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 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.