Twofish's Blog

March 25, 2007

Why I am an Austrian

Filed under: austrian economics, china, hayek — twofish @ 3:48 am

The history of Austrian economics in the United States was that because Austrian economists were “anti-New Deal” they formed an political marriage with the “old Right” in the United States.The reason I find Austrian economics interesting is because a lot of the analysis of Austrian economics fits nicely with Confucian social analysis. This creates a synthesis that is very different than what Murray Rothbard has come up with.

In particular, the three things that I find useful about Austrian economics is that conventional neo-classical economics assumes a pre-existing institutional structure, which may not exist in the case of a developing country like China. Neo-classical models can come up with a good theory that calculate equilibrium values if you do something with interest rates, but what happens if you don’t have a banking system or if you have an industral infrastructure that reacts in a non-conventional way to interest rates. The problems that China presents involve creating institutions, and neo-classical economics says nothing about the types of institutions you should create and how to create them.

By contrast, Austrian economics begins at the very core with “human desire”. You look at the individual and how he or she behaves, and then you zoom out and look at how collections of individuals behave. With this view, you can try to figure out what institutions need to be created and how to create them.  The big success of the Austrians was to figure out what the essential problem with central planning is, which is that central planning simply cannot handle all of the economic calculations necessary to run a national economy, and those calculations have to be done through some sort of market mechanism.

The second thing that then that I find useful about Austrian economics is that Austrian economics thinks about the process of wealth creation, whereas neo-classical economics really doesn’t have anything useful that I can see about the process of wealth creation. Neo-classical economics mainly concerns itself with how to efficiently redistribution wealth that is already existing, but it doesn’t have a theory about how to actually create wealth. Neither do Austrians, but they are thinking about the topic.

The final thing that I find useful about Austrian economics is that it concerns itself with imperfect information. What do you do if you don’t know what is going on? This is particularly important in Chinese economic reform because the process of Chinese economic reform has been a process of learning.

Within the framework, I’ve come up with different conclusions and views than von Mises and Rothbard. In particular, von Mises’s notion that private managers in large private corporations act differently than private managers in large socialist state corporations is in my empirical experience, wrong. This also fits with the experience in China. In the early-1980’s China was able to have huge bursts in agricultural production by making farmers individual entrepreneurs. These policies also worked very well with small companies, but in large companies, these policies failed miserably

One thing that I noticed is that I’m more concerned with institutions than the typical Austrian, and I  think figured out why.  It turns out that my thinking was very similar to the “Texas institutionists” which was odd because even though I live in Texas, I wasn’t aware of them.  So I was thinking about what we were seeing that caused us to see the world in the same way, and it hit me that it was because of the oil industry.  I worked in a major oil company for a number of years, and the bureaucracy and the culture within a private oil company is the same as within a state-owned oil company is the same as frankly within a large bureaucratic institution like the Communist Party of China.  The reason that big business gets along well with the Communist Party of China is that the people and the culture within them are pretty much the same.  The only difference is at the top where there is a need not to go bankrupt in private corporations which is not present in state enterprises.

So I while I agree with von Mises and Hayek’s ideas on the central nature of economic calculation, and I agree about the importance of entreprenurship in small companies, I just don’t think that their description of the difference between large state companies and large private companies is correct.

March 23, 2007

Comments on China Law Blog

Filed under: china, politics — twofish @ 10:58 pm

> Beijing also has been giving big rebates on the VAT to subsidize exporters.

One of the actions of the NPC was to equalize foreign and domestic tax rates.  China is becoming an attractive enough destination is there is no need to attract investment by lowering taxes.

In any event, government revenues are coming in and there is enough money to pay for things.

> Beijing is too far away to stop local officials from collecting taxes that have been eliminated.

No they aren’t.  What has happened in the last fifteen years is this dance.  Beijing bans X, local officials respect ban, but try to collect revenue using method Y.  Beijing ban local officials from using rural credit cooperatives as cash machines.  They set up tariffs.  Those get banned.  They set up fees.  Those get banned.  They set up land sales.  Those are now banned.

