Monday, January 31, 2011

Former prostitute out-researchers CNN ...

... and does so in only 90 minutes.

Via the Agitator.

Missed opportunity, indeed

Robert Samuelson on Obama's missed opportunity.

Someone - actually many someones on both sides of the aisle - really need to step up and get serious about the budget.

There is no great mystery about what needs to be done, it just needs to get done.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Uncle Sam: Monopoly Man

In truly appalling news, the TSA has put the kabosh on the further replacement of TSA security workers by private contractors at airports around the country. Says CNN:
A program that allows airports to replace government screeners with private screeners is being brought to a standstill, just a month after the Transportation Security Administration said it was "neutral" on the program.

TSA chief John Pistole said Friday he has decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports, saying he does not see any advantage to it.

Clever program design there, allowing the TSA to stop its competitors in their tracks. Oh, and guess what, the TSA labor cartel is on board as well:

A union for Transportation Security Administration employees said it supported the decision to halt the program.

"The nation is secure in the sense that the safety of our skies will not be left in the hands of the lowest-bidder contractor, as it was before 9/11," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "We applaud Administrator Pistole for recognizing the value in a cohesive federalized screening system and work force."

The TSA seems remarkably tone deaf here. I suspect that a quiet strategy of delay and discouragement, rather than a very public confrontation that allows the Obama administration a chance to show that it can actually say no to a labor union in the context of a program that the public hates would have been more clever. We'll see.

My view: if we must have security theater, let's at least do it as cheaply as possible.

Via: MR

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Movie: Cedar Rapids

We participated in the Sundance USA showing of Cedar Rapids at the Michigan Theater last night. It was great fun and great for the theater. It sold out all 1200 seats - the first time I have ever seen it completely full for a movie - at $15 each.

There was a fair amount ofAnn Arbor smugness and self-congratulation to be had but this did not spoil an excellent time. The organizers had flown in both the director of the movie, who led a spirited and interesting question and answer session after the film, and the mayor of Cedar Rapids, who, as he said, kept his remarks short because no one in the audience could vote for him. Sadly, they also allowed Ann Arbor mayor John Heftje to demonstrate his ignorance of the economics of subsidizing the movie industry (short version: there's no good reason to do it) at the end of the question and answer period.

The movie itself is delightful. I laughed a lot and I am sure it will be in my top five for 2011. The central ensemble of four characters, all insurance salespeople, clicks in just the right way. Sigourney Weaver's minor role is perfect as well, as is Alia Shawkat as the small town hooker. Overall, the movie does what it's director says it set out to do: to have fun with the midwestern innocence of the characters without making fun of them.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

State of the Union Address

I can't bear to watch these things no matter who is in power, but I did pay some attention to reason's live-blogging. Sadly, I had to take a pass on the drinking game due to being a bit under the weather this week.

I also read a few reactions to the speech. Mickey Kaus finds it boring. Will Wilkinson focuses on the economic nationalism. The best, though, is Megan McArdle at the Atlantic, who just nails it.

Glad I missed it, and puzzled, as always, that others chose not to.

A spanking for the American Sociological Association

The officers of the American Sociological Association have released an official defense of Frances Fox Piven, who was recently called out as a hypocrite by hyperbolic Glenn Beck. of Fox News.

Lawprof Ann Althouse provides a fisking and a link to the ASA press release.

My thoughts:

First of all, death threats and riots are not reasoned political discourse and are not okay on the left, the right or (what seems to be less of a problem empirically) from (classical) liberals or libertarians.

Second, the ASA is generating a negative externality here by feeding the view among the public that academic social scientists are really just ideologically motivated social activists who happen to work at universities and not really serious scientists at all. Thanks for nothing on that one, ASA officers.

Third, why should the officers of a professional association of academics be making political pronouncements? Is there not enough for the officers to do with running the annual meetings? Are there no data to collect, students to supervise or papers to write? What special expertise do they have? Presumably there are many sociologists who do not agree with the political pronouncements that the ASA makes in their name. Why not just let individual sociologists make their own political announcements? I am very glad indeed that the American Economic Association keeps to its knitting in this regard and recommend this worthy behavior to the ASA.

Finally, here is the list of ASA officers. I recognize only one name: Mario Small at Chicago. He is a serious guy who does good work. I'll assume that he got outvoted on this one.

On White Castle

This bit from the Utne Reader is simultaneously patronizing and interesting.

White Castle was not around in Seattle when I was growing up. I first encountered it in Chicago when I was in gradual school. It's persistence remains a puzzle to me given the awfulness of the food on offer.

Assorted links

1. Bringing back the woolly mammoth.

2. UM debate team success.

3. I'm pretty sure that we do not really need TSA children's toys.

4. A couple of my colleagues have gone off the rails a bit during my years at Michigan but, thankfully, they've not descended to this.

5. An open letter to Bill Murray.

Hat tip on #1 and #2 to Dann Millimet. #3 is via MR.

What price fame?

