Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Kathy Terrell, RIP

My colleague, neighbor and friend Kathy Terrell has passed on.

From the IZA email:

Katherine Terrell was a Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and a Professor of Public Policy Analysis at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. She published widely in the areas of economic development and labor economics. Her research evaluated the impact of government policies and the effect of globalization on wages, employment, income inequality and firm performance in emerging market economies. She also served as a consultant to various international organizations such as the World Bank, the OECD and the EBRD.

Those who knew her will always remember Kathy's warm personality and outstanding professional qualities. We are completely shocked by this horrible news. Our thoughts are with her family.


Addendum: Ford School tribute.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More on the TSA reaction

As usual, the economist says it best.

I particularly agree with this fellow:

I'll leave you with this, from Mr Schneier, responding to some of the new restrictions: "I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks." That would be nice.

Ann Arbor's Dumbest Robbers

All you need to know:

According to the police, the two victims were sitting in a car in the 400 block of South Forest Avenue, near the University of Michigan Central Campus, when the two suspects robbed them of an undisclosed amount of cash around 6 p.m. Sunday.

Officers were able to follow footprints in the snow to a residence, where the two suspects were arrested. They are charged with armed robbery and various firearms offenses.

They should probably also be charged with being too hopeless to survive without supervision.

Full article (which is not much longer than my excerpt) here.

Bad behavior from 3ie

This is from my holiday email from 3ie, an organization (that I am usually quite happy with) that promotes rigorous evaluation and evidence-based policy in the developing world. The figure in the graph embodies one of the tricks that Huff complains about in his classic book How to Lie with Statistics, which is shaving the vertical access so as to visually overstate the amount of change in the dependent variable.


Monday, December 28, 2009

New show at the Security Theater

TSA reacts to Nigeria's Dumbest Terrorist with a bunch of unrelated and idiotic new rules because it positively must appear to be doing SOMETHING however inane.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fun with Simpson's paradox

This WSJ pieces does a fine job of showing that sub-groups matter, especially, as in the kidney stone treatment example, when they are endogenous.

There is some implicit confusion here about education and unemployment. College graduates pretty much always have the lowest unemployment rate (they also have the highest opportunity cost of being unemployed). Does the fact that their rate is higher now than in the 1982 recession mean that the current recession is worse or that the now more numerous college graduates are a less selected, and so perhaps less able on average, group, and that both education and ability matter for the probability of unemployment?

Hat tip: my colleague Lones Smith

Movie: Sherlock Holmes

Great fun yesterday evening at Sherlock Holmes. I've never actually read any of the original stories (!) so I cannot vouch for the amount of veracity or the lack of it, but this was a fine Hollywood bit of fluff with lots of wonderful scenes of old London (including an action sequences on the still-under-construction Tower Bridge) to appeal to my Anglophile side.

Recommended as light entertainment.

Request for advice: seminar style class with 30 students?

So I am teaching a new course this coming semester. It is on the topic of evaluating social programs (surprise, surprise) and will be a scaled-up version of a class that I taught twice at Western Ontario with about 10 students each time and have taught twice at Michigan with five and then with 16 students.

In thinking about how to scale up the class to 30 students from 10-15 there are two main issues. The class is based mainly on student presentations of actual evaluations drawn from the literature followed by class discussion. With 10-15 students every student can present at least once, there is enough time for every student to participate in the discussion at least a bit and the threat of public embarrassment if I "cold call" on a student during the discussion suffices to insure that most students read the papers most of the time.

With 30 students, there are not enough class sessions in a semester for every student to present at least once (even without accounting for the fact that I lecture for the first couple of weeks to provide a common foundation of knowledge). One option to deal with this is not to have all students do presentations - those who do not could, say, participate by being formal discussants or simply have their grade based entirely on the paper and on their participation in the discussions. Alternatively, I could have the student do the presentations in groups of some sort, such as pairs or even trios. If I do down that road, I then have to come up with a way to form the groups. Unlike the honors students at UWO, who took all of their classes together and knew each other pretty well, most of the students in my class will not know any of the other students well, so letting them form their own groups is not really feasible.

With 30 students, I also need some other mechanism to make sure that all of the students read the papers, as it is no longer possible for all the students to talk about each paper during the discussion or for me to cold call enough student to get the embarrassment threat level up high enough to guarantee that they will do the reading. Options here include having each student write a one page summary and comments about each paper, which would be graded by the teaching assistant (perhaps only at random) and having each student prepare discussant remarks, with the discussant then chosen at random during class. The problem with random discussant assignment is that some students will get picked more than once and some not at all. If I just randomize the order, then students who do their discussions early know that they do not have to prepare the rest of the time.

So I am puzzled as to the best course on both fronts. Suggestions welcome, either in the comments (open but totally unused for several months now) or by email.

Sissies at Yale

This bit of campus political correctness is pretty sad.

Soft corruption, Canadian style ...

... at the Niagara Parks Commission.

The last few paragraphs, detailing the Globe and Mail's interview with long-time commission member Archie Katzman, are truly charming.

Newspapers (and blogs, and television stations) should do more of this sort of reporting. My sense is that this sort of minor corruption is all over in state (or provincial, if you please) and local governments as well as park districts, port commissions and all the rest.

Prohibition still doesn't work

Some evidence from the Great White North, as described in the Globe and Mail.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Two more on Samuelson

Greg Mankiw, whose textbook has, I think, assumed the market leader role once occupied by Samuelson, offers some memories of his interactions with Samuelson.

The economist provides a nice obituary but without quite enough annotation. The remark from Samuelson about "economics in one lesson" is a slam on Henry Hazlitt's book of the same title, which sold a lot of copies about half a century ago.

The Economist suggests that Samuelson's book was too positive about the ability of the economy to find an equilibrium on its own. Putting aside the misunderstanding of how economists think about equilibrium implicit in this claim, I would have thought that the main problem with Samuelson's text was the howlers it contained in its pre-end-of-communism discussions of comparative systems. In that regard, consider
The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a Socialist command economy can function and even thrive" (Samuelson, 13th ed., page 837, quoted in Skousen).
A perfect genius would, of course, be a boring genius, so we should appreciate Samuelson and pay attention to both his successes and his blind spots as we seek to profit from his example.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Warsh on Samuelson

A very nice obit for Paul Samuelson by David Warsh at Economics Principals.

I particularly liked this anecdote:
Paul Samuelson truly was the smartest guy in the room – with the exception of the occasional meetings with John von Neumann. From the beginning he enjoyed a reputation as an enfant terrible. The joke was that when he defended his dissertation, one professor on Samuelson’s committee asked him, “Did we pass?” He was no easier on the investors and financiers whose practices he studied.
It would be interesting to see someone address the question of which of his two most famous books, Foundations or his undergraduate text, was ultimately more important.


A very nice piece by Julian Sanchez, formerly of Reason, on what ails conservatism.

I like this bit in particular:
Conservatism is a political philosophy; the farce currently performing under that marquee is an inferiority complex in political philosophy drag.
I don't think the left really understands both how disrespectful they are to social conservatives and that it is the disrespect that drives a lot of the opposition to things like gay marriage.

Sometimes being nice to people you disagree with is both the right thing to do and the best way to get what you want.


Happy Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gelman on Becker and Dubner

One reason I enjoy reading Andrew Gelman is that he thinks about some of the same statistical issues that I do.

Another is that he is a really smart fellow who does not think like an economist but still reads and comments on economics articles and blogs. Today's example is his long, and misguided, criticism of a statement of Becker's, repeated by Dubner, that
According to the economic approach, therefore, most (if not all!) deaths are to some extent "suicides" in the sense that they could have been postponed if more resources had been invested in prolonging life.
What Becker is really saying is that people have things other than just duration of life in their utility function. What could be less controversial than that? The wording in the quotation serves the pedagogical purpose of highlighting an implication of the fact that we care about things other than just quantity of life, namely that we all choose to have shorter lifetimes, in an expected value sense, than we would if that were the only thing we were maximizing.