The basic problem is that local governments are broke.

What makes this time different is that finally the central government is coming in and paying for things, because they now have the cash to do it from the VAT.  Setting up a proper tax system was something China tried and failed to do in the 1750’s, and it was the *big* reason why China went through hell in the 19th century, and now in the 1990’s, it’s finally done it.

(No taxes -> no armies -> no armies, you are at the mercy of your neighbors.  That $70 billion that the PRC spends on its military might seem like a waste, but if it spent zero, I can assure you that China is going to be at the mercy of Japan, Russia, and the United States, and we are going to be back to the 19th century.  If you want to see the consequences of “lets talk peace and hope people are nice to us” ask the Tibetans.)

> Everyone still has to pay for books, uniforms and tuition, so where is this “education” fund?

They are starting with the poorest Western provinces.  They started last year with 50 million children.  Last count they are up to 150 million kids.

> Chinese hospitals require payments up front.

And they’ll get it from insurance payments in NCMS.  As with the education fund, the government is starting with the poorest counties and working their way up.

> The banks are still corrupt, witness the furor over one of the big 4 accounting firms tallying a $900 billion NPL ratio for the 4 big state owned banks, which also pretty much wipes out much of the savings of average chinese.

We covered that here.  If you look at the archive, I went through and pointed out exactly where Ernst and Young couldn’t add right, and double counted about $300 billion.  The total figure for NPL’s was about $500 billion.  Of that about $300 billion from the SOE’s has been  paid off over the last ten years, and that will  done when they close the asset management companies next year.

That leaves about $200 billion in bad loans in the rural credit cooperatives and joint stock cooperative banks, and fixing those is on the todo list.

> China has to pump money into the US so we can buy all of those exports made by slave labor.

Actually, I see the money that China is paying the United States as something akin to “military tribute.”  The money that China is paying the United States has the effect of allowing the United States to keep reliable oil supplies from the Middle East, while at the same time preventing the United States from acting in ways that are extremely adverse to Chinese national interest.

Let’s be clear on this.  Without Chinese money, the US would be pulling out of Iraq in six months at the most.  With Chinese money, the United States is telling Chen Shui-Bian to shut up every time it talks about Taiwan independence.

If you want to see slavery go back to the 1960’s.  Until 1978, you couldn’t choose your job, under centralized socialism, the government was the only employer and you did what the government told you to do.  The market has eliminated that.

Since 1978, China has moved about 300 million people to the middle class, and has at least guaranteed basic necessities for the remaining 900 million.  That’s further along than Deng Xiao-Ping planned.

If you assume about 8% economic growth, then get 1.3 billion people up to Western standards from 1978 is going to take about a century.  If you seriously think that you can do better than that, I’d be interested in how.

I’m not interested in abstract political philosophy, and I have very little respect for “magic wand” solutions.  I want numbers and concrete proposals.  How much is this going to cost?  Where is the money going to come from?  Who wins?  Who loses?  How long is it going to take?  What are the political challenges?  What are the risks?  What are the benefits?  What are the assumptions that you are making?  What if they are wrong?

It’s answering these sorts of questions that gets anything done in business and politics, otherwise you end up with discussions that are just pointless at best, and tremendously harmful at worst.

House vote on Iraq – Irresponsible

Filed under: china, iraq — twofish @ 5:43 pm

The House just voted to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq by 9/2008, and I think this is one of the most irresponsible moves that they could make.  The reason is that no one is thinking twenty years ahead.  Right now Iraq looks like a hopeless mess, but twenty years from now memory will fade, and people will be talking about how “we almost won if we didn’t get stabbed in the back by the evil Democrats.”  That is how Germany remembered World War I, and how the United States remembered Vietnam, and it is vital when you pull out that you do it in a way that doesn’t create a “back stab” legend.

