Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Movie: Help Me, I Need an Editor!

Actually, that is not the name of the movie, which is "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. The movie is pure Hollywood, pretending to be deep and deliver big picture messages about life but really just serves convince the viewer once more that it is a lot of fun to be a young, beautiful movie star. Though it is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is a very long movie at nearly three hours. In that, it is rather self-indulgent and could, as suggested by the title of my post, have become a better, tighter movie with some thoughtful editing. Blanchett and Swinton both do excellent jobs; Brad Pitt does better than you might have expected but he is not quite at their level.

Recommended if you are in the mood for a big dose of Hollywood fluff.

Addendum: MR points to this review. I like the phrase "maximum Hallmark impact".

Fidel and Che

The Economist on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

If the US embargo ever had a justification, it disappeared with the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. We should be flooding them with US products and US culture. It seems to me that the best antidote to communism is consumerism, not comically ineffective CIA plots.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More on Japan

The Japan Family Planning Association is hard at work generating new knowledge. This NYT piece describes their "informal survey" of sexual behavior in Japan.

Several bits deserve note. First, the NYT at least, unlike Reuters, shares a bit about the sampling procedure and response rate:
For the survey, the association randomly handed out forms to about 2,700 people and received responses from 636 men and 773 women.
So, the survey was randomly "handed out", whatever that might mean. One envisions an intense Japanese demographer offering surveys to individuals at a train station, but "at random" of course. The response rate of 1409 out of 2700 is just over 50 percent, which seems high for the train station scenario but is low for a serious phone or in-person survey.

Second, missing from the article in the NYT is any discussion of how the researchers handled, if they did at all, concerns about the veracity of responses to sensitive questions. The folks who did the national sex study spent a lot of time and effort on this. Maybe the Japanese Family Planning Association did too, or maybe the did not. One suspects the latter.

Third, the author passes along without comment or caveat this causal claim:
“The situation is dismal,” said Kunio Kitamura, the association’s director. “My research shows that if you don’t have sex for a month, you probably won’t for a year.”
Fourth, there is no information on publication or even information on a website from which to obtain the actual study. The JFPA homepage is here; there does not appear to be an English language version, so there is now real way for the reader (or, presumably, the NYT reporter or editor) to check the veracity of the AP report that they pass along.

Remind me, again, why people think the NYT is such a great paper?

Saint Stalin

One hopes that this is just a cohort thing, and that the folks who think Stalin is some sort of hero will largely die off in the next decade or two, but with Russia, that great bear of illiberalism, one is never quite sure.

Some choice bits:

Leaders of the Communist Party are not surprised by Stalin's status on the hero list.

"Stalin made Russia a superpower and was one of the founders of the coalition against Hitler in World War II," said Sergei Malinkovich, leader of the St. Petersburg Communist Party.

The St. Petersburg branch of the party in July asked the Orthodox Church to canonize Stalin if he wins the poll.

What a fine idea! Stalin could be the patron saint of the violently paranoid.

My favorite Stalin story dates back to my undergraduate days. I was in a used bookstore (long since disappeared) on Broadway on Capital Hill in Seattle on a Sunday evening. Of course, the store had NPR on as their background noise. That night while I was there, they were reading letters from listeners. One NPR listener had written in to complain that an NPR story that week had been "too hard" on Stalin.

Addendum: the economist reports (in their weekly summary email) that "In a countrywide vote of 5m people, Russians chose Alexander Nevsky, a medieval prince, as the greatest Russian of all time, only a little ahead of Joseph Stalin, the front-runner in early polling."

What did Homeland Security know and when did they know it?

This post from the budget traveler blog shows the details of the writer's "passenger activity" file from Homeland Security.

I have always wondered just what it is that the border agents have on their screen after they swipe my passport. I guess this is it. I have never sent for any sort of secondary questioning (and I travel a lot). The only strange thing that happened is that once I was a asked a long series of questions about whether I had any friends in Italy, as if I somehow might be connected with the mob. That was a few years ago now and has not been repeated.

Oh, and am I the only one who finds the term "homeland security" vaguely totalitarian?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Frontiers in energy research

This article describes a surgeon who claims to have used human fat from liposuction operations to power his car and his girlfriend's car. It will not surprise you that the surgeon practiced in Beverly Hills.

The oddest part of this is that there is apparently a law that prohibits using medical waste to power cars. Surely ... surely... the great minds in our legislature have more important things to attend to?

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Marriage advice

Some thoughtful relationship advice from the Washington Times. The advice does not only apply to wives, though it is framed that way. It actually applies to husbands and to other sorts of relationships more generally. I think there is an old saying (that one does not hear much anymore) about what to do with your mouth if you do not have something nice to say.

But in the marriage context the point is deeper than just being nice. The point of marriage, in one economic model, is to increase exit costs from a relationship and thereby to induce investment in relationship-specific capital. A positive view and appreciation of your spouse is one very important component of the relationship-specific capital in a marriage. One way to invest in that capital is to focus on the positive when talking and thinking about your spouse.

Reuters does social science, badly

This article from Reuters, forwarded to me by one of the students in my just-completed undergraduate econometrics course, nicely illustrates everything I complain about in that course regarding discussions of social science in the supposedly highbrow media.

First, we learn:
The survey examined sexual experiences as well as family relationships and lifestyle habits of Japanese females and males aged 16 to 49. It was carried out in September and was based on about 1,500 people.
This is all well and good but on might have a few tiny questions still remaining about the data collection. For example, was it a random sample of the Japanese population or was it a sample of, say, subscribers to a magazine? Second, what was the response rate? Was it something reasonable, like 80 percent, or something awful, like 20 percent?

Next we learn that:
The average age of first-time sex for those who said they ate breakfast every day as a middle school student was 19.4, while for those who skipped breakfast, the average age was 17.5.

Did they really just take a mean difference and report it? Perhaps there were some conditioning variables, though the text sounds like there were not. Perhaps they did some sort of highly advanced statistical procedure, like a t-test, to gain some sense of how likely the observed difference is to arise by chance in a world where this is in fact no difference in population proportions? Is there any conceivable reason why the reader should suspect that these estimates represent causal effects?

But it appears that the authors of this study had no time to waste on foolish technical trivia. There are important interpretations to be made, such as this:

"The fact that people can't eat breakfast may show something about their family environment," said Kitamura. "Before blaming individuals for having sex at an early age, it may be necessary to look into the sort of homes they are from."

There is even a hint of some policy conclusions and, of course, more things for our friends at the government to do when they aren't busy doing such a bang-up job of looking after the economy.

What we do not learn, in addition to all these details, is where to find the study so that we can read it ourselves. Would it be too much to provide a link? Isn't that the very start of using the wonderful power of the web to create new knowledge?

Absent a link, perhaps the curious reader could learn the name of the journal in which the study was published. Oh, wait, the study is not published yet. Reuters is telling the world about a study that has not even been through peer review. Sigh.

Score a big fat F for Reuters on this one and another big fat F for the Japan Family Planning Association.

Hat tip: Russell Bittmann

Throwing shoes at Bush

I've been puzzled by the whole shoe-throwing business on several dimensions. First, I am puzzled by the left's enthusiasm for this fellow. I thought the left was all about reasoned discourse and journalistic objectivity. How can one both celebrate the shoe-thrower and complain about Fox News? Would it not be preferable for the journalist to write a thoughtful op-ed piece like an adult rather than throwing his shoes, like an ill-tempered child? Second, I am puzzled by all the hoopla on the right as well. If we have moved from IEDs to shoes, this is big progress! More generally, the huge amounts of coverage and attention from the media and the blogosphere that this got seems to suggest a lack of seriousness, eh? Is there really nothing else Iraq that it would be useful for American viewers to see or read about?

Have said all that, here is a game where you too can throw shoes at President Bush.

Hat tip (on the game): Ken Troske

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Evidence-based high school football

Football innovation, in this case skipping the punts and maxing out on on-side kickoffs, in Arkansas, all based on research, including some by David Romer at Berkeley.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Book: How Babies Think

This book lays out, for the intelligent non-specialist, the recent literature on child development that adopts a cognitive focus, which is to say that it thinks about babies as little scientists, trying to sort out how the world works. Indeed, when the book was first published it bore the alternative title "The Scientist in the Crib". I suspect the current title resulted in more sales, but the earlier title gives a more direct sense of what the authors, all scientists, are up to.

