Danny Crichton on Investing in a Better Worldhttp://www.dannycrichton.com/2015-09-20T00:00:00-07:00The Road To A Better World (Or My New Investment Thesis)2015-09-20T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-09-20:blog/2015/09/20/the-road-to-a-better-world-or-my-new-investment-thesis/<p>Life is often described as a road, a journey through experiences and temporary destinations that we hope will one day sum to something more coherent.</p><p>Overused as it is, there is something soothing about this metaphor. Roads don't just sprout up in the wilderness, but instead require deliberate technical planning and intelligence. We are constantly confronted with randomness in our lives, and there is comfort in the feeling that this "road" is part of a grand design by some higher transit engineer who is carefully tending to our journey -- laying out the macadam before us so we never lose our life's destiny.</p><p>This transit metaphor has always bothered me, though. No engineer would willfully build the route that many of our lives have taken. There are so few straight courses -- so few highways –– that one begins to think that the road was purposely built just to be frustrating to travel. The destination of our life’s journey may be only miles away, but it can take thousands just to detect the direction of its meandering course. How about we cut back a bit on new road construction and start putting in some traffic signs?</p><p>The other underlying frustration with roads as journeys is simply that it makes the assumption that we are always moving forward. We don't. We sometimes drive in reverse. We sometimes take complete breaks from the wheel as we try to size up what the hell that engineer was thinking when he built this infernal pathway. Sometimes, we never return to that wheel, and we never complete the journey laid before us.</p><p>That was the case for three of my friends over the past few months. Their journeys were cut far too short -- probably far shorter than they or anyone else ever thought possible. It's something I have unfortunately had to think deeply about -- the potential lost, the journey never traveled.</p><p>These are the sorts of triggers of fractional life crises (in this case, between a one-fourth and one-third life crisis, so call it a 7/24 crisis). What I learned from the last year and a half of thinking about roads is what I have come to realize is a pretty simple truth: that while yes, there is a road ahead of us, <em>we still have our hands on the wheel</em>.</p><p><strong>About That Information Superhighway</strong></p><p>That brings me to that other highway -- that superhighway -- that has managed to completely change our economy and society in such a short period of time. Like these roads of our lives, the Internet remains simultaneously the most optimistic and pessimistic invention of the human mind. It gave us the ability to share knowledge across cultures while creating the redundancy necessary to ensure that the U.S. could use its second-strike capability in the event of a nuclear attack.</p><p>Today, that superhighway provides more power to more people than ever before. The tools at our disposal are incredible, their capabilities accessible merely with some keystrokes and creativity.</p><p>Yet, we have tipped the balance toward pessimism again. Given the power of gods, we've chosen to take on the easiest challenges of the human experience, completely ignoring the fundamental problems that might leave a lasting legacy. One can blame the excitements of the markets or the cold design of capitalism, but the reality is much clearer: we make a choice every day of what we work on -- of what we want to build.</p><p><strong>My Own Road</strong></p><p>For most of my life, I have been focused on myself. It's the downside of our modern education system: even the work we do selflessly for others has to be monitored and tracked, available as evidence for some future application process to show "character."</p><p>It's the gamification of everyday life.</p><p>A year ago, a good friend of mine told me that I needed to stop trying to get Brownie patches on my vest -- that no number of badges or honors was ever going to bring meaning to my life. It was a point of order easily dismissed, but it nagged. Gamification feels great while we are playing (just one more turn!), but it also always leaves behind a hollowness that never quite subsides.</p><p>When I started my doctoral degree at Harvard a year ago, I felt that I could combine the goals of serving others through research while also simultaneously gaining that next vest patch. Harvard has this incredible ability to make you more desirable to other people -- of opening doors that are resolutely closed to others.</p><p>It's the closest I have ever come to a true highway in my life, and that is precisely why I had to leave it behind. There were still years to go of focusing on myself (it's academia, after all), and I just don't really want to do that anymore. Nor do I want to partake in academia's obsessive gamification -- the publications, the awards, the research grants, the job market.</p><p>Instead, I want to focus on the big issues facing our society -- challenges like inequality and job insecurity as well as poor access to health and physical security that far too many people in our world face on an everyday basis.</p><p>I used to feel the obvious way to solve these problems was through policy, but when we look at the forces that have made our lives better over the centuries, it is technology that I keep returning to as the critical ingredient. Technology has a leverage that few other activities can match, and while engineers are not always focused on what we might think of as the most important issues, we have a unique power when we begin to problem solve with our eyes wide open.</p><p>I want to empower as many people as possible to solve as many deep problems as possible, and that's why I returned to investing this month, joining CRV. With Washington politics jammed, it seems like one of the few avenues by which to affect the kind of change I want to see in society. It's also why I stayed in Boston rather than heading back to the Emerald City by the Bay, where the pressure on entrepreneurs to build trivia seems to be mounting every year. We have the power through software to solve some of our greatest human problems -- and it is on us that we use that power fully.</p><p>Roads aren't built in a day, of course. I can't patch the software of my brain as quickly as code on GitHub, nor can our industry change its entire focus to better the world. But the journey of a thousand miles ... well, you know the metaphor.</p>Short Thoughts On Current Engineer Salaries in Silicon Valley2015-08-05T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-08-05:blog/2015/08/05/short-thoughts-on-current-engineer-salaries-in-silicon-valley/<p>I just saw this tweet from Patrick McKenzie that I thought was interesting:</p><blockquote class="twitter-tweet tw-align-center" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">PSA for devs: $100k is below Valley entry level salaries, $250k is high-side-of-median for 30 year old, $500k achievable at AmaGooFaceSoft.</p>&mdash; Patrick McKenzie (@patio11) <a href="https://twitter.com/patio11/status/628835817046183936">August 5, 2015</a></blockquote><p><script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script></p><p>That's about accurate from everything I have heard (with maybe a little bit of fluctuation in the numbers depending on whether an engineer is at a startup or a large tech company). It's interesting to note how high the entry-level number is for fresh graduates, and also how low the top-end salary is compared to salaries and total compensation in professional services firms.</p><p>More importantly, though, salaries explain a large part of why Silicon Valley is so successful compared to other startup ecosystems. Last week, <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2015/07/31/bostons-wtflol-problem/">I criticized Boston for its paltry engineering salaries in a post on TechCrunch</a>. I wrote:</p><blockquote><p>The second mistake Boston firms make is to consider the city a cheap talent market. It ain't cheap folks. Every single person in Boston has the ability (and often the desire!) to live in one of the world's global cities. Local firms pay significantly less on average than comparable firms in NYC or SF (to the tune of 30-40% based on some recent numbers I have seen). Sure, cost of living is higher in those cities, but it isn't <em>that</em> much higher.</p><p>Again, simple solution: pay Silicon Valley market rate. Every time. Regardless of competition. Regardless of anything. You want to retain the talent, you have to pay for that talent. We want the best people here, period. The best cost a lot of money, but thankfully, we have a lot of it lying around.</p></blockquote><p>This is the reason rents in San Francisco are skyrocketing. Engineers from around the world are converging to get access to those salaries at the same time that there is almost no growth in the local housing supply.</p><p>Boston is not exceptional in its low relative engineering salaries. In South Korea where I was just traveling, engineers are regularly paid significantly worse than business majors. The numbers I heard from some Koreans were $35-40,000 for engineers and $55-60,000 for business majors (sample size is less than a dozen, so consider this anecdata). That's by design: the government specifically increased the quotas on computer science major slots at universities in order to over-produce them.</p><p>Unfortunately, lower salaries tends to mean that the best people move on to other fields, and even the people inside the field don't want to stay very long. Silicon Valley long ago figured out that the best way to get the best talent into engineering and product design was to pay them so well that there were no alternatives. Other regions have a lot to learn here to compete effectively.