Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Economist on TFA

Is TFA a cult? The Economist says:
As she continues to talk I realise that TFA is—in the best possible sense—a cult. It has its own language (“corps members”, “alums”), recruits are indoctrinated (“We tell them that it can be done, that we know of hundreds, thousands, of teachers attaining tremendous success”), go through an ordeal (“Everyone hits the wall in week three in the classroom”), emerge transformed by privileged knowledge (“Once you know what we know—that kids in poor urban areas can excel—you can accomplish different things”) and can never leave (alumni form a growing, and influential, network). I have not seen the same zeal when talking to those on the equivalent programme in England, Teach First. In fact, one Teach Firster told me that in the early days the missionary-style language imported from America had to be toned down, because it just didn’t suit the restrained English style. But could that fervour be necessary for its success?
This overstates the success of TFA teachers a bit. In the IES-funded experiment conducted by Mathematica, they match conventionally certified teachers in terms of impacts on reading scores and beat them in math scores by a measurable but not huge bit. Put differently, their impacts are incremental, not transformative, at least by this metric.

At the same time, putting smart young adults - and TFA teachers average a couple hundred SAT score points over their conventionally educated colleagues - into public schools has to have some indirect effects, whether on their peers, on the views of future leaders about government-operated schools and teacher labor cartels, on their views about poverty, on school administration and operation as some TFA teachers stay on and advance through the ranks, and so on.

Paley Center in NYC

One of the most interesting things I did in NYC a couple of weeks ago was spend a couple of hours in the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Radio and Television). The name change is apt, as this is not really a museum in the usual sense. There is only very modest exhibit space and not a very good store either.

Instead, the museum offers two things: first, a set of five screening rooms showing various old television shows (including commercials in at least some cases) and documentaries about old television shows. The price of admission lets you do these all day long. I watched an episode of Get Smart, which was great fun. I had forgotten (or not noticed in my youth) how attractive Barbara Feldon is and how much she fawns all over Maxwell Smart. The commercials - mostly for cars and household products, were at least as fun as the show itself.

The other thing on offer is access to the center's library of old radio and television shows. Your admission buys you an hour of viewing or listening. I watched the pilot for the Paul Lynde Show. I always liked Paul Lynde growing up and have vague memories of watching the show when it was originally aired. If I had more time, I would have watched an episode of Delta House, which I had completely forgotten about. It was the short-lived TV version of Animal House which included some of the less-famous actors from the movie.

When I was there on a Sunday afternoon there were more helpers - one on every one of the five floors plus more to deal with the library requests and still more at the entrance - than visitors. Most seemed likely to be students in media studies or some such at NYU.

The thing that strikes me about the Paley Center is that, in a decade or so, presumably the center's entire library will be available for listening or viewing on-line. That will be fun indeed.

Movie: I Love You, Man

You know, I thought, there is no way this can be good. But then I would see that it gets > 80 percent from the critics aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes. And then we would go to something else. Finally last night we ran out of other movies we wanted to see (it was that or the movie about IRA hunger strikers and we were not in the mood) and took the plunge on "I Love You, Man". We seriously considered leaving about 20 minutes in (something that has happened twice in the decade we have been seeing movies together) but decided to stick it out. It got a bit better but the sad fact of the matter is that this movie is only occasionally funny and is pretty much always predictable.

Not recommended, but you could do worse. Or you could read a good book.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The business of language protection

Concerns about the use of English by Danish businesses in the Copenhagen post:

The widespread use of English in Danish businesses has led the Danish Language Council to call for language protection initiatives to ensure the preservation of Danish as a business language.

A survey from the Confederation of Danish Industry in 2007 showed that one out of four companies uses English as its primary working language.

I was surprised by the "one out of four" number, but it probably understates the case as I suspect that larger firms, which will be more likely to do business internationally, will also be more likely to use English.

The language council has proposed that companies keep official tabs on their English and Danish usage. Those books, besides being a reliable source of information, would also allow the businesses to ‘reflect’ upon how much English is used in their everyday operations, according to Kirchmeier-Andersen.

I like this idea of having businesses "reflect". Maybe they can do some meditation too?