Hat tip: Charlie Brown, who suggested the title "no contest"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

200 years of progress in a few minutes

A very cool video from BBC 4 on what has happened to the relationship between life expectancy and income over the past 200 years.

One can, of course quibble about the different scales on the horizontal and vertical axis, and with the failure to note the lagging progress of sub-Saharan Africa amidst all the optimism at the end.

And then life expectancy is itself a very odd thing, based as it is on strong synthetic cohort assumptions.

But worth watching in any case, just for the graphical presentation.

Hat tip: Ken Troske

Monday, January 24, 2011

Clarence Thomas - evildoer?

Common Cause has outed Clarence Thomas for not checking boxes on disclosure forms or, rather, one suspects, for hiring an accountant who did not do this. The employment relationship he failed to disclose is widely known and there is apparently no penalty attached to not checking this box.

This is interesting and worth of attention in the LA Times because .... ?

It gets better though. We also learn, from the (one assumes) Common Cause press release repeated in the LA Times, that Thomas once attended a meeting with conservatives who donate to election campaigns. Imagine! And because of that, Thomas should recuse himself from cases involving campaign finance. Let's see, last I knew, all nine justices were appointed by presidents and confirmed by senators, all of whom receive evil campaign finance donations. Perhaps they should all recuse themselves?

Oh, and the shock quotes in this sentence:
... an organization she founded to restore the "founding principles" of limited government and individual liberty.
add a nice touch of politicized historical ignorance to the entire affair.

Is this really the best Common Cause can do with its donors money?

Mankiw on graduate education

Greg Mankiw's discussant comments from a paper presented at the ASSA meetings contain a lot of wisdom.

What I think many deans of gradual studies have trouble with is successfully explaining differences across fields in completion rates and time to degree. They see that economics has a lower completion rate than, say, history and they are puzzled. But they should not be puzzled. It is all about opportunity costs as well as, to some extent, differences in fields in the extent to which doctoral study represents consumption rather than investment in human capital.

I am inclined to like Greg's suggestion about MA programs. In Canada, it is the norm for students to do an MA before starting a doctoral program, and the better MA programs, like the ones at Queen's and UBC, manage to do a good job of serving two aims. First, they provide professional training to students who will stop with the MA and take jobs in the government or the private sector. Second, they provide a lot of information to students pondering whether or not to get a doctorate. Whether this information provision function, and the selection it induces, leads to measurably higher completion rates in Canadian economics doctoral programs would be interesting to study. A side benefit of doing an MA first is that the first year of the doctoral program is a bit less stressful. At least, the Canadians in my class at Chicago, who had already at least seen some of the first year material in their MA programs, seemed a bit less stressed out.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Assorted links

1. Those wild and crazy Danes: female tennis player edition.

2. The journal with the highest rejection rate.

3. The end of The World in Dubai.

4. All about Alberta tar sands from the Economist. I learned a lot.

5. Obama loosens the Cuba embargo, but only a little bit. More would be useful.

Much to the surprise of all concerned, the hat tip for #1 goes to Charlie Brown, rather than Lars Skipper. #2 via Chris Blattman.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Assorted links

1. The Economist pays homage to BBQ.

2. Another tale of an innocent citizen gunned down by police.

3. To the victors go the spoils: a contract extension for Steve Sarkisian at UW.

4. Journalists and the CIA.

5. Classifying recreational drugs.

More on Borders

The WaPo on the decline of Borders. The article includes some interesting history that I had not read before.

Gene Simmons on NPR

Gene Simmons from KISS interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR.

This is fantastic!

A tidbit from the very end:
Terry Gross: I would like to think that the personality you've presented on our show today is a persona that you've affected as a member of KISS, something you do on stage, before the microphone, but that you're not nearly as obnoxious in the privacy of your own home or when you're having dinner with friends.

Gene Simmons: Fair enough. And I'd like to think that the boring lady who's talking to me now is a lot sexier and more interesting than the one who's doing NPR. You know, studious and reserved, and -- I bet you're a lot of fun at a party.

Read the whole thing.

Via: Cheap Talk (and this is a truly sordid link)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Assorted links

1. If you look up "bad day" in the dictionary, maybe this is what you find.

2. What people leave behind in hotels.

3. Urinal games in Japan. The urinals in Amsterdam's Schipol airport men's rooms feature a picture of a bug to encourage good aim.

4. Do economists influence the NFL?

5. When norms clash: exercise and greenhouse gas reduction versus the children.

#3 via Cheap Talk.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Assorted links

1. Why I am not a Republican, part 897543.

2. I think this fellow missed the memo about violent political discourse that was circulated last week.

3. Confessions of a mall Santa.

4. Zero tolerance at work, in this case zero tolerance for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

5. Enthusiasm without knowledge = embarrassment.

Hat tip on #1 to Sue Dynarski, #2 is via the Agitator as is #4. #5 is from Charlie Brown, who suggested we should view the enthusiasts as (unintentionally) doing the noble work of helping Michigan retrieve Justin, Lucas and Meredith from the Hotel California.

