Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Movie: Help Me, I Need an Editor!

Actually, that is not the name of the movie, which is "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. The movie is pure Hollywood, pretending to be deep and deliver big picture messages about life but really just serves convince the viewer once more that it is a lot of fun to be a young, beautiful movie star. Though it is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is a very long movie at nearly three hours. In that, it is rather self-indulgent and could, as suggested by the title of my post, have become a better, tighter movie with some thoughtful editing. Blanchett and Swinton both do excellent jobs; Brad Pitt does better than you might have expected but he is not quite at their level.

Recommended if you are in the mood for a big dose of Hollywood fluff.

Addendum: MR points to this review. I like the phrase "maximum Hallmark impact".

Fidel and Che

The Economist on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

If the US embargo ever had a justification, it disappeared with the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. We should be flooding them with US products and US culture. It seems to me that the best antidote to communism is consumerism, not comically ineffective CIA plots.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More on Japan

The Japan Family Planning Association is hard at work generating new knowledge. This NYT piece describes their "informal survey" of sexual behavior in Japan.

Several bits deserve note. First, the NYT at least, unlike Reuters, shares a bit about the sampling procedure and response rate:
For the survey, the association randomly handed out forms to about 2,700 people and received responses from 636 men and 773 women.
So, the survey was randomly "handed out", whatever that might mean. One envisions an intense Japanese demographer offering surveys to individuals at a train station, but "at random" of course. The response rate of 1409 out of 2700 is just over 50 percent, which seems high for the train station scenario but is low for a serious phone or in-person survey.

Second, missing from the article in the NYT is any discussion of how the researchers handled, if they did at all, concerns about the veracity of responses to sensitive questions. The folks who did the national sex study spent a lot of time and effort on this. Maybe the Japanese Family Planning Association did too, or maybe the did not. One suspects the latter.

Third, the author passes along without comment or caveat this causal claim:
“The situation is dismal,” said Kunio Kitamura, the association’s director. “My research shows that if you don’t have sex for a month, you probably won’t for a year.”
Fourth, there is no information on publication or even information on a website from which to obtain the actual study. The JFPA homepage is here; there does not appear to be an English language version, so there is now real way for the reader (or, presumably, the NYT reporter or editor) to check the veracity of the AP report that they pass along.

Remind me, again, why people think the NYT is such a great paper?

Saint Stalin

One hopes that this is just a cohort thing, and that the folks who think Stalin is some sort of hero will largely die off in the next decade or two, but with Russia, that great bear of illiberalism, one is never quite sure.

Some choice bits:

Leaders of the Communist Party are not surprised by Stalin's status on the hero list.

"Stalin made Russia a superpower and was one of the founders of the coalition against Hitler in World War II," said Sergei Malinkovich, leader of the St. Petersburg Communist Party.

The St. Petersburg branch of the party in July asked the Orthodox Church to canonize Stalin if he wins the poll.

What a fine idea! Stalin could be the patron saint of the violently paranoid.

My favorite Stalin story dates back to my undergraduate days. I was in a used bookstore (long since disappeared) on Broadway on Capital Hill in Seattle on a Sunday evening. Of course, the store had NPR on as their background noise. That night while I was there, they were reading letters from listeners. One NPR listener had written in to complain that an NPR story that week had been "too hard" on Stalin.

Addendum: the economist reports (in their weekly summary email) that "In a countrywide vote of 5m people, Russians chose Alexander Nevsky, a medieval prince, as the greatest Russian of all time, only a little ahead of Joseph Stalin, the front-runner in early polling."

What did Homeland Security know and when did they know it?

This post from the budget traveler blog shows the details of the writer's "passenger activity" file from Homeland Security.

I have always wondered just what it is that the border agents have on their screen after they swipe my passport. I guess this is it. I have never sent for any sort of secondary questioning (and I travel a lot). The only strange thing that happened is that once I was a asked a long series of questions about whether I had any friends in Italy, as if I somehow might be connected with the mob. That was a few years ago now and has not been repeated.

Oh, and am I the only one who finds the term "homeland security" vaguely totalitarian?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Frontiers in energy research

This article describes a surgeon who claims to have used human fat from liposuction operations to power his car and his girlfriend's car. It will not surprise you that the surgeon practiced in Beverly Hills.

