Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The refugee revolution

Nevil Gibson at the NBR notes the importance of migrants to New Zealand's arts scene. The Second World War brought refugees from central and eastern Europe. Their contributions are noted in a new book from Leonard Ball at Auckland University Press. Nevil writes:
Historically, despite being a 19th-century settler economy, immigration was minimal in the 1930s and popular attitudes were hostile to “strangers.” Even the arrival of some 1100 refugees allowed in up to 1940 was resisted in some quarters.

The author of a new book on these mostly central European refugees from Nazism says, “The doors to New Zealand were almost closed.”

Leonard Bell’s Strangers Arrive: EmigrĂ©s and the arts in New Zealand, 1930-80* describes the impact of those immigrants both before and after World War II. Supplemented later by Dutch migrants and those fleeing communism, they had a profound influence on architecture, the arts, education, industry, science, medicine, fashion, cuisine and much else.

A Czech refugee, Ernst Mandl (Mr Bell's father-in-law), was told by the New Zealand High Commission in London in mid-1939 that 16,000 applications from others seeking to leave Europe had been rejected.

A junior staff member of the commission, George Fraser, later recalled in his memoir, Both Eyes Open, that, ”We could have recruited some of Europe’s finest … but balked at it.”

Opposition came from groups as varied as the British Medical Association (which demanded “retraining” of doctors), the Returned Services Association and sports clubs.

Xenophobia and, let’s face it, anti-Semitism was commonly expressed in the media and in attitudes to hiring “aliens” from European countries – Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire – that New Zealand had fought in World War I.

Those attitudes were also directed at European allies, such as the French, but were countered by local Jews, Quakers and academics, who were supportive of the refugees. (For another perspective, see Jewish Lives in New Zealand History (2012), co-edited by Mr Bell.)
Nevil goes through substantial contributions to the arts, culture and architecture from New Zealand's small group of admitted WW2 refugees - he calls it a cultural revolution.

I wonder what contributions the thousands who were turned away could have made here, and how many of them were murdered in Europe after finding doors closed.

Ball discusses his book here.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Afternoon roundup

The closing of many days' worth of browser tabs finds some gems.
And a couple bits from me:

More drinking stats

The Press reports that the new NZ Health Survey data is up. Smoking rates are down; obesity's up. Here's how they describe the drinking stats:
Meanwhile, 748,000 people, or 19.5 per cent of the adult population are considered "hazardous drinkers", according to a World Health Organisation definition, which takes into account a combination of factors including binge drinking, dependency, and the impact alcohol has on people's lives.

Another indicator headed in the wrong direction is one which measures mental health. This survey found that 7.6 per cent of people suffered from "psychological distress", and a high or very high probability of anxiety or a depressive disorder.
You could be forgiven for thinking that meant the drinking stats were worsening. Here's what the data says instead for adults aged 15+:

  • There are more abstainers. Past-year drinking has dropped by just under a percentage point, with drops for both men and women, and across almost all age groups. None of the single-year changes are significant, but the drop since 2006/7 is significant overall, for both genders, and for almost all age cohorts. 
  • Hazardous drinking is down from last year, from 20.8% to 19.5% overall, with a percentage point drop for women and a point and a half drop for men. The drops are across just about every age cohort. Youth hazardous drinking (15-17 year olds) is down from 7.9% to 7.6%. Hazardous drinking among 18-24 year olds is down from 37.1% to 32.9%. Note on this measure though that we only have data from last year and this year because they changed the definition. 

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Unemployment targets

Grant Robertson wants the Reserve Bank to follow a dual mandate, targeting both inflation and unemployment.

RBNZ already weighs unemployment, both because inflation targeting requires having a sense of the slack available in the economy, and because policy targets agreements have required that the bank minimise unnecessary variability in the unemployment rate while targeting inflation.

I expect a formal dual mandate is riskier than Rob Hosking at the NBR suggests. A sound governor backed by a good board will recognise that the long-run Philips curve is vertical and seek to minimise longer run unemployment by providing stable inflation rates around the middle of the inflation band. But if a governor and board are chosen explicitly by the Minister to focus on unemployment, that could be decidedly worse. Policy targeting lower unemployment while taking an eye off of inflation will succeed in delivering permanently higher inflation while doing nothing to reduce long-run unemployment.

And where Robertson says he wants unemployment down below 4%, where it was in 2005-2008, we should remember that there are a few ways of doing that. The labour force participation rate in 2005-2008 never reached 78% in the June quarter annual figures (for those aged 15-64, so isolating from changes in retirement behaviour). It has been above 78% since 2014 and sat at 80.4% in the 2017 June annual figure. The employment rate, 2005-2008, was 74.8 in those annual June figures; in 2017's figures, it was 76.2%.

As I read the figures, we've had strong population growth and strong employment growth. Together those mean that a new tranche of workers enter the market, start looking for work, find jobs, and a new tranche of incoming job-seekers follow on behind. At the same time we've had a strong push to get people from benefits into work. All of those have boosted the participation rate and the employment rate - and the churn from new entrants coming in has pushed up the unemployment rate a bit.

Getting the unemployment rate down by a point would be pretty easy: stop work-testing things at MSD, and slow the arrival of new migrants who bring partners who spend a couple quarters looking for work before landing a job. The labour force participation rate would drop, as would the employment rate. But if all you care about's the unemployment rate, that'd do it.

Buttery

Joe Bennett makes the case for butter, as only he can.
Miss Turner, who was as old as it was possible to be and had a throat like a turkey, made us fish out our blobs and put them together. Whereupon she added salt, patted the whole into shape with a pair of wooden bats, and then made us sandwiches. It was the last time I enjoyed a science lesson and the only time I ate one.

