What learn-to-code websites can teach us about the future of education

I’ve spent most of my life in school. Mostly as a student but occasionally as a TA or prof. Since finishing my PhD this year and striking out into the private sector, I’ve done a little work to beef up my technical skills. I went on one of those learn-to-code websites to practice writing SQL queries, which I haven’t had to use for several years.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that those free websites are already much better at teaching than any university course. And it’s not even close.

But why? Why is traditional classroom pedagogy falling behind online tools? And what can schools learn from this?

Continue reading What learn-to-code websites can teach us about the future of education

The Hidden Rules of Ownership with Michael Heller

Michael Heller joins the podcast to discuss his new book, Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives. This book explores the implicit social rules governing ownership. In brief, these rules are as follows:

  1. Attachment (“it’s mine because it’s connected to something of mine”)
  2. Possession (“it’s mine because I physically control it”)
  3. First-in-time (“it’s mine because I was here first”)
  4. Labour (“it’s mine because I worked for it”)
  5. Self-ownership (“it’s mine because it came from my body”)
  6. Family (“it’s mine because my grandfather left it to me”)

We discuss these six rules with reference to many examples of how they play out in the modern world, from conflicts over airline seats to the rise and fall of Soviet communism.


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Thoughts on Parenting (Before Becoming a Parent)

My wife and I are having a baby. He is due in a little over a month. So before we start this journey, I’d like to write down some of my thoughts, beliefs, and opinions about parenting. Since I’m not yet a parent, these thoughts are primarily influenced by books, intuition, and my observations of friends with small children. I plan on looking back on this post in a year or two to see how the actual experience of parenting changes my views.

There are three books that have had a large impact on my views on parenting, and I’d like to mention them upfront. The first is Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. In this book, Bryan uses evidence from twin and adoption studies to argue that parenting is less important to children’s adult outcomes than most people believe. His conclusion is that parents can give themselves permission to not stress out about raising a little future CEO. Instead, parents can focus on doing things that make life more enjoyable for themselves and their kids right now.

The second book that influenced me is Emily Oster’s Cribsheet. This is a data-driven look at many different aspects of parenting. Unlike Caplan, Oster isn’t pushing a specific point. Instead, she gives a broad overview of what the science says about many different areas of parenting, from breastfeeding, to sleep training, to daycare.

The third book I want to mention is not by an economist: Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman. This book presents an autobiographical narrative about the American author’s experience raising her kids in France. What’s so interesting about this book is that it illustrates a lot of cultural differences in parenting styles and outcomes. When every kid in your culture is raised in a certain way, it’s hard to distinguish what is and isn’t a human universal, so an intense case study of just one other culture is enough to dispel a lot of false assumptions.

I’ll share my thoughts about parenting, starting general and getting more specific.

Continue reading Thoughts on Parenting (Before Becoming a Parent)

Developing a new SaaS pricing model

In personal news, I’ve been brought on as the chief economist for Abio, a software as a service company specializing in enterprise software for Canadian construction firms. The company is technically decades old, but it’s in a process of transition that makes it feel much more like a startup.

The most fun thing I’ve done for the company so far is to develop a pricing model for their product. It’s not trivial, since they sell a multi-functional product to companies that vary widely in scale. Here’s a snippet of the post I wrote for their blog:

We want to encourage all of our clients to use more of our features so that rules out some common pricing SaaS models. Many SaaS companies divide their services into tiers, allowing users can buy additional functionality for additional money. Doing this would make Abio significantly less valuable to some clients, and we didn’t want to do that.

Charging everyone the same flat price is a total non-starter. Doing so would either mean pricing out smaller companies or losing money on bigger ones. So the clear answer is to charge by usage. Simple, right?

It’s not so simple.

Since Abio is a bundle of services, it’s not clear what kinds of usage clients should pay for. Charge for every kind of usage and we end up nickel-and-diming clients. This conflicts with our goals of making prices transparent and of encouraging clients to use all of our service’s functionality. On the other hand, if we just charge for one or two services, the system becomes gameable. Someone could strategically use all the free parts of the software and pay us next to nothing while eating up our resources.

The solution we came up with was to bundle the services together into packages and charge each client for the number of packages they use in a month. Effectively, this means you pay for the service you use the most. So one package can grant you A unique users, B workers on payroll, C paycheques, D quotes, etc. all for X dollars.

Yeah, get out your pencils. This blog post is a word problem now!

Read the whole thing at their website.

The Kindness of Strangers with Michael McCullough

Today’s guest is Michael McCullough of the University of California, San Diego. We are discussing his book The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code.

How did humans, a species of self-centered apes, come to care about others? Since Darwin, scientists have tried to answer this question using evolutionary theory. In The Kindness of Strangers, psychologist Michael E. McCullough shows why they have failed and offers a new explanation instead. From the moment nomadic humans first settled down until the aftermath of the Second World War, our species has confronted repeated crises that we could only survive by changing our behavior. As McCullough argues, these choices weren’t enabled by an evolved moral sense, but with moral invention — driven not by evolution’s dictates but by reason.

Today’s challenges — climate change, mass migration, nationalism — are some of humanity’s greatest yet. In revealing how past crises shaped the foundations of human concern, The Kindness of Strangers offers clues for how we can adapt our moral thinking to survive these challenges as well.