</p>Some Reflections On Teaching2015-07-27T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-07-27:blog/2015/07/27/some-reflections-on-teaching/<p>This month I taught a Stony Brook University-listed course called EST 364, "How To Build A Startup." The course was located at the university's <a href="http://www.dannycrichton.com/blog/2015/07/13/a-quick-comment-on-urban-planning/">Songdo, South Korea</a> campus. This was my first time teaching, and it has certainly been a bit of a wild ride. 36 students are in the class, 35 from Korea University through a special arrangement in their software management program, and one PhD student from SUNY Korea.</p><p><a href="http://techcrunch.com/2015/07/11/the-challenges-of-teaching-when-silicon-valley-doesnt-care/">As I discussed in a post on TechCrunch</a>, finding out how to teach this class was quite challenging. As I wrote then:</p><blockquote><p>My own experience this past week is telling. My challenges started almost immediately when I agreed to teach this class on startups. What should I teach? How should my course be structured? I have five hours of class per day to schedule for two weeks, and I can’t just lob content at students and expect them to understand what is going on, particularly in the summer when expectations for studying are (acceptably) lower.</p></blockquote><p>I knew that I wanted the class to be modern and take into account better learning methodologies, such as more active engagement, project-based learning, and a closer connection between active news in the industry and our work in class.</p><p>What I didn't realize is how this is to pull off in reality. There just aren't resources online available or platforms that you can sign up for that allows you to just start using these techniques in class. I was reasonably proficient in using them in the end, but only because I have been in school for 17 years and have seen it done many times. It shouldn't be so hard.</p><p>The students did really well with the material, and I think (between this class and others they have taken) that they are truly ready to engage in startups and just learn by doing. One issue that came up repeatedly in the class was how Korean students could catch the eye of Silicon Valley recruiters. There aren't really good answers here. One suggestion I gave was to participate in corporate-sponsored programming competitions, since I know people have been recruited through these vehicles. There should be a better answer though given the talent crunch in the region.</p><p>I think the overall design of the course was well-received, but several challenges arose that I think are worth sharing:</p><p>1) Because this class is being taught in the summer, students are definitely in a less intense mood. That hurt the final projects, since the freedom provided by the project also meant that students didn't feel pressure to meet a bunch of obligations.</p><p>2) Furthermore, I left much of the second half of class unstructured to allow students to work on projects and workshop them in class. I think this pedagogical style didn't work as well as I had hoped. Part of the reason may be cultural since Korean students are traditionally just lectured at rather than being considered a key partner in their own learning. The other part is simply that startup culture just hasn't rubbed off as much into Korean culture as it has in the U.S. I was probably ambitious in simply opening the floor for free experimentation, and I think I would structure this a bit more in the future.</p><p>3) Korean students are quite diverse in ability levels and desire to succeed. That complicates a class as large as this one where the main work is a large project. One thing that was really surprising is just how completely variable English abilities were -- some students are entirely fluent, while others can barely speak a few sentences before stopping. Some more sociological study of the backgrounds of these students and why they have such different skill levels would be interesting.</p><p>Overall, I think the experience was quite positive, and there are definitely some lessons personally for me on how best to teach.</p><p>Also, never agree to teach a class longer than 3 hours, and definitely never agree to teach a class that is 5 hours long. Wow.</p><p>Some material you can just sort of burn through, but experiential classes like mine on startups really requires you to think through what you are learning and let the lessons sink in. That just can't happen at that speed.</p>What I'm Working On (July 2015)2015-07-26T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-07-26:blog/2015/07/26/what-im-working-on-july-2015/<p>Let's call this the slightly late edition of July 2015. This past month been all about travel for my class on startups I am teaching in South Korea. I have <a href="http://www.dannycrichton.com/teaching/">posted the materials for this course</a> as well as the syllabus on this website. I was in Korea for a little more than two weeks, and then spent a few days in Taiwan with my TechCrunch colleague Catherine Shu -- my first visit to the country. </p><p><strong>Research</strong></p><ul><li><p>Research has been slow due to travel and prep for my class. The most significant work has been building a reading list around quantification, which I will share at some point as I get it closer to completion slash some level of comprehensiveness.</p></li><li><p>I also discovered in my searching that Trevor Pinch &amp; Richard Swedberg wrote a book called "Living in a Material World: Economic Sociology Meets Science and Technology Studies." It's a weird combo, but also happens to be the two fields that I am studying for my quals. I'll be tracking this down when I get back to the States.</p></li><li><p>One of my favorite scholars is Benoît Godin, who critically analyzes the term "innovation." <a href="http://www.csiic.ca">He has a bunch of essays on his website</a>, but he also <a href="https://books.google.com/books?id=kIscBgAAQBAJ&amp;lpg=PA12&amp;ots=3HdrzMhOA6&amp;dq=Innovation%20Contested%3A%20The%20Idea%20of%20Innovation%20Over%20the%20Centuries&amp;pg=PA12#v=onepage&amp;q=Innovation%20Contested:%20The%20Idea%20of%20Innovation%20Over%20the%20Centuries&amp;f=false">just released a new book from Routledge</a> entitled "Innovation Contested: The Idea of Innovation Over the Centuries." I am looking forward to this, as I think the term and really the whole concept of innovation just hasn't been reflexively analyzed by scholars despite its incredible cultural influence.</p></li></ul><p><strong>Teaching</strong></p><p>I taught a class in Korea this month for Stony Brook University called "How to Build a Startup." <a href="http://www.dannycrichton.com/teaching/">The materials are on the website</a>, and <a href="http://www.dannycrichton.com/blog/2015/07/27/some-reflections-on-teaching/">I have written up a reflection post about the experience</a>.</p><p><strong>Writing</strong></p><p>As always, I continue to write a lot for TechCrunch. I managed to write <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2015/06/20/mel/">a nice piece on machine learning in politics</a> called "Vote Machine Learning For President!" (I called the president Mel or ML for short ;) ) In addition, I managed to get a nice story out about Samsung's merger vote that really was one of the first nearly successful shareholder revolts in the country. Given the importance of corporate governance in a lot of sociological studies, this is an interesting sociology/Korea/startups issue that I hope to spend more time on at some point.</p><p>Upcoming, I am hoping to spend more time in the next month on the media industry, particularly in Asia. With <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2015/07/23/japans-nikkei-buys-the-financial-times-group-from-pearson-for-1-3b/">the Nikkei buying out the Financial Times this past week</a>, it seems an appropriate time to do so, and I have been meaning to do so for a while. Please send ideas to me!</p><p><strong>Learning</strong></p><ul><li><p>I am continuing to prepare my reading lists for economic sociology, tournament models in labor economics, quantification studies, among other topics. Would love to see some more recent papers in these fields that people find interesting.</p></li><li><p>I continue to spend time learning Korean. I picked up a bunch of new language books in Seoul when I was there. These days, I am also learning Hanja, the Chinese characters used in Korea before the local alphabet Hangul was developed (Chinese characters were used in government until 1990, so any historical or even contemporary work requires knowledge here). I also picked up a newish book Kim Jin Myung (김진명), who is a local political novelist called 1026.</p></li></ul>A Quick Comment on Urban Planning2015-07-13T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-07-13:blog/2015/07/13/a-quick-comment-on-urban-planning/<p>This week, I am visiting Songdo, one of Korea's newest invented cities. <a href="http://www.dannycrichton.com/blog/2011/10/06/image-of-the-week-finding-the-lost-arc-in-the-strangest-korean-ghost-city/">I have been here previously before</a> about four years ago, and it is amazing to see how much the region has progressed in just a couple of years. The city is no longer a ghost town -- there are restaurants and cars, with people occasionally walking around. Leave the immediate downtown area though, and it quickly becomes quiet.</p><p>It's interesting, but Korea is clearly designing this city with the car at the center of planning. Roads are wide -- 4-5 lanes in each direction for almost all of the major roads, and the intersections are few and far between. It can take as much as 10 minutes walking just to get to the next city block. The city has a single subway line, which isn't all that convenient when the buildings are so far apart.</p><p>This really is remarkable. At a time when more cities than ever are trying to grapple with density and rebuilding mass transit, Korea, a country whose record here is world-leading, would seem to be trying to go the opposite way. There are interesting politics to why this city exists in the first place, but at the very least it didn't have to be planned this way.