same small group is sufficient to making the results "settled science."  Once published, they argue, no one (certainly not laymen on blogs) has the right to criticize it, and the researchers don't (as revealed in the Climategate emails) have any obligations to release their data or code to allow replication.   This is just fresh proof that this position is nuts.

The broken climate science process is especially troubling given the budgetary and reputational incentives to come out with the most dramatic possible results, something NASA's James Hansen has been accused of doing by many climate skeptics.  To this end, consider this from the bacteria brouhaha.  First, we see the same resistance to criticism, trying to deflect any critiques outside of peer-reviewed journals

"Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated," wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner."

WTF?  How, then, did we ever have scientific process before peer-reviewed journals appeared on the scene?

But Jonathan Eisen of UC-Davis doesn't let the scientists off so easily. "If they say they will not address the responses except in journals, that is absurd," he said. "They carried out science by press release and press conference. Whether they were right or not in their claims, they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature."

Wow, that could be verbatim from a climate skeptic in the climate debate.

And finally, this on incentives and scientific process:

Some scientists are left wondering why NASA made such a big deal over a paper with so many flaws. "I suspect that NASA may be so desperate for a positive story that they didn't look for any serious advice from DNA or even microbiology people," says John Rothof UC-Davis.

True Cost of the GM Bankruptcy

As can be expected, the media really did a poor job of covering the GM IPO, consistently underestimating the total public cost of the bailout (e.g. no one is mentioning the $45 billion in tax-loss carryforwards GM was allowed to keep, against all precedent).

But the real cost of the handling of the GM bankruptcy is in 1) the terrible precedents it set in hammering secured creditors to the benefit of favored political allies of the Administration and 2) the loss of the opportunity to get billions of dollars in production assets out of the hands of the people who have be sub-optimizing them.

It was this latter issue I have focused the most on, particularly in this post where I argued for letting GM die.  I said in part:

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA.  ...

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one"¦ for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Worst Anti-Death Penalty Argument Ever

Long time readers will know that after years of being a death penalty hawk in my younger years, have turned against the death penalty because I do not think that our government run legal system is capable of handing out death sentences fairly.  In particular, we see too many case overturned 20-30 years after the fact by DNA and other evidence, as well as changing social pressures (e.g. increased sympathy for blacks in the deep south) that I don't like the death penalty because it cuts off the ability to appeal.  Sure, folks on death row get a zillion appeals, but after 6-8 years these run out and the person is killed.  How is that going to help the black man convicted in 1962, when changing societal dynamics might only offer him a fair hearing in 1985, or DNA evidence in 1995, or help from the Innocence Project in 2005?

Never-the-less, I have to say this may be the worst appeal I have ever seen against the death penalty, with one man trying to hold up the process because the lethal drugs were obtained from a non-US supplier.  LOL, I don't think he is really worried about the drugs somehow being ineffective.  I sympathize with him, I would be doing everything I could too, particularly in a state like Arizona where law-of-the-west politicians compete to see who can send prisoners to the grave fastest.

More from Bureaucratic Hellhole Mono County

It is amazing how certain institutions remain true to their DNA.  I have already written twice about petty, mindless bureaucratic management in Mono County, California.  They have yet again surpassed themselves with absurd inflexibility.  I have occupancy licenses for each of our campgrounds there, about 12 sites.   We are entirely current and have been punctilious about paying our County taxes on all sites month after month for 10 years.

Then, recently, apparently they sent out renewals on the licenses that somehow did not get to our mail box.  So we missed the renewal deadline.   Of course their position is that we are still responsible for renewing, but realize I have 175 locations across the country with zillions of license registrations.  They admit we are entirely up to date on our taxes, we just did not submit the renewal fee for the licenses.  There is no approval or regulatory process with the licenses, its just a way for them to collect  a fee.

Well, without any second notice or phone call or any other such normal business courtesy, they canceled all the licenses.  I now have to fill out pages of license applications 12 times, and submit 12 penalty fees, all for a total cost of over $1,000 and hours and hours of my time.

Can you imagine the outcry if the phone company or electric company or your landlord turned off service after one missed payment without any kind of second notice?  But of course these guys are the government so we can be sure that they are public-spirited, lol.  Seriously, they could not even turn the licenses back on with a payment, I have to start entirely from scratch with new applications.  This is like 14 days after the payment due date.  I called them 1 hour after receiving the 2nd notice to sort this out, but for these guys the second notice is a termination notice.  Nice.

The High Price of the GM Bailout

This week in Forbes, I argue that tallying up the taxpayer money that has been poured into GM actually under-estimates the price of the bailout.

So what if the U.S. government had let GM's bankruptcy proceed unhindered? Allowing the GMs of the world be liquidated, with their assets and employees taken up by more vital entities, is critical to the health of our economy and the wealth of our nation. Assuming GM's DNA has a multiplier below one, releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value. New owners of the assets might take radically different approaches to the automobile market. Talented employees who lose their jobs in the transition, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, can find jobs designing and building things people want and value. Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves....

