Saturday, December 31, 2011

Follow-up on the Chronicle post

My post the other day mocking the really dopey piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about heterodox economics made it very rapidly onto my top 10 all time hits list, which surprised me a bit.

It turns out that much of the traffic was generated by this thread at econjobmarketrumors. Contrary to the second poster on that thread, I did not start the thread. I have actually only ever actively promoted two of my posts: one was my 10 most influential books list, which I emailed Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution about and the other was my post on matching methods for causal inference, which I emailed Chris Blattman about. Both of those posts, as it turns out, are also on my top 10 all time hits list. Somehow active promotion seems like being a bit too involved in the blog.

I also wanted to add one other thing, which I should have included in the original post. Much of the discussion of heterodox economics in the popular media proceeds as if the entirety of economics consisted of the part of macroeconomics that studies the business cycle. This is very misleading. Most economists are not macroeconomists and many macroeconomists study issues other than the business cycle, such as growth, consumption or savings. Some clever soul ought to write about how heterodox economists deal with the rest of the subject, and the clever souls who write pieces like the one at the Chronicle ought not to mislead their readers about the division of tasks within economics.

Ron Paul newsletters

Steve Horwitz at Bleeding Heart Libertarians offers some thoughtful views on the Ron Paul newsletters, views with which I largely agree.

Interview with "Awful Library Books"

Ruth, a blogger at Artifact Collector, interviews Holly Hibner, one of the two bloggers behind Awful Library Books, which is on my blog roll.

As much as I love books, I would make a bad librarian, because I would never want to get rid of anything.

Vaclav Havel, RIP

I am late on this, but it is no less heartfelt for that. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe will likely be the great world-historical event of my lifetime, and Havel was one of the most inspiring figures of that event.

The Economist provides a very nice history, and Reason's Matt Welch reports from his funeral in Prague.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Verizon guy

The Atlantic provides some background on the Verizon guy, and on how being the Verizon guy changed his life.

Woodward on Gore


Via instapundit.

Richard Florida on city size and sports success

This piece at Atlantic Cities was less inspiring than I had hoped based on the title.

Florida spends the first part of the piece explaining why it is good to have denominators when looking at wins - i.e. to take account of the number of teams and how long they have been in the city. Indeed, but it seems like even for the Atlantic audience this point could be made in a sentence or two.

The second part makes the case for path dependence. I am sympathetic here, but there is not actually a lot of evidence, just some assertions and quotations.

What I would have liked to hear more about is how this relationship is affected when leagues actively attempt to undermine it via revenue sharing. Also, I was hoping to hear about how the number of teams matters relative to city size. Part of why Green Bay may be so successful at football is that the fan base, as well as the local government and local business, put all their energy into it, as they have no other major league teams. An implication here, that could be empirically tested, is that e.g. the Seahawks should do better now that the Sonics are gone (and the arrival of the Seahawks back when I was in high school should have led the Sonics to do worse). Similarly, the basketball, baseball and hockey teams in LA should do better in years when there are no pro football teams.

I would have thought, too, that there would be a scholarly literature that Florida could draw on when discussing these issues.

Movie: Another Earth

I missed Another Earth when it came through the Michigan Theater but got to watch it on the plane on the way back from Denmark as a result of being upgraded to the front.

The bottom line is that Another Earth is one my favorite movies of the year: a tense psychological drama with a topping of science fiction and a most excellent ending. I also like the underlying premise: that we are all one bad shock away from very different lives.

The NYT liked it too.

Highly recommended.

Alamo Bowl: Baylor 67, Washington 56

The Alamo Bowl was certainly fun to watch in the way that Arena football is fun to watch: lots and lots of offense.

The Seattle Times entitles its description of the game "Huskies Score 56 Points But Still Can't Beat Baylor", which sums up the downside of all that offense: the Husky defense did not play well at all. Baylor is no better than Oregon on offense and yet they managed to hold Oregon to 34 points. It is true that they suffered from the loss of one of its starting linebackers in the middle of the first half, but still. It will be interesting to see what steps coach Sarkisian takes in the off-season to deal with the defense, which has been the weak side of the ball pretty much all season. Will Nick Holt survive?

Still, Baylor's defense is bad too, and Keith Price put on quite an offensive show. It was great for him to get a chance to show off in front of a national TV audience. He looked as good Baylor's Heisman Trophy award winning quarterback for most of the game. And Washington was in it until the very end. Change one or two plays, particularly the Chris Polk fumble in the red zone in the third quarter, and the game goes the other way.

