Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Assorted links

1. Exploring the underground economy in San Antonio. I especially like the underground bakers.

2. On pizza.

3. Brink Lindsey on Paul Krugman.

4. Creepy abandoned places.

5. Brad DeLong defends Megan McArdle of the Atlantic from the NYT Ombudsperson.

Various hat tips.

Are layoffs unethical?

Ah the rarified sensibilities of the NYT "ethicist" who is apparently unfamiliar with the notion of employment at will. Or perhaps he thinks that workers have a similar duty to firms when they quit for other jobs when the times are good?

As I have noted before, there are good reasons to think that CEO salaries may well be too large, but that is unrelated to the layoff issue. People with high salaries should have the same ethical obligations with low salaries.

We treat almost all people as objects almost all the time. It could be no other way because both time and emotional resources are quite finite indeed. Should I bond with the pilots of the planes I fly? How about the all the people who designed and built the bridges I drive on? That would take a lot of our time. Maybe we should just all do our jobs and save the hugs for those close to us.

European systems of unemployment insurance are very generous, almost certainly more generous would be optimal from the standpoint of workers deciding ex ante behind a veil of ignorance. There is a literature on this about which, rather obviously, the NYT ethicist remains in complete ignorance.

UI in the US includes automatic extended benefits (up to a year) in areas of high unemployment. Major plant closings and such elicit rapid response teams from the active labor market policy agencies - imagine government workers swooping down in black helicopters while wearing DOL-ETA windbreakers. Services are provided, among them classroom training in skills for other occupations. These programs have so much stimulus money they are having trouble coping with it administratively. But looking all that stuff up would require more work than rambling on about the cool tractor videos are Caterpillars website.

Not impressive.

Hat tip: Jessica Goldberg

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The missing men on campus

A conference report from Inside Higher Ed on the declining proportion of men among college students.

In terms of solutions:
In terms of strategies and recommendations, Edwards and Harris suggested first giving college men permission to stop performing and to be themselves. “It’s really about creating some kind of balance to the external pressure,” said Harris. “We talk about challenge and support, challenging the negative behavior.”

Edwards and Harris also recommended providing opportunities for critical self-reflection about what it means to be a man – “to disrupt the functioning of hegemonic masculinity” – including through facilitated student affairs programming and academic courses (a course in women’s studies, for instance). They recommended a need to build "cultural competence" for faculty and staff in issues of gender. While many in the audience lauded the transformative impact of small group discussions among men, one common point was the need for a facilitator who really understands gender dynamics.
A few thoughts:

1. I am pretty sure I know the sign of the effect of mandatory women's studies classes on male college enrollments. This seems like a singularly bad idea.

2. The norms against studying too hard, or at least appearing to do so, affect women as well. I remain quite surprised by how difficult it is to get undergraduates to talk in class here at Michigan (or indeed to give any public sign of being interested in the course material). Discussions one-on-one with students suggest it is all about norms and signaling. An odd equilibrium for a place where 1/3 of the students are paying 30K/year to attend.

3. It would be interesting to see how male student norms around work and public displays of interest in the material and related behaviors vary across majors. Certainly the computer science classes I took at Washington in my undergrad days had very different social norms than the economics courses. Maybe the norms vary with the fraction of men in the class? Or maybe they vary with the popularity or economic payoff to the major? There is lots of work here for enterprising sociologists of education and gender.

Hat tip: instapundit

Avoid jail in Arizona

PHOENIX - An Arizona inmate who died after spending nearly four hours in the desert heat was left in an outdoor holding cell for twice as long as she should have been, the state prisons director said Wednesday.

Three corrections officers have been put on paid leave while the state investigates Wednesday's heat-related death of Marcia Powell, who was left in her unshaded cell in 103-degree heat at a prison in Goodyear.

"The death of Marcia Powell is a tragedy and a failure," prisons director Charles Ryan said. "The investigation will determine whether there was negligence and will tell us how to remedy our failures."

Powell, who was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution, was placed alone in the cell while being moved to an onsite detention unit. Ryan said officers placed Powell in the cell after a disturbance at the detention unit, but he would not elaborate on the nature of the disturbance.

This story seems to me to miss two larger points: first, why do they have outdoor holding cells in Arizona? That seems nuts on the face of it. And why would anyone be serving 27 months for prostitution? Sad and preventable and unlikely to have any real effects given the nature of the victim.

