Saturday, August 31, 2013

Is economics a science?

The NYT has some thoughts on the matter.

Two factual errors right of the bat:
The fact that the discipline of economics hasn’t helped us improve our predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science, and may never be. Still, the misperceptions persist. A student who graduates with a degree in economics leaves college with a bachelor of science, but possesses nothing so firm as the student of the real world processes of chemistry or even agriculture.
Trivially, many economics degrees (including mine) are bachelor of arts degrees rather than bachelor of science degrees. This is easy to check, these science-minded authors (and the armies of fact-checkers at the NYT) could not be bothered.

More importantly, how is it a fact that economics has no predictive power? Economists find evidence consistent with their theories all the time. The journals are filled with such evidence. Demand curves sure seem to slope down pretty much always and everywhere. Socialism (the real kind where the government runs the economy) actually did collapse due to the coordination problems outlined in the socialist calculation debate. Even more esoteric bits of economics like signalling models have fine bodies of evidence. This sure seems like predictive power to me.

As with other articles of this sort, the authors suffer from two primary confusions. First, they confuse a subset of macroeconomics with all of economics. More importantly, they fail to see that a theory that predicts what we cannot predict is itself interesting, useful and compelling. John Cochrane at Chicago has made this point forcefully on his blog (not the exact post I remember ... couldn't find that one). Indeed, they fail to even mention this possibility.

A secondary confusion is that they talk as though theory were useful for policy without evidence, a view in the spirit of that advanced by some Austrian economists. In my experience, knowing the sign of a relationship, which is what theory typically provides, rarely suffices to make actual policy choices. Usually you need magnitudes as well, as theory often lays out forces operating in opposite directions.

In short, I read this piece as a great big muddle.

Hat tip: Tanya Byker

Friday, August 30, 2013

Movie: I'm So Excited!

I'm So Excited got amazingly half-hearted reviews given that it comes from famous Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. I agree that it is not his best, but it is a pleasant enough bit of fluff in his signature style. I suspect that it is just a bit too 70s for our more serious age.

It is worth noting, too, that both the NYT and the other review I looked at (can't recall just where) interpret the movie outside its Spanish cultural context. Spain is still both getting over the extreme cultural conservatism of the Franco years and trying to distract itself from pretty serious economic challenges.

In any case, recommended, if you don't mind a lot of sex, drugs and disco (including a truly hilarious dance routine to the song in the movie's title).

Foreign policy Shatners

As we appear to be about to embark on another ill-considered war, this list of 20th century US foreign policy mistakes (he calls them Shatners for reasons explained in his post) from Dan Drezner is particularly apposite.

I would drop the one about the League of Nations and replace it with one about entering World War 1. I would replace one of the others, I am not sure which, with the failure of the US to open its doors wide to immigration by European Jews during the 1930s.

Under-representation of STEM majors in popular culture

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Retake Montlake

The Seattle Times on the look and feel of the remodeled Husky Stadium, which premieres this Saturday with Washington's season-opening game against Boise State.

Addendum: you can even get a jigsaw puzzle of the new stadium.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Paper: Higher education structure by Cory Koedel

Koedel, Cory. 2011. "Higher Education Structure and Education Outcomes: Evidence from the USA." Education Economics.

This paper documents substantial differences across states in their higher education (HE) structures and highlights several empirical relationships between these structures and individuals’ HE outcomes. Not surprisingly, individuals who are exposed to more-fractionalized HE structures are more likely to attend small public universities and less likely to attend large public universities. Exposure to more-fractionalized structures is also associated with increased degree attainment and increased exits from the in-state public-university system (to private and out-of-state public universities). These findings highlight potentially important tradeoffs related to state policy on HE structure.

Older (non-gated) version here.

I like this paper not because I find the causal estimation that convincing but because I think it addresses a really interesting and important topic that is rarely studied or even discussed, which is the optimal design of public state university systems. If you read the literature, there is lots of praise for Clark Kerr and the California system, but this largely has to do, I think, with the fact that he was a charismatic and well-known administrator, not because of any particular body of systemic evidence.  This paper provides some descriptive evidence on the variation in fractionalization among states and attempts a causal analysis. Because the only real variation is cross-sectional (as university systems are slow-moving beasts), this is at best suggestive, but it is also all you can do. There is more to be done here along e.g. the quality dimension.

