Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A plague of COVID research by economists

Avinash Dixit interrupts his retirement to pen (well, to type) this very funny take on the outpouring of hasty COVID-19-related papers by economists.

A taster on the appropriate treatment for this other plague:
Treatment: The editorial process can be of immense help. It can delay the public’s exposure to papers for a  long time. It can also make the final result unreadable and therefore less likely to be disseminated widely. Requiring the authors of accepted papers to conceal their main message –wrapping it in all kinds of secondary extensions, tests, caveats, and so on – leads to substantial increase in the length of already-lengthy papers. Editors can thus ensure that each paper gets read by only a very small number of experts in the narrow topic, who are likely to be already infected in any case. Once again Economics leads the way in this, and others can follow.
On a related matter, I suspect that epidemiologists really do view economists on their turf as a plague, one I expect to last much longer than COVID-19.

Hat tip: alert in Ann Arbor

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Online instruction


Hat tip: left as an exercise for the reader (but your first guess will be correct)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Trump trade follies

I am not a frequent signer of letters about policy, but I did sign this one.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

AEA awards

Marginally (this is economics) belated congratulations to the winners of the various prizes awarded by the American Economic Association.

This year's awards inspired this thought: The awards for the best papers in the various flavors of the American Economic Journal constitute at the same time a compendium of failures by editors and reviewers at the "top five" general journals. Surely all of the papers that won these awards passed through at least one top five journal and probably most passed through two or three, yet here they are, chosen as the best paper in a journal one level down, a restrospective recognition that they should have placed higher.

Of the four papers, I only know one of them well: the one about the take-up of disability insurance by Manasi Deshpande at Chicago and Yue Li. When I first saw Manasi present the paper, it struck me as one of those papers with "top five" written all over it. It is clever, well-executed, and provides compelling evidence about a substantively important and understudied topic. The fact that the paper did not place in a top five journal does not move in the least my own view that it surely should have.

How did it not land in a top five journal? While this is not the case for Manasi's paper, one can imagine that in some cases the version of a paper that ends up winning an AEJ paper award is so much improved relative to the last version submitted to a top five journal that it was reasonable for that last top five journal not to request a revision. Perhaps. More broadly, though, the lesson I would have the reader draw is that there is a non-trivial stochastic component in journal placement. Yes, there are inframarginal papers that would get into a top five no matter what, but there are also many papers that, with one draw, get into a top five, and with another draw, get into the AEJ or the Journal of Labor Economics, or the Review of Economics and Statistics or the International Economic Review or some other near-top general journal or strong top field journal. Tenure decisions should proceed accordingly.

Markets in everything - about those bookshelves in the background


Key 'graph:
“We were watching a news program and were like, ‘This person still has their college textbooks in the background, and they’re supposed to be an authority’ " on a serious subject, she said. “We were joking, ‘Well maybe since we’re professionals and this is what we do all the time, we could suggest that we could curate your backgrounds for your meetings.’ "
The joke became the tweet, which was then picked up by the real estate website Curbed Boston. Soon enough, people started calling the store and saying, “ ‘Look, we’d like to get books that maybe we’d like to read anyways, but we’d also like to give that [good] impression,' " Gloss said.
Truly, nothing is real. Nothing. Except my background bookshelves, of course, though I will confess that after my earlier post on background bookshelves, I checked the shelves that show up on camera to make sure that there was nothing too controversial, deciding after a minute or two of internal debate to leave the spine of the biography of the (perhahps infamous) Mitchell brothers in view.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Book: Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel, Emily St. John. 2014. Station 11. New York: Knopf

The title and the cover of this recent bestseller are a bit misleading. I imagined that Station 11 would be the last refuge of the pandemic survivors, in some bleak geographic corner. In fact (a minor spoiler) Station 11 actually features in a comic book drawn by one of the main characters, so it plays a metaphorical role in the story rather than a locational one.

The executive summary: This is a beautiful book. Beautiful writing, beautiful, meticulous plotting, just as with Miranda and the comic book over which she labors with such intensity in the book (there is surely some of the author in her), and a wonderfully (and originally) imagined post-pandemic future. I enjoyed this book a great deal.

Is the book science fiction? Emily St. John Mandel, who hails from British Columbia (there is some of that in the book too) does not normally write science fiction, so in that sense it is not. On the other hand, what else would you call a post-apocalyptic novel but that?  Moreover, there are some recognizable features from the science fiction world, particularly in the two heroines. Going back the other way, the book feels like literary fiction in a way that few science fiction books do. There is no real need to settle this debate I suppose, but in my mind I would code it as science fiction written by someone who usually does not write science fiction, though I am not sure just how much science fiction you have to write to cross the threshold - what about Margaret Atwood, for example?

In Lucifer's Hammer, the old (70s) post-apocalyptic novel about a meteor strike by classic hard science fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle that I read (and re-read) in my teen years, the main characters spend a lot of time worrying about preserving scientific and technical knowledge. In this book, the main characters worry about preserving culture. It is an interesting difference, and perhaps another point to be added to the debate in the preceding paragraph.

Part of the action in the book takes place in a Skymiles Lounge (!), though what airline might have been associated with the Skymiles lounge is never mentioned, I assume for some lawyerly reason. Those bits made me nostalgic for travel.