This seems completely obvious to me, but then I am an economist!

One might go farther and note problems with Gelman's criticisms:

1. Gelman argues against the "all" in favor of the "most" by noting that some people really do die in accidents even if they only have duration of life in their utility functions. I agree but think that the "all" is not intended seriously in the original statement.

2. Gelman argues that some methods that directly prolong life might have indirect effects that cause them on net to decrease expected length of life. This is surely true, but to the extent that agents understand this they are not behaving rationally in undertaking such methods. As such, this criticism is beside the point unless accompanied by an argument that agents have already undertaken all actions that yield a net increase in duration of life. And that is clearly false, as Gelman would surely agree.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Health care legislation and populism

Jay Cost has a nice piece on the popular rebellion against the current version of the health care legislation.

The legislation is indeed a mess but I would be happier if the opposition was based on a clear understanding of what a thoughtful reform bill would look like.

Movie: Me and Orson Welles

We saw Me and Orson Welles on Sunday at the Michigan Theater and got their early enough to listen to the pipe organ for a while, which is surely an appropriate prelude for a movie set in 1937.

I can't add much to the fine review from the NYT.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Student loan defaults and performance management

Determining which colleges, public or private, have default rates that are "too high" is, as this NYT article suggests, a tricky problem. The University of Michigan has a very low default rate on student loans but Michigan is taking in high ability, high motivation people who will have little trouble finding a job even if they do not finish their degrees. These are very different than the sort of people who are attending the upper end of the proprietary school market (e.g. DeVry and U of Phoenix) and even more different from the lower end of that market (e.g. truck driving schools that advertise at 3 AM on ESPN).

What would be useful here is a regulation that embodied adjustments for the characteristics of the students admitted. Then colleges could be rewarded or punished based not on their absolute performance, which reflects both the population they serve and how they serve it, but instead on their performance relative to what one would expect given the characteristics of their students. Such an adjustment mechanism has been used for federal job training programs in the past.

My friends Carolyn Heinrich and Burt Barnow have written a whole paper on performance standards adjustment.

Also, it is important to note that, particularly in a program that is designed to help those who are otherwise credit constrained make investments in their human capital, the optimal default rate is not zero. An interesting paper idea would be to try and sort out the optimal default rate given evidence from the literature about the relevant elasticities for different types of students, the value of the human capital that might be obtained and so on.

Hat tip: Brian McCall's blog

Paul Samuelson RIP

Here is the NYT obituary and here are some memories from Greg Mankiw.

Everything you read and hear about his influence on how economists do their work is right.

More on Art Goldberger

Tim Smeeding of the Institute for Research on Poverty has posted the very moving email he got from Art's daughter (a forwarded version of which was the source of my original post) in the comments section at marginal revolution.

Estimate quality and task difficulty

Estimates of the number of people who will show up at the UN climate conference this week: not so good, despite the UN having issued credentials to most of them

Estimates of global temperatures 100 years in the future: spot on

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie: Invictus

What to say about this movie, which we saw at the local multiplex tonight?

Here is the NYT review. Mr. Scott likes it better than I did by a fair bit, but I am not sure if that is because he feels compelled to applaud a movie about good things happening in South Africa, or compelled to like Clint Eastwood's direction, or actually believes what he wrote about liking the movie.

Yes, Morgan Freeman provides a compelling performance as Mandela, and yes, it could have been a lot worse, as most movies in this genre are much worse than this one. There are bits of realism here and there as, for example, some hints are dropped that Mandela can be a bit preachy at times, and that maybe this is why he does not see as much of his family as he would like. And the feel good stuff between the black and white security officers is understated relative to the norm for this sort of thing. Still there is no shortage of high fructose Hollywood corn syrup here, more than I really care for. Crisper editing, and a marginally shorter film, would have helped as well.

Recommended for those in need of uplift.

Christmas comes early in Seattle, again!

Jake Locker returns to play his senior year at Washington.

Hat tip: Ken Troske

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thought for the day

"Tis the season to be jolly"

When is it not?

Hat tip: Dave Bell


I am a big fan of puns as are several of my colleagues. I should note in particular that Jim Hines is a most excellent creator of puns.

In that regard, I have added the "that's punny" blog to the list on the right of my blog page.

It currently features the "Gnome Chomsky" garden accessory.

Things university administrators worry about ...

... at the University of Michigan.

But an honor code violation? I wonder if failing to wash your hands is now an honor code violation as well in light of H1N1?

I assign some non-zero probability to this being a photoshop fake and so would appreciate verification from those who might have seen such signs with their own eyes.

New evidence on borrowing constraints in higher education

My friend Karl Scholz from Wisconsin was here on Friday presenting his paper on credit constraints (co-authored with the Meta Brown and Ananth Seshadri) in a joint session of the labor and public finance workshops.

The clever idea underlying the paper is to notice that the government's formula for the expected parental contribution does not vary with the number of college-age students a family has, conditional on their total number of children. This means that, for example, two families that are otherwise identical except that one has two children of college age and one younger while the other has one child of college age and two younger are eligible for different amounts of financial aid. Put another way, the second college-age child in the first family has greater access to credit. If families make (economically) efficient investments in college even in the absence of financial aid, then exogenous variation in the amount of financial aid of this sort should not affect years of schooling obtained. Comparing families like the two above then provides a test of credit constraints. Being cautious sorts, the authors go even farther, and look within families with three or more children at differences across children who do and do not have siblings close in age. Doing so, the authors find surprisingly strong evidence of credit constraints. As expected, these effects are concentrated among middle income families - poor families have very low expected family contributions regardless of the number of children so there is no variation for them, a similar point applies to high income families.

There are, as always, issues. Can one generalize from families with at least three children to families with just one or two? What about the wealth effects that arise from the fact that some financial aid is in the form of grants rather than loans and the fact that the loans are typically subsidized? How would things change, in either the estimation or the interpretation, if the paper worried about college quality rather than just quantity? Also, these are effects conditional on the current policy regime. In a world with no government loan and grant programs families would save more for college (and college prices might well be lower) which would alter the game.

Also, this is one of those literatures in economics that has to some extent gotten fixated on an uninteresting null hypothesis. There are lots of papers by top scholars that address the question of whether or not there are "no" credit constraints. It seems to me that the interesting question is how substantively important the credit constraints are rather than whether or not they exist at all as I do not think anyone writing in this area believes them to be literally zero. Put differently, when looking at the tables I would spend more time on the point estimates and less time on the *s.

Overall an excellent paper with which to end this semester's seminar season.

Mankiw on tax cuts versus spending

Here is Greg's column for today's New York Times.

It is interesting that Greg assumes the "success" of the stimulus package from earlier this year based essentially on a before-after comparison. My sense is that back in the day when the federal government was small, recessions ended without any stimulus packages, which suggests that before-after comparisons are problematic in this context. At the same time, some stimulus was likely necessary if only because a lot of market actors believed that one was needed. My guess is that the dose was much larger than required to meet that psychological need.

Neglected in Greg's column is the fact that the policy in question is not tax cuts per se but rather current tax cuts plus either tax increases or spending cuts in the future. The same point applies to those arguing for a second stimulus; they should always and everywhere be mentioning the second part of the policy, which is future spending cuts or tax increases.

Thought question for the day: compare and contrast climate science and macroeconomics.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Carol'd at Performance Network

We saw this play on Thursday night and enjoyed it a lot.

Regular Performance Network attendees will recognize a number of the players: John Siebert as Scrooge is particularly effective. The set design attains PN's usual high standards.

This version of the classic Dickens tale adds a bit of humor here and there, along with occasional postmodern bits that remind the audience that they are indeed an audience and not really in 19th century London.