</p><p>I get the supposed allure of the "suburban feel." However, Korea's suburbs are just like the suburbs in the west -- mostly devoid of random interaction, and merely an agglomeration of buildings waiting for you to visit with your car. It's all about destinations and not the journey itself, about planning over spontaneity.</p><p>I guess this sort of option is needed in Korea, but I hope the country realizes that its future lies in making its cities great, and not sparse utilitarian monstrosities.</p>Ranking The World2015-06-29T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-06-29:blog/2015/06/29/ranking-the-world/<p>One of the on-going projects I am investigating is the use of rankings in society. Rankings are seemingly everywhere -- from college admissions to our workplaces to politics -- and yet, only limited research has been done so far to truly investigate how these rankings are constructed, how they affect the behavior of their subjects, and how they are ultimately used in practice.</p><p>In almost all contexts, an objective ranking does not exist. As part of any process of reducing the complexity of life to a number, there has to be prioritization and summarization of data to create the linearity required for a ranking. Thus, we can see in college rankings different motivations behind their constructions. Should high expenses per student be used to show deep resources, or should resources be compared to student outcomes to highlight universities that are most efficient in teaching their students?</p><p>Rankings are exciting to me not just because they are everywhere, but that they seemingly work. Publications have long ago figured out that rankings attract huge numbers of readers and viewers, and organizations from lobbying shops to the World Bank now use rankings to push for changes by simply publishing some numbers. To me, few actions seem to have more power than compiling these lists.</p><p>This is certainly the case with law schools, which Wendy Espeland and Michael Sauder have investigated extensively in a series of papers. [1] In their research, they show that law schools resisted the initial publishing of rankings for many years, but over time, their effects were imbued into the daily actions of the faculty and staff at these schools. These days, nothing can be done without some reference to US News and what it might do to the rankings.</p><p>I am excited by the publication of a new book on the topic called "<a href="http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/law/socio-legal-studies/quiet-power-indicators-measuring-governance-corruption-and-rule-law">The Quiet Power of Indicators</a>," which was published last month by Cambridge University Press. The book is mostly a vehicle to explore a lot of different types of rankings, such as those from Freedom House and the World Bank. I am hoping to read it in the next few days before I have to give it back to the library.</p><p>I'll publish some more thoughts on this as I read, but I think that no matter who we are, academic or professional, it is worth thinking through how rankings affect our work, and the assumptions that lie behind them.</p><p>[1] Sauder, M, and W N Espeland. “The Discipline of Rankings: Tight Coupling and Organizational Change.” American Sociological Review 74, no. 1 (February 1, 2009): 63–82. doi:10.1177/000312240907400104.</p>Discussion: Lauren Rivera's Pedigree on Elite Students and Elite Jobs2015-06-19T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-06-19:blog/2015/06/19/discussion-lauren-riveras-pedigree-on-elite-students-and-elite-jobs/<p>I just finished reading <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Pedigree-How-Elite-Students-Jobs/dp/0691155623">Lauren Rivera's <em>Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs</em></a>, and I have to say it was a highly interesting read into the internal dynamics of hiring at what she calls elite professional services (EPS) firms like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey.</p><p>Her argument is simple: while sociologists have heavily focused on elite reproduction through universities (what might be termed the "Harvard" thesis), the reality is actually more complicated. Getting admission to a top school is insufficient to guarantee entrance to the elite. Rather, elites are generated partly as part of the process of entering the labor markets, namely through EPS firms.</p><p>Much of the book is devoted to her fieldwork working at one of these firms and describing each of the stages of the interview process for new graduates. We see constantly that definitions of cultural fit are key to getting hired, and that these definitions tend to be similar (although not identical) to the culture of elites. In other words, firms hire elite students from elite backgrounds not because of their parentage, but because of the social norms and cultural capital those parents provided. In this mission of illuminating inequality at the upper-end of the income spectrum, the book does an admirable job.</p><p>However, I felt the book did not probe deep enough into why these firms hire the way they do. Rivera makes the point that almost none of the EPS firms actually keep track of their applicant data and connect it with actual on-the-job work outcomes, particularly at law firms where interviews were entirely unstructured. How do they get away with this? <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2014/11/16/meet-your-new-boss-mr-algorithm/s">Having written about one startup in this space</a>, why have competitors been unable to disrupt this industry (at least so far)?</p><p>The answer is sort of lurking in the book: these jobs just aren't that difficult. Or perhaps more carefully, these jobs are part of a pipeline, where the vast majority of knowledge is gleaned as one travels through it. The only "requirement" to start down the pipeline is the cultural fit needed to work on these teams (i.e. just getting hired). Everything else can essentially be learned on the job.</p><p>All of this status making on the part of these firms is designed to hide this basic fact. Everyone sort of knows this when you hire a McKinsey engagement for a few hundred thousand or a few million and get one senior engagement manager and a couple of green business analysts. This is a large part of the argument made by <a href="http://www.amazon.com/The-Management-Myth-Debunking-Philosophy/dp/0393338525">Matthew Stewart in his book <em>The Management Myth</em></a>.</p><p>And yet, companies do it anyway.</p><p>What every one of these EPS firms is trading on is ambiguity. A company CEO is about to make a consequential market decision. A cheap consulting firm can probably answer the question for a small price, but since it is an important question, we must spend more to ensure that the answer is absolutely correct.</p><p>Similarly, a startup wants to go to an IPO. It probably can be crowdsourced, or at least done in a novel way. <a href="http://www.cnbc.com/id/101912149">Google had all kinds of hiccups with their IPO process</a> when the company decided to use a Dutch auction, but in the end, did any of that really matter to the health of the company? There is risk and ambiguity involved, and so of course we naturally head to the bulge bracket investment banks because we don't want to take the risk that something might go wrong.</p><p>Although the EPS element isn't here, this logic also applies to the debacle that was Obamacare. <a href="http://www.fastcompany.com/3046756/obama-and-his-geeks">The government has now built a digital service team</a> that is designed to efficiently provide IT services to government agencies at a fraction of the cost of contractors. As Mikey Dickerson, one of these tech mavens, described to FastCompany about Obamacare's rollout:</p><blockquote><p>"They set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to build a website because it was a big, important website. But compare that to Twitter, which took three rounds of funding before it got to about the same number of users as ­Healthcare.gov—8 million to 10 million users. In those three rounds of funding, the whole thing added up to about $60 million.</p></blockquote><p>In my mind, among the most important challenges of this century for startups is how to get past this mindset. People automatically conflate price with quality, without doing any more critical analysis. In fact, we probably do more critical analysis choosing between two Indian lunch buffets. In business, where failures can be career-ruining, we immediately run to the most expensive service provider.</p><p>If we are ever going to break these incumbent players (and break them we should), we are going to have to help consumers and business decision-makers truly rethink how they buy services. This start with simply believing that the performance of these sorts of services can be measured, and that there is value in keeping costs low, even when decisions are consequential.</p><p>One of the reasons that algorithms are beating humans is simply that this ambiguity is no less with the computer than with the flesh. We can no better judge McKinsey's performance than we can a computer's, they both appear to the observer to be something of a black box. In my view, this is one of the critical reasons why computers are making such headway into professional services these days (along with their price competitiveness).</p><p>I'm glad that pipelines for training still exist in many EPS firms, and wish more people had access to them. But for all of the talk about recruiting, the real message lies later, in the actual work that these firms do (and really don't). Elite reproduction is an important phenomenon, but the real story lies further down the pipeline.</p>What I'm Working On (June 2015)2015-06-15T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-06-15:blog/2015/06/15/what-im-working-on-june-2015/<p>I am starting a new monthly post where I share what I have been working on what I am hoping to work on shortly. This is the first edition. If you see something you think is interesting, don't hesitate to email me.