Hat tip:

Assorted links

1. Things every geek should know. By this standard, I am not much of a geek at all, which is good to know.

2. I enjoy William Shatner more than the average person, but this might be a bit much.

3. A fine rant from Nick Gillespie.

4. Fine quotes, including one from JJH, from the epigraph competition for the marginal revolution team's new textbooks.

5. One of the great things about being a parent is that you can buy toys you want on the pretense that they are for your child.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Brand loyalty and Chipotle

A campaign of resistance has been launched against the new ads and menu items from Chipotle by the folks at I quite liked the old ads as well - they were distinctive and fun and played a role in making the brand enjoyable for me.

At the same time, it is clear to me that chipotle needs to do something as it has passed its initial phase of hipness and rapid growth and entered into a more mature phase of business life. Starbuck's is facing much the same challenge at the moment as well. When Chipotle came to the strip mall by the University of Maryland's College Park campus when I was teaching there, it had lines out the door at lunchtime every single weekday that classes were in session for over a year. Now, partly this reflects the fact that the lunch options within walking distance of campus in College Park kinda suck. But there is more than that. The new Chipotle in Ann Arbor, amazingly the first within walking distance of central campus, never has more than four of five people in line when I go there to get lunch. There are people in the restaurant but I have never seen it particularly crowded.

I think the current Chipotle response to both changing economic circumstances and a new stage of the business life cycle is partly right and partly wrong. Introducing less expensive menu items makes sense during a recession and adding to the menu as a way of generating fresh interest makes sense more generally (though part of Chipotle's charm is its very simple menu). Abandoning the attitude that animated the earlier ad campaigns and helped to define and popularize the brand does not.

Culture clash in Chicago

Neither side comes out looking very good in this one, though my sense is that the folks at founding bloggers would differ with my view on that:

What it does illustrate is the cultural and intellectual chasm between the coastal elites and the flyover folks.

Assorted links

1. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Am I really linking to Maureen Dowd?

2. Hollywood, history and politics - in this case, pirate radio. This is why I rarely read historical novels or see movies based on historical events. I like to put an (admittedly somewhat artificial) wall between history and fiction in my cultural consumption.

3. Recessions have political consequences too.

4. Ohio state government out of control.

5. Ignatieff: Just visiting.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Markets in everything

Not one but two instances of young women selling their virginity.

One is a California co-ed, the other a Romanian woman studying in Germany. Putting aside why anyone would want to pay for what I recall as being rather awkward and painful, why are the prices so different? The difference in attractiveness is not large to my eye, and I can imagine, depending on the relative weights assigned to different attributes such as looks and intellect, that one could prefer either one of the two capitalist virgins (or, at this point, former virgins).

The tax rate on earnings from sex work in Germany seems awfully high given that one could make a case for substantial positive externalities from happier, less horny and less stressed men and from a reduced spread of STDs, where the latter would come about if sex workers are more careful about not catching things than are, say, women picked up in bars (and if this is the relevant margin rather than, say, going it alone). Estimating the social optimal tax rate on sex work (under an assumption of legality) would make an interesting exercise for a gradual student.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


I was always a bit puzzled by the presence of "Taxman" (one for you, 19 for me) among the Beatles' works, but I always liked the song.

My graduate school friend Nat Wilcox, who heard me remark on this theme at some point (and who, remarkably, remembers it now) pointed me to this post by someone I had not read before called Jay Cost, who is an ABD in political science at Chicago. The key paragraphs (at least in terms of this post):

[Obama] pulled a similar trick during the stimulus debate, which makes me think that it's time the President get a new speechwriter, or at least an editor - especially for topics where public debate is intense. Having it both ways like this just seems intellectually lazy, and it makes for a weaker argument. Either treat your opponents with the good faith assumption, or don't. You can't do both, especially in the same paragraph! No number of baroque flourishes about keeping the faith during the Revolution can change that.

And those flights of fancy are sure getting old, aren't they? They were great and all on the night of the Iowa Caucus, but it's been years of the same tune again and again. The Beatles had a string of big hits from 1963-65 that all sounded the same - but by '66 George was playing the sitar and bitching about taxes. That was a change for the better, and a lesson for the President.

I really like that line "playing the sitar and bitching about taxes".


Reader, friend and housing economist Austin Kelly picks up on my mention of bloggers doing original research and points me to these collected posts by the (sadly, late) Doris "Tanta" Dungey at the Calculated Risk blog.

Inside the mind of John Easton

Easton is in the process of being confirmed as the new head of the Institute for Education Sciences. I am told that he is likely to be both less dynamic and less controversial than former head Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, now at Brookings.

The remarks quoted in the Education Week piece
One thing that I would like to see as a real priority for myself is to look carefully over the last six years and ask under what circumstances, and under what conditions, are particular kinds of research strategies and methodologies most likely to give the most information.
are a bit worrisome to me.