I found much of the book new and quite fascinating. I had never really thought about some of the problems they discuss, such as how do you sort out objects from raw visual stimulation? How do you sort out words from a morass of sound? Babies face both problems, and do so with a mix of apparently hard-wired technology and learning. These problems are quite similar, by the way, to the problems faced by artificial intelligence researchers.

My main wish is that the book had been dumbed down a bit less than it was for a popular audience. It is not so trivial that I could not read it with pleasure, but there is more fluff around the substance than I prefer in this sort of book. Nonetheless, it is well worth the time, especially if you have or are about to have a little one around.


Seattle at Christmas

I do miss Seattle sometimes. Snow is not its usual Christmas weather but it suits it as long as you do not have to get somewhere.

The star in the background is on what used to be the Bon Marche and is now Macy's.

Hat tip: Jackie Smith

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reason on Rick Warren

Katherine Mangu-Ward is both very funny and right on target.

Universities and recessions

Instapundit points to this message from the chair of the physics department at the University of Tennessee. It (and the comments it has engendered) raise a number of interesting points.

First, higher education tends to bear the brunt of state budget cutting during recessions because many other items on the state budget are either relative fixed, countercyclical, or politically hard to touch. Sharp budget changes (either up or down) are rarely efficient though, so resources are wasted that would not be wasted with more stability in funding. Private universities have an advantage here in that they can better smooth expenditures over the cycle. A lot of privates are taking advantage of that fact this year by hiring when the state schools are largely out of the market on the demand side.

Second, it is notable that Tennessee's physics department has its own endowment and does its own fundraising. My sense is that this is now pretty common, though it raises some important issues of coordination in fund-raising across departments within a university. You do not want departments competing for the same donor or competing with the central development office for the same donor. It is very easy in such cases to give the impression that the university is not well organized, which I suspect has a dampening effect on donations.

Also, there are issues around the central administration implicitly taxing donations received by individual departments. This is natural enough as some departments (e.g. economics) will have better off alumni than other departments (e.g. classics) and so can attract more donations. At the same time, the threat of such implicit taxation should lead donors to want to fund things that the university normally would not fund, in the expectation that this will reduce the implicit taxation. It is also not so clear how the central administration can commit to zero or low implicit taxation as a way of inducing donors to give gifts with fewer strings, which are of course more valuable to the receiving department.

Finally, the comments seem to suggest a couple of things:

First, many people do not seem to realize that professors sign contracts specifying how much teaching they will do. These contracts cannot be altered unilaterally by the university. Even if they could, a university that did so would lose all its mobile (approximately the same as "good at research or teaching") faculty and keep the rest. Back in my undergraduate days, the University of Washington wanted to cut its budget during the recession of the early 1980s and it offered early retirement. In economics, the key taker was Doug North, who took early retirement, went to Washington University in St. Louis and won his Nobel Prize there. Ooops.

Second, the commenters apparently are unaware that professors do a lot of things other than just teaching undergraduate courses. One thing, obviously, is research. Another is graduate teaching, a large part of which does not take the form of lecture courses but instead takes the form of meetings, seminar presentations, reading and commenting on drafts and so on. Still another is writing letters of recommendation, a task that consumed several working days of my time this year. Faculty also do quite a lot of administrative activities. The most important, and time consuming, tasks include hiring, promotion and tenure. When I was at UWO the administration did a survey of faculty time use and concluded that faculty typically work well over 40 hours per week. Although given the survey's purpose (essentially lobbying) it was clear what the correct answer was to all the respondents, it is nonetheless true that faculty at flagship state schools like Tennessee work very long hours and, in the case of technical fields like physics, for lower pay than they could get in the private sector.

Time to hire a new sinologist

The Telegraph summary says it all:
A respected German scientific magazine has been embarrassed to discover it printed a Chinese-language advertisement for "jade-like girls" and "coquettish and enchanting housewives" across its front cover.
It thought the ad was classical Chinese poetry.

For those who prefer their linguistic confusion in the other direction, the article points to this website featuring mangled English in China.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Book: Miles Gone By

This is an autobiography of sorts by William F. Buckley. I consumed this as an audiobook and enjoyed hearing it read by WFB himself. What he has done essentially is string together a bunch of more-or-less-autobiographical bits written for other purposes and other places and put them in a sort of chronological and topical order.

There is a lot about sailing here, including descriptions of long (and not obviously very pleasant) voyages across the ocean and more clearly enjoyable sauntering around the Caribbean with friends. There is a bit about Blackford Oakes, the hero of WFB's spy novels (which I have yet to read) and about his column on language. There is some here on the history of National Review as well, which I found quite interesting. I think the thing that will stick with me longest, though, is his essay on what it is like to go around on the lecture circuit, which he did for many years as a way of raising money for National Review. His stories of sometimes clueless hosts and tiring audiences were great fun and somewhat familiar at times.

WFB also includes a reading of the transcript of his debate with Ronald Reagan about the Panama Canal. It is rather charming and quaint now to think about how much of an issue that was in the run-up to the 1980 presidential election. In the end, it was much ado about nothing, as such pressing political issues often turn out to be.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Reality imitates "Pirates of the Caribbean"

One of my favorite bits of the Disney attraction "Pirates of the Caribbean" is the little vignette of the not-so-attractive woman chasing the pirate around and around (and around and around unless at some point they turn it off) in a circle.

Apparently, this attraction is more realistic than I had imagined, as the CSM reports on how being a Somali pirate improves your love life (and affects, or does not affect, the local economy).

Key bit:
The pirates are the hottest men in town," Abdi says. "Girls from all over Somalia moved here to marry pirates. But if the girl isn't cute she's out of luck, because the pirates only go with beautiful girls."
Hat tip:

Happy ending

There is a happy ending to my earlier post about reading the literature before you send out your job market paper.

We are interviewing the person who inspired the post for a junior faculty position. Once the interview was set up, I sent the person the paper s/he had neglected to reference. In less than 36 hours I received two emails, one thanking me and another, several hours later, remarking on the paper, which had clearly received a careful reading. Also within 36 hours, a new version of the job market paper appeared on the person's website with appropriate citations.

So I am feeling warm glow right now. I like it when things work out as they should.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

National differences in sexual (and survey response) behavior

The economist summarize the findings of one David Schmitt at Bradley University who studies, among other things, cross-national differences in sexual behavior. The economist piece is here and Schmitt's website with more findings is here.

The Times of London focuses on large Western countries and finds that (pun surely intended) the UK comes out on top.

I have to say, these rankings do not coincide with my casual impressions, nor with what you would expect based on the relative religiosity of various countries. In particular, I would put Canada above the US and the UK below both of them.

Passing the smell test

The economist reports on recent research involving men, women and perfume.

Consuming college

This paper by Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks shows that study time at college has fallen dramatically in recent decades. Most of the time freed up via less studying has gone into leisure.

The pattern documented in this paper has important implications for how we think about the recent increase in the economic effects of college attendance (what is often though incorrectly called the "return to college"), which though large are likely understated given that, due to a lower time input, a college degree now likely represents less human capital than it used to.

These findings also have implications for the design of student loan and grant policies, admissions policies, grading policies, major requirements in individual departments and so on.

This paper from the BLS suggests that high school students are not working very hard, either.

In general, I am glad to see the study of time use data making a comeback in economics. Time use is one of the few economic optimization problems that each of us face every day.

Evidence and Policy

I recently did a review of an evaluation funded by the US Department of Labor for the folks at the Center for Evidence-Based Policy. My sense is that they are doing very good work. Their existence and occasional success indicates that there is a constituency among both of the major parties for spending money on policies with a strong evidentiary base and not spending money on things that do not have a strong evidentiary base.

It is worth keeping in mind that the problem is not just corruption in either the small sense that we usually think of it or the large sense of interest groups voting themselves rents at the expense of the public at large. Ignorance also plays an important role in the bad tasting product that emerges from the beltway sausage factory.

Book: What Happened?

"What Happened? Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception" by Scott McClellan is the tell-all (or, more likely, tell enough to get good sales figures) memoir by Bush II's first press secretary.

