Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A plague of COVID research by economists

Avinash Dixit interrupts his retirement to pen (well, to type) this very funny take on the outpouring of hasty COVID-19-related papers by economists.

A taster on the appropriate treatment for this other plague:
Treatment: The editorial process can be of immense help. It can delay the public’s exposure to papers for a  long time. It can also make the final result unreadable and therefore less likely to be disseminated widely. Requiring the authors of accepted papers to conceal their main message –wrapping it in all kinds of secondary extensions, tests, caveats, and so on – leads to substantial increase in the length of already-lengthy papers. Editors can thus ensure that each paper gets read by only a very small number of experts in the narrow topic, who are likely to be already infected in any case. Once again Economics leads the way in this, and others can follow.
On a related matter, I suspect that epidemiologists really do view economists on their turf as a plague, one I expect to last much longer than COVID-19.

Hat tip: alert in Ann Arbor

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Online instruction

Hat tip: left as an exercise for the reader (but your first guess will be correct)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Trump trade follies

I am not a frequent signer of letters about policy, but I did sign this one.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

AEA awards

Marginally (this is economics) belated congratulations to the winners of the various prizes awarded by the American Economic Association.

This year's awards inspired this thought: The awards for the best papers in the various flavors of the American Economic Journal constitute at the same time a compendium of failures by editors and reviewers at the "top five" general journals. Surely all of the papers that won these awards passed through at least one top five journal and probably most passed through two or three, yet here they are, chosen as the best paper in a journal one level down, a restrospective recognition that they should have placed higher.

Of the four papers, I only know one of them well: the one about the take-up of disability insurance by Manasi Deshpande at Chicago and Yue Li. When I first saw Manasi present the paper, it struck me as one of those papers with "top five" written all over it. It is clever, well-executed, and provides compelling evidence about a substantively important and understudied topic. The fact that the paper did not place in a top five journal does not move in the least my own view that it surely should have.

How did it not land in a top five journal? While this is not the case for Manasi's paper, one can imagine that in some cases the version of a paper that ends up winning an AEJ paper award is so much improved relative to the last version submitted to a top five journal that it was reasonable for that last top five journal not to request a revision. Perhaps. More broadly, though, the lesson I would have the reader draw is that there is a non-trivial stochastic component in journal placement. Yes, there are inframarginal papers that would get into a top five no matter what, but there are also many papers that, with one draw, get into a top five, and with another draw, get into the AEJ or the Journal of Labor Economics, or the Review of Economics and Statistics or the International Economic Review or some other near-top general journal or strong top field journal. Tenure decisions should proceed accordingly.

Markets in everything - about those bookshelves in the background

Key 'graph:
“We were watching a news program and were like, ‘This person still has their college textbooks in the background, and they’re supposed to be an authority’ " on a serious subject, she said. “We were joking, ‘Well maybe since we’re professionals and this is what we do all the time, we could suggest that we could curate your backgrounds for your meetings.’ "
The joke became the tweet, which was then picked up by the real estate website Curbed Boston. Soon enough, people started calling the store and saying, “ ‘Look, we’d like to get books that maybe we’d like to read anyways, but we’d also like to give that [good] impression,' " Gloss said.
Truly, nothing is real. Nothing. Except my background bookshelves, of course, though I will confess that after my earlier post on background bookshelves, I checked the shelves that show up on camera to make sure that there was nothing too controversial, deciding after a minute or two of internal debate to leave the spine of the biography of the (perhahps infamous) Mitchell brothers in view.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Book: Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel, Emily St. John. 2014. Station 11. New York: Knopf

The title and the cover of this recent bestseller are a bit misleading. I imagined that Station 11 would be the last refuge of the pandemic survivors, in some bleak geographic corner. In fact (a minor spoiler) Station 11 actually features in a comic book drawn by one of the main characters, so it plays a metaphorical role in the story rather than a locational one.

The executive summary: This is a beautiful book. Beautiful writing, beautiful, meticulous plotting, just as with Miranda and the comic book over which she labors with such intensity in the book (there is surely some of the author in her), and a wonderfully (and originally) imagined post-pandemic future. I enjoyed this book a great deal.

Is the book science fiction? Emily St. John Mandel, who hails from British Columbia (there is some of that in the book too) does not normally write science fiction, so in that sense it is not. On the other hand, what else would you call a post-apocalyptic novel but that?  Moreover, there are some recognizable features from the science fiction world, particularly in the two heroines. Going back the other way, the book feels like literary fiction in a way that few science fiction books do. There is no real need to settle this debate I suppose, but in my mind I would code it as science fiction written by someone who usually does not write science fiction, though I am not sure just how much science fiction you have to write to cross the threshold - what about Margaret Atwood, for example?

In Lucifer's Hammer, the old (70s) post-apocalyptic novel about a meteor strike by classic hard science fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle that I read (and re-read) in my teen years, the main characters spend a lot of time worrying about preserving scientific and technical knowledge. In this book, the main characters worry about preserving culture. It is an interesting difference, and perhaps another point to be added to the debate in the preceding paragraph.

Part of the action in the book takes place in a Skymiles Lounge (!), though what airline might have been associated with the Skymiles lounge is never mentioned, I assume for some lawyerly reason. Those bits made me nostalgic for travel.

Finally, the book is a good reminder that, in an important sense, as pandemics go, our present unwelcome guest, despite all the havoc it, and the policy responses to it, have caused, we are getting off reasonbly lightly. In the book's pandemic, 99 percent of people die, and die quickly. Things could be a lot worse.

Highly recommended if you are into post-apocalypse stories, and maybe even if you are not. I liked it well enough that I already purchased the author's new book, The Glass Hotel.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
I am pretty sure I bought this at Kramer Books in DC.