Recommended for a bit of holiday fun.

Art Goldberger RIP

Art Goldberger passed on last night.

Sad news indeed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Update on Danish sex workers

No takers yet on the offer of free sex to climate convention delegates by a group of Danish sex workers, but lest you think that environmentalists are a bunch of sexless droids who can't dance, there is this bit:
There were a couple of Danes who wrote to ask if they could have free sex because they were members of Greenpeace – but that’s not on,” smiles Susanne Møller.
Darn that fine print!

Hat tip: you know who

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Crime FAIL in Ypsilanti

All you really need to know is the title of the story: Police Arrest Thief After Following Footprints in Snow.


The Economist goes to Copenhagen

I agree with their recommendation on the Nyhavn neighborhood. You can also catch boat rides there that take you around the harbor.

I really enjoyed the Danish National Museum. It is always interesting to see how countries present their culture and history to outsiders. Like most modern museums in Europe, the information is mostly in both the local language and in English making it quite accessible.

Do stop at Tivoli Gardens. One is tempted to call this an amusement park but it is more than that. Think Seattle Center but with gambling. Indeed, a stop at Tivoli on my high school student group tour of Europe was literally the first time I ever saw slot machines in person. My recollection from grade 11 is that they were crowded with little old ladies gambling away their pension checks. It is great fun just to walk and watch here, and reasonably good Danish food can be had.

By all means wander through Christiania as well. This 60s throwback is what Berkeley always wished it could be. Christiania is not, itself, all that it used to be. In the national museum they have an example of a pot-selling stand taken from Christiania's past, but even without the open air drug market it is still great counterculture fun that has not yet (though one can imagine it may at some pointed) jumped the shark into a 60s-theme tourist trap. Best not, though, to demand to be taken here straight from the airport as one economist, who shall remain nameless, did when visiting Denmark. Your gentle hosts will repeat the story forever after to the amusement of future guests.

If you are flush with money, the downtown Marriott, where I stayed at the expense of the much-abused Danish taxpayer while teaching a course, is quite nice.

Slate humor piece on magazine restaurants

This is cute enough for a morning chuckle.

Here is the one for Sports Cosmo:

Chez Cosmo
This downtown hot spot, beloved among fashionable divorcées, is known for tasting menus like "76 Hot Dishes You Need To Eat Now" and "51 Gravies To Please Your Man." For an entree, try the Lamb Three Ways. Extra-spacious bathrooms leave patrons plenty of room for vomiting, sobbing uncontrollably at the emptiness of it all, and reapplying lipstick. Dress code of Capri pants, stiletto heels, and body glitter strictly enforced.

Hat tip: the agitator

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Guide me Lord, back to the hair stylist, so that they may give me a refund.

Effects of budget cuts at Harvard

Things are going to the dogs at Harvard already! I received this today:

Dear Professor Smith,

We have received your recommendation for [Student]. Should you have any questions, please contact us at $support_e-mail_address.

Thank you.


Faculty Recruiting

Harvard Business School

I deleted the name of the student for privacy reasons but the remainder of the email is untouched. I guess they are not feeling so supportive today.

Freakonomics and experiments

The Freakonomics blog, with a rhetorical blush, posts a positive review of Superfreakonomics from regular blog contributor Ian Ayres.

Ayres highlights both the prevalence of experimental thinking, linked here more generally to the treatment effects literature, in Superfreakonomics relative to plain, old Freakonomics. He also, correctly, highlights the general rise of what one might call "experimental thinking" among economists; you will often hear applied economists suggest that one way to start thinking about a problem is to imagine the experiment that you would ideally run if you could put aside all constraints of political feasiiblity, ethics and cost.

There is much to like about Ayres' piece in my view, but I do have some comments:

First, I think Ayres overstates the prevalence of this sort of thinking. It is mainly limited to labor economists (and empirical researchers who use labormetrics tools in other applied micro fields like public finance, development and health) and largely concentrated in North America. Macro economists, trade economists, highbrow theorists and many others are not really thinking this way. In many places outside North America (and in a handful of departments in North America), structural approaches remain more popular among labor economists, relative to a reduced form treatment effects view.

Second, experiments are not a panacea nor, to quote Burt Barnow, are they a substitute for thinking. For all the reasons laid out in my 1995 paper with Heckman in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, experiments are not as simple to interpret nor always as directly informative about questions of interest as their proponents sometimes make out.

Does this mean that I think we should do fewer experiments? No. Even in the US, which is still basically the only place doing social experiments despite some cautious nibbles elsewhere, I do not think we are yet to the place where we have equated the marginal costs and marginal benefits of additional experiments. Certainly in placess like the UK and Canada, whose sum total of social experiments can be mapped onto the fingers of one hand, more experiments would be useful. What it means is that we cannot rely solely on experiments as a guide to policy or understanding. They are complements to, not substitutes for, other types of analysis.

Third, economists run two dangers with a mono-focus on experiments. First, we run the risk of losing, or maybe just slowing the development of, our applied econometric skills in regard to non-experimental data. If only because many treatments of interest - parental education, race, sex, local labor market etc. - will never be randomly assigned, non-experimental data and methods will always be with us.

Second, we run a danger of neglecting the value of economic theory in designing and interpreting the results of empirical analyses, experimental or not. A focus solely on (to use an analogy so tired it could pass for dead) black box experimental analyses of treatment effects misses a lot of broader pictures and broader questions, and means that we do not even get all that we can out of the available experimental data.

So, in my view, it should be two cheers, rather than three cheers, for the recently arrived dominance of social experiments, and treatment effects thinking more generally, in applied economics.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Some potted scholarship

For the person who has everything:

The Law and Harry Potter
Edited by: Jeffrey E. Thomas and Franklin G. Snyder
ISBN: 978-1-59460-645-8

This volume considers the depiction of law and legal institutions in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. It contains more than twenty chapters by legal academics from the U.S. and abroad. The chapters are organized in five sections: Legal Traditions and Institutions, Crimes and Punishments, Harry Potter and Identity, the Wizard Economy, and Harry Potter as an Archetype. Some chapters analyze the way law and legal institutions are portrayed, and what these portrayals teach us about concepts such as morality, justice, and difference. Other chapters use examples from the narratives to illustrate or analyze legal issues, such as human rights, actual innocence, and legal pedagogy. The volume is suitable for undergraduate or law school courses, and will be of interest to those Harry Potter fans who also have an interest in law and the legal profession.

Sadly for holiday givers, it is forthcoming in January 2010.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Monday, December 7, 2009

Journey into self-obsession

Tyler Cowen ecommended this NYT piece on marriage over at but after reading it I am not sure just why. It is nice that these two whiners have each other to tangle with (thus sparing the rest of us) but really, what is the point?

Whatever Tyler saw in this piece, I missed.

Recommended only as voyeurism, and even then maybe not so much.

Barrel Man, RIP

America is great because of eccentrics like this.

How not to protect your department from budget cuts

Ann Arbor's city government has some tough budget issues to deal with, as both property tax revenues and state revenue sharing are falling in the recession.

In such tough budget times, you might think that the Ann Arbor police would have something better to do than chasing down escorts on the internet.

Note too that helpfully passes along the names of the websites where the police found the escorts, just in case any of its readers might find those tidbits interesting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Washington 42, #19 California 10

Christmas comes early in Seattle.

It is a happy night indeed.

Added Sunday: AP story on the game and Seattle Times story on the game.


The city government of Copenhagen is trying to get the climate delegates to focus on their work rather than on sex, or at least to focus on unpaid sex with each other or with horny enrviro-groupies rather than with Copenhagen's many sex workers.

The city council has contacted 160 hotels asking them not to arrange prostitutes for guests, reports

In collaboration with The Nest International – an anti-trafficking organisation – and tourist organisation Wonderful Copenhagen, postcards with the slogan ‘Be sustainable – don’t buy sex’ have been distributed to hotels as part of the campaign.