Of course, one could also argue that the goal of increasing labor mobility within the EU militates in favor of the use of English rather than local languages at businesses in EU member countries. Increased labor mobility would have both economic benefits and "solidarity" benefits in helping to further the cause of social and cultural unification within Europe.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Clark medal to Emmanuel Saez

I am bit belated on this but still want to congratulate Emmanuel Saez, winner of the John Bates Clark medal for the best economist under 40. He is a very smart and creative public finance economist presently at Berkeley.

The award switches from every two years to every year starting this year, so it is now "only" as hard to get as the Nobel.

I am particularly happy to see an award given in public finance. My sense is that the discipline as a whole presently devotes too little attention to public finance relative to its importance in the world. One of the (many) things I like about Michigan is that I am learning a lot of public finance, which I have never really had much opportunity to learn before.

Monday, April 27, 2009

In praise of behavioral economics

I suppose you know you have made it when someone summarizes your subfield, with partial if not complete understanding, in Time magazine.

It is true that the author of the piece, one Michael Grunwald, does not actually understand how economists define and use the word "rationality", which confuses things for an economist reader. He uses "rational" as a synonym for "normative" which it decidedly is not. Contrary to the text, one can be "rational" in the economic sense and have unprotected sex and cupcakes - even both at the same time. Discount rates matter and so does the utility function in determining what is rational.

Putting that, and a too-big-for-your-diet helping of Obama Messiah Disorder (can behavioral economics cure this?), to the side, there is some interesting stuff here about the use of the lessons from behavioral economics in the Obama campaign and in various policy proposals pushed by Obama (and by others, often well before Obama came on the scene). Policy can be improved by looking at the evidence from the behavoral economics literature - just as there are still quite a long list of policy areas that would benefit from looking at the evidence from the plain-old-economics literature.

Of course, some of the policy ideas discussed in the article, like simplifying student aid forms as proposed by my colleague Sue Dynarski or comparative effectiveness research for medical interventions, have nothing to do with behavioral economics (nor with market failure). The government designed its student aid process all by its happy self in a way that both makes the process much harder than it needs to be and insures that it will have little effect on student choices about which college to attend. The lack of comparative effectiveness research for drugs is again government failure (and academic failure, to an extent) in the design of the clinical trials system that underlies drug approval and in the conduct of medical research more generally. [As I often ask, what exactly were you folks doing before "evidence based medicine"?]

So, three cheers for looking at good evidence, whatever the label it carries, and one cheer for Time magazine for their C+ summary of behavioral economics and its relevance for political campaigns and policymaking. I look forward, with only minor trepidation, to Time's piece on downward sloping demand curves.

Hat tip: Dave DeLauter

Children and boredom

This rant is a bit over the top but it also makes, implicitly, a couple of good points.

First, our culture makes it very difficult to be honest about children. Sometimes they are boring and sometimes they are a pain in the behind. As Penelope says, "even cute gets boring". That does not mean that they are not loved or well cared for. It is just a fact without any normative content.

Second, as much as it is fun to color again for the first time in over three decades or to play with Lincoln logs or legos, these activities are just not as interesting in your 30s and 40s as they were in your youth.

Third, it is good to be nice on-line, so that people like Penelope don't call you at work.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

High school sports and the level playing field.

A new paper, forthcoming in the Texas Review of Entertainment and Sports Law, features the following abstract:
In states like Illinois, controversial enrollment multipliers have been implemented. Under Illinois' formula, a "non-boundaried" school will have its actual enrollment multiplied by 1.65 for determining the classification in the State's high school playoff system. This formula is not unique to Illinois; states nationwide have begun to evaluate ways at curbing the disproportionate amount of championships won by private schools. In some of these states, a multiplier system has been implemented while others have used separate playoff systems or drafted proposals limiting the boundaries from which private schools can draw their students.
This raises two interesting questions. First, why should the institutions of competition compensate for the size (or lack of a) school catchment area but not for, say, differences in quality of coach, quality of athletes living near the school, or effectiveness of the cheerleaders? Second, could this be challenged given that religion is a protected class and these multipliers have a disparate impact on Catholic and other religious schools?

Removing the competitive advantage associated with lack of a catchment area should increase coaching salaries by focusing competition on coaching quality. Anyone want to bet that coaches help set these rules?

