Wisdom of others: best books I read in 2016

Note that these are books I read in 2016, not necessarily those that were published in 2016.

Wealth of Humans – Ryan Avent

A great overview of the major trends that will affect employment, wages, and politics over the coming decades. This book significantly increased my belief that wage subsidies may be a key policy for increasing individual meaning and societal stability as we transition to the digital age. I reviewed the book here.

The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age – James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg

This books wins the award for “highest authorial confidence in opinions I disagree with” – yet it made me think a lot, and I value books for the thoughts they generate just as much as the claims that are made.

The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth – Robin Hanson

A fascinating book of predictions based on the idea of (1) applying social science literature to (2) hard science trends to (3) try to predict the future. I reviewed the book here.

Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World -Leif Wenar

Wenar’s argument – that we should not buy oil and minerals from states where the people have not given their assent for the sale – seems morally correct and politically impossible, for now. But the seeds of change often begin with clear arguments. Hopefully Wenar will have influence over the coming decades.

The Scapegoat – Rene Girard

Girard, a Christian, makes the argument that profoundness of Jesus’ death stems from the fact that it marks a historical shift in empathy: instead of siding with the mob that kills the outsider, with Jesus we side with the outsider.

I found this to be a compelling and beautiful argument. It also supports my belief that the origins of Christianity and Buddhism are intertwined with the transition from hunter and gather to agricultural societies. In a hunter and gather society, the group is everything. In agricultural societies, high degrees of inequality create more within group class based conflict, which opens up space for spiritual traditions based on poverty / outsiders / individual suffering / etc.

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

I’d never read it before. I’m only 25% finished as it’s so brutal to read. But it adds important context to the tales we’ve been told.

The Spoils of War: Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest PresidentsBruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith

A good company on to Zinn. I didn’t agree with everything in this book but I like the framework: analyzing presidential war time decisions based on personal desires and psychology rather than simply national interest. I found the arguments about the Revolutionary War to be most compelling (war fueled in part by desire for territorial expansion and land owner wealth accumulation). Also right notes that we give too much status to war time presidents and not enough status to economic growth / peace presidents.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads – Tim Wu

Wu makes a strong argument that “fake news” is a structural problem with deep historical roots: so long as advertisements drive revenues for media, we’ll always have problems with the consequences of fighting for eyeballs.

The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics – Judis

Most interesting takeaway: leftist populist movements tend to involve two groups (the people vs. the elite) while right wing populist movements tend to involve three groups (the people vs. the elite + an out group).

The Last Days of Night: A Novel – Graham Moore

A great historical fiction novel about the corporate wars to win the race of making money off the electrification of America.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance

Made me think deeper about the historical perseverance of culture.

The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in the Post-Crisis World – Ruchir Sharma

Re-enforced the power of creating frameworks that combine the right metrics with psycho / social / cultural analysis. You need both to do diligence on countries or companies or people.

Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond – Chris Cowley and Henry Lodge

Ignore the occasional off-putting sexism and you’ll get great advice (I think). I have 100% adopted the physical routine but am still struggling with the dietary routine.

Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies – Charles Koch

Whatever you think of Koch politics, this is an insightful read on how a founder’s philosophy, psychology, and personal values infuse a company, for better or for worse.

Miracle Man – William Leibowitz

A fun read!

 

Future rivalries: the platform vs. the chief academic officer

I’ve previously written on the rivalry between chief academic officers (who manage instruction) and chief schools officers (who manage the portfolio of schools).

In traditional districts, I deeply believe that the chief academic officer should report to the chief schools officer, who should report to the superintendent.

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In the future, I think the chief academic risks losing another battle: this time with instructional platforms.

In his book the End of Average, Tyler Cowen makes the argument that those professional who form symbiotic relationships with technology will thrive. He cites the example of hybrid human-computer chess teams.

It is likely that the same will be true in education.

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My hunch is that in the future most schools and districts will be on educational platforms that combine human curation of content and algorithms to develop an instructional program from afar.

In this sense, many school operators will outsource many of the traditional roles of a chief academic officer to a platform.

