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Bryan Caplan at EconLog

Last Build Date: Wed, 18 Apr 2018 18:06:23 -0500

Copyright: Copyright 2018

How People Get Good at Their Jobs: IDF Edition, by Bryan Caplan

Wed, 18 Apr 2018 14:08:34 -0500

 Email from EconLog reader Joshua Fox, reprinted with his permission.  There's no reason, of course, that you couldn't have a similar job training model without the injustice of conscription. Bryan, I loved The Case Against Education. Further support for your thesis comes from the Israel Defense Forces, where twenty-year-olds control air traffic, direct large organizations, and develop software. In civilian life, such levels of responsibility would require  an advanced  education.  The IDF sorts  candidates partially by their formal schooling. But since the process starts in the beginning of the  senior year, and certainly before matriculation tests are finished, academic progress is not the most important criterion.  The IDF  administers IQ tests. They also give  personality tests (created by no other than Daniel Kahnemann!). Other  markers of personal "quality" are used, with less weight, as for example leadership in extracurricular activities.  New soldiers get taught exactly the needed skills. For example, software developers get a few months of training focused  on software development. The  army  allows a a few recruits in relevant areas, like engineering and medicine, to delay their service until after their degree. And amazingly, the software developers, air traffic controllers, medics and others seem to do as good a job as any in civilian life. In fact,  their levels of   responsibility would otherwise require many years of experience, another twist on your thesis. And these soldiers are not just a select few: Israel has broad mandatory conscription.  The next questions are whether and why these soldiers have to step down to a lower level of responsibility when they enter civilian life, and  whether and why they need a B.A. to get hired. Best,  Joshua P.S. My four kids didn't attend school. (2 COMMENTS)[...]

Divine Clarity, by Bryan Caplan

Tue, 17 Apr 2018 13:22:09 -0500

My favorite passage from Ali Rizvi's The Atheist Muslim:
[M]ost moderately religious people, especially here in the West, approach their religious scriptures very differently from how they would read, say, Alice in Wonderland, or this book you're reading right now.  As I write this, I am making a conscious, deliberate effort to be as clear as I possibly can and minimize any potential ambiguity.  I know I will not be given the luxury of generous "interpretation" beyond what these words say at face value.  I will literally be held to a much higher standard as a writer than God himself.  It isn't uncommon for critics of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris to quote decontextualized excerpts from their writings to accuse them of being bigots, while also hurling the same accusation at those who don't adequately "interpret" verses in the Quran that endorse in plain language the beheading of disbelievers or beating of wives.  In a 2014 tweet, Reza Aslan gave Harris some unsolicited advice: "If you're constantly having to explain away horrid things you've written, don't write them in [the first] place."  Note that this is from a man who has partly made a career out of constantly explaining to people why violent passages in the Scripture don't really mean what they say.
The book was a birthday present from my courageous friend, Ish Faisal of Ex-Muslims of North America.


My WSJ Interview/Profile, by Bryan Caplan

Mon, 16 Apr 2018 08:19:31 -0500

I'm in the weekend edition of the WSJ, talking to James Taranto about The Case Against Education.  Gated, unfortunately!


Bleg: The Most Quotable Immigrant Memoirs, by Bryan Caplan

Fri, 13 Apr 2018 15:54:07 -0500

I'm looking for highly quotable immigrant memoirs. What are your top picks?


From Game Theory to Gas Theory, by Bryan Caplan

Thu, 12 Apr 2018 15:31:42 -0500

What exactly are the strategic advantages of using poison gas?  Militarily, it's hard to see the temptation; by the standards of modern weaponry, poison gas sure doesn't seem remarkably cheap or effective.  Politically, moreover, the danger is obvious.  Since almost every major country deplores the use of poison gas, deploying it is a great way to make powerful enemies.

So how would a good game theorist make sense of the decision to use poison gas?  I don't know, but this 2017 piece by journalist Gwynne Dyer is the best analysis I could find.  Highlights:
When a crime is committed, the likeliest culprit is the person who benefited from the deed... [W]ho stood to benefit from the chemical attack in the first place?