The prostitutes are fighting back by offering free sex to delegates.

Do remember that sex work is completely legal in Denmark.

Hat tip: not even worth saying.

"There is a blog about everything"

I have added the "blog of unncessary quotation marks" to the list at the right.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Politics and related careers

I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it works either way:
Judy Wallman, a professional genealogical researcher, discovered that Stephen Dion the [former] leader of Canada's Liberal Party great-great uncle, Robert Dion, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Quebec in 1889. The only known photograph of Dion shows him standing on the gallows. On the back of the picture is this inscription:

"Robert Dion; horse thief, sent to Quebec Provincial Prison 1883, escaped 1887, robbed the Canadian Pacific Railway six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted, and hanged in 1889."

Judy e-mailed Stephen Dion for comments. Dion's staff sent back the following biographical sketch:

"Robert Dion was a famous horseman in Quebec . His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave in 1887 to resume his dealings with the railroad. Subsequently, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Dion passed away during an important civic function held in his honour, when the platform on which he was standing collapsed."
This bit from the Wikipedia page linked to above suggests Dion lacks a sense of humor:
In May 1999, Dion was the object of a pie-in-the-face gag orchestrated by the Montreal group, les Entartistes. The group's stated focus is to "deflate" influential political figures, and they have successfully pied several Canadian federal and provincial politicians, with past targets including [former prime minister] Jean Chrétien and [former Alberta premier] Ralph Klein. Dion was not amused and pressed charges, resulting in convictions of assault against two members of the pie-throwing group. They were given suspended sentences. [links and footnote removed]
That in turn suggests the horse thief story is both funny and false.

Hat tip: Christine Gribowski

Friday, December 4, 2009

It is always the third reviewer ....

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Administrative follies

I received the following email yesterday:

-----Original Message-----
From: []
Sent: Thursday, December 03, 2009 5:00 PM
Subject: Letter of Recommendation Request

Thank you for agreeing to submit a Rackham Administered Fellowship, Scholarship and Grants - Rackham Graduate Student Research Grants letter of recommendation for applicant [the applicant's name has not yet been entered on the application].

For your convenience, please click the link below to access the applicant's online letter of recommendation form:


When I click through, the student's name is still not revealed.

I am working on figuring out the point of notifying a faculty member that they need to fill out a recommendation for a student whose name is not revealed to them.

Probably this is one of those deep bureaucratic mysteries that being an economist makes it impossible to understand.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Evaluating partial employment service privatization in Sweden

I get regular emails from the IFAU (a labor market policy research institute) in Uppsala, Sweden about their new working papers.

Today this one arrived:

Effects of outsourcing employment services: evidence from a randomized experiment

Helge Bennmarker, Erik Grönqvist, Björn Öckert

In many countries welfare services that traditionally have been provided by the public sector are increasingly being contracted out to private providers. But are private contractors better at providing these services? We use a randomized experiment to empirically assess the effectiveness of contacting out employment services to private placement agencies. Our results show that unemployed at private placement agencies have a much closer interaction with their placement worker than unemployed at the Public Employment Service (PES). In particular, unemployed at private agencies receive more assistance in improving their job search technology. We do not find any overall difference in the probability of employment between private placement agencies and the PES), but this hides important heterogeneities across different types of unemployed. We find evidence that private providers are better at providing em¬ployment services to immigrants, and also indications that they may be worse for adolescents. Any effects tend to fade away over time.

What makes this cool?

First, it is a social experiment conducted in a developed country other than the United States. Those are rare birds indeed.

Second, it is an evaluation focused not on the question of whether or not a given service should be offered but rather on how best to organize its delivery. In particular, the evaluation examines privatization of employment service services. The opportunities for evaluations of this sort are nearly endless, and experiments that consider how to deliver services should raise fewer political issues than experiments that deny services to a control group in order to estimate the effect of services relative to no services.

Third, the evaluators here focus not just on the final product, namely labor market outcomes, but also on the process, by reporting on impacts on things like time spent the caseworker. This helps in understanding where the impacts on labor market outcomes come from.

Movie: 2012

We saw 2012 this last night at the our favorite Multiplex mainly because we were ten minutes late for the movie we actually wanted to see and it seemed the least hopeless of the sad set of other alternatives.

Readers old enough to remember the great disaster movies of the 1970s, such as the Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and the Towering Inferno will know what to expect here in terms of basic structure. Nothing has changed much in this genre other than the GGI special effects, which, in 2012, are truly something to behold. Indeed, a half hour version focusing only on the CGI effects, with all the talking removed from the soundtrack but the explosions retained, would probably be a better film.

The script positively screams out that it was written by a committee, and while no one on the committee managed to pass their college philosophy class, a majority of the committee seem to feel that having some deep message is important. The result is not so pretty. Moreover, the movie is consistently politically correct, but in a quite, background sort of way. Did you know that white Southern males are evil? What a surprise! How creative!

When did Hollywood get the idea that the defining characteristic of scientists is that they do not have social lives even when they are A-list attractive?

The movie is also pretty comical in its insistence that every obstacle must be overcome at precisely the last (the very, very absolute last) possible instant before all is lost, so much so that I actually had to work hard not to laugh out loud and disturb the handful of others in the theater on multiple occasions.

One saving grace: there is a lot less material about the great wisdom and foresight of Mayan calendar makers than I was expecting.

Recommended only if you like CGI graphics and are too late for the movie you actually wanted to see.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why turkey is called turkey

How can it be that I went through six grade school Thanksgivings and we never learned any of this? It all makes sense now.

Brian Jacob on NCLB offers up a Q + A with my friend and colleague Brian Jacob in regard to his recent research on the No Child Left Behind system of performance measures, rewards and sanctions for government schools in the US.

I think Brian is correct that NCLB has increased math performance among low income students. Even though it is poorly designed even by the standards of performance management systems in government, NCLB has forced institutional attention on performance at schools in very poor neighborhoods, and that is all to the good.

At the same time, using NCLB to fix your government schools is a bit like using a chain saw to fix your DVD player - collateral damage is likely. Any full accounting of the costs and benefit of NCLB must include the former as well as the latter, where the former include all the myraid varieties of induced strategic behavior by schools, districts and states. A paper that attempted to perform that cost-benefit calculation in a serious way, and relative to policy-relevant counterfactual sets of institutions, would also be of great value.

On a different theme, I hope this indicates that will pay more attention to local researchers when discussing the issues of the day than its parent, the Ann Arbor News, did.

Lifestyles of rich and famous economists

Harvard's student newspaper, the Crimson, does a puff piece on Greg Mankiw's house.

Things I learned:

1. Greg's house is twice as big as mine, but I walk to my office and he has a 30 minute commute. Revealed preference suggests, well, different preferences!

2. Greg contracts out the production of his vegetable garden.

3. Greg shops at Whole Food and buys a lot of organic food. Perhaps a bit of a surprise there? But perhaps not as Whole Foods is really more about class (in the sociological sense) than about politics.

4. Greg is of Ukranian descent.

At the end of the day, there is the whiff of wrongness about this enterprise. I can't imagine either the Michigan Daily or the Chicago Marooon writing a piece like this. Students, in my view, should be young skeptics, not hero worshipers, even if the hero is, in this case, someone I like.

Ohio State 21, Michigan 10

Yeah, that was last week, but I am catching up!

Michigan actually gave it a pretty good shot, especially given all the coaching rumors swirling around. On my way to the airport on the Wednesday before the game the Metrocars driver had sports talk radio on and that was all about dissing on Rich Rod and lusting after Stanford coach, and former Michigan QB, Jim Harbaugh.

Michigan, quite correctly, is keeping Rich Rod around for at least another year. Given all the player defections when he arrived, I think it is surprising he has done as well as he has.