Finally, the book is a good reminder that, in an important sense, as pandemics go, our present unwelcome guest, despite all the havoc it, and the policy responses to it, have caused, we are getting off reasonbly lightly. In the book's pandemic, 99 percent of people die, and die quickly. Things could be a lot worse.

Highly recommended if you are into post-apocalypse stories, and maybe even if you are not. I liked it well enough that I already purchased the author's new book, The Glass Hotel.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
I am pretty sure I bought this at Kramer Books in DC.

Pandemic M & A

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) acquires Impaq International (IMPAQ).

Both are research consulting firms with which I have worked. I wonder how much this moves the Herfindahl index for the research consulting industry?

Clash of cultures: the Census Bureau meets the Daily Show



Former

Former Census Bureau director Bob Groves - a very fine fellow - on the Daily Show.

I am a tiny bit irritated that they never even mention the fact that datasets like the Census contribute to knowledge, which in turn (among other things) generates better policy. That seems like a much better reason to spend the 10 minutes than whatever trivial increase in federal government spoils an additional resident in a given jurisdiction will generate.

I will say that the online interface for the decennial census was simple and easy - not necessarily what one with experience in census research data centers would expect.

Hat tip: the man with the "Make American Data Great Again" baseball cap.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Book: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle

Idle, Eric. 2018. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography. New York: Crown Archetype.

This book practices what it preaches in the sense that it very much describes the bright side of Eric Idle's life, from growing up in an orphanage through Monty Python and on to, well, mostly more Monty Python, including Spamalot, various tours with John Cleese and on his own, various books, and the big reunion shows a couple of years ago.

It is clear that there have been some bumps along the way. Growing up in an orphange (or pseudo-orphanage as Eric technically was not an orphan, just someone whose father died in the war and whose mother was not up to being a single mom) for one, the divorce from his first wife, some business dealings gone wrong when the Pythons trusted people they should not have, and some drug and alcholol issues, serious enough to merit a decade-long abstinence at one point in late middle age. Yet the text remains always upbeat. For example, Eric cheerfully pleads guilty to letting the little head sink his first marriage, and seems genuinely sad about it, but there is no dwelling and no hand-wringing and no soul searching, at least not that the reader learns about. In that sense, it would hard for this memoir to be more different than, say, either of Craig Ferguson's. As another example, Eric is more or less explicit that some drug and alcohol excesses might well constitute a price happily paid for the chance to hang out with Robin Williams in his younger years.

Another thing that struck me was how well all the Pythons seem to get along. Eric reports that they have adopted a unanimity rule about all projects Python, and seem to have the humility and mutual respect to make that work.

Finally, it would be tough to understate Eric's prodigious name-dropping. One of my former colleagues at Michigan is noted for his name-dropping (so much so that it sustained an entire video at skit night one year) but my former colleague should be taking lessons from Eric Idle. There are Beatles, and Bowie, and Stones and actors and actresses and more music figures and the queen and prince charles and on and on and on. Eric has put his fame to good use on the social network front!

All that said, I had a lot of fun reading it, and learned lots of Python history, so it is surely recommended for Python fans.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
I do not recall where I bought this one.

Addendum: It is really a memoir and not any sortabiography.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Good lords?

From a debate about pandemic policy in the UK House of Lords:
Baroness Falkner of Margravine (Non-Afl)
My question concerns universities and support for the higher education sector, and I refer to my interests as set out in the register. I accept that, as the noble Lord has said, not every business can be saved, but universities are not traditional businesses. However, they are absolutely fundamental to our long-term recovery as we try to climb out of this deep recession. Universities are going through a short-term demand-side shock due to the collapse in international student numbers. We have been hearing in the media that the Treasury is unconvinced about providing support for them, but I would say to the Minister that it needs to hold urgent talks because they are also fundamental to their location—to their places and to their areas. The impact of universities going bankrupt will be profound across the community. Will he undertake to ensure that the Treasury takes a look at the proposal put forward by Universities UK, that conditional though it might be, that support is essential? 
Lord Agnew of Oulton 
The noble Baroness is right to say that universities play an extremely important part both in our society and in our economy, but it is worth reassuring her that they are eligible in aggregate, as business in their own right, for some £700 million-worth of coronavirus support. That support is available to them now. Very active discussions are going on, particularly about the loss of foreign students, because ​of course they pay a higher tariff and thus have in the past provided good cash flow for universities. It is worth making the point that universities have always been jealous of their independence, and if they need government support now, I hope that there will be a bit of humility on the part of those vice-chancellors who take very large salaries from their organisations. I would expect there to be some conversation about that if there is to be any support.
Vice chancellors in the UK are like provosts in the US, or so I am told.

The full lordly discussion, featuring many other inspring and well-spoken characters with fancy names, can be found here. The quoted bit is around "Column 230".

Hat tip: one of my old PSI mates

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Incredible bookshelves

The NYT addresses the important issue of bookshelf backgrounds for online talkers.

My basement office has my desk on one side and my non-fiction books on the other, which means my background for skype / zoom / bluejeans etc. looks roughly like this:



The art is there not to add credibility - I make no claims in the art domain - but just because we have not yet figured out where to put it (a claim whose plausibility is enhanced by the row of yet-to-be-unpacked boxes whose tops can be seen at the bottom of the photo).

