What’s wrong with TED talks – hint: quite a lot

I have almost certainly fulminated in various asides against TED talks on this blog, and even one full on cri de coeur against retail profundification. (I promised one on business class profundification but I haven’t managed to do it yet.

Anyway, a friend sent me this TEDx talk which is about what’s wrong with TED Talks. It’s terrific. Indeed, if you want to watch it you can, but you can also see the text of the speech reproduced on the speaker’s website and in the Guardian. It’s always annoyed me that transcripts aren’t provided as a matter of course. They save a lot of time.

My favourite quote on economics:

Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?


The singularity: which jobs will go?


Pretty interesting paper (pdf).

The abstract:

We examine how susceptible jobs are to computerisation. To assess this, we begin by implementing a novel methodology to estimate the probability of computerisation for 702 detailed occupations, using a Gaussian process classifier. Based on these estimates, we examine expected impacts of future computerisation on US labour market outcomes, with the primary objective of analysing the number of jobs at risk and the relationship between an occupation’s probability of computerisation, wages and educational attainment. According to our estimates, about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk. We further provide evidence that wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerisation.

The last paragraph of the conclusion.

Finally, we provide evidence that wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with the probability of computerisation. We note that this finding implies a discontinuity between the nineteenth, twentieth and the twenty-first century, in the impact of capital deepening on the relative demand for skilled labour. While nineteenth century manufacturing technologies largely substituted for skilled labour through the simplification of tasks (Braverman, 1974; Hounshell, 1985; James and Skinner, 1985; Goldin and Katz, 1998), the Computer Revolution of the twentieth century caused a hollowing-out of middle-income jobs (Goos, et al., 2009; Autor and Dorn, 2013). Our model predicts a truncation in the current trend towards labour market polarisation, with computerisation being principally confined to low-skill and low-wage occupations. Our findings thus imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation – i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.

Copyright and Fair Use.

In his introduction to his translation of the Analects of Confucius, Pierre Ryckmans likened that ‘literary classic’ to a coat hook that has over the centuries acquired so many layers of coats that it can no longer be seen-has become so big that it completely obscures the corridor it was hung in. And that is not a bad metaphor for ‘copyright’ itself. Something that started, in 1709 as a fairly simple statute  “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors .. for “.. the Term of One and twenty Years” has by now become such a huge multilayer, intertwined, spaghetti cake  that it is virtually impossible to sanely approach it as a totality. Not going to try. Continue reading

Perverse Consequences of Well Intentioned Regulation: Evidence from India’s Child Labor Ban

by Prashant Bharadwaj, Leah K. Lakdawala, Nicholas Li – #19602 (CH DEV)


While bans against child labor are a common policy tool, there is very little empirical evidence validating their effectiveness. In this paper, we examine the consequences of India’s landmark legislation against child labor, the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. Using data from employment surveys conducted before and after the ban, and using age restrictions that determined who the ban applied to, we show that child wages decrease and child labor increases after the ban. These results are consistent with a theoretical model building on the seminal work of Basu and Van (1998) and Basu (2005), where families use child labor to reach subsistence constraints and where child wages decrease in response to bans, leading poor families to utilize more child labor. The increase in child labor comes at the expense of reduced school enrollment. We also examine the effects of the ban at the household level. Using linked consumption and expenditure data, we find that along various margins of household expenditure, consumption, calorie intake and asset holdings, households are worse off after the ban.

The paper is here.

Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?

by David N. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, Kevin B. Soter – #19406 (CH ED LS)


This study makes use of detailed student-level data from eight
cohorts of first-year students at Northwestern University to
investigate the relative effects of tenure track/tenured versus
non-tenure line faculty on student learning. We focus on classes
taken during a student’s first term at Northwestern, and employ a
unique identification strategy in which we control for both
student-level fixed effects and next-class-taken fixed effects to
measure the degree to which non-tenure line faculty contribute more
or less to lasting student learning than do other faculty. We find
consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from
non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses. These
differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and
are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and
less-qualified students.


Universities as Royal Courts

The journal ‘Agenda’, the policy journal of the College of Business and Economics at The Australian National University just released a piece of mine called ‘Universities as Royal Courts’. One can download it free of charge (just click on the link). It continues my long-running attempt of trying to explain to the Australian online public that Vice Chancellors and other higher-level bureaucrats in our universities have much higher salaries than in other countries; that at some universities (like QUT) the standards for being called a professor seem rather low if one is an administrator; why some universities have an overpaid upper echelon in the first place; and how the situation could be improved. This new piece draws parallels between the way some universities are run and how the royal courts of Europe were organised, complete with pageantry and scheming barons. The article carries a misspelling of my name ( a deliberate finishing touch of the editor, I think) which underscores the tongue-in-cheek humour of the piece. Enjoy!

On Mr Rudds multitude of policy positions, or syntax without semantics.


“ they exert every variety of talent on a lower ground…and may be said to live and act in a submind”……

VS Naipaul  “The Air Conditioned Bubble”

Writing in 1984 about the republican convention of 1984 (the triumphant beginning of Ronald Regans second term), V S Naipaul wrote of the language used at the convention as ‘computerlike’.  He wrote of his sense of a ‘hollowness’ at its core and he quotes a number of speeches by delegates to the convention. Naipaul then goes on to write about English as a living language, one growing and deepening by internal references, allusive, full of references to itself – Shakespeare, the bible, popular culture etc; a language capable of making statements about itself , language capable of awareness of, being aware. The language of the speakers at the convention by contrast had, to quote Naipaul: “the same tone, the same personality (or absence of it), the same language unallusive, cleansed sterile, nerveless and dead, computer language”: a language incapable of ironic awareness: mindless and empty.

At the end of the essay Naipaul returns to and reflects upon his sense of a vacancy and inertness at the heart of the convention. Reflecting on the “imaginative poverty” he sensed at the centre of the great occasion he quotes Emerson’s reflections on visiting Britain at the height of its imperial power, in the mid 19th century. For Emerson it was, “as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy, existed anymore”. Emerson felt that English intellectual life was being choked by its consciousness of enormous power, wealth, rightness (inevitability).  He wrote, “ they exert every variety of talent on a lower ground…and may be said to live and act in a submind”.  Naipaul’s essay concludes thus: “like Emerson in England, I seemed in the convention hall of Dallas ”to walk on a marble floor, where nothing will grow.” ”

The unease I feel is that we too, are walking on a “floor where nothing will grow”.  Emerson was writing about a society much like our own, dominated by technique and by instrumental reason. The unease is that, “as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy, existed anymore”, has come true, and that all we have to look forward to is is a endless:

“denying of the past, fearful of the future”..”endless present of endless panic.”

Education Policy – UR Doing it Wrong

For 20 years some Australian school systems have been world leaders in giving schools more autonomy, and in trying to increase competition among them. Many countries are following suit, in the hope that policies to increase school competition will improve student performance. They will not. This is the myth of markets in school education. The reality is that competition does not drive enough parents to schools with higher levels of performance.