Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Your tax dollars at work - Detroit edition

Apparently this really happened.

This is extra cool because it combines idiot bureaucrats with zero tolerance idiocy to produce truly high powered government misbehavior.


Hat tip: instapundit

College choices

This piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education has much to say about colleges, most of it negative. I agree with much of the critique but not much of the remedy.

I think the author overstates the extent to which students who are not finishing are at the most expensive schools.

I like the idea of making available data on colleges. More of that happens already than the author lets on. The Department of Education's Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data Survey (IPEDS) collects data on many college characteristics. Others can be obtained from the various firms that rate colleges, such as Barron's and US News. The main problem with these data is that, like with the state graduate rates that inspired me to start this blog, there is no necessary uniformity in measurement. Also, they have not been chosen as thoughtfully as they should have been, with the result that many schools now game them in order to increase their rankings in places like US News. For example, I was told that one reason that the University of Maryland started admitted fewer freshman but more transfers was the US News uses the average test score of the entering freshman class in its rankings.

Customer service measures are largely useless - they always turn out really positive and so do more to mislead than to inform. That is, presumably, why such measures are included in, e.g., the performance standards for the Workforce Investment Act.

My main concern, though, is that the author blames colleges when in fact they are merely cogs in the machine. How many politicians rant on about how everyone should go college? We have loan and grant programs that are set up to encourage not everyone who is ready for college to go, or everyone who is academically prepared to go, but just everyone. The combination of cultural pressure and finanical incentives induce many to go to college who should not. This is a waste of resources both for the individual and for society. At the same time, as Manksi and others have pointed out, college is an experience good, which means that the socially and individually optimal dropout rate is not zero. That is, for some students it is optimal to try college out, even though there is a non-trivial chance they will not finish.

There is also an issue around reporting the high "return" to college estimated in many studies by labor economists. This return is typically cited and interpreted, even by economists, as a common effect. It is surely not. In a world of heterogeneous effects of college, which is surely the world in which we live, it is marginal returns that matter, not averages. I suspect that for many students at the margin, who are the students who are not finishing the overall return, including both direct costs and foregone earnings, is surely negative. I think the literature is moving in a better direction on this point, but it is doing so much too slowly.

I will end with two other, not unrelated, points: (1) most students do not make full use of the college education they, their parents and the longsuffering taxpayer purchase; (2) for many students waiting a year or two or three after high school before going on to university would lead them to make much better use of the opportunity (and probably to do a better job of sorting between going to college and not). More research on the latter point would be useful though it is tough when those who do delay college entry at present tend to be a rather unusual lot, leading to really serious selection issues.

Hat tip: instapundit

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rant: conference behavior

I was at a very nice one-day local conference at Michigan yesterday that aimed to bring together folks in education, economics and statistics doing research on education. It was, I thought, a great success. I continue to be impressed with the high quality of Michigan's faculty outside of economics.

The thing that I want to rant about, though, is people who sit and type away on their laptops during conference presentations. During one presentation - by someone the university is trying to hire (!) - about 1/4 of the audience was typing away. What could be ruder than this? I do not have in mind here people who are actually taking notes, but in my experience of looking over shoulders at this and other conferences, the note-takers are typically a very small minority.

My view is, if you want to check your email, take your laptop and go outside. If you do not want to be at the conference but think you should be, then either tough it out and show up and pay attention or stay in your office and work. Doing work at the conference just imposes a distraction on those who do want to be there and is rude to the speaker.

Advice for young economists

Here is a collection of advice for economists at various career stages. There are some more links on my web page - look towards the bottom.

I have one other bit of advice that is on my mind. It concerns going on the market in the years between taking a job and getting tenure.

Suppose you get a "nibble" from another school in your first two or three years as a professor. What should you do? I think you should decline as a matter of course. First of all, suppose you go and give a job talk and then either do not get an offer or decide not to take it. What signal have you sent to the senior faculty at your current school? You have sent a signal to them that you are not committed to the place, something that strongly reduces their incentive to invest in you. You really want your senior colleagues to invest in you. If you end up taking the job, then what have you accomplished? A move costs about one paper in terms of time and energy. You throw away all the institution-specific human capital you have built up. You may end up wasting course preps as well. Plus you can get a reputation as someone who is fickle, as someone who moves quickly or cannot make a commitment or both. While superstars can survive that reputation, ordinary mortals will typically pay a cost for it later in their careers.