Aside / thought question: If the woman in the article whose bookshelf features the title "Irish Erotic Art" were teaching a course at some university, could she be fired like this sad instructor at the University of Miami if the title of the book (but not the cover or any of the contents) was visible to the students during online lectures? The student who thoughtlessly posted the video showing the offending tab should get some of his tuition back from a university that somehow managed to incompletely instruct him in the peculiarities of our current puritan enthusiasms. [And just to be clear, I think the issue merited some response, but firing disguised as resignation seems rather extreme, especially from a university whose associated semi-professional American football team has the history that it does.]

Aside: I am told that some of my daughter's friends tease her that she "lives in a library." I tell her that if this is the best tease they can come up with, life is good for her indeed.

Hat tip on the Miami bit: the tiktoking child of a friend.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Some Wisconsin-themed graduation mojo



Hat tip: my grad school office-mate

CFPB

This New York times piece details the inner workings of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB)  regarding regulation of payday lending.

I do not have anything to add to the substance but wanted to note that I know the memo author, Jon Lanning, pretty well, as I was on his dissertation committee. We have stayed in regular touch since he finished his doctorate and dined together (with various others) on multiple occasions in DC. I encouraged him to leave the CFPB for the Chicago Fed, advice that I feel even better about ex post having read the article and with the pandemic at hand to make career moves of any sort more challenging.

I also want to add that Jon is both an incredibly nice fellow and a very serious empirical reseacher. He cares about getting the numbers right and he puts a large weight on evidence in forming his opinions. He is also not much of a rabble-rouser - quite the contrary, I think of him as well over on the chill side of the spectrum. It would take a lot to get him to write a memo like this.

Hat tip: another member of Jon's committee

Book: Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

Sedaris, David. Holidays on Ice. New York: Little, Brown.

This is a little book, the sort of little book that one finds by the checkout counter at bookstores during the holiday season. It contains a selection of pieces with holiday themes. I purchased it on sale for $3.97 at some point after the holidays.

I found the selection uneven. On the negative side, I thought both "Based Upon a True Story" and "Christmas Means Giving" went on far too long - there are only so many ways to repeat the same joke before the reader gets tired.

On the positive side, I really liked "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol", a review of children's christmas pagaents for a local newspaper and "The Monster Mash," which corresponds to a different holiday and tells the story of Sedaris' visits to a morgue.

Most fun for me was "Six to Eight Black Men," which tells the story of the bizarre and astoundingly un-woke Christmas narrative around Holland's version of Santa Claus. Said narrative features "Zwarte Piet" or Black Peter, and his band of helpers, the "black men" in the title of the piece. I had the amazing experience of viewing the arrival in Amsterdam (on a boat) of Saint Nicholas, Swarte Piet and the rest of the entourage on a long-ago seminar visit. I was accompanied by my friend and former colleague Audra Bowlus, who was spending the year on sabbatical in Amsterdam. Sedaris does a very fine job of capturing the strangeness of the entire enterprise.

Recommended if you really like Daivd Sedaris, but not the place to start with him.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
I have forgotten what sale table yielded this one.

Air travel trends

I was surprised by the figure in this Gary Leff blog post showing a non-trival uptick in TSA screening counts over the past few days.

Green shoots, of a sort, as we used to say.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Furloughs at UW Madison

Employees earning over $150,000 will take six days of furlough over the next six months (a 4.6% reduction per month). Those earning between $80,001 and $150,000 will take five days (a 3.8% reduction per month), those earning between $50,000 and $80,000 will take four days (a 3.1% reduction per month), and employees earning under $50,000 will take three days of furlough during the six months between May and October (a 2.3% reduction per month). The number of furlough days will be adjusted for those with 9-month appointments, so they bear a similar salary reduction over the course of the year as others with the same annual income.
There are also hiring freezes, some travel cuts, contruction project postponements and so on. And the top administrators are all taking much bigger temporary salary cuts.

Overall, this is a bit less than I had expected based on what other places were doing plus remarks around the virtual water cooler.

Full message from Chancellor Blank.

Monday, April 27, 2020

MSN these days

I have not flown since March 13. Even then there were a lot fewer people around, but nothing like what is described in this report from the local paper about life at the (very nice in its Frank Lloyd Wrighty sort of way) local airport MSN.

Chris Phelan on the policy response to the pandemic

I have not blogged much about the pandemic both because I am no expert (obviously not a barrier to many other commentators, but ...) and because I am rather bored with reading about it at this point, let alone writing about it.

But I did enjoy this piece by Chris Phelan that MR linked to today. I particularly like the phrase "generational theft" and the general air of realism that pervades the piece.

I had the good fortune to study for the first-year "core" exams at Chicago with Chris back in the day.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A different sort of coming out story

I found this Atlantic piece moving and also a fine challenge to several different stereotypes. The writer's father is presumably the converative writer Andrew Klavan.

Comparison groups for tenure letters and such

One important aspect of writing letters for scholars who have been out for a while concerns choosing a comparison group. Many tenure letter requests explicitly ask for comparisons to other scholars at the same career stage. Making these comparisons requires recalling who came out on the market when, which can be relatively easy if your department interviewed in the relevant field that year but is less easy if it did not.

Earlier this year when writing a letter for someone who received their doctorate in 2012, I was having trouble coming up with comparators, when I suddenly had an inspiration: why not compare them to the Review of Economic Studies tour class for their year? For readers less familiar with relatively obscure details of the status hierarchy in academic economics, each year this journal - the fifth of the "top five" general journals by most accounts - organizes a European tour for a set of job market stars. The 2020 tour list is here; Wisconsin made offers to two of them (and did not hire either one). The link also leads to a document with the historical lists.

