Monday, August 27, 2012

LaLonde on WIA book

Bob Lalonde reviews the recent Upjohn book, edited by Doug Besharov and Phoebe Cottingham, on the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) (journal access required). The book grew out of a mini-conference held to inform the Europeans of the lessons they could learn from the US experience with active labor market programs.

The review has wise words about the difficulties of non-experimental evaluation of active labor market programs like WIA, about the lack of policy response to evaluation results, and about performance management.  I particularly liked this bit on the latter topic:
A very closely related problem turns on the merits of using performance measures to proxy for rigorous impact estimates. Since these measures were first conceived during the CETA program, attempts to refine them so they actually “work” have amounted to the workforce development field's equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail. Like its predecessor quest, so far this effort has been futile. There is no convincing evidence that using performance measures as a proxy is a good idea and lots of evidence against it. As explained by Burt Barnow in his chapter here, “Lessons from the WIA Performance Measures,” workforce performance measures do not correlate well with program impacts. That really should not be a surprise, because coming up with reliable performance measures requires that we be able to confidently and consistently solve the evaluation problem.
Though nominally aimed at the Europeans, there is much that US policymakers could learn from the book as well. They could also learn from the Europeans (at least some of them) about how to increase the quality of non-experimental program evaluations via better administrative data.

You can order the book from Upjohn (or Amazon) and you can read the final draft of my chapter for free. They made me take out the bit about Farrell's from the book version, so I actually prefer the final draft.

Movie: ParaNorman

ParaNorman is a fine bit of fluff with some good humor - I quite enjoyed Courtney, the airhead older sister - and a nice message - be nice to people who are different - though not one that is subtly delivered. As the NYT reviewer notes, the animation is beautiful and fun as well.

Recommended if you have kids.

What Jim Tressel is up to

Former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressell is now the "Vice President for Strategic Engagement" at the University of Akron.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Move over Tina Fey

The Daily Mail reports that it is a big week for "Lisa Ann", the "adult entertainer" who looks like Sarah Palin.

Contra Lisa Ann, it is not clear to me that voting for someone because they are hot is worse than voting for them because they promise to take things from other people and give them to you.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

[Text updated to reflect the fact that the FT and the Daily Mail are not the same]

You might be a redneck if ...

... you think Jeff Foxworthy's new game show is a good idea on any of several different levels.

Via: an ad for the show on NFL network (sic)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

FT on corporate mindfulness

The FT surveys the growth of corporate wellness programs that include aspects of "mindfulness", pop Buddhism, yoga and other spiritual tricks for daily living.

I am sympathetic to the idea that periods of quiet and reflection can improve one's life, but the supposed "scientific" evidence cited in the article is pretty miserable.

The first bit consists of participant evaluations:
The company has even begun research into its efficacy, and the early results are striking. After one of Marturano’s seven-week courses, 83 per cent of participants said they were “taking time each day to optimise my personal productivity” – up from 23 per cent before the course. Eighty-two per cent said they now make time to eliminate tasks with limited productivity value – up from 32 per cent before the course. And among senior executives who took the course, 80 per cent reported a positive change in their ability to make better decisions, while 89 per cent said they became better listeners.
Smith, Whalley and Wilcox mock these sorts of questions and provide evidence from an active labor market program that they do not correlate with impacts estimated in more compelling econometric ways.

And then there is this:
Other companies have found that such programmes can generate both health benefits and cost savings. Aetna, partnering with Duke University School of Medicine, found that one hour of yoga a week decreased stress levels in employees by a third, reducing healthcare costs by an average of $2,000 a year.
The main problem with this, of course, is that we do not learn the methods the companies used to find this amazing reductions in health care costs. Did they do random assignment? Did they compare participants to non-participants without controls? Did they compare participant health costs before and after the program? Two of those methods typically yield rubbish, one does not. The second problem with this is that the estimate does not really pass the smell test. Employees are large corporations do not have high average health care costs. If they did, in most cases they would not be working. For this group, a $2000 impact would be really large, so large, I suspect, as to be implausible.