The book is longer than it needs to be, and not that well edited but I enjoyed it and do not regret reading it. The best parts are in the middle where McClellan is describing how the public relations machine worked in the Bush II White House. Also of interest is the balance that a press secretary must strike between maintaining his or her credibility capital and pushing out the message of the day, which will often not be very credible. The description at the beginning of McClellan's personal history is a bit indulgent. The concluding chapter, which offers up some policy recommendations, is a disappointment that is long on high school civics platitudes and re-arrangements of the white house organizational chart and short on things that seemed to me likely to have much effect. Overall, McClellan comes off as a sincere, competent and hard-working fellow taken by surprise by the workings of the DC political culture.

As an aside, it turns out that Scott McClellan is the brother of Mark McClellan, health economist and former commissioner of the FDA, in addition to playing other roles in the Bush II administration. Mark was one of the first to apply instrumental variables methods in health economics.

That giant flushing sound you hear ...

... is called the bailout.

I even got to see Ed Lazear (presently chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, founding editor of the Journal of Labor Economics and former U of Chicago b-school professor) defending the bailout last night to Judy Woodruff of the News Hour. Talk about role reversal! To be honest this gives me a bit of pause, because Ed is a very smart fellow and has access to information that I do not have, but at the same time I have no way of knowing if Ed really believes what he was saying on the News Hour or if he was just doing his job as part of the president's team.

Here is a very fine post by Megan McArdle at the Atlantic about how things got this way in certain parts of the US auto industry.

Addendum: In addition to his many fine scholarly articles, Ed is perhaps best known for saying that "if you don't miss the plane sometimes, you are not doing it right."

Addendum 2: The economist weighs in on the bailout.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie: The Day the Earth Stood Still

We went to see this movie last night at the Showcase on their IMAX screen. Based on the reviews we figured that playing up the special effects might be just the thing. There were about 10 of us in the 7 PM show.

We were in the mood for some unchallenging fun and that is pretty much we got. I thought it was much better than the low tomato rating it received at and also much better than Australia. At the same time, it is not great art either. Keanu Reeves does a great job of playing someone very distant and it is fun to see John Cleese (of Monty Python) in a serious role as a Nobel prize winning professor. On the other hand, the story is rather silly. Supposedly these advanced beings have had agents on earth for decades trying to figure us out and also have gained acess to the governments "mainframe" (do they still make those?) which is said to contain everything you might ever want to know about anything or anyone on earth. Given that, it does not make much sense that their entire perception is changed based on a few hours that the Keanu Reeves character spends with the pretty earth girl and her ill-behaved step-child. So, if you go, check your brain at the door and bring lots of popcorn.

Oh, and what is up with the title? The earth never does stand still in the movie.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Car tax in Denmark

This picture is of the informational sign that stood beside the new Volkswagen Passat in the lobby of the Radisson SAS Hotel in Aarhus.

At the bottom of the picture is the tax inclusive price of the Passat, which equals 579, 989 Danish Kroner. At the current exchange rate, this equals US$111,772 according to

This is why you travel to foreign countries, to see things like excise taxes over 200 percent.

Oh, and this is a great hotel if you ever get to Aarhus. One of only a few that I really look forward to.

Appreciative thinking

This post implicitly contains some very good advice for graduate students about how to relate to the literature.

I see the post as making several points and hinting at others:

First, you can learn useful things about a paper and a literature not just by asking what is wrong but also by asking what is right. Or, even better, try to think about why the authors did what they did. Authors usually try to get things right. If it seems to you that they did not there may be a good and informative reason.

Second, it is very important to keep in mind that there are few perfect papers and, even more important, that it is not only perfect papers that make contributions. To use an example close to home, the LaLonde (1986) American Economic Review paper that is the first to use an experiment to provide a benchmark against which to evaluate non-experimental methods within the context of specific data sets and a specific program has many imperfections both conceptual and in execution. At the same time, it has spurred a very important literature both by raising important questions, by suggesting a useful strategy and by coming to a provocative conclusion.

Third, and this is more distantly related, your first paper as a graduate student is almost sure to be awful. Mine was and so were plenty of others I saw among my graduate school colleagues and, later in life, among graduate students. Instead of delaying the inevitable writing of the awful first paper by playing fanstasy baseball or overachieving as a teaching assistant, think about it like losing your virginity. That probably was not that much fun either, but it is a necessary condition for moving on to better things in the future!

Hat tip: marginal revolution

Workshop in Denmark

I have just returned from about 10 days in Europe. The first portion was in Denmark to attend this workshop on the (surprise!) evaluation of active labor market policies sponsored by the Aarhus Business School.

Highlights included Michael Lechner's work, which Markus Froelich and Stephanie Behnke, on Swiss caseworkers, which you can find (along with the other papers) by clicking through to the program above. Caseworkers are, to use an analogy I am really tired of but have no good substitute for, the black box of active labor market policy. I am glad to see more people studying them as I think they are interesting in their own right and also because we might learn some things that would either increase program effectiveness or decrease program costs. Plus I find the general question of professional expertise of interest. Caseworkers certainly think they are adding value, but it is not so clear in the literature that they really are.

I also quite liked Monica Costa Dias' work, with Richard Blundell and Costas Meghir, on the accumulation of human capital over the life cycle via formal schooling and learning by doing. We had a good talk afterward the presentation about whether you want to incorporate learning by doing or on-the-job training in the model. These may sound like the same thing but learning by doing assumes that human capital increases whenever you work, while on-the-job training assumes that you accumulate human capital on the job, but only during a portion of the work day set aside for the purpose. In a life cycle context, the early human capital literature shows that if human capital depreciates at some modest rate, you gradually decrease your investment in on-the-job training as you age, because the period over which you reap the returns is getting shorter. In contrast, learning by doing assumes human capital just keeps increasing with work until you retire. These two models have very different implications for wages over the working life. I think on-the-job training probably predominates but the fact is that we do not really know empirically. This is a tough (due to difficulties of measurement) topic but one well worth more attention in the literature.

The most entertaining presentation was Bart Cockx' paper evaluating an active labor market policy in Belgium. Bart got a lot of laughs from the audience (which consisted entirely of Europeans other than yours truly and one Australian) just be describing the Belgian unemployment insurance system, which includes benefits that never end. Getting Europeans to laugh at your country's unemployment insurance system is a much higher level of attainment than getting Americans or other Anglosphere types to do so. Even more laughter ensued when the dramatic policy reform evaluated in the paper was described. Basically, the new policy sends claimants a letter warning them that they will have to meet with their caseworker eight months in the future. The paper itself is quite nice.

At the top of this post is a group picture from the workshop. We toured the Jylland, an old wooden battleship kept in drydock, with a museum to the side, just next to our hotel in exotic Ebeltoft. Being one who tries to provide public goods whenever possible, I am the one in the sailor hat, which our (amazingly excellent) tour guide insisted that one of us wear.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I just discovered this amazing drawing, originally published in the Realist magazine and entitled the "Disneyland Memorial Orgy".

The web truly does have everyhing.

On the margin of being not work friendly but actually pretty tame.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

UW promo video for Steve Sarkisian

They are quick!

Maybe we should make videos like this for new senior faculty hires in economics?

Addendum: it is not sized correctly but my knowledge of html is limited enough (i.e near zero) that I am going to leave it as is.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Request for computational advice

My home PC is around seven years old and starting to show its age, as is "my" (actually it is property of UM) four year-old laptop. My question is: is there some magic software that will unclog their computational drains for a while and allow me to put off replacing them, or should I bite the bullet and do my own personal stimulus package? If the latter, I would be interested in recommendations, though I am likely to stick with Dell in both cases.

All emails welcome: I will summarize the good bits.

Interpreting the Obama cabinet

An entertaining NRO piece on the left's reactions to Obama's centrist picks.

I think there is more to the "projection" argument than the NRO writer does; I think a lot of folks on the left forgot that "not Bush" defines a very large policy space indeed.

Trends in fashionable food consumption

A tasty post from Kerry Howley (of Reason but on her own blog) about the move from fair trade to localism as the foundation of ethical eating and caffeine consumption.

Of course, buying local goes beyond food. Local Ann Arbor businesses often promote buying local which has always seemed to me a bit odd for a left-wing sort of town. Shouldn't the left view be that we should drive into Detroit to buy from poor people? Of course, that would increase our carbon footprint. And, of course, both buying local and buying from poor people in Detroit do nothing to help the really poor people in the third world.

