Thursday, March 31, 2011

More things I thought I would never say

I agree with Jimmy Carter (?!?!?!) about the Cuba embargo.

Nanny of the month

I'd been hoping for a bit more change. This is an issue area where the Ds are supposed to be better than the Rs.

Assorted links

1. It is good to be Brady Hoke.

3. Deconstructing the John Taylor graph. Ooops. I was not quite clear on what I was supposed to learn from even the truncated time series.

5. A mighty apology at Britain's Sun tabloid.

Where are the female economist bloggers?

My graduate school colleague Matt Kahn has created a bit of blogospheric excitement by wondering at the absence of female bloggers among the top 1000 economists as rated by RePec based on quantitative measures of scholarly impact. We use RePEc citation count measures as part of our annual review process at Michigan's economics department. Here is some reaction from Matt Yglesias and here is some from UM alum EconomistMom.

I was all set to write a humorous, teasing sort of post on the theme that "increased female economist blogging begins at home" when I discovered that Matt's life partner (and also wife!), my graduate school colleague Dora Costa, was not, as I had expected, a couple of hundred places above Matt (he is #681) in the Repec ratings but, instead, does not even make the top 1000 (she is #1045).

Let me first consider why my expectation about the relative places of Dora and Matt on the list turned out to be wrong. While the list does not adjust for years as a professional economist, that is not the issue here. As I recall, Matt started Chicago's doctoral program just a year or two after Dora (who started two years after I did). Nor is the difference due to quality of writing; I think even Matt would agree that Dora is the better writer, a not surprising fact given that she is in a subfield, namely economic history, that rewards good writing more than most. I think the difference has, instead, to do with the relative size of the subfields that they work in; subfield size is well known to influence citation counts. Matt works in environmental and urban economics, both hot and growing subfields, while Dora works in economic history, which is a fairly small subfield these days, and also a subfield that has trouble making its way into the top general journals. Because of this, even though Dora would widely be perceived as being in the very top group of economic historians, she ends up with a lower RePEc rating than Matt. That's my explanation anyway which, if nothing else, helps to illustrate the commonplace that quantitative performance metrics such as those provided by RePEc require careful interpretation.

The reactions to the post raise some issues in the economics of the household. EconomistMom makes some heavily gendered remarks about men being clueless and about the heavy burdens of caring for others borne by many women. I think one of the commenters on EconomistMom (someone called Will Sawin) sums up my own response to her post pretty well:
You’re right. Your chosen leisure activities are morally superior to my chosen leisure time activity. I’ll remember to stop thinking ultimately useless but enjoyable and fulfilling thoughts and start having more ultimately useless but enjoyable and fulfilling relationships with other people.
An economist, even an economist mom, should not be forgetting that children are a durable consumption good that people choose to consume, not some sort of exogenous cosmic cross that they are forced to drag through life.

Finally, one is left with the burning question: who among the top 1000 is EconomistMom's ex-husband who does not like blogs? Inquiring minds want to know!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Miss America does ED

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gets valuable insights from noted education researcher Miss America.

Hat tip: Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach on Facebook

Harlot's dictionary

The Honest Courtesan defines terms. My favorite entry:
Swedish model: An insidious form of prohibitionism based upon the neofeminist premise that adult women are forever the equivalent of legal minors, neither able to consent to sex acts of which the state does not approve, nor held liable if they consent to those acts. Since men are fully competent adults, however, they are unilaterally liable just as they would be in statutory rape cases
Feminism should be about empowering women, not infantilizing them.

I also learned a new word, namely dysphemisms. How often does that happen when reading a blog?

P.J. O'Rourke on Amy Chua

P.J. dissects Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and offers up the warm alternative vision of the Irish Setter Dad.

Hat tip: Nat Wilcox on Facebook

Turkel House

The Agitator had a link to a piece about the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Turkel House (named after its first owner, as they always are) in Detroit.

I first thought, encouraged by this description at the Architizer, that it has been left to rot in some neighborhood gone bad, but in fact the owners just ran out of money, it sat empty for a while while being foreclosed, and was then bought by its current owners, who have poured in quite a lot of money - Wright was not actually very good at designing houses for those of modest means - to restore it to glory. I also found some photos from when it was on sale in 2006, prior to the repairs, as well as the website maintained by the current owners and an article from Detroit's Hour magazine about the house.

Expensive or not, it is a very cool house.

Addendum: Apparently it is more common to abandon Frank Lloyd Wright houses than I would have thought. Reader (and old friend) Scott points to the not dissimilar history of the Martin House in Buffalo.