Also, having experienced Tyrone Willingham at Washington, I can attest first hand that being able to win at Stanford, as Willingham did, is an imperfect guide to success elsewhere.

Washington 30, Washington State 0

A bit of order is restored to the universe.

The times coverage highlights Jake Locker while the radio guys last night highlighted Chris Polk becoming the first Husky freshman to rush for more than 1000 yards.

For the second week in a row the game was not on any of my several hundred cable channels so I had to listen on the radio. I did not miss the Fox College Sports TV commentators (whom I had to endure later in the evening when I watched the USC-UCLA game) and actually quite like the team at KJR in Seattle that does the radio broadcasts, but it would have been fun to watch the game.

A better record for the Huskies this year (and hopefully a still better one next year) should mean more games that I get to watch (though, oddly, I had access to all 12 games of last year's ghastly 0-12 season).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Punctuation and selection bias

The Mills ratio plays an important role in the famous "Heckman two-step" estimator that corrects for selection bias in the context of the bivariate normal selection model.

Each year when I lecture on this in my graduate applied econometrics course I try to remember whether it is the "Mill's ratio" or the "Mills ratio".

Wolfram and wikipedia agree that it is Mills, named after John Mills, and not "Mill's".

Left open is the question of whether to write "Mills ratio" as is common, or "Mills'" ratio, which comports with the usual rules of grammar.

I've updated my lecture notes and problem set and taken the easy way out by using "Mills" with no possessive apostrophe.

Hat tip: Dan Marcin, a student in this year's class

Addendum: Reader Nic Duquette suggests that, particularly in this case, the Chicago Manual of Style should be the guide.

Wild Bank humor

This is not new in an absolute sense but it was new to me and coincided some of my experiences with both the WB and the IDB.

Via: probably Chris Blattman

Famous friends

Congrats to my friend and co-author Petra Todd who has been elected a fellow of the Econometric Society!!

Congrats too to my colleague Lones Smith who has received the same honor.

Well done! Full list of new Econometric Society fellows here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving like its 1899

The Thanksgiving 1899 menu from New York's Plaza hotel.

Your choice of four different kinds of duck!

Via: the agitator

This research is pretty foul

This story from ESPN summarizes research on basketball fouling. The key points are: home bias, compensatory foul calling and more compensatory foul calling on national TV. None of these seem particularly surprising.

Missing from the ESPN summary (but hopefully not the paper): standard errors!

Missing from the ESPN summary (and maybe the paper too): behavioral responses and social welfare calculations!

Consider this:
"The bigger the difference in fouls between the two teams playing, the more likely it was that the next call would come against the team with fewer fouls."
This is interpreted in the ESPN summary as resulting solely from compensatory behavior by referees, but it could also result from compensatory behavior by players. After all, the players are, throughout the game, trying to learn about the preferences of the referees. A big foul disparity in favor of one team might be interpreted as the referees being tougher on one team, with the result that that team responds by (optimally) fouling less, as it faces a higher cost of fouling.

And consider this:
We'd like them to have no memory and strictly call what's going on on the court," Anderson said.
Anderson is one of the study authors, and I think he is wrong. If fans get more utility from close, exiting games, then compensatory foul calling may be socially optimal.

That's two chapter ideas for Freakonomics III in one day. Maybe I'll get a cut of the royalties?

Hat tip: Greg Nicholson

That's not funny!

Applied ethics and economics exercises for today:

Does prohibiting blonde jokes in the workplace increase or decrease inequality among women as measured in utility units?

Has anyone estimated the relevant earnings equation? Is there an earnings premium for blondes? Even conditional on general attractiveness? Does it vary a lot by occupation?

What do we know about the relative sales of different shades of hair coloring? Is there a revealed preference argument to be made regarding the relative utilities associated with being a blonde versus being a brunette?

I offer this topic up to aspiring honors students looking for a thesis topic or as a chapter idea for Freakonomics III.

Via: daily Michigan PR email

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Economist Mom / Concord Coalition

Yesterday's Public Finance Free Lunch Seminar (PFFLS - pronounced piffles) at Michigan featured the "Economist Mom", Diane Lim Rogers, presently chief economist at the Concord Coalition, successful blogger on (mostly) fiscal policy and also UM undergraduate economics alum.

Her academically upgraded version of what she called a "chart talk" was a pleasant and interesting change from the usual menu of graduate student and faculty presentations of work in progress. I guess "chart talk" is beltway speak for a talk without a backdrop consisting of pictures of children, old people, soldiers and flags.

I think that the Concord Coalition is surely doing a fine thing by trying to educate people about the deficit and about the real costs of various ways of reducing it, and Diane was very balanced in terms of talking about tax increases and spending cuts. I don't think education or moral suasion alone is likely to really change how things play out in DC and so asked about the Concord Coalition's position on institutional changes aimed at accomplishing the same thing. That is not, apparently, a focus of their efforts, which I think is too bad.

I also would have liked a bit more micro-economics, recognizing that different kinds of taxes have different efficiency effects as do different kinds of spending. It is not all about the totals or about the totals plus the distributional effects. A touch more reality would have been nice as well. Diane was awfully kind, for example, regarding the current health care spending bills. It is not that we are uncertain about whether they will be budget neutral or not, we know they will not be.

One point I did like was her emphasis, based on the Concord Coalition's interactions with real people outside the beltway, that there is probably a market for serious reforms that is presently not being tapped due to lack of leadership. Whether anyone in DC in either party is capable of stepping in to fill this gap is, of course, an open question.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

And now for something completely different

This is a bit off the usual track of this blog but I liked this poem a lot when I heard it and thought I would put it up:

Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don'ts,
Not the God who ever does
Anything weird,
But the God who knows only 4 words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
"Come Dance with Me."
Come Dance.

-- Hafiz (1320-1389)

Buy Local? offers up a puff piece on a "buy local" advocate this morning.

I will confess that the success of this "movement" surprises me given that it offers little more than an unjustified belief in the absence of economies of scale combined with cover for people who want to avoid buying products produced or sold by people who do not look like them.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Quote of the Day

My esteemed teaching assistant thought this was worth preserving, so I will record it here. It is from my undergraduate econometrics class last week:

"You are the bouncer of your regression"

Tom Lehrer on Sociology

This has more of a tough edge to it than most of the Lehrer stuff I have heard.

Hat tip: Fred Feinberg

Friday, November 20, 2009

Facebook parody

Astute reader Lar Skipper points to this new Facebook parody cite, called lamebook.

This post is worth a special look and works on a couple of levels.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The NFL at 2

I keep the kid stuff to a minimum on here as that is not the main point of the blog but I did like this exchange today with my two-year-old daughter:

ECONDAUGHTER (spotting NFL on the computer screen via the Slingbox): Football daddy!

ECONJEFF: Yes, football.

ECONDAUGHTER: Where are the dancing ladies?

There is something to the idea that kids help one see the world through fresh eyes.

Postal service life support award

Today's postal service life support award goes to the UCLA economics department, which is apparently the only top department to still collect letters of recommendation by regular mail.

Not only that, but they require the letters to be sent in one packet with the applicant's other materials, thus requiring the letter to be mailed twice, first to the student by the recommender and then to UCLA by the student.

Letter carriers everywhere rejoice!

Wisconsin 45 Michigan 24

Despite the similarity in terms of the score to the Washington game, the Wolverines played a lot better than the Huskies and were actually in the game until the second half, when the fact that they could never stop the Badgers but could stop themselves on offense led them to gradually but inexorably fall out of the contest.

Michigan plays Ohio State next week at home. I am not optimistic.

Oregon State 48 Washington 21

Washington fans got a reminder of last year's 0-12 season as the Huskies fell to former Pac-10 doormat Oregon State 48-21, in a game that was not as close as the score suggests.