I think the FT author needs to meditate a bit on methodology, as well as on his bodily sensations.

Booth School reunion

Megan McArdle tells about going to the reunion of her MBA class at Chicago Booth.

I liked this bit, about her time at Merrill Lynch:
"... I was not a good fit with Merrill's very conservative culture. I felt as if I'd decided to intern with a mathematically gifted baboon tribe, and I'm sure they were just as puzzled by me."
Probably I like it because it was from Merrill that I learned not to have a broker.

Life after the NFL

A feel-good story from the Seattle Times on what former Seahawks QB Jon Kitna is up to.

Hat tip: Ken Troske

The Economist on Romney

Wise words from the Economist on Mr. Mitt.

He is almost a movie parody of a candidate who wants to win based entirely on form rather than substance.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Assorted links

1. Waiting for Ditka.  Iron Mike's great year was my first year of gradual school.

2. Social scientists ignore religion at their peril.

3. That flushing sound is your tax dollars going down the toilet at Bongz and Thongz, closely preceded by the K2.

4. FT interview with Rufus Wainwright.

5. An optimistic view of the robot apocalypse.

Hat tip on #5 to Jess Goldberg.

Tyler's sobering thought

Tyler says:
The United States circa 2012 is one of the most productive economies of all time, arguably the most productive if you take into account size and diversification (rules out Norway, etc.).  Internationally speaking, in the richest and most productive global economy of all time, which is our most competitive sector?
Hollywood?  Maybe, but it could well be higher education.  Students from all over the world want to go to U.S. higher education.  If we had nicer immigration authorities, this advantage would be all the more pronounced.
In other words, I work in what is perhaps the most competitive and successful sector in the most competitive and successful economy of all time.
And yet what I see around me is a total, total mess.  And I believe my school to be considerably above average in terms of how well it is run.

For those wondering about the total mess part, here is a local example. Oy.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Assorted links

1. The dull life of an investment banker.

2. A gift for your friends from Kansas.

3. Michele Bachmann's God at the American Sociological Association meetings.

4. American Sociological Association versus Gencon

5. The aura of logical distortion from Ph.D. comics.

Hat tip on #1 to Charlie Brown and on #5 to Jessica Goldberg; #4 is via

This sounds really familiar ...

Via Arthur Robson on Facebook

Lunch changes at the Ann Arbor public schools

What better way to create little carnivores than vegetarian school lunches?

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Why UM lost to Appalachian State ....

According to this link, provided by the chair of the Appalachian State economics department, it was because the Michigan players were both unprepared and high.

Oh dear.

Hat tip: Ken Troske

Economists for Romney (or Obama)

Smart words from Larry Kotlikoff on why economists should not be in the business of endorsing presidential candidates.

He does undermine his own point a bit later in the piece by making political statements (with which I agree, though that is not the point) about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Full disclosure: I was offered the opportunity to sign the "Economists for Romney" statement and declined.

Via Lones Smith (no relation other than that we went to gradual school together and used to be colleagues at Michigan) on Facebook

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book: Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls, by Hershel Shanks

Shanks, Hershel, ed. 1993. Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reader from the Biblical Archaeology Review. New York: Random House / Vintage.

I bought Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls at the bookshop at Masada in Israel when I was there for a conference in April. It was one of a handful of serious books in the midst of mountains of cookbooks and other tourist fare.  As the name suggests, it is a collection of articles from a journal called the Biblical Archaeology Review on topics related to the dead sea scrolls.

The essays range widely. It turns out that the scrolls have an interesting recent history, including all kinds of religious and scholarly politics. As one example, apparently the tradition in archaeology is to assign written artifacts to particular scholars to take a first pass at; in the case of the scrolls, some ended up unpublished for decades as a result. This eventually occasioned protests and change. And then there was the member of the inner cabal of scholars controlling the scrolls who turned out to be a rather nasty sort of anti-semite.