Sports measurement

In my inbox this morning was this NYT piece on the effects of Barry Bonds' steroid use on the size and functioning of various body parts, as recounted by his ex-girlfriend.

I hope the resulting email trail is not the subject of a FOIA request by anyone other than the Bad Pun Appreciation Society.

No hat tip in case the snoops are watching but it wasn't Lars Skipper.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Advancing the debate, or scoring points?

I am not quite sure what the point of these email FOIAs is other than to score points in the day-to-day mudslinging of the red and blue teams. The Mackinac Center's time would be better spent on making the substantive case against public sector labor unions.

At the same time, the ultimate responsibility here, which seems to be missed in all the outrage, lies with the legislators who drafted FOIA laws that can be abused for fishing expeditions like this one.

Hat tip: Sue Dynarski on Facebook

Cheating in the DC schools ...

... and it is not by the students. This is not good for Michele Rhee and not good for DC.

I wonder if there are any other institutions in DC that might have inspired the teachers with the idea that in the face of a major problem, the best solution is to make up some performance measures, hand out bonuses, and move on?

Oddly absent from the article is the local teacher union, which is presumably eager to see those teachers who acted unprofessionally sacked both "for the children" and for its own reputation. Cough, cough.

Oh, and it is too bad that the Obama administration decided to shut down the evidence-based DC voucher program. That must have been "for the children" too. Cough, cough, cough, cough.

Hat tip: Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach on Facebook

Ann Arbor federal building

I've often walked by the ugly not-so-very-attractive federal building in downtown Ann Arbor and wondered, sometimes silently and sometimes aloud, what fine old buildings were torn down to make way for it. Here is the answer. I am sad.

At the same time, I think the post overstates in calling the federal building the ugliest in Ann Arbor. The apartment tower on South University takes that honor, in my view.

Monday, March 28, 2011


The Atlantic on a new book that uses the Terman data to study the determinants of longevity.

Quick taster:
But few appreciate the extent to which mental health and social health are the close companions of physical health. And few fully grasp the importance of developing the social patterns that let each individual find an appropriate way forward, step by step. This is why we emphasize both the uniqueness of each person and the common healthy behavioral patterns we uncovered. Each of us has to make our own way to long life.
Or not.

More pols at graduation

Michigan governor Rick Snyder has been selected to speak at Michigan's commencement this spring. As with President Obama, a couple of years ago, I think this is a bad idea. Politics embodies values that are the opposite of those of the university, and having a partisan speaker means alienating many of the students, parents and others in attendance at graduation, thereby likely reducing future donations to the university. I would much prefer either cultural figures appropriate to the university or, even better, faculty who are good speakers, as at Chicago.

Hash Bash

This weekend is the 40th annual "hash bash" in Ann Arbor. Yeah, the 60s really were a long time ago! has some further information and a little bit of histories, as well as a request for pictures.

My sense is that the event has been declining in recent years. It will be interesting to see if the advent of medical marijuana in Michigan perks things up a bit.

Economists misbehaving? Libya and Michael Porter

Economics Principals has a great article, with links to more.

I was surprised that Warsh did not contrast Porter's Libya activities with Milton Friedman's activities in Chile, which ended up bringing him a lot of grief, including protesters outside the Nobel ceremony.

Assorted links

1. Some thoughts on what gadgets to keep and what gadgets to let go.

2. Ernest Hemingway, yelper.

3. Gandhi gone wild. I don't think it diminishes his achievements to know that he was not perfect. No one is, after all.

5. Funny academic paper titles ... kwacha ganyu do?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Not only Libyans hire out their dissertations

The NYT has some well-deserved fun with the plagiarizing, and now disgraced, German defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

A tasty snippet:
Ms. Merkel [the German prime minister], a former academic married to a professor, was being accused of belittling intellectual property theft and, by implication, the value of an advanced degree, which is not a purely academic matter in this country. Many jobs require such degrees in Germany, where, as is not the case in America, calling oneself doctor for having completed a thesis in, say, political science or art history, is not embarrassing but normal, even when filling out Lufthansa’s online booking forms. (The airline generously provides three levels of academic achievement for its overachieving countrymen: doctor, professor and professor doctor, skipping the extremely rare but not unheard-of German mouthful Herr Professor Doctor Doctor).

