Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pay Us More and We will Teach Better
Not one of my instructors.
The subject comes from a public speaking instructor of mine whilst pursuing my BS.  He asked the class for impromptu speech topics and I said, "Instructor effectiveness."  His response was, "Pay us better and we will teach better."  Now, this fellow was no Marxist, at least not on the surface.  He seemed to be on the social conservative side of society and had generally mainstream conservative political views, when revealed.  A bit of a tell there was that he rarely expressed his political views, but when he did they seemed to be more along the lines of a country club Republican.

An interesting exchange it was, short as it was, and I do not recall any further discussion with him on the matter.  However, there is a basic fallacy at work here.  No, it is not the usual Marx' Labor Theory of Value fallacy, it is the notion that all one needs to do to get better stuff out the production end of the factory is to increase the raw materials on the receiving dock.  In this case, a degree factory.

Oddly, even people who have worked real jobs in the real world and shun the life of the academic fall prey to the notion that if you just pay someone more money they will be more productive, or produce higher quality products.  In my brief stints in factory work I heard it all of the time.  "If they want me to do more, then need to pay me more!"  Note, these complaints were never in the vein of operating their own machine while supervising five more lines.  No, it was most always another quality check on their line, or something similar.  It briefly ignores all other conditions, that when queried also experience grand inflation.

Want an example from white-collar world?  I wrote of this situation here before.  When I was working in the Pentagon for the Army Staff, one of the designated Information Technology Portfolio Managers, who was responsible for checking if about 100 training systems were in compliance with various reporting aspects, would have a fit every time I reminded her to check her portfolio.  Her objection was "Unfunded mandate!"  Somehow this GS-12 had gotten the notion that she could not be assigned any duty without an additional increase in pay and she was not going to mouse-check 100 boxes on a computer screen until some additional funding arrived.  The other problem was within her command, since the system "owners" could self report this task (and should have) been spread around to several people more familiar with the individual systems.  She continued with her systems boycott until long after I moved on to other things, and nothing negative happened to her as far as I know.

So, what of this notion that if you just pay someone better, they will do better work?  We all want higher pay, sellers of anything always want to realize a higher price for their goods.  However, it is utter nonsense on its face and we have all seen examples where it does not work.  We have all seen people who do the most menial, low paying jobs in a superb manner without complaining about it.  Right beside them, we see the slacker who views his primary job function as moaning about how he is being "screwed by the man".  We all know which one of them is doing the work of both.

The real bottom line here is, if you do not have the skills to do a job, then it does not matter how much you get paid, you will not be able to do the job correctly.  And who wants to pay for that at all, much less more?

So, back to the public speaking instructor.  His notion was one not far from bumper stickers of the day.  His notion was that students would learn better skills (the effectiveness part) if only their teachers were paid better (the raw materials input part).  So, I shall use myself as an example.  I know my way around a tool box and muscle cars, but I am no expert.  I can teach someone how to adjust a carburetor, but someone else taught me that about six years ago and it was just a Carter two-barrel.  If someone paid me a million dollars, I could not teach anybody how to tune a Holly six-pack, and adding a gun to my head would only result in my son inheriting the million dollars.

Another subtle notion within the instructor's comment was that, perhaps, teachers were actually capable of being more effective but they were just sand-bagging until the public met their demands.  Does this approach work in any other industry?  Of course not.  McDonald's® does not gripe that their products will get better when their customers pay them more.  "Pssst, want that McDouble® to be ten times better?  Meet me at the side door with a sawbuck."  No, they offer what they offer and price it according to what they think will lure you into their store rather than Wendy's®.  Something that McDonald's® and Wendy's® will do that no university will ever do: Give you a refund, or at least a discount coupon, if you don't like what they served you.

Which leads to something else odd about the instructor's notion of increasing pay to increase performance is that if the compensation is unacceptable, why bother perusing that line of work to begin with?  He was a PhD candidate, in something other than education, and graduated a semester or two after I was in his class.  That sort of thing takes a lot of effort!  Why waste years of your life on something you are going to be unsatisfied with wherever you go to work?  I am sure McDonald's® could announce a Kobe beef burger tomorrow, but I doubt there would be very many takers.