This season went by quickly indeed, and was not quite as successful as I had hoped, but the derivative is still positive. The Huskies are good now, but not great. Hopefully next year they can make some progress toward the next level.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bloomberg on correlation and causation

These things are so easy and so much fun, yet the point is so important.

Hat tip: Laura Kawano

Busy buzzwords

The Daily Mail reports on a study of the most over-used words on LinkedIn.

It is a sad testament to something that my first reaction when I see "LinkedIn" is to wonder what the natural log is doing in the name of a social networking site.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Our religious founders?

A fine meditation from the Economist on the religious views of America's founding fathers.

It is really important to remember when thinking about this is that the founders were reacting to the sins, as it were, of an established church. Thus, their concerns were quite different than the culture war concerns that motivate the discussion today.

More broadly, the great thing about history is how well it upsets commonly held notions in the present.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

Humorous airline quotes

From the Economist's Gulliver blog, a list of funny quotations by airline CEOs.

My favorite:
You f**ing academic eggheads! You don't know s**t. You can't deregulate this industry. You're going to wreck it. You don't know a goddamn thing! 
That was Robert Crandall, boss of American Airlines, to an unnamed Senate lawyer in 1971.

You know, economists live for that kind of reaction.

The behavior of crowds

An interesting piece from the Economist summarizes recent research on the behavior of crowds.

One of my more vivid memories from my youth concerns our family visit to Disneyland on July 4, 1968. We got trapped near the Matterhorn in a crowd that was too thick to move. My parents sort of formed an enclosure around me to keep me from getting crushed. It really scared my dad, and he was not prone to departures from calm.  After that we went to Disneyland when it was less busy.

Doonesbury on final exams (and foreign policy)

The comic is here. The last panel is priceless.

I would argue, though, that US entry into WW1 was a bigger disaster than the (never actually declared) war in Iraq, as it indirectly led to both the rise of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Thursday, December 22, 2011

On modern art

I have decided that I have a U-shaped affection for modern art. I like it if it is serious about making a point and I like it if it is completely up front about the fact that the artist laughed all the way to the bank after selling the piece. I do not like modern art that pretends to be serious but is not.

See if you can figure out which category this art fits into. For those keen to see it in person, it is on display at the modern art museum in Aarhus, Denmark, just around the corner from the very nice Radisson, which I am happy to recommend should you happen to visit.

Ron Paul

We are in the midst of another surge in Ron Paul excitement and notoriety. If you had offered me a large bet that Ron Paul would one day be in serious danger of winning the Iowa caucuses back in 1988 (or 1989?) when he spoke to our libertarian group at the University of Chicago, I would have happily taken the negative side of that bet and counted myself lucky to have run into a fool willing to take the other side.

What is going on? Two things I think. The first is bad times. Bad times push people to consider options outside the norm. You can see that on the left with the amount of interest in, and support for, the occupy movement, and on the right with the tea party and now with Ron Paul. Second, both the red team and the blue have no other really different candidates on offer. Mitt Romney is what you find if you look up "generic Republican" in the dictionary. Obama lacks the skills to pretend to be a populist. He just isn't one. And, moreover, many of the things that the blue team complained about during Obama's campaign have now been rendered bi-partisan via the actions of his administration: needless wars, gross violations of civil liberties, bailouts of well-connected corporations, huge expansions of the transfer system in a time of large budget deficits, and all the rest. That makes it harder (impossible) for Obama to appear anti-establishment or, indeed, to seem very different from Bush II.

So I think in an important sense it is not so much about Ron Paul as about the large vacuum in issue space left open by the two parties. Ron Paul fills that vaccuum and does so in a compelling way and in a way that appeals to populists of both left and right, as well as to anti-war leftists and the noble remnant of Americans who actually care about civil liberties. The fact that Paul is quite visibly not an intellectual helps too. He is not, at least based on our short interaction back in the 1980s and on his public output of speeches and books, the brightest bulb in the box. But he is sincere - his voting record matches his speeches, which is something only five or 10 congress-critters can credibly claim. And he is taking positions no one else is taking but that are pretty popular with large minorities of the voting public.

This is going to be an interesting election year, though I suspect we end up with Obama and Romney.