This is the real cost of the GM bailout--not just tens of billions of dollars of wasted taxpayer money, but continued unimaginative use of one of the largest aggregations of wealth and talent in the world.

Spelling Errors and Evolution

I thought this Kenneth Chang column in the NY Times was pretty interesting.  Much like we can sometimes spot plagiarism by spotting where spelling errors have been reproduced, apparently errors in our DNA give clear pointers to our evolution from other species.

All my complaints about the NY Times not-withstanding, I think if the Times were to disappear, I would miss their science reporting the most.

Junk Science in the Courtroom

I used to write a lot about junk science in civil cases.  I have never really liked the idea of limitations on liability awards as a solution for nutty civil rulings -- after all, how can Congress know in advance exactly what real damages will arise, and why should my ability to recover real damages be capped?

I always have felt that such solutions were beside the point, that what tort law needed was:

  • Better immunization against junk science
  • A rollback of the flawed notion that deep pockets are automatically liable, regardless of their actions, combined with some acknowledgment of individual responsibility
  • Protection of dependents from nuisance suits and mass torts, both of which derive their power from the cost of defense rather than the facts of the case, forcing the innocent to settle just to avoid these defense costs.

I always had naively thought that the junk science issues were mainly limited to civil courts, and that criminal courts, with their much stronger protections against false convictions, did not really have these problems.

The more I read Radley Balko, though, the more depressed I get about innocent people sitting in jail as the result of really flawed evidence.  The most recent example:

Last weekend, we looked at the case of Bill Dillon, the Brevard County resident imprisoned for 27 years before DNA tests set him free...

At least two other men suffered the same fate "” and another shared link: a dog.

Not just any dog. A wonder dog helped convict all three men: a German shepherd named Harass II, who wowed juries with his amazing ability to place suspects at the scenes of crimes.

Harass could supposedly do things no other dog could: tracking scents months later and even across water, according to his handler, John Preston.

Corporate DNA

In a post on letting GM fail, I discussed what I called "corporate DNA"

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot. You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA.  And DNA is very hard to change. ...

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation....Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you. When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

This seems to match the take of many insiders.

To John Shook, a former Toyota manager who worked at a joint-venture plant run by the Japanese company and GM in Fremont, California, that explains why the two automakers are in such different shape today. When it comes to engineering and manufacturing, Shook says, Toyota and GM are about equal. Where they differ is in their corporate cultures.

"Toyota is built on trial and error, on admitting you don't know the future and that you have to experiment," Shook said. "At GM, they say, "˜I'm senior management. There's a right answer, and I'm supposed to know it.' This makes it harder to try things."

The whole Bloomberg article this comes from is quite good.  Its pretty clear that GM had every reason to anticipate the current mess 3-4 years ago, and basically fiddled while the cash burned.  My strongest reaction from the article was, please let me have an epitaph better than this one:

Wagoner, a 31-year GM veteran, was the embodiment of its culture, an apostle of incremental change. Exciting as a Saturn, quotable as an owner's manual....

Let GM Fail!

This is a reprise of a much older post, but it struck me as fairly timely.

I had a conversation the other day with a person I can best describe as a well-meaning technocrat.  Though I am not sure he would put it this baldly, he tends to support a government by smart people imposing superior solutions on the sub-optimizing masses.  He was lamenting that allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a little bit of intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and assets.  Though we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model the government would have some role in this new intelligent design (I guess like it had in Amtrak?)

There are lots of sophisticated academic models for the corporation.  I have even studied a few.  Here is my simple one:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

I don't know if GM will fail (but a lot of other people have opinions) but if it does, I am confident that the end result will be positive for America.

* Those who accuse me of being more influenced by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash than Harvard Business School may be correct.
** Gratuitous reference aimed at forty-somethings who used to hang out at the mall.  In my town, Merry-go-round was the place teenage girls went if they wanted to dress like, uh, teenage girls.  I am pretty sure the store went bust a while back.

For Those Who Doubted Me When I Said We Are Heading Towards A European-Style Corporate State

I predicted it here.  Now see it here:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that Congress is considering bailing out Detroit's Big Three automakers."We may need to make a statement of confidence in our auto industry," Pelosi told NPR this afternoon. "We're not saving those companies, we're saving an industry. We're saving an industrial technological and manufacturing base... It's about jobs in America."

I wrote why its better to let GM fail.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Pelosi held a meeting Monday with Democratic leaders to consider a request from Detroit's Big Three automakers for another $25 billion in "bridge financing" to help them survive a huge downturn in auto industry.

European-Style Political Economy Coming to America

A lot of folks, particularly on the left, look with some fondness at the political economy of continental Europe.  They are attracted by high job security, short work weeks, long vacations, and a strong welfare system.  They make the mistake of seeing in these traits a more promising society "for the little guy," when in fact just the opposite is true.

The European Corporate State

The political economy of companies like Germany and France are actually incredibly elitist, dominated by perhaps a hundred guys (and I do mean guys) who run the country in a model only a few steps removed from Mussolini-style fascism or the Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act.   In these countries, perhaps 20 corporations, ten or fifteen large unions, and a group of powerful politicians and regulators run the economy.

