Monday, February 28, 2011

Economics of unions

Gilles Saint-Paul writes the post I've been meaning to write over at the Economist debate site.

Note the power of straight, dispassionate analysis to cut through the misleading moral fog.

I've only met Gilles once. We ended up somewhere in Germany, I don't recall where now, on the same day, and had a joint seminar dinner. My recollection is that he is quite entertaining, so if you get the chance to share a beer (or maybe wine) or a meal, take it.

First single I ever got

As best I can recall, this is the first single I ever owned. I think I do still own it now but it is buried somewhere in the basement.

I am not sure what this proves other than that I already had a bit of an off-kilter sense of humor at age seven.

Oh, and for the student readers, that thing in the picture is a 45 rpm (revolutions per minute) record, which contained one song on each side and was called a "single" (though perhaps it should have been called a "double" as there were two songs). It was played on something called a phonograph or record player.

Assorted links

1. David Friedman's North African dictator exam question. His mead is good too.

2. Hooters in Tokyo. The intellectually interesting bit is how they re-position the chain for a country where (a) no one knows what "hooters" is slang for and (b) men are not into large breasts.

3. China regulates reincarnation (again?)

4. A tool for monitoring lazy reporters who regurgitate press releases under their own names.

5. Female to male transsexuals and the economics (and sociology) of gender differences in the workforce. I am not sure I buy the before-after estimator here in a literal sense, but this is surely still research worth doing.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Assorted links

1. The "snake fight" portion of your thesis defense.

2. A thoughtful response to (among others) my comments on the American Sociological Association's statement about Glenn Beck and Francis Fox Piven. My concern was not with Piven so much as with the ASA stepping outside the boundaries of its reasonable mission.

4. Good that we have civilian control of the military. Yikes.

5. Some pretty interesting history of yoga as currently practiced. Apparently people fight about this when not meditating.

Hat tip on #1 to Jess Goldberg.

More on film subsidies

1. A reason interview with filmmaker Joe Gressis (the video directly above).

2. NYT on states cutting film subsidies.

3. Scandals with film subsidies in Iowa.

4. CBPP (never thought I'd link to them) on film subsidies, but it looks like a reasonable survey.


Slate offers up some tart words from Christopher Hitchens (not all of which I necessarily agree with, but he is always worth reading) and here is the LSE thesis of one of his kids.

The day they took the laptops

Via Ann Althouse

Innovation in the classroom

In addition to supporting jury nullification, Prof. Heicklen in the previous post was also apparently an innovative teacher. From the NYT story:
Mr. Heicklen, a Cornell graduate, taught for more than 20 years at Penn State, where he was a faculty member known for his innovative methods, former colleagues said.

Mr. Heicklen would bring Penn State dancers, actors and cheerleaders into one course to illustrate molecular vibration and to celebrate scientific discovery. “People talked about this course for years,” Robert Bernheim, a retired professor, recalled.
Now there is an idea that sounds like both good fun and a sure booster of teaching ratings. Could the cheerleaders create a human pyramid in the shape of the normal distribution? Perhaps a skit about variable selection featuring students from the theater department? Maybe I could get one of those teaching innovation grants that the university hands out? Ah ... the possibilities ....

Justice department not so keen on free speech. Who knew?

They NYT on a former Penn State chemistry professor being persecuted by the Feds for passing out information on jury nullification.

The story neglects to mention that jury nullification has a long and distinguished history in the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition. I guess the NYT reporter does not want the feds persecuting him as well.

This is just pure and simple harassment of someone exercising his free speech rights. Shame on the justice department.

Seeing what is missing

The chair of Michigan's theater and drama department has an unfortunate editorial in today in which she illustrates the (very) common problem of being able to see the direct effects of a policy but not the indirect effects.

Yes, Michigan's film subsidies lead to more employment in the film industry in Michigan. That is the direct effect. They also have at least two indirect effects. First, they reduce employment in the film industry in other states (and countries too, but let's not even go there). Now, in most policy discussions the welfare of individuals outside the US border is set to zero; in the case of the film subsidy, the geographic limits of our concern with others are apparently narrower, and coincide with the state boundaries of Michigan. Why should people inside those boundaries matter more for policy than those outside it?

More directly, the policy costs money, and that money comes from taxes. Those taxes have effects too. They raise the price of other types of economic activity in the state and thereby reduce the amount of those activities. They also distort behavior - income taxes, for example, decrease the relative price of leisure - and reduce welfare through that channel as well. Where are these other effects in Prof. Lindsay's editorial? They are invisible. Part of the value of learning economics is learning to see these indirect effects and to take account of them when advocating policies and making decisions.

For sure, It is hard to oppose policies that transfer money from others to us. Our self-interest rebels. I love theater and movies and give generously to support both in Ann Arbor. It is hard to argue against transfers that prop up my preferred leisure time activities.

But the film subsidies are not good policy. That shadowy and somewhat conspiratorial "other motive" that Prof. Lindsay refers to at the end of her piece is just economic efficiency, nothing more.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A cable channel I would watch

I think there needs to be an "AP History Channel" for people who do not need everything repeated six times, who like big words, who already know a little history and so do not need to have really basic stuff explained, and who would prefer still photos of actual people to low rent reenactments.

You will correctly infer from this grumbling that I watched the regular History Channel this evening.

Assorted links

1. A seminal contribution to the over-crowded cookbook market. [A Hines-quality pun, if I don't say so myself.]

4. A Canadian turned American (rightly) mocks the US citizenship test but is still glad to be here. Instead of the pledge of allegiance (to a flag? what could be less American?) I'd have them throw tomatoes at pictures of politicians of both major parties after they get sworn in.

5. The game from Damn Arbor.


The Razzies - the comedic better half of the Oscars that honors the worst movies of the year - are tonight. The video above describes some of this years nominees. The Razzies also have a web page and a Youtube channel.

Sadly, I am told, there is no way to watch them live, not even on the web. I won't be watching tomorrow night, but I would have watched tonight. Comedy Central, what are you thinking not putting them on?