At the same time, however, Mr. Guttenberg’s troubles thrust into embarrassing national relief the dirty secret that to gain such credentials, many Germans, well-connected ones anyway, apparently cut corners or worse, and universities often look the other way. The minister couldn’t admit to having farmed out his dissertation, because that’s literally a crime here, but he was generally suspected of having hired someone to write the work for him (how else to explain why he seemed so blithely oblivious to the contents of his own thesis?). And to add insult to injury, his advisers had even awarded him a rank of “summa cum laude” (“Summa cum fraude” was another of those protesters’ placards), notwithstanding that the thesis seems to have poached material from one of those very advisers.
Read the whole thing says Herr Prof. Schmidt, Ph.D.

Disclaimer: Jessica Goldberg did have something to do with this post.

Sales taxes on online purchases

A nice summary from Yahoo of the current state of play at the state level in regarding to taxing online purchases.

The simple public finance of the matter, of course, would have the taxes apply to online purchases in order to avoid the distortion associated with applying the tax to some sellers but not all.

A similar line of argument works against state laws that apply different sales tax rates to different goods. Perhaps the feds could pass a law allowing state collection of sales taxes for online purchases but only if they apply their sales tax equally to all purchases of whatever product from whatever seller.

Laundering studies

A nice piece from EduWonk on how studies get "laundered" when some credulous / differentially not competent person at NYT or WaPo is unable to sort out, and ignore (or even, perish the thought, call out) bad studies, which then become reputable because they have been discussed in a major newspaper.

The discussion of achieving "mixed evidence" by vote counting in which weak studies receive the same weight as strong ones is also useful.

EduWonk presents the issues in terms of the literature and policy discussion surrounding Teach for America, but the same issues apply in nearly every area of policy-related empirical work. They result from a combination of advocacy groups producing output that looks like scholarly research but is not with newspaper reporters, columnists, bloggers and others who lack the quantitative skills and context knowledge required to correctly weigh the evidence.

Assorted links

1. Update on former UW quarterback Cody Pickett.

2. More on the Michigan professor whose child was seized by Michigan's child protective services when he mistakenly ordered his son a Mike's Hard Lemonade.

4. Sometimes technology is not a panacea but instead just a way to waste the taxpayers' money.

5. Thoughts on how to make money. There is some reasonable stuff here, though it is much more applicable to some industries than others. Someone needs to run the firm that makes ball bearings, even though the set of people for which this constitutes doing what you love may be small. Oh, and it is hard to bootstrap your way into a large factory.

Hat tip on #4 to Lars Skipper.

UM Next Gen IT

I am generally suspicious of the centralization of IT services - partly as a result of negative experiences with it at UWO when IT moved from the department to the faculty level, but most of what Michigan is undertaking as part of its Next Gen initiative seems like reasonable responses to recent developments in technology.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Teasing the sociologists

Writing the previous post, it struck that I have never linked on the blog to what is surely my most widely read piece of writing.

Some of the sociology phrases, such as "non-normative family arrangements" are drawn directly from the demography seminar at Chicago, which I would often attend in my pre-Heckman graduate student days.

When I was at the University of Maastricht a few years ago for a seminar visit, one of the people I met with was a sociologist. She had read the phrase book!


Addendum: the phrase book was written in the late 1980s. The reference to getting engaged to a sociologist was a reference to my co-author, Kermit Daniel, who was at the time in fact engaged to a sociologist.

ASA follies

No need for me to tease the sociologists, or more precisely their professional association, when the nice folks at orgtheory do it so well.

Lanny Friedlander, RIP

A fine obituary from Nick Gillespie of the original founder of reason magazine.

I had no idea Nick has a sentimental side.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Assorted links

1. Ken Troske and friends on TARP.

2. Cool photos of lonely Chicago buildings.

3. The rise of on-line romance. The length-biased sampling mentioned in the post is not the only issue; there also seems to be some confusion about what it means for a search method to be "effective". Also missing is any mention of the fact that some people may not be looking for a long-term partner, or may be choosing their search methods with both long- and short-term partners in mind. But the descriptives are interesting.

4. David Brooks parodies from U of Chicago magazine. These are funny even if you are not a regular David Brooks reader, as I am not, as they parody a general style of punditry.

5. Dierdre McCloskey on economic development (oh, and her new book too).

Humor from my inbox


This is dedicated to everyone who ever attempted to get into a regular workout routine.

Dear Diary,

For Christmas this year, I purchased a week of personal training at the local health club. Although I am still in great shape since being a high school football cheerleader 43 years ago, I decided it would be a good idea to go ahead and give it a try. I called the club and made my reservations with a personal trainer named Christo, who identified himself as a 26-year-old aerobics instructor and model for athletic clothing and swim wear. Friends seemed pleased with my enthusiasm to get started! The club encouraged me to keep a diary to chart my progress.


