Friday, April 30, 2010

For the children ...

A particularly good Top 5 list from today:

The Top 5 Worst-Selling Parenting Books

5> "Too Late for Birth Control, Too Early for Prison"

4> "Communicating With Your Rude, Thoughtless Little Pig Teenager" by Alec Baldwin

3> "DON'T PUT THAT IN YOUR-- Never Mind"

2> "NyQuil: The Sniffling, Sneezing, Coughing, Aching, Knocks-Your-Kids-Out-in-30-Seconds-Flat Wonder Drink"

and's Number 1 Worst-Selling Parenting Book...

1> "Mommy Cries Because You're Weird"

Play: Little Shop of Horrors

We saw Little Shop of Horrors at Performance Network in Ann Arbor last night and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Unlike the reviewer at, I have not seen the play before so I can't comment from firsthand experience on the different choices PN made in their staging, but I thought the whole thing worked really well and was one of the highlights of the season. And I say all that as someone who is not generally a big fan of musicals.

In short: dark, demented, and lots of fun. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How not to ask questions

A young person who is going to find his or her initial employment experiences very disappointing, if indeed he or she manages to have any.

Hat tip: David Figlio

Event studies as regression discontinuities in time

Event history analysis has a long history in the business literature where it is used to measure the effects on firm stock market value of various information shocks, such as acquisition announcements. The basic idea is to use the change in firm value in a short (e.g. three day) window around the announcement as an estimate of the market's valuation of the information. Careful implementation requires close attention to when information actually reaches the market, which may not be the time of the official announcement, and to the possibility of confounding announcements of other information by the same firm within the same window. Such confounding announcements could well be endogenous if firms try, for example, to release all their bad news at once, though my sense is that this endogeneity issue is not usually addressed. The general approach to confounding announcements, whether endogenous or exogeneous, is apparently to simply discard observations that have them, which potentially changes the nature of the parameter being estimated.

It struck me that it would be interesting to approach this older literature from the viewpoint of recent developments in regression discontinuity methods in labor economics. For example, one could try and come up with something other than a three day rule of thumb for the window width used to calculate the change in stock market value, using the same sort of strategy that has been used in papers that look generally at bandwidth choice for RD estimators in the labor literature.

Hat tip: David Benson, whose dissertation defense today, in particular his chapter on event history methodology, sparked these thoughts

New deli in Ann Arbor

I went to the new Bread Basket Deli in Ann Arbor today for lunch and had a truly amazing Reuben, made so by the heaping portion of really, really delicious corned beef. I'll be back.

Thanks to Dimitriy Masterov for the recommendation, the transport and, with Jess Goldberg, the entertaining discussion.

Feedback of a sort

Anonymous comments about the econjeff blog on

Economics question for the day: why be anonymous if you are leaving positive comments?

In terms of the "too much time talking about porn" comment. I actually thought a bit about the right proportion of posts about the sex industry (which I think is really what the commenter has in mind) early on in the life of the blog. The decision I reached was to keep my proportion about the same as that on Marginal Revolution, a target I think I hit pretty well. Whether that proportion is optimal, or even what the correct definition of optimal might be in this context, are different questions.

Hat tip: Anonymous?

Dissertation defenses, timing and bureaucracy

At Michigan the faculty of graduate studies requires that each member of a dissertation committee submit an evaluation form (on paper or via email) at most three days prior to the day of the defense. The form asks for a rating of the dissertation with the following options:

Acceptable as submitted
Acceptable after minor typographical and stylistic corrections
Acceptable after minor substantive changes
Acceptable after substantial revisions

Oddly, the form asks for a similar rating on the dissertation abstract.

I am not quite sure what the point of the form is. It could be just to make sure that the faculty members on the committee remember that there is a defense that they are supposed to prepare for and then attend. It could be a way of providing advance warning of serious trouble in the making, though one would hope that students do not get to the point of even scheduling a dissertation defense if there is real danger of not passing.