Movie: Unknown

After a week of strep throat fun (not recommended) I was feeling much better yesterday so we took in the movie Unknown at the local multiplex.

The NYT review summarizes well both the plusses and minuses. For us, in the mood for a bit of Hollywood thriller fun, it satisfied perfectly.

Recommended as Hollywood thriller fluff.

Planned parenthood

I sure wish the Republicans could focus on what is important, which is the fiscal crisis. Instead, even now, there is time and political energy for symbolic anti-abortion politics.

Expenditures on planned parenthood almost by definition reduce future government expenditures on schools, TANF, SNAP, WIC, and, further in the future, prisons. That is not the place to be cutting.

Get serious people.

Inspiration: Sandy Black on Facebook

Important news for pedants

Toyota has vindicated my claim that the plural of Prius is Prii.

I feel so much better now. I await a similar press release from the US Census Bureau regarding the plural of "census".

Via: instapundit

Friday, February 25, 2011

A prescription for fraud

The Atlantic calls out the University of Wisconsin physicians issuing fraudulent sick notes to protesters at the state capitol.

More on Madison

A nice piece from the Economist on the battle between Governor Walker and (some of the) public employee unions.

In addition to the thoughtful arguments it makes, the Economist piece illustrates a clever and largely untried approach to the dispute. I call it analytical thinking.

Most of the takes one reads around the internet are, instead, based on moral reasoning, or perhaps just moral ranting, sometimes supplemented with dodgy evidence from interested sources. I don't think there is really any moral content here at all, just a principal agent problem between the taxpayers and voters and their state and local governments that needs to be fixed with better institutional design.

Judith Scott-Clayton at NYT

Congrats to new NYT economics blogger Judith Scott-Clayton, who starts off with a very wise piece on private higher education.

Hat tip: Sue Dynarski (Judith's dissertation advisor) on Facebook.

Assorted links

1. In Nebraska, you can't drive drunk, but you can ride naked. Useful info for Michigan fans now that the Huskers are joining the Big 10 ... er ... 11 ... er ... 12, no not 12 .... uh ...

2. Elton John is pals with Rush Limbaugh, and other pop culture oddness in a Rolling Stone interview with Sir Elton.

3. Nerve rates the 50 sexiest music videos of all time. I have to say, the hairstyles in the J. Geils Band Centerfold video do take me back.

4. Another reason not to like Harry Reid, though I think they were already in excess supply.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

About Concur I do not concur

Michigan recently adopted the Concur system for travel planning and reimbursement management. The system consists, as that description suggests, of two integrated but conceptually separate parts: one is an online travel planning system similar in spirit (though not in ease of use) to Kayak or Orbitz and the other is an online reimbursement system for both travel expenses and other expenses such as books or journal subscriptions.

Prior to the arrival of Concur, a UM employee would make their own travel plans, and then submit the receipts, along with a short written explanation, to a staff person when s/he returned the trip. The staff person would then process the documents through the university system, and payment would show up via direct deposit a few weeks later.

The Concur system was advertised as having three advantages relative to what it replaced: cheaper prices for travel due to volume discounts, faster reimbursement and less time spent on getting reimbursed. Let me consider each of these in turn:

1. There is no question that reimbursements are a couple weeks faster. This has no value to me but I can understand how it might matter to credit constrained graduate students who get university funding to attend a conference or course.

2. Less time spent on getting reimbursed. So far, I am spending about three minutes more per reimbursement on average; I think I spent about seven minutes per reimbursement under the old system. I suspect that after I finish paying the learning costs this will fall to one or two extra minutes per reimbursement. Under the old regime, the time cost consisted of assembling and then making paper copies of the receipts (in case they got lost) and then typing up the explanatory cover letter and carrying it down to the main office. Under Concur, the time costs consists of assembling and scanning the receipts, uploading the receipts to the system, entering data from the receipts into the system, and then making the inevitable corrections required by the nit-picking anonymous "Concur auditors", who appear to get paid based on the number of irrelevant inconsistencies they find. Why the Concur auditors are not empowered to simply correct obvious and unimportant errors on their own is beyond me. The net effect of Concur is to reduce the time spent on reimbursements by university administrative staff while increasing it for the Concur auditor and for faculty and graduate students.

3. Lower travel prices. I have compared flights on three routes - DTW to DCA, DTW to SYR and DTW to MIA - as well as hotels for a couple of different locations. In all but one case there was no price difference from what was on offer on Kayak. In one case, Concur had a fare that was lower by about $10 on a base of about $600. This is not sufficient, at least to me, to compensate for Concur's more awkward user interface.

The bottom line from my perspective is that if you are at a university or other institution that is thinking of adopting Concur, it is likely worth putting up a bit of resistance, but not much. Concur might be a little better for some users, a little worse for other users in the end. The best argument for avoidance may be the non-trivial institutional transition costs. The transition at Michigan was a full scale celebration with powerpoint files sent by email, personalized instruction by department staff and even a paper star on the door of one colleague who somehow achieved the elevated status of "Concur all-star".

In hindsight, I suspect that the actual institutional attraction for the system is to please university lawyers worried about reimbursement scandals. Maybe that is a good reason, but it would be good to be up-front about it at the time of adoption.

Das ist schlecht!

A leading German politician has to give up his doctorate due to plagiarism. Doctorates carry a lot more social importance in Germany than in the US so this is a bigger deal than it might seem at first blush.

Key lesson: If you plan a career in politics you just have to accept nowadays that everything will be checked and that everything will be watched.

Bonus question (to which I do not know the answer): I understand the "von" in German names, e.g. Friedrich von Hayek, as meaning "from" but what does it mean to be "zu" Guttenberg? Did some illustrious ancestor of this not-so-illustrious politician move to Guttenberg and do something important there?

Steve Stigler on robustness

A fine, short meditation on the history of robustness in statistics, motivated by recent work in economics.

