Sunday, January 31, 2010

Making fun of college rankings

An entertaining website that parodies college rankings, created by a former Duke professor.

I am in complete agreement that US News churns it rankings to generate press coverage, and that many parents and maybe even more university administrators take the ratings too seriously, but they do contain real information. The key points that most parents miss are that the "within" institution variation is also quite large, as you can have a great experience at a middle ranked school or get lost at a top ranked one, and that how much a student gets out of the university experience depends to a large extent on his or her choices about how hard to study, what courses to take, what extracurricular activities to be involved with and so on.

Another new restaurant in Ann Arbor

Mercy's replaces the Earle Uptown in the Bell Tower hotel.

Endowment league table

New endowment rankings for US and Canadian (!) universities.

Michigan is #6 and #2 among the public universities.

When I was deciding where to work five years ago among Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan, a good friend emailed me the endowment rankings. That proved very helpful in making the decision. Money does matter for professorial utility, and for other things as well.

In Canada, Toronto and McGill have made some headway up the rankings, but Western Ontario is not, sadly, to be found.

Here is Michigan's official statement on the matter. I've always wondered, and debated with a couple of colleagues, whether Michigan's high return on its endowment investments is due to inside information or taking more risks.

Hat tip: Lones Smith

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Where the jobs are ....

A list of the 50 largest employers in Washtenaw County, which includes Ann Arbor.

I was surprised at how many of them were public sector employers and how many were health related, though I suppose the latter is partly the result of economies of scale in hospitals.

I was surprised by how far down the big three automakers are on the list as well.

These facts are not unrelated, of course, to Washtenaw County having the lowest unemployment rate in the state.

For non-local readers, both (teetering) Borders and Dominos have their headquarters here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Denmark in the No Spin Zone

Bill O'Reilly and his two very blonde colleagues deconstruct Oprah's love of Denmark.

Best bits: O'Reilly on the Danish Vikings and his Irish ancestors and Margaret Hoover dissing O'Reilly on Aristotle

Worst bit: Margaret Hoover's outfit makes her look like a clown about to put on her makeup.

Oh, and just to be clear, the 90 percent replacement rate in the Danish unemployment insurance system does have a cap, so neither O'Reilly nor Oprah would get 90 percent of their salaries were they Danes who lost their jobs.

My take: the Danish equilibrium requires a lot of social cohesion, for which being a small, homogeneous country is probably a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Hat tip: no need to say

Keynes vs. Hayek: the video

Many will already have seen this at MR or Mankiw but just in case you have not, it is very well done.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

More of Eve to love in Ann Arbor

Good news for A2 restaurant lovers!

Eve Aronoff, proprietor of the aptly named "Eve", is opening a second restaurant in town, this one more casual and with a Cuban theme.

Eve is, along with Zingerman's Roadhouse and Cafe Zola, one of my three favorite restaurants in town.


Falling out of love with business?

It will be interesting to see whether the Economist's prediction of a cultural shift toward less positive attitudes toward careers in business and those who undertake them that will persist beyond the current downturn.

It is pretty strongly worded stuff by Economist standards. This bit in particular stood out:

This is not going to be a little recessionary dip. It will be a more fundamental reappraisal. The magical myth of the MBA has for some time left the facts behind. In future, those who stump up will do so because they want to learn the skills, not because they think they are buying entry into a cool and exclusive club.

Some good things will follow from this. There will be fewer smart Alecs who think they know it all pouring into companies. There has been a bear market in management bullshit since the credit crunch began, but so far this has been on the demand side—managers have been too intent on staying in work to talk much jargon. In 2010 the decline of the MBA will cut off the supply of bullshit at source. Pretentious ideas about business will be in retreat. [emphasis added]

And yet, the private sector is much, much more than management consultants, the Apprentice, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

I think that this recession, like all others since the 1930s, will turn out to be a transitory shock both in terms of GDP growth and in terms of attitudes.

Alabama's anti-gambling task force ... or is it farce

Politics played honestly and with gusto in the deep South.

I actually like this sort of thing better than all the fake moralism and do-goodery of federal politics. It is cheaper in the end, more entertaining and more honest.

Hat tip: the agitator

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Your medical research dollars at work

Grant McCracken claims he is the last to find out that there is now a prescription drug that makes your eyelashes longer. Apparently not, as I found out from him.

I find myself repeating over and over: do not criticize the leisure activities of others, do not criticize the leisure activities of others ....

Odd little things that give me pleasure

When I consult with the government of Canada, the contracts I sign begin as follows:

"These Articles of Agreement are made as of the DATE Between Her Majesty the Queen in right of Canada (referred to in the contract as "Her Majesty") represented by the GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL and ME. Her majesty and the contractor agree ..."

