Kevin Drum

The Economics of Plagiarism

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

The New York Times, in one of its patented trend stories about the ultra privileged, says that plagiarism is on the rise. Here's the explanation:

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it.

Wait. Just stop. Why is this the least of it? I'm willing to bet large sums of money that this is, in fact, virtually the entire explanation. The internet simply makes way more relevant text available to students and makes it far easier to copy. Compare this obvious explanation to the other claims offered up:

The Internet may also be redefining how students [...] understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image....“Because you’re not walking into a library, you’re not physically holding the article, which takes you closer to ‘this doesn’t belong to me.’ ”....Undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking....The main reason [plagiarism occurs] is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing.

Seriously? College kids are redefining authorship? Old style physical books seem more like they're really written by someone else? Students no longer think of term papers as ways of expressing their unique and authentic identity? High schools suck?

Maybe so. God knows I can't prove any of these theories are wrong. But I'd sure guess that if you make something about a hundred times easier than it used to be, that's a pretty good guess about why that something is on the rise.

Of course, I cheated when I came to this conclusion. The author of the piece, Trip Gabriel, insists that modern kids barely even consider copying from the internet to be wrong. But at the very, tippy end of the article, we get this: "At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others."

In other words, they know perfectly well that it's wrong. They do it because they're lazy and don't feel like trying to craft sentences of their own. Just like every plagiarist in history. But it would have ruined the story to put that near the top.

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More Preschool, Please

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 12:35 PM EDT

A few days ago Jonah Lehrer pointed to a new paper by Flavio Cunha and James Heckman about the value of intensive preschool education. Their conclusion: this is a great way to spend money. But here's the catch: critics of early education programs often point out that reported IQ gains don't last. And that's true (though there have been a few exceptions). But IQ isn't everything:

Instead, preschool seemed to improve performance on a variety of “non-cognitive” abilities, such as self-control, persistence and grit. While society has long obsessed over raw smarts — just look at our fixation on IQ scores — Heckman and Cunha argue that these non-cognitive traits are often more important. They note, for instance, that dependability is the trait most valued by employers, while “perseverance, dependability and consistency are the most important predictors of grades in school.”

....Furthermore, the gains from preschool appear to be so significant and consistent that, according to Cunha and Heckman, investing in early childhood education is just about the most cost-effective way to spend public money. The economists calculate that, for every dollar invested in preschool for at-risk children, society at large reaps somewhere between eight and nine dollars in return. That’s how I want my tax-dollars spent.

Me too. I've always been impressed by the results of research showing the value of self-restraint. Kids who do well on a test of delayed gratification ("You can have one cookie now, but if you wait five minutes you can have two cookies") do well in later life too — and self-control appears to be just about as important as intelligence in predicting success. (Lehrer has the full story here.) What's more, regardless of what effect early intervention programs have on schoolwork or life earnings, they might well be worth it solely for their effect on crime. As Mark Kleiman says in When Brute Force Fails:

The famous Perry Preschool Project appears to have largely failed in its attempt to raise the measured IQs of participants, but the effects on criminal behavior seem to have been profound....[And] in a well-evaluated experiment in upstate New York, nurse home visitation for expectant mothers whose demographic profiles put their children at high risk of poor outcomes reduced the arrests among children of those mothers by 69 percent compared to the matched control group. If that result is even close to correct, nurse home visitation focused on high-risk mothers is surely cost-effective as crime control — compared, for example, with prison building — even ignoring all its other benefits and cost savings.

More early childhood interventions, please. And lead abatement too. If you're looking for projects that are likely to have really high ratios of benefits to costs, these are your babies.

Taxes and the Public

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 12:02 PM EDT

Via Ezra Klein, here is Andrew Therriault on a recent poll about whether the Bush-era tax cuts should be repealed:

The brief summary: Pew did a national poll which found that only 30% of respondents wanted to extend all of the Bush tax cuts, while 27% wanted to repeal them for the wealthiest taxpayers, and the plurality (31%) wanted to repeal ALL of the tax cuts.

....This is pretty amazing. We could argue to no end about the reasonableness of (effectively) raising taxes during a recession, but that’s not the point....What’s really important here is that, while Democratic lawmakers are clamoring to get on the tax cut bandwagon (or off of the tax increase bandwagon, if you’re thinking about attack ads), Americans appear willing to have a reasonable conversation about taxes — that is, one in which raising taxes is at least on the table.

Actually, what's even more amazing is that these numbers haven't really changed much over the years. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy have never been especially popular. The only change over the past couple of years has been an increase in the number of people who want to repeal all of Bush tax cuts, not just the cuts for the wealthy.