Steve Stigler is the son of Nobel economist George Stigler, whose courses I took (and graded for) when I was a gradual student at Chicago. Steve shares his father's writing skills and his interest in intellectual history.

I took (well, audited) Steve's course on (surprise!) robust estimation shortly after I started working with Jim Heckman. It was in that course that I met statistics gradual student Nancy Clements, who ended up, at my instigation, becoming an RA for Heckman and a co-author on the 1997 Review of Economic Studies paper on heterogeneous treatment effects.

A couple of years after auditing his class, I read Steve Stigler's excellent book on The History of Statistics, which I continue to recommend to students at the start of every new econometrics course, whether graduate or undergraduate, that I teach. The book influenced the way I motivate least squares regression, which he frames in the book as a solution to the historical problem of what to do when you want to estimate a line but have more than the two data points required for identification.

Why I love the Economist

From the Economist's weekly email update:
Shanghai announced a one-dog policy, based along the lines of China’s one-child law. Owners of the city’s many unlicensed pooches insisted the local authorities were hounding them.
Of course, their bark is worse than their bite.

Las Ketchup: the Ketchup Song

I stumbled upon this cheerful bit of musical fun a couple of days ago, though apparently it was a worldwide hit nine years ago.

How did this not become a hit in the US?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Assorted links

1. Lessons from Monopoly at the University of Chicago.

2. If you do your drug raid at the wrong house, best if it is not the house of a law professor.

3. Rolling Stone on MTV's Skins. I saw a bit about this on Fox News while channel surfing one night and it was embarrassing even by the standards of Fox News. Total freak-out completely removed both from the social world actually inhabited by teens and, I suspect, completely innocent of anyone on the panel having actually watched the show.

5. Appalling Rumsfeld memo.

Hat tip on #1 to Ken Troske. #2 via the Agitator.

SNL rasta fun

Via Kyria Lydia Abrahams on Facebook

Important sports news you may have missed

Cal Tech's basketball team (?!?!) ends its 310 (three hundred ten!) game conference losing streak with a win over powerhouse liberal arts college Occidental.


Hat tip: Mike Ward on Facebook

Scott Walker should have learned from Mike Huckabee

And here is the lowdown on Scott Walker getting punked. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

As they used to say back during those Cold War days: trust but verify.

Trade barriers in everything

The current version of the still-in-progress medical marijuana legislation for Ann Arbor requires that all the pot be grown and packaged in Michigan.

Now, this is not quite as moronic as it might seem at first blush, given that the disjunction between state medical marijuana laws and federal drug laws that is hinted at in the article.

The article also offers some entertaining back-and-forth with different bits of the medical marijuana industry trying to put legal restraints on each other.

Economics is everywhere - now pass the chips.

Joining the "Booth Nation"

An interesting piece on how admissions works for the MBA program at the Booth School at U of Chicago.

I like the bit about having the applicants come up with a four page powerpoint presentation with no guidance. Here is what the article has to say:
It was Ahlm who had the idea for this portion of the application. He jokingly says it came to him when he hit his head on the bathroom sink in his home. “This is an exercise that very much captures the essence of what Booth is about,” he says. “Having an ambiguous problem with many moving parts and being able to come up with a strong compelling solution. It was designed to allow someone to bring an application to life. The Powerpoint adds a lot of color, texture and depth to the application.

It also apparently turns some applicants off. “It leads some people to not hit send, which is a perfect outcome,” believes Kole. “Because if they are frustrated and feel they don’t know what to do with those four sheets of paper, they are not going to do well here. If that’s too much ambiguity for them, it’s good that they find that out before they apply. A lot of admits say they fell in love with the place through that process.”

I do wonder, as always, about whether all this effort would pass a cost-benefit test relative to a much less intensive, and extensive process, that used a few simple rules to mechanically rule most applicants in or out, and then had some human intervention only for marginal cases. I have never seen any evidence one way or the other, and I expect that the admissions experts, like most experts, think that they add more to the process than they do.

Oh, and associate dean Stacey Kole overlapped with me in the economics doctoral program at Chicago. I wondered where she ended up - not too far away it seems.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

College costs

An interview with economists Robert Archibald and David Feldman related to their book on college costs.

I think they are generally correct about the diagnosis, I am less pleased with their suggested treatments. Three points:

1. I agree with them that the federal student aid institutions are designed remarkably poorly. They are too complex and the results often get revealed after students have to make their enrollment decisions. These things are "easy" to fix and my understanding is that they are to some extent being fixed, partly as a result of research by my Michigan colleague Sue Dynarski.

2. I think they are too kind to Georgia's HOPE scholarship program. It has led to all sorts of strategic behavior around grading and course-taking, both in high school and in college. David Mustard at the University of Georgia has written some nice papers on this. One could argue about HOPE is better or worse than subsidizing tuition, but it is not any sort of general solution as it still represents a huge transfer to upper-middle-class people from those below them in the distribution of income.

3. I think they understate the possibilities of additional competition. There is no reason, for example, for there to be differences in tuition between in-state and out-of-state students at state universities. Canada doesn't have provincial differentials of this sort. The feds could end these instantly by making their grants and loans useable only at schools without such differentials. This would enhance competition, especially for students from small states.

4. Not unrelated to the preceding comment, I would like to see all the funding go through the student rather than the school. Schools would charge what they want to charge, students would have a voucher incorporating their need-based and merit-based subsidy from the taxpayers, and things would sort out in an open market. I expect that a side result of such a system is that states would get out of the day to day business of operating universities, which I think would be a salutary development, as states have no obvious comparative advantage in this activity.

Remarks on the Middle East

These remarks from Chris Blattman strike me as right on target. The error term really matters, especially when in a transitional state between relatively stable equilibria.

My Michigan colleague Juan Cole has some useful remarks as well.

Economic Way of Thinking

I've added the "Economic Way of Thinking" blog to the blogroll on the right.

Two of the three writers of the blog are co-authors (with the late Paul Heyne) of the Economic Way of Thinking textbook. I used that book in my high school economics class and it played a role in getting me interested in economics. When I got to college at the University of Washington, I ended up being mentored by Paul Heyne, who had a huge influence on my career switch from computer science, my interest in being an academic and my politics.