The earlier history is, of course, interesting too, as a number of the pieces try to sort out the relationship between the settlement at Qumran (also worth a visit), near the caves where the scrolls were found, the scrolls themselves, and developments in both Jewish and Christian history.

Highly recommended if you are into this sort of thing.

Miles Kimball's blog

My macro/happiness colleague Mile Kimball has been blogging for a while now, and I have been slow to take notice.  The blog, entitled "Confessions of a Supply Side Liberal" is now on the blog roll to the right.

The two most recent post highlight an amusing piece on taxes by Scott Adams of Dilbert fame in the Wall Street Journal and a "review" of Miles' blog from his undergraduate EC 10 lecturer at Harvard. The latter includes some personal background about Miles.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Books: Crossing the Finish Line

Bowen, William, Matthew Chingos and Michael McPherson. 2009. Crossing the Finish Line. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

This is an important and useful book. The authors have used their stature within the higher education world to obtain truly remarkable data on students at state flagship universities as well as in several entire state college systems. They have used the data to study issues related to degree completion, motivated by generally low degree completion rates among US undergraduates. The authors clearly understand that the optimal degree completion rate does not equal one for the reasons laid out in Manski's classic article: higher education is to some extent an experience good, and some people learn that it is not a good match for their talents and interests and so optimally drop out. At the same time, they argue that current completion rates are too low. The focus of the book is about how to increase the completion rate among those who presently start a college program; I would have liked to hear a bit more about how to improve completion rates by doing a better job of sorting students into post-secondary options, including the labor market, without spending huge amounts of public dollars - recall that state college tuition is always heavily subsidized and that many students receive subsidized loans and grants as well - having them experience the experience good prior to dropping out.

I particularly enjoyed and learned from the bits of the book about the predictors of college success. It turns out that high school grades do a better job of predicting college completion than do SAT or ACT test scores. This is somewhat surprising given the wide variance in high school quality, but perhaps not completely surprising given that the dependent variable is completion and that grades at any high school have a lot to say about the student's ability to show up and get things done on a regular basis over an extended period of time.

The book also devotes some attention to the "mismatch" hypothesis that worries about whether students may be less likely to complete college if they go to a college where they are in one of the tails of the ability distribution. Most of the literature until a few years ago focused on weak students at very selective colleges, usually with an eye toward affirmative action policies. More recently, the literature has started to worry about over-qualified students who attend relatively weak schools in order to save money, be with the friends, or just to party more.  The authors do a good job of documenting these phenomena in the data and explaining why over-qualification deserves at least as much attention from those who worry about such things as does under-qualification. At the same time, they could have done a better job of citing the extant literature, which dates back at least to Light and Strayer (2000) in the Journal of Human Resources. They also, at times, are not clear if the issue is mismatch or just a main effect in college quality. That is to say, if a strong student goes to a weak school, do they drop out at high rates because everyone at the weak school drops out at a high rate or because strong students at weak schools drop out differentially more than the same students would at a better college. My own (preliminary) work on this question with Eleanor Dillon of Arizona State suggests that all the action is in the main effects of college quality and student ability, but the published literature is mixed.

The final thing I would have liked to see more of in regard to mismatch is explicit cost-benefit analysis. Consider a student who decides to attend the local directional school rather than the state flagship in order to save money by living at home (and perhaps paying somewhat lower tuition as well), despite being well-qualified for the flagship. From the standpoint either of the student (and his or her family) or society, did the student make a bad decision, viewed solely in terms of expected earnings? This is less clear and would merit a more quantitative analysis.

Still, despite my quibbles, this book is an important example of the power of good data, combined with careful analysis and thoughtful interpretation, to shed light on important  issues. For those with an interest in higher education and related policy issues, it is well worth reading.

The advance of our robot overlords

The NYT describes how advances in robotic technology are transforming manufacturing and distribution.

The article is chock full of interesting tidbits, including spillovers from data storage algorithms and video games to robotics. It is also one more reminder about the real-world importance of capital-labor substitution.

The NYT can't seem to decide if the robots are cool or ominous, and so settles for going back and forth between the two views. I guess that is "objective" journalism.

