The Vigdor family made a trip to Disney World in March. The weeks leading up to the trip were filled with dread. I anticipated days of heat and humidity, long lines, barely edible food, filthy hotel rooms with thin walls, and cranky children. For five straight days: four on Disney property and one at Universal Studios.
It was really not so bad as all that. Queue management has come a long way. Universal Studios offers spoils to the wealthy, selling a queue-jumping pass that would have nearly doubled our investment in park tickets. But Disney offers spoils not to the rich, but rather to those with the capacity to engage in some degree of dynamic optimization. The fast pass system is brilliant; it enabled our family to enjoy popular rides repeatedly with a minimum of standing around, albeit at the cost of a bit of extra walking. In our four days in residence at the Happiest Place on Earth, we never waited more than 20 minutes for a ride. The hotel room was failry unobjectionable, and we actually managed to eat some decent meals.
It was during one of these very short waits for a ride, though, that we witnessed a quite horrific scene. At the center of Frontierland lies Tom Sawyer's island, accessible by a "ferry" that resembles a faux hewn-log raft with an outboard motor. As we waited for the boat to arrive and carry us to the amusement, a female mallard floated peacefully by the landing. As the raft neared, the duck took no notice, remaining almost defiantly in place.
As a waterfowl, the mallard had three options to evade the oncoming boat. It could take flight, dive, or paddle away. It chose none of the three. As the costumed "cast member" maneuvered the boat in to dock, those of us gathered to embark urged the duck to move along. Failing in those entreaties, we called the raft pilot's attention to the recalcitrant bird.
Those efforts failed as well. To our horror, the raft eased its perfectly straight gunwales flat against the landing, trapping the duck so that only its head was visible. Only at this point did the mallard show any sign of alarm. Finally understanding the source of our concern, the boat operator pulled the craft away from the landing, only to bring it back in again with the bird still helplessly caught in the gap. As parents averted their children's eyes, the boat finally edged far enough away to permit the duck to escape. As soon as it was released from the vice formed by raft and dock, the duck's head flopped at a grotesque angle that made its fate clear to all. We were looking at a dead duck. The wash from the raft's motor carried the bird's carcass swiftly away. It appeared that some cast members were willing to exert some effort to fish the dead body from the waterway, but we had embarked on the raft and set off on our way before the situation was resolved.
And thus, in the middle of a tourist attraction inspired by a set of fictional anthropometric animals, we witnessed the demise of a real one.
War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and a tax increase for families in poverty is "great news."
It's not unreasonable for legislators in the Old North State to consider tax reform. It was quite a shock to move here from "Taxachusetts" some years ago to find the relatively high marginal income tax rates here (which have since gone up). Tax reform is definitely in the air, with legislatures and governors introducing plans across the USA.
Since most states operate with balanced budget amendments, though, there is a certain forced honesty that enters into state tax reform debates that is often absent at the federal level. To cut some taxes, you've got to raise others or cut spending. This plain fact is undoubtedly responsible for the scaled-back ambitions in many states -- proposals to eliminate state income taxes have been transformed into proposals to reduce marginal tax rates.
The Republican leaders of North Carolinas' state legislature have set themselves up for ridicule by posting a website, www.nctaxcut.com, that permits people to compute hypothetical tax cuts under their plan. Median household income in North Carolina, according to Census figures, is around $46,000. A married family with two children with typical deductions and spending patterns can expect to save $267.
If we cut that family's income in half, they are basically at the poverty line for a family of four. For a family with income of $23,000 the NC tax cut calculator returns the image below: under the heading of "great news!" the total tax cut amounts to "$-1,047." That is, the proposed tax reform will result in a tax increase of nearly 5% of the family's income.
Just to make things perfectly clear, I'd be delighted to pay lower income taxes in North Carolina (and for the record, the NC plan would cut my family's state tax bill by about $13,000, implying that I should be addressing a thank-you note to approximately 13 poor families if it passes). But as I've written before, raising sales taxes is not the way to offset revenue losses from lower marginal tax rates. North Carolina is under-reliant on the property tax, which is both less regressive than the sales tax and happens to be a tax on the one thing that can't walk away from North Carolina. There is, in fact, a way to move toward a more efficient tax structure that doesn't involve forcing the poor to pay more.
This is surely not the first proposed tax reform that would have the net effect of soaking the poor. (My old government professor Ben Ginsberg was fond of saying that "soak the poor" was the first rule of taxation in the world of realpolitik.) But to so brazenly advertise the soaking, under such a glib headline, is a sign of incredible tone-deafness and bad PR. The 2008 Obama campaign had a tax calculator too, and for a family like mine there was a similar message -- the campaign had no intention of lowering my taxes specifically. But at least they had the decency to tailor the heading to the message. It is as though North Carolina's Republicans are just daring the electorate to vote them out of office at the first available opportunity.