There is something about the notion of my contracting with Elizabeth II, and seeing the phrase "Her Majesty" intermingled with all sorts of boring bits about timetables and reviews of documents and the like, that always brings a smile to my face.

Sadly, I do not think Her Majesty ever actually reads the things I write.

Sex explained by pens

Cute and funny.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Economists gone wild

The NYT details the surprisingly lively personal life of OMB budget geek Peter Orzag, who has a kid with his ex-wife, a kid with a mistress and is now engaged to yet a third woman.

Where does he find the time? Where does he find the emotional energy?

Hat tip: Ken Troske

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Muppet politics

The Economist's Democracy in America blog opines on the political meaning of the Muppets.


Jeffrey Miron (a former Michigan faculty member) is both more of a libertarian and more of a macro-economist than I am but I share his views on this one: Bernanke should be retained.

If you are going to put the economics profession in charge of the central bank, which is one way of looking at the meaning of the Fed, then you should put someone in charge that has the confidence of that profession. My casual impression coincides with Jeff Miron's, which is that the macro folk support keeping Bernanke, largely for the reasons that he lists.

If we must have a truckload of pungent populist poop from inside the Beltway, let's keep it to words rather than actions. The central bank is not something to mess around with just to score a few cheap political points. Duh.

Friday, January 22, 2010

John Edwards

Imploded democrat Wunderkind John Edwards is back in the news, finally admitting to his illegitimate child. At the same time, the National Enquirer is applying for the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the (pun fully intended) whole affair!

I was puzzled though, by this bit from Howard Kurtz, the WaPo media columnist:
That's right: a supermarket tabloid editor is now lecturing a former vice-presidential nominee on matters of morality.
What model of politics would suggest that, on average, tabloid editors would not be more moral than vice-presidential nominees from the major parties?

Indirect hat tip: Elena Spatoulas

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jay Cost on the Obama White House

This analysis by Jay Cost seems pretty on target to me. I think they have made a lot of mistakes about priorities, both in the sense of not focusing on the economy before health care reform and in the sense of not keeping some of the smaller but still important promises related to gay rights and the closing of Guantanamo that would have kept the base happier.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

When words change meaning over time ...

The Canadian history magazine heretofore known as "The Beaver" is changing its name to "Canada's History" so as to avoid internet confusion.
"The Beaver was an impediment online," publisher Deborah Morrison told AFP.
No word yet on whether the student newspaper of the London School of Economics, also called The Beaver, will be following suit.

Hat tips: Charlie Brown and Mike Elsby

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mary Jo's Revenge

Wow ... who would have ever believed this.

Oh, and for younger or foreign readers, you can read about the late Mary Jo here.

A sad day in Denmark

Truly sad news from Denmark, as the world's oldest porn shop is set to close, brought down not by internet porn but by some combination of increased bicycle use and the recession.

Key bits:
According to the shop owner, it’s the effect of the recession, increasing shop rents and bicycle lanes that have influenced the company’s financial downturn the most.

‘Customers can’t park anywhere since they built bike lanes everywhere and the effects of the recession can really be felt. You can’t skimp on milk and bread, but you can save on porn during times of crisis,’ he said.

Strauss has suggested that the National Museum might be interested in preserving part of the store, similar to when a display was created using a hash stand from Christiania.

‘They could easily display a couple of film booths. It’s an important part of Danish history that otherwise will end up in the rubbish bin.’

Perhaps they could apply to become some sort of UN World Heritage site?

Oh, and there really is a hash stand in the National Museum of Denmark - I've seen it with my own eyes. Christiania is a sort of semi-autonomous zone / 60s theme park in Copenhagen.

Hat tip: you know who

Why Haiti is poor

There are surely many reasons why Haiti is so poor, even relative to other Caribbean nations. But US sugar import quotas are surely one of them.

It would be great if US politicians (and others) who purported to care about poor people would focus more of their attention and efforts on where the world's poor actually live, which is almost entirely in other countries. There are lots of things we can do, like getting rid of sugar price supports that would help people who are really, really badly off without having to spend more on problematic forms of foreign aid.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A new era at ECONJEFF

The blog now has its first comment!

Can you find it?

Will you be next?

How provosts think about incentives

Michigan faculty were asked by our provost to complete a new "work-life" survey this week, with this incentive:
The survey will be worth your time. We expect the data to provide a sound basis for recommendations to improve academic careers and working conditions here on campus. Further, you may win one of five $100 Borders gift cards, although you need not participate to be eligible.
One suspects the incentive would work better were it conditioned on actually completing the survey.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Monday, January 11, 2010

TSA Logo and Motto contest

Poking fun at those who poke at us.

Hat tip: Jessica Goldberg

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Disconnected statistics about colleges

This summary is interesting (and the graphics make it easy to digest) but as with all such endeavors, e.g. the Harper's Index, statistics disconnected from context can mislead as well as illuminate.