US workers sometimes make the mistake of seeing the political power of European unions and equating this power with being a more egalitarian environment for workers.  But the European political economy is rule by the in-crowd over the out-crowd that exceeds any of the patronage relationships we complain about in this country.  What we don't often see from our American perspective is the way the system is structured not to protect poor from the rich or the weak from the strong, but to protect incumbents (whether they be corporations or skilled workers) from competition.

In the European labor markets, mobility is almost impossible.  The union system is built to protect current high-skilled workers from competition from new workers, whether in the same country of from abroad.  Large corporations that form part of the cozy governance of the country are protected from new competition, and are bailed out by the government when they hit the rocks.

As a result, unemployment is structurally high in countries like France and Germany, hovering for decades between 8 and 12% -- levels we would freak out at here.  Young and/or unskilled workers have a nearly impossible time breaking into the labor market, with entry to better jobs gated through apprenticeships and certifications that are kept intentionally scarce.  Joe the plumber is an impossibility in Europe.  Some Americans seem to secretly love the prospect of not easily being fired from their job, but they always ignore the flip side -- it is equally hard to ever be promoted, because that incompetent guy above you can't be fired either.

Entrepreneurship in Europe is almost impossible -- the barriers just to  organizing your own corporation legally are enormous.  And, once organized, you will quickly find that you need a myriad of certifications and permissions to operate in your chosen field -- permissions like as not that are gated and controlled by the very people you wish to compete with.  The entire political economy is arrayed in a patronage system to protect current businesses with their current workers.

Here is a test, that works most places in the US except possibly in Manhattan.  Ask yourself who are the wealthiest and/or most succesful people that you know.  Then think about where they went to school.  Sure, some of the more famous Fortune 25 CEOs went to name schools, but what about the majority of succesful people you meet in your life?  If you are like me, most of them did not go to Ivy League or what one might call elite schools.  They had normal state college educations.  You will typically find a very different picture in Europe.  While of course there are exceptions, it is much more likely that the wealthy people one meets were channeled through a defined set of elite schools.

Corporations in Europe, particularly the cozy few who wield influence with the government, seldom fail and/or really gain or lose much market share.  I always thought this a telling statistic:  (Fortune 100 by year here)

[Olaf Gersemann] points out that of the top 20 largest publicly traded companies in the US in 1967, only 11 are even in the top 60 today, much less the top 20.  In contrast, he points out that of the 20 largest German companies in 1967, today, thirty-five years and nearly two generations later, 19 are still in the top 60 and 15 are still in the top 20.

Its also an inherently anti-consumer society.  The restrictions on foreign trade, entrepreneurship, and new competition all reduce consumer choice and substantially increase prices.  EU anti-trust enforcement, for example, barely pretends any more to look out for consumer interests.  Most of the regulators decisions are better explained by protection of entrenched and politically influential European competitors than it is by consumer power or choice.

"Progressives" in this country often laud the lower income inequality numbers in Europe vs. the United States.  The implication is that the poor in Europe are somehow better off.  But in fact this is not true.  Careful studies have shown that the poor are at least as well off in the US as in Europe, particularly when one corrects for the number of new immigrants in the US.  (That's another difference, by the way -- Europe is virtually closed to immigration, at least as far seeking new integrated citizens is concerned).  What drives income inequality is that our middle class is richer than Europe's middle class, and our wealthy have more income than Europe's wealthy.

To this last point, I have always felt that comparisons of the wealthy in the US to those in Europe, and comparison of income inequality numbers, are a bit apples and oranges.  The US is a country where access to most of the best perks is via money - they have a price.  In Europe, access to most of the best perks can't be bought by money, they can only be accessed by those with the elite establishment club card.   To some extent, the income numbers understate the difference between rich and poor in Europe for this reason.

Next Stop:  America

We see many of the elements of the European economic system slipping into the US today.  An increasing number of professions require certification by the government, with this certification often either controlled by the incumbents in the profession or with criteria that essentially require new entrants to compete in the same way incumbents do.  We see the top companies with political influence, from Wall Street firms to banks to automobile manufacturers getting government assistance to stay in business or maintain their status.  This, from the proposed GM bailout, is the European system personified:

General Motors and Cerberus Capital Management have asked the U.S. government for roughly $10 billion in an unprecedented rescue package to support a merger between GM and Chrysler, two sources with direct knowledge of the talks said on Monday....

one of the conditions of the merger would be that GM-Chrysler would spare as many jobs as possible in order to win broad political support for the government funding needed to complete the deal, people familiar with the merger discussions said.