In my case, submitting the form via email is nearly always the thing I do right before I sit down and start looking at the dissertation. As I have not yet read it when I submit the evaluation form, my evaluation consists of my prior, which is that the dissertation will require minor substantive changes and the abstract will require minor typographical and stylistic ones.

Such are the odd rituals of academe.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Evidence based policy in Oz

The volume containing the paper I wrote based on my remarks at the conference on Evidence Based Policy organized by Australia's Productivity Commission is now available on-line. My piece, which is an update of an older paper that my friend Arthur Sweetman and I prepared for an HRSDC conference many years ago, is Chapter 4, and is entitled "Putting the Evidence in Evidence-Based Policy".

The conference itself was great fun, and I was impressed with the general caliber of both the political and academic participants.

William F. Buckley remembered

A fine remembrance by Gary Wills in the Atlantic from a few months ago.

I agree with WFB on some things and disagree with him on others, but I enjoy his writing a great deal (the passages in his autobiography about giving speeches to student and business groups are delightful, as are his musings about early word processors) and I admire both his civility to opponents as well as the great joy he took in life.

Higher education thought for the day

"Universities are gigantic cross-subsidization schemes"

Roger Noll, at a recent seminar at UM's Kinesiology Department

Book: I Am Charlotte Simmons

I read Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities back in my undergraduate days. It was one of those reading experiences where you pick the book up and cannot put it back down. I finished the book, which is several hundred pages long, in just two days, and its portrait of mastery lost, of the crazed fall of a smart, middle-aged, white guy due to a combination of bad luck and excessive hubris has stayed with me ever since.

So it was with great anticipation that I finally got around to reading another great big think Tom Wolfe book, in this case I Am Charlotte Simmons, his tale of a bright but naive student, the once-in-three-or-four-decades academic star of Sparta, North Carolina, who gets a scholarship to attend "Dupont" (read "Duke") University.

I finally finished the book this morning after a couple of months of reading it in fits and starts. In the end, it is a book I can admire for the research - on college basketball, on undergraduate linguistics, and on the general workings of the modern college campus - that went into it, and for the intricate construction and resolution in the plot. But it never quite grabbed me the way that Bonfire of the Vanities did.

I think the reason it never pulled me all the way in is that the university environment that Wolfe lays out never quite rang true. I recognize that there are in fact students at Michigan (and Maryland, and Western Ontario - maybe not at Chicago!) like the ones he describes: obsessed with social status and appearances, sex and money, and completely disinterested in their studies. Probably there are more of these at a place like "Dupont", where money can make up for academics at admissions time. And I recognize that I see a very selected sample of students in the classes I teach. But the students I see, and particularly the ones I get to know, are not like the ones in the book at all. Shouldn't students like the ones I know at least make an appearance in the book? On a somewhat different dimension, my memory of undergraduate days was one of astounding anonymity, while much of the book revolves around a campus environment where everyone seems to know everyone else. To be sure, "Dupont" is smaller than the Big State U that I attended, but even there surely anonymity rules?

So, in the end, I must give this one only a very lukewarm recommendation. The bits about how the basketball team works are the best parts.

LSU = Lots of Slacker Undergraduates

The sad story, from Inside Higher Ed, of a professor pulled from an introductory biology class at LSU in mid-semester due to student complaints about tough grading.

Perhaps even more astounding than the decision itself is the fact that the administration did not cover its a** by going through a legalistic process. It seems that they never talked to the professor before pulling her from the class, nor did they ever attend the class or provide some sort of written critique for her to respond to or even hold a hearing. That is lawsuit-baiting level incompetence on the part of LSU's administration.

The sad fact of the matter is that students who work really hard get more out of their expensive university experience than those who do not. Part of the job of the faculty, and of the university more broadly, is to provide an institutional structure replete with incentives for that sort of hard work.