Has the left been silenced?

This piece, which claims that the "left" is somehow ignored in general discussion on the blogosphere has received a lot of attention including marginal revolution and (a very fine piece from) Matt Yglesias. Here is a summary statement of sorts:
There are many myths within the political blogosphere, but none is so deeply troubling or so highly treasured by mainstream political bloggers than this: that the political blogosphere contains within it the whole range of respectable political opinion, and that once an issue has been thoroughly debated therein, it has had a full and fair hearing. The truth is that almost anything resembling an actual left wing has been systematically written out of the conversation within the political blogosphere, both intentionally and not, while those writing within it congratulate themselves for having answered all left-wing criticism.
It is important to note, right off, that deBoer has a very specific flavor of the left in mind, which he signals here:
That the blogosphere is a flagrantly anti-leftist space should be clear to anyone who has paid a remote amount of attention. Who, exactly, represents the left extreme in the establishment blogosphere? You'd likely hear names like Jane Hamsher or Glenn Greenwald. But these examples are instructive. Is Hamsher a socialist? A revolutionary anti-capitalist? In any historical or international context-- in the context of a country that once had a robust socialist left, and in a world where there are straightforwardly socialist parties in almost every other democracy-- is Hamsher particularly left-wing?
deBoer's left is the old left of activist trade unions and worker uprisings. One way to recast his complaint is not that *the* left is somehow underrepresented in the blogosphere but that *his* left is underrepresented in the blogosphere. Indeed, much of his post is devoted to precisely that point, but framed differently. He argues at length that leftists of the sort who have had an economics class or two, such as Matt Yglesias, and so recognize that prices can be a useful policy tool and that thinking seriously about organizational design and incentives within government might lead to better government, are not really leftists. I think the correct answer to this argument is to note that debates about who is really a leftist are pretty uninteresting relative to practical, informed discussions that try to improve policy and politics. Indeed, this part of deBoer's post reminded of all the crazy infighting that goes on in many far corners of politics between different flavors of Randians on the right or different flavors of Trotskyites on the left. Yawn.

deBoer omits completely another component of the left: the new (newer?) left of hard environmentalism, localism, and anti-corporatism. This left, like the neoliberal left that he assaults at length, is also quite different from the traditional trade-union old left that captures deBoer's affections. Does it deserve a hearing as well? More broadly, there really is no *the* left just as there is no *the* right. Even the very limited discussion here serves, once again, to illustrate the limitations on thought imposed by this tired binary division as well as the violence it does to the underlying reality.

While I think deBoer's claim that the old trade-union left is somehow under-represented in the blogosphere is empirically incorrect, for the moment let's take it at face value and consider alternative explanations for it. deBoer offer's what is essentially a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories, though great fun, are nearly always wrong due to the high transactions costs they implicitly assume away. What other explanations might account for the phenomenon that deBoer identifiies?

One good reason why the old trade-union left might receive relatively little attention is the same reason why the monarchist right receives relatively little attention: history has passed it by. I mean this in two senses. First, the conditions under which a regime heavy with trade unions might have made sense have passed. Workers are now much better educated than in the past and less in need of unions to protect their interests. Labor markets are now much broader and much deeper, which has reduced (though not to zero) the ability of employers to mistreat workers. Governments have taken on many of the insurance and worker protection functions once performed by unions. And, I would argue, at the margin unions now push for many worker protections that go against other laudable (and left-wing) goals, as with tenure for K-12 teachers and opposition to school choice or above-market compensation for state and local government workers (which, of course, reduces the quantity of services that can be provided with a given budget).

Second, real socialism wherein the government attempts to supplant the price mechanism did so poorly in practice in so many different places, and so obviously entailed huge costs in terms of lost civil liberties - the process now playing out in Venezuela - that most people who pay attention to evidence simply lost interest and moved on to one of the other viewpoints that deBoer wants to write out of the left.