Hat tip: (!)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Assorted links

1. The goose man.

2. When the mistress of the dead boss sues the company that fired her after he died.  Good stuff.

3. Why I am not a Republican #7890503845.

4. Term of the day; redshirt

5. This looks like fun: pay to drive over a car with a tank.

Hat tip on #1 to Jackie Smith, on #2 to Charlie Brown, on #3 to Ken Troske, on #4 to Dan Drezner and on #5 to Fox News.

Drezner on dissertation prospectuses

Dan is in good form here discussing common maladies in political science dissertation prospectuses.

Awkward dissertation proposals tend to take a somewhat different form in economics, at least in my experience. Usually the student has fallen in love not with some particular author but with some particular insight that, while it might make a great second or third contribution to a paper, is not really able to sustain a paper all by its lonesome, or, if it is, that paper will end up in an obscure journal, rather than in (at worst) a top field journal, which is what students should be aiming for with their job market papers (which in economics are the lead essay in a "three essays on stuff" dissertation).

Movie: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Weepy and preachy but almost made worthwhile by A.O. Scott's scathing, and hilarious, review.

Take a pass on this one.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I pronounce a curse on ebay

Ebay has banned the sale of spells, hexes and prayers.

Really, ebay, let people do what they want.

Bieber graduates!

The NYT, trying to keep up with the Daily Mail, reports on the Biebster's high school graduation, but just can't quite remove its tongue from its cheek.

Hat tip: Elizabeth Smith

Subsidizing economics

Gary Becker and Jim Heckman write in the Wall Street Journal in support of subsidies to economic research, with reactions from Tyler Cowen and from John Cochrane.

My reaction is pretty close to John Cochrane's, though I would add a few things:

First, we should do some research on the effects of subsidies to economic research. What matters for the policy question at hand is not that NSF or NIH funded research that was useful, but the responsiveness of the quantity of such useful research to the volume of subsidies. If the hiring, promotion and tenure practices in top universities are working as they should, my prior is that the relevant elasticity is pretty low. Robert Moffitt is not going to run off and do corporate consulting because he does not get an NSF grant or an NIH grant.

Second, I concur with the point about data. Data are a public good. Existing data sets could be better documented and easier to use. The systems that structure researcher access to restricted data at e.g. the Bureau of Labor Statistics are oddly designed and overly bureaucratic. There is no good reason, for example, for either the BLS or the Census Bureau to even consider the content of the research being done. Instead, they should simplify certify that the researcher is a serious scholar and that adequate security is in place, and they should do so not on a project-by-project basis but once for each researcher and institution. There is much to improve here, some of which, such as better turn-around time on clearing results obtained using restricted data, that would merit additional funding. Other improvements, such as removing BLS and Census review of the substance of the research, requires legal changes. There are also more substantive improvements to existing data sets, as well as new types of data, that would merit government funding.

Third, the government can and should fund research evaluating government policies, which is, as it happens, is a big chunk of applied economics. Data collected for such research, as with the data from the National Supported Work Demonstration and the National JTPA Study I have used in my own work, often have huge research spillovers both substantive and methodological. And, of course, the government has a fiduciary duty to the longsuffering and much-abused taxpayer to ensure that tax money is spent only on programs with a solid evidentiary foundations. Much of the research that led to welfare reform in 1996 was not funded by NSF or NIH but rather grew out of a requirement that states do experimental evaluations of their welfare programs in exchange for the freedom to depart from federal program guidelines. That strategy should be repeated in other contexts and, more broadly, the government should spend relatively more money evaluating policies in serious ways and relatively less on the policies themselves, except for the (very, very small) subset of policies that already stand on serious evidence.

Fourth, the government can create useful variation. Policies can be designed in ways that make them relatively easy to evaluate (staged rollouts with rollout timing chosen at random, enforced discontinuous eligibility cutoffs, high quality administrative data) or in ways that make them hard to evaluate (nationwide roll-out at the same time, low quality and/or inaccessible administrative data). A clever policy design can generate a lot more useful knowledge at the margin than your average research grant. And, moreover, clever policy design is pretty much free and quality administrative data help program operations as well as evaluation.

