some advice re: advice

A thread on orgtheory talks about graduate admissions and what committees look for.  Over the years, I have read a variety of different blog posts, blog comments, and other sorts of forum posts of advice about graduate admissions or assistant professor searches or tenure panels or grant panels.  

I will here offer a bit of meta-advice.  The single thing that has surprised me most about serving on evaluation/selection committees is the heterogeneity of criteria that individuals on committees have.  There is a direct asymmetrical implication for how you should parse advice: when people talk about what matters to them and what they personally take into account, listen closely; when they talk about what doesn’t matter, regard any implication cautiously until it plainly aggregates.

Of course, this is sort of neurosis-producing advice, as it leads to the idea that “everything matters!  be strong on every front!”  (If it’s any consolation–or, hey, maybe it makes it worse–my experience has been that when the decision is about selecting a few from a large pool, where we are talking admittees for grad school or a short list for a faculty job or what gets funded out of a set of grant proposals–it’s really more about how strong the strengths are than how many weaknesses there are.  It may even be more about how weak the weakest weakness is than how many weaknesses there are overall.)   Same time: few things are as sobering as the icy math of how long a committee will take on the first cut of something.  I mean, say a department gets 300 grad school applications.  Three minutes with each file still implies 15 hours to the first cut.  Make sure all the superficial stuff is in order, and do not count on subtlety being appreciated.

stocks, flows, and capital gains

Disclaimer: I am not an economist. Really, really not. Any comments as to why I am wrong here would be welcome!

There is a common meme in the discussion of capital-gains taxes that the income from capital gains has “already been taxed” when it was business income, taxing it when it becomes increased value in investments is unfair or at least double taxation. You can find this claim all over the place; one typical example is here:

…wealthy tax filers make most of their income from investments. Such income is taxed once at the corporate rate of 35% and again when it is passed through to the individual as a capital gain or dividend at 15%, for a highest marginal tax rate of about 44.75%.

Various commentators have noted that this distinction means little to “average Americans,” and that it shows just how disconnected the very wealthy are from the rest of us. I largely agree.

However, I think there’s a good analytical case to be made (separate from the political case) that the double-taxation thesis misunderstands the nature of capital and taxes. That’s because it conceptualizes the funds being taxed as a stock[1] when they are really a flow. Income taxes, sales taxes, etc. (but not property taxes) are imposed on flows: essentially, on the transfer of money from one party to another.  When a company pays a worker a salary for her work, the money it uses to pay her has also already been taxed, either as prior profit for the company, or as income from sales before, etc.  So if we conceptualize that money as a stock, liable to be taxed once and only once, the same argument applies to regular income taxes as to capital gains taxes.

On the other hand, if we recognize that income taxes are imposed on the transfer of money from one party to another, capital gains is no more double taxation than is any other form of income tax. Investors realize profits from capital gains as income from a distant source; indeed that’s why the IRS defines it as “passive gains!”  It’s perfectly reasonable to understand the company as paying taxes on its profits, and the stockholders as paying taxes on their income, because most elements of the economy, emphatically including this one, are best understood as flows, not stocks.

The same misunderstanding is, I believe, involved in the meme that claims that focused government spending is like “moving money around in the ocean” (I can’t find a reference online but I’ve heard it orally). The simile works because anybody can understand that moving money in an ocean doesn’t change the stock of water. But economic growth is actually about increasing the flow of money, not the stock;  so moving “water” around may[2] actually contribute to economic growth because moving money around increases the likelihood that it will flow further.

[1] As you probably figured out, I mean stock as opposed to flow, not in the sense of a piece of paper conferring share ownership in a corporation.

[2] Note that I wrote “may”, not “will.”

minor geek triumph

Maybe I’m the only one who gets into this kind of thing. A few semesters ago I figured out how to set up a spreadsheet to help me manage section switches and adds to my big lecture course where the discussion sections have to all be the same size. This semester, I successfully used mail merge in Word to read the data from the spreadsheet and generate “form emails” sent out via Outlook telling each student what section they have been admitted to. (I don’t normally use Outlook as my mailer, but have it set up as an option.) Overhead in learning it this time was probably close to just sending each email individually, but now that I know how, one more job that will go faster! Hint: Although I hate Word for  a lot of things, its mail merge capacities are very robust and easy to use. Unlike WordPerfect, which I could never get right on the first try, I always get Word to do the mail merge right on the first try. You set up data in a spreadsheet (or a Access), link  to the data from Word, and then insert merge codes. If there is a field in your data with an email address, you are good to go.

Another thing I use mail merge for is generating individualized reports to students about their grades. It can read a grade spreadsheet and turn that into one page per student with all the grade records.

new year and religion

Happy New Year! I’m not Chinese so I was not actually paying attention to the New Year. First I got reminded by the dumpling shop I “liked” on Facebook. Then I got some notes from Asian students about missing class for the holiday. Which reminds me of the sociologically important point I make in lecture every year. My university has a religious accommodation policy which I wholeheartedly endorse. All students must be accommodated for religious observances, and all claims of a need for religious accommodation must be taken at face value. (As the policy states, there is no dignified or respectful way to interrogate a student about his or her religion.) This is subject only to the rules that the need for accommodation be stated at the beginning of the term (not the night before a paper is due) and that there can be a limit placed on how many days of accommodation should be provided.

For Chinese people, and many other Asian groups, the New Year is the most important family/cultural holiday. People go to great trouble and expense to spend the holiday with family, and there are many meaningful cultural and spiritual practices associated with it, even for nominally atheist people. But our religious accommodation policy does not cover this holiday unless people are willing to say that their religion is being Chinese, or that their religion is Daoism or “Chinese traditional” religion. If they are willing to ask for religious accommodation for the holiday, they can have it, but mostly they don’t ask.

I have long been fascinated by this artificial legalistic boundary between “religion” (which must be accommodated) and “culture” (which is ignored as a basis of accommodation) when, in reality, the two are always wholly intertwined.

An older post in which I reflected on related issues on my own blog

stuff i don’t get about the european debt crisis

All right – in general I don’t think I’m particularly dense, even in matters economic (though perhaps more so in that than other areas). But I’m confused about several pieces of the European debt crisis and comparisons that get drawn to American issues.

Continue reading “stuff i don’t get about the european debt crisis”

canada reconfirms commitment to same-sex marriage

I am a little behind in updating you on the story I mentioned a few days ago, on the lesbian couple who were married in Canada and live in the United States. They applied for a divorce in a Canadian court to be told that they could not get a divorce, since their marriage was not valid.

This set off a kerfuffle, with many accusing the Conservative government of attempting to undermine same-sex marriage rights. The government moved quickly to reconfirm its commitment to same-sex marriage rights, and made a statement that it intended to change those aspects of the law that did not recognize same-sex and/or foreign marriages.