I would focus IES entirely on two things: data collection and experimental evaluations. These are the thing that are under-produced in the broader education literature. Both are also public goods, and so there is some justification for government to produce them. Put differently, Easton should focus not on balancing the IES research portfolio but the overall research portfolio.

Hat tip: friend at big IES contractor

Movie: Angels and Demons

This movie is based on the book Dan Brown wrote and published before the Da Vinci Code, though in the movie the action in the Da Vinci Code is assumed to precede Angels and Demons.

I had the same reaction that I usually have when I see movies having already read the book (e.g. Dune, Lord of the Rings), which is that the movie is much too short and loses a lot of the interesting texture. Some pretty large chunks from book are missing here, including the whole sub-plot about the news media and that involving Vetra's father.

This is medium grade Hollywood action fluff. Recommended if you are into that.

Book: Without Feathers by Woody Allen

I got this at a used book sale on campus in hard cover for 75 cents.

It is from the early 70s so it is a very different Woody Allen than the one currently making movies. Some of the pieces seem a bit forced - I expect they are taken too directly from stand up routines. Some of the others are just wonderful. I laughed the most at "If the Impressionists had Been Dentists" and also quite enjoyed the two short plays "Death" and "God".

Recommended if you like the "early, funny" movies.

Movie: Star Trek

I do not recall a Hollywood movie ever getting ratings this high on rotten tomatoes.

I liked it a lot too. It does an amazingly good job of capturing the spirit of the original series which to my mind has always been the best (though holding this view requires not putting too much weight on the quality of the acting). The idea of starting the original characters off on a different timeline is also very clever, as it limits the amount of effort at continuity they have to put into future movies. There are plenty of touches to please the hard core - like including Captain Pike (and, apparently, a tribble, though I missed this) - but the movie is also, I would think, accessible to those who only know Star Trek from the bits that have reached popular culture at large.

This will brand me as a nerd forever (too late, I know), but I really enjoyed this movie. Some of that is person-specific as Star Trek has both a nostalgia element for me and reminds me of my father but some of it is because this is just a lot of fun.

Bonus: Greg Mankiw discusses the role of economics in Vulcan education.

Bonus: NYT review. I am starting to like the NYT film reviewer. Oh dear.

Bonus: Star Trek (2009) movie wikipedia page.

Randy Barnett's libertarian wish list

Though labeled as a "Bill of Federalism" (as in "Bill of Rights") these suggested 10 constitutional amendments go well beyond federalism, narrowly defined.

The proposed amendments are quite a mixed bag:

Amendment 2 really just undoes the ahistorical reading of the commerce clause enshrined in Wickard v. Filburn. This ruling, indirectly a gift of FDR, essentially wrote all limits on federal activity out of the constitution. Reading this case in Mike McConnell's constitutional law class at Chicago, which I audited (but did all the readings for) as a graduate student was a real eye-opener for me. It was then that I realized that the court really just was making it up when they cared to and that, as the song goes, "all the crap I learned in high school" was just that.

Amendments 3 and 4 are very directly about federalism and seem to me to aim at restoring the balance between states and the federal government envisioned by the framers. No one very much seems to recall that the constitution was originally a contract among sovereign states and thus more like the EU in some ways than like the present US.

I am not sure that the empirical case for term limits, embodied in Amendment 7, has really been made. It might be better to enforce limits on the process of defining districts to make more of them competitive or to require instant runoff voting.

I think that Amendment 8's tying of the line-item budget veto to the state of the national debt is very clever, though the devel would be in the details here as the court and congress could conspire to undermine this via determinations of what is and what is not counted as public debt. Can borrowing escape this limit by being labeled a "trust fund"?

Overall, though, quite thought provoking.

I crossed paths with Randy a few times in graduate school when he was at UIC. My recollection is that he usually had two or three attractive female followers. Life is good as a libertarian law professor!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Assorted links

The folks at marginal revolution offer up an informal theory of assorted links. I have avoided such posts though I am not quite clear on why, as I like them on other blogs. It might be that I somehow feel obliged to comment on everything I post, though I suppose the fact that I choose to link to something is itself a comment.

So, in their spirit of their post, some assorted links:

1. "Overheard in NY" greatest hits page.

2. "Overheard in Ann Arbor" which is less funny and where no one has posted in two years!

3. Tips on making conversation with a stranger. (hat tip: instapundit)

4. Pew forum on changing religions in the US (we are a great big outlier here)

5. The British National Party is incompetent. Who would have guessed?

I'll do some more of these in a spirit of catching up on my backlog of cool links.