But butter is even older than Miss Turner was. It's been discovered by every human society that's had the wit to steal milk from other mammals. Great cuisines are founded on butter. You can't make a croissant with low-fat spread. Every Indian dish starts with ghee. Deprive Tibetans of yak butter and they see no point in going on.

Butter is such an obvious good. To taste it is to know so. It enriches any sauce, any anything. I once compiled a list of foodstuffs that butter did not improve. Ice-cream was one, and I wondered whether cucumber was perhaps another. End of list.

Yet those of us who love butter have been out of step with the zeitgeist. By zeitgeist I mean the usual culprits in the dietary field, the harpies of health and wellbeing, the five-a-day fanatics, the officials of single-issue pseudo-medical lobby groups with names like the Society for the Healthy Heart, or Guardians of the Arteries. Who funds these people I don't know, but I do know that for decades they were as one in vilifying butter.

Butter kills, they said. It lodges in our workings and it stills our fluttering hearts. It blocks the blood, the brain, the organism. Shun butter or die, they said, and they went on to preach more virtuous diets. They praised the Italian diet of olive oil, pasta and organised crime, the Japanese diet of seaweed, rice and slavish devotion to authority, the diet of anywhere but where we were.

And people paid attention. They always do. It's vanity and fear of death. At the sight of a pat of butter the longevity freaks and Lycra narcissists leapt aboard their exercycles and pedalled away from it as fast as they could go.
He continues, noting that the end of the demonisation of butter has led to an unwelcome increase in its price. You should read the whole thing - it's fun.

And for more on the price of butter, and other grocery items, here's Aaron Schiff!


Monday, 6 November 2017

Cluster scepticism

No government official ever got fired for promoting clusters—those concentrations of interconnected companies, specialized suppliers, service providers, training institutions, and support organizations formed around a technology or end product within one area or region. Popularized by Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter, cluster strategies have been promoted by governments throughout the world, which tout clusters’ key role in fostering entrepreneurship and economic competitiveness. Though entrepreneurial clusters do exist naturally and can be important elements of an ecosystem, there is only questionable anecdotal evidence that governments can play a major role in breeding them. In a rare critique of the cluster mantra, the Economist reported:

“Typically governments pick a promising part of their country, ideally one that has a big university nearby, and provide a pot of money that is meant to kick-start entrepreneurship under the guiding hand of benevolent bureaucrats….It has been an abysmal failure….Experts at Insead looked at efforts by the German government to create biotechnology clusters on a par with those found in California and concluded that ‘Germany has essentially wasted $20 billion—and now Singapore is well on its way to doing the same.’ An assessment by the World Bank of Singapore’s multibillion dollar efforts to create a ‘biopolis’ reckoned that it had only a 50-50 chance of success. Some would put it less than that.”

The problem is that over the years people have mistaken Porter’s description of the benefits of clusters for a prescription to go out and build them from scratch. In fact, in a 1998 article in this magazine (“Clusters and the New Economics of Competition”) Porter himself anticipated that the dynamics of clusters would be misunderstood by governments:

“Government…should reinforce and build on existing and emerging clusters rather than attempt to create entirely new ones….In fact, most clusters form independently of government action—and sometimes in spite of it. They form where a foundation of locational advantages exists. To justify cluster development efforts, some seeds of a cluster should have already passed a market test….”
The piece points too to the importance of sound legal and regulatory systems, and the risks in government sponsored venture capital funds that retard innovation by flooding the market with "overvalued, poor-quality deals".

Friday, 3 November 2017

Teacher effectiveness

Massachusetts has been doing some interesting work on teacher effectiveness. Findings so far:

  • There are large differences in teacher effectiveness. A teacher at the 75th percentile, relative to the median, improves student achievement by the equivalent of 13 to 15 weeks of learning;
  • The cumulative effects of more effective teachers are large. Getting a teacher even only at the 60th percentile rather than the median over fourth through eighth grades provides the equivalent of an extra two months' learning over those five years. Gaps between exemplary teachers and unsatisfactory ones are even larger;
  • Low income students are much more likely to get teachers rated as unsatisfactory or as needing improvement;
  • Inequities in access to effective teachers increase gaps in achievement between poorer and richer kids.
Wouldn't it be nice if it were possible to do the same work here? There are substantial achievement gaps between low-decile and high-decile schools. Some of it would come down to family effects, whether genetic or environmental. But some of it would also come down to differential effectiveness of schools: recall that there is high variance in outcomes even among low decile schools. 

What would it take?
  • It is possible to build contextualised achievement measures for high schools. Grades on externally invigilated NCEA standards can be used to build an outcome measure [or whatever other outcomes you like], and IDI background data can be used as conditioning variables to see which schools over- or under-perform relative to student background characteristics.
    • It is currently impossible to link that back to teachers to get a measure of teacher effectiveness. Nothing links students to teachers in the background administrative data, so you don't know which students map to which teachers. And nothing links teachers to schools - or at least if there's a way of linking it, we've not seen it. 
  • It is possible to build a contextualised achievement measure for primary schools, but only at one step removed: you infer primary school achievement by outcomes for those schools' students once they get to secondary school. You could try building it out of National Standards data, but it would likely be a bad idea. Students' progress towards National Standards is evaluated by their teachers and you don't want them gaming that. And it looks like Labour's going to scrap National Standards anyway. 
I doubt we get better measures of teacher effectiveness or school performance without strong parent demand for it. I'd be pretty surprised if there weren't similar problems here in getting great teachers into our more challenging schools (on average).