Started my day at 6:00 am. Tough to get out of bed, but found it was well worth it when I arrived at the health club to find Christo waiting for me. He is something of a Greek god-- with blond hair, dancing eyes, and a dazzling white smile. Woo Hoo!! Christo gave me a tour and showed me the machines.. I enjoyed watching the skillful way in which he conducted his aerobics class after my workout today. Very inspiring! Christo was encouraging as I did my sit-ups, although my gut was already aching from holding it in the whole time he was around.

This is going to be a FANTASTIC week!!


I drank a whole pot of coffee, but I finally made it out the door. Christo made me lie on my back and push a heavy iron bar into the air then he put weights on it! My legs were a little wobbly on the treadmill, but I made the full mile. His rewarding smile made it all worthwhile. I feel GREAT! It's a whole new life for me.


The only way I can brush my teeth is by laying the toothbrush on the counter and moving my mouth back and forth over it. I believe I have a hernia in both pectorals. Driving was OK as long as I didn't try to steer or stop. I parked on top of a GEO in the club parking lot. Christo was impatient with me, insisting that my screams bothered other club members. His voice is a little too perky for that early in the morning and when he scolds, he gets this nasally whine that is VERY annoying. My chest hurt when I got on the treadmill, so Christo put me on the stair monster. Why the hell would anyone invent a machine to simulate an activity rendered obsolete by elevators? Christo told me it would help me get in shape and enjoy life. He said some other shit too.


Asshole was waiting for me with his vampire-like teeth exposed as his thin, cruel lips were pulled back in a full snarl. I couldn't help being a half an hour late-- it took me that long to tie my shoes. He took me to work out with dumbbells. When he was not looking, I ran and hid in the restroom. He sent some skinny bitch to find me.
Then, as punishment, he put me on the rowing machine--which I sank.


I hate that bastard Christo more than any human being has ever hated any other human being in the history of the world. Stupid, skinny, anemic, anorexic, little aerobic instructor. If there was a part of my body I could move without unbearable pain, I would beat him with it. Christo wanted me to work on my triceps. I don't have any triceps! And if you don't want dents in the floor, don't hand me the damn barbells or anything that weighs more than a sandwich. The treadmill flung me off and I landed on a health and nutrition teacher. Why couldn't it have been someone softer, like the drama coach or the choir director?


Satan left a message on my answering machine in his grating, shrilly voice wondering why I did not show up today. Just hearing his voice made me want to smash the machine with my planner; however, I lacked the strength to even use the TV remote and ended up catching eleven straight hours of the Weather Channel..


I'm having the Church van pick me up for services today so I can go and thank GOD that this week is over. I will also pray that next year my husband will choose a gift for me that is fun--like a root canal or a hysterectomy. I still say if God had wanted me to bend over, he would have sprinkled the floor with diamonds!!!

Hat tip: Jackie Smith

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happy 80th William Shatner

Hat tip: Nat Wilcox

Scariest thing I learned today

There is a Justin Bieber video on youtube with 493,775, 457 views.

Libya cost/benefit

I watched a fair amount of Libya coverage with my father-in-law on Saturday, including BBC, CBC and CNN. I kept wondering why no one was talking about the cost of the war and thinking about it in cost-benefit terms. Wars that are completely voluntarily should be thought about in exactly those terms. Think how much nicer it would be to use the money we will spend on this adventure to pay down the national debt, or to reduce taxes or to provide public goods. Instead, we distract ourselves from the unhappiness of necessary domestic budget cutting with some expensive boom-boom, as though the country were being run by seven-year-olds.

Pricing at Harold's

It makes me happy that Steve Levitt still goes to Harold's Chicken Shack despite being a bazillionaire. While I spend my time waiting at Harold's keeping a close eye on my property, Steve spends his time trying to sort out the pricing scheme. Presumably a follow-up post will attempt to explain why the workers at Harold's are so damn slow. But the chicken ... let's just say I arrange my travel plans specially to make sure I get to Harold's whenever I am in Hyde Park.

Assorted links

1. Revenge of the nerds: a fine piece on sports analytics from the Boston Globe.

2. Mankiw cuts Tiger Woods from his textbook. Thought question: would sales of his textbook go up or down, on net, if Greg made it marginally more salacious? Separate question: would the average number of pages read by student purchasers increase or decrease?

3. A very nice piece from the Economist's DIA blog on the Founding Fathers (of the US) and religion. They were not all deists and they were not all evangelicals, despite what the left and right, respectively, like to claim. And whatever happened to deism, anyway?