The oddest part of this is that there is apparently a law that prohibits using medical waste to power cars. Surely ... surely... the great minds in our legislature have more important things to attend to?

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Marriage advice

Some thoughtful relationship advice from the Washington Times. The advice does not only apply to wives, though it is framed that way. It actually applies to husbands and to other sorts of relationships more generally. I think there is an old saying (that one does not hear much anymore) about what to do with your mouth if you do not have something nice to say.

But in the marriage context the point is deeper than just being nice. The point of marriage, in one economic model, is to increase exit costs from a relationship and thereby to induce investment in relationship-specific capital. A positive view and appreciation of your spouse is one very important component of the relationship-specific capital in a marriage. One way to invest in that capital is to focus on the positive when talking and thinking about your spouse.

Reuters does social science, badly

This article from Reuters, forwarded to me by one of the students in my just-completed undergraduate econometrics course, nicely illustrates everything I complain about in that course regarding discussions of social science in the supposedly highbrow media.

First, we learn:
The survey examined sexual experiences as well as family relationships and lifestyle habits of Japanese females and males aged 16 to 49. It was carried out in September and was based on about 1,500 people.
This is all well and good but on might have a few tiny questions still remaining about the data collection. For example, was it a random sample of the Japanese population or was it a sample of, say, subscribers to a magazine? Second, what was the response rate? Was it something reasonable, like 80 percent, or something awful, like 20 percent?

Next we learn that:
The average age of first-time sex for those who said they ate breakfast every day as a middle school student was 19.4, while for those who skipped breakfast, the average age was 17.5.

Did they really just take a mean difference and report it? Perhaps there were some conditioning variables, though the text sounds like there were not. Perhaps they did some sort of highly advanced statistical procedure, like a t-test, to gain some sense of how likely the observed difference is to arise by chance in a world where this is in fact no difference in population proportions? Is there any conceivable reason why the reader should suspect that these estimates represent causal effects?

But it appears that the authors of this study had no time to waste on foolish technical trivia. There are important interpretations to be made, such as this:

"The fact that people can't eat breakfast may show something about their family environment," said Kitamura. "Before blaming individuals for having sex at an early age, it may be necessary to look into the sort of homes they are from."

There is even a hint of some policy conclusions and, of course, more things for our friends at the government to do when they aren't busy doing such a bang-up job of looking after the economy.

What we do not learn, in addition to all these details, is where to find the study so that we can read it ourselves. Would it be too much to provide a link? Isn't that the very start of using the wonderful power of the web to create new knowledge?

Absent a link, perhaps the curious reader could learn the name of the journal in which the study was published. Oh, wait, the study is not published yet. Reuters is telling the world about a study that has not even been through peer review. Sigh.

Score a big fat F for Reuters on this one and another big fat F for the Japan Family Planning Association.

Hat tip: Russell Bittmann

Throwing shoes at Bush

I've been puzzled by the whole shoe-throwing business on several dimensions. First, I am puzzled by the left's enthusiasm for this fellow. I thought the left was all about reasoned discourse and journalistic objectivity. How can one both celebrate the shoe-thrower and complain about Fox News? Would it not be preferable for the journalist to write a thoughtful op-ed piece like an adult rather than throwing his shoes, like an ill-tempered child? Second, I am puzzled by all the hoopla on the right as well. If we have moved from IEDs to shoes, this is big progress! More generally, the huge amounts of coverage and attention from the media and the blogosphere that this got seems to suggest a lack of seriousness, eh? Is there really nothing else Iraq that it would be useful for American viewers to see or read about?

Have said all that, here is a game where you too can throw shoes at President Bush.

Hat tip (on the game): Ken Troske

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Evidence-based high school football

Football innovation, in this case skipping the punts and maxing out on on-side kickoffs, in Arkansas, all based on research, including some by David Romer at Berkeley.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Book: How Babies Think

This book lays out, for the intelligent non-specialist, the recent literature on child development that adopts a cognitive focus, which is to say that it thinks about babies as little scientists, trying to sort out how the world works. Indeed, when the book was first published it bore the alternative title "The Scientist in the Crib". I suspect the current title resulted in more sales, but the earlier title gives a more direct sense of what the authors, all scientists, are up to.

I found much of the book new and quite fascinating. I had never really thought about some of the problems they discuss, such as how do you sort out objects from raw visual stimulation? How do you sort out words from a morass of sound? Babies face both problems, and do so with a mix of apparently hard-wired technology and learning. These problems are quite similar, by the way, to the problems faced by artificial intelligence researchers.