On Thursday, we knew nothing of the Tsarnaev brothers. By today, a rich portrait has emerged. The elder brother, Tamerlan, was having difficulty establishing himself in the United States. He reportedly complained of having few friends, and had problems gaining traction in his chosen career or as a student. In the course of his difficulties he turned to Islam. By all accounts, he was the more radicalized of the two brothers.
The younger brother, Dzhokhar, appeared to be on a very different trajectory. Socially, he had been reasonably well integrated into his high school. Educationally, he had made the transition to a four-year public university. He was a naturalized citizen of the United States.
There are undoubtedly thousands of potential factors that could explain the difference in the two brothers' trajectories. But here's a factoid of some importance. Dzhokhar, according to reports, arrived in the United States at the age of 9; Tamerlan was 16.
The graph below is taken from my book, From Immigrants to Americans. It shows the English-language skills of immigrant adults in the United States as a function of the year they first arrived in the country. By all reports, the Tsarnaev brothers were fluent English speakers, so don't read the graph literally. Think of the ability to speak English as a signal that an immigrant "fits in," to use words attributed to Tamerlan himself.
Immigrants who arrive as young children are overwhelmingly likely to speak English fluently as adults. They are educated and socialized in American schools, and along many other dimensions are difficult to distinguish from native-born adults.
There is a pronounced difference between immigrants who arrive with an age in the single digits and those who arrive in the teenage years. The latter group is perhaps only half as likely to speak English fluently. Again, don't read this as an analysis of language alone, but rather an analysis of factors associated with blending into American society. Immigrants who arrive in the teenage years enter a different educational and social world. Resources to support them are harder to come by; friendship circles are more fully established and harder to penetrate. By this measure, immigrants who arrive in their late teenage years are even worse off than those who arrive in their twenties.
As I suggested in my last post, there really is no viable policy option for screening out immigrants who will cause problems ten years down the line. A truly comprehensive immigration policy is about more than keeping the "wrong" people out. Society's stake in immigration depends on what migrants do after they arrive, not just whether they arrive, and the policies we adopt steer behavior in both intended and unintended ways.
As a simple example, consider naturalization policy. Developed countries vary dramatically in terms of the ease and requirements for becoming a citizen. In the United States, a green card holder faces a five-year wait for citizenship. The wait is shorter in Canada and quite a bit longer in many European countries. Unsurprisingly, the nations with longer waits have more profound problems integrating immigrants into their societies. Ask yourself this: if you wanted to minimize the risk of creating a disaffected class of legal residents in this country, would you raise or lower the waiting period? You might ask similar questions about permitting people to be "guest workers" with no path to legal citizenship, or registered provisional immigrants with only a tortuous path.
Watertown was such a quiet little place. Elizabeth and I lived there when we first married -- our marriage certificate still sits in the town hall. Before this morning, its main claim to fame was as home to the highest concentration of Aremenian immigrants in the United States. Our landlord was Armenian; his elderly mother used to tend a small plot of tomato vines outside our window. Our cat would sit in the open window on warm summer days and hiss at her when she came near. She would just laugh. I'll always have fond memories of that place and that time.
To the rest of the world, Watertown will be remembered very differently after today. The events of this week have hit increasingly closer to home. This evening, while dining on a Torta here at O'Hare airport, I read of Senator Grassley's linking of the events in Boston to the current debate over immigration reform. I suppose Grassley is imagining a new immigration policy that will somehow prevent individuals like the brothers involved in today's manhunt from ever entering the United States, let alone settling here permanently.
It would be wonderful to have a magic crystal ball that would enable immigration authorities to look at a nine-year-old child and foresee that they would one day make a bomb out of a pressure cooker and place it in a crowd watching a major sporting event. For if such a crystal ball were to be formulated, it would undoubtedly provide additional assistance in identifying the American-born children responsible for similarly heinous crimes.
Immigrants come to the United States in search of something they cannot obtain in their homeland. Refugees and asylees from the war-torn corners of the globe come in search of peace, many others come in search of education or basic economic opportunity. Our nation is blessed with a relative bounty of all these things. To craft an immigration policy under the supposition that migrants come here in search of chaos and destruction is to fall prey to the worst kind of paranoia.
Watertown is like America, in a way. For more than 300 years, it has led a peaceful and fairly prosperous existence. One day, some outsiders come in and wreak some havoc, and the event leads many to forget about the hundred thousand days where no such event happened. Watertown could respond by sealing its borders with Cambridge, Allston, Newton, Waltham, and Belmont. But in the process it would lose immeasurably more than it would gain.