4.The Honest Courtesan on deflowering customers. The first comment is pretty moving and again illustrates the social worker role that sex workers sometimes play.

5. On the failures of economic journalists. The last one is truly quixotic.

On Libya - will the third Mideast war be the charm?

I never thought I would type the words "I agree with Josh Marshall", as he has always struck me as a snarky, close-minded ideologue who cares way too much about the daily combat of talking points inside the beltway and too little about economics and empirical evidence. But today, I do.

Here are his closing paragraphs:
So let's review: No clear national or even humanitarian interest for military intervention. Intervening well past the point where our intervention can have a decisive effect. And finally, intervening under circumstances in which the reviled autocrat seems to hold the strategic initiative against us. This all strikes me as a very bad footing to go in on.

And this doesn't even get us to this being the third concurrent war in a Muslim nation and the second in an Arab one. Or the fact that the controversial baggage from those two wars we carry into this one, taking ownership of it, introducing a layer of 'The West versus lands of Islam' drama to this basically domestic situation and giving Qaddafi himself or perhaps one of his sons the ability to actually start mobiliz[ing] some public or international opinion against us.

I can imagine many of the criticisms of the points I've made. And listening to them I think I'd find myself agreeing in general with a lot of it. But it strikes me as a mess, poorly conceived, ginned up by folks with their own weird agendas, carried out at a point well past the point that it was going to accomplish anything. Just all really bad.
I know that Qaddafi has assembled a human shield, but the loss-of-life minimizing policy might still be to simply take him out (along with his sons). Presumably whoever steps into the power vacuum thus created will be both more sane and inclined to act in ways that would avoid a similar fate.

Via: MR

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lascivious memories from U of Chicago

From the U of Chicago alumni magazine letters section:
Lascivious memories, please

Kristen Schilt, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, and I, a graduate student, are seeking alumni who attended or chose not to attend the Lascivious Costume Ball between 1969 and 1984 to participate in interviews about their experiences.

The interview will cover your experiences with the Lascivious Costume Ball, including your reasons for attending or not attending. Additionally, you will be asked to reflect on what the event meant to you, what the event was like, the role you feel it played (or didn’t) in the College community, and your opinions on public perceptions of the event. You must be an alumna/alumnus of the University of Chicago, and you must be familiar with the Lascivious Costume Ball as it was between 1969 and 1984 to participate in the study. For further information, please contact Celene Reynolds at celene.reynolds [at] [...].

Celene Reynolds
Some thoughts:

1. I'm still bummed that the LCB died the year before I arrived at Chicago.

2. This research sounds like fun. Might yield NIH funding too if the health aspects were appropriately highlighted in the proposal.

College men's hoops

I missed both Washington versus North Carolina and Michigan versus Duke yesterday driving back from Toronto. Both were, it sounds like, great games. And both came up just barely on the wrong side. And both suggest better things to come next year.

On sibling fixed effects ...

An interesting abstract:

"Long Term Effects of Health Investments and Parental Favoritism: The Case of Breastfeeding"

JASON M. FLETCHER, Yale University - School of Public Health

This paper re-examines the effects of breastfeeding on long term educational outcomes using longitudinal data on siblings. While family fixed effects allow controls for all shared family factors, these estimators are sensitive to compensating or reinforcing behaviors by parents. These biases may be particularly important for estimating the effects of parental investment such as breast feeding, where sibling discordance may be difficult to treat as a random outcome and may result in persistence in differential investments between siblings.

This paper uses a unique question asked to adolescent siblings about parental favoritism to adjust for potential reinforcing behavior by parents. Standard fixed effects estimates suggest important long term educational effects of breastfeeding, however these effects are uniformly eliminated after focusing on families who treat siblings equally. These findings shed light on the mechanisms linking associations between breastfeeding and longer term outcomes.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Assorted links

1. The Atlantic on (successful) interrogation without torture.

2. An edgy (offensive?) public health message from Britain's National Health Service.

3. Reasons not to live in NYC, #937493.

4. Robert Barro on trade unions. Unions are many things, some good and some bad; it is useful to remember that one of those things is cartels.

5. The Honest Courtesan on breast enlargement. This sort of surgery is not generally something I am a fan of, but this piece makes the strongest positive case I have seen. The story in the last three paragraphs is the best bit. Mildly NSFW due to one picture of actual human breasts. It is not my fault if you view them and turn into a wicked hedonist.

