Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Kathy Terrell, RIP

My colleague, neighbor and friend Kathy Terrell has passed on.

From the IZA email:

Katherine Terrell was a Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and a Professor of Public Policy Analysis at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. She published widely in the areas of economic development and labor economics. Her research evaluated the impact of government policies and the effect of globalization on wages, employment, income inequality and firm performance in emerging market economies. She also served as a consultant to various international organizations such as the World Bank, the OECD and the EBRD.

Those who knew her will always remember Kathy's warm personality and outstanding professional qualities. We are completely shocked by this horrible news. Our thoughts are with her family.


Addendum: Ford School tribute.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More on the TSA reaction

As usual, the economist says it best.

I particularly agree with this fellow:

I'll leave you with this, from Mr Schneier, responding to some of the new restrictions: "I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks." That would be nice.

Ann Arbor's Dumbest Robbers

All you need to know:

According to the police, the two victims were sitting in a car in the 400 block of South Forest Avenue, near the University of Michigan Central Campus, when the two suspects robbed them of an undisclosed amount of cash around 6 p.m. Sunday.

Officers were able to follow footprints in the snow to a residence, where the two suspects were arrested. They are charged with armed robbery and various firearms offenses.

They should probably also be charged with being too hopeless to survive without supervision.

Full article (which is not much longer than my excerpt) here.

Bad behavior from 3ie

This is from my holiday email from 3ie, an organization (that I am usually quite happy with) that promotes rigorous evaluation and evidence-based policy in the developing world. The figure in the graph embodies one of the tricks that Huff complains about in his classic book How to Lie with Statistics, which is shaving the vertical access so as to visually overstate the amount of change in the dependent variable.


Monday, December 28, 2009

New show at the Security Theater

TSA reacts to Nigeria's Dumbest Terrorist with a bunch of unrelated and idiotic new rules because it positively must appear to be doing SOMETHING however inane.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fun with Simpson's paradox

This WSJ pieces does a fine job of showing that sub-groups matter, especially, as in the kidney stone treatment example, when they are endogenous.

There is some implicit confusion here about education and unemployment. College graduates pretty much always have the lowest unemployment rate (they also have the highest opportunity cost of being unemployed). Does the fact that their rate is higher now than in the 1982 recession mean that the current recession is worse or that the now more numerous college graduates are a less selected, and so perhaps less able on average, group, and that both education and ability matter for the probability of unemployment?

Hat tip: my colleague Lones Smith

Movie: Sherlock Holmes

Great fun yesterday evening at Sherlock Holmes. I've never actually read any of the original stories (!) so I cannot vouch for the amount of veracity or the lack of it, but this was a fine Hollywood bit of fluff with lots of wonderful scenes of old London (including an action sequences on the still-under-construction Tower Bridge) to appeal to my Anglophile side.

Recommended as light entertainment.

Request for advice: seminar style class with 30 students?

So I am teaching a new course this coming semester. It is on the topic of evaluating social programs (surprise, surprise) and will be a scaled-up version of a class that I taught twice at Western Ontario with about 10 students each time and have taught twice at Michigan with five and then with 16 students.

In thinking about how to scale up the class to 30 students from 10-15 there are two main issues. The class is based mainly on student presentations of actual evaluations drawn from the literature followed by class discussion. With 10-15 students every student can present at least once, there is enough time for every student to participate in the discussion at least a bit and the threat of public embarrassment if I "cold call" on a student during the discussion suffices to insure that most students read the papers most of the time.

With 30 students, there are not enough class sessions in a semester for every student to present at least once (even without accounting for the fact that I lecture for the first couple of weeks to provide a common foundation of knowledge). One option to deal with this is not to have all students do presentations - those who do not could, say, participate by being formal discussants or simply have their grade based entirely on the paper and on their participation in the discussions. Alternatively, I could have the student do the presentations in groups of some sort, such as pairs or even trios. If I do down that road, I then have to come up with a way to form the groups. Unlike the honors students at UWO, who took all of their classes together and knew each other pretty well, most of the students in my class will not know any of the other students well, so letting them form their own groups is not really feasible.