Let me also remark on deBoer's take on libertarianism:
I was finally driven to write this post by the recent discussions, driven by Chris Beam's article, on libertarianism. I am someone who frequently develops great hope for a hypothetical libertarianism and is consistently disappointed by the actual libertarianism. I'm sorry to say that, if the reaction to Beam's piece is any indication, what libertarians have taken from their tempestuous love affair with movement conservatism is the political salience of constantly complaining about how oppressed you are. I ask, and I wonder, if libertarians ever stop to ponder what it's like to operate from an actually forbidden perspective. I take it that there isn't, actually, a great imbalance in the number of American libertarians (in any sense amenable to the Cato and Reason crowd) and the number of Americans who would consider themselves leftists, or very liberal, or the like. The ranks of American minarchism, after all, are quite small in number. Bush's compassionate conservatism, the inverse of the standard libertarian platform, was a real winner. But while libertarians are tiny in number they are mammoth in influence. This is the case because they've got money, money to fund enterprises like Cato or Reason or smaller outfits. I'm not saying that this is illegitimate. (There's something awfully poetic about libertarianism getting influence by buying it.) I'm just saying that there's no sense in which the lack of a leftist blogosphere is necessarily the product of small demographic representation.
If there was a different libertarianism.... I frequently imagine that an ideology with "liberty" right in the title might be a mad, teeming collection of every flavor of crazy and dreamer, a loose confederation rife with difference and disagreement. Difference so vast that it might, by god, lead some to find common ground with someone like, well, me.
Three points here. First, reason and CATO are the dressed up (albeit often in a sweater or a leather jacket), public face of libertarianism. The crazy, chaotic world that deBoer imagines actually exists just below the surface. If deBoer attended (as I have) any sort of real libertarian event not designed for outsiders, such as a Libertarian Party convention, he would find all the nuts and flakes he could possibly want: nudists, life-extenders, gold bugs, Randroids, Henry George afficianados, anarcho-capitalists, people wanting to start new libertarian countries on islands, people seeking salvation through pot, and all the rest. It is glorious fun and quite bracing - I heartily recommend such experiences. In short, this criticism is simply uninformed. It is like claiming that the left is boring and overly wonky because you went to a forum on budget scoring at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities instead of to the Michigan Women's Music Festival.

Second, the bizarre notion on the left that libertarians have more resources than they do is so comically at odds with reality as to strain one's belief in the sincerity of those who make the claim. There are, literally, a handful of rich libertarians who devote some of their resources to supporting political causes, most notable among them being the Koch brothers. In contrast, there are armies of rich lefties both living and dead, in Hollywood and in the corporate world, as well as dead right-wingers, like Henry Ford, whose foundations have been taken over by the left. More than that, the left receives substantial government support as well. NPR provides one obvious example. Really, this claim is so unserious that it should not even require discussion.

Third, perhaps the fact that libertarians do much better in the world of ideas than one might expect from their numbers or their funding has something to do with the quality of those ideas? Just maybe?

In the end, it strikes me that the deBoer piece has received much more attention than it deserves. I think its central empirical claim is misguided; the broader left is in fact well-represented in the blogosphere while the particular version of the left beloved by deBoer receives less attention than he would like for very good reasons related to historical developments that have taken place since its heyday in the 1930s and to the accumulated empirical evidence on the performance of central planning. His critiques of libertarianism are at odds with the evidence as well. Can we move on now?

Oh, and do read the Matt Yglesias post.

Full disclosure: I received an Institute for Humane Studies Claude R. Lambe fellowship for a couple of years in graduate school. Some of that money may well have come from the Koch family. I was also a reason summer intern for two years in college, for which I received the grand sum of $400 each year.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Assorted links

1. Dealing with panhandlers in Ann Arbor.

2. Frontiers of social service provision in the UK. One of the many costs of banning prostitution in the US is that the very real social service role that sex workers sometimes play (even without government subsidies) gets neglected.

3. On becoming one of those parents.

4. Dan Drezner on academics on cable. I got one call from CNBC a couple of years ago but it came while I was in Europe, so the moment was long passed by the time I got it.

5. This fellow from Iowa does not quite get the whole "free country" thing.

Movie: Casino Jack

A.O. Scott at the NYT has a quite different view of this movie than I did. I interpreted it as more a defense (of sorts) of Jack Abramoff, who is depicted as a hard-working, entrepreneurial family man who generally has more limits on his behavior than those around him, but who gets corrupted by the insanity of life inside the beltway. I took the hectic pace of the movie, which does not go into depth about any particular bit of misbehavior, as designed to capture the feel of Abramoff's life at the time.

Scott and I do agree on the fact that Jon Lovitz steals part of the show as the shady (is there some other kind?) mattress salesman.

More broadly, what is not so clear to me is why the petty influence peddling that Abramoff engaged in is any worse, from a practical or moral standpoint, than perfectly legal actions such as the Obama administration shutting down the DC voucher program to (indirectly) buy votes, volunteers and cash from the teacher labor cartels (or equivalently transparent political transactions undertaken by the republicans when they hold power).


Mary Ceccanese

Congratulations to Mary Ceccanese, who has won the university's Candace Johnson Staff Award for Excellence!

Mary works in the Office of Tax Policy Research in the Ross School, where her boss is our incoming department chair Joel Slemrod.

I've interacted with Mary through her organizing of the public finance lunch seminars and some OTPR conferences that I have attended and have been impressed on every occasion with her combination of good humor and outstanding performance.

Well done!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

More assorted links

1. Brady Hoke: What would Jesus do?

2. But I am French!

3. Why Eve closed Eve. Sad news; it was one of my local favorites. But there is still her new place to enjoy.

4. Why it's called "Washington, DC" instead of just "Washington" or "DC"

5. Interview with a vacuum cleaner salesman.


Megan McArdle says farewell to Borders.

I've reconciled myself to the end of Borders as well. I ordered three items from in an effort at corporate charity a couple of weeks ago and they had to cancel the order for one of them, presumably because their supplier had cut them off for non-payment.