I returned to the office this morning following a week-and-a-half of various travels to find two mysterious items. The first was an anonymously placed bottle of fine Kentucky bourbon. The second was a phone message, left at 6:20 this past Sunday morning by a caller who did not choose to leave a number. Listening to the second mysterious item left me in a mood to further contemplate the first.
The caller, in a distraught voice, excoriated me for being one of the "gentrification people" and urged me to get my head out of ... a second body part that I will not name here. For the record, I have written two scholarly articles on the subject of gentrification. Here's the crux of what I've found in housing market data. Housing in gentrifying or revitalizing neighborhoods, whether defined by physical improvements or demographic change, becomes more expensive at a rate comparable to other neighborhoods in the same geographic area. Rising prices appear to spur demographic and housing stock change in older neighborhoods, not the other way around. The root cause of the entire phenomenon is a failure of housing supply to keep up with housing demand: gentrification is a problem most closely associated with popular, growing cities that have run out of places to build new housing -- or at least places where new housing is permitted.
This work, like other things I've written, has courted some controversy. For many, the term "gentrification" itself denotes a process that is by definition harmful to those who occupy a neighborhood when it starts. If I've detected a process that is not harmful, then by definition that process can't be gentrification. It's an interesting debate.
In the internet age, it is quite easy for any person who disagrees with me to let me -- or alternatively the world -- know, in many cases without revealing their own identity or engaging in any pretense of starting an actual dialogue on a subject. We live in the age of the comment board.
This communication, if you can call it that, can involve all sorts of ribald language and ridicule. And I'm not a figure of much authority. Others in more prominent positions than I have it far worse. On multiple occasions, I've indicated to figures of authority seeking my advice that I do not envy them their decision, for they will incite anger no matter what they choose. In more than one case, the authority figure has responded with the words "we do that every day."
To survive as a human being in this sort of scenario requires a thick skin, the ability to take even the most personal of derogatory comments and understand them as not truly personal in nature, but as a product of the situation. The conviction that you are adhering to a coherent set of principles helps as well. As discourse coarsens, so the need for thick skin expands.
There is a danger in acquiring thick skin. If one retreats within a hardened outer shell, clinging to a set of principles, it can be difficult to realize that one's principles have become antiquated, or that they have been revealed as inconsistent with new and better information. If one forms a habit of brushing off critical remarks, one risks discarding the criticism that is truly constructive, or that at least bears a germ of constructivity within a husk of vitriol. These dangers are not hypothetical; the failure to incorporate critical but unfavorable information can be associated with numerous public policy failures through the ages.
How does one maintain receptivity to criticism without descending into despondency? That's a tricky balancing act. It is emotionally hard to engage a critic who has opened discussion with an unconstructive rant. The critic who has nothing constructive to offer will likely not maintain the engagement for long. The one who does is in fact the "enemy" worth keeping closer than a friend.
And sometimes, just a bit of bourbon can help too.
Big news in North Carolina today regarding legislative initiatives to overhaul taxation in North Carolina. Like most states, we operate under a balanced budget requirement so if you're thinking about changing taxes while keeping spending constant, you've got to offset tax cuts in one place by raising them somewhere else.
The proposal on the table appears to be slashing, maybe even eliminating, the individual income tax and raising sales taxes to make up the revenue. This is all being done in the name of making the state competitive. Of course, there are concerns that the sales tax is the most regressive of all taxes, taking much more from the poor as a share of their income.
Does North Carolina have an anomalous tax structure? Take a look at these two charts, built with data from the Annual Survey of Governments for 2010 -- the most recent data available. They show how NC's distribution of state and local tax revenue from sales, income, and property taxes compare to the distribution across all states nationwide. The green slice of the pie in each case represents individual income taxes.
Is North Carolina's green slice too big? Well, it is bigger than the equivalent slice for the nation as a whole. The Old North State is more reliant on income taxes than average.
Is North Carolina's red slice -- representing sales taxes -- too small? Well, it doesn't look that way now does it. In fact, if you whip out your protractor you'll see that NC is already more reliant on sales taxes than the national average.
So if NC's income taxes and sales taxes are already more burdensome than average, what makes up the difference? Clearly, North Carolina has a smaller purple slice than the nation as a whole. Our property taxes are lower than average.