With 30 students, I also need some other mechanism to make sure that all of the students read the papers, as it is no longer possible for all the students to talk about each paper during the discussion or for me to cold call enough student to get the embarrassment threat level up high enough to guarantee that they will do the reading. Options here include having each student write a one page summary and comments about each paper, which would be graded by the teaching assistant (perhaps only at random) and having each student prepare discussant remarks, with the discussant then chosen at random during class. The problem with random discussant assignment is that some students will get picked more than once and some not at all. If I just randomize the order, then students who do their discussions early know that they do not have to prepare the rest of the time.

So I am puzzled as to the best course on both fronts. Suggestions welcome, either in the comments (open but totally unused for several months now) or by email.

Sissies at Yale

This bit of campus political correctness is pretty sad.

Soft corruption, Canadian style ...

... at the Niagara Parks Commission.

The last few paragraphs, detailing the Globe and Mail's interview with long-time commission member Archie Katzman, are truly charming.

Newspapers (and blogs, and television stations) should do more of this sort of reporting. My sense is that this sort of minor corruption is all over in state (or provincial, if you please) and local governments as well as park districts, port commissions and all the rest.

Prohibition still doesn't work

Some evidence from the Great White North, as described in the Globe and Mail.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Two more on Samuelson

Greg Mankiw, whose textbook has, I think, assumed the market leader role once occupied by Samuelson, offers some memories of his interactions with Samuelson.

The economist provides a nice obituary but without quite enough annotation. The remark from Samuelson about "economics in one lesson" is a slam on Henry Hazlitt's book of the same title, which sold a lot of copies about half a century ago.

The Economist suggests that Samuelson's book was too positive about the ability of the economy to find an equilibrium on its own. Putting aside the misunderstanding of how economists think about equilibrium implicit in this claim, I would have thought that the main problem with Samuelson's text was the howlers it contained in its pre-end-of-communism discussions of comparative systems. In that regard, consider
The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a Socialist command economy can function and even thrive" (Samuelson, 13th ed., page 837, quoted in Skousen).
A perfect genius would, of course, be a boring genius, so we should appreciate Samuelson and pay attention to both his successes and his blind spots as we seek to profit from his example.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Warsh on Samuelson

A very nice obit for Paul Samuelson by David Warsh at Economics Principals.

I particularly liked this anecdote:
Paul Samuelson truly was the smartest guy in the room – with the exception of the occasional meetings with John von Neumann. From the beginning he enjoyed a reputation as an enfant terrible. The joke was that when he defended his dissertation, one professor on Samuelson’s committee asked him, “Did we pass?” He was no easier on the investors and financiers whose practices he studied.
It would be interesting to see someone address the question of which of his two most famous books, Foundations or his undergraduate text, was ultimately more important.


A very nice piece by Julian Sanchez, formerly of Reason, on what ails conservatism.

I like this bit in particular:
Conservatism is a political philosophy; the farce currently performing under that marquee is an inferiority complex in political philosophy drag.
I don't think the left really understands both how disrespectful they are to social conservatives and that it is the disrespect that drives a lot of the opposition to things like gay marriage.

Sometimes being nice to people you disagree with is both the right thing to do and the best way to get what you want.


Happy Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gelman on Becker and Dubner

One reason I enjoy reading Andrew Gelman is that he thinks about some of the same statistical issues that I do.

Another is that he is a really smart fellow who does not think like an economist but still reads and comments on economics articles and blogs. Today's example is his long, and misguided, criticism of a statement of Becker's, repeated by Dubner, that
According to the economic approach, therefore, most (if not all!) deaths are to some extent "suicides" in the sense that they could have been postponed if more resources had been invested in prolonging life.
What Becker is really saying is that people have things other than just duration of life in their utility function. What could be less controversial than that? The wording in the quotation serves the pedagogical purpose of highlighting an implication of the fact that we care about things other than just quantity of life, namely that we all choose to have shorter lifetimes, in an expected value sense, than we would if that were the only thing we were maximizing.

This seems completely obvious to me, but then I am an economist!

One might go farther and note problems with Gelman's criticisms:

1. Gelman argues against the "all" in favor of the "most" by noting that some people really do die in accidents even if they only have duration of life in their utility functions. I agree but think that the "all" is not intended seriously in the original statement.