For the first time in a couple of years I had to listen to the game on the radio (over the internet) rather than watch because it did not make it onto any of my 300 (400?, 500?) cable channels, but that may be just as well given how poorly the Huskies played.

Listening allowed me to have the happier scene in the LA Coliseum on the TV with the sound off. Watching USC lose, and not just lose but give up more points at home than in their 100+ year history, helped salve the UW performance a little bit.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Jock tats

ESPN writer Rick Reilly disses on the tattoos of pro athletes.

I particularly like this sentence, because of the image at the end:
You need look only a foot farther to see something even more puzzling on K-Mart, whose skin is a kind of human bathroom stall.
Human bathroom stall. Ouch!

[For readers who do not follow such things - and, indeed, it was news to me - K-Mart here refers not to the financially challenged chain of discount stores but rather to NBA star Kenyon Martin.]

You know, if you want to share your thoughts, it is a lot cheaper, and a lot less painful, to buy a t-shirt or a bumper sticker rather than a tattoo.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My stylist

These days I have my hair cut at Salon Vox in Ann Arbor by the amazing Jenna.

Going to Salon Vox is sort of like going to Mongolia but by walking. The culture could not be more different than the one in which I spend the rest of my time. I think I disappoint Jenna by not buying any "product" but she does a nice job on my hair anyway. After my haircut I spend some time in the used bookstore next door to the salon as a way of transitioning back into my normal environment.

Gentleman's C

One of our ace gradual students recommends the Gentleman's C blog.

My sample was entertaining indeed, and I have added it to the blog list on the right.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Well done

This website plays off a pattern I had not noticed before, which is the similarity in names between steakhouses and gay bars.

Test your skill at distinguishing the two!

Bonus fun: one of the establishments in the test is "Charley Brown's"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

GDR memories

The Guardian publishes misty memories from someone with a bad case of Ostalgie.

Nearly all treatments have heterogeneous treatment effects, even the totalitarian dictatorship treatment. No doubt the Guardian could find, if it cared to, folks who miss the good old days under Ceaucescu in Romania or Pol Pot in Cambodia. But why share them when it is so obvious that the great mass of people are far better off? Note too that the brave new world of capitalism that the author complains about is West Germany, where you get a never-ending stream of generous social assistance checks just for having a pulse, along with health care and other goodies paid for by your neighbors.

I should note too that my sense from my German economist friends who are familiar with departments in the former GDR is that the problem was not too many dismissals of socialist deadwood economics professors, but rather too few.

Home away from home

I decided at the start of 2009 to specialize in hotels as well as airlines. In particular, I decided to specialize in Marriott hotels.

One side effect of spending most of my hotel nights at Marriott and collecting frequent stayer points is that I get a close-to-accurate count of the number of nights I spent in hotels over the course of the year. My current total of Marriott nights is 36 for the year, or about five weeks. There is probably another week at other hotels.

Somehow it seems like more when you add it up this way.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Today is the last day of Michigan's (poorly timed in the late middle of the fall semester) open enrollment period for benefits. I am, of course, dealing with it on the last day.

The entertaining bit, though, is this from the description of Michigan's prepaid legal plan:
Coverage Exception

You cannot use legal plan services to file a lawsuit against the University of Michigan.

Yeah, that's probably a good idea!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Become a management consultant!

Excellent advice from Dan Drezner.

School taxes

I actually voted again yesterday for the second time in two years (and the second time in 20 years as well). It helps that the polling place is on my usual walk to and from the university and never seems to have any lines.

The main ballot issue was a five-year property tax increase to fund all of the school districts in Washtenaw county. Because of Michigan's somewhat bizarre school equalization laws, individual districts cannot raise taxes to fund their government-run schools but groups of districts at the county level can do so. The taxes are proportional to property values but the funds are dispersed in proportion to the number of students, so the proposed increase involved a large ($5 million) cross-subsidy from Ann Arbor (where all the property values are) to the rural districts in the county (where relatively more of the students are).

As a home owner (in cooperation with PNC bank) I have mixed incentives. My taxes would have increased a lot - about $1500 per year. On the other hand, part of what sustains Ann Arbor property values is the perception that Ann Arbor has "good" government-run schools. I am certain that the peer effects in the A2 schools are good, given the average education levels of the parents. What the value-added might be of the teachers and staff is more of a mystery. Ann Arbor can have its pick of teachers, because it pays a lot and has good students (though I suspect that it also has bossy, interventionist parents, which works to some degree in the other direction) but whether it uses that market power for good is another question.

I can offer only this post from my colleague Sue Dynarski, who has kids in the A2PS, as evidence of how the district is run.

In any event, the property tax measure failed. It will be interesting to see how the district reacts. The cynical expectation is that it will cut some highly visible and highly popular programs and return again next year with a request for another tax increase. Alternatively, if the district is well run, they will extract some concessions from the teachers and cut some administrators - curriculum coordinators and such like - whose services will not much be missed, at least in the short term.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Are dissertations lost forever?

It has always been my belief that no one actually reads dissertations other than their author, perhaps one of the author's parents, and the dissertation committee.

The partial exception to this is students who take non-academic jobs and thus never publish their thesis chapters. I have sometimes pointed people to the dissertations of such students (and am often sad that their sometimes important findings do not ever see the light of publication).

This post suggests that dissertations do sometimes get read outside the set of persons and conditions already described.

Just one data point, but worth keeping in mind when making time allocation decisions.

Oh, and I think the post actually undersells Alex' dissertation.

Hat tip: Alex Resch

Government motors

Greg Mankiw has an update on things over at GM. I wonder if anyone could have predicted this sort of thing? Maybe there are even models.

Nothing screams fairness, efficiency or good government like having resources allocated based on who is friends with politicians.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Disciplining your discipline

An interesting post from on economics, physics, social network analysis and disciplinary boundary control.

I've added to the blog list.

Via: probably MR, but it was a while ago

Raising academic standards at Maryland

My former colleagues at Maryland are trying to raise the standards in economics and in the undergraduate experience more generally.

There are some interesting issues here. Having a relatively easy major attracts lots of students and thus allows for lots of faculty hiring. As it is nicer to have more colleagues rather than fewer, this has its attractions. On the other hand, teaching is more enjoyable when the students are both more able and harder working, and both groups sort differentially into more challenging majors. So there are trade-offs to make.

One way to try and have the best of both worlds is to have two tracks. Western Ontario did this with a vengeance. It had a stand-alone honors program that students could get into in their second year based on performance in introductory classes. It featured small classes and the tenure track faculty. The general program, which served the vast majority of students, featured larger (and sometimes just very large) classes and a heavy does of non-tenure track faculty. This latter is not obviously a bad thing as faculty who specialize in teaching general students likely often do a better job of teaching them.

Having two tracks allows a department to do a better job of preparing its top students for graduate school in economics, something that neither Maryland nor Michigan do very well at present. At both schools, a student who figures out that they are interested in economics graduate school relatively early on and then gets advice about what to do in terms of coursework will be fine. A student who figures this out late will have to spend extra semesters at Michigan or get a job and then take math courses in the evening. A separate track basically gets all the best students prepared at some level, so that when they figure out that they are interested in economics graduate school, they have less catching up to do.

Hat tip: Ophira Vishkin

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Economists on Jeopardy

How can they not know these?

Via: MR

Thursday, October 29, 2009

South University developments

The former Bagel Factory on South University has been empty (and dumpy) since we moved here. I hope they do something with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Amitabh Chandra Live!

They have disabled the embedding so you will have to click through to see the Kennedy's School's marketing video that stars my friend Amitabh Chandra.

Some thoughts:

- Many years ago, back when he was Kentucky's star once-in-a-decade undegrad, I was charged with the task of talking Amitabh out of doing his Ph.D. at Kentucky. I failed at that, but he seems to have done alright in life anyway.

