April 11, 2018
In the Guardian, Fordham's Zephyr Teachout argues that members of Congress let the CEO of Facebook off easily and essentially treated his hearing as an opportunity to curry favor with him. Teachout writes:
"It was designed to fail. It was a show designed to get Zuckerberg off the hook after only a few hours in Washington DC. It was a show that gave the pretense of a hearing without a real hearing. It was designed to deflect and confuse.
Each senator was given less than five minutes for questions. That meant that there was no room for follow-ups, no chance for big discoveries and many frustratingly half-developed ideas. Compare that to Bill Gates’ hearing on Microsoft, where he faced lawyers and staff for several days . . . By design, you can’t do a hearing of this magnitude in just a couple of hours.
The worst moments of the hearing for us, as citizens, were when senators asked if Zuckerberg would support legislation that would regulate Facebook. . . . By asking him if he would support legislation, the senators elevated him to a kind of co-equal philosopher king . . .
Teachout goes on to argue that Facebook's wealth, power, disregard for individual privacy, ability to manipulate public perceptions and refusal to take responsibility for accuracy of the content it presents makes it a "danger to democracy."
"Facebook is a known behemoth corporate monopoly. It has exposed at least 87 million people’s data, enabled foreign propaganda and perpetuated discrimination. We shouldn’t be begging for Facebook’s endorsement of laws, or for Mark Zuckerberg’s promises of self-regulation. We should treat him as a danger to democracy and demand our senators get a real hearing. . . .
Zuckerberg strikes me as reliably self-serving. That doesn’t make him that interesting as the CEO of a corporate monopoly; it makes him a run-of-the-mill robber baron. . . [Senators should not] treat him as a good-hearted actor with limited resources, instead of someone who is making monopoly margins and billions in profits."
In fairness to Mr. Zuckerberg, traditional media organizations also often exhibit a disregard for privacy, manipulate public perceptions and refuse to take responsibility for the [in]accuracy of the information they publish and the harm it causes. Too many journalists and and editors invest the bare minimum in fact checking (often nothing), and prioritize entertainment value and "virality" over economic or political significance. The established press too often write preconceived stories full of selective quotes or facts while disregarding contradictory information, refuse to print corrections, elevate the status of those willing to supply "helpful" quotes, and retaliate against those who point out their errors.
This irresponsible behavior is made possible by defamation laws that make it virtually impossible for the press to incur liability unless it can be proved that they knowingly and intentionally lied with the specific goal of destroying an individual's reputation--which is virtually impossible.
Facebook may have contributed to the unexpected outcome of the last election, but so did other media organizations. Mainstream media organizations gave one candidate billions of dollars of free publicity (hundreds of millions more than his rivals) mainly because his provocative statements--delivered with the practiced timing of a "reality" TV star--were entertaining and boosted their readership, and therefore their revenues.
This is what happens when competitive market pressures encourage media organizations to see their role as packaging advertising rather than as supplying accurate information. Facebook may play the same game, only with better technology.
This does not mean that Facebook should get a free pass. But we should not use Facebook as a scapegoat to avoid talking about problems with the media landscape that are systemic and that would persist even if Facebook disappeared tomorrow.
UPDATE: This article was corrected on 4/15/2018 to note that media organizations provided billions worth of free coverage, not just tens of millions.
April 10, 2018
Jake Brooks in NY Times: Direct Federal Student Lending Should Provide Insurance to Students and Public Investment in Education (Michael Simkovic)
John Brooks of Georgetown's excellent Op Ed is available here.
Brooks calls to task some of the questionable and alarmist narratives that have been coming out of nominally liberal think tanks (which are funded by foundations linked to the private student loan industry and purveyors of ed-tech of dubious value), noting that Direct Lending, IBR and debt forgiveness can benefit both students and taxpayers. He also notes the dangers of the new PROSPER act and graciously linked to Friday's post about how small the direct budgetary impact of student loans is when viewed in context.