This is the same political deal cut in Europe.  Large powerful company is protected from failure by government.  In turn, powerful company protects interest of powerful union.  The only thing missing here, which I think is clearly on the agenda for the Obama administration, is a large protective tariff to shield this inefficient mess from competition.  Left out of the equation are consumers, who get more expensive cars and suffer because GM is again given a hall pass from producing cars that people actually want to buy.  Also left out are potential competitors, who don't get the government deal and who miss out on the chance to buy up GM assets and hire ex-GM employees out of bankruptcy and do a better job with them.  This European system puts a premium on keeping productive assets in their current hands, rather than in the most productive hands:

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

Beyond the actual legislation, the other sign that the European model may be coming to the US is in attitudes.  I think Michelle Obama is a great example of this.  She and her husband checked all the elite boxes - Princeton undergrad, Harvard Law - but she is shocked that having punched her ticket into elite society, society didn't automatically deliver, as it might in, say, France.  She's actually stunned that, had it not been for Barack's succesful books, they might have had to give up their jobs as community organizers and at non-profits to actually earn enough to pay back their 6-figure school loans.

Despite their Ivy League pedigrees and good salaries, Michelle Obama often says the fact that she and her husband are out of debt is due to sheer luck, because they could not have predicted that his two books would become bestsellers. "It was like, 'Let's put all our money on red!' " she told a crowd at Ohio State University on Friday. "It wasn't a financial plan! We were lucky! And it shouldn't have been based on luck, because we worked hard."**

The Progressive Irony

In all this, I think there is an amazing irony.  In a nutshell its this:  The "Change" that Barack Obama is selling to the electorate is in fact the creation of a government infrastructure to fight change.  I have written before that progressives are actually inherently conservative.

Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave....

One morning, a rice farmer in southeast Asia might faces a choice.  He can continue a life of brutal, back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk for what is essentially subsistence earnings.  He can continue to see alarge number of his children die young from malnutrition and disease.  He can continue a lifestyle so static, so devoid of opportunity for advancement, that it is nearly identical to the life led by his ancestors in the same spot a thousand years ago.

Or, he can go to the local Nike factory, work long hours (but certainly no longer than he worked in the field) for low pay (but certainly more than he was making subsistence farming) and take a shot at changing his life.  And you know what, many men (and women) in his position choose the Nike factory.  And progressives hate this.  They distrust this choice.  They distrust the change.  And, at its heart, that is what the opposition to globalization is all about - a deep seated conservatism that distrusts the decision-making of individuals and fears change, change that ironically might finally pull people out of untold generations of utter poverty.

Don't believe me?  Below is from an email I received.  The writer was outraged that I would have the temerity to say that the middle class in the US had it better than even the very rich in the 19th century.

Sure, the average rural resident of a developing country earns more in dollars today than before. But you're missing the big picture. Wealth is about so much more than just money, and status symbols. It is about health, and well being, and contentedness, and happiness. The average peasant family in India in 1900 may have lived a spartan lifestyle by today's standards, but it probably could rely on more land per family, crops uncontaminated by modern pesticides and fertilizers, a stronger social network and village-based safety net. These peasants were self-sufficient. That is no longer the case

Progressives want to eliminate risk and lock in the current world.  New technologies, new competitors, new business models all need to be carefully screened and gated by a government-labor-corporate elite.  Entrepreneurship, risk, mobility, achievement all should be sacrificed to a defined and steady paycheck. In the name of dynamism, progressives, as well as many modern politicians, want to limit the dynamism of the American economy.  In the name of egalitarianism, they wish to create a small political elite with immense power to manage everyone's life.  In the name of progress, they wish to lock current patterns and incumbents in place.

** Postscript: By the way, here is how I responded to Michelle Obama's education debt rant

I don't know why I can't just move along from Michelle Obama's rant about the terrible cost of her Princeton / Harvard Law degree.  Maybe its because I attended the same schools (different degrees) and my reaction is just so different -- I had a fabulous experience and live in awe that I had such a unique chance to attend these schools, while Michelle Obama seems to experience nothing but misery and resentment.  Granted that I did not have to take on a ton of debt to get these degrees, but I have plenty of friends (and a wife) that did.

This analogy comes to mind:  Let's say Fred needs to buy a piece of earth-moving equipment.  He has the choice of the $20,000 front-end loader that is more than sufficient to most every day tasks, or the $200,000 behemoth, which might be useful if one were opening a strip mine or building a new Panama Canal but is an overkill for many applications.  Fred may lust after the huge monster earth mover, but if he is going to buy it, he better damn well have a big, profitable application for it or he is going to go bankrupt trying to buy it.

So Michelle Obama has a choice of the $20,000 state school undergrad and law degree, which is perfectly serviceable for most applications, or the Princeton/Harvard $200,000 combo, which I can attest will, in the right applications, move a hell of a lot of dirt.  She chooses the $200,000 tool, and then later asks for sympathy because all she ever did with it was some backyard gardening and she wonders why she has trouble paying all her debt.  Duh.  I think the problem here is perfectly obvious to most of us, but instead Obama seeks to blame her problem on some structural flaw in the economy, rather than a poor choice on her part in matching the tool to the job.  In fact, today, she spends a lot of her time going to others who have bought similar $200,000 educations and urging them not to use those tools productively, just like she did not.