More NYT fun

The NYT reporter's sad story of easy credit and good intentions leading to financial disaster that I linked to a couple weeks ago turns out to be only partly true; instead, it appears to have been rewritten in ways that would increase book sales and protect his wife's reputation.

This all works on multiple levels, as it relates not just to the financial crisis but also to my post yesterday about saving the newspapers. In particular, we have (another) NYT reporter kinda making it up, and a blogger doing real reporting.

Hat tip: Dan Black

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The many uses of neoclassical bank buildings

From Slate, some photos of the reuse of old bank buildings.

Most of the old bank buildings in Ann Arbor are from the 70s and so not quite so pretty.

Cool Brittania

A photo tour of the wild side of the UK. The photos are of Cardiff but I have seen the same sorts of things in London and Newcastle.

Hat tip: Good S**t blog

Save the newspapers!

There has been a lot of chatter about the demise of the newspaper industry of late, along with various policy proposals from the left to prop it up.

There is a fine post from reason here, complete with a video that manages to indirectly make the important point that this is in large part a generational issue. Old people want to keep newspapers around because they are used to them. Young people don't because they don't read them anyway.

I would add three additional points:

First, the name for the political philosophy that seeks to avoid institutional change is conservatism. These days, in the US, the left is at least as conservative as the right, as it leads the charge to preserve old industries like autos and newspapers in their present form, both for narrow political reasons and, I think, because the left (like the right) is full of people who just generally fear change.

Second, the newspaper industry did not exactly highlight its role as a the great guardian of democracy during the most recent presidential campaign. It is hard to speak truth to power when you are on your knees in front of one of the candidates and your mouth is full.

Third, almost all of this discussion ignores the history of the American newspaper industry. The animating ideology of professional objectivity and public service that has been put forth by highbrow print journalists as differentiating them from the on-line and cable masses is only a few decades old. During the most lively period of American democracy, things looked a lot more like the chaotic intellectual foodfight that is the internet and cable than like the staid pages of the mid-century NYT or WaPo. I think we'll be just fine on this score. Indeed, given that the highbrow media never actually were objective (and were often just carrying water for those in power), I think we are better off with multiple views that are clearly and obviously different than with one view that pretends to be objective but is not. One might even call this transformation change we can believe in.

I think this post from newser rather sums it all up.

Farrell's theme song

We had our own version of the words to this song back in my Farrell's days in high school. I don't remember them all, but I do remember that one line was "Walk in the door, slip on the floor". You can hear the real words by following the link.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dog bites man

It turns out that police in Mississippi are not so good at the whole "rights" thing.

Who knew?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

EU awareness training

A Danish politician suggests that members of the Danish parliament know too little about the EU and so should receive mandatory training about it in Brussells.

Good bit:
The Danish People’s Party’s Søren Espersen says such a study tour is unnecessary. “We know enough about the EU. We don’t need to know any more. Christel Schaldemose feels insulted because I was in a survey and couldn’t remember everyone in the European Parliament. But it’s not my fault that EU politicians aren’t any good at getting into the newspapers,” says Espersen adding that his party gets a lot of information about what is going on in the European Union.
I can only imagine what fun it would be spending a week learning the details of EU parliamentary and administrative institutions, though there would be the compensation of good Belgian chocolates.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Daily life in Ann Arbor

I heard the best Ann Arbor story from one our graduate students yesterday. For the purposes of the story, let's call the student Lee.

Lee noticed a plastic bag hanging from a tree branch next door. A bit of investigation revealed that a message was written on the bag asking that it not be thrown out. A peek inside the bag revealed what appeared to be a dead rooster.

Lee, thinking something must surely be amiss about all this, called the police. A female police officer arrived, took the bag down, and opened it. Rather than one dead rooster it turned out to contain a set of dead rooster heads. Lee and the police officer threw the bag, and the rooster heads, into a nearby dumpster.

The next day, the neighbor came by to let Lee know that the rooster heads were hers. She wanted them to decompose in the bag so that she could use the skulls in an art project. The neighbor indicated that she considered letting Lee know about them, but then decided not to. Upon hearing Lee's story about calling the police, the neighbor said the same thing happened to a friend of hers who also does art with skulls.

Lee offered to reimburse her neighbor for the skulls (do we have nice gradual students, or what?) but the offer was declined.

Posted with permission.

History and financial crises

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson on financial crises in the NYT.

My favorite bit:
"The reality is that crises are more often caused by bad regulation than by deregulation." [Italics in original]
That's the thermostat model of regulation he is making light of, and with good reason.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Refridgerator voyeurism

Are you what you eat, or what you leave to spoil in the fridge?