Fifth, the federal government can support institutions that provide incentives to improve research quality. I have in mind here the What Works Clearinghouse that is funded by the Department of Education and operated by Mathematica Policy Research. The WWC has had a tremendous positive effect on the methodological quality of research in education, at a pretty low cost.

In short, while there are many margins in which the government can and, I would argue, should spend money and policy effort on economic research, I would argue that simply increasing the economics budgets at NSF and NIH is not the optimal strategy.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Economics Moment of Zen #5

"Do not use words like "dramatic". First of all, economics has no drama. Second, writing that something is dramatic eliminates the drama. Writing that something is "very big" makes it small."
From an anonymous referee report received by a student.

Supplier induced demand

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Uncle Bonsai and Chrstine Lavin in Sterling Heights

Uncle Bonsai plays is set to play a second 2012 show (!!) in the Detroit metro area, this time along with Christine Lavin.

The date is Dec. 8 and the place is Sterling Heights. Mark your calendar.

The Kochtopus and Little House on the Prarie

David Warsh holds his nose (not very successfully) and traces the intellectual links between the Koch brothers, oddly notorious funders of conservative and libertarian causes, and Little House on the Prairie.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Big Ten Network cuts academic programming

I did not even know the Big Ten Network had any academic programming until I saw this article. Perhaps some marketing would have helped?

Hat tip (a while ago): Charlie Brown

Reading the readers of 50 Shades of Grey

The Daily Mail describes what can be learned from the reading habits of those reading 50 Shades of Grey as an ebook.

Good stuff, and you don't really need to be an expert to predict correctly that data like these will shape how mass audience books get written.

The caption on the picture of "Alex" is pretty funny too.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Assorted links

1. McCayla is not impressed.

2. The FT at home with John Sununu.

3. Mayor Bloomberg doesn't like vibrators either. He is such a fun guy.

4. People (and animal) watching on the diag, from Nicely done.

5. Lap dancing and the business cycle.

Hat tip on #1 to Charlie Brown

Monday, August 13, 2012

Regression discontinuity goes to the Olympics

The Olympics provide a perfect illustration of Economics Moment of Zen #3.

Hat tip: Matias Busso

Sunday, August 12, 2012

KC and the Sunshine Band

This is someone's favorite song this week; we won't mention names, but she is five years old.

When the alternative is Justin Bieber, you take what you can get.

Oh, and they have a website, where you can find the commercial they did for Sun Life Financial.

God in silicon valley

The FT ponders religion among the tech crowd.  I particularly liked this bit:
Taken together, all these points illustrate the most widespread expression of religious values in the Valley – what English-Lueck calls a “cheerful mash-up of religions”. The Valley’s steady flow of immigrants has brought a diverse collection of religions to the area, with Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism, receiving a particularly warm welcome. The practice-based, disciplined nature and the lack of a deity appeal to the intellectual side of engineers, and make it a good match for blending with traditional monotheistic religions. Jewish Buddhists – “Jew-Bus” – and Christian-Buddhists are common.
“We’re seeing this curatorial effect, where people see a menu of spiritual practices and are unmooring them from traditional contexts,” says Rachel Hatch, research director at the Institute for the Future, a research group. “They’re using that as a zone for self-improvement.”
I particularly liked the term "curatorial effect", which sounds more imposing than the term I have used in the past to describe this, namely "theological buffet", while also being broader, as it encompasses philosophical and other systems in addition to religious ones. 

Others read it so you don't have to

How come no one thought of this before? This Atlantic points to a website grades the terms of service that no one ever actually reads when they agree to things on the internet.

Hat tip: congressional candidate turned dissertation writer Dan Marcin

Economics Moment of Zen #4

"Please use a larger font size in your tables and use that as a discipline device in how many specifications you crowd into one table."

- Editor of top five journal.

Bertrand Russell's 10 Commandments

I like these a lot.

I would say that #1 is the most important.