Oh, and just for the record, Paul and I disagree on lots of things, most notably abortion and the Fed.

In the meantime, some interesting bits about Ron Paul that I enjoyed:

1. Praise from the Nation (!) via I think the Nation writer is right on target in explaining the fears of the Republican establishment.

2. Praise from Nick Gillespie at Reason.

3. An interesting piece from Yahoo! News on Paul's interactions with (suspicious) conservative Christians. Why do people care so much about what others do in their bedrooms?

4. A Ron Paul television ad. Try to imagine such an ad in Europe or Canada.

5. Left anarchist Gary Chartier at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on Ron Paul.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

Nick Gillespie at reason provides a better obituary than I could hope to write.

Would that there were more like Hitchens on a left now awash with the incoherent socialism of sentiment and the petty oppressions of do-gooder paternalism.

Roland Fryer and the DC public schools

Fryer leaves a policy evaluation research venture because the DC schools and their associated teacher labor cartel will not do random assignment.

And, what is not unrelated to the fact that very few policies get evaluated in any sort of serious way, the Washington Post columnist (and, by implication, his editor as well) shows that he does not understand the difference between random assignment and random sampling:
What ultimately sank the venture was Fryer’s interest in randomly assigning some teachers into “treatment” and “control” groups. Random assignment is considered one of the strongest research designs because it ensures that the sample selected represents the characteristics of the entire group under study.
Sigh. We do indeed have a great deal of work to do.

Chronicle of not knowing what you are talking about

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published an astoundingly ignorant and confused piece about the state of modern economics.

To begin, note that the article avoids asking a very important question: what are the optimal boundaries of academic disciplines? This question would seem to be of interest to readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education but is not even touched on by the article. Unlike some other social sciences - sociology and political science come immediately to mind - economics as a discipline does not spend a great deal of time engaged in long-running internal debates about methodology. Instead, because mainstream economics (which means well over 90 percent of the profession - and probably more than 95 or even 99 percent) shares a single, but broad and flexible, empirical and theoretical methodology, it can devote its attention to advancing the state of knowledge rather than to methodological in-fighting. I think a strong case could be made that the lack of internal methodological strife has been an important contributor to the relative success of economics as a discipline in recent decades.

On a separate, but not unrelated, point, does it really make sense for economists to try and become second-rate sociologists or psychologists? Or does it make sense for economics to teach economics, and leave the sociology to the sociologists and the psychology to the psychologists? This is not to say that economists should not pay attention to what is going on elsewhere in the social science, but rather to say that there is value in specialization. Moreover, students are free (and, indeed, in most universities, required) to take courses in a variety of disciplines. Surely it is optimal for them to get their sociology from the sociologists rather than from the economists?  This is another important and interesting issue that is completely missed by the author of the Chronicle piece.

The article then provides some real howlers:
Critics call this ideology "free-market fundamentalism," and it rests on certain core tenets: The market is the most efficient way to allocate resources; people generally make rational decisions when buying goods and services; and government regulations are to be minimized because they risk undermining purer market forces and can lead to corruption.
Embraced by presidential administrations from both political parties, this view of economics is most often associated with prestigious academic departments in the Ivy League, at Stanford University, and the University of Chicago. But it has devolved into dogma, critics say.
Critics want an alternative vision—or visions—of the discipline to be more widely accepted. "We need an economics that aims to secure long-run human well-being, not an economics preoccupied with maximizing short-run output and profits," reads the mission statement of a new group, called Econ4, which was started at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in September.
I must have missed all those administrations that embraced a "free market ideology".  Last I looked, the government just keeps getting bigger, politically connected businesses keep getting their subsidies, politicians kept arguing for, and acting on, the view that demand curves don't slope down and so on.  Oh, and just in case the author of the Chronicle piece is unaware, it may be helpful to note here that subsidies to politically connected businesses are not a neoliberal or a classical liberal sort of enterprise.

And where is this economics that is "preoccupied with maximizing short-run output and profits"? I have somehow missed that entire part of the discipline despite spending 31 years as a student and teacher of economics. How about all those life-cycle models one finds in labor economics? What about all those models in macro that emphasize expectations of future events? What about the whole debate in the economics of climate change on what the appropriate discount rate should be? In what sense are these types of models and sorts of discussions, which dominate large parts of the discipline, about the short run? It is not surprising that the undergrads in Econ4 do not know about the literature, and cannot distinguish between model assumptions designed to describe behavior in a positive sense and the normative goals underlying intellectual inquiry in economics, but shouldn't someone who writes about economics for the Chronicle of Higher Education know at least something about the literature and shouldn't such a person be able to manage basic distinctions between normative and positive?