Here is some good advice from my mother that I should have followed in my wasted youth, "Do the best job you can and learn as much about it as you can.  Become an expert in whatever you do, even if it is mopping the floors, and learn the job next to you too."

Now, for your video interlude - Debate: It is Smart to Get a PhD in Economics | Block and North:
Dr. Block could have made a much better case for his side.  He uses salary/hours as the primary motivation for becoming a Professor or Instructor of Austrian Economics, a variant on 'money for nothing and chicks for free,' without the chicks.

A more persuasive incentive might be to advance the science of Economics and they pay is gravy. Dr. Peter Boettke made a better defense of becoming a credentialed Economist, by accident, in one of his Foundation for Economic Education lectures on Austrian Econ.
Full disclosure: I did not consider Economics a science until I got deeper into Chicago and Austrian Econ, and I have a Finance degree.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Romans Built Better Bridges than the Tennessee Department of Transportation

So, downtown in the Big-City-Down-The-Pike (Knoxville, Tennessee) they are pretending to rebuild a bridge.  The history of this bridge is shrouded in mystery.  For starters, we know original construction began on September 30, 1930.  That date is recorded in numerous places, including WikipediaHowever, ground breaking was on September 24, 1930 in the midst of, apparently, endless scandals.
Progress photo, 1 DEC 1931
Now the rest gets murky.  The completion "date" was somewhere in 1931.  Apparently December 1931, because every reference says it was "completed in 1931," or something similar, and a little digging uncovered the photo above, where it does not look quite complete on the 1st of December.  So-far, no source is owning up to a precise completion date.

Fast forward to the 21st century: Big-City-Down-The-Pike decides to "restore" the big bridge.  With modern equipment and engineering, the Henley Street Bridge Project began sometime in 2011, as you can see from the link.  Silly me, I thought engineering involved exacting specifications.  I suppose noting the beginning of the project within a 365 day window is close enough, and an order of magnitude greater than merely mentioning the decade.  The photographic evidence seems to indicate somewhere around January 3, 2011.  Completion date?  Sometime in 2013 February 24, 2014.  So, let's figure out the calendar, that is roughly three times as long as it took in 1930/31.

In the course of researching this story, and hearing about this public works project on the radio every week, there seems to be some sort of concrete preservation strategy going on.  Rather than knocking down the old bridge and building an identical one, or [gasp!] building a better bridge, the bureaucrats-that-be decided to chip away the bits that are crumbling, presumably to preserve the endangered concrete, then weld in some new re-bar and pour new concrete over it.  As of this writing, and two years of reconstruction, it looks like this:
7 FEB 2013
One would think that some sort of technological advances had happened since 1930.  Unemployment is not much different, so there were plenty of construction workers available at rock-bottom rates (if taken) both times.  But, somehow, some way, this bridge takes three times as long to build in the 21st century as it did in the 20th.

The latest news is: endangered concrete is not the sturdy stuff that lasts forever under water as originally thought.

When authorities closed the bridge in January 2011 for the $24.7 million renovation, they expected the structure to reopen no later than June 30 this year.

Workers in December, however, discovered deterioration on the three sets of pillars in the water that exceeded expectations, said Wayne Seger, director of the bridge division for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

The troublesome piers are 3, 4 and 5, which are numbered from the north side of Fort Loudoun Lake.

Seger said authorities decided it best to rebuild the three piers rather than try to patch them.
The Romans built bridges better!  They were probably quicker about it too, but I've not been able to find how fast they worked.
The Alcántara Bridge, Spain, a masterpiece of ancient bridge building via Wikipedia

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Soviet Tribute to Ted Kennedy (1963)

A 1963 Soviet cartoon depicting Ted Kennedy's ascension from common trust fund beneficiary to US Senator (Updated video 4 FEB 2013):
A few years later, Ted was asking for a little help from his Soviet friends.