- Nice suit, but I am very glad that I do not have to wear a suit.

- Good for the Kennedy School for making a video about their econometrics class.

- It is fun to imagine videos built around various of my Michigan colleagues. I'll let humor-minded readers fill in their own choices.

Sirens in the night

We heard a lot of sirens last night as we went to bed, which is unusual in Ann Arbor.

It turns out that was was burning was the vacant former location of Pinball Pete's on South University.

Given that it is a dumpy old building that has been empty at least as long as I have been here one wonders about insurance motives. coverage, with lots of exciting pictures, here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Oregon 43, Washington 19; Penn State 35, Michigan 10


Addendum: Seattle Times coverage of the Huskies here and here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Gnomic culture

High culture and low culture and history all come together through Garden gnomes (can there really be 25 million of them?) in Germany.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Monday, October 19, 2009


It turns out that Diwali is a "significant festival in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, and an official holiday in India." It is also the subject of a new video by President Obama, whose writers appear to have consulted the wikipedia entry linked to above:

Many readers may not know this, but US Presidents have been issuing proclamations on American Thanksgiving for a long time. This behavior, and its apparent recent expansion beyond Thanksgiving, raises the question: should the president spend his or her valuable time recording what are essentially glorified Hallmark Cards? If so, where does one draw the line? Are there religions too small or politically touchy to merit this attention? Can we expect a video on the anniversary of Joseph Smith's murder or on Mary Baker Eddy's birthday? Who decides which religions merit presidential videos and which do not? What rules are used?

I suppose this is all harmless enough, but it does seem to reinforce the view that the President is something other than just a functionary, which, it seems to me, is the correct view of the president of a democratic republic. The president is not our grandparent, or our leader, or a moral guide, or a source of inspiration. He is just the head of a large, publicly held company that does a mediocre job of providing some public goods and suffers from an excess of both sanctimony and mission creep. More time on task, and less on holiday fluff, would not be amiss.

Superfreakonomics and Global Warming

Dubner goes after the pre-publication (!) critics of the chapter on global warming / climate change in Superfreakonomics.

Some observations:

It is good to know that Joseph Romm, editor of is a lying, ideological hack. Who would have guessed?

Here is the choicest bit:

The chain begins with Joseph Romm telling [famous climate scientist] Caldeira that he had read SuperFreakonomics and “I want to trash them for this insanity and ignorance.” Romm adds that “my blog is read by everyone in this area, including the media” and tells Caldeira that “I’d like a quote like ‘The authors of SuperFreakonomics have utterly misrepresented my work,’ plus whatever else you want to say.”

I understand that blogging, especially advocacy blogging, doesn’t operate under the rules of journalism (where you don’t feed quotes to people), but still: that’s quite a quote to feed to someone.

Caldeira didn’t give him the quote. He did, however, respond point-by-point to a series of statements about him in the book. “The only significant error,” he wrote to Romm, “is the line: ‘carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.’ That is just wrong and I never would have said it. On the other hand, I f&@?ed up. They sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it. … I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing.”
So, let's see. Caldeira gets to review the draft chapter in Superfreakonomics that discusses climate change and that references his views and he gets this opportunity not once but twice but cannot, somehow, find the time to read it carefully? What else was he doing? Unlike most books, you know in advance that this one is going to sell a million-zillion copies. What could be more important than getting this right? Cleaning test tubes? A referee report? What was he thinking?

The rest is worth reading too. I think Dubner and Levitt are far too kind their critics, who seem mainly to be trying to make their point that for many people, this is about religion, not science.

Link via Marginal Revolution

Arizona State 24, Washington 17

Another close one, and perhaps some karmic payback for the miracle win the week before. The coaches own a share of this loss due to poor play calling / time management on Washington's last possession.

Still, Washington came back from 10 points down on the road to come within one play of overtime. This is a different, and much better team.

Now, the hard part. Getting to a bowl means not just beating lowly WSU and almost lowly UCLA (won't that be pleasant) but one of Oregon, Oregon State and Cal. Oregon is up next, in Husky Stadium, at 3:30 PM Eastern this week.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Michigan 63, Delaware State $550,000

I watched this until the score was 14-0, which means I watched about the first four minutes. Then I switched to Iowa and Wisconsin.

Clearly, a mutually beneficial exchange, but not a very interesting one. coverage here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Police gone wild at Western Ontario

This video was taken in the Social Science Building at Western Ontario, which is where I used to work.

Details of the underlying incident here.

Assorted links

1. Cell phone externalities in the kitchen.

2. Redneck bumper stickers.

3. Another urban ruins site.

4. National Book Award nominees

5. Your body is not a toy, nor a place for your toys (warning: a bit edgy)

Hat tips: Anya Chung, Good S**t blog, instapundit

Canlearn Youtube Channel

I've went up to Toronto this week (eh) for a meeting related to the Canada Student Loans Program. I was reminded at the meeting about, the website of Canada's federal government devoted to higher education.

It turns out that CanLearn now has its own Youtube channel. It features two videos, both posted about three months ago. I think the word has not quite gotten out about the channel yet as there are only 581 channel views and only 18 (!) video views. One wonders how many of those are potential students and how many are HRSDC staffers.

I watched the video "New Canada Student Grants". Even putting aside my general concern with having the government market things (as opposed to just providing information), this ad seems too clever by half as you do not find out the point until the very end, and even then there is no information about who is eligible for the money. On top of that, the diversity checklist is a bit more obvious than one might want.

Interesting questions to think about: how easy should governments make it, in general, for individuals to get money from programs? Are information walls a good way of sorting out those who really need the benefits from those who do not? Are YouTube videos the best way to reach students, relative to, say, regular mail targeted to their parents?

Dissertation (and career) advice from Chris Blattman

Almost all of Blattman's advice carries directly over into economics.

Key bits:

Whatever way you go, remember that you need to be on tomorrow’s frontier, not yesterday’s. If this sounds anxiety-producing, it is. Angst and anxiety are the fertile soil from which dissertations grow.

If you think that sounds miserable, wait until you start thinking about your tenure packet.

Actually, it’s only miserable in the worst moments. Most of the time it’s exciting and rewarding. You get out of bed every day and push your brain to its limits. Those limits expand a little bit every day. People will eventually pay you to do this, even though you would secretly do it for free.

Ultimately, you should be doing what you love. If you don’t love it, chances are you won’t be any good at it. So keep that a first priority. But pushing yourself to the frontier is often rewarding for its own sake, and pays off in your academic career. Try to keep that in mind during the most anxious, vexing moments. I do.

I would add a remark in regard to the value of leaving graduate school with more than one skill. Specialization is good in general but you want a bit of insurance against sudden changes in disciplinary enthusiasm for particular tools or styles of work.

This piece also reminds me of my former colleague Ig Horstmann, who told one incoming class of graduate students at Western Ontario that "I wake up every morning and think `Thank God I am an economist'". I second that emotion.

Friday, October 16, 2009


That's my acronym for Cambridge Attitudinal Disorder. The Harvard Crimson demonstrates in regard to this year's Nobel Prize.

via: Marginal Revolution

Monday, October 12, 2009

Economics Nobel

Congratulations to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson!

Here is the Nobel committee press release.

These are serious and worthy choices.

More on Obama's Nobel

Matt Welch at the NY Post focuses on the Norwegians.

Via Virginia Postrel, clever twitter comments on the award.

Even David Warsh at Ecnoomic Principals has a negative take!

Warsh hints at, but does not explicitly say, that the decentralization of the awarding of the prizes to multiple organizations means that none of them take into account the effect of their own decisions on the prestige of the other awards. I'd say the Norwegians are pretty clearly not internatlizing these negative externalities.