Having mutually incompatible values is hard and I suppose is what leads to this sort of normative cycling. Normative cycling is also useful because it allows people to signal that they are politically with it. You need the "right thing" in "doing the right thing" to change with some frequency otherwise everyone would eventually catch up and then "doing the right thing" would lose its value as a signal of hipness.

Naming names and naming things

As a follow-on to my earlier post about UM naming something after its sitting university president, Mary Sue Coleman, here is InsideHigherEd with some rules about naming. They agree with me.

Movie: Rachel Getting Married

We saw Rachel Getting Married last week at the Michigan Theater. It is a tough, well-acted and well-written movie about addiction, truth, and family dysfunction. Highly recommended.

California 48 Washington 7

The misery of the 2008 Washington Husky football season came to an end last night with a 48-7 loss to California. It is not obvious from the score, but the defense played a lot better than the offense, and third-string quarterback Taylor Bean played surprisingly well compared to Ronnie Fouch, whose passing seems to have, if anything, decayed over the course of the season.

Ty's employment ended yesterday as well; I have read news reports that he has had interest from New Mexico State and San Jose State for their head coaching jobs.

Was I the only one surprised by the 2/3 full stadium at Cal on a beautiful day for a sure win? And the stadium is not that big to begin with.

For those at Michigan, and I have heard and read them, who say "it can't get any worse", let me assure you that it can. I have been there and I have seen it with mine own eyes.

The coaching change to Steve Sarkisian became official not long after USC finished their victory over UCLA. Here is the Seattle Times story about Sarkisian's words. He is apparently going to serve two masters through USC's appearance in the Rose Bowl.


This op-ed piece, published anonymously in the WaPo, has attracted a lot of attention.

I was prepared to like it better than I actually did when I read it. Some points:

1. I am disappointed that the military is stone-walling this guy's book. It would, of course, not be the first time the military has shot itself, metaphorically, in the foot. It seems to me though, that as a general rule open and honest debate are good things, even in terms of military strategy. Normally, that debate occurs outside the public view (largely due to lack of public interest) but torture policy has aspects beyond just efficacy that should be included in decisions about policy.

2. I think the op-ed goes off the rails a bit in interpreting the claims of individuals being interrogated that it was American torture that led them to join Al Qaeda. Could it be that they are saying this in the hope that it will reduce their chance of being tortured? I am sure that our torture policies had some effect on recruitment but I think the op-ed author reduces his credibility by not explicitly noting that those making these statements have a strategic incentive to do so. This leads, of course, to real issues with the broad claims that are made about loss of life due to US torture policy in Iraq.

3. The authors epistemic stance is basically that his one data point trumps however many data points advocates of torture could bring forward. One problem with this is the same one that plagues evaluation of apparently successful, small-scale employment and training programs: you don't know if it is the technique or the person. If it is the technique, you can scale it up. If it is the person, you cannot. Maybe this fellow is very good at his style of interrogation, and at getting his underlings to do it successfully, but maybe others who tried to emulate his style would not be. As such, a more compelling end to the op-ed would have been a call for the systematic collection and analysis of evidence on the efficacy of alternative interrogation techniques rather than the complete elimination of one techinque based on what is essentially an anecdote.

I liked this interivew piece in the Atlantic a couple of years ago much better - it has, of course, also has the advantage of length, which allows more nuance. Also, my liking it better is not particularly related to the somewhat different policy conclusions of the two pieces. I just think the Atlantic piece is a lot more thoughtful. My policy reviews here remain largely unformed, with the exception that I think the evidentiary bars for policies of either occasional or routine torture are very high given the normative costs, much higher than it appears we have reached at present.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Raj Chetty to Harvard

Here is the news as reported by Greg Mankiw.

I think this is good news for Michigan as it should make UCB less attractive to Jim Hines.

Friday, December 5, 2008

New Husky Football Coach

Seattle Times coverage here. The choice is Steve Sarkisian, presently the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach at the University of Spoiled Children (USC).

This is a bit riskier than some of the other choices on the table, like Pat Hill of Fresno State and Mike Leach of Texas Tech, but the upside potential seems high.

I am glad they got an early start. He can hit the ground running (and passing!) as soon as the Cal game ends on Saturday.

Only shades of gray ...

There is an old Monkees' song called Shades of Gray, the chorus to which is

But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light.
Today there is no black or white,
Only shades of gray

This WaPo article on Obama's blackness, or rather his partial lack of blackness, reminded me of that song, as well as of Ursula LeGuin's novel The Lathe of Heaven, in which the protagonist can affect the world with his dreams. He starts to try to consciously manipulate this power; his attempt to end racism in this way succeeds as when he awakes everyone is gray. This is portrayed in the novel, as I recall, as something of a negative, but that is not so clear to me.

It strikes me that inter-marriage is the one sure-fire solution to racial and ethnic separation and discord. I am glad to see it rising in the US and extending to groups where historically it has been low, such as blacks and whites, as well as continuing in cases where it was already high, as with whites and Asians. This is just the melting pot, doing its good work.

Civics quiz

This civics quiz is fun. I got 33 out of 33 but then I am a bit of a wonk as well as a nerd.

The surrouding website is full of dire warnings about the sad state of civic knowledge. It seems to me that what we should be talking about instead is how to design a government that mimics the sewer system in the sense that it does its job well without most people having to have any idea how it works. There are no websites (well, you never know, but likely not many) lamenting the sad state of public knowledge of sewage disposal, no high school classes on sewage disposal and so on. But I am a dreamer, and likely doomed to a life of listening to people wring their hands about lack of public knowledge of various historical facts and obscure bits of institutional detail.

Do you object to Object?

The debate over sex industry policy continues in the UK. This Guardian piece describes a humorous hearing in which the case is made that lap dances are not sexual.

Active at the hearing is a UK group called Object. I really like the name as it works on two levels: they are concerned about women being treated as objects, and it is precisely this that they object to. Saith the Guardian:

But the committee also heard from two representatives of Object, a human rights organisation campaigning against the "sex object culture". Object wants lap dancing clubs to be classified as sex encounter establishments.

Sandrine Leveque, Object's advocacy officer, said: "Lap dancing clubs promote gender stereotypes and their expansion is therefore of concern to women's organisations up and down the country."

Ihave always found the "women as objects" line of argument odd for the following reason: we all treat almost all other people as objects almost all the time. When you are on a plane, you do not want to emotionally engage with the pilot and get to know her in the full richness of her humanity; rather, you want her to do her job and fly the plane. The same holds for the fellow behind the counter at Big Ten Burrito. We lack both the time and the emotional resources to do other than treat almost everyone as an object, something whose immediate value to us depends solely on their function, almost all the time. Thus, the issue is not objectification per se but rather knowing when and when not to treat women (or men) as objects. It strikes me that having socially established safe spaces in which both men and women can be treated as purely sexual objects makes it easier to not treat them as such the rest of the time and instead to treat them as objects whom we value for the other roles they play or, in certain cases, as fully realized individuals.

Oh, and one might, of course, argue that Object promotes some gender stereotypes of its own.

Job market advice: first, read the literature

Here is what you do not want if you are a graduate student on the market: you do not want a faculty member at a department you are applying for to open your job market paper, figure out the topic, look at the references and then immediately notice that you have not cited a recent, published paper that does what your does.

That is what happened when I opened [CANDIDATE'S] job market paper, which reminded me of [THIS PAPER] (gated) by my friend [THE ECONOMIST -TE], who is a full professor at the University of [CITY]. The job market candidate does not cite [TE'S] paper, even though it is published in a journal, [JOURNAL NAME], that is not particularly obscure, even though it was published three years ago and even though, if you happen to google, say, "[THREE OBVIOUS WORDS]" (roughly the topic of both papers) [TE'S] paper is the sixth entry on the first page.

To be clear, I am sure the omission was not deliberate, in the sense that I am sure that the candidate does not know about the paper. I suspect he just got enmeshed in the heat of research and neglected to do a thorough scouring of the literature (though, as noted, you don't have to scour very hard to find [TE'S] paper). I am also not saying that the job candidate has been scooped. His paper goes well beyond what [TE] does on several dimensions. I am just saying he was sloppy, and that is not the first impression that you want to make, especially in a year when a lot of schools are not hiring.

Addendum: someone with impeccable judgement convinced me over dinner last night that this post, though not all that very tough, was perhaps too tough, so I have anonymized it.