I can see looking around at year four or five at a place if you are in a position to move up or to make a better match on other dimensions. Even here, though, I think it makes more sense to move at tenure time (if you are going to get it and are moving up or sideways) or just before tenure (if it is clear you are not going to get it). In the latter case, there may be hard choices between moving down (and getting tenure) or moving in parallel (and getting a new clock). Whenever you move, remember to take the high road and, if possible, leave your initial position with gratitude and good feelings. Academic economics is a very small world indeed and you are in a repeated game with everyone involved with it. Good behavior yields a high payoff.

Looking at it from the other side, I think it is very bad behavior for departments to go after students in their first or second year of a job if they have not first received a signal of interest from the person involved. Junior faculty at that point in their careers are usually nervous and overworked. They are also inexperienced at the post-phd job market. The last thing they need is the additional stress and distraction of dealing with unsolicited outside attention. The profession as a whole has an interest in the success of our best young minds; departments that ignore this in their recruiting efforts are creating a public bad.

Hat tip: Marginal Revolution

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The BBC on guns and violence in the US

Something unexpected from the BBC, but I think right on target (so to speak).

Is it really any suprise the that UK doesn't feel safe when it is essentially illegal to defend yourself or your property with anything, let alone a firearm?

Hat tip: Scott Wood

Friday, April 25, 2008

CNBC etc.

This (hilarious) Onion video pretty much sums up the talking head shows.

Hat tip: Anya Chung

Graduate school advice

Tyler offers some advice to graduate students here.

I am pointing to it for two reasons. First, I agree with most of it. In particular, at both the graduate and the undergraduate level I think students put too little weight on the quality of the professor as a teacher and too much weight on the subject of the course when choosing which classes to take.

The one point I disagree on is the first one. Your field does matter because departments treat it as information about what courses who can teach well and/or are likely to want to teach. Some departments look in all fields and more or less hire the "best available athlete". Many do not and even among those that do, being able to teach, say, econometrics, may give you an edge over a candidate who is otherwise your equal. Being able to teach econometrics, finance or health economics will help you on the job market. If you are indifferent or close to it, these are fine second fields, especially if they are a reasonable match with your first field, as with, say labor and health.

Tyler is completely correct that hiring departments do not care about individual courses or about grades in courses or about whether or not you had to take retake your first year exams. They are hiring you to teach courses and give exams, not to take them.

Boston Marathon

I was in Boston for the first three days of the week visiting Boston College. As it turned out, my hosts and I realized only a week or so ago that Monday was both a holiday in Boston (Patriot's Day) and also the day of the Boston Marathon.

My not-so-compenent taxi driver (Cambridge taxi #1260) dropped me off on one side of the marathon route and Boston College, sadly, lay on the other. The marathon route is crowded with on-lookers and also with Boston police. There are barricades. There are a lot of people running the marathon and, when I arrive, they are running fairly quickly, so even had I attempted to cross (with my roller bag in tow) I could easily have run into one or more participants. So, rather than having lunch with one of my hosts, I had lunch by myself to wait it out.

The marathon itself raises three mysteries. First, why do the organizers not set it up so that one can cross the marathon route while the marathon is going on? I have been to the Rose Parade in Pasadena and they are organized enough to occasionally open a passageway across the parade route. I suggested this to my hosts (one of them a devoted runner) and got an appalled reaction, but to me, after the first 100 people, why does anyone care about losing a few seconds? This seems like really poor organization to me.

Second, why do people participate in the marathon? I recognize that some spiritual traditions emphasize the salutary role of suffering, but this is self-inflicted suffering on a mass scale and with a big audience. Would the city close the roads if 10,000 people decided to walk through town hitting themselves with boards, like the monks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

Third, and most mysterious, why does anyone watch who does not have a friend or relative running in the race, and among that group, why do they watch for longer than the two minutes it takes for their friend or relative to pass by? Watching the marathon, I can now attest from personal experience, is really, really boring. Excruciatingly boring. It is like NASCAR with no crashes plus you only get to see the winner once.

A few students had managed to get the second order condition right, as the marathoners and their audience had not. Their shirts said "You run, I'll drink."

After about two hours on my own, the marathon had degenerated to a walkathon, the crowd had thinned and the Boston Police were having lunch so I was able to cross the route without incident.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Movie: The Counterfeiters

I saw "The Counterfeiters" ("Die Falscher" auf Deutsch - with an umlaut over the "a" that blogger will not let me provide) on Friday night. The NYT review, which captures the spirit of the movie well, is here.

The movie is based on a real-life operation that produced counterfeit British pounds (and a few dollars and some other documents) using skilled concentration camp labor. The workers received perks and survival in exchange for their assistance.