</p><p><strong>Research</strong></p><ul><li><p>I posted <a href="/research/papers/Darpa.pdf">a copy of a working paper</a> I did as a term paper for Economics of Science. The paper looks at the Pentagon's research budget over the past twenty years, and how it has moved money between basic and applied science. One really interesting facet of the budget data is just how large of an impact presidential initiatives have on this budget (one example: the Bush missile shield). This was sort of a side project, but I think the data is interesting, and there are lots of opportunities for follow ups if anyone is interested.</p></li><li><p>I am doing a historical study of the rise of public policy schools and their curriculums. One example of this research is a post I wrote two weeks ago about <a href="/blog/2015/06/02/why-public-policy-professionals-so-often-have-the-wrong-answers/">how economics became the center of public policy</a> due to its perceived legitimacy within Harvard. I am really interested in epistemology in public policy, and why we continue to use a narrow set of tools rather than a richer one.</p></li><li><p>My larger research project looks at the creation, dissemination, and growth of rankings and other ordinal measures of performance. As quantification becomes increasingly popular in everything from business to politics, I believe there needs to be increasing skepticism and critical analysis of precisely how these measures get created and used. This is part of a long discourse on power and knowledge. One great new book on this is <a href="http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/law/socio-legal-studies/quiet-power-indicators-measuring-governance-corruption-and-rule-law"><em>The Quiet Power of Indicators</em></a> which discusses how indicators like Freedom House's came into being and how they are used today.</p></li><li><p>A smaller project off of rankings is looking at how machine learning may be used in public policy, and what assumptions are built into specific algorithms. I am also considering novel uses of ML algorithms for policy, such as in immigration.</p></li></ul><p><strong>Teaching</strong></p><p>I am teaching an undergraduate class on startups and entrepreneurship next month. I'll place the syllabus and materials once they are fully fleshed out.</p><p><strong>Writing</strong></p><p>As always, I continue to write a lot for TechCrunch. Some highlights include the <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2015/06/06/you-cant-handle-the-truth/">challenge of analyzing truth on the internet</a> these days and <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2015/05/23/algocracy/">how algorithms are reshaping politics</a>. My most popular posts were on <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2015/05/30/millennial-banks/">millennials and banking</a> as well as a piece on <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2015/05/17/why-is-the-university-still-here/">why the university is still here</a>.</p><p>This month, I am hoping to do some stories on machine learning in politics, as well as new securitization models and other innovations (or lack thereof) in fintech.</p><p><strong>Learning</strong></p><ul><li><p>I am preparing my reading lists for economic sociology, tournament models in labor economics, quantification studies, among other topics. Would love to see some more recent papers in these fields that people find interesting.</p></li><li><p>I continue to spend time learning Korean. A few resources I have recently found to be quite helpful. One is <a href="http://mykoreanstore.com/collections/featured-items/products/news-in-korean-subscription">Talk To Me In Korean's "News in Korean" subscription</a>, which sends three short articles a week in Korean along with audio readings of them. Two books that have been helpful are the <a href="https://books.google.com/books?id=2gmJAgAAQBAJ">Common Sense Dictionary of Global Economy</a> and the <a href="https://books.google.com/books?id=-gQLu-5TZFkC">Common Sense Dictionary of Politics</a>. Excellent resources and practice for learning political and economic vocabulary.</p></li></ul><p><strong>Other</strong></p><p>I am going to co-edit the Harvard Kennedy School's student newspaper next year.</p>Haiti and the Importance of Area Studies in Development2015-06-05T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-06-05:blog/2015/06/05/haiti-and-the-importance-of-area-studies-in-development/<p>ProPublica's report on the Red Cross' <a href="https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-red-cross-raised-half-a-billion-dollars-for-haiti-and-built-6-homes">horrific mismanagement of aid dollars in Haiti</a> should not be surprising to anyone who has followed development studies over the past two decades (and really, the antecedents go much further back).</p><p>The quotes though don't get much worse than this:</p><blockquote><p>One issue that has hindered the Red Cross’ work in Haiti is an overreliance on foreigners who could not speak French or Creole, current and former employees say.</p></blockquote><p>And</p><blockquote><p>None of that ever happened. Carline Noailles, who was the project’s manager in Washington, said it was endlessly delayed because the Red Cross “didn’t have the know-how.”</p></blockquote><p>And </p><blockquote><p>“They collected nearly half a billion dollars,” said a congressional staffer who helped oversee Haiti reconstruction. “But they had a problem. And the problem was that they had absolutely no expertise.”</p></blockquote><p>And </p><blockquote><p>“Going to meetings with the community when you don’t speak the language is not productive,” she said. Sometimes, she recalled, expat staffers would skip such meetings altogether.</p></blockquote><p>Ad nauseum.</p><p>This is exactly the sort of situation that we can expect when development studies ignores the importance of actual situational knowledge of the land in which an aid organization operates. Yet, academic programs focused on development eschew area studies in favor of economics, since these are "practical" skills that are supposedly "universal."</p><p>Economics is actually the easy part of developing a country. It's obvious (in most cases) what the problems are: chronic lack of housing, chronic malnourishment, bad sanitation, poor infrastructure, and the list goes on. The hard part is going from objectives to actual actions on the ground where culture and local dynamics will play the decisive role in the success or failure of the mission.</p><p>The world needs far more people who are attuned to the local sensitivities of the regions of the world, not more bureaucrats capable of using Excel.</p><p>It's not just the fault of universities though, since the pathways to the top posts in these organizations rarely are based off of actual local knowledge, but rather academic knowledge. Specializing in a region means resigning yourself to never moving up in an international development organization, since it is those universal skills that are so prized.</p><p>We need to actively seek out and encourage people who actually know how to operate locally to succeed internationally. That's the only way to avoid spending half a billion dollars and see it materialize in the form of six houses like in Haiti.</p>Why Public Policy Professionals So Often Have The Wrong Answers2015-06-02T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-06-02:blog/2015/06/02/why-public-policy-professionals-so-often-have-the-wrong-answers/<p>There are increasing criticisms of the public policy field from both the right and the left. The left criticizes public policy schools for inadequately addressing issues like inequality (Thomas Piketty's work comes to mind) or justice in places such as Baltimore or Ferguson. The right is concerned that public policy schools emphasize solutions led by governments rather than a more balanced mix of public and private options.</p><p>Both sides are correct: public policy schools aren't equipping their students for the modern world. Part of the challenge is that public policy schools are remarkably narrow in their disciplines. Professors in public policy schools come predominantly from economics, which means that normative questions are avoided and there is a large emphasis on model building at the expense of, well, actual policy.</p><p>I have been curious how we ended up with this situation, so I spent some time this summer dredging up the history of the field.</p><p>Before I get to some findings though, a brief aside. I really love how academic knowledge becomes legitimate in the eyes of other scholars. My undergraduate thesis was on the intellectual development of computer science, and one of the main results that came from that research is that the first CS professors in the 1960s were under constant attack from other disciplines in the natural sciences. This led them to (eventually) focus on the algorithm as the key area of research in the field, in order to prove the discipline's legitimacy inside the university.</p><p>These wars were so bad, that Stanford's CS department, for instance, didn't create an undergraduate major in the field for almost two decades, lest the department be considered less worthy by other academics. The substitute major during that period was actually Mathematical and Computational Sciences -- my major in college.</p><p>So I wasn't surprised when I found much the same was true with public policy, especially at Harvard.</p><p>Harvard has had an interesting relationship with public policy over the years. The current Harvard Business School was originally envisioned as a combined business and public policy school (the sensibilities in the early 1900s were such that business was not considered appropriate for the university, and so public policy would help to clean up the image). That plan didn't work out, and it would take another three decades for a school to materialize.</p><p>Harvard's grad school in public policy started in the 1930s, and became a constant source of embarrassment for the university for the next three decades, consistently ranked far lower than its other professional schools. By the 1960s, the school was at serious risk of closure due to its poor performance, with the university president of the time declaring it one of his "greatest disappointments."