Hat tip: Jessica Goldberg

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Subject-specific grade inflation

I had a very enjoyable visit to the University of Missouri-Columbia a couple of weeks ago to give a seminar. The visit included both Tiger Tracks ice cream made on campus and a fine dinner overlooking the Missouri River. I also got a lot of good comments when I presented my college mismatch paper co-authored with my student Nora Dillon (which is not quite yet at the point of getting posted on my web page).

While I was there Cory Koedel, an assistant professor at Missouri trained by Julian Betts at UCSD, told me about a paper of his that compares the grade distributions of undergraduates in various majors. You can find the paper here. Figure 1 in the paper pretty much tells the story: while there may be grade inflation everywhere, there is really, really, really a lot of grade inflation in undergraduate education programs.

Here's the rest of the story from the abstract:
This paper formally documents a startling difference in the grading standards between education departments and other academic departments at universities – undergraduate students in education classes receive significantly higher grades than students in all other classes. This phenomenon cannot be explained by differences in student quality or structural differences across departments (i.e., differences in class sizes). Drawing on evidence from the economics literature, the differences in grading standards between education and non-education departments imply that undergraduate education majors, the majority of whom become teachers, supply substantially less effort in college than non-education majors. If the grading standards in education departments were brought in line with those found in other major academic departments, student effort would be expected to increase by at least 10-16 percent.
My take is that grades serve several useful purposes. If everyone gets the same grade, those purposes are not served. Thus, education schools that give (essentially) every student an A in every class are not doing either the students or the broader public any favors.

The government is my shepherd ...

A very nice piece by Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times on state worship, and on the sad record of recent governments of both left and right in the UK at protecting individual liberty.

I actually worry about government less in the US than in most other countries precisely because the median US voter does not trust the state, while the median voter in most other countries does.

Grant McCracken's blog

A reader emailed today to note that he had gotten a warning message related to Grant McCracken's blog, which was on my blogroll. I had been getting security messages when I tried to access his blog as well but did not know that my own blog would apparently become at least partly guilty by association. In any case, I have removed, hopefully temporarily, the blog from the blogroll.

If anyone in reader-land knows more than I do about how to deal with this, I'd be happy to hear about it, either in the comments to this post or by email. In particular, do I also need to go back and try to find any posts that linked to Grant's blog?

Global Development Network

Some readers will remember my traveling around to places like Beijing, Delhi, Brisbane and York to consult on some projects managed by the Global Development Network (GDN) and funded by the Gates Foundation. The GDN's web page for the projects is here. The working papers from the projects I was most directly involved with are here, here and here.

The projects aimed to test innovative health interventions in developing country contexts. They also aimed to "build capacity" by training developing country researchers in modern econometric program evaluation. These two goals, of course, conflict. Most of the projects that turned out the best in terms of providing high quality evidence involved researchers who were trained at top North American economics departments and who did not really need much of the assistance provided by the methodological experts (me and some old and new friends) and substantive experts assembled by the GDN. In contrast, the projects that resulted in the most capacity building were more mixed in terms of the quality of the resulting evidence. At the end, I was left wondering if it really made sense to combine evidence production and capacity building in this way.

That is not to say I did not enjoy the work; I did, tremendously. The travel was great fun - though I wish I had been able to spend more time outside the hotel compound in Delhi - and so was getting to know the developing country researchers. Especially useful in that regard was getting to know the researchers in the Iranian group I worked with, both in the sense that it always humanizes international relations to know people in the countries we are presently unhappy with, but also because they helped me to understand better the domestic political equilibrium within Iran.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tactile erotica ...

... or pornography for the blind?

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Addendum: should they have cited this?

Hat tip: Mike Elsby

Great place, bad spelling

On dental hygiene at Dominick's:

Hat tip: Greg Nicholson, who also provided beer and pizza

Economics humor

Hat tip: Mike McCutchin

John Bates Clark Medal

Esther Duflo wins the Clark Medal.

A fine decision and a well-deserved award.