There was absolutely no direct military advantage to be derived from killing 80 civilians with poison gas in Khan Sheikhoun. The town, located in al-Qaida-controlled territory in Idlib province, is not near any front line, and it is of no military significance. The one useful thing that the gas attack might produce, with an impulsive new president in the White House, was an American attack on the Syrian regime.

Who would benefit from that? Well, the rebels obviously would. They have been on the ropes since the Assad regime reconquered Aleppo in December, and if the warming relationship between Washington and Moscow resulted in an imposed peace settlement in Syria, they would lose everything..

Chemical weapons were stored in military facilities all over Syria, and at one point half the country was under rebel control...

The results have already been spectacular. The developing Russian-American alliance in Syria is broken, the prospect of an imposed peace that sidelines the rebels -- indeed, of any peace at all -- has retreated below the horizon...

Just Pro-Putin propaganda?  I think not.  Dyer continues:

But we should also consider the possibility that Assad actually did order the attack. Why would he do that? For exactly the same reason: to trigger an American attack on the Syrian regime. From a policy perspective, that could make perfectly good sense.

The American attack didn't really hurt much, after all, and it has already smashed a developing Russian-American relationship in Syria that could have ended up imposing unwelcome conditions on Assad. Indeed, Moscow and Washington might ultimately have decided that ejecting Assad -- though not the entire regime -- from power was an essential part of the peace settlement.

Assad doesn't want foreigners deciding his fate, and he doesn't want a "premature" peace settlement either. He wants the war to go on long enough for him to reconquer and reunite the whole country --with Russian help, of course. So use a little poison gas, and Trump will obligingly over-react. That should end the threat of U.S.-Russian collaboration in Syria.


Either of these possibilities -- a false-flag attack by al-Qaida or a deliberate provocation by the regime itself -- is quite plausible. What is not remotely believable is the notion that the stupid and evil Syrian regime just decided that a random poison gas attack on an unimportant town would be a bit of fun.

Note: Dyer is analyzing last year's Syrian gas attack, not the latest news...


Dr. Pritchett's Six Bitter Pills, by Bryan Caplan

Wed, 11 Apr 2018 14:13:41 -0500

When Chris Blattman publicly asked, "As a development economist, what is one politically-incorrect research finding (a finding reflecting an unpopular belief) that you wish more people cared about?," Lant Pritchett swiftly rattled off six responses.  I stitch them together here, with Lant's permission.  Lant speaking:

1. One of course is that the income gains to movers from migration are an order of magnitude bigger than any in situ development project/program gain.

Another is that the variance of economic growth rates is much lower among democracies than non-democracies and hence (descriptively) nearly all episodes of rapid, sustained, (and hence poverty reducing) economic growth were initiated by non-democratic regimes (e.g. Indonesia, China, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam).

Another is that on many individualized indicators of well-being (education, health, malnutrition, self-reported subjective well-being) the gaps between the sexes within poor countries are at least an order of magnitude smaller than the gaps between males in poor countries and females in rich (OECD) countries.

Another is the point Dani Rodrik has made (and Branko and me using Engle curves and food shares not income) that the rich in poor countries (e.g. 95th percentile) are much poorer than the poor in rich countries (say 20th percentile).

Another is that the high scoring students in poor countries on examinations like PISA (or equivalent) are much lower than even the average of the OECD--so while there are rich-poor gaps in the quality of education in poor countries this is not because the rich get a good education and the poor get a bad one but because the rich get a bad one and the poor get none at all (e.g. on a recent OECD study tertiary graduates in the capital city of Jakarta had lower measured literacy than high school drop-outs in Denmark, or when Indian states participated in PISA there were literally no students in the sample in the top two categories (5 and 6) of a six level scale of performance).

The reason I wish more people paid attention to the last three is that in my view in development today there is too much attention to inequality within poor countries and not enough to the very low levels such that things are pretty bad even for the, say, 80th percentile.