Assorted links

1. A truly awe-inspiring pun, all the better for including the word "penultimate", which is one of my favorites.

2. A history of the bikini from Slate. I had no idea where the name came from but now I know.

3. Some history about the newly renovated law quad at Michigan.

4. Everything is okay now.

5. I really enjoyed this page that MR linked to about things that everyone in an occupation knows that outsiders do not.

Hat tip on #1 to Tanya Byker. #4 via the Honest Courtesan.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

PAC-12 Network on Comcast in Ann Arbor

Hurrah! It is channel 717, as I just verified by watching two minutes of slick Rick - he does get around - talk about WSU's prospects.

Now if I can figure out how to get it on the ipad ...

Movie: Blue Jasmine

Wow. There was a noticeable collective drawing in of breath at the end of the (well-populated) screening of Blue Jasmine last night at the Michigan Theater. It is that good. And Cate Blanchett's performance is really that good.

NYT review here. They like it too.

Highly recommended.

Assorted links

1. What to do when the neighbors are too loud in bed (from the Atlantic!)

2. Piers of the realm. I want to visit one of these piers.

3. A pinball machine museum near Ann Arbor.

4. Signs you might not be a real libertarian, from the Daily Kos (?).

5. Update on Timbuktu from the FT.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Authorial Moment of Zen #1

"Hell is where someone edits your work into the passive voice."

Zoe McLaren on Facebook

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Assorted links

1. Borders resurfaces in Singapore

2. Arbor Hills shopping center opens across the street from the Whole Foods temple.

3, Sue Dynarksi explains Finnish educational success.

4, Does this critique actually apply to more than one famous economist? I don't think so.

5, Ginger Ambition offers post-graduation life advice.

Restaurant: Belly Deli

I tried Belly Deli last week at the suggestion of my teaching assistant for my graduate course this fall. It is in the space that No Thai! vacated when they moved to larger digs in the ground floor of one of the new luxury student apartment buildings.

Belly Deli offers Asian Fusion food, including the tasty pork "Belly Sammy" that I had.

And they surely deserve some bonus points for picking a name that is a pun on a euphemism for diarrhea.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Assorted links

1. NPR on the anniversary of the drive-in theater. I have an especially fond memory of the Fife drive-in.

2. Politics Texas style, with cats. It is indeed a marvel that anything works at all.

3. Is Linda Lovelace a good guide to the adult film industry?

4. The shrinking (relative) role of tenured professors. I am not sure that this is such a bad thing.

Hat tip on #2 to Charlie Brown.

Book: The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot by Bart Ehrman

Ehrman, Bart. 2006. The Lost Gospel of Judas Escariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed. Oxford University Press.

This book tells the tale of a lost gospel found in Egypt late in the last century and ultimately liberated into the public eye by National Geographic. Really, there are two stories here, perhaps three. One story is the history of the manuscript itself, the highlight of which is a 16 year stay in a safe-deposit box in a bank on Long Island. It turns out that this is a bad way to store ancient papyrus manuscripts. Who would have guessed? The other story, or stories, relates the contents of the gospel, and describes their relationship to the gnostic Christianity of the centuries immediately after Jesus' death. This gospel is unique in that it treats Judas as the hero among the disciples. An important part of the second story, then, is why someone might write such a gospel, what it might mean that they did, and how it fits in with various ancient theologies. I found the book fascinating throughout, though it has the feeling of being a tiny bit rushed (perhaps to meet the timetable of the National Geographic special) and it is aimed a little lower in terms of the reader's prior knowledge than the other Ehrman books I have read (though it is still not a book for general readers).

Recommend if you are into such things.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Assorted links

1. Law professors misbehaving.

2. Blimpy Burger: the final hours.

3. Capital-labor substitution in fast food.

4. Fun with statues.

5. Megan is correct about brokers. Avoid them.

Hat tip on #1 to Charlie Brown.