One of the workers, Adolf Burger, wrote a book about it called "The Devil's Workshop" that I have not been able to find yet on Amazon or on Abebooks. If anyone knows where to find it I would be happy to hear about it. In the movie, and presumably in real life, Burger was a communist in the interwar years whose idealism and desire to make a martyr of himself and his co-workers is contrasted with the focus on personal survival of the other workers. I thought the movie was a bit kinder than it should have been to his sensibilities given that communism generated its own large scale mass murders elsewhere; in essense an opportunity for adding greater irony and greater depth to the movie was passed up.

Nonetheless, it is an excellent film and well worth the time spent viewing it. I found that it has lingered in my mind over the weekend and generated worthwhile reflections.

Freedom of religion and Texas republicans

"The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all." - H.L. Mencken

The Houston outpost of a national anti-scientology group has convinced the Texas republican party to support stripping scientology of its tax-exemption, effectively declaring it a non-religion.

I am no defender of scientology, but that is in some sense precisely the point. In a free society, being a mature adult, or perhaps just being an adult, means accepting that other people will believe things that seem to you deeply stupid, evil or misguided. There are two productive ways to deal with such people: one is to simply ignore them and go on with your life. In most cases, what they believe is problematic enough that few will be attracted to it. The alternative is to engage the beliefs intellectually. Simply outlawing the beliefs, or in this case attempting to tax them, is the lazy person's alternative to the second choice.

Houston Anonymous should stop trying to advance their views through the state power and should instead stick to the marketplace of ideas. Otherwise one might infer that they prefer the state to the marketplace because they think they would lose out in the marketplace.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Spring in Chicago (or Ann Arbor)

There was a story circulated in my graduate student days about a wedding involving a male graduate student and a female non-economist. One of the tables at the reception included four male economist friends of the groom and four female non-economist friends of the bride, so as to encourage mingling of the two tribes. One of the four male economists told the following joke:

Q: How do you know there is spring in Chicago?

A: Continuity.

One by one each of the four female non-economists excused herself, never to return to the table.

This story comes to mind this morning because our last real snow in Ann Arbor was three weeks ago today. The forecast high for today is 77.

Land of the free?

You can watch video here of a DC area libertarian being arrested at the Jefferson Memorial for trying to peaceably celebrate Jefferson's birthday.

I always thought it was kind of symbolic that the Jefferson memorial is set rather off to the side and out of the way from the Lincoln Memorial and the giant Washington phallus/memorial, as if it were some necessary but unpleasant thing to have to honor him amidst the neoclassical and administrative monstronsities of official Washington.

This sort of over-zealousness by the park police is not unique. The Art Guys, who I was introduced to by my friend Nat Wilcox, got in trouble at the Statute of Liberty for wearing their special advertisement-covered suits, because, it turns out, advertising is not allowed at the Statue of Liberty.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Raising America

I've just finished reading Raising America (and learning how to do links in a more elegant way). I read it for two reasons. First, it was recommended by Helen Levy, who has good taste in these things. Second, I find that straight up books about kids - we have one by Penelope Leach that was recommended by friends who study such things as well as the "What to Expect" book for toddlers - are simply too boring for me to read much of. So, I turn to the history of child-rearing advice, in the hope that the history will sugarcoat the boring child development material.

This is not really the correct book for what I wanted. It also failed to satisfy on other grounds. I would have liked to learn more about the extent to which the advice offered at the end of the 20th century was actually more firmly based on science than that offered at the start of the 20th century. One has the sense, reading between the lines to some extent, that the descriptive information is much, much better at the end of the century, but that in terms of treatment effects of particular practices - spanking, rigid feeding times, marginal attention from parents, letting kids cry themselves to sleep and so on - that precious little is still known. What I liked about the book was the biographies of the various pop child development experts, particularly Watson and Spock. The material about the recent rise in explicitly theological advice was interesting as well.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

American exceptionalism

As best I can tell, there are exactly zero people like this in continental Europe:

I think Rachel substantially overestimates the fraction of the budget that actually goes to poor people in the US (as opposed to old people or favored businesses / farms or foreign military adventures or people and firms in the poverty industry). And, of course, some parts of government can be viewed in multiple ways with differing normative spins: for example, is social security a vote-buying handout scheme, a realistic approximation to some optimal inter-generational transfer or a way to deal with human limitations in regard to discount rates? It is all of these at some level and probably some other things as well.