</p><p>The death of President John F. Kennedy would change that direction dramatically, with the public policy school renamed in his honor. The school was rejuvenated by a set of distinguished faculty who placed a renewed focus on getting students into policy to commemorate Kennedy's legacy. Increased fundraising (of course) helped as well.</p><p>In those early years, building a curriculum was not at all clear. At Harvard, competition to the public policy school came from the Government and Economics departments, who were making a strong turn toward quantification starting in the 1960s and 1970s. Additionally, quantitative skills were in vogue during the Vietnam War, with Secretary of Defense McNamara leading the charge.</p><p>To compete, the Kennedy School required that students take classes in economics, statistics, and decision sciences, requirements that continue to form the bedrock of the school's curriculum today.</p><p>Graham Allison, an early faculty member and later dean of the school, described in a reflection why the curriculum used those fields. "These tools came from demanding social science disciplines, and helped give the curriculum of the fledgling public policy school a certain kind of legitimacy in the academic world in which they were struggling for academic respect." [1]</p><p>Carefully note the reasoning for why we study economics in public policy, versus say, history, sociology, anthropology, or any number of other human-centric fields. The selections were not made because the tools were necessarily the best to study public affairs. They were selected because they would get the most respect from the other faculty at Harvard.</p><p>Given Harvard's influence in academia, much of public policy today is based in economics and quantitative social science.</p><p>Considering that these sorts of curriculums were first designed almost fifty years ago, it is almost certainly time to reconsider what makes up the curriculum of public policy schools to ensure they match the needs of students in the modern world.</p><p>That probably doesn't mean throwing out economics, which does have a strong toolbox for the policy professional. However, there are other skills that would also seem to be relevant but are not widely taught today, including data visualization, coding, social media and participatory government, as well as area studies. There is quite a list, enough to question whether a public policy "core" can even truly exist.</p><p>One of the interesting things when you dive into academic disciplines is just how much the decisions around research areas and curriculums can derive from parochial interests. It's time to reopen a dialogue in public policy and rejuvenate policy studies.</p><p><strong>Sources</strong></p><ol><li>Allison, Graham. “Emergence of Schools of Public Policy: Reflections of a Founding Dean.” In The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, 58–79, OUP Oxford, 2008.</li></ol>Tips are wrong and should be banned2015-05-22T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-05-22:blog/2015/05/22/tips-are-wrong-and-should-be-banned/<p>The NYT recently ran a great long-form story on the plight of nail salon workers (<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/nyregion/at-nail-salons-in-nyc-manicurists-are-underpaid-and-unprotected.html?_r=0">Part 1</a> and <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/11/nyregion/nail-salon-workers-in-nyc-face-hazardous-chemicals.html">Part 2</a>] The main gist of the story is that nail salons, facing incredible competition in recent years, have decreased pay for workers far below any semblance of a minimum wage. Oftentimes, workers don't get paid at all for their first few months of service until they have "proven" themselves to their owners.</p><p>One aspect of this story really annoys me, and that is the issue surrounding tips. Nail salons, like many other personal care industries, rely on a tipping culture that systematically underpays workers, complicates regulations, and encourages discrimination. Tipping should be phased out immediately throughout the United States.</p><p>Under our current labor regulations, employers in establishments with tipping are required to pay a base wage that is below minimum wage, with the idea that tips will fill in the gap. When wages plus tips fall below minimum wage, owners are supposed to make up the difference to guarantee that workers are paid appropriately.</p><p>Of course, this is where the complications in the regulations start, because calculating tips and minimum wages in order to follow the law is not at all clear in these contexts, particularly in personal care establishments with notoriously poor record keeping.</p><p>I focus on simplifying labor rules since this can have benefits both for employees (who can understand their rights better) as well as employers (easier accounting and more clarity over who is owed what). Tipping and the legal complications around it is just another example where the law has been written to create litigation and costs. This was also the theme of the article I wrote in <a href="https://www.nationalreview.com/nrd/articles/397921/time-card-app">the National Review a few weeks ago about wage theft</a>.</p><p>I want every person providing me service to have a minimum wage, without relying on me to add an extra dollar to my receipt or into the tip jar.</p><p>The problems with tipping go beyond simply the levels of wages, but also their variability. One reason that tips are used is that it allows owners base worker pay on actual revenues rather than projected revenues. The more that wages come from tips, the more that expenses and revenues are aligned for an owner, but at the expense of the certainty of wages for the employee. Since tipped-compensated workers are often those who can least weather the variability in their income, it would seem prudent to replace tips with wages.</p><p>Beyond the economics of the situation though, tips have a variety of other problems. They can be hard to calculate, and the culture around tipping can be complex even for Americans to understand. Furthermore, there is a master/servant relationship taking place in these tips, which is among the reasons why they are relatively uncommon in much of Europe and Asia.</p><p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, tips don't really affect service quality. As any economist will explain, tipping after service is useless since the service has already been rendered. Since a worker has no idea how a new customer is going to tip, they don't have an incentive to put in extra effort. (There is an old economist story that someone traveling out of town should never tip, since tipping is more about repeated future service than a reward for past service.)</p><p>Thus, we have this practice that looks like improving service, but is really about increasing the burdens on workers while simultaneously increasing the complexity of employment laws and complicating government enforcement.</p><p>Tipping is one of those societal vestiges that for some reason just doesn't seem to want to die. The good news is that Silicon Valley companies realized long ago that tipping was harmful to the consumer experience, and has mostly eliminated the practice from its product. It's well past time that everyone else followed through.</p>Should America Move To A Test-Based College Admissions System?2015-05-19T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-05-19:blog/2015/05/19/should-america-move-to-a-test-based-college-admissions-system/<p>The politics of college admissions continues to fascinate me. This past week, <a href="http://www.buzzfeed.com/emaoconnor/asian-american-groups-file-discrimination-complaint#.eyllJRYMa">a group of Asian-American students sued Harvard University</a>, arguing that the school discriminates against them by keeping "quotas" for the number of Asian students allowed through the ivy-covered gates.</p><p>The statistical evidence, at least based on SAT scores, is pretty strong. Studies have shown that admitted Asian students have higher SAT scores than other racial groups, implying that the bar for admission is higher for them. We also have natural experiments in California -- where affirmative action was banned -- and the percentage of Asian students in University of California schools rose dramatically.</p><p>Those with an eye on history would know that university admissions relies on a "holistic" process. The design of that process was spearheaded by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton almost a century ago as a means of preventing academically-successful Jewish students from entering these bastions of Protestant thought. (For a really, really long historical take on this, read <em>The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion</em> by Jerome Kerabel).</p><p>I cannot support the current model of holistic admissions given this history. So necessarily, one has to look for alternatives, and the obvious choice is a college entrance exam model, used by countries throughout the world including Korea, China, Japan, France, and much of the Commonwealth nations.</p><p>These models are fundamentally more fair and democratic, ensuring that in societies where relationships are often more important than numbers, that fairness reigns supreme.</p><p>There are two main strains of argument against this model. The first is that it narrows education to exclusively book learning, at the expense of the arts and athletics that are a hallmark of an American education. The other is that these systems are not fair, since access to resources to study for the exam are not evenly available.</p><p>On the first, I think part of the problem with the US education system is precisely how <em>little</em> value we place on academics compared to everything else. This may not be true in high-powered high schools like Stuyvesant or Palo Alto High, but seems to be typical in much of the rest of the country.</p><p>Furthermore, in a country in which states are continuing to reject globally-competitive curriculums (Common Core or otherwise), a college entrance exam model can be an impetus to maintain a high quality education program for students.