Miles and Noah on getting an economics doctorate

I am generally in agreement with what Miles and Noah have to say, but would add or alter a few bits:

1. By all means do not just focus on the top five or 10 or 15 programs. The poster child here is probably Amitabh Chandra (now at the Kennedy School), whose doctorate is from Kentucky. On my very first visit to Kentucky back in my assistant professor days, I was assigned to meet with Amitabh and told to talk him out of staying at Kentucky for his doctorate. I failed, but his career seems to have turned out fine anyway. The reason it turned out fine is that the faculty at Kentucky, who already knew Amitabh as a stellar undergraduate, treated him like a colleague throughout his doctoral studies. He got a lot more attention and opportunity than he would have at a top program. Example number two is my colleague Martha Bailey, whose doctorate is from Vanderbilt. What Amitabh and Martha have in common is a lot of internal drive, which you need to make this strategy work because there is less external pressure from peers and faculty outside the top departments.

2. You should take more than just one statistics course. If your college offers an upper econometrics track for undergraduates (many do, and Michigan will soon) take the whole thing. If an upper track is not available, be sure you do what you can and think about taking some courses in the statistics department as well.

3. Learn to program if you do not already know. Pretty much any reasonable programming language will do. Once you have learned one, others (including statistical packages like Stata or Matlab) are much easier to learn.

4. I think there can be more value in doing an MA first than Miles and Noah. This is particularly true if your undergraduate record is a bit weak and/or if you are unsure you really want to do a doctorate. The trick is then picking the correct MA program. Many are aimed at mid-career people adding a credential and not at people thinking about a doctorate. I recommend in particular the programs at UBC and Toronto. They have the added bonus of plugging you into a somewhat different network and letting you experience life in another country (assuming you are not Canadian).

5. It is harder to get someone to hire you as a research assistant, even at a zero money wage, than Miles and Noah suggest. The time cost to the professor is really large of having a research assistant. Paying that time cost for someone who turns out not to produce - it happens! - is something faculty really try hard to avoid. So if you want to do this, it is probably best to first make a good impression in a class, or in someone else's class who is willing to write an email of introduction for you to the person you want to work for.

6. Think about taking, or at least auditing, first-year graduate courses at your undergraduate institution. I did this at Washington, taking Gene Silberberg's excellent first quarter of graduate micro.

7. Getting a doctorate at a biz school with an economics group is at least as good as a straight-up economics program. It is easier to get in and you will likely have more financial aid and a nicer place to work. The same holds for some policy school doctoral programs.

From economist to poet

I did not know about this fellow Vikram Seth until yesterday. I will venture to say that this is a fairly unusual career path.

Hat tip: Caroline Theoharides

Friday, August 16, 2013

Conference on the liberal arts and sciences

You can now watch the videos and look at the slides from a conference on "The Liberal Arts and Sciences in the Research University Today" that was held here in Ann Arbor in the spring.

You can watch Paul Courant and me talk about the labor market effects of college and college major in the Thursday morning session. Watching myself is not as cringe-worthy as I was expecting. Keep in mind that the audience includes zero economists; instead it is mostly deanish types.

The conference was a fascinating cultural experience for me as it was very much not my usual crowd.

And I was surprised to see that what I think of as pretty short hair, relative to my halcyon youth in the late 1970s, actually looks pretty shaggy on the video.

Hot for teacher

The folks at (not safe for particularly puritanical workplaces) got the Daily Mail to bite on their press release about the many teachers on their website looking for financial aid.

Hat tip: anonymous colleague

Note to younger readers: the title of the post refers to this Van Halen song, which has a slightly different spin on the matter.

Monday, August 12, 2013

New working paper

The Determinants of Mismatch Between Students and Colleges
Eleanor Wiske Dillon and Jeffrey Andrew Smith
NBER Working Paper No. 19286
August 2013

We use the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 cohort to examine mismatch between student ability and college quality. Mismatch has implications for the design of state higher education systems and for student aid policy. The data indicate substantial amounts of both undermatch (high ability students at low quality colleges) and overmatch (low ability students at high quality colleges). Student application and enrollment decisions, rather than college admission decisions, drive most mismatch. Financial constraints, information, and the public college options facing each student all affect the probability of mismatch. More informed students attend higher quality colleges, even when doing so involves overmatching.