As it turns out, the numbers of Google Scholar citations (as of Feburary 2020) of the seven members of the Review of Economic Studies tour for the doctoral class of 2012 (the 2011 "tour") are: 1056, 855, 678, 653, 318, 264, and 251. I was surprised by the spread in citation counts as well as the spread in publications / papers, which consulting the relevant Google Scholar pages revealed.

Embarrassingly, I opposed hiring the person at the top of the list when I was at Michigan, but I am always glad to be proven wrong when it involves a new person doing better than I expected. There are two or three other cases of similar (ex post) foolishness on my part. The fact of the matter is that a read of a job market paper and a 30 minute interview do not even come close to fully resolving the uncertainty in most cases.

Economics moment of zen #13

From a student paper:

"The production function is amused to be linear"

Seems to me it should be embarrassed ....

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Our leader speaks



Rebecca Blank's part starts at about 24:00.

I am not generally one to wax enthusiastic about academic administrators. I have participated in discussions with faculty colleagues in which we attempted to come up with a precise estimate of the number of IQ points lost by moving in the chair's office, or the dean's office. Towards the end of my time (and his time, as it turned out) at Michigan, I ended up dining at the downtown Knight's in Ann Arbor on my own at the same time that LS&A dean Andrew Martin was there dining in a party of four - presumably donors but who knows. I actually seriously contemplated buying an extra glass of wine to "share" with him (i.e. with his smiling face and fancy shirt and bow tie) on my way out, though in the end I wisely thought better of it.

In contrast, I am very glad indeed that Becky Blank is our chancellor during this odd time.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

REA experimental evaluation released

The final report for the recent experimental evaluation of the U.S. REA program has been released. I was involved on the margins of this as a consultant to Abt Associates, who conducted the evaluation under contract to the U.S. Department of Labor. Jacob Klerman, the lead author, overlapped with me at Chicago, and was my TA for Gary Becker's first year micro class.

The report is notable on a few dimensions: First, relative to other government reports on experimental evaluations I have been involved with, it does an exceptional job of embedding the analysis and results into the broader literature, and an exceptional job of incorporating the underlying economics of the problem. Second: the REA program is the programmatic sibling of the WPRS (= Worker Profiling and Reemployment Services) program considered in Black, Smith, Berger and Noel (2003). In line with our findings there, requiring people to show up for a meeting with a staff person seems to drive a big part of the impact in REA. Also in line with BSBN (2003), but more compellingly due to the much larger sample, the impacts do not clearly vary with the claimant's estimated probability of exhausting their benefits.

Here is Abt's summary:
The Challenge
The  goals of the Department of Labor’s Reemployment and Eligibility Assessment (REA) program were to address the reemployment needs of Unemployment Insurance (UI) claimants and prevent and detect improper payments. Abt Associates conducted a study of 250,000 UI claimants to determine the impact of the low-intensity program, which involved a few hours of group engagement and a few hours of one-on-one counseling. The cost generally was less than $100 per claimant.
The Approach
This REA evaluation is among the largest random assignment studies of a social program ever conducted in the United States. Nearly every REA-eligible UI claimant in the four participating states during the study intake period was randomized. Despite this highly inclusive design, the resulting sample sizes are only borderline sufficient to address some of the research questions. This appears to be because—consistent with the low intensity of the intervention—impacts are small. Abt previously conducted an implementation evaluation.
The Results
The program cut the time people spend drawing UI by an average of 1.3 weeks and increased earnings by $465 in the first year, or two percent of wages in the control group. About half of the decline in claimants represented an increase in work. The other half did not receive UI, but were not working. State responses to failure to attend required REA meetings appear to be an important factor in the drop in UI weeks. The REA program has been replaced by the Reemployment Services and Eligibility Assessment Program (RESEA). Our study will inform the redesign of RESEA program and the evalulation design.
You can find the implementation report and the final report on Abt's web page here.

Monday, April 20, 2020

You may be bored of the pandemic but it is not bored of you

Very aggressive furloughs have arrived for faculty and staff at the University of Arizona. In addition to their serverity, these have a rather obvious design flaw, in the sense that during the period of the reduction, someone whose salary is usually $201,000 will make less than someone whose salary is usually $199,000. Perhaps a good general rule would be to have at least one numerate person in the upper echelons of the administration at each university.

Furloughs are almost surely in the future at Wisconsin as well, though I expect less dramatic than the ones at Arizona. They have already hit the staff of the system's central office.

I experienced furlough days my first year at Western Ontario, where they were caused "Rae Days" after the province's goofy NDP premier Bob Rae. As the rather embarrassed department chair explained them to me, my thought was that, as a politician, you really do not want to have mandatory days off without pay named after you.

Corona-viaurs-themed M*A*S*H compilation



M*A*S*H was one of my favorite shows growing up during the period - late in primary school and during junior high - when I was watching a vast amount of television (despite the horrifying reality that there were only six channels!). That led me to mostly watch episodes during the middle of M*A*S*H's long run. I can remember watching the extra-long final episode in my third year of college.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Book: The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes

Hawes, James. 2017. The Shortest History of Germany. London: Old Street Publishing.