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Discouraging Danes from drink

From the Danish newspaper POLITIKEN an account of the terror in the hearts of public health commissars as they ponder the reality of Danish alcohol consumption. One bit:
Minister of Health and Prevention Jakob Axel Nielsen (Cons) [says:] “Danish attitudes to alcohol are much more liberal that I care to see. This doesn’t mean that the government is preparing a ban on red wine, but we want to work on Danish attitudes to alcohol – not least in relation to our young people. In other countries around us, young people have a different attitude to drink”
Yes, we would not want any liberal attitudes, to be sure.

What is the remedy? Home visits by government temperance workers:
As a result, the Commission says that the obligatory doctor’s examination of three-year-olds should be changed to a home visit by a nurse to determine whether there is a negative alcohol culture in the family. If so, information and help can be offered to reduce consumption.
Seems to me it is the public health people with the "negative alcohol culture" not the people who responsibly enjoy consuming it. Maybe if the Danish program is successful enough they can match the binge drinking culture of the UK and the US which feeds on conflicting social messages about alcohol and the additional lure added to alcohol by its status as both a religious and a public health sin.

Hat tip: the anonymous Dane

Movie: The Soloist

What to say about the Soloist? Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx turn in impressive performances as a crusty journalist - nothing too novel there - and a mentally ill musician. The movie is based on a true story but, unlike the true story, includes a reasonable amount of preaching to the audience. It would have been better without it, but that is asking a lot of Hollywood as the preaching is, in some sense, part of the very genre. Oh, and there is a tiny bit of fundy-bashing, which seemed extraneous; I have no idea if that is part of the real story or not.

Recommended relative to what's out there at the moment

Hacking Time magazine

Computer-science-undergrad-days-nostalgia-inducing story here.

Hat tip: the agitator

Celebrities on Twitter

More than 140 words on Slate.

Hat tip: the agitator

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Socialist humor

Hat tip: Ye Zhang

Addendum: socialism and coercive redistribution are not the same thing (indeed, neither strictly implies the other), but the comic is funny enough that I am posting it anyway, despite the abuse of usage.


Cheating really, really pisses me off. I have caught plagiarism going on in the honors program at Western Ontario, where some students did not want to bother to actually write their honors theses themselves, in the doctoral program at Maryland, where two students were essentially kicked out of the program for plagiarizing in research papers, and in my graduate applied econometrics course at Michigan,where a student turned in my own answers on a problem set as their own.

Though cheating is never okay I do not even understand the motivation for cheating at the graduate level. If you do not like writing papers, why would you sign up for a graduate program?

Here is a post from Chris Blattman about cheating. The comments are interesting too.

Of the three places I have been, UWO was the least serious about dealing with cheating and Maryland was the most organized. At Maryland, all cheating cases were referred to a committee whose sole function was to evaluate claims of cheating and to assign punishment. It included students as well as faculty and staff; I was told by those familiar with the committee that the students tended to be the real hard-asses in the bunch. I wish we had a similar system here at Michigan.

US News Rankings of Economics Departments

Here are the new rankings. Michigan is tied for 12th with NYU.

The US News field rankings are gated but have been passed around the department here at Michigan. In labor economics we are ranked 6th, after the usual top four suspects - Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Chicago and just behind UC Berkeley at 5th. In public finance we are fifth and in international economics we are sixth.

US News also has a general piece on graduate school in economics.

NY Fed

I gave a seminar at the NY Fed last Monday. They have assembled a lively and high quality applied micro group that made for a most enjoyable day.

I do, however, have to tell one story about the visit. My wife and I spent the weekend before my talk in NYC as tourists. Our luggage consists of two nearly identical black Tumi roller bags. On Sunday, when my wife went home, she ended up - all my fault, sadly - with the incorrect bag. Back to Ann Arbor went my razor and my clothes for the seminar while the dirty clothes from the weekend stayed in NYC.

So, on Monday morning I rushed around downtown NYC trying to find nicer clothes than the ratty jeans and old polo shirt that I had available to wear to my NY Fed seminar. I learned that the Gap and the Banana Republic in the World Financial Center - I was staying in a very nice Marriott one block from Ground Zero - though they open surprisingly early, serve only very thin people. Neither had a single pair of pants in my waist size (nor more than a token pair or two in sizes two or even four inches smaller). However, the clerk at the Banana Republic pointed me to the true NYC experience that is Century 21. Amidst its glorious chaos, which is much less posh than you would expect from the web page, and with the help of some cheerful but not really English-speaking clerks, I bought a pair of dress pants, four shirts, two ties and three pairs of black socks, name brands all, for about $150. If I had had more time, I would have bought more, but I was already a few minutes late for the start of my schedule at the Fed.