Hat tip: Good s**t blog

Defining feminism

The Guardian reports on the on-going battle between sex-positive and sex-negative versions of feminism or, framed differently, between individualist and collectivist visions of female empowerment.

Key bits:
Julie Bindel, a feminist campaigner and journalist, admitted being infuriated by women like Egan and Tkacik. "Feminism is not the freedom to act like a dickhead," she said. "These women are individualists, not feminists. They are lazy, bone-idle women who have no interest taking part in a political movement for change but are trying to get credibility for their selfish lives by playing identification politics. You can't claim to be a feminist simply because you're a woman."
Ellie Levenson, author of the forthcoming book The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism, is also critical of Hirshman's definition of "good" and "bad" feminism. "A lot of the criticism against Jezebel is against women being open about their sexual antics," she said. "Feminism is about women choosing how to behave and having the same rights and freedoms to behave badly as men do, so in order to make these choices we need to be able to read about women who have made all kinds of choices."
Worth a look for those into such things, though the article itself does not know as much feminist history as it thinks it does. There is a rich vein of individualist feminism going well back into the 1800s, a vein that is tied up in interesting ways with spiritualism, free love and other 19th century enthusiasms.

Jezebel link here.

Movie: Is Anybody There?

As English as "Shall We Kiss" is French, this film stars Michael Caine as a regretful, retired magician who helps the life-after-death-obsessed son of the family that runs his old folks home grow up a bit. Michael Caine is (typically) excellent. The actors playing the couple who run the old folks home do a good job as well, though they do not get much of the spotlight.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Legalize freedom

Nick Gillespie pens a fine op-ed in the NYT on the theme that the government should legalize and tax drugs, gambling and prostitution. Well, yeah.

The commenters at the reason blog are all in a tizzy about Nick saying something nice about FDR and talking positively about tax revenues and such but in my view Nick is right on target. He is doing the amazing trick (for a libertarian) of actually trying to change the minds of people who do not already agree with him, specifically NYT readers most of whom will hold the commonplace views that FDR was a great president and that more tax revenues are a good thing.

I am, though, professionally obliged to point out that while the drug, gambling and prostitution prohibitions surely generate large deadweight losses, transfers to cops are not among them, not because such transfers do not occur, they surely do. Rather, transfers are just that, transfers, and not deadweight losses.

How to write a movie review

This NYT review of the new Dan Brown book-movie Angels and Demons, which stars Tom Hanks as nerdy adventurer Robert Langdon and is directed by Ron Howard, made me laugh out loud not once but several times and is worth reading even if you have a zero probability of actually watching the movie.

My favorite paragraph:
This movie, without being particularly good, is nonetheless far less hysterical than “Da Vinci.” Its preposterous narrative, efficiently rendered by the blue-chip screenwriting team of Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, unfolds with the locomotive elegance of a Tintin comic or an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Mr. Howard’s direction combines the visual charm of mass-produced postcards with the mental stimulation of an easy Monday crossword puzzle. It could be worse.
We have not seen Angels and Demons yet, but probably will in the next week or two. I'll post my own thoughts then.

Hat tip: Grant McCracken

A more entertaining cultural revolution

The Guardian reports that China is opening its first sex theme park, though I'll confess that the description given in the article does not make it sounds like much fun. What sort of sex theme park lacks strip clubs (of all flavors, of course) and high end massage parlors?

Oh, and you can learn about Jeju Loveland, the Korean sex park mentioned in the Guardian piece, here. It looks like more fun than the Chinese park, but still, one could do better.

Hat tip: marginal revolution

Charging for jobs

You can pay $13K to work for a rich person - namely Adriana Huffington - this summer.

Oh joy.

Hat tip: Nat Wilcox

College as consumption

This piece in the (soon-to-be-gone) Ann Arbor News on the growth in the high-end student apartment market highlights something that often gets forgotten in discussions of higher education policy, which is that college represents both consumption and investment, with the relative proportions varying both across colleges and across students within colleges. For this reason, policies that subsidize the consumption aspects of college, such as income-contingent student loans, and policies that do not try to sort students based on their consumption-investment tradeoff, such as low posted price tuition levels for all students, may represent bad choices relative to policies such as high posted tuition prices combined with student loans available to all and grants and other financial aid aimed at disadvantaged students interested in college as an investment.

At the least, the fact that college has an important consumption role for many students needs to play a role in thinking about higher education finance and and higher education policy more generally. There is nothing wrong with college students having fun (and, indeed, much to recommend it) or enjoying lifestyle amenities, but there is little reason for the taxpaying public to subsidize these aspects of the experience.