My main wish is that the book had been dumbed down a bit less than it was for a popular audience. It is not so trivial that I could not read it with pleasure, but there is more fluff around the substance than I prefer in this sort of book. Nonetheless, it is well worth the time, especially if you have or are about to have a little one around.


Seattle at Christmas

I do miss Seattle sometimes. Snow is not its usual Christmas weather but it suits it as long as you do not have to get somewhere.

The star in the background is on what used to be the Bon Marche and is now Macy's.

Hat tip: Jackie Smith

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reason on Rick Warren

Katherine Mangu-Ward is both very funny and right on target.

Universities and recessions

Instapundit points to this message from the chair of the physics department at the University of Tennessee. It (and the comments it has engendered) raise a number of interesting points.

First, higher education tends to bear the brunt of state budget cutting during recessions because many other items on the state budget are either relative fixed, countercyclical, or politically hard to touch. Sharp budget changes (either up or down) are rarely efficient though, so resources are wasted that would not be wasted with more stability in funding. Private universities have an advantage here in that they can better smooth expenditures over the cycle. A lot of privates are taking advantage of that fact this year by hiring when the state schools are largely out of the market on the demand side.

Second, it is notable that Tennessee's physics department has its own endowment and does its own fundraising. My sense is that this is now pretty common, though it raises some important issues of coordination in fund-raising across departments within a university. You do not want departments competing for the same donor or competing with the central development office for the same donor. It is very easy in such cases to give the impression that the university is not well organized, which I suspect has a dampening effect on donations.

Also, there are issues around the central administration implicitly taxing donations received by individual departments. This is natural enough as some departments (e.g. economics) will have better off alumni than other departments (e.g. classics) and so can attract more donations. At the same time, the threat of such implicit taxation should lead donors to want to fund things that the university normally would not fund, in the expectation that this will reduce the implicit taxation. It is also not so clear how the central administration can commit to zero or low implicit taxation as a way of inducing donors to give gifts with fewer strings, which are of course more valuable to the receiving department.

Finally, the comments seem to suggest a couple of things:

First, many people do not seem to realize that professors sign contracts specifying how much teaching they will do. These contracts cannot be altered unilaterally by the university. Even if they could, a university that did so would lose all its mobile (approximately the same as "good at research or teaching") faculty and keep the rest. Back in my undergraduate days, the University of Washington wanted to cut its budget during the recession of the early 1980s and it offered early retirement. In economics, the key taker was Doug North, who took early retirement, went to Washington University in St. Louis and won his Nobel Prize there. Ooops.

Second, the commenters apparently are unaware that professors do a lot of things other than just teaching undergraduate courses. One thing, obviously, is research. Another is graduate teaching, a large part of which does not take the form of lecture courses but instead takes the form of meetings, seminar presentations, reading and commenting on drafts and so on. Still another is writing letters of recommendation, a task that consumed several working days of my time this year. Faculty also do quite a lot of administrative activities. The most important, and time consuming, tasks include hiring, promotion and tenure. When I was at UWO the administration did a survey of faculty time use and concluded that faculty typically work well over 40 hours per week. Although given the survey's purpose (essentially lobbying) it was clear what the correct answer was to all the respondents, it is nonetheless true that faculty at flagship state schools like Tennessee work very long hours and, in the case of technical fields like physics, for lower pay than they could get in the private sector.

Time to hire a new sinologist

The Telegraph summary says it all:
A respected German scientific magazine has been embarrassed to discover it printed a Chinese-language advertisement for "jade-like girls" and "coquettish and enchanting housewives" across its front cover.
It thought the ad was classical Chinese poetry.

For those who prefer their linguistic confusion in the other direction, the article points to this website featuring mangled English in China.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Book: Miles Gone By

This is an autobiography of sorts by William F. Buckley. I consumed this as an audiobook and enjoyed hearing it read by WFB himself. What he has done essentially is string together a bunch of more-or-less-autobiographical bits written for other purposes and other places and put them in a sort of chronological and topical order.