So I was feeling pretty good about myself when I showed up at the Fed in my new clothes. My good mood was only heightened by the disappointment felt by the two police officers at the entrance (both a bit carried away with the minor amount of power bestowed on them by their position) when they discover after 10 minutes of skeptical interaction with me that I am in fact a legitimate visitor who must be admitted to the sacred halls of the Fed. The only minor worry I had related to the fact that I did not have time to buy new shoes, and so was wearing some nice tennis shoes, but not dress shoes, with my spiffy new Century 21 pants, shirt and tie. But, since economists by and large do not pay any attention to shoes, I figured I would be okay.

While the economists did indeed appear not even to notice my tennis shoes, the host at the Fed's dining room did. It turns out that under the new NY Fed president who replaced Tim Geitner sartorial standards have been raised. Because of my tennis shoes, my hosts and I were refused entrance to the Fed dining room. This is not an isolated occurrence; one of my hosts had been kicked out of the dining room in the middle of a meal the previous week for wearing jeans.

What to think of this? Well, it makes for a good anecdote, and the cafeteria we went to instead had a very fine salad bar, so I may actually be better off in terms of my health and did not pay much, if any, price in terms of food quality.

On the other hand, this seems an odd way to treat guests. My hosts were very apologetic, though of course it was not their fault I was surprised rather than offended, but I can imagine that some guests might be quite offended indeed. Is the cost in terms of potentially offended guests (and annoyed staff) really worth it just to save the bankers and finance economists from having to look at labor economists experiencing a bad draw from the dress-up distribution?

I am also puzzled that the new president of the NY Fed would have time to bother with such things in the midst of a financial crisis. Perhaps the crisis is to be blamed on the poorly dressed? This choice sends a signal about form versus substance that I do not think the Fed really wants to send.

Tyler Cowen goes wild

Usually Alex Tabarrok is the one to let the guns blaze on Marginal Revolution while Tyler keeps a bemused distance. Thus, it was with some surprise that I read this (quite enjoyable) movie review.

Hat tip: marginal revolution

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bad news for John DiNardo

Details here.

The university's spam blocker placed the email from U of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman announcing the policy change in my spam box. It really is hard to get everyone in a big organization on the same page - or maybe there are some closet smokers in the university computing organization!

Monday, April 20, 2009

More on the DC voucher program

A Washington Post editorial in support [sic] of the voucher program!

And then another one today.

Are those pigs I see flying by outside my window?

Hat tip (on the first one): Ken Troske

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Found photographs

This website shows a small collection of photographs found left in old cameras.

I enjoyed thinking of stories to go with some of them.

Hat tip: instapundit

DC voucher program

This piece in Forbes lays out the case against the Obama administration in the matter of the DC voucher program. I have not had a chance to read the study and do not know how good it is, but of course if it is not a good study the correct path would seem to be to commission a good one rather than shutting down the program.

Change you can believe looks a lot like selling out to a powerful interest group at the expense of the poor in this case.

Vouchers are one of a very small set of policy issues - the war on drugs is another - where the correct course seems to me so blindingly obvious that it is hard for me to credit those on the other side with intellectual honesty. This inability is not to my credit, and so as a check on myself I generally avoid writing about vouchers either on the blog or in my academic work, but this case seems egregious enough to make an exception.

Put this one in the negative column of your Obama evaluation scorecard.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Amazing economics department staff

Olga Mustata, who helps out in the economics main office and whom I deal with in regard to course registration and textbooks has been put into the LSA Staff Spotlight.

She is indeed amazing - one of many really excellent staff members in the economics department. It is a great perk to be able to head into the main office for the sole purpose of being cheered up.

Congratulations Olga!


This USA Today piece on the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings contained a lot that was completely new to me, and changed my view of the event.

I think this case illustrates a general phenomenon that "the narrative" about events like this often ends up bearing little resemblance to the facts on the ground, both because early information is inaccurate but also very salient and because stories change over time as they are fit into broader political and social narratives.