I just hope that the original Borders store in Ann Arbor, which is in walking distance of my office, will stay a bookstore of some sort. Unlike Megan, I still really like the in-person bookstore experience, and often find interesting books that way. Having said that, most of my new book-buying happens on amazon.

Addendum: a reader sent me an email to correct a bit of looseness in my post. The original Borders store was a block away from the current one on State Street.

Assorted links

1. Odd names: truth and fiction from and some possibly dubious claims at

2. Talking too loudly about business in a public space can sometimes come back to bite you. It will be tempting to write down the details next time I have to listen to some goofy machine tool sales rep with a booming voice on his cell phone before they close the cabin door.

3. Time passes, things change. Many of the items on the list I am not at all sad to see disappear.

4. Buy a used chruch in SE Michigan. Just think of the tax advantages!

5. Ed Glaeser on ethics for economists.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Medical marijuana in the real world

This is perfect: legalization but only after you pay and do a bit of research to find out what conditions qualify, how to mimic them, and what doctors just want to help out!

I don't very often vote for candidates or ballot proposals that win elections. I'm glad I took the time to vote for medical marijuana.

Now we just wait around until people get used to it enough that the "medical" qualifier can be removed, criminal records of non-violent marijuana sellers can be expunged and so on.

Arizona shootings

This is a very sad event, made even sadder by its instant and all-encompassing politicization.

My thoughts:

First, this is not really an appropriate time for smug superiority by the left. Even if the shooter had rightish politics, which it appears he did not, the smugness would still not be appropriate. Though it seems to have gone down the memory hole, the amount of violent rhetoric that emerged from the left during the years of Bush Derangement Syndrome (or, farther back, during the Ray-gun administration) easily matched that from the right during the years of Clinton Derangement Syndrome or presently under Obama. Paul Krugman provides an example of the problem.

Second, this is also not an appropriate time to use the incident for political fund-raising.

Third, the shootings are not a good reason for clamping down, either legislatively or rhetorically, on free speech. American political discourse is more civil now than in much of the country's history. Indeed, it is not clear why one should attribute the shooting to speech at all.

Fourth, the shootings are not a good reason to re-institutionalize the mentally ill. Again, the record seems to have been swallowed up by the memory hole, but the mentally ill were originally de-institutionalized because in practice the institutions that housed them were often wretched and sometimes abusive. Would things be any better in a culture that now celebrates and jokes about prison rape? I think not. Some related thoughts from Steve Sailer.

Fifth, it strikes me that in quantitative terms the much more important problem is the terrorizing (and sometimes killing) of innocent citizens by agents of the state, rather than the reverse. Would that such incidents - you can find links to dozens of them if you search on "isolated incident" on Radley Balko's Agitator website - elicited a similar outpouring of media sympathy, outrage and calls to action.

Finally, some further thoughts from Steve Sailer on the lunatic fringe, Greg Mankiw on violent metaphors, Eugene Volokh on the law of the matter, and from Michael Moynihan, David Harsanyi and Peter Suderman at reason.

Movie: Silk

The NYT nails this one - it is highbrow Hallmark channel. Not much plot, but lots of gorgeous scenery.

Recommended before bed, but only to help you get to sleep

Friday, January 14, 2011

Movie: I Love You Phillip Morris

A bizarre true crime story that is a perfect vehicle for Jim Carrey, who is actually more subdued here than in most of his movies.

The dancing scene in the prison cell was the highlight for me but it abounds with insanity.

NYT review here. I did not like it quite as much as the NYT, which gives it bonus points for upsetting the social conservatives.


On for-profit colleges

A fine series of essays (here, here, here and here) at the Chronicle of Higher Education by Peter Wood. I am sympathetic to much of the content but have a couple of thoughts in response:

First, I think Wood fails to make a second important case for the for-profits, which is that they have innovated in tailoring programs to the needs of working students on several dimensions, including timing of classes, highly structured programs aimed at a degree representing marketable skills, absence of "distribution" requirements, easy access to academic and employment counseling and so on. These features are emphasized in James Rosenbaum's work on for-profits. I think the non-profit sector, particularly community colleges and non-research-oriented four-year schools, have much to learn here.

Second, Wood could do more to emphasize that we see the misallocation of resources much more clearly in the for-profit sector because students take out loans to pay for their (much higher) unsubsidized tuition. A student poorly suited to post-secondary education who spends a semester or two at a low-end state four-year institution or a community college also wastes a lot of resources, but much of the cost is diffused among the taxpayers and then only indirectly via the state's post-secondary education budget.

Reducing the amount of resources wasted on students poorly suited to post-secondary education is a fine idea in both sectors, provided it is kept in mind that the optimal rate of non-completion is not zero, and likely varies with the nature of the students and of the programs they undertake.

Good interview but no flyout yet

Students on the economics job market are often puzzled by the fact that interviews that seemed to go well at the ASSA meetings do not yield a flyout invitation right away. There are a number of reasons why this might occur other than the student incorrectly perceiving how things went at the interview.