There is a lot about sailing here, including descriptions of long (and not obviously very pleasant) voyages across the ocean and more clearly enjoyable sauntering around the Caribbean with friends. There is a bit about Blackford Oakes, the hero of WFB's spy novels (which I have yet to read) and about his column on language. There is some here on the history of National Review as well, which I found quite interesting. I think the thing that will stick with me longest, though, is his essay on what it is like to go around on the lecture circuit, which he did for many years as a way of raising money for National Review. His stories of sometimes clueless hosts and tiring audiences were great fun and somewhat familiar at times.

WFB also includes a reading of the transcript of his debate with Ronald Reagan about the Panama Canal. It is rather charming and quaint now to think about how much of an issue that was in the run-up to the 1980 presidential election. In the end, it was much ado about nothing, as such pressing political issues often turn out to be.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Reality imitates "Pirates of the Caribbean"

One of my favorite bits of the Disney attraction "Pirates of the Caribbean" is the little vignette of the not-so-attractive woman chasing the pirate around and around (and around and around unless at some point they turn it off) in a circle.

Apparently, this attraction is more realistic than I had imagined, as the CSM reports on how being a Somali pirate improves your love life (and affects, or does not affect, the local economy).

Key bit:
The pirates are the hottest men in town," Abdi says. "Girls from all over Somalia moved here to marry pirates. But if the girl isn't cute she's out of luck, because the pirates only go with beautiful girls."
Hat tip:

Happy ending

There is a happy ending to my earlier post about reading the literature before you send out your job market paper.

We are interviewing the person who inspired the post for a junior faculty position. Once the interview was set up, I sent the person the paper s/he had neglected to reference. In less than 36 hours I received two emails, one thanking me and another, several hours later, remarking on the paper, which had clearly received a careful reading. Also within 36 hours, a new version of the job market paper appeared on the person's website with appropriate citations.

So I am feeling warm glow right now. I like it when things work out as they should.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

National differences in sexual (and survey response) behavior

The economist summarize the findings of one David Schmitt at Bradley University who studies, among other things, cross-national differences in sexual behavior. The economist piece is here and Schmitt's website with more findings is here.

The Times of London focuses on large Western countries and finds that (pun surely intended) the UK comes out on top.

I have to say, these rankings do not coincide with my casual impressions, nor with what you would expect based on the relative religiosity of various countries. In particular, I would put Canada above the US and the UK below both of them.

Passing the smell test

The economist reports on recent research involving men, women and perfume.

Consuming college

This paper by Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks shows that study time at college has fallen dramatically in recent decades. Most of the time freed up via less studying has gone into leisure.

The pattern documented in this paper has important implications for how we think about the recent increase in the economic effects of college attendance (what is often though incorrectly called the "return to college"), which though large are likely understated given that, due to a lower time input, a college degree now likely represents less human capital than it used to.

These findings also have implications for the design of student loan and grant policies, admissions policies, grading policies, major requirements in individual departments and so on.

This paper from the BLS suggests that high school students are not working very hard, either.

In general, I am glad to see the study of time use data making a comeback in economics. Time use is one of the few economic optimization problems that each of us face every day.

Evidence and Policy

I recently did a review of an evaluation funded by the US Department of Labor for the folks at the Center for Evidence-Based Policy. My sense is that they are doing very good work. Their existence and occasional success indicates that there is a constituency among both of the major parties for spending money on policies with a strong evidentiary base and not spending money on things that do not have a strong evidentiary base.

It is worth keeping in mind that the problem is not just corruption in either the small sense that we usually think of it or the large sense of interest groups voting themselves rents at the expense of the public at large. Ignorance also plays an important role in the bad tasting product that emerges from the beltway sausage factory.

Book: What Happened?

"What Happened? Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception" by Scott McClellan is the tell-all (or, more likely, tell enough to get good sales figures) memoir by Bush II's first press secretary.

The book is longer than it needs to be, and not that well edited but I enjoyed it and do not regret reading it. The best parts are in the middle where McClellan is describing how the public relations machine worked in the Bush II White House. Also of interest is the balance that a press secretary must strike between maintaining his or her credibility capital and pushing out the message of the day, which will often not be very credible. The description at the beginning of McClellan's personal history is a bit indulgent. The concluding chapter, which offers up some policy recommendations, is a disappointment that is long on high school civics platitudes and re-arrangements of the white house organizational chart and short on things that seemed to me likely to have much effect. Overall, McClellan comes off as a sincere, competent and hard-working fellow taken by surprise by the workings of the DC political culture.

