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