Urban exploring

I've always been a bit fascinated by ruins - more so, to be honest, than I usually am by the unblemished natural environment. This fascination was only enhanced by spending nine years on the south side of Chicago when I was in graduate school. At the start of my time at Chicago you could actually see vacant apartment buildings from the back door of the 1155 Building, which at the time housed both NORC and the Harris School. Driving to Midway airport meant driving past blocks and blocks of ruins, including a movie theater and, later on, a Catholic church, which went from occupied, to empty and boarded up, to empty and beaten up, to torn down over a period of about four years.

This site, somewhat misleading called Illicit Ohio, presents pictures from someone who takes their fascination with ruins a bit farther and actually goes and wanders around in them. Most of the places explored are in Ohio. This hobby is called "urban exploring" and there are some further links along these lines in the "fun links" section of my website (as well as links via the illicit Ohio site).

Measuring participation in government programs

I want to give a shout out to the paper "The Under-Reporting of Transfers in Household Surveys: Its Nature and Consequences" by Bruce Meyer, Wallace Mok and James Sullivan.

The amount of under-reporting in the most widely-used programs should give pause to anyone who produces or consumes research on participation in transfer programs or on the effects of transfer programs. It underscores the need to do a better job of linking up widely-used survey data sets with administrative records from the transfer programs themselves. This in turn will require a seriousness about evidence-based policymaking heretofore largely absent among the political class.

Bruce has been engaged in this sort of "meat and potatoes" research on measurement-related topics for some time now. I think this work is of fundamental importance. It is, at the same time, under-produced and, I think, undervalued in the profession. The spillovers from this type of work are huge, as it affects every study using these data.

One thing that any researcher can do to bring attention to this issue is to ask about measurement error in seminars. That will at least encourage the reading of what literature there is on measurement and perhaps, indirectly, the production of more research and the improvement of the data on which our knowledge relies.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

More on Sweden

Swedish tax authorities are cracking down on webcam strippers who fail to pay tax, according to a BBC report. Says a Swedish bureaucrat:
"They are young girls, we can see from the photos. We think that perhaps they are not well informed about the rules," said Mr Hardyson, head of the tax authority's national project on internet trade.
Ah yes, young girls, so foolish as to not want to pay high marginal tax rates. No doubt it is all the result of spending too much time thinking about shoes and the latest reinvention of Aqua.

Apparently the Swedes were tipped off by the Danes, eager to protect their webcam strippers from the unfair competition of heretofore untaxed Swedish webcam strippers. Saith the Swedish bureaucrat:
He said the Swedish tax authorities had been tipped off about Swedish internet strippers by the Dutch authorities, who had started a similar investigation earlier.
Odd that webcam stripping is legal in Sweden but prostitution is not. Sweden's prohibition on prostitution is motivated by feminist concerns rather than traditional religious and moral ones, as reflected in the fact that in Sweden it is buying, rather than selling, sex that is illegal. I should think the same feminist arguments about the pernicious effects of objectification would apply to webcam stripping as well.

My favorite line, of course, is this one, again from the Swedish bureaucrat:
"When we investigated the sites manually it worked better," he added.
Who knew the BBC had a sense of humor?

Hat tip: marginal revolution

Movie: Everlasting Moments

We saw Everlasting Moments at the Michigan Theater last weekend. I liked it a lot. It is a quiet movie, slowly paced, but well acted and with lovely cinematography, as befits a movie about cameras. It is very Swedish on many dimensions. The hero is a rather dour but very intrepid woman of middle age. Her husband drinks to much, fools around and is sometimes violent. The movie is about the hero's patience and inner strength, aided by the love of taking pictures that she finds and then nurtures, on and off, throughout the movie. Everlasting Moments is set in the early 20th century so photography is relatively new, at least as a consumer activity. Overall, a gently moving experience.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Heterogeneity and the moral case for progressive taxation

Reading the piece discussed in the preceding post led to another, more substantive, thought. The traditional view espoused by Piketty assumes that everyone shares the same utility function. In such a world, the marginal utility of income is lower for high income individuals than low income individuals.

Suppose, though, that utility functions exhibit heterogeneity rather than uniformity. Specifically, suppose that there are two arguments in the utility function - goods and leisure. For simplicity, make the cross partial zero, though mucking with the cross partial is interesting here too. Now suppose that individuals vary on the relative importance of the two arguments. Some individuals really like leisure - they are the ones we worry about when writing papers on optimal unemployment insurance - and some really like market goods. At an given income level, the individuals with a high taste for market goods will have higher marginal utilities of income than those with a high taste for leisure. They will also, in most any reasonable sort of model, have higher incomes because they will be more willing to trade of leisure for income.