As an aside, it turns out that Scott McClellan is the brother of Mark McClellan, health economist and former commissioner of the FDA, in addition to playing other roles in the Bush II administration. Mark was one of the first to apply instrumental variables methods in health economics.

That giant flushing sound you hear ...

... is called the bailout.

I even got to see Ed Lazear (presently chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, founding editor of the Journal of Labor Economics and former U of Chicago b-school professor) defending the bailout last night to Judy Woodruff of the News Hour. Talk about role reversal! To be honest this gives me a bit of pause, because Ed is a very smart fellow and has access to information that I do not have, but at the same time I have no way of knowing if Ed really believes what he was saying on the News Hour or if he was just doing his job as part of the president's team.

Here is a very fine post by Megan McArdle at the Atlantic about how things got this way in certain parts of the US auto industry.

Addendum: In addition to his many fine scholarly articles, Ed is perhaps best known for saying that "if you don't miss the plane sometimes, you are not doing it right."

Addendum 2: The economist weighs in on the bailout.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie: The Day the Earth Stood Still

We went to see this movie last night at the Showcase on their IMAX screen. Based on the reviews we figured that playing up the special effects might be just the thing. There were about 10 of us in the 7 PM show.

We were in the mood for some unchallenging fun and that is pretty much we got. I thought it was much better than the low tomato rating it received at and also much better than Australia. At the same time, it is not great art either. Keanu Reeves does a great job of playing someone very distant and it is fun to see John Cleese (of Monty Python) in a serious role as a Nobel prize winning professor. On the other hand, the story is rather silly. Supposedly these advanced beings have had agents on earth for decades trying to figure us out and also have gained acess to the governments "mainframe" (do they still make those?) which is said to contain everything you might ever want to know about anything or anyone on earth. Given that, it does not make much sense that their entire perception is changed based on a few hours that the Keanu Reeves character spends with the pretty earth girl and her ill-behaved step-child. So, if you go, check your brain at the door and bring lots of popcorn.

Oh, and what is up with the title? The earth never does stand still in the movie.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Car tax in Denmark

This picture is of the informational sign that stood beside the new Volkswagen Passat in the lobby of the Radisson SAS Hotel in Aarhus.

At the bottom of the picture is the tax inclusive price of the Passat, which equals 579, 989 Danish Kroner. At the current exchange rate, this equals US$111,772 according to

This is why you travel to foreign countries, to see things like excise taxes over 200 percent.

Oh, and this is a great hotel if you ever get to Aarhus. One of only a few that I really look forward to.

Appreciative thinking

This post implicitly contains some very good advice for graduate students about how to relate to the literature.

I see the post as making several points and hinting at others:

First, you can learn useful things about a paper and a literature not just by asking what is wrong but also by asking what is right. Or, even better, try to think about why the authors did what they did. Authors usually try to get things right. If it seems to you that they did not there may be a good and informative reason.

Second, it is very important to keep in mind that there are few perfect papers and, even more important, that it is not only perfect papers that make contributions. To use an example close to home, the LaLonde (1986) American Economic Review paper that is the first to use an experiment to provide a benchmark against which to evaluate non-experimental methods within the context of specific data sets and a specific program has many imperfections both conceptual and in execution. At the same time, it has spurred a very important literature both by raising important questions, by suggesting a useful strategy and by coming to a provocative conclusion.

Third, and this is more distantly related, your first paper as a graduate student is almost sure to be awful. Mine was and so were plenty of others I saw among my graduate school colleagues and, later in life, among graduate students. Instead of delaying the inevitable writing of the awful first paper by playing fanstasy baseball or overachieving as a teaching assistant, think about it like losing your virginity. That probably was not that much fun either, but it is a necessary condition for moving on to better things in the future!

Hat tip: marginal revolution

Workshop in Denmark

I have just returned from about 10 days in Europe. The first portion was in Denmark to attend this workshop on the (surprise!) evaluation of active labor market policies sponsored by the Aarhus Business School.

Highlights included Michael Lechner's work, which Markus Froelich and Stephanie Behnke, on Swiss caseworkers, which you can find (along with the other papers) by clicking through to the program above. Caseworkers are, to use an analogy I am really tired of but have no good substitute for, the black box of active labor market policy. I am glad to see more people studying them as I think they are interesting in their own right and also because we might learn some things that would either increase program effectiveness or decrease program costs. Plus I find the general question of professional expertise of interest. Caseworkers certainly think they are adding value, but it is not so clear in the literature that they really are.