Further illustrating what a small world academic economics is, the Canadian edition of the Economic Way of Thinking text is co-authored by my former Western Ontario colleague (and all around very cool guy) John Palmer. Turns out, as I just learned, he has his own blog. I've added it to the blogroll as well.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Glenn Beck and Trickle Up

Why on earth is Glenn Beck picking on Trickle Up?

He should fire the research assistant who came up with this one.

Very fine response from the President of Trickle Up here.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thanks for the money, here's the blame

Lessons in fiscal federalism from local councils in the UK. There is a principle of public finance that says it is good to have the taxing and spending authority in the same hands. This article illustrates one of the reasons for that principle.

Assorted links

1. Godless conservatives at the NY Times.

2. Love on the diag. For non-UM folks, the "diag" is the central open space on campus. The description covers about 10 percent of UM undergrads.

3. More on the Giordano's bankruptcy.

4. The really surprising thing here is that even one of these fine young men has a sexual partner.

5. Dirty old (literary) men. I might have put science fiction author Robert Silverberg on here, but I think they were not considering genre fiction.

Hat tip on #3 to Austin Kelly.

Sex and the Super Bowl

This Time magazine piece regurgitates press releases from religious anti-prostitution activists and, in so doing, advances their favored themes, such as the conflation of adult and child prostitution and of adult prostitution with human trafficking.

The Honest Courtesan provides a thorough take-down of the entire genre.

Oddly, the Time reporter gets paid for doing what amounts to a junior high essay in its heavy borrowing from sources, lack of familiarity with the subject area and general lack of critical thinking, while the Honest Courtesan writes her blog for free. Could this have anything to do with Time's declining circulation?

The rise of economics in Europe

The Economist notes a recent IZA working paper that shows the increasing representation of scholars at European Universities in economics journals.

I think, though, that the Economist gets the explanation partly wrong. In particular, the emphasis on the Bologna process is, well, bologna. It is important, but not for this, and it comes along too late.

I would argue instead that, first of all, the explanation differs by location within Europe. The UK has always been plugged into the world of academic economics in North America, as have, so a somewhat lesser extent, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden. Those countries have experienced gradually increasing integration due to decreased travel costs and (with the obvious exception of the UK) ever-increasing skill in English.

The big changes have been in the countries without strong traditions in neoclassical economics, such as Germany, which is still putting down the last bits of institutionalist resistance, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. In the last 30 years, neoclassical economics has advanced rapidly in those countries. Neoclassical economics proceeds in English, so if you want to play the game, you learn the language, just like 100 years ago if you wanted to do chemistry, you learned German.

Hat tip: Herr President Direktor Prof. Dr. Klaus Zimmerman

Admissions arms race

The WSJ details the story of parents caught up in the battle to get their kids into the very best possible college, with expensive SAT consultants, campus visits, and all the rest. I have some thoughts on this, of course:

1. The article states:
Is going to a so-called "better" college worth it? Is the system fair? The first question is the subject of seemingly endless study, which almost always concludes: It depends.
In fact, every reasonably serious scholarly paper that I know of but one concludes that college quality increases earnings. Even the single exception, the famous Dale and Krueger piece, in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, in some sense proves the rule. They find college quality does matter for disadvantaged students and they examine a limited set of schools, the lowest quality of which is probably Penn State. With such limited variation in quality, it becomes more difficult to find strong effects in the data.

2. Having said that I think college quality increases earnings, the estimates in the literature are small enough that they are unlikely to imply that it is worth spending many thousands of dollars now for the future earnings differences that will result (in expectation!) from the sorts of very marginal quality differences the parents in the article are laboring after. Of course, that is exactly the sort of calculation the authors of the WSJ piece should have done, but did not.

3. There are many other margins besides college choice that affect post-college labor market and life outcomes. Parents need to be sure that they are equating across margins in terms of effort and dollars expended. These other margins include major choice, effort level in college, extracurricular activity participation and choices and so on. Any decent state school will provide an excellent education to a student who works hard, chooses their major and classes thoughtfully, and adds a light coating of high payoff extracurricular activities. In contrast, students who attend expensive, highly ranked colleges like the one I teach at can, if they choose, avoid class and drink their way through four years and not accomplish much at all. I think parents focus too much on the college choice margin and not enough on the effort, engagement and major choice margins.

4. Colleges are not one-dimensional. One can talk meaningfully about quality as I have done above and yet for some students, the key dimension may be size, or the presence or absence of a big city, or great athletics, or great theater arts. Match quality matters, and parents who focus only on a one-dimensional notion of quality may not be optimizing.

5. Is there any actual evidence on the relative effectiveness of expensive SAT coaches versus inexpensive SAT preparation books or websites? My guess is that there is not and my prior is that there is little difference between the two modes of preparation other than price. I suspect that doing a lot of practice questions in a book will do the job for the vast majority of students.

6. How much of this is really about the parents status competition with their friends and colleagues? I would guess quite a lot. Maybe almost all. Parents need to toughen up and mock their peers who waste money on this stuff rather than feeling obliged to copy them.

And I go, whoa, like, hey, I mean ...

A fine rant on the, you know, like, decline of spoken English, and stuff.

Implicit in this is some job market advice for both undergraduates and gradual students.

Hat tip: Nat Wilcox, awesome dude

Friday, February 18, 2011

Higher education cuts in Michigan

Like any high quality journalistic outlet would, leads with the reactions of soon-to-be undergraduate Tara:
"I think colleges are going to have to jack up tuition,” she said after hearing of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's budget proposal to cut higher education funding by 15 percent. “They’re going to have to. It’s going to suck. I might have to live at home because of the cost.”
OH .... MY .... GOD!!!!!!!!! Tara might have to live at home with her PARENTS!!!! They're OLD and they SUCK ....

Sigh. Must stop now and do work.

This is news in exactly what sense?