First, it is important to realize that while the top 20 departments tend to schedule all of their flyouts right away, the next 50 or so departments face a harder problem. Do they move right away with candidates they like and who did not have too many interviews at more highly-ranked departments or do they wait a bit to see if some of the candidates with better interviews do not get the corresponding flyouts (or offers conditional on flyouts) and so become available, or some combination of the two. Most departments do some combination of the two.

Keep in mind as well that in the background of the market is a flurry of email traffic in which information is transmitted from candidates' advisors to their friends at other departments. This traffic helps the market work by helping departments avoid wasting flyouts on people they cannot get, and it also helps the "that person is not going to place as high as it looked from their interview schedule" information percolate more quickly through the system.

Having said all that, a good interview may not result in a flyout because of field preferences, as when a department interviews in fields A and B knowing that it will do flyouts in B only if none of the candidates in A do well. Or it may be that while one interview went well, others went even better. Some schools do only a very small number of flyouts for budgetary reasons, and so will not fly out some candidates they quite liked.

The bottom lines are: do not jump to the conclusion that your perception of the interview was incorrect and do not assume that no flyout right away means no flyout ever.

Assorted links

1. The quote from the North Vietnamese official explaining the negative effects of rent control is priceless. To quote Derek Neal, you can run from economics, but you cannot hide.

2. Making it easier to return ill-chosen gifts.

3. I thought Jeff Sachs was supposed to be a serious guy. This piece disabused me of that notion not because of the implicit policy views, some of which I agree with, but because of the large number of silly generalizations and not unrelated errors of fact.

4. Before-after pictures of Haiti.

5. Airport carpets.

Summer seminars for undergrads

The seminars run by the Institute for Humane Studies are a lot of fun - at least they were 20 years ago when I did one. I suspect they're even better now.

The seminars provide an introduction to classical liberal thought across a range of disciplines. In my experience, the students were at least as much fun as the faculty. When I did it there were people from all different perspectives within, and in the neighborhood, of the classical liberal perspective, ranging from anarcho-capitalists to Randroids to conservatives to sensitive, wonderful, clear-thinking and nearly always correct people like yours truly. :)

Well worth doing, if an experience like this appeals to you.

I even met someone I dated a few times.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Data, evaluation and the quality of public policy

This new working paper describes an evaluation data set that researchers can use to study the effects of active labor market policies in Germany. The data set combines administrative data drawn from multiple sources with innovative survey data.

There is nothing like this available in the US or Canada. Under the guise of privacy concerns, the political process in the US and Canada avoids assembling the sorts of data that would allow very high quality non-experimental evaluations (as well as descriptive analysis useful for understanding program operation and informing program implementation and design) of active labor market programs. Part of this is, at least in the US, due to the fact that both political parties have strong, but different, prior beliefs, about the effectiveness of such programs. To many democrats they are obviously effective (how could more schooling be bad?) while for republicans they are obviously ineffective (how could bureaucrats increase anyone's employment chances?) thus the demand for quality empirical analysis is low regardless of who is in power.

What we might call the "data gap" (a play on the historical "missile gap") has the effect of leading US researchers, at the margin, to spend their time working on non-US data, as with Dale Mortensen's ongoing research project in Denmark and Sandy Black's ongoing use of the Norwegian register data. Now, to be sure, no one actually moves outside the US because the salaries are much too low, but they do change their travel plans and their research agendas. In some ways this is good, because it leads to more interactions between North American and European researchers. However, the US is a big country, and policy unguided by serious evaluation in the US affects a large number of people and one of the world's most important economies.

There are real, low-cost opportunities for dong some good here. Will anyone in DC pick up the ball and run with it?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Michigan football coach

Brady Hoke is suddenly Michigan's new coach. I did not even know the name until about a week ago.

I'm glad they went with someone with past Michigan connnections. I worry that he lacks experience in the upper echelons of the college football world but then so did Don James when U-Dub plucked him out of Kent State.

Should be interesting.

Revenge on the coffee-drinkers

It struck me while in Denver last weekend that conventions such as the ASSA are the one time when those who prefer their caffeine in the form of diet soda have the advantage over those who prefer coffee as a caffeine delivery system. In many contexts, coffee drinkers are subsidized (to the point where the coffee is free in many cases) while diet soda drinkers have to buy and bring their own, thereby incurring direct time and money costs. I've never quite understood this asymmetry but it is ubiquitous.

At the ASSA and other big conventions the tables are turned. Soda drinkers wait in short lines at the hotel gift shop or a local 7-11 while, particularly in the morning, coffee drinkers stand in astoundingly long lines at whatever Starbucks equivalent the hotel provides in its lobby. And I smile as I walk by and look at the coffee drinkers waiting.

Making omelettes at the US / Canada border

If the Germans and the French can figure out how to have a border where you don't have to stop when you cross, then really, really, the US and Canada should be able to figure it out as well.

In the meantime, that flushing sound you hear is your tax dollars being wasted on the War on Kinder Surprise Eggs. Don't you feel safer now?