This book delivers on its promise in both senses - it is indeed short, just 227 relatively small pages - and it is about the history of Germany. It achieves its compactness in part by zooming through the "initial conditions" up to the year 526 in just 26 pages, and then skimming the next thousand years in just 44 pages. Do not look to this book if you seek to learn about pre-modern Germany in any depth.

In 1524, the book slows down. The heart of the book concerns the most recent 500 years of German history, and the single overarching point that the book devotes itself to defending lends itself to an easy summary: Western Germans are great, but Prussians are big trouble now and have always been big trouble. Indeed, it seems that all the good things in German history come from the West, while all the bad ones, up to and including the "Alternative for Germany", come from the East. Perhaps.

Certainly the book does make a strong case that the East and the West differ in socially and culturally important ways.

Similar themes arise in this recent Economist (which called the book "a must-read" according to the blurb on the front cover) piece on East-West differences 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a parallel (gated) piece in the Financial Times as well as in this recent paper:

--------------------------------------------------------------

IZA DP No. 13032: The Separation and Reunification of Germany: Rethinking a Natural Experiment Interpretation of the Enduring Effects of Communism
Sascha O. Becker, Lukas Mergele, Ludger Woessmann

German separation in 1949 into a communist East and a capitalist West and their reunification in 1990 are commonly described as a natural experiment to study the enduring effects of communism. We show in three steps that the populations in East and West Germany were far from being randomly selected treatment and control groups. First, the later border is already visible in many socio-economic characteristics in pre-World War II data. Second, World War II and the subsequent occupying forces affected East and West differently. Third, a selective fifth of the population fled from East to West Germany before the building of the Wall in 1961. In light of our findings, we propose a more cautious interpretation of the extensive literature on the enduring effects of communist systems on economic outcomes, political preferences, cultural traits, and gender roles.

--------------------------------------------------------------

Note the first point in particular and note that, perhaps surprisingly, the paper does not cite the book. The paper is forthcoming in (as I write) the next issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

In sum, if you are interested in German history (or European history more broadly) the book provides a quick and provocative read.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
I accidentally bought two copies of this, one at the airport in Munich and one, on a different trip, at the train station in Mannheim.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Book: Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Sonali Deraniyagala. 2013. Wave. New York: Knopf.

This memoir tells the story of an economist who lost her husband, her two children, and her parents to the 2004 tsunami. She survived, by chance and by action, hanging on to a tree while the wave rushed back into the sea. The book starts off with the tsunami and then chronicles, in episodic detail, Sonali's gradual (and never complete) reconciliation with her loss and with her life.

The NYT book review has more to say.

I bought the book many years ago, but put off reading it because it has a personal connection: I worked with the author's late husband, the economist Steve Lissenburgh, when I consulted at the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) in London in the late 90s and early 00s, helping them mainly with their evaluations of various bits of the Blair government's New Deal programs, such as this one. Indeed, I had the honor of giving the fourth annual lecture in memorial of Steve organized by the PSI in October of 2008. Michael White, who managed the employment group at PSI prior to Steve taking over (and who recruited me to work with them at a conference organized at Her Majesty's Treasury in the mid-90s), wrote a heartfelt obituary for the Independent.

I am not sure that the notion of "recommended" quite fits for a book like this - not everyone will find this sort of book good pandemic reading. I will say that the the book is moving indeed, both because of the nature of the events it describes but also because  of its combination of a gentle spirit, lush writing, and brutal honesty.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page

Monday, April 6, 2020

Book: The Golden Rhinoceros by Francois-Xavier Fauvelle

Fauvelle, Francois-Xavier. 2018. The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

I chose this book because it covered aspects of the history of a time and place about which I had never read before, namely Africa during the middle ages. As the book makes clear, one reason I had not read much about the history of Africa during the middle ages is that the literature on the topic is not large; in turn, an important reason for the smallish literature is the lack, relative to Europe in particular, of surviving written records from the middle ages for much of the continent.

The book provides a series of what one might call historical vignettes, rather than attempting a complete narrative history. The vignettes rather strongly oversample parts of Africa that had economic and social interactions with Europeans and Arabs, and rely primiarly on a combination of contemporary written accounts by Europeans and Arabs and the physical evidence provided by archaelogists, among them the author. The author clearly understands and reflects on what one might call the epistemic selection issues implicit in the available written and physical record.

I found the book an enjoyable and informative introduction to its time and place. The stand-alone chapters also make it more suitable than a cumulative narrative history to episodic casual reading.

Recommended.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
Bricks and mortar bookstore where I purchased the book

Sunday, April 5, 2020

So many diamonds

Some very good news from Delta in regard to elite status and the pandemic, as interpreted by air travel blogger Gary Leff.

A few months after I start travelling again - my current three-month break from air travel will be my longest since around 1993 - I will become a two-million-miler on Delta / Northwest.

On inter-university online seminars

Marginal revolution linked to this tweetstorm (*) regarding the pandemic-induced appearance of a number of on-line seminars in economics not tied to particular universities. I had it on my list to do a post about that very topic, so I can now frame my post in part as a response to the tweetstorm.

I am aware of at least five such seminars: one on the pandemic and related topics run by the NBER, an econometrics seminar run out of Harvard, and seminars on crime, education, and experimental / behavioral economics started by individual researchers or small groups of researchers.