2. Gelman argues that some methods that directly prolong life might have indirect effects that cause them on net to decrease expected length of life. This is surely true, but to the extent that agents understand this they are not behaving rationally in undertaking such methods. As such, this criticism is beside the point unless accompanied by an argument that agents have already undertaken all actions that yield a net increase in duration of life. And that is clearly false, as Gelman would surely agree.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Health care legislation and populism

Jay Cost has a nice piece on the popular rebellion against the current version of the health care legislation.

The legislation is indeed a mess but I would be happier if the opposition was based on a clear understanding of what a thoughtful reform bill would look like.

Movie: Me and Orson Welles

We saw Me and Orson Welles on Sunday at the Michigan Theater and got their early enough to listen to the pipe organ for a while, which is surely an appropriate prelude for a movie set in 1937.

I can't add much to the fine review from the NYT.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Student loan defaults and performance management

Determining which colleges, public or private, have default rates that are "too high" is, as this NYT article suggests, a tricky problem. The University of Michigan has a very low default rate on student loans but Michigan is taking in high ability, high motivation people who will have little trouble finding a job even if they do not finish their degrees. These are very different than the sort of people who are attending the upper end of the proprietary school market (e.g. DeVry and U of Phoenix) and even more different from the lower end of that market (e.g. truck driving schools that advertise at 3 AM on ESPN).

What would be useful here is a regulation that embodied adjustments for the characteristics of the students admitted. Then colleges could be rewarded or punished based not on their absolute performance, which reflects both the population they serve and how they serve it, but instead on their performance relative to what one would expect given the characteristics of their students. Such an adjustment mechanism has been used for federal job training programs in the past.

My friends Carolyn Heinrich and Burt Barnow have written a whole paper on performance standards adjustment.

Also, it is important to note that, particularly in a program that is designed to help those who are otherwise credit constrained make investments in their human capital, the optimal default rate is not zero. An interesting paper idea would be to try and sort out the optimal default rate given evidence from the literature about the relevant elasticities for different types of students, the value of the human capital that might be obtained and so on.

Hat tip: Brian McCall's blog

Paul Samuelson RIP

Here is the NYT obituary and here are some memories from Greg Mankiw.

Everything you read and hear about his influence on how economists do their work is right.

More on Art Goldberger

Tim Smeeding of the Institute for Research on Poverty has posted the very moving email he got from Art's daughter (a forwarded version of which was the source of my original post) in the comments section at marginal revolution.

Estimate quality and task difficulty

Estimates of the number of people who will show up at the UN climate conference this week: not so good, despite the UN having issued credentials to most of them

Estimates of global temperatures 100 years in the future: spot on

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie: Invictus

What to say about this movie, which we saw at the local multiplex tonight?

Here is the NYT review. Mr. Scott likes it better than I did by a fair bit, but I am not sure if that is because he feels compelled to applaud a movie about good things happening in South Africa, or compelled to like Clint Eastwood's direction, or actually believes what he wrote about liking the movie.

Yes, Morgan Freeman provides a compelling performance as Mandela, and yes, it could have been a lot worse, as most movies in this genre are much worse than this one. There are bits of realism here and there as, for example, some hints are dropped that Mandela can be a bit preachy at times, and that maybe this is why he does not see as much of his family as he would like. And the feel good stuff between the black and white security officers is understated relative to the norm for this sort of thing. Still there is no shortage of high fructose Hollywood corn syrup here, more than I really care for. Crisper editing, and a marginally shorter film, would have helped as well.

Recommended for those in need of uplift.

Christmas comes early in Seattle, again!

Jake Locker returns to play his senior year at Washington.

Hat tip: Ken Troske

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thought for the day

"Tis the season to be jolly"

When is it not?

Hat tip: Dave Bell


I am a big fan of puns as are several of my colleagues. I should note in particular that Jim Hines is a most excellent creator of puns.

In that regard, I have added the "that's punny" blog to the list on the right of my blog page.

It currently features the "Gnome Chomsky" garden accessory.

Things university administrators worry about ...

... at the University of Michigan.

But an honor code violation? I wonder if failing to wash your hands is now an honor code violation as well in light of H1N1?