Another Reason Bailouts are Bad

I think the incentives issue has been beaten to death pretty well, but there is another problem with bailout:  They leave the productive assets of the failed company in essentially the same hands that failed to make good use of them previously.  Sure, the management has changed, but a few guys at the top of these large companies don't really mean squat.  To this point:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

David Leonhart (via Carpe Diem) argues that this was exactly the long-term downside of the Chrysler bailout:

Barry Ritholtz "” who runs an equity research firm in New York and writes The Big Picture,
one of the best-read economics blogs "” is going to publish a book soon
making the case that the bailout actually helped cause the decline. The
book is called, "Bailout Nation." In it, Mr. Ritholtz sketches out an
intriguing alternative history of Chrysler and Detroit.

If
Chrysler had collapsed, he argues, vulture investors might have swooped
in and reconstituted the company as a smaller automaker less tied to
the failed strategies of Detroit's Big Three and their unions. "If
Chrysler goes belly up," he says, "it also might have forced some deep
introspection at Ford and G.M. and might have changed their attitude
toward fuel efficiency and manufacturing quality." Some of the
bailout's opponents "” from free-market conservatives to Senator Gary
Hart, then a rising Democrat "” were making similar arguments three
decades ago.

Instead, the bailout and import quotas fooled the
automakers into thinking they could keep doing business as usual. In
1980, Detroit sold about 80% of all new vehicles in this country.
Today, it sells just 45%.

As I wrote about GM:

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the
best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our
nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then
releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.
Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation,
find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has
more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

Why Its OK If GM Fails

This is a reprise of a much older post, but since I have limited time for blogging, I thought it might be timely to reprise it:

I had a conversation the other day with a person I can best describe
as a well-meaning technocrat.  Though I am not sure he would put it
this baldly, he tends to support a government by smart people imposing
superior solutions on the sub-optimizing masses.  He was lamenting that
allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a little bit of
intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and assets.  Though
we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model the government
would have some role in this new intelligent design (I guess like it
had in Amtrak?)

There are lots of sophisticated academic models for the corporation.  I have even studied a few.  Here is my simple one:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA
has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value
of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a
company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the
consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for
having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial
companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's
management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and
paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier
effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown
rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one...
for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping
climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing
comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or
some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.
When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA
is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation
is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a
bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of
brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and
modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants,
at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the
best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our
nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then
releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.
Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation,
find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has
more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).
A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large
corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to
fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In
conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting
corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human
and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than
one. 

I don't know if GM will fail (but a lot of other people have opinions) but if it does, I am confident that the end result will be positive for America.

* Those who accuse me of being more influenced by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash than Harvard Business School may be correct.
**
Gratuitous reference aimed at forty-somethings who used to hang out at
the mall.  In my town, Merry-go-round was the place teenage girls went
if they wanted to dress like, uh, teenage girls.  I am pretty sure the
store went bust a while back.

More on Education and Expertise

A few days ago, I highlighted an article that argued that the problem with public education was that there was not enough expertise and, heaven forbid, enough state level bureaucrats managing the infrastructure.  I pointed out that this is often the argument of technocrats in favor of failing public institutions:  The problem is not the institution, they argue, or its incentives but it just needs the right people in charge.  I argued that, probably like GM, all the expertise in the world was not going to turn around an organization whose DNA had gone senescent.

Alex Tabarrok comes at this issue from a different angle, but with similar results.  Too many of the examples highlighted of successes in public education rely on a super-teacher or super-administrator who overcomes all the organization problems in his/her school to create a success story, one that is usually fleeting and tends to die when that individual leaves  (Jaime Escalante is a great example - most of his math program improvements died after he left).

Tabarrok argues that you can't just keep hoping for more of these unique individuals who can overcome a myriad of bureaucratic obstacles.  You have to reinvent the system so that average capability, poorly motivated workers can still get a good result for students.  I know some will be scared off by the analogy, but this is the kind of thing that franchise restaurants do very well -- plug low-skill, sometimes poorly motivated employees into a system that successfully provides consistent, predictable service for customers.

What we need to save inner-city schools, and poor schools
everywhere, is a method that works when the teachers aren't heroes.
Even better if the method works when teachers are ordinary people,
poorly paid and ill-motivated - i.e. the system we have today. 

In Super Crunchers,
Ian Ayres argues that just such a method exists.  Overall, Super
Crunchers is a light but entertaining account of how large amounts of
data and cheap computing power are improving forecasting and decision
making in social science, government and business.  I enjoyed the
book.  Chapter 7, however, was a real highlight.

Ayres argues that large experimental studies have shown that the teaching method which works best is Direct Instruction (here and here
are two non-academic discussions which summarizes much of the same
academic evidence discussed in Ayres).  In Direct Instruction the
teacher follows a script, a carefully designed and evaluated script.
As Ayres notes this is key:

DI is scalable.  Its
success isn't contingent on the personality of some uber-teacher....You
don't need to be a genius to be an effective DI teacher.  DI can be
implemented in dozens upon dozens of classrooms with just ordinary
teachers.  You just need to be able to follow the script.