At last!

Addendum: Here is the write-up from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Note that the Chronicle treats the release of an NBER "working paper" as publication despite that absence of peer review (of the paper; the researcher has to be peer reviewed to get into NBER). Perhaps the NBER should rename their series to "Self-published papers by NBER affiliates".

Addendum: Here is the write-up from Insider Higher Ed, based on the author's interview with me.

Assorted links

1. When bad things happen to good people at Georgetown.

2. Matt Damon is a public policy hypocrite. Who knew?

3. On the economics of lesbian bars in NYC.

4. WTFWJD? I am with the vicar on this one.

5. The Economist on the history of Gibraltar. These little nationalist flare-ups are always a distraction from a government's domestic failures.

Hat tip on #4 to Charlie Brown.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Markets in everything: wedding elephants

In Toronto, you can rent Limba the elephant for your wedding from the Brownsville Zoo.  She comes complete with a trainer, a handler, food and wedding attire!

And all for only CA$6500 for four hours.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Minimum wages in the short run and the long

Megan McArdle on recent policy talk about the minimum wage.

The problem of confusing short run and long run impacts (or simply forgetting the distinction entirely) is hardly unique to the literature on minimum wages. The literature on "the" elasticity of taxable income has exactly the same problem. I think the underlying problem is the same in both cases (and in many others), which is that it is easier to provide compelling identification for short run effects than long run effects, and applied economics these days is too often willing to trade off policy relevance and the economics of the problem in exchange for clever and compelling identification.

With minimum wages, I think most of the story is about the substitution of capital for labor as in my favorite paper about the minimum wage.

When life gives you a lemon ...

you make lemonade.

But when life gives you a Weiner, you make an adult video, of course.


Monday, August 5, 2013

If Ayn Rand wrote a column in Parade

Some objectively funny Ayn Rand humor.

Hat tip: ASAK

Undergraduate admissions at Berkeley

A participant observer tale from the NYT.

I think more (conditional) randomization would make admissions to top schools both objectively fairer and more obviously fair to the students and parents (and the taxpayers).

And one is reminded of the line "Oh what a tangled web we weave ..."

Assorted links

1. A bit of maternal humor.

2. Lesson #1: diversify your portfolio.

3. Whatever happened to Tawana Brawley?

4. Wise words on inequality from Clive Crook.

5. Deans gone wild at UCLA.

Hat tip on #1 to Lisa Gribowski and on #2 to Charlie Brown. #3 and #5 via instapundit.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

More on Monica

I am surprised I never saw this piece before, which is surely the best thing I have ever read about Monica Lewinsky.

Is a dissertation not delayed ...

... a publication denied?

The NYT details a discussion of this issue in history.

Letting the dissertator choose seems like the best way to go to me, though no embargo should last more than a few years.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

A cool paper about C-sections

Physicians Treating Physicians: Information and Incentives in Childbirth
Erin M. Johnson, M. Marit Rehavi

NBER Working Paper No. 19242
Issued in July 2013

This paper provides new evidence on the interaction between patient information and financial incentives in physician induced demand (PID). Using rich microdata on childbirth, we compare the treatment of physicians when they are patients with that of comparable non-physicians. We exploit a unique institutional feature of California to determine how inducement varies with obstetricians' financial incentives. Consistent with PID, physicians are almost 10 percent less likely to receive a C-section, with only a quarter of this effect attributable to differential sorting of patients to hospitals or obstetricians. Financial incentives have a large effect on C-section probabilities for non-physicians, but physician-patients are relatively unaffected. Physicians also have better health outcomes, suggesting overuse of C-sections adversely impacts patient health.

In honor of football season being only a month away ...

Friday, August 2, 2013

Assorted links

1. A reminder of the good old days. Is Monica Lewinsky really 40?

2. Weiner campaign intern meltdown.

3. Private security in Detroit.

4. Dan Drezner on honest book acknowledgements.

5. Ann Arbor comes in second (!!!!) in a ranking of college towns from