I assign some non-zero probability to this being a photoshop fake and so would appreciate verification from those who might have seen such signs with their own eyes.

New evidence on borrowing constraints in higher education

My friend Karl Scholz from Wisconsin was here on Friday presenting his paper on credit constraints (co-authored with the Meta Brown and Ananth Seshadri) in a joint session of the labor and public finance workshops.

The clever idea underlying the paper is to notice that the government's formula for the expected parental contribution does not vary with the number of college-age students a family has, conditional on their total number of children. This means that, for example, two families that are otherwise identical except that one has two children of college age and one younger while the other has one child of college age and two younger are eligible for different amounts of financial aid. Put another way, the second college-age child in the first family has greater access to credit. If families make (economically) efficient investments in college even in the absence of financial aid, then exogenous variation in the amount of financial aid of this sort should not affect years of schooling obtained. Comparing families like the two above then provides a test of credit constraints. Being cautious sorts, the authors go even farther, and look within families with three or more children at differences across children who do and do not have siblings close in age. Doing so, the authors find surprisingly strong evidence of credit constraints. As expected, these effects are concentrated among middle income families - poor families have very low expected family contributions regardless of the number of children so there is no variation for them, a similar point applies to high income families.

There are, as always, issues. Can one generalize from families with at least three children to families with just one or two? What about the wealth effects that arise from the fact that some financial aid is in the form of grants rather than loans and the fact that the loans are typically subsidized? How would things change, in either the estimation or the interpretation, if the paper worried about college quality rather than just quantity? Also, these are effects conditional on the current policy regime. In a world with no government loan and grant programs families would save more for college (and college prices might well be lower) which would alter the game.

Also, this is one of those literatures in economics that has to some extent gotten fixated on an uninteresting null hypothesis. There are lots of papers by top scholars that address the question of whether or not there are "no" credit constraints. It seems to me that the interesting question is how substantively important the credit constraints are rather than whether or not they exist at all as I do not think anyone writing in this area believes them to be literally zero. Put differently, when looking at the tables I would spend more time on the point estimates and less time on the *s.

Overall an excellent paper with which to end this semester's seminar season.

Mankiw on tax cuts versus spending

Here is Greg's column for today's New York Times.

It is interesting that Greg assumes the "success" of the stimulus package from earlier this year based essentially on a before-after comparison. My sense is that back in the day when the federal government was small, recessions ended without any stimulus packages, which suggests that before-after comparisons are problematic in this context. At the same time, some stimulus was likely necessary if only because a lot of market actors believed that one was needed. My guess is that the dose was much larger than required to meet that psychological need.

Neglected in Greg's column is the fact that the policy in question is not tax cuts per se but rather current tax cuts plus either tax increases or spending cuts in the future. The same point applies to those arguing for a second stimulus; they should always and everywhere be mentioning the second part of the policy, which is future spending cuts or tax increases.

Thought question for the day: compare and contrast climate science and macroeconomics.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Carol'd at Performance Network

We saw this play on Thursday night and enjoyed it a lot.

Regular Performance Network attendees will recognize a number of the players: John Siebert as Scrooge is particularly effective. The set design attains PN's usual high standards.

This version of the classic Dickens tale adds a bit of humor here and there, along with occasional postmodern bits that remind the audience that they are indeed an audience and not really in 19th century London.

Recommended for a bit of holiday fun.

Art Goldberger RIP

Art Goldberger passed on last night.

Sad news indeed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Update on Danish sex workers

No takers yet on the offer of free sex to climate convention delegates by a group of Danish sex workers, but lest you think that environmentalists are a bunch of sexless droids who can't dance, there is this bit:
There were a couple of Danes who wrote to ask if they could have free sex because they were members of Greenpeace – but that’s not on,” smiles Susanne Møller.
Darn that fine print!

Hat tip: you know who

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Crime FAIL in Ypsilanti

All you really need to know is the title of the story: Police Arrest Thief After Following Footprints in Snow.


The Economist goes to Copenhagen

I agree with their recommendation on the Nyhavn neighborhood. You can also catch boat rides there that take you around the harbor.

I really enjoyed the Danish National Museum. It is always interesting to see how countries present their culture and history to outsiders. Like most modern museums in Europe, the information is mostly in both the local language and in English making it quite accessible.