UM endowment - a number at last

I've been watching for an exact number on UM's endowment hit from the financial crisis and related recession. Thursday's Ann Arbor News provided one: the UM endowment lost about $2 billion in the last six months of 2008, and now stands at around $5.6 billion. Ouch!

On the other hand, the endowment had run up a lot in the preceding couple of years, so it is just back to around where it was when I came to Michigan four years ago. Not great news but not disaster either.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cheering Mugabe

That Mugabe is even invited to Zuma's inauguration, let alone given an ovation, almost defies comment.

Why, again, is Mugabe not in a prison cell?

And what were the South Africans thinking?

Naughty books?

The American Prospect reviews new biographies of feminist (?) Helen Gurley Brown and of sex researchers Masters and Johnson.

Wolfram | Alpha

A cool new resource to explore. Screencast here.

It is weak on sports - no college football scores that I could find.

It is also weak on popular culture type stuff. For example, Jessica Cutler is identified as a "blogger" and Larry Flynt as a "businessperson"; beyond that for both you get only middle names and date of birth.

My social science test - "National Supported Work Demonstration" also came up dry.

Hat tip: Marginal Revolution via Dan Black

Friday, May 15, 2009

Prostitution on Craig's List: the saga continues

Craig's list is going to drop their "erotic services" section, which will become "adult services" with all of the ads vetted in person by little Craigslisters. The pretext is that this will somehow make it harder for pathological types to find people to murder.

No doubt the next time someone uses a car they purchase on Craig's list in a crime they will change the name of the section of the website in which cars are sold and start monitoring those ads all by hand as well.

And how about that Richard Blumenthal, attorney general of the great (but very small) state of Connecticut:

The "erotic services" section will end within seven days and be replaced with a new section called "adult services" where every advertisement will be manually reviewed by Craigslist staff, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in a statement.

In April, Blumenthal had asked Craigslist officials to eliminate photographs in the "erotic services" and similar sections of the site, hire staff to screen ads that blatantly violate Craigslist rules and offer incentives for people who flag and report prostitution advertisements.

I am sure that the residents of Connecticut are happy to know that the most imporant issue facing their attorney general is salacious pictures on Craig's List as apparently Mr. Blumenthal has already dealt successfully with all the murders, rapes, arsons, robberies, assaults and political scandals in Connecticut that might otherwise occupy his valuable time.

Methinks Mr. Blumenthal is more interested in press coverage and higher office than actually doing his job (which, of course, makes him quite typical for a state attorney general).

Movie: Shall We Kiss?

We saw Shall We Kiss a few days ago at the Michigan Theater.

It is a French romantic comedy, though less of a comedy than we were expecting when we went in. On the plus side, the actors are top notch (and gorgeous), the cinematography delicious and the writing most excellent. More ambiguously, most of the behavior in the movie would be both implausible and inexplicable were all the characters not French.

At some level, this movie makes the same point as the tale of financial disaster linked to in the previous post: doing things that you know to be foolish in advance is unlikely to lead to good outcomes. So in that sense this movie is a morality play as well, though I do not think that is how it is intended.

Mildly recommended

Applied magical thinking

A NYT reporter shows why evidence-based policymaking is important at home too.

The article gives the shorter version of his self-induced decline into financial doom; there is a book to buy as well if you want to help out with the now-very-delinquent mortgage.

I simply can't imagine being this foolish. What are people thinking?

Hat tip: Greg Mankiw's blog (via Dan Black)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dell follows up

To their credit, Dell tracked down my blog post (though not the follow-up) and sent me the email below.

I wonder if I could change my title from "Professor" to "Economic Research Evangelist"?



Sorry to hear about your recent experience with Dell computers sales, as described in the following post:

Have you been able to get in contact with correct sales department at this time?


Chris Byrd
Digital Life Evangelist
Dell Social Media Team
Phone: ****
Mobile: ****
Email: ****

Dell always strives to improve! Please send feedback to my manager ****

A history lesson about newspapers

You can learn a lot from history. In this case, history sheds some light on the current (rather silly) handwringing about the demise of daily newspapers.

Graduation falls

In the spirit of the season, the "15 best" graduation falls.

Hat tip: "Good Sh*t" blog

Posner on "conservatism"

Judge Richard Posner's blog post on the decline of "conservatism" has attracted a lot of attention in the blogosphere.