#5 is too strong, as it implies assigning everyone else an equal weight of zero. No one has absolute authority, but some people are more worth listening to on particular topics than others.

I would amend #8 to note that one can, in many contexts, dissent without being a jerk, and that dissenting without being a jerk is sometimes more effective.

The Obama that I used to know

Note to the disappointed college kids who made the video: There's no Santa either. Or Easter Bunny.

Bummer about that.

The Daily Mail has more.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Economics Moment of Zen #3

"Just because the data are suited to the identification strategy doesn't mean the data are suited to answer the research question"

- Another anonymous reviewer of a paper for which I was an anonymous reviewer

Friday, August 10, 2012

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Assorted links

1. For the woman who has it all (or, rather, all but one).

2. A fine (old) rant from the honest courtesan.

3. A new major at UM

4. Is asexual the new sexual?

5. Advice to freshmen (freshpeople? freshpersons?) on what not to take to college.

Hat tip on #1 to an anonymous (female) friend.

News about the downtown Borders space ...

... from At those rents, I expect there will not be a bookstore. I miss shopping at Borders after a movie at the Michigan or the State. Now we sometimes wander over to Main Street for post-movie shopping but it would be nice to have something closer.

IZA Prize in Labor Economics to Richard Blundell

The Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit (literally, institute for the future of labor but officially translated as Institute for the Study of Labor), informally known as eye-zee-eh (for Americans) or eye-zed-eh (for Canadians and Brits) or eat-zah (rhymes with pizza, for Germans) has awarded their annual prize in labor economics to Richard Blundell of UCL.

This prize is very well deserved. Congratulations Richard!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An excellent Dilbert

Movie: Total Recall (2012)

Total Recall did not do very well with the critics - A.O. Scott trashes it at the NYT and it received just 30/100 at rotten tomatoes - and justifiably so. The acting is mediocre, there is surprisingly little heat, and the plot is incoherent and ridiculous. But the special effects are very, very cool. I particularly liked the urban landscapes/skyscapes in both London and "the colony" but the "drop" through the earth from one to the other is pretty cool too.

So, this is recommended only if you are willing to sit through a 120 minute movie just for the effects.

Marcin and the primary

UM graduate student Congressional candidate Dan Marcin did not win in yesterday's Michigan primary but he did get over 20 percent of the vote (the site lists all the R's and then all of the D's - the Congressional races are on top within party). That's about twice what I was expecting and pretty remarkable given the difference in expenditures, name recognition and free media coverage.

So, congrats to Dan!

White Market closing

The White Market in Ann Arbor is closing at the end of August.

When CVS and 7-11 both opened within a couple of blocks it was pretty clear how this was going to go.

My papers on my web page

I believe I have fixed my web page so that you can see the "papers" part in Google Chrome.

Thanks to UM grad student Max Farrell for adivce and assistance.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Productivity advice for academics

Useful tips from

I find that the most important thing is breaking up big projects into little pieces, and doing so "in advance" so that when I sit down to work I have a set of modest sized bites to choose from.

I still write in binges though, despite having tried many times to get into the equilibrium of writing for a couple of hours every day.

Movie: James and the Giant Peach

I wanted to like James and the Giant Peach, but I just couldn't. It feels like it had too many designers and, in the end, it does not make very much sense, even on its own terms.

The NYT was ambivalent too, though they liked it better than I did.

Recommended only in a dire, child-centered emergency.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Deaton v. Banerjee on RCTs

Short video summaries of a debate between economists Abhijit Banerjee and Angus Deaton on the merits and demerits of randomized control trials in development economics.

I think they're both right. When done well, experiments can provide compelling evidence that completely shuts down policy debates so that everyone can move on and work on other things, as with the US Department of Education's experimental evaluation of abstinence-only sex education curricula.

At the same time, Deaton is quite right that experiments can be executed well or poorly, and a poorly designed and/or executed randomized experiment will often provide evidence of lower quality than a well-designed and executed non-expermiental study. More broadly, I think Deaton with agree with my good friend Burt Barnow, who said "experiments are not a substitute for thinking". Indeed.