Some quick examples:

1. Does this include 2-year colleges or just 4-year? It never says and it matters.

2. Comparing starting salaries of UConn and Yale grads ignores differences in completion rates between the two schools - starting rather than finishing is probably the treatment of interest - it ignores different earnings paths over the lifecycle, which may accentuate the initial differences, and it ignores other benefits of going to a better school, such as getting, on average, a higher earning spouse.

3. It is hard to tell whether a class is good or not by the title. One could learn a lot about popular notions of justice by critically engaging with Judge Judy. One can learn a lot of labor economics and a lot of industrial organization under the cover of an economics of sports class.

4. What is wrong with a wine-making degree? That is a fine business and one that many have done well in.

5. Economics majors (included in the social science category that supposedly all ends up working at Starbucks) actually do better than majors in some of the hard sciences. Perhaps the authors of this chart should, well, read the literature, in particular, this paper by my friends, Dan, Seth and Lowell.

Understanding the real world, sadly, often requires more than clever graphics and a few statistics presented without context.

Via the Goods**t blog

Looknig for budget cutting opportunities?

Marijuana-related arrests reached an all time high (pun intended) last year in the US at a bit over 829,000 and this despite the fact that a lot of regular users in California and other states get their pot quasi-legally via the medical marijuana system.

I do not have a good number for the expected costs in terms of police time, court time, jail time, and all the rest of a marijuana arrest, not to mention the lost earnings and reduced future earnings of people who become harder to hire due to a criminal record, but it is not small.

A lot of police are wasting time on this when they could be going after actual crimes - the sort that damage people and property - or when they could be laid off and their costs returned to the longsuffering taxpayer.

Hard to imagine how we survived in the good old days if the 1800s when pot, heroin, cocaine and all the rest were completely legal. How come conservatives don't pine for that part of the past? Where is the left on this idiocy, whose burden disproportionately falls on African-American men?

Optimal transparency != 1

I agree with Mickey Kaus in regard to the kerfuffle over Obama's foolish and misguided promise to televise the house/senate conference hearings on health care on C-SPAN. There is actually a literature on "secrecy" in political science and the gist of it is that sometimes secrecy yields better outcomes. More practically, as Kaus notes, putting the conference hearings on C-SPAN would simply mean that the action of interest would happen somewhere else.

Obama should not have made this promise, for both political and substantive reasons, but the Republicans do themselves no credit by jumping on it, as they should know better as well.

Pre (really pre) season Top 25

The National Championship game is but three days in the past and already we have a pre-season Top 25 to think about.

I agree with not including Michigan on the list, but I would have thought Washington would show up in the 20-25 range. Jake Locker coming back is a big deal, the team really came together in the last two games and they lose almost no one from this year's group.

Seahawks coaching change

Jim Mora is out of a job as Seattle Seahawks head coach.

That was fast!

I can remember when he was on the market last time reading a lot of people who said he should replace Tyrone Willingham at Washington and that he would be the football savior of all football saviors. Evidently not, though he is a good coach and if he wants to stay in Seattle, where he is from, then UW should try to find something for him to do.

And why would Pete Carroll take the Seahawks job and leave USC? The extra $$ at the margin can't mean much and he fits so well in LA.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The new economy in Detroit

The University of Michigan now has more employees in the Detroit Metro Area than two of the "big three" automakers.


Darwin awards

I always find the Darwin Awards almost as sad as they are amusing.

They also have an entertaining page of perhaps even more enjoyable stupidity-related quotes, including this one:
Just think how stupid the average person is, then realize that half of them are stupider - George Carlin
Too bad George does not know the difference between the mean and the median (or maybe they left out the preceding sentence, which surely included the assumption of a symmetric distribution).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Over there with Powerpoint

This bit about the military issuing Powerpoint presentations rather than actual orders is rather scary.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Dave Barry reviews 2010

Dave Barry at his best - I laughed out loud several times.

A taster:
On the economic front, California is caught on videotape attempting to shoplift 17,000 taxpayers from Nevada. General Motors files for bankruptcy and announces a new sales strategy under which it will go around at night leaving cars in people's driveways, then sprint away.

Justin Wolfers on cheap economists

Justin Wolfers responds to a Wall Street Journal piece on cheap economists.

It is very important to distinguish being cheap from economizing. Spending an hour driving around to save a few dollars when your consulting rate is $100 an hour is cheap but not economical unless you really, really enjoy the driving or the feeling of snagging a low money price. Also, spending time trimming the tree yourself, as Justin notes, is perfectly compatible with being a rational maximizer as long as you get enough utility from it.