Some remarks:

Most regular seminars in economics are 80 or 90 minutes, though departmental seminars in which students present work in progress are sometimes 50 or 60. My sense is that most online inter-university seminars are 60 minutes. Perhaps there is a view that attention spans are shorter when not in person or perhaps the start of a "new" seminar allows a change that would have (or should have) happened to in-person seminars but for the stickiness of the old equilibrium.

One thing the tweetstorm omits is the relatively unique character of economics seminars that arises because they typically involve substantial back-and-forth between the speaker and the audience during the seminar, not just at the end as is common in other disciplines. This feature has important implications for the extent to which economics seminars can scale up in the same way that a lecture does. In my view, the in-person seminars that the NBER runs in labor economics and education (especially at the summer insitute where the audience for the labor talks sometimes rises to over 100) already well exceed the optimal scale given the interactions.

There are a number of solutions to the interaction / scale issue. One is to generate and maintain strong social norms about who gets to ask questions, so that what appears to be a seminar with 100 participants is actually a seminar with 25 participants and 75 non-speaking onlookers. That's how NBER meetings work. Another solution is to limit the size of the seminar. At least one of the online seminars that I am familiar with asked invitees not to broadcast the existence of the seminar (which is why I am being coy about it here) for precisely this reason. There is, of course, an aspect of this to the NBER meetings as well - you have to be invited and not everyone gets invited.(**) A different solution dials down the interaction, limiting questions during the presentation and then having a formal discussant or a formal period for questions and answers (or both) after the presentation. A couple of the online seminars I am familiar with have gone down this road.

A related point is that the online seminars I have participated in - including the informal student public economics seminar here at Wisconsin, which has moved on-line (as have some of the student seminars at Michigan) - is that they make use of the virtual hand-raising facility built into the meeting software rather than allowing audience members to simply shout out their comments, as often happens in person. I like the change to raising hands and hope it carries over to in-person seminars when they return.

The tweetstorm thinks these inter-university seminars will persist and worries about who should run them. I agree with the tweetstorm author's prediction and also with his focus on the importance of the gatekeeper role. I predict that either organizations like the NBER, or its European semi-analogues like CEPR, IZA and CESifo, will end up managing the on-going on-line seminars, with the subject area leaders within those organizations playing the gatekeeper role, just as they do now with group membership and in choosing who presents at the reguular subject area conferences / seminars. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and we all know the track record of economists' predictions.

One last point: on-line seminars are only a partial substitute for in-person departmental seminar visits, which I do not think will go away. Much business gets done at seminar dinners, and much is learned during in-person office visits with the seminar speaker on the day of the seminar. One of the highlights of seminar visits for me is often meeting with the local gradual students and hearing about their work. Online seminars omit all of these features.

(*) A "tweetstorm" is a blog post made harder to read by being shared on twitter in little bits.

(**) I do not mean to pick on the NBER here; I am using it as an example that I think most economics readers will have some familiarity with, even if from a distance. These same issues arise with, e.g. the Institute for Research on Poverty Summer Research Workshop of which I am a co-organizer. It is a real problem. No matter how inclusive and open and non-hierarchical and encouraging of junior scholars you want to be, there are real fiscal and technological constraints: budgets are finite and seminars / workshops that get too big are not as intellectually useful.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Chiang, Ted. Exhalation. New York: Knopf.

Wow. This is some of the best science fiction I have read in a very long time. Chiang uses the flexibility afforded by the implicit rules (or lack of rules) of the genre to craft shorts stories that meditate on various philosophical issues, stories richly informed, it seems, by reading of the relevant literatures.

The one that resonated most for me is "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" which concerns the difference between, bluntly, what actually happened and the narratives that people construct around their pasts. One strand of the story plays out in the context of the world where some people create "life logs" - essentially videos of their entire lives - and the cost of searching the lifelog suddenly falls dramatically, leading to a lot more sometimes wrenching comparisons between actual facts and remembered narratives. I tend to think about these issue in terms of my last few years at Michigan, as my mental narrative of those years differs dramatically from that of others (and, of course, I think mine does a much better job of tracking actual events).

I also quite enjoyed "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," which  conemplates the moral status of artificial intelligences, and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom," which concerns the ethical implications of parallel universes.

The book concludes with a few pages of notes about the origins of each of the stories, a feature I would be happy to see in basically every fiction book (and mybe in non-fiction books and papers too).

Highly recommended.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
Bricks and mortar bookstore at which I purchased the book

Addendum: A market test of sorts: used hardcover copies of Chiang's first book of short stories - Exhalation is his second - in good condition go for nearly $200 on abebooks.com.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

An Atlantic piece on Americans and guns

This Atlantic reporter does the unthinkable and actually tries to understand both the gun nuts and the anti-gun nuts. The result is, I thought, interesting and useful.

Among other things, the debate - not the best term given the general absence of actual engagement on either side - highlights the "elite virtue signalling" versus "deplorable rebellion against smug elites" dynamic that seems to me to be the signature aspect of American cultural and political life these days.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Conference call bingo


It is interesting to get to see (part of) everyone's home office on video conference calls. I seem to have the most books.

Hat tip: An amazing Dane

Monday, March 30, 2020

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Assorted links

1. Some shelter in place amusement from McSweeney's.

2. Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic - one of my favorite of their writers - considers Megxit. The Royal Family is a bit on my mind as we just finished Season 3 of The Crown at our house.