One much quoted bit has it that:

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

I agree with much of what Posner has to say but think he also confuses some issues due to a lack of careful definition of terms and a failure to attend properly to intellectual history. The post-war right in the United States combined social conservatives with economic liberals (in the classical sense of the term). Contra Posner's post, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and George Stigler were never conservatives in any meaningful sense, they were classical liberals or libertarians. Hayek even penned a chapter in his book the Constitution of Liberty entitled "Why I am Not a Conservative". These two socially, intellectually and culturally disparate groups were united by two things: the battle against communism and the fact that, unless they combined in a tactical alliance, they could not possibly make any headway against the then-hegemonic force of what I like to call the establishment left.

The establishment left gradually lost its influence for the reasons outlined in Posner's post. Communism passed into the dustbin of history during the Bush I administration (despite his best efforts to prop it up in the name of stability). Since that time, the anti-communist coalition has come undone, as there is nothing to keep it together. Economic liberals have either had to suck it up, as some Chicago economists did by serving in the decidedly anti-intellectual Bush II administration, or retreat to more academic pursuits.

Because economic liberals made up much of the intellectual heft of the old anti-communist coalition, with Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley as notable exceptions, their departure or retreat into more academic pursuits has left a real void, though one that I think Posner somewhat overstates by neglecting, for example, his Chicago law school colleague Richard Epstein, economist-blogger Tyler Cowen and so on. I think Posner also forgets that the social conservatives have always been deeply populist and anti-intellectual. William Jennings Bryan had many (many) more followers than Russell Kirk ever had readers, as did Father Coughlin. Social conservatives, and populists more broadly, have also always been deeply suspicious of aspects of economic liberalism, as was illustrated in the recent failed presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee.

What will happen now is indeed an interesting question. There remain plenty of economic liberals. Many hang out with the democrats because they cannot abide the social conservatives who now dominate the republican party. The US political system militates strongly against third parties and, in any case, there will never be enough thoroughgoing liberals to allow the electoral success of even a moderate version of the liberatarian party. At the same time, the current democrat coalition is riven by contradictions between working class, socially conservative and economically illiterate but pro-growth rust belt voters and socially liberal, anti-growth, "new class" coastal voters. Is it a stable coaltion? For now it is as they party together in a collective spending binge but probably not for the long term.

We live in interesting times indeed.

Farrell's comeback begins?

Farrell's announces the first new non-franchise store in a long, long time.

I worked at the Farrell's in the Southcenter Mall in Seattle in high school and the early years of college. Farrell's is an 1890's theme ice cream parlor chain that started in Portland, Oregon and once stretched across the country.

Three days after I took the job at Farrell's in the late spring of 1979 I got an offer to work at a bookstore. I have always been glad that I stuck with Farrell's (even though it went strongly against type) because of all I learned, including both a lot of labor economics and how to get along well with the stoner / party crowd that largely ran the restaurant. Employees who could function on Saturday and Sunday mornings were particularly valued at my store.

Oh, and I still have my hat and little tie.

Ann Arbor readers may be surprised to know that there was once at Farrell's at Briarwood Mall.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Distributed knowledge

A reader emailed me what I was looking for in regard to Dell's higher education discounts - namely the website - less than 20 minutes after my post.

Too bad the Dell employees were not trained to do this.