So: it's a no-brainer, right? Popular opinion is in favor of repealing at least the tax cuts for the wealthy by a margin of 58% to 30%. And since everyone is supposedly concerned about the budget deficit, this is a quick and popular way of reining it in. In fact, you could combine a complete repeal with a phased payroll tax holiday and even get a fiscal stimulus out of the deal. Too bad that Republicans are convinced that payroll taxes aren't real taxes since they barely affect the rich at all. Otherwise this would be a great idea.

Our Upcoming Disaster

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 12:38 AM EDT

Shorter Paul Krugman: Within a couple of years we'll have combined the worst aspects of America and the worst aspects of Europe into a single monumental disaster. USA! USA!

I have an epically gloomy post on this general subject all queued up in my brain and ready to go. It will never see the light of day, but it's there. For a few bits and pieces of what it's about, however, check out Ed Luce in the Financial Times this weekend. He puts together several of the pieces.

The only good news I can think of is that if the French could revolt in 1789, maybe we can too — minus the guillotines and invasions of Russia, I hope. Maybe.

When the End Comes

| Sun Aug. 1, 2010 4:26 PM EDT

In the New Yorker this week, Atul Gawande writes about how badly we manage end-of-life medical treatment. Toward the end of his piece he mentions a study Aetna did with hospice care. In one study, Aetna allowed people to sign up for home hospice services without giving up any of their other treatments. Result: lots of people signed up for hospice care and ended up consuming less traditional care. In the second study, more traditional rules applied: if you signed up for home hospice care you had to give up on traditional curative treatments. Result: pretty much the same.

What was going on here? The program’s leaders had the impression that they had simply given patients someone experienced and knowledgeable to talk to about their daily needs. And somehow that was enough — just talking.

The explanation strains credibility, but evidence for it has grown in recent years.

I guess maybe I'm just weird, but this explanation doesn't seem to strain credibility in the least. It's exactly what I'd expect. Obviously there are lots of different people in the world and they have lots of different dispositions, but I'd guess that there's a huge chunk of them who are basically just scared when the end comes and mostly want to understand what's happening. Having someone take the time to explain — to really explain, so that they really understand — probably goes a hell of a long way toward making them feel better. And once they understand that what they're feeling is, under the circumstances, fairly normal, a trip to the ICU doesn't really look so inviting anymore. What's so hard to believe about that?

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 July 2010

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 2:37 PM EDT

Hey, did you know that a cat is about the same size as a computer keyboard? An old school keyboard, anyway. I'd never really thought about this before, but Domino certainly seems to fit quite nicely in this keyboard box I had out this week. Of course, by this standard, cats are about the same size as a lot of things, aren't they?

But no box for Inkblot. Over on the left he's doing his best impression of a Vermeer painting. He's a handsome devil, isn't he?

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New York Schools Doing About the Same as Always

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that the passing rate on state English and math exams plummeted this year. Down in the 11th paragraph, here's the explanation:

New York State said the tests had become too easy, with some questions varying little from year to year, making it simple for teachers to prepare students because each test is made publicly available after it is given. So this year, the state made the questions less predictable and raised the number of correct answers needed to pass the tests, which are given to every student from the third through the eighth grades.

Last year, for example, a fourth grader had to get 37 out of 70 possible points on the math test to reach Level 3 (out of 4), or grade level. This year, a fourth grader needed to earn 51 out of 70 points to reach that level.

Well, that would do it, wouldn't it? I don't know how much impact the less predictable questions had, but if you change the passing grade from 53% to 73% you're going to have a whole lot fewer kids passing. So what about the raw scores? How did students actually do on the tests? Here's the state ed department report:

The average scale scores on the English Language Arts test this year were about the same as last year in all grades....The average scale scores on the Mathematics test this year were about the same as last year in all grades.

So....nothing much happened. How dull.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, when I say "nothing much happened" I mean only that test scores stayed about the same. Obviously the change in passing standards will have a big regulatory impact, as schools that were previously deemed OK are now deemed failures. This will, I presume, set off a long chain of reactions.

Majority Rule is Good for Liberals

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 1:55 PM EDT

Oh well, let's talk more about the filibuster. News is slow today. Over at TalkLeft, BTD takes Chris Bowers to task for suggesting that ending the filibuster would be good for liberals:

Bowers [is] not imagining what a GOP President and GOP Congress would have achieved with the elimination of the filibuster. You thought the actual Bush tax cuts were bad? They would be TWICE as bad without the filibuster. And twice as hard to undo as they would have been passed in regular order, meaning that to undo them would require passage of new legislation.