It may or may not be a good thing to get out of Iraq, but to make a decision like that requires a national consensus and effectively a national vote.  It is important that the United States make no irrevocable decisions before the Presidental elections in 2008, and “what do you think we should do about Iraq?” should be *the* major question that every Presidential candidate needs to be asked.  Yes, it may be uncomfortable to have the debate now, but if we don’t have the debate now, we’ll be having it twenty years from now, when people talk about “back stabs.”  If the plug is pulled, it needs to be made clear that it was because of the collective decision of the American people, and that there is no way that you can blame this on a few politicians.

This points out one serious weakness of the American character.  Americans tend to have this incredible and shocking inability to think ahead more than a few months at a time.  When people in East Asia and the Middle East think about policy, they are thinking ahead decades and if not centuries.  If you ask an American politician what he wants the world to look like in 2100, he probably couldn’t tell you.

This is really, really scary, because if you ask bin-Laden or someone in the Iraqi insurgency what they want the world to look like in 2100, or 2200 they can.

March 22, 2007

China and Africa

Filed under: africa, china — twofish @ 6:26 pm

http://www.chinalawblog.com/chinalawblog/2007/03/china_and_afric.html 

The problem is that if you don’t look at consequences and just look at motives, you might end up with a situation which is worse than if you had done nothing.

Also, there is a hidden message in attaching strings which is that Western countries are basically saying that they know how to run African countries better than the Africans do, and that is just not true.  Westerners like to think of themselves as wise teachers, but people in the West know little about what it takes to develop a country because no one really knows what it takes to develop a country.  Ignorance is not a problem.  It’s ignorance of ignorance that is dangerous.

If you deal with someone from a point of view of self-interest, there is an implied amount of respect.  I’m working with you for my self-interest, you have to look out for yourself, and I trust that you can handle your own affairs better than I can.

China’s intentions in Africa are largely selfish, and there is a refreshing amount of honesty in that.  The other interesting thing is sometimes the selfish thing turns out to be the right thing to do, whereas the altruistic thing turns out to be the wrong thing to do.

The problem with pretending that your interests are other than what they are is that it just makes things more complex.  The trouble with altruism is that altruism has its limits.  To raise Africa to first world standards of living is going to take tens of trillions of dollars of investment and at least a century.  That sort of investment is not going to come via altruism.

The other problem with trying to run someone else’s life and politics is that you get sick of it and leave long before anything useful happens.  The story of African development is going to be one that lasts at least a hundred years, and it is going to be one that is largely written by the Africans.  If you are an outsider, you have the option of packing up and going home once you find out how difficult things are going to be.  If someplace is your home, you don’t have that option, and you are going to be intent on making it better because you don’t have any other choice.

China’s aging workers

Filed under: china, finance, quantitative finance — twofish @ 8:08 am

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/22/world/asia/22china.html

It’s interesting how the NYT moves from crisis to crisis, and has just discovered that China has a huge pension liability problem and an issue with a rapidly aging population.  It’s also interesting that the article doesn’t mention at all, the ***real*** big problem which is coming up.

The problem of China’s aging workers is something that people elsewhere have been thinking about for, I don’t know, the last twenty years.  The second that China started the one child policy, thirty years ago, people have been doing demographic projections, so this really isn’t a new problem.

And then there are the usual “we don’t know what to do, and the government is doomed”  slant, whereas the whole point of Chinese financial restructuring in the last ten years has been to deal with this problem.

I don’t think that it is going to be an insurmountable problem. China has vast pools of savings. The pension hole is about $1.5 trillion, but China has $1.2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and that number is growing. Also, China has very low productivity, unlike Japan, Chinese workers can produce more by moving from farm to factory.

What really somewhat annoys me is all of the economists that have been saying that China saves too much, should consume more, and switch from a capital-intensive system to a labor-intensive system, and that it is unhealthy for China to be saving 40% of GDP, and that China should spend like there is no tomorrow like Americans do.