Would it make sense to raise property taxes while cutting both income and sales taxes? There's actually a decent argument for doing so. Income and sales taxes both tax something that can leave the state. But North Carolina's land, with the possible exception of the barrier islands, isn't going anywhere. Taxes on the value of land are considered to be more efficient for that reason. There is some argument that the property tax causes problems because it dissuades people from building on their land, but that effect probably doesn't matter too much.
There's another argument against the property tax, namely that some people have no income and don't buy very much but sit on a lot of land. A property tax might place an untenable burden on them. Fortunately, smart people have found a way around this sort of problem many times before, by instituting things like homestead exemptions.
One last objection you might have would be that property taxes traditionally go to local, not state, government. There are exceptions, though.
If North Carolina were to scrap the income tax entirely and raise property taxes to make up the lost revenue, just over 50% of the state's tax revenue would come from that source. That's not too far off the figure for Texas, a no-income-tax state where 45% of tax revenue comes from the property tax. So I wouldn't write this off as a completely crazy idea.
Tracking -- the separation of students into classrooms on the basis of some sort of academic indicator -- is a controversial practice. It is particularly controversial in racially diverse schools, because it tends to introduce racial separation, as noted yesterday in a New York Times article. Here's a well-established but not necessarily well-known fact: in the move from elementary to secondary school, students go to more integrated buildings but sit in less integrated classrooms. Why? The secondary schools serve larger geographic areas and can thus more effectively undo residential segregation. But secondary schools use more tracking than the elementary schools do.
The reason you might not like tracking is because you feel sympathy for the students left out of the gifted classes. They must be worse off, right? After all, they are left with a less-illustrious group of peers, and likely feel some stigma associated with being not gifted.
There is a countervailing impact, however. It's easier to teach a classroom full of students if they are academically similar to one another. I know this first hand from years of experience teaching statistics to graduate students. About a third of my students had prior coursework in statistics and had done pretty well. For them, the class moved too slowly. Another third had never seen stats before; for them the class moved too fast. Very few students, if any, thought the material was being covered at the perfect pace.
So what matters more? The positive impact of better tailoring the curriculum to students, or the negative impacts of stigma and exposure to lower-performing peers? The best study I've seen on the subject used a random assignment strategy: comparing students in 60 tracked schools to those in 61 other untracked schools. The authors found that tracking was beneficial to all students. Even the students barely left out of the gifted track -- barely deprived of exposure to much better peers and all the glory of being called "gifted" -- did better than their counterparts in untracked schools.
The catch with this study, of course, is that the public schools were all in Kenya. It would be wonderful to have a similar randomized trial of tracking in the United States, but who would consent to have their children participate in such a study?
Taking the evidence at face value, we arrive at a conclusion I've forwarded elsewhere: enforcing a one-size-fits-all curriculum in the name of promoting equality is harmful to the disadvantaged. The best argument one might make against tracking is that it benefits gifted students more than it benefits others. But just think about it this way: do you believe so strongly in equality that you are willing to make the disadvantaged worse off in order to pursue it?
To: Barack Obama
From: Jake Vigdor, economist, independent citizen
Re: Petitions to secede from the union
Reports indicate that no fewer than seven states have submitted petitions with enough signatures to prompt White House review. I recommend that the petitions be responded to in the following manner:
I'd recommend to the petitioners that they band together and create a new nation called "North Mexico." These actions will:
By coupling acceptance of these petitions with appropriate legislative action, the United States could also enjoy a one-time windfall by, for example, levying taxes on those expatriates (for example, snowbirds in Florida, faculty at certain private universities) who wish to return to their native country. Congressional action could also stipulate significant fees for those states that have second thoughts and wish to rejoin the union.
Secession worked out quite well for Abraham Lincoln's legislative agenda and it could work well for yours too. I only caution that the "door" to the United States not be permitted to hit these states in the proverbial "behind" as they exit.
I'm a registered independent. And I have no particular expertise in election-post-mortem analysis. But here are a few observations.
1. Democrats have demography on their side. The relevancy of the good-old Reagan coalition has been reduced by immigration, economic shifts, and differential birth rates. At the same time, feelings about some of the social issues that bound that coalition together have shifted importantly over time.
2. Democrats have, perhaps quite shrewdly, appropriated what used to be Republican ideas, sometimes to the consternation of their longtime supporters. Education reform -- charter schools, accountability, and so forth -- has been a core element of the Obama agenda. Certain elements of the education establishment are not happy with this, but that's not going to drive them to vote Republican. And of course there is this thing about the health care plan that looks like something once proposed by a Republican governor. Again, the Obama administration had to break some eggs on the left to enact health reform, but barring another run by Ralph Nader those eggs had noplace else to go.