I also quite liked Monica Costa Dias' work, with Richard Blundell and Costas Meghir, on the accumulation of human capital over the life cycle via formal schooling and learning by doing. We had a good talk afterward the presentation about whether you want to incorporate learning by doing or on-the-job training in the model. These may sound like the same thing but learning by doing assumes that human capital increases whenever you work, while on-the-job training assumes that you accumulate human capital on the job, but only during a portion of the work day set aside for the purpose. In a life cycle context, the early human capital literature shows that if human capital depreciates at some modest rate, you gradually decrease your investment in on-the-job training as you age, because the period over which you reap the returns is getting shorter. In contrast, learning by doing assumes human capital just keeps increasing with work until you retire. These two models have very different implications for wages over the working life. I think on-the-job training probably predominates but the fact is that we do not really know empirically. This is a tough (due to difficulties of measurement) topic but one well worth more attention in the literature.

The most entertaining presentation was Bart Cockx' paper evaluating an active labor market policy in Belgium. Bart got a lot of laughs from the audience (which consisted entirely of Europeans other than yours truly and one Australian) just be describing the Belgian unemployment insurance system, which includes benefits that never end. Getting Europeans to laugh at your country's unemployment insurance system is a much higher level of attainment than getting Americans or other Anglosphere types to do so. Even more laughter ensued when the dramatic policy reform evaluated in the paper was described. Basically, the new policy sends claimants a letter warning them that they will have to meet with their caseworker eight months in the future. The paper itself is quite nice.

At the top of this post is a group picture from the workshop. We toured the Jylland, an old wooden battleship kept in drydock, with a museum to the side, just next to our hotel in exotic Ebeltoft. Being one who tries to provide public goods whenever possible, I am the one in the sailor hat, which our (amazingly excellent) tour guide insisted that one of us wear.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I just discovered this amazing drawing, originally published in the Realist magazine and entitled the "Disneyland Memorial Orgy".

The web truly does have everyhing.

On the margin of being not work friendly but actually pretty tame.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

UW promo video for Steve Sarkisian

They are quick!

Maybe we should make videos like this for new senior faculty hires in economics?

Addendum: it is not sized correctly but my knowledge of html is limited enough (i.e near zero) that I am going to leave it as is.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Request for computational advice

My home PC is around seven years old and starting to show its age, as is "my" (actually it is property of UM) four year-old laptop. My question is: is there some magic software that will unclog their computational drains for a while and allow me to put off replacing them, or should I bite the bullet and do my own personal stimulus package? If the latter, I would be interested in recommendations, though I am likely to stick with Dell in both cases.

All emails welcome: I will summarize the good bits.

Interpreting the Obama cabinet

An entertaining NRO piece on the left's reactions to Obama's centrist picks.

I think there is more to the "projection" argument than the NRO writer does; I think a lot of folks on the left forgot that "not Bush" defines a very large policy space indeed.

Trends in fashionable food consumption

A tasty post from Kerry Howley (of Reason but on her own blog) about the move from fair trade to localism as the foundation of ethical eating and caffeine consumption.

Of course, buying local goes beyond food. Local Ann Arbor businesses often promote buying local which has always seemed to me a bit odd for a left-wing sort of town. Shouldn't the left view be that we should drive into Detroit to buy from poor people? Of course, that would increase our carbon footprint. And, of course, both buying local and buying from poor people in Detroit do nothing to help the really poor people in the third world.

Having mutually incompatible values is hard and I suppose is what leads to this sort of normative cycling. Normative cycling is also useful because it allows people to signal that they are politically with it. You need the "right thing" in "doing the right thing" to change with some frequency otherwise everyone would eventually catch up and then "doing the right thing" would lose its value as a signal of hipness.

Naming names and naming things

As a follow-on to my earlier post about UM naming something after its sitting university president, Mary Sue Coleman, here is InsideHigherEd with some rules about naming. They agree with me.

Movie: Rachel Getting Married

We saw Rachel Getting Married last week at the Michigan Theater. It is a tough, well-acted and well-written movie about addiction, truth, and family dysfunction. Highly recommended.