Do stop at Tivoli Gardens. One is tempted to call this an amusement park but it is more than that. Think Seattle Center but with gambling. Indeed, a stop at Tivoli on my high school student group tour of Europe was literally the first time I ever saw slot machines in person. My recollection from grade 11 is that they were crowded with little old ladies gambling away their pension checks. It is great fun just to walk and watch here, and reasonably good Danish food can be had.

By all means wander through Christiania as well. This 60s throwback is what Berkeley always wished it could be. Christiania is not, itself, all that it used to be. In the national museum they have an example of a pot-selling stand taken from Christiania's past, but even without the open air drug market it is still great counterculture fun that has not yet (though one can imagine it may at some pointed) jumped the shark into a 60s-theme tourist trap. Best not, though, to demand to be taken here straight from the airport as one economist, who shall remain nameless, did when visiting Denmark. Your gentle hosts will repeat the story forever after to the amusement of future guests.

If you are flush with money, the downtown Marriott, where I stayed at the expense of the much-abused Danish taxpayer while teaching a course, is quite nice.

Slate humor piece on magazine restaurants

This is cute enough for a morning chuckle.

Here is the one for Sports Cosmo:

Chez Cosmo
This downtown hot spot, beloved among fashionable divorcées, is known for tasting menus like "76 Hot Dishes You Need To Eat Now" and "51 Gravies To Please Your Man." For an entree, try the Lamb Three Ways. Extra-spacious bathrooms leave patrons plenty of room for vomiting, sobbing uncontrollably at the emptiness of it all, and reapplying lipstick. Dress code of Capri pants, stiletto heels, and body glitter strictly enforced.

Hat tip: the agitator

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Guide me Lord, back to the hair stylist, so that they may give me a refund.

Effects of budget cuts at Harvard

Things are going to the dogs at Harvard already! I received this today:

Dear Professor Smith,

We have received your recommendation for [Student]. Should you have any questions, please contact us at $support_e-mail_address.

Thank you.


Faculty Recruiting

Harvard Business School

I deleted the name of the student for privacy reasons but the remainder of the email is untouched. I guess they are not feeling so supportive today.

Freakonomics and experiments

The Freakonomics blog, with a rhetorical blush, posts a positive review of Superfreakonomics from regular blog contributor Ian Ayres.

Ayres highlights both the prevalence of experimental thinking, linked here more generally to the treatment effects literature, in Superfreakonomics relative to plain, old Freakonomics. He also, correctly, highlights the general rise of what one might call "experimental thinking" among economists; you will often hear applied economists suggest that one way to start thinking about a problem is to imagine the experiment that you would ideally run if you could put aside all constraints of political feasiiblity, ethics and cost.

There is much to like about Ayres' piece in my view, but I do have some comments:

First, I think Ayres overstates the prevalence of this sort of thinking. It is mainly limited to labor economists (and empirical researchers who use labormetrics tools in other applied micro fields like public finance, development and health) and largely concentrated in North America. Macro economists, trade economists, highbrow theorists and many others are not really thinking this way. In many places outside North America (and in a handful of departments in North America), structural approaches remain more popular among labor economists, relative to a reduced form treatment effects view.

Second, experiments are not a panacea nor, to quote Burt Barnow, are they a substitute for thinking. For all the reasons laid out in my 1995 paper with Heckman in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, experiments are not as simple to interpret nor always as directly informative about questions of interest as their proponents sometimes make out.

Does this mean that I think we should do fewer experiments? No. Even in the US, which is still basically the only place doing social experiments despite some cautious nibbles elsewhere, I do not think we are yet to the place where we have equated the marginal costs and marginal benefits of additional experiments. Certainly in placess like the UK and Canada, whose sum total of social experiments can be mapped onto the fingers of one hand, more experiments would be useful. What it means is that we cannot rely solely on experiments as a guide to policy or understanding. They are complements to, not substitutes for, other types of analysis.

Third, economists run two dangers with a mono-focus on experiments. First, we run the risk of losing, or maybe just slowing the development of, our applied econometric skills in regard to non-experimental data. If only because many treatments of interest - parental education, race, sex, local labor market etc. - will never be randomly assigned, non-experimental data and methods will always be with us.