But wait!!!! Suddenly there is this realization that hundreds of millions of people are going to retire over the next decade. Oh my goodness, we are doomed. Well maybe it wasn’t just a bad idea that Chinese have been saving like crazy for the last twenty years, unlike these short-sighted economist, the average Chinese peasant realizes that they are going to grow old, and they want to do something about it, and unlike the US government, the Chinese government has been spending the last decade coming up with effective ways of dealing with the aging population.

I’m not too worried about China, since when China grows old they are going to start withdrawing the trillions of dollars that they have invested in the United States. What worries me is what will happen in the United States when that starts happening, and it’s interesting that the New York Times article doesn’t mention the implications of that.  China is pumping $200 billion into the US economy each year because China doesn’t have the financial system to handle all of the retiree money, but the United States does.  At some point this outflow will become an inflow, both as China develops its financial system so that it can invest the money without a “round trip” into the United States, and as retirees retire.

It will be interesting to see what happens.  China will be in good shape because people have been planning for that moment for a long time.  The United States on the other hand……  There is this interesting paragraph…

Most troubling to financial experts, the government has used payroll taxes paid by the current generation of workers, who in theory are paying into their individual retirement accounts, to pay pensions for the previous generation.

Troubling.  Yes.  In the case of China, it’s less bad because workers in 2020 will likely be much more productive than workers today, and having a “pay as you go” system will push some of this productivity into the aging population.  Chinese save money today.  This goes into a factory that increases the wealth of workers there.  Some of this wealth goes into a payroll tax which funds pension.  It works as long as there is this pool of extra productivity.

Now if you don’t have this pool of productive then if you use a “pay as you go” method of financing Social Security, you are asking for problems…. Especially if your economy is dependent on funding from another country that is saving for its retirees…..

Oh wait……

March 10, 2007

Survivor’s guilt

Filed under: academia, life, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 3:29 pm

Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve talked to people about my ideas for transforming undergraduate physics education, and gotten the reaction that the system was too strong and that things basically wouldn’t change. I’ve been thinking about how to respond to that, and the irony is that those were exactly the same points that I made to Margaret MacVicar in the spring of 1991.

In the spring and fall of 1990, MacVicar and I met a few times. I was the database coordinator of the student Course Evaluation Guide, and I had written a set of database reports that gave the departments and the schools (mainly the School of Engineering) some extremely detailed breakdowns of the questions. MacVicar had become interested in those, and she talked to me about the reports she needed. I remember that she looked at what I could provide, and said that it needed to be expressed in “dean’s language” not “computer programmers language” and had some suggestions about how to organize her report. I also remember at one meeting asking what

She needed those reports because she thought that the departments were understating the actual number of hours that people were spending on science courses and overstating humanities hours. (They were.) And she needed data so that she could use the regional accreditators to force MIT to increase its humanities options. We met a few times, and I remember her asking a series of questions to see if I was interested in money, power, or glory, and when it was obvious that I was interested in glory, she talking about her ideas for a revolution. I thought she was crazy and desperate, but she was the dean, so I kept that to myself. I remember at one point asking her what she thought would happen with the new President, now that Gray was leaving and the new person hadn’t been selected. She seemed very nervous when I asked that question, and gave an answer that didn’t say anything. “Of course, I’ll serve in any role the new president requires of me” was her reply.

I was able to generate the reports that she needed, and I remember a meeting in the Undergraduate Education Office in Building 20, when she was presenting the reports to representatives of the departments. I stood there with the CEG evaluation coordinator, and the audience was quite hostile.

Nothing ever became of this. In March of 1991, I got a letter from Vice-Provost Jay Keyser. which was sent to all of the graduating seniors, asking about any thoughts about my four years at MIT, which coincidentally came in the same pile of mail as my rejection letter from the MIT physics department. Needlessly to say I wasn’t happy, and I sent him an angry, ranting e-mail which I cc’d to MacVicar. The point of the letter was that everyone at MIT had told me to focus at MIT, but I was finding that studying the humanities was putting me at a disadvantage in applying for graduate schools.