A headline from today's installment of
Local officials respond unfavorably to [Michigan governor Rick] Snyder's call for cuts in state funding for municipalities
Why bother reporting something this obvious?

I look forward to future articles such as:
Local thieves applaud cuts to police budget
Local golfers respond favorably to continued city subsidies to their hobby
Surely can do better than this?

More on (former) Congressman Lee

I liked this piece from Gail Collins in the NYT, especially this last bit:

Finally, we should be pondering whether it’s really such a great thing to have a new generation of legislators that puts a premium on being in good physical shape. Lee, who described himself as a “fit fun and classy guy,” apparently couldn’t wait to ship his potential hookup a deeply incriminating shot of his well-toned body.

These people are already dangerously self-satisfied. Maybe we were better off with paunchy, aging guys who had to acknowledge, in their deepest heart, that if they were getting any sexual action at all it was only because they were on the Appropriations Committee.


NFL socialism

Poor old Bill Maher, left in the dust by Jon Stewart.

This Maher piece on the NFL helps illustrates why. First Maher thinks that socialism equals redistribution. Well, no. Socialism means government ownership of the means of production. I think he means social democracy, something one might have expected an editor at the HuffPo to catch. Second, he confuses the NFL's business strategy of partially leveling the playing field among its teams via revenue sharing and salary caps with government redistribution. Sorry Bill, but unlike the government's redistribution, the NFL's redistribution is not motivated by altruism or by a desire to buy votes with other people's money; it is all about profits.

Maher's particular species of confusion reminded me of a remark that Lester Telser once made at a seminar at Chicago about a store owner who shut down everything but the cash register because that was the only part of his store that made any money.

For a better informed discussion of the actual socialism in pro football, look here.

Egypt = Wisconsin?

Judging by my lefty friends on Facebook, the meme of the day is the equation of Wisconsin's new republican governor with deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. The idea seems to be that the following two things are roughly equivalent:

1. Duly elected governor and state legislature propose to reduce (not eliminate) the ability of state workers to form labor cartels with the purpose of raising their compensation above the value of their marginal product by exploiting the government's soft budget constraint.

2. Brutal, unelected dictator runs a repressive regime with a vast secret police apparatus and loots his country's wealth for three decades.

Here's a relatively calm example from the American Prospect.

This is Glenn Beck level stuff, the lefty equivalent of calling Obama a socialist.

It is also really insulting to the Egyptians.

Sigh. Would that we had a better left (and a better right).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Assorted links

1. Ypsi-Arbor lanes to close.

4. Check your visual perception - very cool and only takes a couple minutes.

5. People in Chicago are evidently not eating enough pizza! This would be a real loss. Giordano's is the best of the Chicago-style pizza chains.

Hat tip on #3 to Nat Wilcox, #4 to Charlie Brown and on #5 to displaced Chicagoan Austin Kelly

Look for the union label ...

This starts off slow but the last half is hilarious.

Hat tip: Ken Troske

Gotcha day

Yesterday was "gotcha day" for our daughter Elizabeth, meaning that three years ago yesterday we picked her up in not-so-beautiful Nanning.

In her honor, a piece from Jesse Walker at reason on the policies that indirectly led to our adoption.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bankrupt bookstore

Ed and Jon lovefest

Wow .... a marvel.

If you've never experienced the in-person Ed, this is a good introduction.

And here is some written-down Ed on the same general theme, from the Atlantic.

Video via his colleague, Greg Mankiw, article hat-tip to Ken Troske.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thin marriage markets

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

The Atlantic on Geithner

I enjoyed this long profile of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in the Atlantic over lunch today and learned a lot about the backstory of the financial crisis.

The story does have a couple of weaknesses.

First, it treats the theory of regulatory capture as some sort of theory without evidence invented by George Stigler. In fact, it has a broader intellectual provenance within economics than even just Chicago and a lot of compelling evidence to back it up. [A related minor point: Stigler was a classical liberal, not a conservative.]

Second, the author of the article clearly likes Geithner, but faults him for not wanting to regulate Wall Street hard enough. This both mistakes the issue as "a lot versus a little" (the thermostat model of regulation) rather than "smart or dumb" and mistakes the point of regulation, which is to improve efficiency, not administer punishment.

Third, there really is no way, due to technological and institutional change, to go back to the static environment of Glass-Steagall. In general, there is too much praise for New Deal era banking regulations, which included idiocies like state-level prohibitions on banks having more than one branch.

Otherwise, a very nice job.

Full disclosure: I took two of Stigler's classes while in gradual school at Chicago and also graded for him for a couple of years.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Assorted links

1. Banning cars at the U of Michigan (a long time ago).

2. Preserving old video games.

3. Physician rediscovers integration, gets cited.

4. The Grateful Dead go to business school.

5. Texas tickets toddlers (well, not really, but I liked the alliteration). The real question is, what fraction of these tickets are given on the day of the high-stakes exams, to get bad students out of the room and thus out of the performance measure.

Hat tip on #3 to Jess Goldberg and on #5 to Dann Millimet.

Subsidizing the arts

Like Tyler, I don't mind the indirect subsidy via the tax system. Unlike Tyler, I do not see the point of having government boards that dole out money. Let people vote with their voluntary contributions.

As a second best, I agree with Tyler's suggestion to have the funding at the federal level, rather than the state and local level. I would also focus it on mainstream cultural institutions that everyone can agree on and that have very low political content.

Book : God is Not One by Stephen Prothero

I read this book last fall and quite enjoyed it. The author more or less wraps his comparative religion class at Boston University inside the broad them of pushing back against the notion that all religions are really the same in some essential sense.