</p><p>On the second point, I think critics are being narrow in their conception of the cost of admissions. Test prep costs money, sure, but so do music lessons, sports clinics, and art classes that are essentially <em>de rigueur</em> in our current model. Parents assume that having an international trip on a resume is helpful in admissions, and so we see scores of high school students headed to exotic locations to help their admissions chances. At least with a test, means are not the primary thing being measured -- academic knowledge and thinking is. </p><p>I am not saying that we wouldn't create new problems in our bid to solve old ones. But I do think we need to accept that the current holistic admissions model was designed to be discriminatory, and remains discriminatory today. A simpler system built around a well-understood test would be, in my view, a step forward.</p>Foreign Languages Are Boring To Learn, So How Do We Make It Easier?2015-05-17T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-05-17:blog/2015/05/17/foreign-languages-are-boring-to-learn-so-how-do-we-make-it-easier/<p>I have been a lifelong foreign language learner. I studied French in high school, Arabic in my freshman year of college (which by now is almost completely forgotten in the recesses of my brain), and then Chinese and Korean since sophomore year. Of these, Korean is probably the most advanced, followed by French, although I don't read it very often anymore in my research.</p><p>There is a wide belief that learning languages is impossible as an adult. If you challenge people on this, then they argue something about how adults can never be "native" speakers of the language if they didn't start learning as kids. The latter is probably true, but then, I can get into arguments with almost anyone about authenticity and accents (the obsession with Parisian French at the expense of every other accent, for instance).</p><p>But adults do have a tougher time learning foreign languages. The usual reasons given are lack of time due to other commitments and the fact that adults are less willing to make mistakes than kids, and thus, are unwilling to practice the language as frequently.</p><p>One argument I almost never hear though is that learning a language as an adult is just sheer boring.</p><p>Really, the language materials we use today in foreign language training are anything but practical and interesting. In every single language book I have ever been assigned, we have learned words and phrases about registering for courses, giving directions, eating food, etc. Never once have we learned anything substantive about politics, economics, or society.</p><p>This is such a shame. One of the benefits that adult foreign language learners bring to the table is their experience with current events and their opinions. Yet, we force them to leave behind all of their knowledge and start talking like a kid again. This is what always threw me off from learning languages: I just didn't care about the content, and that is really the only way for me to maintain my motivation.</p><p>When we finally change this picture, it is amazing how quickly language learning can take place.</p><p>After many runs to the bookstores in Seoul, I finally found two books in Korean this year that are perfect for language learning. The two are from a series called "common sense dictionaries," with one focusing on global economics and the other on politics. Each book has about one hundred 2-3 page entries, explaining topics in some detail.</p><p>For instance, one of the topics I learned about was quantitative easing (양적완화 in Korean in case you are curious). For an intermediate learner, such vocabulary probably sounds ridiculous, considering I sometimes forget the word for grass. </p><p>But here is the thing: I read about economics all the time, and so when I read the entry about quantitative easing, it made a lot of sense to me, even though I didn't know a lot of the vocabulary. Contextual clues were hugely helpful, since I know the kinds of vocabulary to expect from reading these sorts of topics in English.</p><p>Similarly, when I hired a tutor in Korea last year, I had the same rule about content, and so I spent most of the time describing the system of American government and current political news. Suddenly, I was making mistakes in the language and learning, because I knew what I wanted to say, and was willing to venture and try building the correct sentences to communicate that.</p><p>I wish there were more language materials in every language that took advantage of that sort of curiosity and desire for specialization. I would rather be able to hold a debate about a political topic in a foreign language than be another tourist asking for directions. That's what adults who are globally minded are probably reading anyway.</p><p>At the beginning of the last school year, I tested into Harvard's pre-advanced track for Korean. During the oral interview, I was asked to describe something meaningful to me, and so I described some of the current events going on in Korea. The teacher said that my skill surprised her, and that I was probably not going to enjoy language instruction at Harvard because it really focuses on Kpop (ostensibly due to popular demand). I ended up just independently studying the language instead.</p><p><a href="http://techcrunch.com/2015/05/17/why-is-the-university-still-here/">As with my article today on TechCrunch about education startups</a>, we need to do a better job in foreign language training of understanding our users and providing them the skills they actually are looking for. Adults are not kids, and the materials that are going to be enjoyed by one are probably not going to be enjoyed by the other. There is a lot of low hanging fruit here for a company to provide these sorts of resources.</p>The World Bank's Greatest Future Threat2015-04-01T00:00:00-07:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-04-01:blog/2015/04/01/the-world-banks-greatest-future-threat/<p>It goes without saying that there are a lot of foreign policy challenges on the Obama administration's radar screen. Negotiations with Iran are reaching their final make-or-break point, ISIS continues to roam throughout Iraq and Syria, and relations with Israel are at their nadir. There is another issue though that has now boiled over that risks the long-term engagement of the United States with Asia.</p><p>Due its weak standing in both the IMF and the World Bank, <a href="http://www.vox.com/2015/4/1/8311921/asian-infrastructure-investment-bank">China created the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank</a> as an alternative international financial institution to engage more heavily in overseas development. The United States responded by criticizing the new bank and urging its allies to avoid joining. At issue is whether the governance standards for projects run by the new bank will be as high as those at the World Bank.</p><p>Now, <a href="http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/94728d96-d82f-11e4-ba53-00144feab7de.html">almost 50 nations have joined or have applied to join</a>, including France, Germany, the UK, South Korea, and Australia. Only Japan and the United States seem to be left outside of the new organization, a travesty of strategy in Asia that will take serious time to undo.</p><p>This all might be okay for now, since Japan essentially runs the Asia Development Bank and the United States, the World Bank. The new bank's budget today is relatively minuscule compared to the traditional development institutions.</p><p>My concern though is that over time, the AIIB has the potential to be massively more effective in its projects than the World Bank, further eroding the United States' standing in the world. We have all seen China's rise over the past few decades, with massive infrastructure investments built in incredibly short periods of time, fueled by the power of an authoritarian government.</p><p>With lower governance standards and Beijing's motivation to see the bank succeed, there is little doubt in my mind that the AIIB's projects will move along faster than those of the World Bank. As it starts to demonstrate superior results, nations across the world will start to consider where their money is going for development work. High governance standards are great PR, but even better PR is a completed highway or bridge. The AIIB, predominantly controlled by China, will increasingly siphon money away from the World Bank, harming the U.S. position in the international order.</p><p>The only hope is that the new bank gets the World Bank to think a bit more about the challenges in its model of development and forces it to accelerate its studies and projects. Competition can be a good thing, but these are very risky times for the United States.</p><p>One thing is clear: this has been a brilliant strategic move by China. The United States needs to work on its strategy in Asia, and fast.</p>Hillary Clinton, Brian Williams, and the Issue of Military Trust2015-02-09T00:00:00-08:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-02-09:blog/2015/02/09/hillary-clinton-brian-williams-and-the-issue-of-military-trust/<p>By now, everyone is familiar with the story of Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor who is taking some time off after coming under fire (not literally, apparently) for inaccuracies in a story about being shot down over Iraq. A second round of stories this weekend noted that <a href="http://news.yahoo.com/brian-williams-is-not-alone--hillary-clinton--stephen-glass-and-other-famous-fabrications-200635601.html">Hillary Clinton, among other notables</a>, has also been caught making similar comments over the years.</p><p>One direction for the analysis of this situation has been to take a critical look at the production of U.S. media these days. <a href="http://www.pakman.com/2015/02/06/brian-williams-and-abundance-vs-scarcity-in-media/">David Pakman's post about abundance versus scarcity</a> has been getting a lot of attention. His argument is familiar, "Brands built in the age of scarcity take significant risks when they use celebrities (or any one individual) to act as a proxy for their products." This is in contrast to online media, where "brands are built by the stories brands tell and the content they share." Facebook doesn't have an anchor problem.