3. So how might one go about building a new Republican coalition? Take a lesson from observation #2: grab a Democratic issue that happens to be not-too-inconsistent with your principles, and run with it. How about environmentalism?
I'm not the first person to suggest that. Historically, the Republican record on environmentalism is stronger than you might think. Republican administrations witnessed both editions of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the creation of the EPA. You can trace the conservationist DNA back to Teddy Roosevelt. Environmental issues are a big deal among younger and more educated voters.
How do you make an environmental agenda consistent with Republican principles? Think of it this way. We currently raise most of our tax revenue by taxing something that everybody agrees is good: employment. A carbon emissions levy would tax something that most serious people agree is bad. And even if you are a global warming denier, would you say that carbon emissions are BETTER than employment? Republicans embrace individual responsibility. Environmentalism is all about encouraging people to be responsible for the impact they have on natural resources, which must be passed along to future generations.
Environmentalism doesn't have to mean subsidizing the Solyndras of the world, or bumping up regulations on auto manufacturers. These are heavy-handed ways of pursuing the agenda; as with most issues there are more market-based approaches that promise greater progress at lesser cost.
Now in order to accomplish the green shift some member of the existing Republican coalition needs to be thrown under the bus, kind of like what the Democrats have done with, say, teachers' unions. So clearly with a green agenda the resource extraction and utility lobbies will be left out in the cold. Bear in mind, though, that these industries together employ less than 1% of the American workforce, and that proportion is projected to decline in the future. That's less than half the proportion of teachers in the workforce.
Would the green shift cost the GOP some of its solid states? Romney won Alaska by 13 points, Texas by 16, North Dakota by 20, and West Virginia by 26. Not a squeaker in the bunch. One
The usual disclaimer applies: this is free advice, and it's worth every penny. One would have to find a candidate who can credibly espouse these views. And one would have to shepherd that candidate through the primaries. But if you believe points 1 and 2, then you've either got to espouse some idea or accept a Republican decline at the national level.
The big story over the past 36 hours has been Mitt Romney's comments, at a private fundraising event, to the effect that a large share of the electorate will be unreceptive to his message because they (a) pay no income taxes and thus won't care if tax rates are lowered, (b) are "hooked on entitlements," and (c) see themselves as victims in need of government intervention. Romney effectively stated that these individuals should be written off in his electoral calculus as unpersuadable. Both sides are busily spinning the remarks, with the Romney campaign conceding that they were "inelegantly stated," but standing behind the basic message.
How might one craft an elegant argument out of these basic raw materials? By focusing on something psychologists spend a lot of time studying -- locus of control. But let's craft a statement that doesn't use jargon.
The recipe for success in life includes two main ingredients: effort and luck. People have differing views about which of these ingredients is more important. The more you believe that luck -- forces beyond your control -- determines whether you succeed or fail, the more likely you are to accept the Democratic world view, that government improves society by helping those who do not succeed. If you believe that effort matters more than anything else, then you think very differently about offers of assistance to those who are not successful. In a perfect world, we'd be able to separate those who were unlucky from those who didn't exert themselves, but in reality it's hard to craft a policy that does that.
The plain truth is that there's a bit of both ingredients in the recipe for success. Hard work matters, but being in the right place at the right time makes a difference too. That should be an uncontroversial statement. Here's another one. Regardless of what the true ratio of ingredients might be, society is better off if everyone believes that hard work makes a difference. When people become cynical, when they conclude that their own effort doesn't matter, society loses.
The problematic slice of the electorate is not those who don't pay income taxes, nor is it the share who receive government benefits at a point in time. The problematic slice consists of those who believe that the game is rigged against them, that it doesn't matter what they do since forces beyond their control have sealed their fate.
The problematic slice of the electorate has been growing over time. Over the past fifty years, the proportion of young Americans adopting the fatalistic worldview -- that forces beyond their control determine their fate -- has increased dramatically. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka played to this slice of the electorate in his comments to the effect that the 47% are "victims of a system that was rigged...so they'd lose."
Those who believe the system is rigged imagine that government is a "counter-system" that can undo the rigging. Those who have faith in the system see things very differently.
America will benefit if faith in the system -- namely, the system of capitalism and competitive markets -- is restored. It's important to understand that the system doesn't always work, and it is persistently threatened by those who have the will and the means to exploit it to their own advantage. Faith in the system must not be blind to these threats. But the best course of action is to guard against these threats and construct a system that Americans can trust.
Now, just ask yourself, who are the right people to reconstruct the system? Those who believe it is doomed to fail? Or those who believe that with proper vigilance the system can reliably deliver rewards to those that deserve them?
Anyway, that's the way I'd make the argument if it were up to me.