I think the relatively large number of people like Rachel in the US puts a real break on the size of government, which is a good thing in my view (even if there are a few bits I would make larger, most bits I would make much smaller).

Hat tip:

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Why study novels when you can do bad economics?

This piece in Scientific American magazine purports to show that neoclasscial economics is somehow incapable of providing insight into environmental policy concerns.

It does not in fact do this, largely because the author, a professor of English (!) at George Mason University, does not, like many "heterodox" critics of mainstream economics, actually understand neoclassical economics in any meaningful way. Instead, while the author focuses his attention on a misunderstanding of the invisible hand metaphor, his piece actually reflects his failure to take full account of another facet of neoclassical economic that also dates back at least to Adam Smith, namely specialization and division of labor. Nadeau is no doubt a smart man, but evidently one who suffers from a surfeit of confidence in his own ability to apply his intelligence to quickly understand, at a level deep enough to write a broad, general, historically based critique, a field that others spend decades learning.

Reading this piece it is impossible to conclude other than that Scientific American published it without sending it to a single economist to look at. It makes bizarre statements about a principal of "conservation of utility" that is supposed to guide economic models. It posits a conspiracy theory to cover up "the existence of the unscientific axiomatic assumptions" by whole cohorts of economists. How did they coordinate on this cover-up? Why did none of them reap the huge intellectual and career rewards that would have come from lifting the curtain? No explanation of this long-standing and alledgedly very successful conspiracy is offered.

The paper also includes a list of "unscientific assumptions" that supposedly underlie the neoclassical economic paradigm. This list illustrates that the author does not know the difference between an assumption, a conclusion from a particular class of models, factual statements about the empirical world, and policy conclusions from specific classes of models. Indeed, it makes it somewhat hard to believe that Scientific American had any serious scholar look at this paper prior to publication, let alone an economist. For example, one assumption in the list is that "resources of nature are largely inexhaustible", an assumption seemingly somewhat at odds with the large literature on the economics of exhaustible resources. I completely agree with the line following the list of assumptions that "[o]ne does not have to be a scientist to realize that these assumptions make no sense in scientific terms." Indeed! But that is because the person who wrote them down does not understand what an assumption is, not because the list provided has anything to do with the foundations of neoclassical economics.

Much is made in the paper about the "closed system" of general equilibrium. Of course, closing the model is more or less the point of doing general rather than partial equilibrium. Nadeau does not really get what economic models are intended to do or indeed the broader point that a model is different than a photograph in that it purposely does not include every feature of the phenomenon being modeled so as to highlight and clarify the workings of specific mechanisms. Thus, he does not understand that the "closed system" can include whatever the economist wants it to include, including, in many recent cases, climate change of various sorts.

Not all of the howlers have to do with economics. At one point, Nadeau blames the fact that most international agreements relating to environmental concerns often accomplish very little not on rather obvious fact that governments have very little incentive to do so and much incentive to advance the goals of the special interests upon whose support they rest, but instead on the pernicious effects of cost-benefit analysis (which never seems to come out in favor of the "scientifically viable" policies he favors). A bit of public choice theory, or its political science analogue of rational choice international relations theory, would go a long way at this point in the argument and, indeed, more generally throughout the paper. Nadeau has a charming childlike faith in the power of the state, guided of course by well-meaning experts like Nadeau, to work great good in the world. If the international negotiators did not value the scientific evidence, it is not because they did exactly what every model of government would predict them to do, but instead because of the pernicious influence of economists! This bizarre argument is necessary for Nadaeu to avoid the cognitive dissonance that would otherwise exist between the failure of governments to effectively deal with many modest international environmental issues up to this point and his clear view that massive government involvement is required to deal with global warming.

Another howler is that he places game theory outside of the edifice of neoclassical economics. Indeed, in a rhetorical tool common to many critics of economics, innovators within economics, in this case Robert Sugden, are selectively quoted against economics. Later he approvingly cites Nicolas Stern to the effect that global warming is not a standard problem of externalities but instead is a "global collective action problem". He neglects to inform his readers that both of these concepts, not just the first, are parts of standard neoclassical economics.

Shame on Scientific American for publishing this rubbish.

[Addendum: Nadeau also has a courtesy appointment in the Environmental Science and Policy program at GMU. ]

Hat tip:

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Battle of the economics graduate student rappers

From Michigan:

From Berzerkely:

Who wins? UCB gets bonus points for including my Ford School colleague Meredith Fowlie in her graduate student days. Michigan gets bonus points for praising my lecture notes. I'll be diplomatic and call it a tie.