Brooks notes that some Democrats have been advancing a traditionally Republican privatization agenda. Jeff Sachs has similarly taken Obama and Clinton to task for underinvestment in basic and essential public services and infrastructure, noting that by the numbers they invest only marginally more than Republicans. Brooks argues that because of IBR, Obama deserves more credit, and that this important legacy of his presidency should be preserved.
April 09, 2018
Pepperdine’s law school recently made an error when submitting enrollment data to U.S. News.com. Pepperdine contacted U.S. News promptly after uncovering the error and submitted corrected data in time for U.S. News to use the corrected data in its ranking. Although the erroneous data was more positive than the corrected data, no reasons have been given to believe that Pepperdine intentionally sought to deceive U.S. News.
I know and respect Paul Caron, the current Dean of Pepperdine. While we don’t always agree on technical or political issues, the notion that he would intentionally commit fraud—and then immediately correct his error—is outlandish. (In the interest of disclosure, Leiter Reports joined a network of legal education blogs that Paul organized, but Leiter Reports and Caron’s blog, TaxProf, often compete and advance different perspectives. I have vocally criticized some of the research covered on TaxProf blog.).
Nevertheless, U.S. News punished Pepperdine by making it an “unranked” law school this year. Those who are not familiar with the reasons for this move in the rankings might mistakenly believe that Pepperdine fell outside the top 100. According to analyses by Bill Henderson and Andy Morriss, if not for the penalty imposed by U.S. News, in all likelihood Pepperdine’s rank this year would have risen from 72 to between 64 and 62.
Unranked status could have an adverse impact on Pepperdine’s enrollments and finances. It is punitive, unnecessary, and perhaps even counter-productive in that it might discourage honest self-reporting of mistakes. A more reasonable and compassionate approach would be to let Pepperdine off with a warning, and report the incident without changing the rankings, for example by including a footnote in the ranking explaining the misreporting. U.S. News is a private business, but because of its virtual monopoly on rankings, enjoys quasi-regulatory authority.
Some of Pepperdine’s competitors might rejoice at Pepperdine’s misfortune, believing that admissions and enrollment are a zero-sum game. They are making a mistake.
The lesson of the last decade is that law schools rise and fall together far more than they benefit from each other’s hardship. What U.S. News does to Pepperdine this year, it could one day do to any law school that makes a mistake, even if it honestly and reasonably attempts to correct it.
Healthy competition between law schools can promote innovation and efficiency, and be good for students and research productivity. But we should be careful that competition does not erode our ability to act cooperatively in pursuit of shared beliefs and shared values of fairness and due process.
April 06, 2018
Many alarmist narratives suggest that federal student loans are going to lead to a fiscal crisis for the federal government unless loan limits are capped, interest rates are increased, and debt forgiveness is curtailed. These hyperbolic claims are implausible. Higher education is a tiny fraction of the federal government’s spending and of the U.S. economy (around 3 percent of each). Moreover, education spending is a boon to the economy--boosting employment, earnings, growth and tax revenues.
The federal government spends 4 trillion per year and growing—mostly on the military, healthcare, and social security. That’s $200 trillion dollars in net present value, discounted at 2% in perpetuity. The whole U.S. economy is worth roughly 5 times that much. Household net worth is close to $100 trillion. The federal student loan portfolio is only about $1.3 trillion. Student loans may look big on the federal government’s balance sheet, but the federal government’s balance sheet asset are small to begin with relative to the size of the government and the size of the economy.
Even with Income Based Repayment (IBR) with partial loan forgiveness, borrowers pay some interest and principle, so the loss rates on these programs are nowhere near 100%. Several analyses by the GOA and DOE peg the net subsidy rate on these programs as negative by a few billion (i.e., the programs are slightly profitable for the government), with the possibility of eventually becoming positive by a few billion per year (i.e., the programs could become slightly subsidized). These studies do not take into account the fiscal benefits of higher tax revenues, they only look at the net present value (NPV) of interest and principal payments. The estimated annual subsidy rates are around 0.3% or negative 0.3% or less of the size of the portfolio.