3. Post-pandemic travel predictions from Gary Leff.

Hat tip on #1 to my favorite international relations scholar

Saturday, March 28, 2020

All Hail Literati or, people in Ann Arbor really like books

Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor, which in some spiritual sense replaced Borders #1 when the chain went under, managed to raise over $100,000 on GoFundMe in just two days (!) this past week.

Glad to see a couple of former Michigan colleagues on the list of donors too.

Book: Riding the Elephant by Craig Ferguson

Ferguson, Craig. 2019. Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations & Observations.New York: Blue Rider Press.

Craig was (without quuestion) my favorite relatively recent late night talk show host. None of the cuurrent crowd even comes close. So I miss him and his antics and the fake horse and the talking skeleton and the fact that his politics were not completely and utterly obvious (and, by extension, not completely and utterly tiresome). Plus we are very close to the same age, which I think matters a bit too.

So I was bought his new memoir - really more of a collection of sketches from his past than a proper narrative memoir but probably that's better anyway - the first time I saw it in a bookstore. I was not disappointed. Craig is a great teller of stories. I particularly enjoyed the stories about his relatively humble upbringing in Scotland and the chapter on the "four queens".His history of addiction (mainly alcohol) and subsequent recovery via AA is in the background here, rather than in the foreground as in his earlier memoir, but one sees the AA emphases on critical self-reflection and on making amends throughout the text.

I was a bit disappointed to learn that he has become a vegan, or so he claims. It seems both too trendy for someone who generally poses as a genial cynic and outsider and also a bit of an addiction in its own way.

In any case, despite the vegan blot, if you miss Craig's more thoughtful monologues even half as much as I do, you'll quite enjoy the book.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
Bricks-and-mortar bookstore where I actually purchased the book (as I recall).

N.B. I am not actually spending every waking minute reading enjoyable books - rather I am catching up on posting about books read over the past 18 months or so.

Gas prices

So I drove by a gas station in Madison the other day selling regular unleaded for less than $1.70 and I thought: could it be that gas is actually cheaper now than it was when I first started buying it after I inherited my grandmother's 1964 Plymouth Valiant as a high school student in 1977?

According to the Gasbuddy website there are actually cheaper gas prices in Madison than at the station I saw. The lowest it lists as I write is $1.29 per gallon. The lowest price I ever paid - I remember explcitly thinking that I was unlikely to ever pay a lower nominal price than I did that day - was $0.299 per gallon. According to the "U.S. Inflation Calculator" something with a price of $0.30 (it rounds) in 1977 would have a price of $1.28 due solely to inflaction. Astounding.

Some issues:

1) I am ignoring the fact that the 1977 price observation was in the Seattle suburbs and not in Madison. I expect that Seattle is nearer a refinery and so might have had lower prices for that reason.

2) I also have no idea about the relative gas taxes in Washington State and Wisconsin in either 1977 or the present, which one also might want to think about as part of a more serious exercise along these lines.

3) There are multiple ways to adjust for inflation and they can tell very different stories. I do not know which one the web site I used relies on. I expect the qualitative point to be similar though.

4) Hard to imagine that essentially no change in the real price (inclusive of taxes) over that time period is really optimal given the intervening changes in what we know about the externalities associated with carbon emissions.

5) Gas prices are presently at a transitory low due to conflict among suppliers plus reduced demand due to the pandemic. In Madison they have fallen by more than fifty percent in a few weeks. Still.

6) It is a testament to something that even though it would be hard to imagine a less cool car to drive in high school than a 1964 Valiant, it was still much cooler to have any car than to have no car.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Book: The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy by Bruce Ackerman

Ackerman, Bruce. 2005. The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

If anyone claims to you that we are, or have recently been, in uniquely polarized times, then you should send that person off to read a book about the election of 1800, such as this one. It will, I expect, make you feel better about the present day; certainly it had that effect on me. I had no idea about many of the political shenanigans that went on - or were considered, as in the case of calling out the Virginia milita to march on Washington DC - during the crisis, which resulted in part from the failure of the founders to lay out how to deal with tie votes in the electoral college.

Ackerman is a political science professor at Yale and a good writer too. He has some valuable broader points to make about the historical development of the presidency and of the supremes. I very much enjoyed and learned from the book.

Recommended if you are into such things.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page
Bricks-and-mortar used bookstore where I actually bought the book

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Book: A Changing Wind: Commerce & Conflict in Civil War Atlanta

Venet, Wendy Hammand. 2014. A Changing Wind: Commerce & Conflict in Civil War Atlanta. New Haven: Yale University Press.

This book provides a history of Atlanta with a focus on the civil war years, but including as well the period of rapid economic growth and development in the years prior to the war and the period of agressive rebuilding following the war. The author is a professor in the history department at Georgia State University.

What distinguishes the book in my eyes is its focus on primary sources: the vast majority of the story builds on contemporary newspapers, diaries, business records, public records, letters and (sometimes at a lag) memoirs. The author does a fine job of weaving these sources togehter with occasional references to secondary sources and more aggregate data into a narrative of pre-war expansion, early war enthusiasm, late war disappointment and dispair, and post-war reconstruction and adjustment to new social realities.

Of course, reliance on primary sources has its issues: literacy was by no means universal at the time, even among non-slaves. Thus, surviving letters and diaries come from a decidedly non-random subset of the population. Similarly, newspaper archives do not survive at random either. The author notes these issues but I would have liked an explicit and extended methodological discussion to complement the narrative, perhaps in an extended appendix so as to allow more casual readers to easily avoid it.