Hat tips: Sarah Turner and Laura Kawano

Bowling with Robert Putnam

I went to this talk at ISR on Tuesday. The speaker was Robert Putnam, best known, at least to me, as the author of Bowling Alone, which got a lot of attention when it came out, even though I think it made the mistake to some extent of confusing the decline of certain forms of social interaction with the decline of all forms of interaction in a time when the technology of social interaction was changing a lot.

This particular talk was about Putnam's new project called "American Grace" that considers the role of religion in American public life. Putnam is a lively and entertaining speaker and had quite a lot of interesting descriptive statistics to present and stories to tell to link them together. Two particular bits stuck in my mind, one stylistic and one substantive.

At one point in the talk, Putnam started to motivate a new slide by saying that in order to be a Harvard professor, you must pass a test in name-dropping and that he was now going to show that he had passed that test by noting that he had talked about these particular results with "George Bush". Of course, as Putnam presumably knew would happen based on past experience, someone in the audience immediately asked "Which one?" which allowed Putnam to smoothly reply along the lines of "Well, actually, both of them!" Is that slick or what? I think there must be a second exam when you come up for promotion to full professor at Harvard that tests these sorts of advanced skills.

On the substantive side, the graph that stayed with me had an index of religiosity on the horizontal axis. The two lines on the graph indicted, for each level of religiosity, the fraction of respondents (to Putnam's seemingly quite nice survey) who indicated that they thought very secular people were tolerant and the fraction who indicated that they thought very religious people were tolerant. The two lines formed a flat "X", with secular people imaging themselves to be very tolerant and religious people to be very intolerant, while religous people imagine themselves to be tolerant while viewing secular people as very intolerant. Put differently, and this is my spin, there is plenty of self-righteousness and lack of introspection at both ends of the religiosity scale.

Where the boys aren't

As far as I know, this blog has exactly two readers. This article on the eligible man paradox will interest one of them.

I am really unsure about the settling issue. Being single can be a lot of fun if approached with the right attitude and celbrated rather than endured, thought it is tough to take that road and still have children if that is what one wants. On the other hand, sometimes high standards are cover for not really wanting to pull the trigger and make a choice.

Of course, at bottom the really frustrating thing is that you can't convexify. You can only pick one wife or one husband (at any given time). I remember reading Richard Bach's book, I think it is "One", about his first marriage to nurse Chapel from the original Star Trek TV series. Prior to being married he had a number of female friends who were each matched to particular activities. He had convexified! He argues in the book that when he left that equilibrium to get married that he was better off, but it is hard to see how that could be, since no one person is going to be a great match for all the activies one wants to undertake (even putting aside the utility loss associated with the loss in variety). I found the book less than compelling for this reason.

This is a bit of a ramble but I have no good answer here.

Hat tip: Marginal Revolution

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Luckily my stylist serves wine

Implicit in this article is a way to improve Michigan's prospects for economic development and to reduce the government budget.

Surely, surely, this walking deadweight loss triangle has something more socially useful to do.

In praise of recess

From a Seattle Times article about new Husky special teams coach Brian White:

White has already caught the notice of observers for his energetic pacing around practice, usually wearing shorts. He says he feels lucky to be a coach, like it's "an extension of third-grade recess."

He said, "Recess was always my favorite period of grammar school, so to be able to continue it is good."

I feel much the same way about being a professor.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

US News Graduate Economics Programs Rankings

Here they are - they seem a bit out of date somehow given some recent faculty movements and, of course, they ignore heterogeneity by field which matters a lot for some things. You would not come to Ann Arbor to write a theoretical econometrics thesis and you would not go to Minnesota to write a micro-labor economics thesis for example, despite the overall rankings. This is but a special case of the main issue with rankings such as these in my view, which also applies at the undergraduate level, which is that the "within" variation in treatment effects is quite large relative to the between variation. This does not mean that rankings do not matter; it does mean that a lot depends on the particular match between the student and his or her dissertation committee and between the student's interests and the particular strengths and weaknesses and personality quirks and so on of a given department.

Positive equity is preferred to negative equity

This Business Week piece makes the case for investing in real estate in college towns. Ann Arbor is the fifth slide and, according to this piece, Ann Arbor home prices outperformed the state as a whole (not a really high bar there) by falling less despite Pfizer's departure and all the rest. I spent a few minutes the other day on looking at the homes for sale in my zip code and was pleased to find that at least the offer prices had fallen less than I thought. Good news, that.