Different assumptions could produce different results. But you would need some pretty extreme assumptions to get to the point where losses on student loans could move the needle. Nations that are no more productive than the United States—and where the returns to higher education are lower—have fully funded higher education with public dollars (i.e., grants and direct institutional subsidies, not student loans) for decades while maintaining a lower debt to GDP ratio than the United States. A grant is the equivalent of a loan with a 100 percent loss rate, since no funds will be repaid except in the form of higher tax revenue.
The direct budgetary impact of federal student loans as a pure lending program—that is, the net present value of all funds dispersed and all fees, interest, and principal collected—is tiny. Viewed in context, whether the student loan program is slightly profitable or slightly subsidized, its direct costs are approximately zero.
But the indirect budgetary and economic benefits of student loans are huge. Federal student loans help finance higher quality and more economically valuable higher education and boost the size of the educated work force. Better education increases earnings, reduces unemployment, and facilitates economic growth and innovation. Around 30 to 40 cents of every extra dollar earned because of higher education goes into the U.S treasury’s coffers through income and payroll taxes, which account for the overwhelming majority of federal revenue.
The real crisis in higher education is that the government is underinvesting in it.
November 29, 2017
Republican Education Bill Would Boost Profits for Private Student Lenders and Raise Financing Costs for Students (Michael Simkovic)
House Republicans recently voted along party lines in favor of a tax bill that specifically targeted higher education institutions and students for tax hikes, while providing large tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals. The Wall Street Journal reports that House Republicans are proposing an additional higher education bill that would make the terms of federal student loans less flexible and less generous and limit federal student loan availability. Specifically, the bill would eliminate Public Service Loan Forgiveness and reduce the availability of flexible repayment plans for all borrowers. It would also cap maximum borrowing from the federal government at a lower level.
These measures, if enacted, would be a boon to private student lenders like Sallie Mae, who would be able to both increase their prices and increase their market share as federal student loans become less competitive and less available. Consequently, expected financing costs for students will likely increase, to the detriment of both students and educational institutions.
According to a study by the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Education, loans to graduate and professional students are the most profitable in the government's portfolio--even after income based repayment and debt forgiveness. Capping loans to these attractive borrowers may reduce the overall profitability of federal student lending, and pave the way for arguments for more cuts to federal lending in the future.
The bill reportedly will also reduce regulation of for-profit college sales and marketing, and provide greater funding for 2-year degrees and apprenticeship programs. Labor economists who have studied 2-year degrees and apprenticeship programs typically find that these programs provide relatively low benefits (in terms of increased earnings and employment) compared to 4-year college degrees and graduate degrees, even after accounting for differences in the costs of these programs and differences in student populations. Thus, increasing funding for apprenticeships while reducing funding for 4-year degrees and advanced degrees is likely to impede economic growth.
These educational priorities, may however, provide Republicans with political advantages. Political scientists and pollsters have found that as education levels increase--after controlling for income, race, sex, and age--individuals become more likely to identify as Democrats and less likely to identify as Republicans. The association is particularly pronounced among scientists and others with graduate degrees.
September 09, 2017
New American Foundation fires a prominent researcher who criticized one of its largest donors (Michael Simkovic)
The powerful Washington D.C. think tank New America Foundation, which has ties to the technology, finance, and aerospace industries, recently fired a researcher within days after the researcher praised the European Union for fining Google for antitrust violations. Google and its CEO are among the largest donors to New America Foundation, as well as other think tanks. The head of New America Foundation claims the firing was for a lack of collegiality, but declined to discuss specifics.
The firing echoes similar incidents at other think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institute, where researchers have been fired shortly after offending other important donors or political patrons.
As the Economist magazine explains:
[Think tanks suffer from] a fundamental flaw. Unlike other institutions designed to promote free inquiry, such as universities or some publications, think-tanks do not enjoy large endowments, researcher tenure or subscription revenue to insulate thinkers from paymasters. And thinking costs a lot.