</p><p>But that media criticism doesn't explain why so many notable people have made up stories involving the military.</p><p>I want to take a different view of the situation by looking at the trust that Americans have in their leading institutions. For many years, <a href="http://www.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx">Gallup has run polls asking about "confidence in institutions"</a>. These surveys are interesting because they can show the American public's changing relationship with various parts of our society.</p><p>In their current chart, Gallup lists 16 different institutions. By far the most trusted institution in the United States is the military, with 74% of respondents indicating that they trust the armed forces a great deal or quite a lot. The bottom two institutions are Congress (with ~6%) and television news (with 18%).</p><p>Hillary Clinton was a member of the US Senate when she made her comments about coming under sniper fire. Brian Williams was the anchor of one of the top television news organizations in the United States. Is it any surprise then that both have attempted to grab some level of confidence from the public by expanding beyond their own institution and attempting to "touch" one far more trusted?</p><p>These sorts of stories are not going to be rare. In a world where trust in American society remains quite low, the incentives to try to burnish our images remain quite high. Some level of vigilance is required from the public, but more importantly, some humility is required of those who ask to serve us in the media and in politics. After all, there is a reason why these institutions have such low trust.</p>No, Algorithms Don't Devalue Humans2015-01-27T00:00:00-08:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-01-27:blog/2015/01/27/no-algorithms-dont-devalue-humans/<p>I read Ian Bogost's essay in the Atlantic called "<a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/01/the-cathedral-of-computation/384300/">The Cathedral of Computation</a>" a week ago, but it still annoys me. Bogost argues that our obsession with algorithms everywhere in the labor economy undermines the very human aspects of labor that we should not be ignoring.</p><p>His argument is that behind every algorithm is a human organization doing the actual work required to make a product or service function. "... just as the machine metaphor gives us a distorted view of automated manufacture as prime mover, so the algorithmic metaphor gives us a distorted, theological view of computational action."</p><p>Take Netflix, for example. Bogost writes that, "Netflix trains people to watch films, and those viewers laboriously tag the films with lots of metadata, including ratings of factors like sexually suggestive content or plot closure. [...] Yes, there’s a computer program matching viewing habits to a database of film properties. But the overall work of the Netflix recommendation system is distributed amongst so many different systems, actors, and processes that only a zealot would call the end result an algorithm."</p><p>Bogost's central point is that we are using algorithms as a sort of theology, much as science has been used as a theology the last few decades. It allows us to abbreviate our thinking and avoid the sometimes harsh behind-the-scenes processes that consumers would rather avoid when thinking about who makes their products or what allows their services to be successful.</p><p>Bogost has a point, but I don't think algorithms undermine our discussions of the modern labor force, nor do algorithms devalue human work.</p><p>I use the algorithm economy as a short hand to describe a very specific set of changes to the economy, most notably the rise of network-mediated marketplaces like Uber and Airbnb. Neither system, or indeed, the vast majority of labor marketplaces, obscure who is doing the work. Indeed, the algorithms underlying these marketplaces are not so different from the invisible hand "algorithm" of traditional marketplaces.</p><p>Algorithm may be a fancy word, but it isn't like the Netflix example is that different from, say, the development of a dictionary or encyclopedia done over a century ago. Someone had to write all of those entries and edit them, even though none of those workers were on the front cover (except Samuel Johnson of course). The invisibility of the work behind a product is hardly a recent development.</p><p>Society severed the link between worker and product many years ago, going all the way back to the start of the Industrial Revolution (and maybe even further back). Product brands used to be individual names, but today they are disembodied and independent.</p><p>Interestingly, algorithms and these network economies are actually helping to regenerate the connection between workers and products. We no longer need to scale up to the same levels to provide products, and there is now greater demand for personalized, custom-made products. The rise of neo-craftsmen which has been discussed ad nauseam is fundamentally a positive benefit derived from better labor marketplaces, and ultimately, smarter algorithms.</p><p>Algorithms are not devaluing labor, but they are extending old models and building new ones. Some of those models are improvements for workers, others are more neutral. We have the opportunity to shape that progression, and that is the strength of the algorithm economy today.</p>Does Cable News Even Matter Anymore?2015-01-23T00:00:00-08:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-01-23:blog/2015/01/23/does-cable-news-even-matter-anymore/<p>Have you seen the ratings for cable news channels these days? They aren't looking good, and are almost pathetic next to the ratings the channels received even just a few years ago.</p><p><a href="http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2015/01/21/cable-news-ratings-for-monday-january-19-2015/353199/">Take a look at the ratings for just one day</a>, Monday January 19. In daytime ratings, Fox led other networks by a healthy margin with an average viewership of 1,231,000 compared to CNN's 442,000, MSNBC's 320,000 and CNBC's 205,000. Ratings are higher for primetime, with Fox almost doubling its viewership to 2.1 million, and CNN getting 536,000, MSNBC 688,000 and CNBC 451,000. These ratings are fairly typical for the respective channels.</p><p>Take a moment to think about this. These supposedly "highly-influential" channels are barely squeaking out a handful of million viewers for Fox, and don't even top one million viewers for the other cable news channels. O'Reilly Factor still leads all cable shows with more than three million viewers in its first slot, with another million during its late night rerun, but other shows are much more variable in performance.</p><p>To make even a stronger point here, cable news rarely draws in middle-of-the-road viewers who are trying to decide what side of the aisle to vote on. Fox and MSNBC in particular are partisan channels that provide red meat (or maybe vegan burgers in the case of MSNBC?) to their viewers. That means that not only are these channels barely able to eke out a small viewership, but they are doing so mostly to partisan diehards.</p><p>And yet, the public, comedians, and particularly politicians continue to portray these stations as deeply influential. Nowhere was that point more obvious than over <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/world/europe/fox-news-becomes-unwilling-star-of-french-tv-show.html">Fox's mistake over the "Muslim no-go" spaces in France and England</a> that the station <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/world/europe/fox-news-apologizes-for-false-claims-of-muslim-only-areas-in-england-and-france.html?_r=0">ended up having to apologize for</a>. Media sites across the country covered it, often on their front pages. It was a massive screwup, but did it deserve quite this level of attention?</p><p>Now, there is a very large caveat to this point, which is that while the channels may not be influential, their associated websites are and help to drive social media. Even here though, I think there is a big gap between our impressions and the reality. Fox News may be one of the largest news sites in the world, but it also ferociously competes on the right with sites like Breitbart and RedState. MSNBC has a popular portal, but competes with HuffPost and others on the left. Their sites are not unimportant, but neither are they dominant in their categories.</p><p>This wasn't always the case. It may be just beyond the memories of my generation, but Fox was tremendously influential in the early years of the Bush administration. But that influence is simply not what it was at its zenith, and we need to adjust our thinking accordingly.</p>Why We Should be Concerned About Fact-Checking Websites2015-01-20T00:00:00-08:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-01-20:blog/2015/01/20/why-we-should-be-concerned-about-fact-checking-websites/<p>Fact checking is a popular sport, both in traditional print newspapers and online. Rather than reading news or opinion, we get something far more pleasing – seeing a politician brought down by a statement that was later proven by a group of writers to be false. Democracy is in action, and we can all feel smug knowing that the most powerful in our society have to be as responsive to the truth as we are.</p><p>Or do they? While fact checking is a crucial part of journalism, it should not be narrowed to merely fact checking what people say. That's why this trend of fact-checking websites is starting to alarm me. <a href="http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/01/fact-checking-sites-continue-to-grow-in-number-around-the-world/">Neiman Lab quotes researchers at Duke</a> saying that the number of fact check websites has grown even more in the last few months – up to about 89 total, and 64 consistently active (check my facts!)