And what about this idea that "free market fundamentalism" is primarily associated with top-ranked departments? That is simply a bizarre notion and the author, rightfully given that it is incorrect, does not offer any evidence for it. So then why make the claim? Shouldn't someone writing about economics for the Chronicle know even a teeny, tiny bit about how the academic side of the profession works?

And then there is the math:
Part of the problem is that they have embraced mathematics too fervently, according to one view. This embrace has bolstered the prestige of the discipline, making it appear more intellectually rigorous and academically selective. But it has also made economics more abstract and divorced from the illogical or inconsistent ways that people, and large groups of people, can behave.
This simple statement covers a multitude of misunderstandings. First, the point of formalism (of which the use of mathematics is but one manifestation) is to make sure that what is being said is logically consistent and to make sure that what is being said is correctly transmitted from writer to reader. These are noble and reasonable goals, ones that should be embraced by sensible people of all viewpoints. Sometimes, to be sure, economists formalize more than is required and such excess formalism is rightly criticized. But formalism per se should be uncontroversial in any discipline that purports to advance knowledge.

A second implicit claim is that economics does not pay attention to behavior that would be "irrational" in the sense that economists use that term in a world of full information and zero information processing costs. In fact, entire sub-fields exist to study the economics of information and the economics of limited information processing costs. The latter goes by the (unfortunate and misleading) name of behavioral economics. The rapid rise of behavioral economics is testament to the ability of economics to creatively respond to weaknesses in existing models that have been highlighted by compelling empirical evidence obtained using econometric methods. Its existence as a popular sub-field, whose influence is felt throughout the discipline, contradicts the claims of intellectual rigidity made by the critics cited in the article.

Finally, there is this claim:
"The problem is that their view of how to think like an economist is extremely narrow to the point of being cut off from some of the major questions affecting society," Mr. Epstein said. "In the end it is a form of indoctrination."
This broader claim is easily dismissed by simply checking the table of contents of any field journal in a field not concerned with tool building, which is to say any field other than high theory or theoretical econometrics. For example, consider the table of contents of the Winter 2011 issue of the Journal of Human Resources, one of the two leading journals in labor economics. The articles address topics such as racial differences (the first three papers!), the effects of conditional cash transfers for the poor, school quality and teacher qualifications, pollution, infectious diseases and pensions. Pretty irrelevant stuff there, yep. Sure sounds like a profession full of market fundamentalists bent on indoctrination, yep.

The article ends with a discussion of ethical misbehavior by a small number of economists. Their behavior is rightly condemned, but neither their behavior nor the ethical and organizational issues it raises has anything to do with the point of the article, which is about methodology. Karl Marx was by all accounts a jerk. Hayek, as we learned from David Warsh a couple of weeks ago, was not very nice to his first wife. From the standpoint of economics, so what?  What matters from the point of view of a discussion of economic methodology, is the ideas, not the imperfect humans who write about them.

Finally, it is worth noting that one of the leading heterodox views within the discipline (as measured by academic adherents or popular influence), namely Austrian economics, would hardly satisfy the lefty protesters at Harvard or U Mass Amherst. The Austrians drop the math, and much of the applied econometrics as well, from neo-classical economics, but they love markets, and hate government, in a way that would make most neo-classical economists blush, at best. A thoughtful article on heterodox economics would have done more to highlight the critiques of the Austrians and to note that their views and presence in the profession make clear that debates about the role of mathematics or of applied econometrics in economic research are largely orthogonal to concerns about political bias.

In sum, it is hard not to conclude that at least some of the critics cited in this piece (and perhaps its author as well)  prefer to tear down economics by citing unrelated ethical lapses or by complaining about the math, or about mysterious asymmetries of power and influence, because they know they cannot win  honest and straightforward debates about the substance. That's too bad, as serious intellectual discussion and reflection on these issues could be both illuminating and useful.[I should note that I excuse Folbre and Margolis from this criticism - my sense from what I know of their work beyond the sound bites in this article is that they are serious scholars, though obviously we disagree about many things empirical, political and methodological.]

Shame on the Chronicle for publishing such a thoughtless and uninformed piece of rubbish on these important and interesting issues.