The New America Foundation has played a prominent role in efforts to privatize student loans by making the terms of federal student loans less attractive and making the loans less widely available.
June 23, 2017
Least educated county on Oregon's Pacific Coast shuts its last public library rather than increase taxes by $6 per month per household (Michael Simkovic)
Douglas County in rural Oregon recently shut its last public library rather than increase property taxes by around $6 per month per household. Less than 16 percent of the population of Douglas County has a bachelor's degree or above, making it the third least educated county on the Pacific Coast of the United States and the least educated coastal county in Oregon.
Across the Pacific, cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai have built globally competitive workforces by investing heavily in education and infrastructure and embracing global trade. In the United States, excessive anti-tax movements have contributed to disinvestment and have slowed U.S. economic growth.
Update: Michelle Anderson (Stanford) and David Schleicher (Yale) debate policy responses to local economic decline and migration of educated populations away from depressed areas. Hat tip Paul Diller. (Willamette).
January 04, 2017
A partner in a prominent San-Francisco-Bay-area venture capital firm recently told me, “The tech sector is eating the world. The menu is full of inefficient legacy industries.”
The thesis of USC Professor Gillian Hadfield’s new book, Rules for a Flat World, is that the legal profession should be near the top of the menu. Hadfield argues that law is overly complicated, expensive and inefficient. This is because lawyers have monopolized the practice of law, locking out more efficient, technologically empowered, venture-capital backed competitors. These competitors—software engineers backed by venture capital money, perhaps in cooperation with lawyers and paralegals—could hopefully improve quality, reduce costs, and generally run circles around overly conservative law firms and inefficiently subscale solo practitioners.
This book will engage venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, established legal technology companies, individuals interested in regulation of the legal profession, and more broadly, those who study privatization and deregulation.
She raises important questions about which regulations of the legal profession protect consumers or serve other legitimate public policy goals and which might be merely protectionist. She targets prohibitions on practice of law within a corporation and prohibitions on profit-sharing with non-lawyers. Without such regulations, it would be easier for non-lawyers to invest in and make high level decisions for legal services providers. Non-lawyers might place more trust in technology than lawyers and might be more open to new business models.
Hadfield’s analysis focuses on the aspects of law that are an economic service (she describes it as “economic infrastructure”). Hadfield is primarily focused on commercial and corporate law. Hadfield notes that while criminal law may be more salient in popular culture, since the time of Hammurabi, most law has been about money, property rights, risk allocation, and supporting business activity.
Hadfield argues that if companies such as Westlaw, Lexis and Legal Zoom could hire lawyers to provide customer support directly to end-users, these companies could improve the appeal of their offerings and more easily compete with small and solo-practitioners. Moreover, these companies would have economies of scale and efficiencies that solo practitioners cannot readily match. Because of these efficiencies and expansion of the legal market to under-served populations, lawyers working for incorporated legal services providers would not necessarily earn less than solo practitioners currently earn, although lawyer-employees would have substantially less autonomy than lawyer-owners.
February 09, 2016
The latest unscientific fad among law school watchers is comparing job openings projections for lawyers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics* with the number of students expected to graduate from law school. Frank McIntyre and I tested this method of predicting earnings premiums--the financial benefits of a law degree--using all of the available historical projections from the BLS going back decades. This method of prediction does not perform any better than random chance.** Labor economists--including those working at the BLS--have explicitly stated that BLS projections should not be used to try to value particular courses of study. Instead, higher education should be valued based on earnings premiums.
Bloggers who report changes in BLS projections and compare projected job openings to the number of students entering law school might as well advise prospective law students to make important life decisions by flipping a coin.
Many law graduates won't practice law. Many engineering graduates won't become engineers. Many students in every field end up working jobs that are not directly related to what they studied. They still typically benefit financially from their degrees by using them in other occupations where additional education boosts earnings and likelihood of employment.