I made a decision when I moved to Maryland not to worry anymore about any expenditure of less than $20. This means I occasionally buy things that I would not have purchased if I had agonized over the decision, but on the other hand I avoid a great big heap of decision costs. Does this rule make me cheap, or not?

I chatted a bit with Justin at the just-completed American Economic Association meetings in (cold and bleak) Atlanta. We both were at the reception hosted by the IZA, a German research institute with a focus on labor economics. The nice folks at IZA were offering free alcoholic beverages at their reception and had attracted a pretty big crowd. Could this be evidence that economists are cheap?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

More on Samuelson's textbook and comparative systems

A fine post from marginal revolution that summarizes a new paper on the topic of why Samuelson got his Soviet economic predictions so wrong for so long: were the blinders methodological or ideological?

The comments are fun too. My favorites:
"Krugman temper-tantrum in 3, 2, 1..."
Perhaps Robert Conquest's words on the USSR were intended for people like Samuelson and his fellows: `I told you so, you f[***]ing fools.'"

A new perspective on overlapping generations models

Hat tip: Charlie Brown, for the cartoon and the title.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A morning chuckle.

Been there, done that.

Hat tip: Derek Thom

Friday, January 1, 2010

Warsh on health care reform

David Warsh notes that the bill that seems likely to emerge in the end will have a bipartisan pedigree.

My thought, based on a relatively casual understanding of what is in the bill, is that it is a muddle all around. There are things to like, such as the coverage mandate and the increased coverage and, if it survives, the partial reduction in the health insurance subsidy.

There are things to dislike, such as the fraudulent accounting and the absence of any serious efforts to control expenditures. The flip side of this, to some extent, is that the bill is unlikely to decrease medical innovation, at least in the short and medium run, and might even give it a boost. The bill also helps move the system away from first dollar coverage.

Missing in all the kerfuffle was an opportunity to fix the prescription drug benefit - a good potential source of financing for the increased coverage - and to improve on Medicare and Medicaid by dumping them in favor of the mandatory, regulated private coverage to be imposed on the non-poor and non-old. Also missing are efforts to increase the domestic supply of doctors and nurses and/or to move functions away from both to less expensive nurses aides and other staff whose supply is not artificially limited. That is a very simple form of cost control and would have the side benefit of reducing the flow of medical personnel from developing countries to the US.

And we can be thankful for the absence of a public option; try as I might, I cannot think why the left imagines that this is a good idea.

Job market starts early

Congrats to Jon Lanning, who finished his Ph.D. at Michigan a couple of years ago, and just took a job at Bryn Mawr.

A fine way to start the New Year!

Pro-natalist policies and the downard sloping demand curve for babies

Denmark seems to have found a pro-natalist policy that actually works: fully subsidized IVF.

The latest figures from the country’s fertility databases show that 8 percent of children are born with help from fertility treatment or about 5000 a year. By comparison, 3.5 percent of Norwegian and 2 percent of English children are born as a result of the treatment.

Lone Schmidt, a fertility researcher at University of Copenhagen, said Denmark topped the European rates because of the many fertility clinics here. The clinics are also more accessible, with short waiting lists and have a high quality of treatment, she said.

‘Its got nothing to do with Danes having lower fertility than those in other countries,” Schmidt told Berlingske Tidende, adding it was free for Danish people to receive treatment, unlike in many other countries.

It would be interesting to see a comparison of fully subsidized IVF with some of the other tax and transfer based pro-natalist policies on a $ per baby basis. I suspect that the additional babies induced by IVF also end up in families with higher levels of education and income, which has implications for the social cost-benefit calculation.

That's a free paper idea, folks. Please send me a draft when it is done!

Hat tip: Lars Skipper


I don't think this is how my teaching assistant graded the finals for my undergraduate econometrics class, but we have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy so I will never know.

Movie: Avatar

Avatar is worth seeing for the visuals alone, which will set a new standard going forward.

The setup will irritate some people as it embodies many of the usual Hollywood political and social enthusiasms: corporations are evil, the military is evil, scientists are noble and good and the noble savage native good guys are pantheists who seem not to have any private property (nor, indeed, do they seem to ever do useful work of any sort). About the only thing that could be said against the natives is that they have hereditary rulers and that a couple of the young male ones are a bit headstrong. The movie would have had more depth if the natives had some moral diversity to match that of the humans.

There are some obvious oddities in the story - e.g. why do the natives have a well-developed ritual for transferring souls from their human bodies to their avatar bodies when presumably the issue has never come up before, why don't the soldiers wear their breathing apparatus when flying helicopters full of easily broken glass windows, why would the main character be sent out in his avatar to interact with the natives without any training, and so on - but the plot, and everything else, is really secondary to the truly astounding visuals.

Fine NYT review here.

Recommend for the visuals. Be sure to find a comfy chair as this one lasts a long time.