Once these platforms get good enough – chief academic officers who claim “I know our children better” and demand full control of the academic program – will lose. The platform will be better.

The platform , on average, will be better than a chief academic officer.

But this does not mean that a platform, on average, will be better than a platform + a smart / humble / hardworking chief academic officer.

As with chess, the hybrid may very well win.

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How might a chief academic officer add value in this new role?

She could:

  1. Monitor relationships and place students and teachers into groups in a manner that would be difficult for a platform to intuit.
  2. Utilize local community resources to augment instruction.
  3. Provide intensive academic support to students who are not progressing as expected.
  4. Provide non-academic interventions to struggling students.
  5. Run experiments to test whether new platforms might be better to adopt.

In other words, the chief academic officer might morph into a chief learning officer that focuses on psychology, relationships, anomolies, and technology acquisition.

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Timing is one of the hardest part about incorporating technology into daily operations.

Move too fast and you have a mess.

Move too slow and you’ve harmed those you’re serving.

Over the past year, I’ve tried to spend time learning about the major platforms out there.

It feels like it’s getting close.

Not yet sure who is Friendster and who is Facebook.

The race is on, as they say.

Why don’t we have a 10x better school?

10x

There’s a Silicon Valley mantra that your need new product needs to be 10x better than the incumbent in order for you to displace them and have a shot at a market monopoly.

Uber, for example, is a 10x product. It vastly better than taxis on so many dimensions (price, easy of use, consistency, service, etc.).

In education, it’s unclear to me that we’ve built a schools that are 10x better than the median traditional district school.

We have built schools that are 10x better than failing urban schools, and it’s no surprise that this is where the entrepreneurial sector has seen so much success.

Why haven’t we built a bunch of schools that are 10x better than an average school?

I’m not sure, but some reflections below.

1. Educators are trying to be 10x at the wrong thing 

Great tech companies usually initially succeed because their technology – not their operations – is 10x better than their competitors.

Often times, technology can be built by smallish group of highly talented people and then scaled at little marginal effort or cost.

So far, school operators have not been able to replicate this model of technological advancement and scale. This way of thinking is not in their DNA. They are still trying to squeeze 10x improvements out of areas such as program design, human resources, and operations.

It will be interesting to see if Summit, Alt School, Khan Academy and others can utilize a 100x tech backbone to scale an instructional program that, over time, evolves into a 10x better school.

2. There’s no profit motive

Perhaps. With companies like Bridge Academies, we are seeing interesting attempts at 10x breakthroughs in the for-profit international market.

On the other hand, there’s plenty of for-profit K12 and university operators in this country, and they aren’t launching 10x better schools that are displacing government and non-profit operators.

3. The education sector is over-regulated

Perhaps regulation is stifling innovation.

I’m sure that this is at least partially true, but the most in demand private schools are not very innovative. Rather, they tend to be highly selective, academically rigorous, extracurricular rich, and culturally strong.

And they also cost $30,000 a year.

So, to date, the private side of things is not exactly delivering a bunch of breakthrough innovations.

Maybe an expansion of education savings accounts will unleash some 10x products, but it’s hard to say this with great confidence.

4. The industry culture is risk averse 

Education may be attracting and retaining professionals who are generally not willing to take the risks needed to achieve 10x products.

In some sense, given that children are involved, this culture is to some extent warranted.

But maybe it needs to be loosened up a bit.

5. This is (mostly) as good as it gets

Not everything can be made better. The fork I ate my dinner with today is not that much better than a fork from the 1970s.

Perhaps this is about as good as schooling gets.

My guess? 

I don’t yet have opinions that are strong enough to warrant action beyond the work I’m already doing.

But I want to keep thinking about this.

What comes after science – religion or politics?

There is some chance that, in the future, we will interact with either (1) aliens who are so much smarter than us that we can’t really comprehend them or (2) artificial intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.

The Rise of Science 

Over the past few hundred years, science has ascended as one of the primary mental models of humanity. So many of the ideas that we determine to be true, or whose adherence grant status, are born out of science.