From his cold, dead hands

It seems like many of the cultural figures of my youth are moving on to the next place these days. One week it is Gary Gygax and the next Charleton Heston. The link is to the LA Times piece by former Reasoner Tim Cavanaugh. He, like me, was touched at the time by Heston's trio of 70s dystopia movies: Planet of the Apes, the Omega Man (an earlier interpretation of the same piece as the recent I Am Legend) and Soylent Green. Like Cavanaugh says, these movies, along with a few others like Dirty Harry, really capture the deep malaise of the 70s in a way that I think would otherwise be quite difficult to explain to, say, my undergraduate econometrics students. And Heston really is key to making all three of them work. RIP.

Addendum - the Economist's rather different take:

Monday, April 7, 2008

Viral humor of relatively high quality

I've seen versions of this before but received this one in my inbox this morning. Unlike most internet humor it actually is pretty free of spelling and grammar errors and is nicely formatted. So here it is:

Science Reveals Heaviest Element Ever Discovered

Research has led to the discovery of the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert; however, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction normally taking less than a second, to take from four days to four years to complete.

Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2-6 years. It does not decay, but undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes, not to mention multiple oxymorons.

This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. That hypothetical quantity might normally be called "critical mass" but, in this unique case it is known as "critical mess".

When catalyzed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium (Am), another just-discovered element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

Author unknown

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Debbie's husband does Kasey

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Who gets hired at top departments?

This paper presents descriptive statistis on assistant professors at the top ten US economics departments. I think the most interesting finding is the field breakdown, as the top three fields are macro, econometrics and labor. This is interesting for several reasons. First, theory is not among them, which coincides with the general view that being a theorist is a tough road on the job market these days (but does not coincide with the many "heterodox" economists who criticize establishment economics for being math-obsessed). Second, I suspect that the "labor" designation covers a multitude of sins, including economics of education and health economics and maybe even public finance. It is a bit hard to tell as the authors do not precisely define their amorphous "applied economics" field. Isn't everyone doing empirical work or low-to-middle brow theory an applied economist? Macroeconomics has somewhat the same problem If someone is calibrating general equilibrium models of fertility, are they a macro person or a labor person or some third thing?

Third, why not do the top 25 rather than the top 10? Or, better yet, do the top 150 and then compare hiring at various tiers. It would also be interesting to compare hiring at top departments in the US with those in Canada (probably not very different though maybe more trade?), in the UK, and on the continent. With a larger sample you could also do things like examine whether the gender composition of the existing faculty (or maybe just of current full professors or of the chair) affects the gender mix of assistant professors. A similar exercise could be done by field: are departments hiring to fill in "gaps" or are they building on existing strengths?

Still, very interesting and useful. After all, what profession could possibly be more interesting for economists to study than economics.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Evidence Based Medicine

This is a reference to an audit pair study that uses exactly one (yes, one) audit pair. It is published in the leading medical journal in Canada two weeks ago.

How does this happen?

Hat tip to Ann Arbor News, which published a summary of this with a straight face.

CATO and data

A couple weeks ago a friend forwarded me a CATO piece decrying the American Community Survey, which is presently under consideration for being cut.

Today, CATO is complaining about having states measure their dropout rates on a common scale so as to facilitate comparisons. CATO and I agree on the desirability of a highly decentralized education system (with more private provision than at present). However, we seem to disagree on what seems to me the rather obvious empirical point that data are a public good. It seems to me that, in fact, the federal Department of Education should do only two things. It should collect and distribute standardized data for use by parents and by state and local governments and it should undertake serious ("rigorous" to use the preferred term at the Institute for Education Sciences) evaluations of various education reforms, whose results can then be shared throughout the research and policy communities. Evaluation, like data, is a public good and in the classical liberal vision of the state which CATO supposedly shares with me, it is all about public goods, with perhaps some thoughtful redistribution around the edges.

CATO, however, seems to adopt the view one sometimes hears associated with stories about Hong Kong, namely that ignorance is bliss. In this view, if you give people data, they will just want more government. This seems to me both empirically wrong (it was data that did in communism, not ideology) and a fundamentally illiberal (in the classical meaning of that term). Having states produce comparable data allows the public and policymakers to actually learn from cross-state comparisons, and puts the brake on state-level politicians simply making things up in ways that suit their political agenda but do a disservice to the truth. Particularly in the current second- or third- or tenth-best world in which the federal government hands out large amounts of money to the states, the least that can be expected in return is accurate measurement of outcomes (not impacts!) on a common scale.

Not a good month for CATO.