Hat tip: Rebecca Thornton

What foreigners think of the US

Some thoughts on how foreigners see America based on a heavily selected sample, but still of interest.

I would agree that the flags are creepy at times and the portions are too big.

The miracle of the traffic is stronger away from the northeast and the beltway. I had friends in college from the east coast who marveled at the level of social capital on display on Seattle highways.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Assorted links

1. Do you really need more reasons not to marry a divorce lawyer?

2.  A fine rant about Mayor Bloomberg's empirically baseless call for police strikes over gun control.

3. Amish population boom.

4. Mick and Angolina? And so many more. The Daily Mail provides the graphic details.

5. Mocking the press reaction to the Aurora shootings.

Hat tip on #1 and #4 to Charlie Brown.

The Far Side on non-classical measurement error

What the pill wrought

I have been remiss in not posting about my colleague Martha Bailey's research, co-authored with recent UM doctoral student Brad Hershbein, now at Ujpjohn, and Amalia Miller, on the labor market impacts of the birth control pill.  The NYT Economix blog provides a fine summary.

Good stuff.

First Husky football post for the fall

The dry season (which in my world stretches from the Super Bowl to the first college game) is nearing its end. Practice starts at the University of Washington tomorrow, and the NFL pre-season starts tonight.  In that spirit, some pre-season questions about the Huskies from the Seattle Times and and, from the same source, an update on the broadcasting career of former UW quarterback Brock Huard.

Mixed marriages

The Economist on variation in the fraction of mixed marriages across countries.

Mixed marriages have always struck me as an unalloyed good, as they blur the boundaries that people would like to draw between groups.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mommy, where did 50 Shades of Grey come from?

It turns out that BDSM mega-seller 50 Shades of Grey originated as fan fiction! Who knew?

Lots of interesting history and some discussion, too shallow for my taste but still substantive, of the legal issues in going from unpaid fan fiction to a giant book contract.

I do think the author overstates the case in terms of the demise of gatekeepers. Ayn Rand and Richard Bach, as well as numberless other writers of self-help, romance, and western books sold lots of books back in the pre-internet days, all without approval, and sometimes with active disapproval, from gatekeeping scolds.

Book: The Trouble with Tom, by Paul Collins

Collins, Paul. 2005. The Trouble with Tom. London, Bloomsbury.

I purchased The Trouble with Tom in a bookstore in York, England, when I was there for a conference, for just four pounds. It is a wonderful crazy book about American revolutionary figure Tom Paine, his life, various free-thinkers and radicals he interacted with, as well as the strange tail of his remains. I can't summarize it better than to say that my primary thought while reading it was: "John DiNardo would really like this."


Note: the link is to the US edition, rather than the UK edition, which is the one that I read.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Book: Forged, by Bart Ehrman

Ehrman, Bart. 2011. Forged. NY: HarperOne.

Forged is another of Ehrman's fascinating books that, among other things, translate the academic historical literature on issues related to religion into readable form for the intelligent non-specialist. It is also another stage, as the introduction makes clear, in Ehrman's personal journey away from the conservative evangelical views on Christian history and theology of his youth.

Ehrman lays out the evidence regarding the authorship of various new testament books. In some cases, pretty much all scholars agree that a particular book was not written by the nominal author; in others, the case is more controversial. Ehrman does a fine job of explaining why, at a time when Christian theology was much more heterogeneous and unsettled than it is now, people would want to label their own views with the names of famous others, and how those attributions stuck down to the present day.

Ehrman also addresses what is apparently the standard response among conservative scholars to the evidence of biblical books not being written by their nominal authors, which is "sure, some of the books were not written by their nominal authors, but that was not a big deal back in those days". This part of the book deals not only with religious writings but with the general problem of forgery in the agent world. Indeed, for me one of the most interesting things about the book was learning and thinking about the problems of publishing and what we would now call copyright protection given the technology available at the time.

Recommended, if you are into this sort of thing.