Also excellent timing, as we just read a paper by Esther (and co-authors) on micro-finance for the final meeting of my undergraduate program evaluation course last Monday.

Governor General of Canada

I learned this week when I was in Canada that there is a movement afoot on Facebook to make William Shatner the next Governor General (sort of the Queen's official representative) in Canada.

How can one not but heartily support this move, which could not fail to raise the average quality of Canadian Governor Generals?

Details from the National Post (the better of Canada's two national newspapers) here and Spock's endorsement here.

Addendum: there is a video from CTV news as well.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

From the 2010 UM skit night

Facebook thought of the day

"Oh Maggie, it's the BEST idea EVER! I down my anti-depressant with alcohol all the time!"

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lusty Lady

Seattle's Lusty Lady peep show is closing, and I never got around to buying one of their "Have an Erotic Day" t-shirts.

Interesting political bit from the story:
"We're amazingly different," Davis said. "There used to be this idea that 'those kinds of women' weren't dependable or reliable, all these assumptions about people who take off their clothes and dance for a living. And we're women-managed. I've been shocked to hear women say they've felt safer working at the Lusty Lady than in a law office and I'm like 'what?!' Like the RCA dog with my head cocked: I just couldn't believe the stories of sexual harassment."
There's a remarkably fond story in the Seattle Times as well, which includes the tale of a man with 12 oranges that you should read for yourself, along with some more double entendres.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Time to degree

The Bound, Lovenheim and Turner time-to-degree paper makes the Wall Street Journal.

It is a great paper and convinced me (along with the many students who try to register for my ECON 406 course at Michigan every fall semester and fail due to space constraints) that institutional barriers are important to timely degree completion.

Institutional barriers and crowding are not the aspect of the paper that the WSJ emphasizes. It instead focuses on the finding that the issue is not declines in student quality over time and the finding that students are working more during college.

I think that is too bad, as the institutional barriers / crowding issue may, in some sense, be easier to address than the working issue, particularly if the increase in working is partly due to changes in the consumption levels that students expect during college.

At the same time, institutional issues and crowding tend to vary in their particulars from system to system and campus to campus. They cannot be easily fixed at the federal level - change has to come at the institutional level. What you need is university leadership that is willing to push departments to offer what the students need to finish their degrees when they need it rather than what the faculty wants to teach when they want to teach it. That may mean more early morning and evening classes, to help students avoid scheduling conflicts, more sections of classes that faculty do not usually line up to teach, like statistics, and more classes offered during the summer. It may also require allowing popular departments to limit the number of majors they take on each year.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


In New Zealand, obscenity is apparently defined based on survey responses.

That strikes me as superior to US Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward, who famously said:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Reducing years of schooling

One of the papers I particularly liked from the conference that I attended last month at the ZEW in Mannheim last month considers an educational reform in one German state in which the number of years of schooling was reduced from 13 to 12 but with no reduction in the amount of material that was supposed to be covered.

The paper is by my friend Stefan Thomsen, who spent a few weeks here at Michigan in Fall 2009 and his Magdeburg colleague Bettina Buttner. Here is the abstract:
This paper analyzes the impact of shortening the duration of secondary schooling on the accumulation of human capital. In 2003, an educational policy reform was enacted in Saxony-Anhalt, a German state, providing a natural experimental setting. The thirteenth year of schooling was eliminated for those students currently attending the ninth grade. Tenth grade students were una ected. The academic curriculum remained almost unaltered. Using primary data from the double cohort of Abitur graduates in 2007, signi cant negative eff ects were discovered for both genders in mathematics and for females only in English. The effects on literature were not statistically signi cant.
This paper presents an interesting counterpoint to the two recent Canadian papers looking at the elimination of Grade 13 in Ontario, one by Harry Krashinsky at Toronto and the other (oddly not cited by Krashinsky) by Louis-Philippe Morin at Ottawa. The Ontario context differs from the German one in (at least) two ways. First, Grade 13 was a bit different to begin with as many students did not take a full load and/or retook courses from earlier years in order to get their averages up prior to applying to university. Moreover, when Grade 13 was eliminated some material was cut.