Not the place, the movie.

When I was growing up there was a show on every Sunday night at 7 PM called the "Wonderful World of Disney." One of the things it showed was essentially made-for-TV Disney movies, often stretched out over two or three Sundays.

This movie reminded me of one of those. The characters are completely one dimensional. Any character who is good is good in all ways; any character who is bad is bad in all ways. All white people except our two stars are bad, all Aboriginal people are good and much wiser than all the white people. I am very (very) sympathetic to the Australian aboriginals who have a really rich and beautiful spiritual tradition and whose treatment at the hands of the local whites stands out even relative to the US and Canada for its nastiness. But people are, outside this movie, still people.

Oh, and there are way too many really obvious blue screen shots.

Oh, and it sure is great to have an editor instead of just letting the movie run on and on and on and on for nearly three hours. I guess they ran out of money at the editing part.

I would give this one a pass.

Nifty blog

I just discovered this Economist blog on US politics.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Fist bump

I thought at first the subject line was a typo and it was "fist pump" that was intended, but no, apparently I have missed, until receiving an email from a colleague, the very important news that the Saint Obama and his charming wife have had a public fist bump. I actually had to do a google to find out a fist bump might be. Sad to be so out of touch.

According to the NY Daily News:

The affectionate 11-second exchange before Obama claimed victory as the democratic presidential nominee Tuesday emphasized Obama's youth and ability to transcend the stereotyped political gestures of campaigns past, experts said.

"I would imagine to a young voter, this was another sign that these people are one of us," said psychologist Drew Westen, author of "The Political Brain: The Role Of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."
Am I the only one who finds this digital transendance just a bit sick-making?

Oh, and Mr. Westen ought to give his Ph.D. back and head to intellectual rehab.

Addendum: The article includes a picture of Al and Tipper making out. Best not to click through if you've just eaten.

Addednum 2: As I write this my high school friend Erik Oswald is on the TV telling me about research at ExxonMobil. Talk about odd.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

So it comes to this. Washington has not won a football game in over a year. They are soon to have their fifth coach in a decade. I am watching the Civil War and cheering for Oregon State over Oregon. A wins sends Oregon State to their first Rose Bowl since I was three years old.

If you had described this scenario to me back in college when Washington was regularly visiting the Rose Bowl and Oregon State was winning one or two games a year, I would have said you were reading science fiction.

When will our long national nightmare come to an end?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Helping people can be harder than it seems

Thai brothel workers list their reasons for not wanting to be "rescued" by outsiders seeking to do good.

Hat tip: Kerry Howley

On libertarian feminism (and broader related issues)

I had a discussion with Jim Heckman many years ago in which he described a disagreement he had had with Richard Epstein at Chicago about separating out state oppression of blacks from what might be called social oppression of blacks. In the post-bellum south, he had argued, the two were largely one in the same and thus both difficult to separate and perhaps also not that useful to separate.

Along those lines, I think it is a narrow view indeed to assume that the best society can be obtained simply by figuring out how to restrain the state to the provision of public goods combined with thoughtful redistribution. Surely this would help, but it would not be enough. A society with such a modest state could still be a distinctly illiberal state, depending on what was happening with its culture. Social actions can be oppressive just like the over-armed agents of the state; that this oppression takes somewhat different forms makes it no less real. This, to me, is part of the appeal of thinking of myself as a classical liberal rather than a libertarian, as classical liberal thought extends its purview well beyond just questions of governmental size and scope.

I was reminded of this line of thinking by reading this piece by Reason's Kerry Howley on the relationship between libertarianism and feminism. Here's a taste:
Libertarians spend an enormous amount of time telling people that they are, in fact, oppressed. We don’t call it “consciousness raising” when we explain why you ought to be able to shoot up while selling your kidney to a sex worker, but that’s what it is.
Hat tip: Julian Sanchez

A shocking doctrine?

A nice, quick all-you-need-to-know rebuttal of Naomi Klein and the Shock Doctrine here.

Atlas Shrugged humor

This Atlas Shrugged parody had me laughing out loud many times (which seemed to greatly puzzle little Elizabeth, who is the only other person at home right now).

She sat across the desk from him. She appeared casual but confident, a slim body with rounded shoulders like an exquisitely engineered truss. How he hated his debased need for her, he who loathed self-sacrifice but would give up everything he valued to get in her pants ... Did she know?

Pun intended. We are a bit pun-deprived here at Michigan with Jim Hines on leave this year.

Hat tip: marginal revolution

Monday, November 24, 2008

Burtless on the Bailing out the Big Three

Gary Burtless of Brookings offers his views here. He favors a bailout with tough conditions rather than some form of bankruptcy, whether guided or not. Some of the arguments are familiar and, I think, weak. These have to do with reductions in demand due to bankruptcy. These issues are, of course, empirical questions. It would be nice to see some evidence on them from either side of the debate. Absent that, it seems clear that auto companies can offer third-party warranties and that a parts market will continue to exist as long as willing buyers exist. In terms of the parts market, the situation is no different from someone buying a model that is being replaced just prior to its replacement. A simple analysis of, for example, the effect of the elimination of the Buick brand on the resale price of Buicks would add a lot of value here.

The argument Gary makes about the government having already bailed out AIG and other financial institutions is a complete red herring, as Gary, being quite a smart fellow in my experiences with him, surely knows. The industries are different, the problems with the firms are different and "equal treatment" is not a good basis for policy in this area.

Gary seems to assign a much higher probability to the Big Three firms disappearing under bankruptcy than I do. This is odd, because it suggests that he has a more negative view about the firms' long term economic viability than I do. If the firms are not viable, they should go under. I suspect they are viable with new labor contracts and with their pension obligations partly offloaded on the government and partly reduced through cuts. The necessary trimming seems to me more likely to occur in a bankruptcy court, which is not subject to lobbying, than in Congress where the setting of ostensibly tough conditions is likely to fall victim to lobbying by the firms themselves and their friends in the UAW. That is part of what the private jets are for, after all. The counterargument on this score is the Chrysler experience, where conditions were imposed that apparently aided firm viability. More empirical evidence on this score would be useful as well, to sort out the effects of the conditions applied as part of the bailout from general economic improvements.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Brand spanking

Your chance to spank your brand here.

Marketing is one of my counterfactual careers choices, along with architecture and IT.

Brad DeLong tries to adjust the thermostat

Brad DeLong opines on the thermostat model in his discussion of Felix Salmon's reaction to Bush's speech about markets. Here is the key bit:
Oh, come on. The problem with Frannie wasn't "government involvement in the market" -- it was government deliberately exempting Fannie and Freddie from the capital-adequacy rules which applied to everybody else, and thereby encouraging them to maximize the amount of leverage they took on -- all in the name of "encouraging homeownership". What we needed was precisely more government: a Frannie regulator with teeth, and a government which refused to let nominally-private corporations lever up to obviously-dangerous levels. The implicit government guarantee wouldn't have been a problem if it wasn't for the amount of leverage involved.
The question is: which one is "more government"? Is it the out of control Frannie and Freddie or is it the regulated Fannie and Freddie? Is it more government when the government sets up a stupid regulatory inconsistency (and one that just happens to generate a lot of perks for people in Congress) which can in some sense be viewed as "less" or is it more government when the government applies regulation consistently, which happens to be smart in the second-best sense that if you are going to have Fannie and Freddie (itself not so obviously a good idea) you should at least not exempt them from the same rules as other similar private entities? I think Brad's post does a good job of illustrating the general weakness of the thermostat model of government and its lack of value as an analytical tool. What you want is the right kind of government, something that a simplistic more or less view captures only at the crudest level.

Still more on the auto bailout

Lynne Kiesling offers her views here, and also cites this WSJ piece. Best bit from Lynne:
I hope we have the courage to take the bottle from Uncle Bob and tell him that we are doing it for his, and our, long-run health.
Dave Kusnet, a former Clinton speechwriter, offers some thoughts on private-jet-gate, the minor squall about the big three executives coming to DC to beg for money in their private jets rather than on commercial flights. I think Kusnet is correct to emphasize the importance of CEOs and other executives paying attention to the messages they send and, more broadly, to the corporate culture they create. Many executives are remarkably tone deaf on this score, to the detriment of their firms and shareholders. At the same time, it is important to recognize that there is a market for CEOs that spans industries; thus, it does not make a lot of sense to demand low CEO pay in the auto industry given that doing so would only mean that auto companies would be handicapped in the market for CEOs and so likely end up with low quality ones (keeping in mind, of course, that even with high salaries they have a long history of bad management).