Trend spotting

Business Week has some fun with simple time series correlations.

Advances in transportation safety

Via Arthur Robson on Facebook.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Thought for the day

"An academic discipline as a group of scholars who had agreed not to ask certain embarrassing questions about key assumptions." - Mark Nathan Cohen

Should the IMF guide your choice of alcoholic beverages?

Via Helena Schweiger (one of my students from Maryland, now at the EBRD) on Facebook. The magazine is the EasyJet in-flight magazine.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Theater: Ain't Misbehavin' at Performance Netwok

It is actually something of a misnomer to call Performance Network's production of Ain't Misbehavin' theater as it is really a concert with the performers wearing period costumes and performing on a period set.

Unlike many musicals, which frustrate me because there is not enough plot to chew on, Ain't Misbehavin' dispenses with the pretense of a plot entirely. It turns out I like that better. It is more honest somehow.

The performers are top notch and the songs range from the serious to the hilarious. Some of them, indeed, were politically incorrect enough that you could feel the Ann Arbor audience cringe a bit, but it is good for them to be confronted with other views. And some of them, like the songs about missing nylons during World War 2, about prohibition, and about pot, provide nice history lessons.

And there are other reviews too, if you don't believe me.

In short, we both enjoyed it a lot. Highly recommended.

Movie: Hugo

Hugo is a sheer delight!  It is visually rich, the acting is good, and you get an interesting dose of film history. The lyrical NYT review expands on these themes.

Even Sasha Baron Cohen, whose Borat is probably my least favorite movie of the last decade, adds excellence to the film as the evil (in an officious, bureaucratic sort of way) station inspector.

This is the best movie for kids I have seen in many a year (though, of course, until we had one, a kid that is, I hadn't been to many in a few decades either). Our kid, at 4.4 years, fidgeted only a little in over two hours.

Definitely recommended.

Life in the halls of power

In yet another illustration of the power of compensating differences, staff in the office of Congressman Rick Larsen, from the 2nd District in Washington State illustrate why Congressional staff jobs do not pay very much: you get to drink all the time and watch Nirvana videos!

And, of course, this provides yet another opportunity to fondly remember the follies of an earlier Congressional staff member who also struggled to keep herself busy: Jessica Cutler.

Hat tip: Soon-to-be Congressman Dan Marcin, who apparently is already planning how to staff his office.

Addendum: no happy ending here ... the aides were fired after the story broke.

Development economics / applied econometrics humor

There's a whole bunch of this sort of thing at this blog. All of it features, for some reason, actor Ryan Gosling.

Hat tip: Reason Foundation president David Nott, on Facebook.

Addendum: It turns out that there is also a biostatistics version.

Additional hat tip: Julia Kong

Saturday, December 10, 2011


A former student from my graduate applied econometrics course came by my office yesterday to talk about multicollinearity, which is the name for the situation where one estimates an econometric model of some sort and two or more of the independent variables are intercorrelated enough to make it hard to estimate their separate effects.

The example I use in my undergraduate course - the topic does not come up in my graduate course - is a regression of earnings on two measures of college quality, namely mean SAT score of the entering class and expenditures per student as well as a long list of characteristics of the individual measured prior to the time of their starting college. The two college characteristics are relatively highly correlated, but far from perfectly correlated. The result is that one can estimate the effects of one conditional on the other, but the estimates are not as precise as one might want in samples of reasonable size. This hints at why the late econometrician Art Goldberger at Wisconsin jokingly called multicollinearity micronumerosity instead.

The interesting thing about our conversation is that the student, who is not in the economics program, and his committee members, also not in economics, were very worried about the potential effect of multicollinearity not just on their estimates but on the matrix inversion underlying the estimator they were using. So we talked about condition numbers and such like, things that in applied econometrics essentially never get talked about. The conversation was interesting because it illustrated the extent to which applied literatures in different fields (or even sub-fields within, say, economics) can wander off and become preoccupied with issues that other fields largely ignore.

Thinking more about this, along with a follow-up email exchange, led to this post and this other post on multi-collinearity at David Giles' blog. both are worth a look if you are into such things.

Whither the drive-in movie theater?

The BBC on the threat of technological change, specifically the conversion to digital projection, to the remaining drive-in theaters in the US.

Of course, the vast majority of those in existence at the height of their popularity are already gone.