In my view, a "hope and change" administration would have politely declined the award. In doing so, Obama still would have gotten credit for being chosen, would have silenced all the critics and would have shown some real seriousness. His advisors let him down here.

Washington 36, Arizona 33

The balls all bounced the wrong way last year. On Saturday, one bounced the right way for Washington. Things looked pretty bleak with five minutes to go and UW down 11 but they pulled it "out of the ashes" as radio announcer Bob Rondeau had it. I think he actually meant something else but they are pretty strict about things on the radio.

Here is video of the key play (via Seattle Times reporter Bob Condotta's blog):

I guess that is why they call it football!

Seattle Times stories here and here.

Washington is 3-3 and still in the hunt for a lower tier bowl game. Looking ahead, ASU, UCLA and WSU all seem winnable. Maybe Cal too depending on their mental state at the end of the year.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Two bits on the Huskies:

First, they are poised to leave the small club of schools that have never played a lower division opponent. I have mixed feelings about this. I can't whine as much now when Michigan does this (and not just once a year, but sometimes two or three times!) but on the other hand it removes a voluntary tilting of the playing field (pun fully intended) against Washington as it competes for scarce bowl slots against other teams.

Second, the refs blew some calls in the game last week against Notre Dame. Who would have guessed. Getting either call right almost certainly gives the game to UW.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Nobel WTF

This is just bizarre.

The press release is here. Key paragraph:

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

Maybe next year they can give it to Santa, who has had a similar worldwide impact on hope, especially among THE CHILDREN.

Mankiw makes the main point here.

The Economist's Democracy in America blog offers competing accounts, but I think the "pro" account actually makes the negative case more strongly than the "con" account. Most of it consists of announcing things. Politicians are always announcing things. That's not the hard part. Not being George Bush is also not hard. McCain could have done that, so could Hilary Clinton. It is hardly award-worthy. It is like handing out pulitzers for not being Glen Beck or Lou Dobbs.

The Norwegians have made fools of themselves on this one. What were they thinking?

Addendum: another humorous take, this one from Dan Drezner.

Addendum 2: reason's "rapid response" video. Nick really is having too much fun.

Addendum 3: a remarkably prescient SNL skit

Hat tip (on addendum 3): Taylor Hui

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Assorted links

1.Narayana Kocherlakota to the Minnesota Fed.

2. Partial nudity and water polo. Who knew?

3. It is that time of year: the Ignoble prizes. This is on my list of life goals (and a lot more likely than winning that other prize).

4. Body pillow girlfriend (or boyfriend - we are inclusive here at ECONJEFF). Watch the video and be reminded of the old Sprockets skit from SNL.

5. A fine column from David Brooks. I am normally not that much of a fan but this is very well done, albeit a bit dismal at the end.

Hat tips: Anya Chng (4) and Greg Mankiw (1 and 5).

Medieval help desk

This is great fun - all the more because it is in Danish with subtitles.

Hat tip: you know who.

Big internet messes - revisited

So, yesterday I asked this question in regard to the "Conservative Bible project":
2. Is this the best example you have ever heard of where relying on the distributed knowledge of the internet masses is likely to produce a great big mess rather than a thing of beauty or truth? I think it may be such for me.
Ace gradual student Jessica Goldberg argues by email that in fact Star Wars Uncut, a project in which random Star Wars fan recreate individuals scenes from the movie which are then stitched together to form a remake of sorts, may be a bigger internet mess. You can see the trailer here and the full set of completed scenes here.

Of course, the competition is a bit unfair at this point, as Star Wars Uncut actually has output to look at, but based on the trailer, I think it just might win.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Farrell's coming soon!

The first new Farrell's Ice Cream parlor restaurant (not in Hawaii) in a long time opens later this month in Mission Veijo California. The Orange County Register reports on the hiring process.

Conservative Bible project

This amazing cultural artifact has been bouncing around the blogosphere the past few days.

There are many interesting things to think about here:

1. Are liberals (of either sort) really wordier than conservatives?

2. Is this the best example you have ever heard of where relying on the distributed knowledge of the internet masses is likely to produce a great big mess rather than a thing of beauty or truth? I think it may be such for me.

3. Is there perhaps a contradiction between not "dumbing down" the prose (and why pick on the NIV here and not the "Good News" bible or other similar populist abominations) and relying on internet amateurs to do a translation, rather than actual scholars?

4. Could this be a troll? That is, could this be lefties trying to make the righties look bad, rather than a sincere proposal? I assign some small probability to this state of the world.

We live in a varied and wonderful world, indeed.

Where to submit your paper?

The BE Press has just published this article that considers a model of the choice of where to submit an academic paper.

This is certainly something that authors spend a lot of time thinking about, and co-authors spend a lot of time emailing about on papers with multiple authors. Left out from the model here are editors. I find that I often write papers with specific editors in mind, and submit them to journals with specific editors in mind.

That editors matter provides an edge both to more senior scholars, who are more likely to know or at least have experience with a given editor, and to scholars at top fifty departments, from which editors tend to be drawn, for the same reason.

Sanctions on Iran

My friend Djavad Salehi-Isfahani thinks about sanctions on Iran over at Brookings. I am always impressed at how Djavad's knowledge of Iranian internal politics enriches and changes my views about policy toward Iran.

More generally, US policy discussions often proceed as if the citizens of other countries frame international issues in the same way that we do and as if their domestic politics are irrelevant to their interactions with the US. Neither of these views is correct, for Iran or for any other country.

Have sanctions ever worked? Certainly not on Cuba. Not on Iran to date. Not on Iraq either before the first Gulf war or between the two Gulf wars. Not on North Korea. There is a literature on this in international relations but I am guessing that I know the answer from casual empiricism, which is that sanctions are really all about domestic audiences, and not about changing behavior.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Michigan State 26, Michigan 20

I had a bad feeling about this one. I did not see the game because of the conference I was attending but a friend told me that Michigan "did not deserve to win" which comports with what I have read and with the game stats.

Coverage from here.

Playing undefeated Iowa at their place will be a tough challenge indeed.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dueling heads of state

Canada's Stephen Harper joins the coolness competition with our man Obama and with fond memories of Bill Clinton and his instrument (that would be the saxophone).

Hat tip: MIL


I have a very simple explanation as to why the Olympics went to Rio. My explanation relies on basic human desires.

Here is an article on Danish prostitutes flocking to Copenhagen for the meeting of the International Olympic committee.

Here is an article declaring the Rio the sexiest city on earth. Prostitution is legal there. Indeed, when I was in Rio for the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association (LACEA) meetings the year that Heckman won the Nobel prize, I can remember watching (subtle, but obvious enough even when observing only sporadically while reading papers and drinking beer) transactions taking place in the bar of the upscale hotel at which the meetings were held.

In Chicago, on the other hand, the Cook County sheriff is busy (like so many other public officials looking for ways into the headlines without actually doing their jobs) suing Craigslist. Good to know that there are not any other crime problems in Cook County that might call for the Sheriff's attention.

Probably the reader can connect the dots from there.

As to the Obamas, they should not have been there if Chicago was not going to win, and whether or not Chicago was going to win is something that the administration should have known about in advance. This is not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it is not a signal of competence either.

Hat tip (on the Denmark piece): Lars Skipper

Notre Dame 37 Washington 30

Wow! What a game. I missed the first quarter watching the last paper of the conference I was attending in DC but caught the remainder in my hotel room.

The ending was a disappointment, as was the temporary blinding of the replay official who called back Chris Polk's touchdown (divine intervention or just a cash payment?), but the Huskies showed that the team that beat USC can show up and play on regular basis. And, replay official aside, if you have eight tries from the one yard line, you have to be able to put it in. Had the Huskies done that, they would have won the game.

Stanford's win at UCLA also makes Washington's loss last week look a little better. Stanford could be the surprise contender in the PAC-10 this year.

If this Husky team shows up every week, there could be bowling.