As far as MacVicar, I wrote something that made exactly the same points people were making to me. I remember saying something to the effect of “Dean MacVicar is a wonderful person with good ideas, so it is a shame that nothing she has done or is doing will amount to anything substantial because the academic system is too strong. She can try to do whatever she wants to try, but in the end, nothing will change.”

About a week later, I was talking to the UASO contact for the Course Evaluation Guide, and she mentioned that MacVicar had cancer and that it was very bad.

Ouch…..

Jay Keyser called me into his office, but it was pretty obvious from the conversation that he was just trying to see if I was about to go crazy or not, and he didn’t seem to take any of the points that I made in the letter seriously. I never interacted with MacVicar afterwards, so I don’t know even if she read the e-mail or what she thought of it.

So I left MIT… Got a nice boring job, and looked forward to a more or less nice boring life.

Then about five years ago, I came within a hair’s breath of dying. I don’t want to talk about exactly want happened. For the purposes of discussion, you can imagine that I was involved in a near fatal car accident. That will explain things like why I’m in constant pain. It won’t explain why MIT was involved or why I make a lot of references to Batman, but something happened. I survived, and survival brings guilt.

Death is easy. Life is difficult. The dead have moved on, leaving the living to try to make sense and bring meaning to something that is senseless and has no meaning.

There is a very strong element of chance of what happens, and asking whether or not one succeeds is ultimately determined by fortune. The important question is not whether one reaches one’s goals, but whether or not by trying, one makes the world a better place than if one had done nothing and if there is any better and easier alternative in doing what one is trying to do.

I think I probably would have felt better had MacVicar said something like this to me.

Looking back, the thing that I find frustrating about the current discussions of the General Institute Requirements at MIT, is that as far as I can see, it is *EXACTLY THE SAME DISCUSSION* that the Institute had in the late 1980’s with the HASS requirements.  The arguments are exactly the same, the political dynamics are exactly the same, and outcome, a political compromise to reflect the differing powers of the departments, is likely to be the same.

There are a few important things that I think I’ve learned

1) Nothing substantive will happen if you rely on internal bureaucratic and political mechanisms to conduct the debate.  In order to get any substantive change, you have to look not at MIT as a closed system, but rather at MIT in a wider social and educational context.  Rather than ask “what is the best educational system that MIT can provide”, I think it would be better to ask the question “what sort of educational and social system do we want to provide for the world” and then ask what MIT’s place in that system should be.

2) Nothing will happen if you require consensus and agreement.  The big problem with using the General Institute Requirements as the forum for discussion of these issues is that people need to agree about things that people basically don’t and can’t agree on.  A better approach would be to look at things where people can get useful things done without having to come to any agreement on what needs to be done.  The paradigm should be to plant seeds, exchange ideas, and define the issues.

3) Power traps you.  It may seem obvious that having a position of authority makes it easier to get stuff done, but that it not necessarily the case.  The trouble with having an academic position is that it limits what you can say and think (ask Larry Summers), and it also makes it difficult to communicate with sources of power.  The thing that I think that Dean MacVicar was realizing was that she needed had lost contacts with the undergraduates, and needed this sort of political base in order to stare down the departments.

4) The “gatekeeper syndrome”.  There is a problem that MacVicar ran into that is curiously the same one that the US Department of State has run into with democracy promotion.  The main contact that the MIT administration had with the undergraduates was through the elected Undergraduate Association.  The problem is that the student leaders in the UA got a lot of their power by controlling access between the undergraduates and the administration, and were very careful about letting people bypass them.  The problem that this led to was that there were not “deep communication links” between the administration and the student body.

One final thing, which is a weak point in bureaucratic institutions….