The editor's day off

Hat tip: Arthur Robson on Facebook

A Bieber Christmas

The Biebster has recorded a Christmas album that includes this bit of holiday hip-hop:

Some thoughts:

1. Has his career already jumped the shark?
2. Is this just a futile attempt to increase the probability that some of his songs will be played after he reaches puberty?
3. Why not change the name to "Little Haircut Boy"?
4. Santa: this is not on my list. It is not on my daughter's list either, no matter what she may have said. You just misunderstood.

Hat tip: soon-to-be-congresscritter Dan Marcin

Book: Barbarians to Angels by Peter Wells

Barbarians to Angels is a mostly successful attempt by anthropologist Peter Wells to rehabilitate the Dark Ages, the period between about the years 400 and 800 after the fall of Rome and before the rise of later civilizations.

I liked the book (and, indeed, wished it had been longer). The things I found most interesting were learning about the development during this period of areas such as Denmark that had never been under Roman sway and the focus on material rather written evidence. Indeed, Wells sets up a juxtaposition between historians, who rely mainly on the very limited (and perhaps not unbiased) textual evidence from the period, and archaelogists, who rely on the material evidence that has survived the intervening years.

My one complaint is that Wells occasionally drifts into a sort of relativism in which he argues that there is no objective difference between, say, a Roman temple and a wooden hut. Besides being silly, if one took that line of argument seriously then there is really no point to writing the book, as under a thorough-going relativist view, the Dark Ages require no rehabilitation.

Still, recommended if you are into this sort of thing. I blame Peter Dolton, who took me to Hadrian's Wall when I visited him in Newcastle, for the fact that I am.

Publication tree

Too bad the nice folks at the New York Times do not understand that economists often use medical journals as outlets for papers with sexy topics but weak identification.

I got this from someone on Facebook - maybe Pierre Leget?

What s/he said

Some gendered academic humor from News of Ann Arbor.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Statistics professor salaries ...

... from the American Statistical Association.

These are closer to economics salaries than I recall them being in the past. As with economists, there is a lot of demand for statisticians (at least certain types of them, again like economists) in the private and government sectors, which keeps the salaries up.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Gregg Bell on former Washington football coach Don James and his memories of Husky stadium.

More on security theater

Wired reports on a critique of the TSA by a former security adviser to Delta airlines.

Scary and frustrating reading but, on the plus side, should World War 1 break out again, we are ready with our Maginot Line.

A nation of twits?

The Daily Mail reports that the U.S. National Archives plans to retain every public tweet ever sent on Twitter.

So, watch what you say ...

Hat tip: Charlie Brown, who also suggested the title of the post.

WIA is wonderful, or not

Actually, WIA - the Workforce Investment Act - appears to be wonderful only if you do not understand that the performance measures that the government uses for quantitative monitoring of the program have nothing to say about whether or not the program adds value.

Some people called FutureWork Systems, who I think make their money providing services to local WIA programs, have produced a web site, called the WIA dashboard, the neatly summarizes the performance measures. For example, if you click through, you will learn that WIA provided services to about 2.75 million people in the last four quarters for which data are available. At the bottom of the table, the site claims that this is the number of people who "benefit from" the program, but in fact this is wrong on two counts. First, some of the people who benefit from the program are not counted, such as the people who run businesses like FutureWork Systems.

More importantly, providing services is not the same as producing a benefit. The statistics in the table are all about inputs and outcomes, and not at all about impacts, which must be measured relative to the counterfactual of what would have happened to the service recipient had he or she not participated in the program. The data from earlier experimental (i.e. wannabe participants were randomly assigned to the offer of participation or not) evaluations of similar programs make clear that outcome levels and impacts are very different indeed. At the extreme, the predecessor to WIA, the Job Training Partnership Act, was estimated to reduce the average earnings of its male out-of-school youth participants relative to the counterfactual.

The site will also tell you that about 900,000 adult and dislocated worker participants were "placed" in employment. Of course, if you click on the definition at the bottom, you will learn that "placed" here does not really mean placed, it just means that they somehow found a job. In many cases, that job will have nothing to do with whatever services they received from WIA.

Sadly, one must conclude that the people at FutureWorks are either clueless about the difference between outcome levels and impacts relative to a counterfactual, or they know the difference, but are deliberately trying to mislead the innocents who happen to find their website. In either case, shame on them.