Oh, and if anyone knows how to get umlauts in blogger, I'd be glad to know it. Bettina is supposed to have one in her last name.

Movie: Ghost Writer

We saw Ghost Writer on Thursday night at the State Theater.

The NYT review is a bit more positive than I would be. I found the whole vast-CIA-Blair conspiracy business a bit silly and the link to current politics distracting. A less paranoid political narrative and a more realistically competent CIA would have improved the movie.

Still the acting and cinematography are fantastic and it is almost worth it just to see the amazing house around which much of the action centers.


Firm specific workplace benefits

On the sad story of reduced on-the-job beer consumption at Carlsberg in Denmark.

From MSNBC and from the Copenhagen Post.

Key bits, from the MSNBC story:
Scores of Carlsberg workers walked off their jobs in protest Thursday after the Danish brewer tightened laid-back rules on workplace drinking and removed beer coolers from work sites, a company spokesman said.

The warehouse and production workers in Denmark are rebelling against the company's new alcohol policy, which allows them to drink beer only during lunch hours in the canteen. Previously, they could help themselves to beer throughout the day, from coolers placed around the work sites.

The only restriction was "that you could not be drunk at work. It was up to each and everyone to be responsible," company spokesman Jens Bekke said.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Overrated: from chanting to measurement

A blogger from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer [really!] does a quantitative analysis of which football teams are over-rated and which are under-rated by comparing pre-season and post-season rankings.

As one might expect, historically strong programs tend to do "too well" in the pre-season polls.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Journals misbehaving

I received this in my email yesterday:
Journal Citation Survey Invitation

Recently a friend had an article accepted for publication. Two weeks later he received a letter from the editor which included the following statement, "you only use one [name of my journal] source which is unacceptable. Please add at least five more relevant-[name of my journal] sources."

Another colleague had a similar experience at the submission stage; the editor asked her for three more citations to his journal before he would send her manuscript out for review. Note, these citation requests were not motivated by omitted content; they simply asked authors to cite related articles in the editor’s journal.

This practice is controversial. Some view it as inappropriate behavior, padding citations and diluting the value of the reference list. Others see it as a legitimate way to introduce readers to past literature in the editor’s journal. This study investigates this issue and we need your help.

The following link takes you to a survey prepared in SurveyMonkey©. Would you please take a couple of minutes to complete it—it will not take long. Of course we will keep your responses confidential.

Thank you.

This is the first I had heard of journals trying to pad their citation counts by strong-arming authors. This is really, really poor. If this practice becomes widespread, journal quality rankings will, of course, simply stop counting citations from papers in the journal, as well tenure committees and the like.

Addendum: a reader asked about missing journal names. They were missing in the email I received; I did not take them out.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What if college admission rejection letters were honest?

Here's an idea of what Harvard's rejection letter would look like in an honesty regime.

Hat tip: commenter at economistmom blog.

UM history

Some history around the UM libraries.

One wonders what the students forced to study at gender segregated hard wooden tables would think of the library now.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Government efficiency

This is funny and, amazingly, has a happy ending.

When I write letters like that I never seem to get an answer.

Via the agitator

Monday, April 5, 2010

SM yes, cleavage no in Alabama

Paddling high school students for showing too much cleavage?

This sounds like a bad porn movie but the paddler presumably had a good time. Lawsuit, anyone?

Via the Agitator

Is poetry reasonable?

Reason on free verse - a fine rant and one I largely agree with. The free verse poems in the Atlantic are pompous and impenetrable.

We did haiku and e.e. cummings style poems at my junior high. What we did not do were sentence diagrams, which I did not get until I took German in high school. They proved pretty useful in my compiler class in college.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Have a piece of pi

I have to post this, if only because I know that my friend (and regular reader) Don will love it.