And if one's goal really is to practice law even if practicing law is not more lucrative than other opportunities opened by a law degree, then studying law may not be a guarantee, but it still dramatically improves the odds.
* BLS job opening projections--which are essentially worthless as predictors for higher education--should not be confused with BLS occupational employment statistics, which provide useful data about earnings and employment in many occupations, including for lawyers.
** There isn’t even strong evidence that changes in the ratio between BLS projected lawyer job openings and law class size predict changes in the percent of law graduates who will practice law, although the estimates are too noisy to be definitive. Historically, the ratio of BLS projected openings to law graduates (or first year enrollments 3 years prior) has systematically under-predicted by a wide margin the proportion of law graduates practicing law shortly after graduation, although it is clear that a large minority of law graduates do not practice law.
February 9, 2016 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Ludicrous Hyperbole Watch, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice, Science, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink
December 02, 2015
Developer of Law School Admission Test (LSAT) Disputes Advocacy Group's Bar Exam Claims (Michael Simkovic)
The Law School Admission Council (LSAC)--the non-profit organization which develops and administers the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)--recently issued a press release disputing claims by the advocacy group "Law School Transparency" about the relationship between LSAT scores and bar passage rates. "Law School Transparency," headed by Kyle McEntee, prominently cited the LSAC National Longitudinal Bar Passage Study (1998) as a key source for "Law School Transparency's" claims that many law schools are admitting students who are unlikely to pass the bar exam based largely on their LSAT scores. McEntee's group's claims of bar passage risk were widely disseminated by the national press.
However, according to LSAC, the Longitudinal Bar Passage Study does not provide much support for "Law School Transparency's" claims. Moreover, "Law School Transparency's" focus on first time bar passage rates is potentially misleading:
"The LSAC [National Longitudinal Bar Passage] study did state that 'from the perspective of entry to the profession, the eventual pass rate is a far more important outcome than first-time pass rate.' This statement is as true today as it was 25 years ago. As noted by LST, the LSAC study participants who scored below the (then) average LSAT score had an eventual bar passage rate of over 90 percent.
Kyle McEntee and David Frakt responded to some of LSAC's critiques--partly on substance by pointing out disclaimers in the full version of "Law School Transparency's" claims, partly by smearing the technical experts at LSAC as shills for law school--but notably did not explain why "Law School Transparency" chose to focus on first time bar passage rates rather than seemingly more important--and much higher--eventual bar passage rates.
Eventual bar passage rates were the focus of the National Longitudinal Bar Passage Study. The LSAC study's executive summary highlights eventual bar passage rates and detailed data is presented on page 32 and 33. Even among graduates of the lowest "cluster" of law schools, around 80 percent eventually passed the bar exam.
According to LSAC:
"The LSAC National Longitudinal Bar Passage Study was undertaken primarily in response to rumors and anecdotal reports suggesting that bar passage rates were so low among examinees of color that potential applicants were questioning the wisdom of investing the time and resources necessary to obtain a legal education."
"Law School Transparency" has revived similar concerns, but without a specific focus on racial minorities.*
There may be legitimate concerns about long term eventual bar passage rates for some law students. However, "Law School Transparency's" back-of-the-envelope effort, focused on short term outcomes, does not provide much insight into long-term questions. The most rigorous study of this issue to date--the LSAC National Longitudinal Bar Passage Study--concluded that "A demographic profile that could distinguish first-time passing examinees from eventual-passing or never-passing examinees did not emerge from these data. . . . Although students of color entered law school with academic credentials, as measured by UGPA and LSAT scores, that were significantly lower than those of white students, their eventual bar passage rates justified admission practices that look beyond those measures."Unfortunately, some newspapers reported "Law School Transparency's" bar passage risk claims in ways that suggested the claims were blessed by LSAC, or even originated from LSAC. For example, one prominent newspaper's editorial board wrote that "In 2013, the median LSAT score of students admitted to [one law school] was in the bottom quarter of all test-takers nationwide. According to the test’s administrators, students with scores this low are unlikely to ever pass the bar exam."