8. Robots invade online poker games. Why not let them play as long as they are clearly labelled?

Book: Let the Swords Encircle Me

Let the Swords Encircle Me is a long (over 600 pages) journalistic tour through the recent history of Iran. I found it both engaging and enlightening. It is written by Scott Peterson, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and frequent visitor to Iran.

The book is very much journalism and not social science (and, more specifically, not academic history nor academic sociology). The book brims with richly described characters and environments. But the social scientist in me was occasionally frustrated by what I think of as the denominator problem: I wanted to know what fraction of the population shared the views of one or another of the characters in the book. Scott does an excellent job of drawing in characters from all parts of Iranian society; indeed, the strongest part of the book may be the spiritual sympathy he brings to the many sincere fundamentalist Muslims he interviews. More broadly, Scott does an amazing job of keeping himself out of the book in the sense that he lets the characters speak for themselves, and generally confines himself to providing context, though this detachment fades a bit in the final chapters regarding the crackdown after Ahmadinejad's fraudulent reelection.

I found three reviews: one from Salon, one from the WaPo and one from the Dallas Morning News. I thought the one from Salon captured the book the best; here is a tidbit:
There's a Tolstoyan panorama to "Let the Swords Encircle Me" that's likely to have readers checking the newspaper each day in a fever to find out what happens next. The main character is Iran itself: beautiful yet terrible, neither the paragon its jingoistic leaders declare it to be nor the demon thundered about by our own hard-liners, but human, flawed and hanging on to the elusive, but tantalizing possibility of redemption.
This bit from the Dallas Morning News also captures the flavor well:
From sweaty political rallies in dusty provincial mosques, to vast cemeteries dedicated to Iran's war dead, from the tea and macaroons of government offices, to the private thoughts of a necessarily very private people, Peterson brings a living, breathing, all-too human Iran into the reader's hands, and one emerges with a sense of having gained intimate knowledge of, and compassion for, a place too often treated as inscrutable.
The parts I enjoyed the most were those on the Iran-Iraq war, which I have never known very much about (other than Kissinger's famous quip about wanting both sides to lose). Also new to me was Ahmadinejad's focus on, and apparent sincere belief in, the immanent return of the Mahdi. A whole Mahdi industry has arisen in Iran in recent years thanks to generous government support. I came away from the book with an improved (from a very low base) opinion of Khomeni, the cleric behind the 1979 Islamic revolution, and a much reduced opinion of Khameni, his successor as Iran's clerical leader. A recurring, and for me surprising, theme throughout concerns how both the fundamentalists and the liberals make frequent use of texts and symbols from the 1979 revolution. Finally, the book reinforced my belief that modernity is really challenging for many, whether in the west or in the Islamic world. Modernity is not the only axis along which to think about the stark social and cultural divisions within Iran but it is surely an important one.

Highly recommended.

Full disclosure: (way) back in the day Scott and I attended the same Sunday school (!) and his parents were good friends with my parents.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


A very useful chart on radiation does from xkcd which, of course, is usually a funny comic about life as a gradual student.

Health effects of health insurance

The result noted by Ezra Klein in his column is actually pretty well known in the literature. If Obamacare survives the court challenges, I think there will be a lot of surprise among non-specialists when it turns out not to affect health outcomes very much. Behavior, such as eating, exercising, smoking, sleeping and stress, along with public health measures related to things like clean water and safe food, actually matter a lot more.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Meaningless statistic increases

Someday perhaps someone will explain to me why anyone should pay attention to life expectancy numbers based on synthetic cohort assumptions. Under the synthetic cohort assumption, it is assumed that the mortality behavior of people born today can be well approximated by the mortality behavior of people who are old today. This is ludicrous. It ignores all technical change in health care as well as the major behavioral changes that we know exist across cohorts due to, for example, changes in BMI and in smoking. How can these numbers do other than mislead?

Assorted links

1. My candidate for potential causes of the Great Stagnation.

4. Some folks in Madison did not get the memo about the new civility.

5. A P.J. O'Rourke piece from last year on the plague of "A" students.

Hat tip on #3 to Charlie Brown.

From Michigan skit night

I liked this the best of all the bits at skit night.

Economics Department Wall, U of Chicago

Brother Lones sends this horrifying historical artifact, which you can view in person on some wall in the economics department at Chicago.

Looking up some of the folks in the picture that I hung out with, I find Karl Snow, Dave Surdham and Kei-Mu Yi.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Assorted links

1. Ed Glaeser on Seattle.

2. Unions and inequality in Canada fail to fit the narrative. But then, maybe it is just accounting changes in response to tax changes that underlie the narrative in the first place.