Go to this post by Andrew Gelman and then follow the link to the anonymous comment he mentions. Amazing.

Bonus points if you get the movie reference in the title of this post.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Broken windows

A series of posts from Will Wilkinson on the broken windows fallacy here, here and here.

The Tom Palmer video is a bit over-wrought but Will's thoughts are well considered, as usual.

Hat tip: Scott Wood

The evolution of virtual worlds

Some thoughts on virtual worlds.

I will confess that during my brief exploration of Second Life, the question "what is the point" came occasionally to mind, especially when wandering about the seemingly endless built environment, most of which is both not very attractive and completely empty.

I am also surprised that Second Lifers would want to link to their real world biographies. To the extent that there is a point, the pseudonymity, and the exploration of roles and activities that it allows, would seem to be it.

Hat tip: marginal revolution

John McCain

I was approached at one point by an economist friend about playing a small role in the McCain presidential campaign. This summarizes in a handy way the primary reason why I could not do it.

There really is nothing more important than free speech.

Linkings literatures in development economics

We are in the midst of reading papers on microcredit programs in my undergraduate program evaluation class. These programs provide small loans to individuals in developing countries while using alternative institutional arrangements, such as group liability, to keep costs down relative to traditional approaches. They often focus particularly on women and have the twin goals of encouraging modernization (i.e. making them more like us) and economic development. The Grameen Bank is the most famous example but there are many other such programs.

The literature is interesting in several ways. Perhaps the most interesting feature is that, despite all the media hype, a veritable supernova of warm glow and the Nobel prize, there is not particularly strong evidence that micro-credit programs pass cost-benefit tests.

Also interesting,though, is that the literature on micro-credit does not seem to be very well-integrated with other parts of the development literature. When I was in graduate school at Chicago, Robert Townsend published his famous paper "Risk and Insurance in Village India" (gated via JStor) that described the ways in which small scale farmers in rural India informally insure one another against common risks. That work spawned a large subsequent literature looking at risk and informal insurance, which has both its positive side and its negative side, as the demands of informal insurance (share your shocks!) can be thought of as a very high marginal tax rate, as in this paper by my student Jessica Goldberg.

It seems to me that the literature on informal insurance has important implications for the literature on micro-credit, in the sense that villagers who use micro-credit to establish successful enterprises likely face high implicit tax rates. Furthermore, informal insurance often works through extended family networks. This has implications for the nature of spillovers in evaluations that try to look at differences within villages between either eligible participants and non-participants or between eligibles and ineligibles. What I have in mind is the sort of analysis done for conditional cash transfer programs by my friend Manuela Angelucci but in the context of micro-credit.

We're #12, We're #12!

The latest US News and World Report Ratings have Michigan at #12.

These rankings, of course, disguise a fair amount of variation across sub-fields that potential graduate students should pay attention to. For example, Michigan is stronger in labor and public finance than its overall ranking suggests. Students who have a strong sense of their likely sub-field should choose on that basis rather than on the aggregate ratings. On the other hand, a student who is not sure about their likely sub-field should choose a department that is strong in a variety of sub-fields rather than just one or two. This too requires information beyond that provided by the overall rankings.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter humor

Hat tip: Christine Gribowski

Group names

I walked up to a group of my macroeconomist colleagues at Michigan outside of Lorch Hall a couple of weeks ago. I always try to say something amusing in such situations so I wondered aloud what one might call such a group of macroeconomists, along the lines of a herd of cattle, a flock of seagulls or a gaggle of geese.

The response, from a colleague who will remain nameless to protect the guilty: "how about `a bunch of idiots'"?

This seems a bit harsh to me ... but who am I to say?

North American holiday mystery

This has puzzled me ever since I first realized it when I was on the faculty at Western Ontario: why is Easter a much bigger holiday in Canada than in the US, when most people in Canada do not go to church and most people in the US do?