Second, we run a danger of neglecting the value of economic theory in designing and interpreting the results of empirical analyses, experimental or not. A focus solely on (to use an analogy so tired it could pass for dead) black box experimental analyses of treatment effects misses a lot of broader pictures and broader questions, and means that we do not even get all that we can out of the available experimental data.

So, in my view, it should be two cheers, rather than three cheers, for the recently arrived dominance of social experiments, and treatment effects thinking more generally, in applied economics.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Some potted scholarship

For the person who has everything:

The Law and Harry Potter
Edited by: Jeffrey E. Thomas and Franklin G. Snyder
ISBN: 978-1-59460-645-8

This volume considers the depiction of law and legal institutions in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. It contains more than twenty chapters by legal academics from the U.S. and abroad. The chapters are organized in five sections: Legal Traditions and Institutions, Crimes and Punishments, Harry Potter and Identity, the Wizard Economy, and Harry Potter as an Archetype. Some chapters analyze the way law and legal institutions are portrayed, and what these portrayals teach us about concepts such as morality, justice, and difference. Other chapters use examples from the narratives to illustrate or analyze legal issues, such as human rights, actual innocence, and legal pedagogy. The volume is suitable for undergraduate or law school courses, and will be of interest to those Harry Potter fans who also have an interest in law and the legal profession.

Sadly for holiday givers, it is forthcoming in January 2010.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Monday, December 7, 2009

Journey into self-obsession

Tyler Cowen ecommended this NYT piece on marriage over at but after reading it I am not sure just why. It is nice that these two whiners have each other to tangle with (thus sparing the rest of us) but really, what is the point?

Whatever Tyler saw in this piece, I missed.

Recommended only as voyeurism, and even then maybe not so much.

Barrel Man, RIP

America is great because of eccentrics like this.

How not to protect your department from budget cuts

Ann Arbor's city government has some tough budget issues to deal with, as both property tax revenues and state revenue sharing are falling in the recession.

In such tough budget times, you might think that the Ann Arbor police would have something better to do than chasing down escorts on the internet.

Note too that helpfully passes along the names of the websites where the police found the escorts, just in case any of its readers might find those tidbits interesting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Washington 42, #19 California 10

Christmas comes early in Seattle.

It is a happy night indeed.

Added Sunday: AP story on the game and Seattle Times story on the game.


The city government of Copenhagen is trying to get the climate delegates to focus on their work rather than on sex, or at least to focus on unpaid sex with each other or with horny enrviro-groupies rather than with Copenhagen's many sex workers.

The city council has contacted 160 hotels asking them not to arrange prostitutes for guests, reports

In collaboration with The Nest International – an anti-trafficking organisation – and tourist organisation Wonderful Copenhagen, postcards with the slogan ‘Be sustainable – don’t buy sex’ have been distributed to hotels as part of the campaign.

The prostitutes are fighting back by offering free sex to delegates.

Do remember that sex work is completely legal in Denmark.

Hat tip: not even worth saying.

"There is a blog about everything"

I have added the "blog of unncessary quotation marks" to the list at the right.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Politics and related careers

I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it works either way:
Judy Wallman, a professional genealogical researcher, discovered that Stephen Dion the [former] leader of Canada's Liberal Party great-great uncle, Robert Dion, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Quebec in 1889. The only known photograph of Dion shows him standing on the gallows. On the back of the picture is this inscription:

"Robert Dion; horse thief, sent to Quebec Provincial Prison 1883, escaped 1887, robbed the Canadian Pacific Railway six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted, and hanged in 1889."

Judy e-mailed Stephen Dion for comments. Dion's staff sent back the following biographical sketch:

"Robert Dion was a famous horseman in Quebec . His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave in 1887 to resume his dealings with the railroad. Subsequently, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Dion passed away during an important civic function held in his honour, when the platform on which he was standing collapsed."
This bit from the Wikipedia page linked to above suggests Dion lacks a sense of humor:
In May 1999, Dion was the object of a pie-in-the-face gag orchestrated by the Montreal group, les Entartistes. The group's stated focus is to "deflate" influential political figures, and they have successfully pied several Canadian federal and provincial politicians, with past targets including [former prime minister] Jean Chrétien and [former Alberta premier] Ralph Klein. Dion was not amused and pressed charges, resulting in convictions of assault against two members of the pie-throwing group. They were given suspended sentences. [links and footnote removed]
That in turn suggests the horse thief story is both funny and false.