4. Fake callers on talk radio. The puzzle here is the upset in the article. These shows are entertainment, not debating societies.

US Snooze grad program rankings

UM remains at #12 overall and #6 in labor economics.
Go Blue!

Addendum: UM graduate student Jason Kerwin notes in the comments that the economics ratings have, in fact, not been updated this year, only those for some other disciplines, as described in the UM Record Update item that led me to the US news page. This explains, of course, the high serial correlation!

Artists and politics

Start with this fine piece from Nick Gillespie about artists caught up with Qaddafi, which features this astounding quotation:
I don’t think either the L.A. Times' scolding or Sting's inflated sense of his own diplomatic powers really applies. On this matter I agree with Hitler. When news surfaced that some of his favorite artists had signed a communist pamphlet, the easygoing Führer waved the matter off, saying, “I don't take any of that seriously. We should never judge artists by their political views. The imagination they need for their work deprives them of the ability to think in realistic terms. Artists are simple-hearted souls. Today they sign this, tomorrow that; they don't even look to see what it is, so long as it seems to them well-meaning.”
Completely unrelated is this interview with Jeff Daniels on film subsidies (and other topics). The faith he and the interviewer share in the Ernst & Young study is charmingly naive. Indeed, a take-down of the E & Y study would make a nice short paper for someone in public finance. [Just to be clear, I think in general Jeff Daniels is a good guy and deserves praise for his work in Michigan; he just shouldn't be opining on economics.]

This older piece by Nick on artists kissing the bottom of The One is worth reading as well.

Tsunami in Santa Cruz, dude

I'm not going to post any real disaster porn because I find it rather morbid but the narration on this video by an articulate young Californian allows it in under the humor heading.

Hat tip: Sue Dynarski on FB

Flagships sailing away

A piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education and one from on flagship state universities weakening the ties between themselves and their states.

My sense is that, conditional on funding level, looser connections are best. Michigan gets one check from the state legislature; at Maryland, everyone's salary was a line item on the state budget. Michigan is better off, and not just in the sense of fewer resources wasted on administrivia. Michigan plays a game each year in which it tries to raise tuition (so that it can better price discriminate between well-off and less well-off students) and to raise the fraction of out-of-state students, who pay Ivy League tuitions to come here while the state legislature tries to prevent us from doing either of those things by making threats about the university's budget allocation.

Full privatization would be amazing though the transition would be bumpy and there are tough issues regarding all the property and buildings associated with the university to be sorted out. Probably best to think about privatization in good times when a special "If you love them, set them free" fund-raising campaign could be undertaken.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Assorted links

1. Making the case for public subsidies to doctoral students.

2. Busted by your teacher on Facebook. Too bad the (math) teacher does not know about "you're" and "your" being different.

3. A negative review of the amateur restaurant reviewers on Yelp!

4. Newt gets all tangled up and ends up claiming he had his affair because of his love of America.

5. A very funny, and very pointed, Economist piece on buying respectability.

6. Happy belated 80th birthday to Gary Becker.

8. A ranking of the nerdiest cities in America from Ann Arbor does "well". Who knew?

Hat tip on #4 to Charlie Brown.

Wealth distributions

So this is from Mother Jones, via a lefty academic friend on Facebook.

The trick, of course, is that the total amount of wealth is implicitly, by keeping the bars the same length, and incorrectly, held constant under the three distributions. One wonders, of course, if the underlying survey questions prompted the respondents to consider this elasticity in formulating their responses. I would guess that they did not.

Ah ... the picture is too large, and I do not know how to make it smaller. Here is a link to the full picture.

Addendum: another interesting and not unrelated exercise would ask about the distributions of responses to happiness survey questions as a function of wealth or income. I suspect that the general public is ill-informed about the shape of that distribution as well.

Addendum2: too large picture replaced with smaller picture. Hat tip to Maggie McNeill

Huskies men's basketball wins Pac-10 tournament ...

... on a last second shot by Isaiah Thomas.

If they can string together a bunch of their good days, they will go far into the tournament, but this is a team with a variance.

Board wargaming

This video, which brings back a lot of memories for me, may be the nerdiest thing I have ever seen in my entire life. Board wargaming was my hobby of choice in 8th and 9th grades. I still have a big stack of games in a closet downstairs, the vast majority made by Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), the company featured in the video. Every Saturday night my very indulgent parents would drive me (and often one or two of my friends) down to Heritage Bookshop in Renton - long since closed - to spend the evening playing these games, with a side trip at some point to Jack in the Box to get some food.

Wasted youth ....