Contrary
to what you might think, the data also show that DI does not impede
creativity or self-esteem.  The education establishment, however, hates
DI because it is a threat to the power and prestige of teaching, they
prefer the model of teacher as hero.  As Ayres says "The education
establishment is wedded to its pet theories regardless of what the
evidence says."  As a result they have fought it tooth and nail so that
"Direct Instruction, the oldest and most validated program, has
captured only a little more than 1 percent of the grade-school
market."

I don't know anything about DI and haven't seen the data and so can't comment on its effectiveness.  But I can say that if it works, there is no way it will be adopted in public schools.  Public school systems are run first for the administration bureaucracy, second for the teachers, and only about third for the students.  Anything that serves the latter but reduces the power of the former will never succeed, again because the incentives are not there for better performance.  Only school competition will allow such new models to be tried.

The Problem in Education Is Not Expertise

Via Kevin Drum, Mark S. Tucker and Kevin Toch make the argument, if I understand it right, that school districts and state education organizations simply don't have the expertise or the capacity to handle the changes required to meet the standards that are being applied by efforts like NCLB (they also argue the tests themselves suck, but I am not going to address that issue).  By the way, you know I'm going to get worked up when the title of an article is "The secret to making Bush's school reform law work? More bureaucrats"

...we need a long-term solution, which can only lie in building
the capacity of the states, districts, and schools to reach the kinds
of goals contemplated by the framers of NCLB. This is not a simple
matter, but a vast, man-to-the-Moon kind of challenge. It means finding
people with the data management experience to build and administer the
very complex systems called for by the law. It means recruiting experts
who can help create truly world class curriculum standards so that
teachers will know what they are supposed to teach and students will be
able to reach the standards. It means identifying and training
thousands of educators who have succeeded in improving their schools to
provide on-site assistance at other failing schools, and recruiting
still others who can take those schools over if the current staff
cannot or will not rise to the challenge. It means creating and
expanding networks of talent-laden organizations--universities, think
tanks, for-profit and non-profit school companies--that have the skill,
experience, and management capacity to turn around individual schools
and entire districts. And it means greatly strengthening the
capabilities of the agencies that will coordinate this massive effort:
state departments of education.

Wow!  It's hard to even know where to start, but I guess my first thought is : What the f*ck have public schools been doing in the last 100 years?  Why, after an absolutely enormous spending growth over the last several decades, do districts still not have the ability to create world class curricula?  Why don't teachers know what they are supposed to teach?   Why is the system so talent poor, despite a huge increase in the number of administrators with various advanced education degrees at all levels of the system?  It's as if the highway department announced today that they didn't have the ability to design roads.

The first and last resort of every technocrat is to complain that the system is great, if only the right "smart" people could get put in charge.  These folks are making this same argument yet again.  Our public schools are fine, if we could just get the right experts in charge. 

Bullshit.

The issue is not the lack of expertise.  The issue is one of incentives and senescence in the system itself.  In this context,  NCLB is completely off the mark.   I work with government employees all the time.  There is a very clear difference between the incentives they see and the incentives I see in the market.  For government employees, the biggest incentive is to avoid missing some bureaucratic check box.  They are much more concerned that they not be found later in some audit to have missed a procedure or a required approval authority than with actual performance or productivity.  NOT, I want to emphasize, because they are bad or misguided people, but because that is how their incentive system is set up.  Their actions are entirely rational in the context of their incentive structure, but the results are no less disastrous.

For example, government managers of recreation facilities get almost no credit for improving the customer experience, a metric my company lives and dies for.  I have seen a government park manager do a great job obtaining funds from private sources to add a new facility to their park that pleased guests, only to get criticized for having the slope of an access ramp be 1/4 degree off ADA standards and have a grievance filed by the union that park visitation had gone up, creating more work for the government employees.  I spent an evening having a beer with that manager, and you can bet they are never going to try to actually improve the customer experience again.  As another example, I went in to my government landlord last week and just blasted them for their lack of customer service focus, for the fact that they are blocking me from making improvements customers are begging for.  They yawned, gave me no response,  and handed me a notice that they were missing some of our water testing paperwork and please get it to them ASAP.

NCLB just gives government schools another government wammy to be managed and avoided.  The authors will probably get their wish, and huge bureaucracies will rise up to manage the numbers and reports without anything being done to really improve education.  The authors lament that the California state education department has "only" 1452 employees.  I have every confidence that this "problem" will soon get fixed by California, and the number will balloon up nicely, long before children see any better education.

A while back I wrote a plea to just let GM die.  I said:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA....

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right
managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30
years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

I would say the exact same thing is true of public schools: Their DNA is senescent.  Most are the equivalent of alcoholics who keep falling off the wagon and keep asking for more chances.  At some point, you just have to give up.  At some point, it is easier to just start from scratch.  After 30 years of trying, Sears still can't change itself so there is Wal-Mart.  After 30 years of trying, GM still can't change itself so there is Toyota.  After 30 years of trying, United Airlines still can't change itself so there is Southwest.

The only difference in education is that the government has to date suppressed the emergence of Toyota and Wal-Mart and Southwest because, well, because it can.  I am sure that United Airlines would have liked to ban competition from Southwest, but it does not have the coercive power of government.  Fortunately, in most industries other than education, the public gets a choice of offerings, and companies that customers don't prefer tend to die.