This is not to say that religion and politics are unimportant; rather, it’s only to say that for most of humanity science didn’t really exist – and that over the past few hundred science has grown to be a primary mover of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the rise of science has been a generally good thing for humanity, though I’m open to the idea that the hunter and gatherer life was pretty ok – and that science may be the foundation from which we destroy ourselves.

The Limits of Human Science

The limits of human science stem from the limits of the human brain. There’s a reasonable chance that there are truths out there that we will never be able to understand because of our limited brain capacity.

On planet Earth, humans are the best there is at science, so we’ve not yet had to confront the humiliating inadequacy of our science.

But aliens or AI may understand the world in ways which we are simply incapable of mastering.

Then What?

Once we encounter entities that render our science functionally moot – in that it no longer explains the knowledge we know possess from witnessing the wonders of aliens or AI – then human science will lose its usefulness and status at a rapid pace.

At this point, my guess is that either religion or politics will increase in importance.

Religion is the practice of finding meaning in the unknowable.

Politics is the practice of finding meaning in the tribal.

Givent that aliens or AI would be knowable, my guess is that politics would trump religion and science in this new world.

Humanity, at this point, might divide itself in accordance to (1) tribal affiliation to specific alien or AI personalities or (2) tribal affiliation of how to interact with the knowledge that we are intellectually inferior to other beings.

Putting Science in Its Place

Human science is a pretty amazing thing, but it’s dominance is probably temporary.

School supply or regulatory change – what should the Trump administration incentivize?

screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-7-42-57-am

Andy Smarick has a good short paper out where he gives advice to the new Trump administration.

He proposes a $250 million program that would fund “high-quality, high demand, highly accountable programs.”

In short, Andy proposes a federal fun to increase the supply of things like course choice, education savings accounts providers, voucher-based private schools – as well as the creation of innovative regulatory regimes that can monitor the performance of these entities.

I really like Andy’s suggestion that the federal government continue to invest in the creation of great providers for the following reasons:

Launching new schools and courses costs money, and given that most providers are non-profit organizations, they need funding in advance of receiving regular per-pupil revenue.

The federal government lacks knowledge of what local communities need; by funding entrepreneurs, the feds are backing those who can only succeed if they meet local demand, thereby reducing the risk that funds will work against local needs.

Innovation has positive externalities: it’s well known that, in the private sector, entrepreneurs rarely capture the full value of their innovations. The same holds true in the public sector: great non-profits do not capture all of the social good they create; rather, it leaks into the full  system over time (i.e., Teach Like a Champion).

I’m a little more skeptical that the government should incentivize the creation of new accountability policies. Whatever you think of Common Core or teacher evaluations, it’s unclear that the federal governments involvement has been a long-term net benefit for the sustainability or effectiveness of these policies.

Yes, Andy’s suggestion is much less heavy-handed. He’s only arguing that the federal government should fund accountability pilots.

But I worry that this is simply reinforcing a bad habit.

My current thinking is that the federal government should focus solely on research, information transparency, supply, and civil rights.

Of these four, supply is currently the most under-appreciated and underfunded, and Andy is right to call for an increase in funding here.

These major cities could afford a $10K per family basic income w/o raising taxes

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the pros and cons of a universal basic income.

There’s also been a lot of talk about how expensive this would be.

But, from my quick analysis, I actually think quite a few major cities could institute a child based basic income utilizing only existing tax revenues.

I. Numerous big cities spend over $20,000 per student

Getting accurate city per-pupil spending amounts can be a near impossible task, but nearly all sources I reviewed showed that Washington D.C., Newark, and New York City spend at least ~$18K a student. I think Boston spends around this as well.

And higher end estimates get closer to $25-30K per student.

For the sake of modeling out how to end child poverty, let’s assume ~$20K per student.

II. Giving $5K per student per year basic income back to families

Let’s say that starting next school year, each of these cities decided to reduce public education spending from $20K to $15K per student, and instead of giving this money back to taxpayers, provided a universal basic income of $5K per child back to families.

Assuming your average family has about two kids in the public school system, that’s $10K per family.

That won’t make any family rich, but it would probably get most families out of deep poverty.