Kusnets reference to Boeing is insightful in a way he does not note. Boeing can get away with having strong unions covering basically all its workers because it is essentially a monopolist. It's only real competitor is in France, which faces even more onerous labor market restrictions than a strong US union can provide. It is the rise of competition in the decades after WW2 that made strong unions untenable for the Big Three US auto makers, which enjoyed a comfortable oligopoly after the WW2 destroyed the capital stock in pretty much every other developed country.

As an aside, Lynne Kiesling played a role in pushing me into blogging by offering me a guest spot on Knowledge Problem when we met at a mutual friend's wedding. I didn't take up the offer because I didn't feel like I would fit that well with the usual topics at KP, but the offer lingered in my mind and helped push me to create this blog.

UK prostitution law changes

The UK is revising its prostitution laws to make it a crime to purchase sex from a woman who has been "trafficked" with lack of knowledge of the woman's status not a defense. It is important to know as background to this that some forms of prostitution are legal in the UK, with the framework similar, but not the same as, that in Canada.

In thinking about the likely effects of the new law, my mind turned to laws against buying stolen property. Presumably there is some standard here that protects innocent consumers while not shielding knowing ones. Here is one legal website - probably not the best one. It suggests something like a reasonable person test. If you buy something at Macy's, you should be able to rely on it not being stolen. If you buy it from a guy in a truck by the side of the road who keeps looking suspiciously at every passing car, and you pay about 10 percent of the market price, you do not have a reasonable expectation that the good is not stolen.

The article suggests that the Brits do not intend to have such a reasonable person test, though one suspects that is how the law will evolve in any case. The article notes that there have not been any prosecutions in Finland, which has a similar law. At the same time, the law should be a boon to native British sellers of sex and a bane to those who, without being trafficked, come from lower income places within the EU to make some money. Perhaps it will be challenged under the EU's rules prohibiting trade restraints against other EU members?

It is interesting and somewhat surprising that the "English Collective of Prostitutes" (imagine those meetings) oppose the new rules to indirectly limit their competition. The new rules should raise market prices generally, which should reduce the quantity demanded of paid sex and increase the quantity demanded of substitutes, such as sex with unpaid female companions found in bars and on places like As such, the net public health effect may be a negative one, to the extent that prostitutes are more likely to use protection.

Rhetoric and realization

And so it goes from "Change You Can Believe In" to "We're All Eight Years Older Now".

Putting aside Eric Holder, who has a weak record on drugs, guns and other civil liberties, I am pleasantly surprised so far and pleased with Larry Summers getting an important role.

Share the joy with National Review (and it worries me that they are happy too - it suggests I should be less happy about Obama's defense picks) or share the sorrow with the Progressive.

The power of symbols

The Economist details a fascinating study on how symbols affect more choices. Key bit:
Physical purification, in other words, produces a more relaxed attitude to morality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the Bible as washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus. Something to think about for those who feel that purification rituals bring them closer to God.
Whole thing here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

As low as it goes

Ohio State 42 Michigan 7

Michigan stayed in the game until the third quarter and then collapsed.

Washington State 16, Washington 13 (2OT)

Washington outplayed WSU in regulation but missed two field goals, and then missed another in the second overtime.

Seattle Times coverage here.

I'm glad this season is over for Michigan and one loss away for UW.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Movie: Quantum of Solace

We saw the new Bond movie Quantum of Solace last night. I liked it quite a lot, Lisa liked it but not quite as much. It is, even more than the last one, a very different sort of Bond movie: angry and tough without the light touches that have always characterized the series. Bond makes exactly one sarcastic retort that I caught. Q is completely absent. Bond's relation to women is different too. While he beds one slightly ditzy British consulate worker in Bolivia, he never beds the female co-star; instead, they just, dare I say it, bond a lot because they both have scores to settle.

So do not go in expecting the usual Bond movie and you will probably like it. Expect a reprise of Bond movies past and you will be disappointed.

Economics 101 cultural experience

As part of the review process for our non-tenure-track lecturers, tenure track faculty sit in on a couple of lectures and write a report about their experience. Yesterday, I sat in on a lecture in Economics 101, given in the Lorch Hall auditorium to about 250 students.

It struck me as I sat there that this may have been the first time I had ever been in an economics lecture class with more than 75 students, either as a student or a professor. I managed to avoid such classes in my undergraduate days at Washington by hiding out in the honors program and I have never had to teach one as I teach mainly graduate courses, undergraduate regression (around 70 students both at Michigan and Maryland) and various honors seminars. So yesterday was a real cultural experience for me.

I sat in back with the slackers. The fellow to my left had his sullen face wrapped in one of those hoodies; he looked like someone who would figure in the opening scene of a Law and Order episode. To my right was someone playing games on his mobile phone while ahead of him another fellow improved his solitaire skills on his laptop. I use the first instance of behavior like this in my econometrics class - this year it was a female student reading the newspaper during a lecture - to announce that I would prefer that students either pay attention or stay home. Saying it once seems to have the desired effect. The rest of the kids around me in Economics 101 were actually paying attention in one way or another.

At the end of class, the students were astoundingly rude, both to the instructor and to their fellow students. The noise level rose noticeably about five minutes before the end of the lecture and continued at a high level as the instructor raised her voice to overcome the suffling and packing.

One student asked for an example of a firm that engages in price discrimination during the corresponding part of the lecture. To my surprise, the instructor did not give what would seem the most obvious and salient answer - namely the University of Michigan - but instead gave an obscure answer about some business services company. Maybe giving the obvious answer would be a bit too much honesty for the Economics 101 students.

The class featured a display of technology I had heard about but not seen. The students had remotes that they could use to answer a question in real time during the lecture. This allowed the instructor to determine how well the students were grasping the material. About 2/3 of the students got the correct answer to a very simple question about two-part pricing. I can imagine using this technology in a class but I wonder how they keep the students from losing the remotes or from forgetting to bring them to class.

Rodriguez honeymoon still on

Official Michigan puff piece - it turns out losing eight (soon to be nine) games is a lot like growing up poor in West Virginia - here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Will Wilkinson on the Big Three Bailout

Lots of good stuff here, with links to more.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reuters and response rates

Yahoo! is presently featuring this piece on a study by something called the Physicians' Foundation. The key bits are

The Physicians' Foundation, founded in 2003 as part of a settlement in an anti-racketeering lawsuit among physicians, medical societies, and insurer Aetna, Inc., mailed surveys to 270,000 primary care doctors and 50,000 practicing specialists.

The 12,000 answers are considered representative of doctors as a whole, the group said, with a margin of error of about 1 percent. It found that 78 percent of those who answered believe there is a shortage of primary care doctors.

A brief bout of division indicates that the Physicians' Foundation achieved a glorious response rate of 12,000 / 320,000 or 3.75 percent. This is quite low even by the low standards of direct mail surveys.

Put differently, this study is completely meaningless. What seems pretty clearly to have happened is that very unhappy physicians responded, but no one else did.

Reuters reports this straight up, and even suggests that the 3.75 percent of those responding are "representative" of all physicians. Why would one possibly think that? Moreover, in this context, reporting the "margin of error" due to sampling is misleading in the extreme, given its relative unimportance compared to selective non-response.


Mandatory collegiality in Denmark

Details here. Thankfully,

'The greeting requirement will only affect pedestrians. We obviously prefer that cyclists and motorists concentrate on the traffic over greeting someone.'

I hope no one tells the administration at Michigan about this idea.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Monday, November 17, 2008

Parliamentarians and prostitutes

A story here about Danish prostitutes taking issue with the EU not allowing members of the European Parliament (that is what MEP stands for in the story) to stay in hotels that have contact with prostitutes.

Surely the European Parliament has something more important to do than this?

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Advice for Obama from Greg Mankiw

Advice here; it is wise and moderate in the usual Mankiw style.

I would add:

1) Appoint an economist or close substitute to run the Institute of Education Sciences, not an old-school ed-school person who will reverse its focus on research that clearly identifies the causal effects of policy relevant interventions.