California 48 Washington 7

The misery of the 2008 Washington Husky football season came to an end last night with a 48-7 loss to California. It is not obvious from the score, but the defense played a lot better than the offense, and third-string quarterback Taylor Bean played surprisingly well compared to Ronnie Fouch, whose passing seems to have, if anything, decayed over the course of the season.

Ty's employment ended yesterday as well; I have read news reports that he has had interest from New Mexico State and San Jose State for their head coaching jobs.

Was I the only one surprised by the 2/3 full stadium at Cal on a beautiful day for a sure win? And the stadium is not that big to begin with.

For those at Michigan, and I have heard and read them, who say "it can't get any worse", let me assure you that it can. I have been there and I have seen it with mine own eyes.

The coaching change to Steve Sarkisian became official not long after USC finished their victory over UCLA. Here is the Seattle Times story about Sarkisian's words. He is apparently going to serve two masters through USC's appearance in the Rose Bowl.


This op-ed piece, published anonymously in the WaPo, has attracted a lot of attention.

I was prepared to like it better than I actually did when I read it. Some points:

1. I am disappointed that the military is stone-walling this guy's book. It would, of course, not be the first time the military has shot itself, metaphorically, in the foot. It seems to me though, that as a general rule open and honest debate are good things, even in terms of military strategy. Normally, that debate occurs outside the public view (largely due to lack of public interest) but torture policy has aspects beyond just efficacy that should be included in decisions about policy.

2. I think the op-ed goes off the rails a bit in interpreting the claims of individuals being interrogated that it was American torture that led them to join Al Qaeda. Could it be that they are saying this in the hope that it will reduce their chance of being tortured? I am sure that our torture policies had some effect on recruitment but I think the op-ed author reduces his credibility by not explicitly noting that those making these statements have a strategic incentive to do so. This leads, of course, to real issues with the broad claims that are made about loss of life due to US torture policy in Iraq.

3. The authors epistemic stance is basically that his one data point trumps however many data points advocates of torture could bring forward. One problem with this is the same one that plagues evaluation of apparently successful, small-scale employment and training programs: you don't know if it is the technique or the person. If it is the technique, you can scale it up. If it is the person, you cannot. Maybe this fellow is very good at his style of interrogation, and at getting his underlings to do it successfully, but maybe others who tried to emulate his style would not be. As such, a more compelling end to the op-ed would have been a call for the systematic collection and analysis of evidence on the efficacy of alternative interrogation techniques rather than the complete elimination of one techinque based on what is essentially an anecdote.

I liked this interivew piece in the Atlantic a couple of years ago much better - it has, of course, also has the advantage of length, which allows more nuance. Also, my liking it better is not particularly related to the somewhat different policy conclusions of the two pieces. I just think the Atlantic piece is a lot more thoughtful. My policy reviews here remain largely unformed, with the exception that I think the evidentiary bars for policies of either occasional or routine torture are very high given the normative costs, much higher than it appears we have reached at present.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Raj Chetty to Harvard

Here is the news as reported by Greg Mankiw.

I think this is good news for Michigan as it should make UCB less attractive to Jim Hines.

Friday, December 5, 2008

New Husky Football Coach

Seattle Times coverage here. The choice is Steve Sarkisian, presently the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach at the University of Spoiled Children (USC).

This is a bit riskier than some of the other choices on the table, like Pat Hill of Fresno State and Mike Leach of Texas Tech, but the upside potential seems high.

I am glad they got an early start. He can hit the ground running (and passing!) as soon as the Cal game ends on Saturday.

Only shades of gray ...

There is an old Monkees' song called Shades of Gray, the chorus to which is

But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light.
Today there is no black or white,
Only shades of gray

This WaPo article on Obama's blackness, or rather his partial lack of blackness, reminded me of that song, as well as of Ursula LeGuin's novel The Lathe of Heaven, in which the protagonist can affect the world with his dreams. He starts to try to consciously manipulate this power; his attempt to end racism in this way succeeds as when he awakes everyone is gray. This is portrayed in the novel, as I recall, as something of a negative, but that is not so clear to me.

It strikes me that inter-marriage is the one sure-fire solution to racial and ethnic separation and discord. I am glad to see it rising in the US and extending to groups where historically it has been low, such as blacks and whites, as well as continuing in cases where it was already high, as with whites and Asians. This is just the melting pot, doing its good work.