One of the rules of bureaucracy is that people who feel strongly about a subject should be ignored.  I think this is ultimately a weakness.  Jay Keyser didn’t take anything I said seriously because I was screaming, but the fact that I was screaming meant that it was important enough to me to be thinking about it fifteen years after the fact, and it’s likely that I’ll be concerned about these sorts of issues of the rest of my life, and there is a good chance that I’ll infect someone with my ideas so that things continue after I die.  The thing is that if you spend a long time working on a topic, you start learning things, and trying different approaches.  One of the reasons that I am blogging about this is I learned that if you restrict discussion, you aren’t going to get the social resources to get anything useful done.

I don’t know what will happen, but I think something useful will come out of this.

March 7, 2007

Why you should or should not go to MIT – A note for admitted seniors and their parents

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 8:38 pm

Since admission letters are going out soon, I’ve written something up about the culture of MIT in order to help graduating seniors and their parents make an informed decision about whether or not to accept an admission there. The problem with most college guides is that they really don’t tell you anything substantial about the place, and nothing that could be construed as negative.

The post is in the sidebar.

A little about me.  I graduated with a bachelor of science in physics from MIT in 1991 and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1998 so I’ve seen both a small big-name school and a big public university, and have some insights into the strengths and weaknesses of both.  I’ve been on the MIT campus three times in the last year, and so I hope that what I’ve written is reasonably current.  One of the interesting things is how little I’ve changed and how little the campus has changed.

Hope it is useful….

March 5, 2007

Things I’ve learned about curriculum reform since I’ve left MIT

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 5:07 pm

1) The hidden curriculum is not necessarily a bad thing, and is in fact the core of the education.  I remember that during the educational reform discussions at MIT in the 1980’s, the term “hidden curriculum” was used pejoratively.  What I’ve learned since then is that most of the hidden curriculum at MIT is actually pretty good.  The hidden curriculum consists of values, attitudes, and actions, and most of them are consistent with my values.

2) The hidden curriculum is more important than the “overt” curriculum.  The “overt” curriculum listed in the catalog is actually the tip of the iceberg of the “hidden” curriculum, and is almost completely irrelevant.  What is a common situation is that you take a written document like a curriculum or constitution and put it into a different context, and you find that it doesn’t work the same way or may not work at all.  This actually is a good thing for MIT, because the “overt” curriculum is something that is easily copied.  What is hard to copy is the social and cultural infrastructure that underlies the written curriculum.  In fact, “copying” a society or culture is probably the wrong metaphor.  It’s better to think of “growing” or “seeding” a society or culture.

3) The main point of a lecture is not to listen to the lecture.  The model most people have of a lecture is that you go there, you listen to the teacher, and you get enlightened.  This isn’t what is going on at all.  The important thing about a lecture is not that you are listening to the teacher.  That part is almost irrelevant.  The important thing about a lecture is that you are in the same room as other people who are also listening to the teacher.  Once you are in the same room as other like-minded people, social networks start to form, and *those* networks the major teaching and learning takes place.

This model of education explains why things don’t work if you replace a lecturer with a videotape.  The main job of the lecturer is not to lecture but to create a social community.  It also explains how MIT provides a good undergraduate education, despite the fact that formal undergraduate teaching is not a major priority of the institute (let’s be honest, it isn’t), and a lot of the professors are either mediocre or horrible teachers.

4) Consensus is a bad thing.  We want to reform education.  What do we do.  We put together a blue-ribbon committee that issues a report, and declare victory.  That is a bad way of going about it.  The problem with this approach is that people have fundamental disagreements about what it means to have “educational reform” and those fundamental disagreements in some cases are irreconcilable.  What you get when you put together a blue-ribbon committee is a political compromise that in the best case is not harmful, and in the worst case eats up a huge amount of energy and kills any real innovation and creativity.

The problem with consensus is that it uses a design and engineering metaphor for something that should be a nurturing and agricultural metaphor.  Education is not about designing a factory,  it’s about planting seeds.  You plant lots of seeds.  You plant different seeds.  You nurture them carefully and come back in a few years to see how they’ve grown.

The important thing about seeds is that they are easy to plant, and you don’t need a blue-ribbon committee to give you permission to plant them.  Also, once you’ve seen what some tiny seeds can do, you don’t stop thinking about things because they are impractical.