2) Create an analog to the Institute for Education Sciences in the Department of Labor to guide a research program built around the estimation of clearly identified causal effects of policy relevant interventions.

3) Appoint a real chief economist to the Department of Labor. Clinton had Larry Katz, Alan Krueger, Lisa Lynch, Harry Holzer and Ed Montgomery. Bush treated this as a public relations office and appointed people with no stature within academic economics.

4) Appoint a Secretary of Labor who is sympathetic to labor but not a toady of the AFL-CIO. The aforementioned Ed Montgomery, my colleague and then my dean at Maryland after returning from a stint in the Clinton-era Department of Labor, would make a most excellent choice.

Addendum: Ed Montgomery made it onto the labor/education part of the transition team, which is listed here. No other names I recognice though, in either the labor/education or the HHS parts of the list.

Addendum 2: Sigh.

Bailing out the Big Three

What to do about the big three automakers? I am old enough to recall the last time they were surprised by rising oil prices. It is not very clever of them to be surprised again, though the leader to this article suggests it was not really a surprise, just an inability to act.

Their most recent labor contracts are getting down into a range where the wages can at least shout to the marginal products, which is good, but the legacy of past contracts where the two could not even see each other through the telescope linger on, as do decades of poor management and an adversarial corporate culture poorly suited to the times.

My thought is that Chapter 11 bankruptcy is just what the firms need. I think two of the arguments that have been against this are silly, the third is sensible but one that I cannot really evaluate. The silly ones are that customers will not buy from the big three because of concerns over warranties or spare parts. The first of these is easily solved by the auto companies, which can package their cars with third party warranties. The second is easily solved by recalling that parts firms like to make money and if there is a market for parts, someone will produce them. The more sensible argument is that there will not be credit available to finance the big three while they are in Chapter 11. I suspect that clear signals by the firms, the unions and the politicians that cost structures will be changed in ways ensure firm persistence would take care of this one as well but I do not know enough about the credit market for firms in Chapter 11 to rely solely on my own views.

More thoughts and links here from MR this morning. They quote Bruce Bartlett to the effect that Obama needs to use this occasion to show that he can't be "rolled" or it will be a long (and expensive) next four (eight?) years.

Full disclosure: a bailout would probably have a positive direct effect on me by helping out the budget of the state of Michigan, which provides about a quarter of the funding for the university, with the remainder coming from our endowment, tuition and research overhead.

Addendum: a positive case from Jeff Sachs and a negative case from Gary Becker. Sachs adds an additional argument about resale value being an issue under Chapter 11. Presumably this is an empirical question that one can address by looking at brands that have disappeared in the recent past, such as AMC. Hat tip to Greg Mankiw on these.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

UMMA: The Infinite Landscape

We were out walking little E today in the (light) snow and stopped off for a warm 45 minutes at the remote site of the University of Michigan Museum of Art to see their current exhibit of landscape photographs from their collection. You can actually see many of the images on-line by following the link, but will miss the fun of watching E eat crackers while you view the art. The images range widely in age and location and provided a wonderfully quiet interlude of contemplation this afternoon.

For readers not in A2, UMMA has a remote site because their main building on the central campus is being remodeled and expanded, a project that will reach completion early in 2009. For readers in A2, UMMA is well worth a visit every month or two.

Nanny corporations: Craig's List and prostitution

Craig's List has taken measures to reduce the amount of spam in the parts of its on-line advertisements related to "casual encounters" and "erotic services" but at the same time apparently feels the need to lecture its users about prostitution and to try to reduce the number of voluntary transactions taking place via its websites. I suppose part of this is necessary to avoid the attention of rogue (is there some other kind?) state attorney generals looking for newspaper coverage in advance of running for governor or senator but it is a shame to see corporations taking the lead in implicitly supporting illiberal laws. Ebay did much the same thing a few years ago when it ramped up regulation of the adult part of its auction site.

McCain and Palin's silly attack on "socialism"

I am not usually an enthusiastic reader of George Will (or, indeed, any other sort of reader of George Will) but the column I read today over lunch in the Ann Arbor News struck me as right on target. The McCain/Palin push about "socialism" was silly and completely hypocritical given the Republican's performance under Bush II.

Here are some good bits:
... falsely shouting "socialism!" in a crowded theater such as Washington causes an epidemic of yawning. This is the only major industrial society that has never had a large socialist party ideologically, meaning candidly, committed to redistribution of wealth. This is partly because Americans are an aspirational, not an envious, people. It is also because the socialism we do have is the surreptitious socialism of the strong, e.g., sugar producers represented by their Washington hirelings.

In America, socialism is un-American. Instead, Americans merely do rent-seeking -- bending government for the benefit of private factions. The difference is in degree, including the degree of candor. The rehabilitation of conservatism cannot begin until conservatives are candid about their complicity in what government has become.

Read the whole thing. I cannot recall ever reading Will sounding so (classical) liberal.

Northwestern 21 Michigan 14

Michigan was in it more or less all the way but seemed pretty uninspired about it. The weather was miserable (though oddly there seemed to be a lot more snow at the Big House than at our house, 10 blocks away).

Michigan thus obtained its first eight-loss season in the history of the school. Yowza!

I'm guessing that they do not win in Columbus next week, so they can set a record for the number of losses that will likely (hopefully?) stand for quite a while.

UCLA 27 UW 7

Washington fell to UCLA 27-7 yesterday and as a result lost all of its home games for the first time since 1894. Neither team played very well but in the end UCLA played less badly. Attendance was down to about 40,000 despite the opportunity to hurl boos at slick Rick Neuheisel upon his return to Husky stadium.

As a bit of icing on the cake, the UW basketball team was upset in their opener against Portland State.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Change you can believe in

"If some of them happen to also be involved in fundraising, that’s simply a coincidence."

Agitator post and link to underlying USA Today article on the fundraising prowess of Obama's transition team here.

World War One color photographs

Der Spiegel, the German equivalent of Time magazine publishes a set of color photographs from WW1. The set of photos included with the article includes pictures by both a French and a German photographer. After the war, both of them ended up working for National Geographic.

Hat tip: the Agitator

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Is feminism all wet?

Second wave and third wave feminism do battle in a Danish municipal pool. The gist:

After a successful campaign by the Socialist People's Party to allow women to go topless at city swimming halls, employees at the facilities report that they have not seen a single bare-breasted female in their pools.

Full report here. Seems like somehow the Danes are having more fun than the rest of us.

I bet the socialist workers would get more votes here in the US if they put more emphasis on their policy on topless pools and less emphasis on their views about freeing Mumia and nationalizing the means of production.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Regulating the sex industry

The economist has some thoughts here. My sense is that the New Zealand model has worked pretty well. The Canadian model, which I observed while living in Canada, also seems to work well. It bans streetwalking, which avoids negative externalities, and tries to set up an environment in which sex workers are sole proprietors. Unlike some European countries, which have adopted a sort of full-time occupational model, complete with social insurance and the like for sex work, the Canadian model comports easily with occasional and part-time particpation, which presumably allows sex work to play a consumption-smoothing role for women with low or uncertain incomes from their regular work.

To my surprise, San Francisco's Proposition K, which would have decriminalized sex work (just in time for all the economists who will roll into town in January) was defeated in last Tuesday's election by a margin of 58 percent to 42. The "yes" website, which reports the results, is here.

Finally, a view on the Danish model in the form of this report from Denmark about a disabled man who is suing his local government to have it pay the cost of having a prostitute visit him in his home. Teaser:

Mr Hansen started seeing a prostitute after attending a course at a social centre.

There, he and other disabled people were taught that if they had needs, they "could do something about it".

Hat tip (on the Danish news): Lars Skipper

Friday, November 7, 2008

GSB sells itself at last

I really thought that GSB, the Graduate School of Business at Chicago, would never sell its naming rights. But it has, to someone called Booth, for $300 million.

An hedonic analysis of how much it costs to buy a business school name would make a nice undergraduate paper.

McCain could have won with this

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports on the mysterious absence of the BCS from the just-concluded (halleleujah!) election campaign.

Same as the old boss

How to think about the upcoming Obama presidency? Nick Gillespie of Reason offers three predictions here. They can be summed up as: more of the same with different branding.