It's time to give school choice a chance, and radically shift the incentives for public schools in a way that the government can't with bureaucracy-based programs like NCLB.  Some public schools will thrive, and many will die in favor of private options, but our kids will be far better off either way.  It's time to stop doubling down on failure.  It's time to stop giving the alcoholic one more chance.

Postscript:  One of the reasons that competition is important is in the very definition of "expertise."  An expert is someone who presumably has been succesful at a certain activity when others have been less so.  We call Herb Kelleher an expert on airlines and customer service because he designed a model that kicked everyone else's butt.  But would you have called him an expert in 1972, before Southwest took off?  Probably not.  He was just one of many voices with diverse, untested opinions of what would make a better airline.  What eventually made him an expert, and the others less so, is he went out and applied his ideas and they were succesful.

So the author's want to send more "expertise" to the schools.  OK, who are the experts?  Nearly every public school is using the same version of the same failed model.  Some succeed more than others, but these differences tend to be incremental rather than radical, like the difference between Sears and Montgomery Ward rather than between Sears and Wal-Mart (or even Amazon.com).  So how can you even know who the experts are within the same failed system, where no one is really allowed to go out and fully test their ideas in practice?  What happens, in reality, is that "experts" in education are the ones that can best enthrall academics and politicians and think tanks with grandiose or politically correct visions.  I would argue that as of this moment there are no experts in education in the US and we have no hope of identifying them until we let entrepreneurs go out and start testing various new models.

The Problem in Education Is Not Expertise

Via Kevin Drum, Mark S. Tucker and Kevin Toch make the argument, if I understand it right, that school districts and state education organizations simply don't have the expertise or the capacity to handle the changes required to meet the standards that are being applied by efforts like NCLB (they also argue the tests themselves suck, but I am not going to address that issue).  By the way, you know I'm going to get worked up when the title of an article is "The secret to making Bush's school reform law work? More bureaucrats"

...we need a long-term solution, which can only lie in building
the capacity of the states, districts, and schools to reach the kinds
of goals contemplated by the framers of NCLB. This is not a simple
matter, but a vast, man-to-the-Moon kind of challenge. It means finding
people with the data management experience to build and administer the
very complex systems called for by the law. It means recruiting experts
who can help create truly world class curriculum standards so that
teachers will know what they are supposed to teach and students will be
able to reach the standards. It means identifying and training
thousands of educators who have succeeded in improving their schools to
provide on-site assistance at other failing schools, and recruiting
still others who can take those schools over if the current staff
cannot or will not rise to the challenge. It means creating and
expanding networks of talent-laden organizations--universities, think
tanks, for-profit and non-profit school companies--that have the skill,
experience, and management capacity to turn around individual schools
and entire districts. And it means greatly strengthening the
capabilities of the agencies that will coordinate this massive effort:
state departments of education.

Wow!  It's hard to even know where to start, but I guess my first thought is : What the f*ck have public schools been doing in the last 100 years?  Why, after an absolutely enormous spending growth over the last several decades, do districts still not have the ability to create world class curricula?  Why don't teachers know what they are supposed to teach?   Why is the system so talent poor, despite a huge increase in the number of administrators with various advanced education degrees at all levels of the system?  It's as if the highway department announced today that they didn't have the ability to design roads.

The first and last resort of every technocrat is to complain that the system is great, if only the right "smart" people could get put in charge.  These folks are making this same argument yet again.  Our public schools are fine, if we could just get the right experts in charge. 

Bullshit.

The issue is not the lack of expertise.  The issue is one of incentives and senescence in the system itself.  In this context,  NCLB is completely off the mark.   I work with government employees all the time.  There is a very clear difference between the incentives they see and the incentives I see in the market.  For government employees, the biggest incentive is to avoid missing some bureaucratic check box.  They are much more concerned that they not be found later in some audit to have missed a procedure or a required approval authority than with actual performance or productivity.  NOT, I want to emphasize, because they are bad or misguided people, but because that is how their incentive system is set up.  Their actions are entirely rational in the context of their incentive structure, but the results are no less disastrous.

For example, government managers of recreation facilities get almost no credit for improving the customer experience, a metric my company lives and dies for.  I have seen a government park manager do a great job obtaining funds from private sources to add a new facility to their park that pleased guests, only to get criticized for having the slope of an access ramp be 1/4 degree off ADA standards and have a grievance filed by the union that park visitation had gone up, creating more work for the government employees.  I spent an evening having a beer with that manager, and you can bet they are never going to try to actually improve the customer experience again.  As another example, I went in to my government landlord last week and just blasted them for their lack of customer service focus, for the fact that they are blocking me from making improvements customers are begging for.  They yawned, gave me no response,  and handed me a notice that they were missing some of our water testing paperwork and please get it to them ASAP.

NCLB just gives government schools another government wammy to be managed and avoided.  The authors will probably get their wish, and huge bureaucracies will rise up to manage the numbers and reports without anything being done to really improve education.  The authors lament that the California state education department has "only" 1452 employees.  I have every confidence that this "problem" will soon get fixed by California, and the number will balloon up nicely, long before children see any better education.