III. A $5K per student spending reduction would likely not lead to major education losses

Dropping to $15K per student would still put these cities ahead of the national average of ~$10K per student. Even adjusting for cost of living differences, none of the cities would be that far off typical educational spending.

To get a taste for what cities are able to achieve with various students and spending, see below:

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The above is by no means an accurate picture of school system effectiveness, as it’s based on absolute scores rather than growth; however, it provides decent evidence that schools systems that spend $10K-15K to student can still achieve relatively ok outcomes.

50% of the top ten adjusted scoring cities in the country are located in Texas and Florida, both of which spend very modestly.

Ultimately, the students in Washington D.C., Newark, and New York City are different than students in other cities, so we can’t make any claims with 100% confidence, but the experience of other cities suggests that spending $15K per student is enough to provide an education on par with other major cities across the country.

IV. What do you think parents would want?

Somebody should poll this question, but I expect families that have two children would rather have $10K in cash per year / $15K in education spending rather than $0K in cash / $20K in education spending.

For many of these families, $10K per year would be absolutely game changing.

It would be very interesting for an aspiring politician to run on this as a single issue platform. Or to take the issue to a popular referendum.

V. Trade off that no one explicitly made

Here’s the thing: every marginal $1K increase in education spending can be justified at the time. There’s always a compelling financial ask to be made when families in poverty are struggling to get a great education.

But, eventually, these marginal increases can lead to spending allocations that just might be out of line with what families want and what might be in the public interest.

My guess is that providing a $5K per student basic income to families – and reducing educational spending by the same amount – would increase the welfare of families in some cities.

 

Here’s how much I gave to charity this year

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Every year I write a blog post about how much I gave to charity. I do this with the hopes of (ever slightly) increasing a culture of giving.

This year, I gave 8% of my gross income.

Some reflections below.

How much does it cost to save a life?

GiveWell makes rough estimates that the most effective charities save a life for around $1,000-$3,000.

That means most readers of this blog could save the lives of multiple people this year.

I hope you do so.

Where did I give? Why? 

I gave my money to GiveWell and told them they could allocate it across any of their preferred charities, save for Give Directly.

My giving is based on the following:

(1) I understand that peace, economic growth, technological advancement is what really matters most over the long-haul.

(2) I have no idea how to donate to charity in a manner that helps the above.

(3) There are many people who face acute suffering right now.

(4) I have some modest hopes that charities can help with this acute suffering.

(5) Giving internationally is the most effective way to ease the most acute suffering per donation.

The reason I do not give to Give Directly (direct cash transfers to poor people) is not that I think it’s a bad idea; rather I just don’t think we have enough evidence to prove that it alleviates suffering as well as GiveWell’s others recommend charities.

What worries me the most about my giving strategy?

I am open to the idea that making high-risk bets on existential issues (war, climate change, A.I., pandemics, etc.) will have more long-term utility than lower-risk bets that ameliorate current human suffering.

But I don’t trust myself to evaluate how to give to these causes, nor have I found experts that I fully trust that could guide my giving on these causes.

GiveWell is trying to mature this space with its Open Philanthropy initiative, but I don’t yet have enough confidence in their analysis to shift my giving.

Given the current turmoil in our country, why didn’t I give domestically?

I do think that the United States could do incredible global harm by starting an ill-advised war, radically reducing its commitment to climate change efforts, or erecting massive trade barriers that severely slow the global economy.

Because of this, I made political donations throughout the year (which I did not include in my charitable giving).

However, right now, I’m not really sure how to donate in a manner that would lower the risks of our government making any of the aforementioned grave errors.

If there is a way to do so, I will consider giving to these causes next year.

Should you calculate your giving rate based on pre or post tax income? 

I go back and forth in how one should figure taxes into this.

On one hand, about 10-20% of taxes go to the poor (I think, it’s very hard to get clear answers on this), which feels like charitable giving of some sort.

On the other hand, charitable giving is also tax deductible; moreover, I surely reap the fruits of living in a functioning country, and, in modern times, some form of welfare state is part of what creates domestic stability.

So I’m not sure that pre-tax is exactly the right baseline for calculation.

But I’ll stick to the hard line and calculate pre-tax: so 8% it is.