</p><p>There is satisfaction in tearing apart a politician's speech and finding gaping holes in it, but we have to be cautious at just how responsive investigative journalism is. Fact checking is a relatively cheap check on power –- it by and large doesn't require interviews, in-depth field work, or long-term commitment of resources. In some cases, a simple Google search is all that is required as proof that a particular statement is off-balance.</p><p>Unfortunately, fact checking is also only responsive to the discussions of politicians and business executives, and doesn't go beyond their statements. Like the old Drunkard's Search problem ("why are you searching for your keys at the lamppost?", "because that is where the light is"), fact checking speeches transfers all the power to speakers who can then control what gets debated and what does not. If you don't want anyone to investigate school finances, for instance, simply don't mention it and no one will fact check or investigate it. Journalists are providing no real check on who drives the conversation of the day.</p><p>I get worried because fact-checking is economically cheap yet lucrative, since page views are often quite high for these sorts of stories. Voters like the seeming accountability of fact-checking, but don't seem to realize that a fact in a speech is not where power lies. As newsrooms continue to face financial pressure, we need to protect the sort of core investigative work that ensures that media still acts as the fourth branch of government.</p>Three Short Thoughts on Doing a PhD2015-01-16T00:00:00-08:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-01-16:blog/2015/01/16/three-short-thoughts-on-doing-a-phd/<p>January is that time after application season is over, and friends and acquaintances start doing a double-take on their life decisions. "Should I actually be going to business school?" (maybe). "Should I actually go to law school?" (Hell no!) But the question that seems to elicit the most conflicted feelings is always graduate school, and particularly PhD programs.</p><p>It goes without saying that PhD degrees have been under fire, from a whole host of sources. And yet, I am in one, quite happy, and couldn't imagine doing almost any other degree. Considering this is my first year, and most students and my advisor have strongly said this is the worst year by far (due to all the course requirements), I take this as a good sign. Here are some thoughts for those who are thinking through their path.</p><p><strong>If you don't understand the job market for PhDs, you are (truly) an idiot</strong></p><p>That's blunt, but really, there is no excuse in 2014 not to fully understand the job market for PhD holders. If you want to work at a research university, you will work anywhere in the country in which a job is being offered, since there may only be three jobs in your entire field in a given year. You will not necessarily live near a major global city, and indeed, you may live in a terrible suburb in the middle of nowhere. That's how it is.</p><p>If you are looking to get married and need to get two jobs in one location, good luck. If you aren't prepared for the massive work it takes in a job search to secure one of these jobs (which easily takes the bulk of the last year of a PhD, and possibly additional years beyond that), then what exactly are you doing applying?</p><p>The job market for PhDs in academia has been horrific since the 1980s. If you are even thinking of applying to a PhD program, you have the reasoning capacity to look up the data and understand what the next two decades of your life will be like. Go into these things eyes wide open, and don't become cynical because "no one told me" or you rely on admissions materials (i.e. marketing) to make your life decisions.</p><p><strong>There is a massive difference between fields. Choose wisely.</strong></p><p>I am quite sympathetic to my colleagues over in the sciences, who have such a different graduate school experience from the social sciences. Long hours in the lab, terrible management and mentorship, fights over publication credit, strange machinations to prevent the top students from graduating, and more are just some of the average experiences in the wet sciences. It is really quite hellish, and almost universal.</p><p>My program, which is the PhD in Public Policy at the Kennedy School, is quite different. Like most social science graduate degrees, it is quite hands-off, and allows students immense flexibility to design the research agenda that most interests them. Since we are an interdisciplinary field of study, we even have flexibility of how we approach the disciplines. I spend more time in sociology than most of the other graduate students (we are mostly economics-focused, with some political science), but I believe that understanding people is important for good policymaking.</p><p>The university is a diverse place, and degrees are not equivalent even if the abbreviation is the same. Ask probing questions about exactly what you want from a program, and whether the design of a program will let you do it. If a program doesn't fit, don't do it. There are many options out there, and fit more than anything else will make you successful. </p><p><strong>Graduate school is a luxury -- savor it while you can</strong></p><p>I don't know if it is just me, but I have a pretty low tolerance for complaining from grad students. I've complained about the library before, but then again, I am also (technically) the student representative to the Kennedy School library. I do try to actually do something about my complaints other than whine.</p><p>Regardless of the context you want to put it, graduate school is truly a luxury. It is a job in which you can read papers and books, write research, think about thoughts independently, and make a contribution to the world intellectually in a way that the vast majority of jobs in the economy simply don't allow. That's something to truly savor when you go through the process.</p><p>But the problem is that some people get really used to the luxury, and define their lives entirely by doing everything they can to stay on campus. Even after their third or fourth postdoc, visiting professorship, etc., they are still trying to make the magic happen because they just don't want to work in the "real world." As one person put it to me, "I can't even think of making money." That's a luxury, and if it happens that the luxury has to stop, don't wail, but enjoy the moment while it lasts.</p>Does a President's Background Even Matter?2015-01-15T00:00:00-08:00Danny Crichtontag:www.dannycrichton.com,2015-01-15:blog/2015/01/15/does-a-presidents-background-even-matter/<p><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/15/opinion/gail-collins-dropouts-and-politics-and-cats.html">Gail Collins poses a question today to her readers</a>: should a president have a college degree? That immediate question is somewhat interesting (I would say yes, if only because entry-level secretaries in offices are required to have a bachelor's degree these days), but there are others with more intellectual excitement.</p><p>Two deeper questions are: to what extent do credentials and qualifications help a president in decision-making and how closely should analysts of politics pay attention to the backgrounds of their subjects?</p><p>I was reading my undergraduate advisor's critique of Graham Allison's <em>Essence of Decision</em> in International Security [1] yesterday, and he repeatedly references the value of historical biography in analyzing foreign policy decisions. In contrast with Allison, who argues that the process of policymaking is the fundamental framework for understanding decisions, this paper argued that we should instead not lose sight of the people within the room and their similar backgrounds.</p><p>Perhaps no quote sums up the piece better than this one from the paper's final paragraph: "Resisting the narrowness of Essence, scholars should think deeply and critically about the underlying values framework of major policy, and perhaps even about the class background or social origins of major policymakers." Such a point is heretical to international relations scholars, who believe that countries are black boxes. It's one of the many reasons I have a sociological bent to my research.</p><p>Academics too often are willing to cede that historical contingency for theories that offer more "science" at the expense of real explanatory power. The background of the president doesn't just matter -- it matters a lot! The fact that Obama was trained as a lawyer shows through in much of his decision-making, and is in contrast to Romney's mode of operation while governor of Massachusetts. It's not obvious which style is better, and we should be careful of making judgments too swiftly. But there is certainly a sense that the style of decision-making, and thus the decision-maker himself, must have an influence on the final outcome.</p><p>And yet, there remains this huge gulf between political journalists and political analysts, the former predisposed to issues of identity and connections to voters, while the latter focus more macroscopically where changes to the economy look beyond the power of any single individual. The focus on process over politics also allows us to presumably remove the politics from our research, but at the expense of explanatory power.</p><p>We don't need more litmus tests in presidential politics, like whether a candidate has gotten a college degree. But we do need to fully understand who someone is so we can grasp what kind of decision-maker they would be. In the case of Scott Walker (who didn't graduate from college), we need to get a much better sense of his thinking beyond simply public union politics. Only then can we understand how he will interact with Washington's myriad political processes and shape government.</p><p>[1] Bernstein, Barton J. “Understanding Decisionmaking, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis: a Review Essay.” International Security 25, no. 1 (July 2000): 134–64. doi:10.1162/016228800560417.</p>