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The Gender Salary Ask Gap with Nina Roussille

Today’s guest is Nina Roussille of UC Berkeley and we discuss her working paper, The central role of the ask gap in gender pay inequality.

The gender ask gap measures the extent to which women ask for lower salaries than comparable men. This paper studies the role of the ask gap in generating wage inequality using novel data from Hired.com, a leading online recruitment platform for full time engineering jobs in the United States. To use the platform, job candidates must post an ask salary, stating how much they want to make in their next job. Firms then apply to candidates by offering a bid salary they are willing to pay the candidate. If the candidate is hired, final salary is recorded. After adjusting for resume characteristics, the ask gap is 3.3%, the bid gap is 2.4% and the gap in final offers is 1.8%. Remarkably, further controlling for the ask salary explains all of the gender gaps in bid and final salary on the platform. To estimate the market-level effects of an increase in women’s ask salary, I exploit a sudden change in how candidates were prompted to provide their ask salary. For a subset of candidates, in mid-2018, the answer box used to solicit the ask salary went from an empty field to a pre-filled entry with the median salary on the platform for a similar candidate. Comparing candidates creating a profile before and after the feature change, I find that this change drove the ask gap and the bid gap to zero. In addition, women received the same number of bids before and after the change, suggesting they face little penalty for demanding wages comparable to men.


Related links:

During the conversation, Nina mentions Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Among other things, encourages women to negotiate higher salaries, a strategy Nina’s research would support.

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Arts and Minds with Anton Howes

Anton Howes returns to the podcast to discuss his new book, Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation.

From its beginnings in a coffee house in the mid-eighteenth century, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has tried to improve British life in every way imaginable. It has sought to influence how Britons work, how they are educated, the music they listen to, the food they eat, the items in their homes, and even how they remember their own history. Arts and Minds is the remarkable story of an institution unlike any other—a society for the improvement of everything and anything.

Drawing on exclusive access to a wealth of rare papers and artefacts from the Society’s own archives, Anton Howes shows how this vibrant and singularly ambitious organisation has evolved and adapted, constantly having to reinvent itself to keep in step with changing times. The Society has served as a platform for Victorian utilitarian reformers, purchased and restored an entire village, encouraged the planting of more than sixty million trees, and sought technological alternatives to child labour. But this is more than just a story about unusual public initiatives. It is an engaging and authoritative history of almost three centuries of social reform and competing visions of a better world—the Society’s members have been drawn from across the political spectrum, including Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Karl Marx.

Informative and entertaining, Arts and Minds reveals how a society of public-spirited individuals tried to make their country a better place, and draws vital lessons from their triumphs and failures for all would-be reformers today.


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Science Fictions with Stuart Ritchie

Today’s guest is Stuart Ritchie, psychologist and author of Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth.

Science is how we understand the world. Yet failures in peer review and mistakes in statistics have rendered a shocking number of scientific studies useless – or, worse, badly misleading. Such errors have distorted our knowledge in fields as wide-ranging as medicine, physics, nutrition, education, genetics, economics, and the search for extraterrestrial life. As Science Fictions makes clear, the current system of research funding and publication not only fails to safeguard us from blunders but actively encourages bad science – with sometimes deadly consequences.

Stuart Ritchie’s own work challenging an infamous psychology experiment helped spark what is now widely known as the “replication crisis,” the realization that supposed scientific truths are often just plain wrong. Now, he reveals the very human biases, misunderstandings, and deceptions that undermine the scientific endeavor: from contamination in science labs to the secret vaults of failed studies that nobody gets to see; from outright cheating with fake data to the more common, but still ruinous, temptation to exaggerate mediocre results for a shot at scientific fame.

Yet Science Fictions is far from a counsel of despair. Rather, it’s a defense of the scientific method against the pressures and perverse incentives that lead scientists to bend the rules. By illustrating the many ways that scientists go wrong, Ritchie gives us the knowledge we need to spot dubious research and points the way to reforms that could make science trustworthy once again.


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Social Security and Wealth Inequality with Sylvain Catherine and Natasha Sarin

Today’s guests are Sylvain Catherine and Natasha Sarin of the University of Pennsylvania. They discuss their research on wealth inequality, specifically with respect to social security’s impact on calculated wealth inequality. When you account for the value of all future payroll taxes into Social Security and all future benefit payments from Social Security, the present value of that stream of payments accounts for a large fraction of the wealth held by the bottom 90% of households.

Recent influential work finds large increases in inequality in the U.S., based on measures of wealth concentration that notably exclude the value of social insurance programs. This paper revisits this conclusion by incorporating Social Security retirement benefits into measures of wealth inequality. Wealth inequality has not increased in the last three decades when Social Security is accounted for. When discounted at the risk-free rate, real Social Security wealth increased substantially from $5.6 trillion in 1989 to just over $42.0 trillion in 2016. When we adjust for systematic risk coming from the covariance of Social Security returns with the market portfolio, this increase remains sizable, growing from over $4.6 trillion in 1989 to $34.0 trillion in 2016. Consequently, by 2016, Social Security wealth represented 58% of the wealth of the bottom 90% of the wealth distribution. Redistribution through programs like Social Security increases the progressivity of the economy, and it is important that our estimates of wealth concentration reflect this.


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Garrett M. Petersen's blog about markets, institutions, and ideas.