The Washington Post reviewer does a good job of capturing the book. As he puts it:
Intellectuals friendly to religion have fostered an equally misleading notion, one that is thoughtfully dispelled in Stephen Prothero's book, "God is Not One." Seeing the world's major belief systems through Enlightenment-tinted glasses, a succession of influential philosophers, artists, scholars and even many religious leaders have tended to minimize the differences of ritual and dogma among the various religions to emphasize a supposedly universal and benign truth shared by them all. Such well-meaning believers (and they do constitute a kind of religion of their own) have subscribed to variations of the Dalai Lama's affirmation that "the essential message of all religions is very much the same."
The reviewer also notes Prothero's take on evangelical atheists like Christopher Hitchens:
And not only friends of religion abuse the truth through such generalizing, says Prothero. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other so-called New Atheists attack religions as if they were an undifferentiated mass of barbaric superstitions, all having a disastrous effect on the development of humanity, rational discourse and civil society. Prothero does not deny the evils that have been done in the name of God; he insists that it is precisely a religion's mixture of dark and light, its potential for good and evil, that makes each and every religion so distinctive and so ineradicably human.
The message I took away was: "within" variation is really important. In the US, we live in a sea mainly of Christian denominations, and have a sense that they vary a lot, from bible-thumping fundamentalists to intellectual Unitarians to wishy-washy do-gooding Episcopalians, not to mention the distinctly American traditions such as Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses and New Thought. But because we do not have them around us as much, it is easy to forget that other traditions, such as Islam or Hinduism, have at least this much variation, and that the variation is on multiple dimensions, not just the one-dimensional liberal versus conservative dichotomy favored in media treatments.

I also quite enjoyed learning more about the traditions I knew least: Hinduism and the Yoruba religions of Africa. Plus there are some funny stories about the author's comparative religion students. One of the assignments he gives them in his course is to design their own religion, the results of which, as he reports them, can be both funny and moving.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Interview with Nick Gillespie

Not sure where I found this but it is Nick - a.k.a. libertarian Fonzie - at his finest.

A snippet:
12. Tell me about the moment you decided to enter the political arena.

GILLESPIE: One of the good things about being a libertarian is that you can refuse to enter the political arena, which is about as inviting to normal, decent human beings as a men's room stall in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

Assorted links

1. Gulliver addresses the important topic of hotel toilets.

2. I'm pretty impressed so far with the quality of the posts on the Honest Courtesan. Here is one about sex "addiction".

3. Perhaps both the most reasonable and the most interesting thing I've ever read on the Huffington Post.

4. Allen Sanderson at U of Chicago on jobs, jobs, jobs.

#4 via Greg Mankiw.

Family values on Craigslist

Another family values Republican bites the dust, brought down by the devil.

The most interesting bit here may be his choice to pose on Craigslist as a lobbyist. I suppose that three factors enter into the choice of a profession for one's on-line alter ego. First, you want it to be distant enough from your actual profession so that you cannot be easily identified. Second, you want it to be something you know well enough to fake. Third, you want it to be something that, on its own, will not drive away potential playmates. It seems to me that for ex-Congressperson Lee, lobbyist fits the first two but not the third. But then, inside the beltway, things may be different.

And, you know, going on Craigslist as a Congressman is just plain dumb, even with a phony profession. Next time Satan inflames his loins, perhaps Congressman Lee will hire an escort or get some cigars for his intern.

Hat tip: Sue Dynarski on Facebook

Advances in the War on Drugs

Via Nat Wilcox on Facebook

What's in a (political) name?

Greg Mankiw, a "conservative", makes the case for cosmopolitanism and free exchange in his NY Times column, in opposition to Barack Obama, a "liberal" who made a case in the state of the union address for economic nationalism and fear of foreigners.

Methinks something is amiss with our political labels.

Book: The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

This one has been on my shelf for a long time. I picked it off the shelf last month in part as a diversion from a very good but dense social science book that is taking me a while to get through and in part because the Atlantic often praises Munro's work.

I quite like short stories for bedtime reading and these are very fine short stories indeed. The NYT review by Joyce Carol Oates captures the overall flavor and mood really well, though Joyce and I disagree about some particular stories. The stories are often bittersweet, a bit dark, a bit sad at times, and very human. They also very much reflect the sensibilities of their rural Ontario settings.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak Facebook page update

Some instant humor at the expense of former dictator Hosni "Hoss" Mubarak.

Via Nat Wilcox on FB

Living together

Hard to imagine, but a new UM study finds important gender differences in perceptions of the costs and benefits of living together. Key bits from the summary in UM Today:

Overall, three key reasons for living together emerged: wanting to spend more time with one's partner, wanting to share life's financial burdens, and wanting to test compatibility. But the way men and women talked about these three broad reasons was very different.

Women volunteered "love" as a reason to live together three times as often as men did, while men cited "sex" as a reason to live together four times as often as women did.

Both men and women saw cohabitation as a temporary state in which to gauge compatibility, but major gender differences emerged in the underlying goals of living together. Women saw it as a transitional arrangement preceding marriage, while men tended to see it as a convenient, low-risk way to see if a relationship had longer-term potential, using terms like "test drive" to describe the arrangement.

But the strongest gender differences emerged in the perceived disadvantages of cohabitation. Women believed that living together meant less commitment and legitimacy than marriage, while men saw the greatest disadvantage as a limitation on their freedom.

Who would have thought? But it is still very useful to quantify, and to show the importance of gender differences relative to other subgroups.

The full text of the article can be found here; it may be gated.

Economists versus climate scientists

This piece compares the reactions - calm, measured economists versus freaked-out climate scientists - between two sets of scholars studying climate change.

The piece argues that climate scientists and economists differ in their beliefs about the adaptability of social and economic institutions to climate change. I think that is correct.

I think there are also likely differences in the process of selection into economics and climate science that feed into these differences in attitudes. A cynic might also argue that the two groups face different elasticities of research funding with respect to predictions of doom.

There is room for some deeper sociology of science in this area.

Oh, and we should have a carbon tax.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Assorted links

1. Watson on Jeopardy, with comments from a UM computer science professor.

2. A history of the X rating.

3. The EU focuses on the really important things.

4. The appalling story of women who prefer their husbands to their children. Can this really be?

5. Getting revenge on online scammers - from the Atlantic.

Hat tip on #1 to Charlie Brown and on #3 to Lars Skipper.