Dell shows how not to sell computers

8:20:21 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
Initial Question/Comment:
8:21:21 PM System System
Thanks for choosing chat for your Dell Purchase needs. A chat agent will be with you shortly.
8:21:41 PM System System
You are being transferred to another Agent. Please stand by...
8:21:46 PM System System
You are now being connected to an agent. Thank you for using Dell Chat
8:21:47 PM System System
Connected with E&A_Mary_Ann
8:21:51 PM Agent E&A_Mary_Ann
Welcome to Dell Consumer Solutions Sales Chat! I hope you are doing well and thank you for waiting. My name is Mary Ann and I will be your Sales Agent today. Feel free to provide your phone number so that I can contact you if we get disconnected. How can I help you today?
8:22:52 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
I have two questions. First, I am a professor at the University of Michigan. When I was on the Dell site a couple of months ago shopping I found a way to get a higher education discount. Despite 45 minutes of looking tonight I have not been able to replicate that experience. Did the site change or am I just not looking in the right place?
8:23:37 PM Agent E&A_Mary_Ann
yes we can have an employee discount applied to your purchase
8:23:47 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
How do I do that with an online order?
8:23:52 PM Agent E&A_Mary_Ann
if i may ask, what are you trying or interested to purchase?
8:24:08 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
I want to purchase an Optiplex 960.
8:24:48 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
Also, just to be clear, this is a purchase for use at home and not with university funds.
8:25:07 PM Agent E&A_Mary_Ann
yes i understand, i see that you are interested to purchase a system, i would suggest that you contact our system sales dept. as they can assist you with your concern, they could also customize a system that would fit your needs and may reach them at 1-800-897-3355
8:25:44 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
OK ... I am extra confused now. Is this not possible to do online?
8:26:02 PM Agent E&A_Mary_Ann
yes, i can transfer you to one if you like
8:26:11 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
8:26:43 PM Agent E&A_Mary_Ann
please do stayonline while i transfer you to one
8:27:28 PM System System
You are being transferred to another Agent. Please stand by...
8:27:28 PM System System
E&A_Mary_Ann has left this session!
8:27:38 PM System System
You are now being connected to an agent. Thank you for using Dell Chat
8:27:38 PM System System
Connected with BE_Rep_Sudave
8:28:08 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
Welcome to Dell's XPS Sales Chat! I hope you are doing well and thank you for waiting. My name is Alex and I will be your personal sales agent today. Feel free to email me at or leave me a message at 1800-379-3355 ext. 2160085, from 8AM CST – 12 CST. Please provide your e-mail address and phone number where I can contact you in case we get disconnected. How may I help you with your purchase today?
8:28:57 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
hi Mary ann!
8:29:01 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
your dad
8:29:14 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
I am a professor at the U of Michigan interested in ordering a system for use at home to be paid for with my own funds. My understanding is that I am eligible for a higher education discount but I could not figure out how to get it online.
8:29:18 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
i'm sorry for that
8:29:21 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
Oh, and I am Jeff - Mary Ann is gone.
8:29:44 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
oh, Hi jeff!
8:30:54 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
have you heard of our Dell preferred account?
8:31:16 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
8:31:40 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
When I was poking around on the site a couple of months ago I found a way to do it but could not replicate it this evening.
8:31:54 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
Just to make sure you are aware of all your options, the Dell Preferred Account is a revolving account which allows you to pay for your purchase all at once or gives you the flexibility to make monthly payments. With this account there are no prepayment penalties and you may qualify for promotions and discounts off future purchases. Also we are currently running No Interest offers on our XPS systems for qualified customers.Here is the link if you would like to see if you qualify:
8:31:55 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
I am guessing that the site changed in the interim.
8:32:33 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
Let's figure out how to get the discount first.
8:33:20 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
well, discounts change every week. are you planning on getting a laptop or a desktop?
8:33:41 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
My understanding was that there was an ongoing discount for people employed in higher education. Is that incorrect?
8:33:46 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
I am looiking for a laptop today.
8:34:11 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
Sorry, desktop.
8:36:11 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
okay, is there a specific desktop you would like to purchase?
8:36:30 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
I would like to replicate the computer I just got at work, which is an Optiplex 960
8:38:17 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
Okay, have you seen a dell computer to compare?
8:38:58 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
I am not sure what you mean. I would like to buy the same computer I have at work, which I am now familiar with having used it for several weeks.
8:41:23 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
Jeff that is only available in the business department. Is it okay if I transfer you to them?
8:43:17 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
To be honest, I have kind of had it for the night. Maybe I'll try again tomorrow, maybe I will look at other brands. 90 minutes ago I when I started I was ready to buy, now I am completely frustrated and unimpressed.
8:44:09 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
I understand that you were passed on from one department to the other.
8:44:36 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
Its just that their are particular models available for each department.
8:45:58 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
First I spend 45 minutes on the website not finding what I wanted, then I got on chat, got someone who did not really respond to my questions then I got transfered to you and had to repeat all the same information (and deal with responses that seemed unrelated to my questions) and now you want to transfer me again. After all that, I am no closer than when I started, as I still do not even know how to find the higher education discount on the web page, which is my primary question.
8:46:04 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
I promise you that the business department would be more than happy to accommodate you.
8:46:59 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
does your dad need wireless connectiion?
8:47:15 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
Given that my dad died several years ago, I am guessing probably not.
8:47:19 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
I am so sorry for that
8:48:04 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
I know that its very frustrating.
8:48:19 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
It shouldn't be this hard.
8:48:40 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
And you should answer people's questions before you start trying to market revolving credit to them.
8:48:51 PM Agent BE_Rep_Sudave
but if you are willing to let me transfer you, i'm sure that you would finally get to purchase the system that you want
8:49:15 PM Customer Jeffrey Smith
Sure, why not.
8:50:52 PM System System
You are being transferred to another queue. Please stand by...
8:50:52 PM System System
BE_Rep_Sudave has left this session!

It is now 9:10 PM and no one ever showed up.