Zombie neighborhoods

A different name for the zombie neighborhoods considered in this Atlantic Cities piece by Richard Florida would be neighborhoods in which houses have negative prices.

I agree with Florida that bulldozing the houses is not a solution except in the sense that covering a skin condition with makeup is a solution. I disagree with him about community activism being the primary solution. Surely it can't hurt, but these neighborhoods are not rich with educated people who can write grant applications or with the sort of people who can lead major organizational efforts. Those people have moved out.

It seems to me that the main reason houses in, say, Detroit, sometimes have negative prices is government failure. The houses would have positive value in functioning jurisdictions, sometimes substantial positive value. The reason they lack positive value is that they are located in places where public goods, most particularly safety in person and property, but also public utilities and schools, are insufficiently provided. That is a problem that won't be solved by the wanton destruction of physical capital that could be valuable in other states of the world.

Movie: Your Sister's Sister

We Your Sister's Sister last night at the State Theater in Ann Arbor.

Two bits of A.O. Scott's review (which ends rather suddenly as though he ran out of time before his deadline, capture the spirit):
You could call “Your Sister’s Sister” a group portrait of youthful solipsists in an era of economic contraction and social malaise, but that wouldn’t be quite right. Self-absorption is not the subject; it is the paint.
Unfortunately the easygoing mood does not last. The film’s late swerves into melodrama and the neighboring region of farce feel panicky and pandering. The subtlety of the performances — Ms. DeWitt’s in particular — is sacrificed for easy laughs, shallow tears and a coy trick ending. Just when it was starting to get interesting.
Not a perfect movie, but I liked it better than either A.O. Scott or my wife.  It is gentle fun, and you get a lot of really, really gorgeous Pacific Northwest scenery.

Oh, and a note to A.O. Scott, the cabin is on an island in Puget Sound, not on the coast. Get your map out, man!


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pre-internet blogging

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

The Chronicle approves

... of Michigan hiring Justin and Betsey.

A note to the Chronicle writer (and shouldn't they get this stuff right?): Justin and Betsey have done many wonderful things but they were not the first people to notice that the American divorce rate has been falling for decades.  Saying so is a good way to piss off the entire field of demography though.

Mechanism design, badminton, and job training

Seems to me that the Olympics has it all wrong when it disqualifies badminton players for optimizing relative to the problem that has been handed to them. To my mind, when agents do things you do not want them to do but are optimizing relative to the mechanism they face, the fault lies with the mechanism designer, not the agents.

That's true in badminton just as it is in job training, when local offices of the Workforce Investment Act cream-skim the best among their applicants because their performance is judged based on post-program employment rates.

The cheap talkers are already on the case, suggesting better mechanisms.

Hat tip: ASAK

Addendum: Crooked Timber on "rule of law fetishists". CT has a point in the sense that it is often more efficient to rely on informal norms than on formal law, particularly around the edges. But in that case, the correct sanctions are social, not official.

Hat tip: Scott

UM observatory

Michigan Today tells the story of the observatory at the University of Michigan. The observatory is currently run by the library (!) as an historical exhibit.

Fred Willard

This is a real shame on several dimensions. First of all, who the hell cares? Second, why are the police wasting resources sending officers into adult theaters? Are there no unsolved murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries, frauds, or assaults in LA? Really? Are the police really all the way down the "to do" list into the zone of shutting down unregistered lemonade stands and hanging out at the adult cinema? Methinks the LA police need a budget cut and some new management.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

More on Marcin

More coverage of the congressional campaign of UM economics gradual student Dan Marcin.

The division of book topics is limited by the extent of the book market

A book on double-dating with your dad (the cover is worth the click-through). I did go along with my dad on some post-divorce dates, but was not asked to bring along a date of my own. Instead, I got to sit out in the car listening to the radio at the end of the evening.

On vague advice from faculty

One of my graduate students sent me this comic, I am sure because it reminded him/her of some of my colleagues.

Warsh on LIBOR

A fine summary of the multiple facets of the LIBOR scandal(s).