UM trespass policy

Lots of things I did not know about UM's trespass policy, under which police can ban individuals from UM property, in this piece.

Seems odd to me that there is less administrative oversight of the university police when they ban someone from campus than when I spent $50 of my research funds on a journal subscription.

Reason mocks Hilary on the Drug War


Happy Birthday AER

The American Economic Review, the flagship journal of the American Economic Association, is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

The anniversary issue includes a piece on the 20 most important articles is here. I was glad to see that they included Hayek (1945). That article, as expanded upon by Thomas Sowell in his book Knowledge and Decisions, had a big effect on my thinking as an undergraduate. I was put onto the book by my undergraduate mentor Paul Heyne at the University of Washington.

In addition, as noted by Noreen Wolcott of our department staff, the very first article in the very first issue has a Michigan connection:
The February 2011 issue of The American Economic Review celebrates 100 years of publication. Featured in this issue is the first article published in AER in 1911: “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation” by Katharine Coman.

Coman received her bachelor’s in philosophy from the University of Michigan in 1880 (economics would not become a department until after Coman’s graduation that same year). While at Michigan she studied political economy with U-M President James Burrill Angell (at that time political economy was taught by the current professor of moral and intellectual philosophy, who was nearly always the president of the University or the senior member of the faculty). It was Angell who recommended Coman to Wellesley where she would, during the course of her career, teach rhetoric, economics, history, and sociology. Coman convinced Wellesley administration that economics was a subject “both suitable and necessary to the education of women” and in 1883, she taught the first course in political economy offered at Wellesley. By 1885—and not yet 28 years old--she was named full professor of history and economics. She retired in 1913 as professor emerita and died in 1915. The Katharine Coman Professorship of Industrial History was established at Wellesley in 1921.

Coman was the only woman among the AEA founders in September 1885.

Happy 100th AER!

New Yorker on Scientology

This fascinating article in the New Yorker is built around the stories of ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis. The article seems remarkably fair-minded and careful and Haggis himself seems remarkably sensible.

I do worry about the government poking around investigating organizations that, whatever they may be for those who run them, are genuine religious organizations for most of their members. It is so very easy for the powerful to go after people who are different, whether because of their sexual behavior, their politics or their religious views. Defending people who are different is in some sense integral to defending freedom itself. I would much prefer to see bad behavior around religious organizations brought down by information, as in the New Yorker piece, than by the state itself.

Job market and technology

I had a new experience today: receiving (multiple) real time updates on the job talk of one of my students from audience members at the talk.

Cool, but a bit odd.

The research process in pictures

A graphical illustration of the research process from UM's Medical School Office of Research.

The process for social science research is a bit less bracing, as we are not usually doing things to sick people at random, but still much more bureaucratic than you might imagine from movies about crazed professors building time machines or working through some big stack of books about an obscure historical figure in the library. Money also plays a much larger role than I think most outsiders realize, both in terms of the time spent by researchers in obtaining and managing funds and in directing subject matter and methods choice.

Movie: Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

We learned about Hildegard von Bingen am letzten nacht ... I mean last night.

This sort of historical movie always frustrates me because I want to know how much of the content has some basis in historical evidence, how much has been added or altered for dramatic purposes, and how much has been added or altered to score points in modern political or cultural debates. In the case of this film, I think not much was added for purely dramatic purposes. The movie is low on plot and slow at times - "episodic" to use the word in the otherwise very positive LA Times review. The NY Times review seems a bit phoned in, and overly concerned with reassuring the reader that the reviewer is in no way religious, despite having been to see this movie.

Another review I read, which I could not find again today, noted that the movie does a very good job of illustrating life 1000 years ago. Aside from everyone have clean faces and clean hair, and not ever seeming to do much actual work, I would agree with that. It is also lushly and beautifully photographed, with a fine soundtrack.

Worth seeing, but know what you are getting into.

Addendum: here is the other review I mentioned.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thought for the day

"Paperwork is always for bureaucrats, not for me."

- A colleague (not in economics!) whom I will leave anonymous

Assorted links

1. Marriott pulls porn from its hotels. The comments are worth reading as well.

2. Signs homeless people write and the original post.

3. Mr. Mohammedssen, please come to the courtesy telephone.

4. The Economist on when to buy airline tickets.

5. Comparing the past and the future.

#3 and #5 via MR.

Living constitution

Laurence Tribe throws a very slow pitch, and Alex Tabarrok hits it out of the park.

Uncle Bonsai at the Ark - April 30

Uncle Bonsai, the folk group I followed in college is coming to the Ark on April 30.

Now, the sad part is that Ashley, the member of the trio on whom I had a very large crush, has bowed out, replaced by someone else. But still, I'll be going.

Oh, they have a new "album" - showing my age there - too, the first in a decade. You can buy it on their web page.

The Obama as Preacher

A different and I think quite insightful take on the State of the Union address by Robert Nelson of the Independent Institute.

His closing paragraph:
Unlike some of our previous presidents, President Obama barely mentioned God by name in his State of the Union speech (only once in the closing obligatory line, “God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America”). But his speech was Christian and specifically Protestant through and through. That is the way it is with religion in America in the twenty-first century. In our secular age, our thinking is no less religious, but the most important forms of religion are now implicit and at least partially disguised.

Addendum: clever readers will note the pun in the title of the post.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Job market thoughts

I wrote six letters for graduate students on the market this year - five in economics and one in sociology. So far, two of the six have jobs and two more have offers.

It is an exciting time. I really enjoy watching my students see the payoff to their years of hard work. They enjoy having their income quintuple.

One suggestion to graduate student readers: when you take a job, send an email to your committee members .... they'd like to know.

On regulation of the financial sector

Some smart thoughts from Ken Troske.

I would put it very simply: when talking regulation, the key dimension is smart versus dumb rather than a lot versus a little. Design is everything and details matter.

Hat tip: well, Ken Troske, of course!