You can be for eliminating the filibuster on principles of democracy, as Ezra Klein is. But you can not be against the filibuster, as Chris Bowers is, based on advantage to Democrats and progressives.

Actually, I don't think this is right. Obviously conservatives would be able to get more done if the filibuster didn't exist. This is a two-way street, after all. But conservative legislation, on average, tends to be easier to overturn than liberal legislation. Taxes, for example, go up and down all the time, and conservative tax cuts could be washed away easily by liberals if the filibuster didn't exist. But liberal programs tend to be more permanent. Once they get entrenched, even conservatives are loath to eliminate them. For all the big talk about Social Security in 2005, it wasn't the filibuster that kept George Bush from passing his privatization plan. In the end, he couldn't even get majority support for it.

As conservatives know pretty well, this is generally true. Liberal social welfare programs are objects of enormous legislative battles when they're enacted, but they tend to be pretty popular once they've been passed and had a chance to swing into action. Tea party rhetoric aside, most Americans like government bennies. Who wouldn't, after all?

Anything that prevents change is, almost by definition, helpful to conservatives, since preventing change is one of their core interests. Ending the filibuster wouldn't be a liberal panacea, but on net it would almost certainly be a benefit to progressive causes. 

Dissing the Volt

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 12:54 PM EDT

Edward Niedermeyer goes to town on the Chevy Volt:

For starters, G.M.’s vision turned into a car that costs $41,000 before relevant tax breaks ... but after billions of dollars of government loans and grants for the Volt’s development and production. And instead of the sleek coupe of 2007, it looks suspiciously similar to a Toyota Prius. It also requires premium gasoline, seats only four people (the battery runs down the center of the car, preventing a rear bench) and has less head and leg room than the $17,000 Chevrolet Cruze, which is more or less the non-electric version of the Volt.

This is actually not as bad as I feared when Jack Shafer pointed me toward Niedermeyer's blast. Looks like a Prius? Meh. Requires premium gasoline? The whole point is that it doesn't use much gasoline in the first place (no one buys a Volt if they do a lot of long-distance driving), so meh again. Seats four people? That's a drawback, but not a big one for most people. And although headroom and legroom are indeed a bit less than the Cruze, reviewers mostly seem to think it's pretty adequate.

That leaves that $41,000 price tag. Which comes down to maybe $34,000 after the federal rebate and perhaps a bit less if your state also offers a rebate. Either way, it's still a whole lot more than $17,000, and you're not going to come close to making that up in fuel costs no matter how long you keep the thing. The rest of the Volt's drawbacks may be modest (and you can add limited trunk space to Niedermeyer's list), but they seem a lot worse when you're paying 15 grand for the privilege of suffering through them.

Not to worry, though. In the software biz we always say that nothing is ever right until v3.0. So by 2018 or so the Volt should be in good shape. Assuming that General Motors still exists by then, of course.

Republican Temper Tantrums, Part 873

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

As a quick followup to my filibuster post this morning, here's a Center for American Progress chart on Republican use of holds against judicial nominees. Nickel summary: it's way up:

Judicial confirmations slowed to a trickle on the day President Barack Obama took office. Filibusters, anonymous holds, and other obstructionary tactics have become the rule. Uncontroversial nominees wait months for a floor vote, and even district court nominees—low-ranking judges whose confirmations have never been controversial in the past—are routinely filibustered into oblivion. Nominations grind to a halt in many cases even after the Senate Judiciary Committee has unanimously endorsed a nominee.

....There is a simple explanation for the sudden drop-off in confirmation rates—obstructionists in the Senate are using filibusters and holds at an unprecedented rate. And it is nearly impossible to break the filibusters and holds on Obama’s nominees.

For all practical purposes, holds and filibusters are the same thing. The Senate runs on unanimous consent, which means that a single person can bring things to a halt if he or she wants to. A filibuster in the modern era is basically just a threat to withhold unanimous consent if the majority attempts to hold a vote, and the same is true of a hold. They're two sides of the same coin.

Obama has come under a lot of criticism from the left for his slow pace in nominating judges. And he deserves it. But honestly, how much does it matter given the obstructionism from Republicans that's now become routine? As the CAP report says, even district court judges are being held up at unprecedented rates, even though they've enjoyed 90% confirmation rates pretty steadily all the way through the last administration. But today's Republicans haven't even allowed votes on half of Obama's nominees. If there's any aspect of the Senate rules that seems ripe for reform, this is it. But even this, I'd guess, has a pretty slim chance of getting it.