And you know, just as an aside, this topic is so important that someone ought to write a book about it.

Hat tip: Carolyn Heinrich, who forwarded an email about the site from someone misleadingly called "Geoff Smith". That email begins with "WIA Matters! Let's show 'em our impact".  Too bad they have no impacts to show.

Modern ruin: mini-golf edition

Is there anything sadder than an abandoned miniature golf course?

This one is actually in Sweden, which one might of thought would have some sort of preservation mechanism for these important cultural institutions.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ann Arbor's dumbest criminals

A man walked into the TCF Bank at 125 Briarwood Circle about 10 this morning and demanded money, Ann Arbor police Sgt. Pat Hughes said. A teller gave him an undisclosed amount of money, and he left the bank on foot, Hughes said. Reports indicated the man got on an AATA bus headed for Ypsilanti, Hughes said.
The suspect, a 30-year-old man from Ypsilanti, got off the bus in the area of Hawkins and Franklin Streets and was arrested by Ypsilanti Police Department officers, Hughes said. The money the man had taken from the bank was recovered at the scene, Hughes said.
Full story here. How does one get past thinking "and then I'll make my getaway on the bus" without breaking into gales of laughter and giving up on the whole idea?

Hat tip: Charlie Brown, who noted that perhaps he should have stolen a bike first.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Italy, where anyone can be minister of agriculture

A comedy of errors ensues as Italy assembles a new government.

Special bonus Canadian content!

Hat tip: Charlie Brown, who suggests that a similar model may explain how some of our friends ended up becoming associate deans.

Lost in translation: alcohol edition

Via Arthur Robson on Facebook, who adds "the pleasure was mine".

Elect an economist to Congress

Michigan economics grad student Daniel Marcin takes on 12th District incumbent (since before I was born) John Dingleberry.

I wish him well. I even agree with most of his positions, though he should be clearer that the post office loses its legal monopoly under his proposed scheme. Oh, and carbon taxes good, CAFE standards bad. But he knows that.

Plus, and this is pure bonus goodness, Dan did his undergraduate work at Maryland, so corrupt old lefty Dingell had just better Fear the Turtle.

Junior job talk skit

A skit about junior job talks from the Wisconsin economics winter party. Actually, my senior job talk there was a lot like this too.

Good stuff, and good preparation for our students on the market.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Movie: The Descendants

A.O. Scott at the New York Times liked "The Descendants" better than I did, but I still liked it very much. We are in agreement about the very strong supporting cast. The writing is also exemplary, as is the cinematography. I found George Clooney just a bit less compelling here than in Up In the Air, and I could have done without the vaguely political land development subplot. But, overall, a fine mix of comedy and drama.


An enviable sentence

This is the best sentence I read all day:
The business school is the place on campus where only the library books are unemployed.
I will not credit the colleague whose email contained it and must surely note that I like it not because of any concerns about Michigan's business (or busyness, as yet another colleague would have it) school, which has very fine students and faculty, but rather just because it is so clever with language.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Snyder on Michigan workforce development

Michigan governor Rick Snyder offers his thoughts and proposals for redesigning Michigan's workforce development system. The workforce development system is a catch-all term for the various employment and training programs financed under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) along with the lower end of the state higher education system (i.e the community colleges and the directional schools) and various other bits. has a summary and a link to the underlying document.

My read is that Snyder's proposal is a bit of a mixed bag. It is not clear, for example, what value there is to having the state run its own on-line site to match employers and workers when there already are some very good ones out there, such as Providing labor market information can be useful if it is done well; similarly the "career investment calculator" will be good or awful depending on the details of implementation. The evidence base for self-employment assistance for the unemployed is a mixed bag, but you can find some support for it. I do very much like his idea of allowing in more skilled immigrants. And so on and so on.

Evidence, huh?

From Brookings, a call for using actual evaluation evidence to make budget decisions.

The awe-inspiring non-seriousness of the current US policy formation among members of both the red and blue teams is well illustrated by the fact that such a piece has to be written.

How do these people look themselves in the mirror? It truly is beyond me. The only possible legitimate justification for taking money by force from people (that would be taxes) and spending it on social programs (other than straight transfers) can be that it is being spent on programs that have credibly been shown to pass serious cost-benefit tests. What percentage of US social pending meets this test? One? Less than one?


Finding the secret nuclear bunker

Hat tip: Arthur Robson on Facebook