In this model, individuals sort into income levels based on their marginal utility of income. As a result, the traditional rationale for progressive taxation that assumes a representative agent falls apart, or at least gets a bit woozy and stumbles around running into the walls and furniture.

Surely someone has already written this down, but it was a new thought for me.

Nick Gillespie's evil twin attacks the "rich"

Nick Gillespie (or is it some hacker posting under his good name?) has a recent post at reason online about public finance economist Thomas Piketty (who knew he was French?), the "rich" and high tax rates.

Besides committing the cardinal sin (especially for a guy with a doctorate in English) of confusing wealth, a stock, with income, a flow, Nick's post includes this odd bit:
I've got little sympathy for the rich or even the relatively well-off (and don't even get me started on people who consider themselves middle class and are in the top 20 percent of income-earning households—those of you in households making more than $88,000 know who you are).
Now what is up with this?

First, and most prosaically, one suspects that another name for households making more than $88,000 is "reason's donor base".

Second, in DC, where reason is located these days, 88K is about enough to live like a Michigan economics graduate student who does a lot of tutoring on the side.

Third, it is one very fine bit of American exceptionalism that most Americans do consider themselves "middle class". There is actually a large literature in sociology on this phenomenon, though much of its attention is devoted to the lower end, where Amercians largely refuse to call themselves "working class". One suspects that this is all tied in somehow, though the direction of causation is not clear, with the additional expectionalism that the US never had an electorally successful socialist party, unlike most every country in Europe.

I never really found the fact that so many Americans self-identify as middle class particularly troubling. Holding city of residence constant, the lives of, say, three person households making 50K, 100K, or 150K (or even 200K) are not all that different. House size might be a bit different, age of car might be a bit different, whether or not they shop at Whole Foods might be different, but the basic texture of life, the major choices and issues and problems and uses of time, will not be very different at all. So why should they not all call themselves middle class?

Oh, and Nick looks awfully happy in the picture on reason's Christmas card from a couple of years ago in which he is posed with comedian and friend-of-reason Drew Carey, who makes quite a good bit more than 88K. Perhaps the numerous attractive young women who share the holiday photo with Nick and Drew comfort and relax him in the presence of a person with such a high income. :)

The law of demand in action

Dimitriy Masterov obeys the law of demand. If guys from Chicago won't do it, who will?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Awards to people I like

Congratulations to my friend Robert Moffitt on winning a Guggenheim fellowship this year.

Uses for the automated prayer machine

Astute reader and friend Austin Kelly took time off from fixing the housing market this week to send me an email noting the similarity between the automated prayer service I posted on a few days ago and the goings on in the famous Arthur C. Clarke short story entitled "The Nine Billion Names of God." A discussion of the story (but not the story itself) is here.

The story is well worth reading.

Health campaigns that failed

Cracked magazine summarizes the evidence on some failed public health campaigns; sadly, their summary is much more honest that you might get from some quarters or the government or the public health establishment.

Movie: Adventureland

We saw Adventureland at the State Theater in Ann Arbor on Thursday night. It is sweet and funny and warm with fine acting and well-realized secondary characters. I particularly liked the crazy park owner and the Russian-literature-reading slacker friend. The whole interaction around local bombshell "Lisa P" rang very true to me as well - it reminded me of Linda Savage from high school, who changed her name to "Monique" when we reached 10th grade.

Recommended. A great date movie.

Obama Chia Pet

This sad story works on many levels. One way to frame it:
Chia founder Joseph Pedott ... said he was inspired to create the Obama head as a show of patriotism. ... The product is the second Chia offering to be based on a person; the company produced a promotional item for Mr. T.
I put Chia pets in the same category with White Castle restaurants. They are products whose persistence in the market represents a puzzle to be explained.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Everything is cyclical, in its own way ...

Important research from the Stern School of Business at NYU reveals that men prefer their women heavier in times of "resource scarcity". That research (and some related research on how Playmate of the Year selections vary with economic conditions) is summarized here.

What the research does not show is whether women in general respond to these changes in tastes by varying their weight.