Snow days

Growing up in Seattle I do not recall ever having more than two snow days in a row. After that, it would always rain and the snow would go away.

In Ann Arbor, one of the few really butch aspects of the University of Michgian is its refusal to close no matter how much snow comes down, on the theory that most all of the students, and many of the faculty, live within walking distance of campus. I think we've had one "snow day" in the six years I've been here, and as I recall that was more about bitter cold than it was about snow.

Hat tip: Dann Millimet

Sarah Palin trademark follies

Is it good or bad that Sarah Palin (or her representatives) cannot fill in a government form correctly?

I did like this bit from the article:

Legal experts said it is relatively unusual for politicians to formally trademark their names because they are generally not associated with commercially valuable products or services.

I think one can translate as: politicians do not provide services that people will pay for voluntarily. Indeed.

And good job, I suppose, to Bristol Palin for making popular culture lemonade out of the lemon that is her peronsal life.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Assorted links

1. Borders' real estate choices. I too hope that the downtown Borders, across from the Michigan Theater, stays around. If it closes, I hope they find another bookstore to fill the space.

2. Chris Blattman with good answers to big questions.

3. Random exhibition title generator - excellent!

4. The Onion on the scourge of dinner party schools.

5. United States of Good Beer map.

#3 via Sue Dynarski on FB, as are #4 and #5. She must be avoiding working on something!

The science of hugs

A snippet on research on the duration of hugs, using video from the Olympics.

The thing that struck me about this was the mismatch between the theory and the test statistic. If it really is true that we all experience life in three second bursts, then all hugs should last some multiple of three hugs. The research as reported instead looks at the average. But the average could be three if half of all hugs lasted one second and half of all hugs last five seconds, in which case the theory would hold for no one.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Miniature wonderland

Model railroading was one of my many hobbies growing up. This layout is amazing!

Hat tip: Jackie Smith

Play: The War Since Eve

The current Performance Network (PN) offering is called The War Since Eve. It has just had its run extended for a couple more weeks.

Usually, we end up seeing PN plays towards the end of their runs, having rescheduled two or three times (something PN is remarkably patient with). This time, we saw the play early on, during previews. There were a few bumpy spots during the preview, such as a suitcase that kept tipping over, but I expect they have all been worked out by now.

The play itself is quite funny and pokes equally at feminists and non-feminists. I particularly enjoyed Leah Smith's performance as Milty, one of the two daughters of (imaginary) feminist icon Roxie Firestone, but all three actors were strong.

Reviews from the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Examiner and Encore Michigan.


The birthers make their (legislative) move

I have to say that this whole birther thing reminds me of the legalism of 12-year old boys playing Risk. Does no one among the birthers realize that the signal their machinations sends is "we don't think we can beat Obama in the marketplace of ideas, so we are doing this instead"?

I do like the bit about Hawaii proposing to charge $100 for copies of Obama's birth certificate. Why not balance the budget on the backs of the silly?

Addendum: I was stunned at the number of pop-ups at Mother Jones. I would have expected them to avoid such crass capitalist tools.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Assorted links

1. Interview with Eve Aronoff from Crain's Detroit Business.

2. New pants for the Mounties.

3. Linguistics at the Drug Enforcement Agency.

4. Woman attacked by toilet paper dispenser sues restaurant. Somewhat less biased version here.

5. The internet and the sex trade. The main surprise to me was how much of the business has moved to Facebook.

Some of these are older; I'm doing some inbox catch-up.

Hat tip on #2 to Christine Gribowski, on #3 to Daniel Marcin and on #4 to Charlie Brown.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Movie: True Grit

Great fun ... as one expects from the Coen Brothers. This one is not as grisly as I was expecting from all of the disclaimers. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue, though it is sometimes sophisticated enough that it approaches, and perhaps crosses, the boundary of realism. The NYT review does a nice job of fitting the movie into its social and film-historical contexts.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Lavatorial economics

Important (though not so recent) advances in the economics of toilet seats.

Here is the abstract:
This paper develops an economic analysis of the toilet seat etiquette, that is, whether the toilet seat should be left up or down. I investigate whether there is any efficiency justification for the presumption that men should leave the toilet seat down after use. I find that the “down rule” is inefficient unless there is a large degree of asymmetry in the inconvenience costs of shifting the position of the toilet seat across genders. I show that the selfish” or the “status quo” rule that leaves the toilet seat in the position used dominates the down rule in a wide range of parameter spaces including the case where the inconvenience costs are the same. The analysis can be applied to other shared facilities that can be customized to each user’s preference.
For those with access to such things, the paper was published in Economic Inquiry in 2010.

More TSA themed toys

From Europe comes the Playmobil Security Check Point.

The first customer comment is excellent:
I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger's shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger's scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said "that's the worst security ever!". But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital.

The best thing about this product is that it teaches kids about the realities of living in a high-surveillence society. My son said he wants the Playmobil Neighborhood Surveillence System set for Christmas. I've heard that the CC TV cameras on that thing are pretty worthless in terms of quality and motion detection, so I think I'll get him the Playmobil Abu-Gharib Interogation Set instead (it comes with a cute little memo from George Bush).
Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Assorted links

1. The Economist on the evolution of Europe's budget airlines and on travel website consolidation.

2. Ann Arbor (or, more precisely, a little town not far from Ann Arbor) gone wild!

3. The strange parallels between drinking and yoga - I laughed a lot.

4. Strategic scoring on the NY Regents exams, as uncovered by three of my friends.

5. Math without a license in North Carolina.

#3 via Eric Kiersky on FB, #5 via the Agitator.

History of kitchens

Megan McArdle takes advantage of a rare opportunity to issue stern rebuttals to both Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman in a single post.

Megan titles her post"The Economics of Kitchens" but the value-added is not the economics, it is the history. Using an old cookbook and memories of her mother and grandmother, she puts the reader in a 1950s kitchen in a way that neither Tyler nor Paul manage to do.

History is really powerful and that includes the social history that conservatives often mock and of which Megan's post is a small example.