The problem with trying to things with consensus is that consensus prevents you from asking the deep important questions, because people have different views on the deep important questions.  Instead of asking what the requirements should be for the freshman year at MIT, lets ask “why does MIT have a freshman year?”  “what’s a freshman?”

Here we go again – Another wasted effort at curriculum reform at MIT

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 6:10 am

See also https://twofish.wordpress.com/the-open-architecture-degree/

I’m going to put on my angry blogger hat.  It gets attention, and I’m going to say things that need to be said.

In M12 of this months Technology Review, we hear yet once more about MIT trying to reform the freshman year.  I predict that nothing substantial well come from this, and that degree requirements will change slightly to reflect the different political powers of the departments at the Institute.

The problem is that thinking in terms of education as a list of credits and courses which can be only gotten at MIT (or any other institute) almost guarantees that discussions about curriculum will really be discussions about power within the Institute.  This discussion will end up *exactly* the same as every other such discussion that has happened at MIT in the last fifty years, which is that the curriculum will be changed slightly in order to reflect changing power dynamics (management and biology up, physics down).

The way out of this is to realize that the world of learning and scholarship includes more than MIT, and to question the idea that education consists of degrees, courses, and credits.  We need to start by asking how MIT can and should interact with the wider world of academia and scholarship.  How can MIT work with community colleges, state universities, and high schools for mutual benefit.  Lets question the idea of a degree, of the course as the basic unit of instruction, of this silly and stupid idea that one needs to be “admitted” to MIT or any university.  I believe that anyone that wants an MIT education should get one.  Let’s figure out how to make that happen.

The reason for directing the discussion outward rather than inward, it that as long as the discussion gets focused inward, all people will end up doing is discussing internal politics.  By throwing the discussion outward, we begin by asking ourselves what the purpose of an education is, and then we can ask ourselves what is the role of MIT within the educational system, and then we look at the *entire* MIT experience and see how this fits within the entire educational system.  Also by throwing the discussion open, we end up including people that have nothing to do with MIT and are unconnected with institute politics, and hence can provide some outside insight, or say things that would be too radical for an insider to say.

I’m willing to bet that with this discussion, we will find that the question of what department teaches what courses and what the course requirements are will turn out to be irrelevant.   Who *cares* (other than the MIT physics department) whether or not physics is a one or two semester requirement.  Does this matter in the grand scheme of things?  No, and it’s silly to see so much energy wasted on trivia.  The courses at MIT make up only a tiny part of the MIT experience, and you could (and maybe you should) have every course at MIT taught by people outside of the institute, and it wouldn’t change what I think is the core of the MIT undergraduate experience.  Let’s start with the premise that the credit and required course list is largely irrelevant, and see where this gets us.

One final thing.  Right before she passed away, Dean Margaret  MacVicar was starting to realize how it was necessary to push the discussion outward rather than direct it inward.  She was trying to do this by pulling the regional accreditors into the discussion.  Right around the time she passed away, I realized in a rather nasty way how MIT was only a small part of a larger system, and how petty and irrelevant the discussions on the freshmen year of the late-1980’s were.  It would not only a shame if we went through the same round of basically the same discussions, but it also would be self-destructive.

If you look inward, there’s no reason to go through another round of “my department is important enough to be a required course and yours is not”, but if you look outside, it is clear that wasting time with this is damaging.  The world is changing, the internet is becoming more pervasive, we are in the middle of a long war that is going to last the next 100 years, global power is shifting.  If the discussion is focused inward rather than outside, and centered on the trivial rather than the substantive, MIT risks irrelevance.

March 4, 2007

Random web annoyance

Filed under: Uncategorized — twofish @ 5:43 am

http://www.bookfinder.com is a wonderful site for doing comparison shopping for used books.  There is only one thing wrong with it.  Make sure you type things in correctly, because http://www.bookfinder*s*.com is an XXX site.

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