Hat tip: Sonia Laszlo on FB

Ethics for economists

Some wise thoughts on ethical standards for economists from Ed Glaeser.

Disclosure is important not just in relation to private entities to government ones as well. Evaluations funded by governments, especially when conducted by individuals or firms for whom such evaluations represent a major contributor to earnings, raise important concerns about pandering to the client. Just like private entities such as drug companies, governments often have a preferred answer in mind when they commission research.

Full disclosure: Ed and I overlapped in graduate school at Chicago. He may at some point have purchased me a beer or two.

Hat tip: Ken Troske

Monday, January 10, 2011

A government jobs program that works!

But they hid it inside the War on (some) Drugs.

Key bits:

ST. LOUIS – At the height of the methamphetamine epidemic, several states turned to a new weapon to disrupt the drug trade: electronic systems that could track sales of the cold medicine used to make meth.

Tracking sales by computer allowed pharmacies to check instantly whether a buyer had already purchased the legal limit of pseudoephedrine — a step that was supposed to make it harder to obtain raw ingredients for meth.

But an Associated Press analysis of federal data reveals that the practice has not only failed to curb the meth trade, which is growing again after a brief decline. It also created a vast and highly lucrative market for profiteers to buy over-the-counter pills and sell them to meth producers at a huge markup.

In just a few years, the lure of such easy money has drawn thousands of new people into the methamphetamine underworld.

"It's almost like a sub-criminal culture," said Gary Boggs, an agent at the Drug Enforcement Administration. "You'll see them with a GPS unit set up in a van with a list of every single pharmacy or retail outlet. They'll spend the entire week going store to store and buy to the limit."

Inside their vehicles, the so-called "pill brokers" punch out blister packs into a bucket and even clip coupons, Boggs said.

In some cases, the pill buyers are not interested in meth. They may be homeless people recruited off the street or even college kids seeking weekend beer money, authorities say.

But because of booming demand created in large part by the tracking systems, they can buy a box of pills for $7 to $8 and sell it for $40 or $50.

This program is ripe for a serious cost-benefit analysis that also takes into account the extra suffering to those with colds and flu who end up with weaker medicine as well as all the extra time wasted by people in line at drugstores.

The end of the article indicates that some states want to make cold medicine available only by prescription, a move no doubt promoted by their local medical gatekeeper cartel - I mean medical association.

Via: reason

Assorted links

1. Using products to signal identity: Grey Goose douche bags

2. Go after the guy with the crossbow.

3. It's all income effects.

4. Is teaching like the NFL?

5. Focusing on what's important at school.

6. The Economist on Chinese tourists in Europe.

#1 via Cheap Talk, #2 and #5 via the Agitator.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Unintentionally humorous letters of recommendation

From a letter of recommendation for someone we interviewed at the meetings:

"I wish I could be lucky enough to have a couple of more students like [NAME] who do not take much time to supervise."

It is not often that I laugh out loud while reviewing letters of recommendation, but I did in the case of this comment, which reveals more about the letter-writer than about the candidate.

IZA Prize to Fran Blau

Though the award itself was announced a couple of months ago, last night was the dinner at which Fran Blau officially received her well-deserved IZA Prize in Labor Economics.

I have to say that Fran gave what was probably the most sincere, moving acceptance speech that I have ever heard.

Congrats to Fran!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Denver thoughts

I am in Denver for the ASSA meetings. Some observations:

1. The downtown suffers from the lack of older buildings. Some impressive ones remain, and there are a couple of distinctive newer buildings, but lots of generic blandness.

2. Yazoo BBQ is awesome - in my lifetime top 10.

3. The local alternative weekly, called Westword, has an astounding volume of ads related to "medical" marijuana, including ads from doctors who will write you a prescription, shops that will fulfill your prescription, and suppliers of materials to grow your own. The pot-related ads far outnumber the usual escorts, chat lines and massage parlors. Some names I found entertaining: "way to grow", "budding health", "420 wellness", "herbal remedies", "nature's cure", "the health joint", "mile high green cross", "thc: the herbal center", "tender healing care" and "garden of the gods". So many puns, so little time.

4. Bistro Vendome was pretty good too, and with excellent service.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Preparing for interviews

I am printing out materials for our assistant professor interviews at the Allied Social Science Association meetings in Denver.

I have a couple of observations:

1. There is no reason to write a six (!) page letter of recommendation, but several people did. Really, all letters should be one page or less. The key information is usually all in the last paragraph, where the person writing the letter indicates where they think the student should place and also describes any non-academic features or bugs, e.g. the student provides lots of public goods or is a jerk. Sometimes there is information in the faculty member's description of the paper, but other times it just repeats the abstract.

2. I am 0-3 on checking whether job candidates cite papers I think they should cite.

3. If you are thinking about circulating a 77 page job market paper ... think again.

Should be fun.

Rich Rod on his way

According to, they really are going to unhire Rich Rod today as Michigan football coach.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Monday, January 3, 2011

4G bleg

We are thinking of moving from our current phones, which may well be -1G, to 4G phones. For me, the key features of a new phone are (1) being able to use it for internet on my laptop and (2) being able to use it easily and relatively inexpensively in Europe.

