Capital in the 21st Century Review: Introduction (part 2 of 4)

Here’s part 1.

In a way, we are in the same position at the beginning of the twenty-first century as our forebears were in the early nineteenth century: we are witnessing impressive changes in economies around the world, and it is very difficult to know how extensive they will turn out to be or wht the global distribution of wealth, both within and between countries, will look like several decades from now  (page 16)

In part 2 of the Introduction to the book, Thomas Piketty looks at various economic philosophers to show they and their views were products of their times.  His meta-point being that our views on how the world works must change as the world itself changes.

Four economic philosophers who wrote about changes in inequalty are examined:  Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and Simon Kuznets

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Filtering out the Free-Riders: the 15/40 Rule

My last post on this topic was about encouraging everyone to work together on quizzes by making them all take-home and not scaling anything.  The benefit is that it fosters community and valuable people-skills, but it has a drawback:  that a student with little grasp of the material may make it through the class on the efforts of others, copying the quizzes of students who have worked hard to learn the material.

free rider
I should have done this long ago, but starting a couple of years ago I instituted the “15/40 Rule.”

Here’s how it goes:
If a student’s final exam is at least 15 points above their quiz average then the quiz average is automatically raised to 15 below the final exam grade.  This allows a student who took longer to master the material or missed a quiz due to life circumstances to still do reasonably well.

If a student’s final exam is at least 40 points below their quiz average, then the quiz average is automatically lowered to 40 above the final exam grade.  This filters out the occasional free-rider who  copied other people’s work but couldn’t get into the lower 40s on their final exam, and ensures that nobody who doesn’t at least pass the final exam gets above a C+.

Typically about 10% student are bit by the “40” part of the rule.  I think once someone was helped by the “15,” but it’s extremely rare.

Overall I’m quite happy with the way it works.  I’ve thought about tightening it to a 10/30 or even 10/25 Rule or something like that, but worry that the Powers That Be may get on my case if too many people fail the class.  Also, if people start to feel like their quiz grades won’t matter, they may try less hard on the quizzes and thus learn the material less well, making failing the class a self-fulfilling prophecy!

Does anyone else do something like this?  Any thoughts on whether the rule should be tightened or not are welcome.  Currently the final exam represents roughly half of the total grade, so the maximum grade is more-or-less the final exam + 20.

A Really Excellent Series about Debt and Money

A friend who is an anthropology professor (not at Berklee) recommended this 10-part BBC series:  Promises, Promises: A History of Debt.  I listened to the entire thing and it’s absolutely fascinating!  I most enjoyed the first parts, which contained lots of historical information about the evolution of money thousands of year ago.  It taught me many things I’d never known before, such as how standardized money came about through the first primative states trying to find a way to standardize recompense to prevent blood feuds.  Highly recommended!

Capital in the 21st Century Review: Introduction (part 1 of 4)

Review:  Capital In the Twenty-First Century

by Thomas Piketty, 2014

Introduction to the book, part 1  c21c book & author

The Introduction to Capital in the Twenty-First Century consists of four thematic, if not precisely designated, parts:

Part 1 is a very brief overview of what the book will cover, and chiding many in the debate for not using all data available.

Part 2 is overview of previous economists and “economic philosophers” who sought to study/explain changes in economic inequality, with an overall thesis that each of these analyses was (overly) influenced by the specific time it was written.

Part 3 defines and provides examples of “forces of convergence” and “forces of divergence” (or, as I call it in class, a stable equilibrium and an unstable equilibrium), where “convergence” means “shrinking inequality” and “divergence” means the opposite.  A couple of time-series graphs are presented to show that we have been in a period of increasing inequality for over 40 years.

Part 4 is in overview on where he got his data, and explanations why he cites France so often (Thomas Piketty is French, but he gives non-patriotic reasons.),  though he also looks extensively at the United States and only slightly less at other industrialized Northwestern European countries.

I’ll be posing reviews of each part at a rate of once/day, starting today with Part 1.   Comments welcome!
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Fostering Community Among Students

Senator Rand Paul (Republican, Kentucky) once told medical school students that his secret to doing well in medical school was to spread false rumors about what would be on the exam so that his classmates would do worse.

This reprehensible strategy (Has anyone died because their doctor didn’t know something they should have?) only worked because his professor at the time used a scale on exams, allowing one to do better by making classmates do worse.

My goal is to foster communication and community among students. And get them used to working with others.  Aside from community being important for both human health and a healthy political system, much of people’s careers involve working productively with others.


One thing I do is that the following policies for exams:

1)  All exams—before the comprehensive final exam (and possibly a comprehensive midterm)—are take-home, where students are actively encouraged to work together.

2)  Nothing is ever scaled.  Thus, nobody has the perverse incentive to make others do worse.  It also prevents students from settling back with confidence simply because they know more than their classmates. Similarly, people who did really well  didn’t “blow the curve,” as there was no curve to blow.  Rather other students see them as potential sources of good information and higher grades and seek them out.

With these two simple tweaks, the Rand Pauls of the world won’t get ahead, and while those who learn with others do best.



Spitfire in 2015

No blog is complete without some cats!  6 cats currently with with my wife and I.  Spitfire here is the eldest.

He was born on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in 2005, about a month after Hurricane Katrina.  The hurricane turned an already bad place to be a mixed-breed animal into a total nightmare for the animals down there, and the shelters were overwhelmed.  A friend of a friend was doing animal rescue work, and one day that December we got an email saying that a van would be driving north and now was the time to adopt.  We had two other cats at the time, and decided to take two kittens.  He had a 3-day drive north in a crate van with around 60 other animals, about 2/3 of them cats and the rest dogs.




Spitfire as a kitten, hamming it up for the camera!

He is exhibit A on how terrible I used to be at naming animals.  During his first couple of weeks with us he was super-feisty and wouldn’t hold still, hence his name.  Then he got a bit older and calmed way down.  Spitfire is a sweet, good-natured boy who wants nothing more than to curl up on a lap or somewhere else warm.

Spitfire is the only male cat (fixed, of course) in our tribe.  He tends to stand aloof from the jockeying for position and rank that the other five constantly exhibit.


Successful Berklee Alumni #1: Casey Kidd

First in a biweekly series of interviews with Berklee graduates who have successful careers not involving music.

Casey Kidd


Casey Kidd Professional Photo


Listen to the interview (approx. 26 minutes) or download it.



Graduated in 2012 with a major in CWP (Contemporary Writing & Production).

PositionData Analyst at The Retail Coach.  Casey uses statistics to predict which business will succeed in a given municipality.

Update August 2016 (1 year after the interview):  Casey left his job at The Retail Coach to start his own company in the same field, NaviRetail.

Overview:  Casey enjoyed computers both before and during Berklee.  He got particularly good experience while in a work-study job at Berklee (laying out Fusion Magazine), learning software that helped him get a position at his company soon after graduating.  He did not know anyone at this relatively small company near where he was living, but saw their newspaper ad, applied, and got the job.

You can see his LinkedIn profile here.

Choice quote:  “Too many people (graduates from both Berklee and other colleges) have no idea how a business works.  Everyone at Berklee should have to take a couple of business classes.”


See the full index of Successful Berklee Grads.


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