I really enjoyed the book and learned a great deal of a social historical nature about the war and the city. I particularly valued the discussion of how Atlanta coped with the inflow of refugees from union-occupied regions and of wounded soldiers during the latter parts of the war.

Recommended to those interested in the Civil War.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page

Adventures in applied theology

A Latter-day Saint who writes for the Atlantic reminisces on food stockpiling.  One of my best friends in elementary school was a Latter-day Saint and I remember being quite fascinating by his family's one year (no three month softness for them - perhaps that is an east coast heresy) food supply which they kept in a sort of loft in their garage. It always seemed like a pretty reasonable idea to me.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Assorted links (from a while ago)

1. Academic confessions on twitter.

2. My old friend David Ramsey Steele on George Orwell and Alex Comfort by way of a book review.

3. Looking for a chateau that looks like all the other chateaus?

4. Abandoned Six Flags park in New Orleans

5. Charlie will like this comic.

6. Clearly this faculty member needs more committee assignments.

Quarantine choices


Still sorting out what it means that my (happily married) ex sent this to happily married me.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Online instruction at UW-Madison

The local paper reports on the progress made at UW-Madison, which switches to online courses only for the remainder of the semester starting tomorrow.

The number of students claiming to not have sufficiently good internet at home to allow for streaming  video strikes me as much too high - probably some selective survey response / non-response going on there (though of course no survey response rate is provided in the article).

The university further complicated things a couple of days ago by pushing faculty pretty firmly to start doing their online teaching from home.

It will be interesting to see the lasting effects of this sudden mass payment of the fixed costs associated with online instruction by both students and faculty. Clearly, some courses in the arts and the hard sciences really do need to be conducted in person if possible. Others, like many chalk-and-talk lecture coureses in economics, really do not need to be done in person.

And of course, once lectures go on line, one starts to wonder why we don't just have a few really good lecturers make the videos rather than having local lecturers of heterogeneous quality make them. Does it really make sense for thousands of faculty with highly variable talents in public speaking to prepare, say, introductory econometrics courses every semester? I suspect that some painful efficiency gains await in the (now nearer) future.

Emotive street signs


Who would have guessed that Bittersweet Place would be a dead end?

From yesterday's socially distant sojourn.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Book: Against Prediction by Bernard Harcourt

Harcourt, Bernard. 2007. Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in an Actuarial Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

This is really two books in one. The first part of the book is a completely fascinating history of the use of prediction (a.k.a. statistical treatment rules, a.k.a. profiling) in a criminal justice context in the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, this history dates back to eccentric sociologists in the early 20th century. The history has interest in its own right, but also serves as yet one more reminder that using statistical models applied to what were at the time "big" data to generate actionable predictions is no new thing. The methods have improved, and our standards of bigness have grown, but the idea and an understanding of many of the basic issues go way back.

The second half of the book critiques the more recent literature and policy practice in the criminal justice domain. This critique has three parts: The first makes the point that individuals most likely to engage in some behavior may not be those most likely to respond to some intervention. This is not a new point - it appears in Black, Smith, Berger and Noel (2003) in the context of UI profiling and it was not new there either - but it is one that many people really have trouble understanding. Much of this discussion in the book centers on the literature on police profiling in roadside stops. The second criticism concerns a sort of "ratchet" effect whereby the focus of criminal justice resources on one particular group as a result of the use of prediction models leads to a misguided change in public perceptions of underlying differences in criminal behavior across groups. The third criticism concerns changes in our underlying philosophical notions of justice that might result from the growing dominance of prediction in how we implement the justice system in practice.

I found the first criticism both the best realized in the book and the most compelling. The others are provocative and, in the case of the ratchet effect, have a sort of face validity, but, I felt, a bit underdeveloped in the text.

I enjoyed reading the book and learned a lot from it. Recommended if you are into such things.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page

Hat tip: Shawn Bushway, for recommending it to me several years ago.

Friday, March 20, 2020

There is no great stagnation - oreo edition



The sad fact of the matter is that it took me a while to figure out these variants were not actually for sale to the general public.

Hat tip: my wife the healthy eater

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Still more academic x pandemic humor

McSweeny's on hastily-prepared online courses.

Not their very best material, but topical to be sure.

I think this is a fine compromise position


Seen on a recent socially distant walk around the neighborhood.

Virtual NCAA tournament

It features a single simulation based on ESPN's power index. Guess who wins?

Addendum: the local paper's coverage of Wisconsin's historic victory.

Hat tip: Tim Smeeding (which provides a clue about who wins)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Monday, March 16, 2020

Book: The Genuine Article by Edmund Morgan

Morgan, Edmund. 2004. The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America. W.W. Norton and Company.

This is a collection of book reviews by a noted American (in both senses) historian. The book reviews, as is standard in the New York Review of Books where they appeared, do more than just narrowly remark on a particular book; instead, they provide brief introductions to particular literatures in the course of putting the book or books at hand into context. I enjoyed it throughout.

But shouldn't it be "An Historian"?

Recommended if you are into such things.

Amazon book page
Barnes and Noble book page

Some pandemic x academic humor


Twitter version here.

Monday, January 6, 2020

AEA best practices

Apparently one best practice is to photograph me from behind.

Hat tip: an astute CSWEPer