All suggestions, whether in the comments or by email, appreciated.

Is grade inflation bad?

The NYT has a piece on grade inflation that rather misses the point. It really does not matter what the labels are, whether they are five different kinds of A, A through F, or X, Y and Z. What matters is how well the information get conveyed. While there is a fair amount of work showing mean grades increase over time, what I am not aware of is much if any work showing that the information content of the grades has decreased over time. If everyone is playing along at home, so to speak, so that employers realize that when Bush and Gore got their C's at Yale those represented something very different than a C would today, then so what?

More broadly, the use of information such as grades, test scores, major and so on by workers and employers in the labor market has always seemed to me relatively under-studied in economics. John Bishop at Cornell has some good stuff, but there is not much else.

New Ann Arbor blogs

I just added two new Ann Arbor blogs to the blogroll.

One is "Local Ann Arbor" which seems to be serious but useful while the other is called "Damn Arbor" which, as the name suggests, adopts a somewhat lighter tone.

I poked around a bit on Damn Arbor. I liked this post on shooting a gun for the first time, and this review of Frita Batidos.

This post on bars that don't suck is useful too. I 'll second the recommendation for Ashley's in terms of selection and grad student ambiance (though no roaches, unlike Jimmy's, the bar we hung out at every Wednesday when I was in graduate school at the U of Chicago) but they are wrong about ABC. Great beer, to be sure, but mediocre food. If you want beer and food, Grizzly Peak dominates.

War on Drugs != War on Poverty

An excellent post from the New Republic making what I think is the best case for surrendering in the War on (some) Drugs: doing so would really help poor African-Americans.

This sort of sums it up:
What we need is not a forum where people clap at zestily-enunciated lines about “responsibility.” We need simply to imagine a day when a Jevon thinks about dropping out of school and selling drugs and realizes that he can’t do that because drugs are available for low prices at Rite-Aid and CVS.
The one thing that McWhorter does not emphasize, but should, is that reducing the number of young black men with criminal records would mean much improved employment chances, and higher earnings conditional on employment, later in life.

Via the Agitator

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Assorted links

1. Every word counts.

2. Ron Jeremy moves into rum, but where are the Nina Hartley wine coolers?

3. Readers can't get enough of Smith and Todd (2005).

4. Will Wilkinson on libertarians and national defense.

5. An old Steve Chapman column on why we should perhaps be grateful to Ron Jeremy et al. I'm not the world's biggest fan of the sort of state-level panel studies that Chapman described, but in this case the sign of the time trend suffices to debunk the theory. If porn caused violence, it would have gone up, a lot, in the last 30 years. It hasn't.

Hat tip on #2 to Cheap Talk and on #4 to MR.

Mankiw on cross-cultural understanding

A nice post, in the form of an open letter to President Obama, from Greg Mankiw to start the year.

The only part I would change a bit is the redistribution part. The democrats would do better to focus on helping the poor, and not just with transfers, rather than taking from the "rich", by which they mean mainly productive professional people and small business owners.

I particularly liked this line:
Despite their rejection of spreading the wealth, Republicans recognize that times are hard for the less fortunate. Their solution is not to adjust the slices of the economic pie, as if they had been doled out by careless cutting, but to expand the pie by providing greater opportunity for all.
Also not mentioned, and worthy of an open letter to nearly all democrats, is a reminder that there are lots of intelligent, well-educated, thoughtful and well-intentioned people who, quite mysteriously, do not worship the state.

Should be an interesting year inside the Beltway.

Mississippi State 52, Michigan 14

Not much to say about this that is not implicit in the score. Michigan played poorly in pretty much the same ways that they did against every decent team they played this year.

Will Rich Rod get another season? Maybe not, though it seems late to be making a coaching change unless they have someone lined up.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Evidence-based medicine: flu vaccine

This Atlantic piece, now a few months old, shows the difficulty in really, really using the evidence to drive public health policy. Many of these same phenomena carry over into the world of labor market policy, such as the existence of dozens of studies, only a handful of which should receive non-zero weight in any serious synthesis of the evidence.

Assorted links

1. The UAW still (!) living in its own reality.

2. Cheap Talk on where to take the job market candidates to dinner.

3. Some cocktail history from the Atlantic. They've changed the title in the archive; the print magazine title is "Spirits of the Dead".

4. Jeffrey Goldberg breaks the rules and carries things on planes.

5. How to take apart an auto plant.

Free speech = fascism?

A former Congressman gets a bit confused about the definition of fascism, apparently as a result of having attended a government-run high school. Even more problematic, the Congressman appears ignorant of the fact that the US had no campaign finance regulation at all prior to 1971. Does Congressman Hall really think that the US was "fascist" from 1783 to 1971?

Hat tip:


Happy New Year 2011 to all the readers of ECONJEFF!

I'm amazed that I've kept up with the blog this long ...