Hat tip: Christine Gribowski

Friday, December 4, 2009

It is always the third reviewer ....

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Administrative follies

I received the following email yesterday:

-----Original Message-----
From: []
Sent: Thursday, December 03, 2009 5:00 PM
Subject: Letter of Recommendation Request

Thank you for agreeing to submit a Rackham Administered Fellowship, Scholarship and Grants - Rackham Graduate Student Research Grants letter of recommendation for applicant [the applicant's name has not yet been entered on the application].

For your convenience, please click the link below to access the applicant's online letter of recommendation form:


When I click through, the student's name is still not revealed.

I am working on figuring out the point of notifying a faculty member that they need to fill out a recommendation for a student whose name is not revealed to them.

Probably this is one of those deep bureaucratic mysteries that being an economist makes it impossible to understand.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Evaluating partial employment service privatization in Sweden

I get regular emails from the IFAU (a labor market policy research institute) in Uppsala, Sweden about their new working papers.

Today this one arrived:

Effects of outsourcing employment services: evidence from a randomized experiment

Helge Bennmarker, Erik Grönqvist, Björn Öckert

In many countries welfare services that traditionally have been provided by the public sector are increasingly being contracted out to private providers. But are private contractors better at providing these services? We use a randomized experiment to empirically assess the effectiveness of contacting out employment services to private placement agencies. Our results show that unemployed at private placement agencies have a much closer interaction with their placement worker than unemployed at the Public Employment Service (PES). In particular, unemployed at private agencies receive more assistance in improving their job search technology. We do not find any overall difference in the probability of employment between private placement agencies and the PES), but this hides important heterogeneities across different types of unemployed. We find evidence that private providers are better at providing em¬ployment services to immigrants, and also indications that they may be worse for adolescents. Any effects tend to fade away over time.

What makes this cool?

First, it is a social experiment conducted in a developed country other than the United States. Those are rare birds indeed.

Second, it is an evaluation focused not on the question of whether or not a given service should be offered but rather on how best to organize its delivery. In particular, the evaluation examines privatization of employment service services. The opportunities for evaluations of this sort are nearly endless, and experiments that consider how to deliver services should raise fewer political issues than experiments that deny services to a control group in order to estimate the effect of services relative to no services.

Third, the evaluators here focus not just on the final product, namely labor market outcomes, but also on the process, by reporting on impacts on things like time spent the caseworker. This helps in understanding where the impacts on labor market outcomes come from.

Movie: 2012

We saw 2012 this last night at the our favorite Multiplex mainly because we were ten minutes late for the movie we actually wanted to see and it seemed the least hopeless of the sad set of other alternatives.

Readers old enough to remember the great disaster movies of the 1970s, such as the Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and the Towering Inferno will know what to expect here in terms of basic structure. Nothing has changed much in this genre other than the GGI special effects, which, in 2012, are truly something to behold. Indeed, a half hour version focusing only on the CGI effects, with all the talking removed from the soundtrack but the explosions retained, would probably be a better film.

The script positively screams out that it was written by a committee, and while no one on the committee managed to pass their college philosophy class, a majority of the committee seem to feel that having some deep message is important. The result is not so pretty. Moreover, the movie is consistently politically correct, but in a quite, background sort of way. Did you know that white Southern males are evil? What a surprise! How creative!

When did Hollywood get the idea that the defining characteristic of scientists is that they do not have social lives even when they are A-list attractive?

The movie is also pretty comical in its insistence that every obstacle must be overcome at precisely the last (the very, very absolute last) possible instant before all is lost, so much so that I actually had to work hard not to laugh out loud and disturb the handful of others in the theater on multiple occasions.

One saving grace: there is a lot less material about the great wisdom and foresight of Mayan calendar makers than I was expecting.

Recommended only if you like CGI graphics and are too late for the movie you actually wanted to see.