29
Oct
12

Improper composition

Stop me if you’ve heard something like this before:

I tried exercising, but I never lost any weight.  Exercise only works if you won the genetic lottery.  I think I have a hormonal imbalance or something.

This is what’s known among irritatingly-precise philosophy types as the fallacy of composition.  You didn’t try “exercising”,  you tried “balancing on a Wii Fit holding a Shake-Weight for ten minutes a day”.  Still, you’re trying to impute to everything covered under “exercising” — we’ll be generous and include your Shake-Weight adventures — the property that they don’t provoke “weight” loss.  This is plainly false, as anyone who’s ever been glycogen-depleted after sprinting hills for half an hour will tell you.  (Puking after  your tenth sprint will also induce “weight” loss.)  On the other hand, a balls-out “exercise” programme like Boring But Big will (when properly implemented) lead to “weight” gain.

Careful readers will have noticed — and probably correctly interpreted — the snarky-quotes around “weight”.  Yeah, that’s a fallacy of composition as well.  If all you want to do is lose weight, here’s a quick and easy prescription: Drink shots of tequila until you pass out.  You will (probably) eventually come to in a state of moderate to severe dehydration, having lost the weight of whatever amount of water you pissed, puked, and/or sweated out while generating that spectacular hangover you now enjoy.  Worth it?  Didn’t think so.  To achieve your body-composition goals you want to lose fat.  (And if it makes you feel any better, so do I.)  You probably also want to gain weight — provided that the weight in question comes from muscle, bone, and connective tissue (and I doubt you’d be upset if a lot of it came from water and glycogen in your muscles, either).

Discussions of “exercise” for “weight” loss are about as helpful as tits on a spider.  Of course, this is the internet, and just as Rule 34 applies to spiders* we have whole forums full of prats whinging about how “going low-carb” (“I never eat pasta any more, only burgers and fries because of the protein”) and “exercising” (“I do, like, ten kinds of curls after I bench”) “doesn’t work” for them because they’re not juiced to the gills or something.

Similarly, in the various threads of the Higher-Ed Bubble meta-argument we occasionally come across sackcloth-and-ashes lamentations about the fact that investments in “higher education” (or sometimes merely “education”) don’t lead to nirvana, or utopia, or even noticeably higher rates of GDP growth.  Actually, I lied: Mostly we come across blithe assertions unencumbered with data that investing in “education” will lead to Kingdom Come or at least a rising tide lifting all boats, generally countered by posts from Garrett Jones:

(Spoiler warning — no)

and Katherine Mangu-Ward:

with actual, you know, data to the contrary.  But of course we all know that quantitative evaluations are all limited and stuff.

Well, here’s the problem, cupcake: You’re quantifying investment in education.  (Or, similarly, schools.)  And while having the local SLAC churn out another class of Drama students is great news for Starbucks — more to the point, while having the local SLAC hire another round of administrative executives is great news for the clerisy — neither one is likely to have the same dramatically anabolic effect on the local economy that squats and milk will have on your strength levels.  Mangu-Ward:

America’s public schools saw a 96 percent increase in students but increased administrators and other non-teaching staff a staggering 702 percent since 1950, according to a new study of school personnel by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice….Teaching staff, in comparison, increased 252 percent.

Yeah, the thing about the administrative hierarchy is supposed to be that it’s an actual hierarchy, meaning that many teachers can benefit from the efforts of one administrator.  Similarly, the putative efficiency gains from public — er, organized — education come from the notion that many students can benefit from the efforts of a single teacher.  Oh, sorry!  I keep thinking that public education is for the students’ benefit.  My bad.

On a related note, Bryan Caplan provides

I’m going to quote a lot of that post because, quite frankly, it makes me feel good:

New ideas generated by STEM majors are one kind of positive externality.  But the higher taxes paid by lucrative majors also qualify.  There’s a fiscal externality.  The more lucrative your major, the more likely your future taxes are to repay taxpayers for their subsidies.  But the higher the tax rate, the less likely you are to want to pursue a lucrative major.  Cutting tuition for lucrative majors relative to non-lucrative majors is a simple way to correct (or at least mitigate) this externality.

The same goes for employment rates.  Graduates who get jobs pay taxes.  Graduates who don’t get jobs consume taxes.  Once again, there’s a fiscal externality.  Taxpayers benefit if students focus on majors with high employment rates, and avoid majors with low employment rates.  And by almost all accounts, high-income majors are also high-employment majors.

But wait, there’s more.  Alex neglects another important efficiency consideration: signaling.  STEM majors spend a relatively high fraction of their time acquiring real world skills.  Other majors spend a higher fraction simply showing off their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity.  Both are privately rewarding, but the former is far more socially rewarding: Useful skills enrich the world, but signaling mostly just enriches the signaler.

Even if you don’t buy the signaling model, you should also consider the fact that STEM majors have relatively absolute standards.  When more students acquire STEM degrees, more people actually understand STEM.  Other fields, in contrast, have heavily diluted their standards to make room for marginal (and submarginal) students.  As a result, taxpayers are more likely to get their money’s worth for the former than the latter.

(“If you feel confirmation bias for more than four hours after reading an EconLog post, see a doctor.”)

——

* You can google that your god damn self.

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2 Responses to “Improper composition”


  1. October 30, 2012 at 13:53

    I will make sure to suggest that we charge the Womyns Studies majors more than the Engineering undergrads to my coworkers here at the University. It couldn’t hurt…

  2. September 9, 2015 at 07:48

    Useful information. Fortunate me I discovered your web site unintentionally, and I am stunned
    why this accident did not took place in advance! I bookmarked it.


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