Civics quiz

This civics quiz is fun. I got 33 out of 33 but then I am a bit of a wonk as well as a nerd.

The surrouding website is full of dire warnings about the sad state of civic knowledge. It seems to me that what we should be talking about instead is how to design a government that mimics the sewer system in the sense that it does its job well without most people having to have any idea how it works. There are no websites (well, you never know, but likely not many) lamenting the sad state of public knowledge of sewage disposal, no high school classes on sewage disposal and so on. But I am a dreamer, and likely doomed to a life of listening to people wring their hands about lack of public knowledge of various historical facts and obscure bits of institutional detail.

Do you object to Object?

The debate over sex industry policy continues in the UK. This Guardian piece describes a humorous hearing in which the case is made that lap dances are not sexual.

Active at the hearing is a UK group called Object. I really like the name as it works on two levels: they are concerned about women being treated as objects, and it is precisely this that they object to. Saith the Guardian:

But the committee also heard from two representatives of Object, a human rights organisation campaigning against the "sex object culture". Object wants lap dancing clubs to be classified as sex encounter establishments.

Sandrine Leveque, Object's advocacy officer, said: "Lap dancing clubs promote gender stereotypes and their expansion is therefore of concern to women's organisations up and down the country."

Ihave always found the "women as objects" line of argument odd for the following reason: we all treat almost all other people as objects almost all the time. When you are on a plane, you do not want to emotionally engage with the pilot and get to know her in the full richness of her humanity; rather, you want her to do her job and fly the plane. The same holds for the fellow behind the counter at Big Ten Burrito. We lack both the time and the emotional resources to do other than treat almost everyone as an object, something whose immediate value to us depends solely on their function, almost all the time. Thus, the issue is not objectification per se but rather knowing when and when not to treat women (or men) as objects. It strikes me that having socially established safe spaces in which both men and women can be treated as purely sexual objects makes it easier to not treat them as such the rest of the time and instead to treat them as objects whom we value for the other roles they play or, in certain cases, as fully realized individuals.

Oh, and one might, of course, argue that Object promotes some gender stereotypes of its own.

Job market advice: first, read the literature

Here is what you do not want if you are a graduate student on the market: you do not want a faculty member at a department you are applying for to open your job market paper, figure out the topic, look at the references and then immediately notice that you have not cited a recent, published paper that does what your does.

That is what happened when I opened [CANDIDATE'S] job market paper, which reminded me of [THIS PAPER] (gated) by my friend [THE ECONOMIST -TE], who is a full professor at the University of [CITY]. The job market candidate does not cite [TE'S] paper, even though it is published in a journal, [JOURNAL NAME], that is not particularly obscure, even though it was published three years ago and even though, if you happen to google, say, "[THREE OBVIOUS WORDS]" (roughly the topic of both papers) [TE'S] paper is the sixth entry on the first page.

To be clear, I am sure the omission was not deliberate, in the sense that I am sure that the candidate does not know about the paper. I suspect he just got enmeshed in the heat of research and neglected to do a thorough scouring of the literature (though, as noted, you don't have to scour very hard to find [TE'S] paper). I am also not saying that the job candidate has been scooped. His paper goes well beyond what [TE] does on several dimensions. I am just saying he was sloppy, and that is not the first impression that you want to make, especially in a year when a lot of schools are not hiring.

Addendum: someone with impeccable judgement convinced me over dinner last night that this post, though not all that very tough, was perhaps too tough, so I have anonymized it.


Not the place, the movie.

When I was growing up there was a show on every Sunday night at 7 PM called the "Wonderful World of Disney." One of the things it showed was essentially made-for-TV Disney movies, often stretched out over two or three Sundays.

This movie reminded me of one of those. The characters are completely one dimensional. Any character who is good is good in all ways; any character who is bad is bad in all ways. All white people except our two stars are bad, all Aboriginal people are good and much wiser than all the white people. I am very (very) sympathetic to the Australian aboriginals who have a really rich and beautiful spiritual tradition and whose treatment at the hands of the local whites stands out even relative to the US and Canada for its nastiness. But people are, outside this movie, still people.

Oh, and there are way too many really obvious blue screen shots.

Oh, and it sure is great to have an editor instead of just letting the movie run on and on and on and on for nearly three hours. I guess they ran out of money at the editing part.

I would give this one a pass.

Nifty blog

I just discovered this Economist blog on US politics.