For younger readers, the implicit cultural reference in the title of the post is to a song called "Everything is Beautiful" from the 1970s.

Automated prayer

It is hard to imagine a theology in which having a machine recite a prayer would prove inspiring to the (or a, as you like) deity.

Hat tip: marginal revolution

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Taxes over time and up and down the income distribution

A remarkably good piece from MSNBC that (not a coincidence?) features Michigan's own Joel Slemrod, as well as Emanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty.

Of course, I do have a few comments:

First, MSNBC neglects to note that tax rates impact the size of the economic pie. Top marginal rates were a lot higher in 1960 and it does not take much imagination to think that reducing them is part of what led to the increase in measured incomes in the top percentiles of the distrubtion.

Second, MSNBC forgets all the increases in future taxes that have been accumulating over the period in question in the form of government debt. Someone does have to pay these taxes eventually, whether via income taxes, payroll taxes, excise taxes or taxes on cash balances (i.e. inflation).

Third, I suspect that the relative decline in excise taxes has served to increase the progressivity of the system. Surely someone has considered this in the literature; it would have been nice to learn about that research in the article.

Fourth, the normative pitch (you missed the flashing "author's message" at that point?) for additoinal progressivity (or, if you prefer, disproportionality) did not fit well with the rest of the piece. It would have made the article stronger for the author to just stick to the facts.

Still, pretty useful stuff for MSNBC. Good for making clear how much of the burden is borne by those with high incomes and also at illustrating some of the basic patterns over time in what get taxed.

Is the halo wearing off?

The comments on the right-hand side of this blog called "Is Obama the Messiah" are truly frightening. Whether you like or dislike Obama or his policies, this sort of politician worship is out of place among adults in a free society.

Car Dealer in Chief, indeed.

A good column by David Brooks of the NYT on the Big 3 here.

I will confess that my first reaction was that the firms and the government had jointly decided that the first round restructuring plans from GM ("Government Motors") and Chrysler would be rejected so as to give the firms more leverage with their unions and creditors and to give Obama a chance to look tough and get some populist poll points with the pitchfork people.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Alternatives to doing the work yourself

Dear Sir/Madam
I'm a student doing economics as a major and i would love if you can do a favour for me by "Distinguish between adverse and moral hazard selection and why asymmetric information lead to market failure in the economy" can uyou plz answer my request not later than monday
yours faithfully
N Rocksie
I received the above email today. I wonder if this works as a way to get others to do your homework for you? I like the combination of not bothering to figure out if I am male or female while demanding an answer by Monday.

Mow the lawn

Had I not become an economist, I might well have gone into marketing. I find the mixture of culture, psychology, art and economics that it embodies thoroughly fascinating. And, once in while, marketing can go beyond mere commerce to become truly sublime, like the commercial you will find here. Be alert for verbal and visual puns of high order.

NB: may offend the sensitive.

Hat tip: instapundit

Addendum: the original link is now gated. You can find the video on Youtube here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Legislative incompetence

The Nation (!) reports on truly astounding incompetence on the part of Congress in the writing of the tax provisions for alternative fuel use in the 2005 transportation bill. The result is distortions in the paper market and pointless, non-trivial transfers to some large paper companies.

The Nation, of course, blames not the legislature, but rather the companies:
Whether or not Congress gets around to turning off the spigot, the episode is a useful reminder of the persistently ingenious ways the private sector can exploit even well-intentioned legislation.
It is also a reminder that it is useful to think hard about legislation before passing it. The companies job is to maximize profits within the law, not to cut the legislature a break when it does something stupid.

And how come it has taken this long to fix? Yikes.

Hat tip: marginal revolution

Movies: Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning (from the makers of Little Miss Sunshine) is sweet, funny and wise. It is a bit less raucous than LMS but still great fun. Not too deep but not too shallow either.


Surfing and development

Truth is stranger than fiction at Waves for Development.

Hat tip: Chris Blattman

Green porn?

Oh my ... Isabelle Rossilini explains about things and things to put in things and why different species have different sorts of things and it is all a bit bizarre but surely educational, yes?

There is a whole series to watch here if this first one has not gotten you sufficiently excited.

Hat tip: Ed Vytlacil

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

More on AIG

A heartfelt letter of resignation from an AIG executive in the NYT.

Hat tip: Greg Mankiw