TEXT OF KGB LETTER ON SENATOR TED KENNEDY_________________________________________
Special Importance
Committee on State Security of the USSR
14.05. 1983 No. 1029 Ch/OV
Regarding Senator Kennedy’s request to the General Secretary of the Communist Party Comrade Y.V. Andropov
Comrade Y.V. Andropov
On 9-10 May of this year, Senator Edward Kennedy’s close friend and trusted confidant J. Tunney was in Moscow. The senator charged Tunney to convey the following message, through confidential contacts, to the General Secretary of the Center Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Y. Andropov.
Senator Kennedy, like other rational people, is very troubled by the current state of Soviet-American relations. Events are developing such that this relationship coupled with the general state of global affairs will make the situation even more dangerous. The main reason for this is Reagan’s belligerence, and his firm commitment to deploy new American middle range nuclear weapons within Western Europe.
According to Kennedy, the current threat is due to the President’s refusal to engage any modification on his politics. He feels that his domestic standing has been strengthened because of the well publicized improvement of the economy: inflation has been greatly reduced, production levels are increasing as is overall business activity. For these reasons, interest rates will continue to decline. The White House has portrayed this in the media as the “success of Reaganomics.”
Naturally, not everything in the province of economics has gone according to Reagan’s plan. A few well known economists and members of financial circles, particularly from the north-eastern states, foresee certain hidden tendencies that many bring about a new economic crisis in the USA. This could bring about the fall of the presidential campaign of 1984, which would benefit the Democratic party. Nevertheless, there are no secure assurances this will indeed develop.
The only real threats to Reagan are problems of war and peace and Soviet-American relations. These issues, according to the senator, will without a doubt become the most important of the election campaign. The movement advocating a freeze on nuclear arsenals of both countries continues to gain strength in the United States. The movement is also willing to accept preparations, particularly from Kennedy, for its continued growth. In political and influential circles of the country, including within Congress, the resistence to growing military expenditures is gaining strength.
However, according to Kennedy, the opposition to Reagan is still very weak. Reagan’s adversaries are divided and the presentations they make are not fully effective. Meanwhile, Reagan has the capabilities to effectively counter any propaganda. In order to neutralize criticism that the talks between the USA and the USSR are non-constructive, Reagan will grandiose, but subjectively propagandistic. At the same time, Soviet officials who speak about disarmament will be quoted out of context, silenced or groundlessly and whimsically discounted. Although arguments and statements by officials of the USSR do appear in the press, it is important to note the majority of Americans do not read serious newspapers or periodicals.
Kennedy believes that, given the current state of affairs, and in the interest of peace, it would be prudent and timely to undertake the following steps to counter the militaristic politics of Reagan and his campaign to psychologically burden the American people. In this regard, he offers the following proposals to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Y.V. Andropov:

1. Kennedy asks Y.V. Andropov to consider inviting the senator to Moscow for a personal meeting in July of this year. The main purpose of the meeting, according to the senator, would be to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA. He would also like to inform you that he has planned a trip through Western Europe, where he anticipates meeting England’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Mitterand in which he will exchange similar ideas regarding the same issues. If his proposals would be accepted in principle, Kennedy would send his representative to Moscow to resolve questions regarding organizing such a visit.
Kennedy thinks the benefits of a meeting with Y.V.Andropov will be enhanced if he could also invite one of the well known Republican senators, for example, Mark Hatfield. Such a meeting will have a strong impact on American and political circles in the USA (In March of 1982, Hatfield and Kennedy proposed a project to freeze the nuclear arsenals of the USA and USSR and pblished a book on the theme as well.)
2. Kennedy believes that in order to influence Americans it would be important to organize in August-September of this year, televised interviews with Y.V. Andropov in the USA. A direct appeal by the General Secretary to the American people will, without a doubt, attact a great deal of attention and interest in the country. The senator is convinced this would receive the maximum resonance in so far as television is the most effective method of mass media and information.