A while back I wrote a plea to just let GM die.  I said:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA....

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right
managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30
years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

I would say the exact same thing is true of public schools: Their DNA is senescent.  Most are the equivalent of alcoholics who keep falling off the wagon and keep asking for more chances.  At some point, you just have to give up.  At some point, it is easier to just start from scratch.  After 30 years of trying, Sears still can't change itself so there is Wal-Mart.  After 30 years of trying, GM still can't change itself so there is Toyota.  After 30 years of trying, United Airlines still can't change itself so there is Southwest.

The only difference in education is that the government has to date suppressed the emergence of Toyota and Wal-Mart and Southwest because, well, because it can.  I am sure that United Airlines would have liked to ban competition from Southwest, but it does not have the coercive power of government.  Fortunately, in most industries other than education, the public gets a choice of offerings, and companies that customers don't prefer tend to die.

It's time to give school choice a chance, and radically shift the incentives for public schools in a way that the government can't with bureaucracy-based programs like NCLB.  Some public schools will thrive, and many will die in favor of private options, but our kids will be far better off either way.  It's time to stop doubling down on failure.  It's time to stop giving the alcoholic one more chance.

Postscript:  One of the reasons that competition is important is in the very definition of "expertise."  An expert is someone who presumably has been succesful at a certain activity when others have been less so.  We call Herb Kelleher an expert on airlines and customer service because he designed a model that kicked everyone else's butt.  But would you have called him an expert in 1972, before Southwest took off?  Probably not.  He was just one of many voices with diverse, untested opinions of what would make a better airline.  What eventually made him an expert, and the others less so, is he went out and applied his ideas and they were succesful.

So the author's want to send more "expertise" to the schools.  OK, who are the experts?  Nearly every public school is using the same version of the same failed model.  Some succeed more than others, but these differences tend to be incremental rather than radical, like the difference between Sears and Montgomery Ward rather than between Sears and Wal-Mart (or even Amazon.com).  So how can you even know who the experts are within the same failed system, where no one is really allowed to go out and fully test their ideas in practice?  What happens, in reality, is that "experts" in education are the ones that can best enthrall academics and politicians and think tanks with grandiose or politically correct visions.  I would argue that as of this moment there are no experts in education in the US and we have no hope of identifying them until we let entrepreneurs go out and start testing various new models.

All Your DNA Are Belong To Us

Boy, I totally missed this, and I live in Arizona.  Not until Reason highlighted the case was it even brought to my attention.  Apparently, Arizona is going to collect DNA samples from many of the people they arrest:

State lawmakers voted Tuesday to expand the state's DNA database
dramatically by requiring all people arrested for certain crimes to
provide DNA samples for state records whether they are convicted or not.

Conservative and liberal lawmakers alike raised alarms that the measure
would violate the civil liberties of people never convicted of a crime
and set a dangerous precedent for government collection of sensitive
genetic information.

"I think it is egregious," Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, a conservative
Republican from Gilbert and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee,
said on the House floor Tuesday. "It tramples on the liberties and
freedom of the people."

Apparently, the change is sneaking through buried in a budget bill.  And there are people our there who still trust the government?

 

The Kind of Philanthropy I Hate

I value many of the same things - open space, wilderness, wildlife - that environmental activists value.  The difference is that I do not wish to achieve my goals by force.  For years I have donated money to various environmental funds that focus on using private funds to buy land for preservation (the Nature Conservancy being the most famous of these, though it has had some problems of late).  I particularly eschewed donating to groups who used most of their funds for lobbying.  These groups are using their funds to try to buy government coercion to back whatever goals they are seeking, often including taking more money from me by force and limiting my rights to manage my own property as I see fit.  I hate that.

Which is why I am very disappointed in the recent actions of Bill Gates.  To date, Gates has dumped billions of his own money into trying to improve public schools.  I personally think that to be useless**, that the management and incentives of government monopoly schools are broken and no amount of money can fix them.  However, it was his money and God bless him for trying.

However, it appears Gates is tired of the slow progress, and is taking the great second-rater escape clause, using his money now not to fund improvement programs but to lobby the government to spend more of my money:

Eli Broad and Bill Gates, two of the most important philanthropists in
American public education, have pumped more than $2 billion into
improving schools. But now, dissatisfied with the pace of change, they
are joining forces for a $60 million foray into politics in an effort
to vault education high onto the agenda of the 2008 presidential race.

** I have written several times about the dynamics of organizations and management, but it is my belief that there comes a time when certain managements and cultures are beyond saving, and the only solution is for the market to let them fail and have their assets and people be taken in by more dynamic organizations.  I wrote about this in the most depth in the context of GM, in a post on corporate DNA and value creation:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP or the Limited faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA
has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value
of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a
company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the
consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for
having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial
companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's
management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and
paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier
effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown
rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one...
for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping
climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing
comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or
some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.
When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA
is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation
is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a
bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of
brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and
modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants,
at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.