In fact, I will make explicit the hypothesis that Nick leaves implicit: you can make a very strong argument that Obama is really out third democrat president in a row. Other than stem cells, abortion and, maybe (or maybe not, the more I think about it), aggrandizing the executive, everything he did is standard issue democrat presidential behavior: profligate domestic spending (he channels LBJ - is it something about Texas?), moralistic foreign wars (channeling Woodrow Wilson, JFK and LBJ - WMD are the Gulf of Tonkin of the 21st century), moral scolding (channeling JFK on what you can do for your country and Tipper Gore on popular culture), more drug war insanity (channeling the Clintons and also, of course, for the children) and federalizing government primary and secondary education (channeling every president at least since LBJ).

Indeed, and quite seriously, it has always puzzled me why the democrats disliked Bush so much when all he did was expand government size and power, just as they would have done but with a different color of paint. I recognize that there are segments of the democrat coalition who do not like individual aspects of this policy portfolio, but they are minority segments, soon to be very disappointed when, as Nick predicts, Obama does just what the generals tell him to do in Iraq, just what the FBI tells him to do on domestic surveillance and so on.

Addendum: In response to the last paragraph, a reader writes "Envy: people always resent those who show them up by doing a better job than they can at their self regarded specialty."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obama supporter stereotypes

If you look up "on target" in the dictionary, you get to this Onion video.

Hat tip: Don Hacherl

Addendum: the Onion is also right about this.

Disciplinary stereotypes

Greg Mankiw's Blog: Larry, Vindicated

Greg Mankiw links to a post by Mark Perry on disciplinary differences in GRE scores.

You can find a longer and older discussion of this in my one of the my favorite articles in the Journal of Labor Economics by Paglin and Rufolo. A gated version is here.

These disciplinary differences are very real and leads to a number of thoughts:

First, it is important to remember that these are means. There are plenty of people in sociology and political science with very high GRE scores. This becomes very apparent at a place like Michigan that has top departments (higher ranked in their respective disciplines than economics is) in both fields.

Second, at schools outside the top 30 in economics interdisciplinary work is often difficult because the quality of economics departments falls off much less rapidly than the quality of political science and sociology departments.

Third, these patterns in scores across fields result in part from the types of work done in various fields. Students who are not good at math select into fields where formal theoretical work and high tech econometrics / statistics play a smaller role. Even within economics, there is clear sorting into subfields such as highbrow theory and theoretical econometrics based on math skills.

Fourth, economics benefits in many ways, as a field, from the decision to be quite technical. First, the technical requirements sort a lot of ideologues into other fields. Second, we do not spend a lot of disciplinary energy fighting over the relative importance of qualitative and quantitative work within economics. Such fighting in sociology and political science wastes huge amounts of time and intellectual energy. There are also costs, though, in things like the marginalizing of economic history in the profession.

Theories of voting

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution is in full curmudgeon mode with this bit, but I think he is completely correct. I think economists really underestimate the extent to which "expressive" motives explain behavior.

Why did I vote for the first time since college? A combination of things I think: some peer pressure, a lower cost as noted in an earlier post, and the opportunity to actually vote yes on something I care about - in this case the two initiatives on stem cells and medical marijuana. I did not end up collecting any free stuff for voting though there was plenty on offer in Ann Arbor.

Voting at Angell School in Ann Arbor with all my professor / lawyer / doctor neighbors also has a different feel to it than voting at the local middle school in Renton Washington where my parents lived and being in line with stoner chicks wearing Ozzy Osbourne t-shirts. On the other hand, the miracle that anything works at all is more obvious in Renton.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How did the LP do?

Complete results here. Getting under 500K votes and coming in fourth after the majors and Ralph Nader (is he still alive?) is a real disappointment for the Libertarian party, which had visions of a million votes given it was running well-known former Republican congressperson Bob Barr as its candidate.

Hat tip to Nick Gillespie at reason for finding this link; I still have not figured out how to get to it from the main CNN election page.

Innovation in sports

Cool story here about a high school football coach who read the rules and developed a clever new formation with two quarterbacks and lots of eligible receivers.

Hat tip: the agitator

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Michigan ballot initiatives

I voted (for the first time since I was in college) mainly because the cost was lower and because of the two initiatives on the ballot in Michigan. I walk past my polling place every day on my way to work and I walked back to it in the mid-afternoon to vote and had no line at all.

The ballot initiatives seek to allow medical marijuana and to roll back some additional restrictions on stem cell research in Michigan beyond those imposed by the federal government. CNN has just called the medical marijuana initiative for the "yes" side; to my surprise it is about 10 points ahead of the stem cell initiative. There must be a lot of pro-life stoners out that there that I was unaware of. The stem cell initiative is leading too, but only 53-47 and so remains too close to call at this point.

Addendum: the stem cell initiative passed too.


I agree with the fellow on Fox News who said that, regardless of what you think of his policies, for an African-American to win a presidential election is indeed "America at its grandest".

Let's hope he does not waste this on ideological crap like card check and the fairness doctrine.

Addendum: McCain gave a very classy concession speech. His audience was a bit less classy.

Addendum 2: Here is reason's take on the concession speech from Matt Welch, who is no fan of McCain.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Should you vote?

Things seem remarkably calm today, given that the Second Coming is tomorrow.

Here is an argument in favor of voting from the Economist's Voice; there is related discussion on here.

The argument hinges criticially on the idea that you, the reader, knows that one candidate rather than another will lead to a large increase in the size of the pie. It also seems to hinge on one not caring about how the pie is distributed either in the sense of equality of outcomes or in the sense of fairness and efficiency of process. I am not surprised I suppose that the authors think they know of a candidate who would increase the size of the pie enough to justify voting without assigning utility from warm glow. However, I think their intellectual hubris in this regard is unjustified. There are way too many variables and the disconnect between what candidates say before an election and what they do afterwards is just too large. Think about FDR, who ran as a budget-balancer, or Bush II and his promised "humble" foreign policy.

I may vote tomorrow because I will get a warm glow from voting in favor of stem cell research (which also will pragmatically help UM get more grant money and attract good researchers) and in favor of loosening the restrictions on medical marijuana.

Legal caveat: Though UM President Mary Sue Coleman's email to the entire university came perilously close to urging a "no" vote on Prop. 2, in our capacity as university employees we are forbidden from using university resources to support or hinder particular ballot propositions or candidates. This posting is being done on my home computer (which is not owned by the university) and on my own time.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

USC 56 Washington 0

I think Washington has only beaten the spread twice this year in eight games.

Not pretty at all, though they played pretty even against the second team.

This is the fourth-worst loss in Washington history.

Wonder who the new coach will be.

Purdue 48 Michigan 42

This one was great fun to watch - especially the fake punt and lateral-after-the-pass trick plays by Purdue - but it was not exactly a brilliant defensive show by Michigan.

I am guessing this will be another 0-2 day for me.

Addendum: ND loses in quadruple overtime to Pitt after trying some hocus-pocus with the automatic sprinklers, so the day may not be a total loss.

News flash: price, quantity related

NYT discovers downward sloping demand curves.

Surely the end times are upon us.


Some thoughts on Tyrone Willingham from the LA Times.

I share the view that Tyrone's performance at Washington does not excuse his firing at Notre Dame. That firing has to be judged in light of the information available at the time the decision was made.

Washington is a 46 point (!!) underdog to USC today, which appears to be both the largest line ever against UW in the history of the team and also the largest line ever between two PAC-10 teams.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ron Howard campaign ad

I am not sure this will work, but it is kind of cute. I like the "moose" bit in particular.

Isn't there some rule that democrats have to be humorless scolds? It sure seems like there is such a rule sometimes.

Hat tip: Ken Troske

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

PC versus Mac: a cultural interpretation

Grant McCracken, the Harvard anthropologist whose blog I am again reminded I should read more often, dissects the new PC ad campaign.

It has always seemed to me that Mac ownership is more of a personal statement than a technical decision, despite all the talk about avoiding the "blue screen of death", which I never seem to encounter anyway.

The one time I ever sat down to use a Mac was in graduate school. I powered up a Mac at the social science computing center in the basement of the 1155 building and it came up with a frown face which was supposed to tell me that I should insert a disk (this was a while ago). I decided that a computer that starts with a frown face is not really a serious computer and went on my way, never to return.

A similar line of reasoning could be applied to the LaTex versus Word + Mathtype divide among economists.