I've read a bunch of pieces about privatizing NPR/PBS. This one by Matt Welch is the best of the lot.

Like Matt, I enjoy NPR and I do so on two levels. First, I find their coverage of music and culture more broadly to be quite good. I enjoy the interviews with musicians and other artists, as well as the classical music (during the day) and the jazz (during the evening) that one of the local public radio stations broadcasts. Second, I enjoy the news part of NPR for the same reason that I enjoy watching Fox News in the morning when I am in hotels: I like to deconstruct how they craft and present the news both to further their ideological ends and to pander to the egos of their consumers. Both NPR and Fox are really good at this!

I am quite confident that both NPR and PBS will persist without federal funding. And I am genuinely puzzled that people on the left think it is a good idea to have the federal government fund cultural amenities for the well-off (thus moving money, on average, up rather than down the income distribution) or that it is a good idea, in a free society, to have government-run media organizations at all.

I am disappointed in those who make arguments along the lines that Sesame Street will disappear if federal funding goes away. This is obviously false given the strong demand for Sesame Street; even if PBS did go away, and I do not think there is much chance of this, the more successful shows such as Sesame Street would quickly find homes elsewhere. So, those making arguments like this either are really, really lost when it comes to basic economics (not entirely implausible in this context) or simply lying.

Finally, this post gives me a chance to tell my very favorite NPR story ever. This was back when I was in college and the right was referring to NPR as the "Voice of Nicaragua". I was in a used bookstore on Capitol Hill in Seattle - long since closed sad to say - and they had NPR on in the background. It was Sunday evening and they were reading letters from listeners. The letter that has stayed with me all these years criticized NPR for their coverage of some Soviet news event the week before, arguing that they had been "too hard on Stalin."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Let reality TV inspire your research agenda

From: []
Sent: Wednesday, March 09, 2011 5:21 PM
Subject: Seeking Graduate Economics Student to Conduct Study

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Anna and I am the Internet & Marketing Director for Bobby Goldstein Productions, the production company behind the television show "Cheaters." I would appreciate it if you could please forward this email to any students and/or graduates that would be interested in a work opportunity. The details are below:

We are currently seeking a Master's level or higher student or graduate to conduct and write a study on the effects of infidelity on the GDP. There has not been a study conducted on this subject (that we are aware of) to date.

This position would be a contract position. Compensation would depend on experience.

A little information about Bobby Goldstein Productions, we are an independent television and film production company. We are most well-known for our reality show "Cheaters." Cheaters is syndicated in over 190 domestic markets and over 180 international markets. We are nearing the end of our 11th season and will be back for our 12th season.

Please send resumes to If you have any questions at all, please feel free to contact me. Thank you very much.


Anna Lee
Internet & Marketing Director
Bobby Goldstein Productions (Cheaters(r))
4516 Lovers Lane #104
Dallas, TX 75225
(214) 526.8830 ext. 303
(214) 526.8834 Fax

Bleeding heart libertarians

That is a term I have sometimes used to describe myself. I've added the blog by the same title to the blogroll on the right.

Assorted links

1. Maybe they will change the name to the Sleazy Exchange Commission. Happily, the report focuses on misbehavior by lawyers rather than economists.

3. Sweden does away with postage stamps ... but what about all that lost revenue from selling mint stamps to collectors that no one will ever use?

5. Andrew Gelman on partisan politics and plain old politics in research. Many of the main divisions in economics such as Keynesian versus real biz cycles and experiments versus structural models do not correspond in any clean way to partisan political divisions, which I think is good.

6. A very short Newsweek interview with Larry Summers featuring some excellent one-liners.

7. National Review interview with Tyler Cowen.

Skit night

Congratulations to our gradual students for a most excellent skit night.

Notable bits:

First ever participation by the Masters in Applied Economics (MAE) students, who did a skit about feeling left out.

Despite having "defected to Wisconsin" Lones Smith (no relation other than that we both went to Chicago) still received more attention overall than any other faculty member. How long can that last?

Incoming chair Joel Slemrod dressed up as an Italian opera singer.

Flowers and a standing ovation for outgoing chair Linda Tesar, who has truly had a year from hell.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The dark side of for-profit higher education

Felix Salmon on Bridgeport education.

Not good stuff, but shouldn't most of the blame for stupid incentives land on those who design them, rather than those who optimize relative to them?

Put differently, the solution here is not to hope for a world of better people to be achieved by mocking those who misbehave; rather, it is to design a system that minimizes the incentives for regular people to engage in bad behavior.

Hat tip: Oscar Mitnik

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Assorted links

1. What sociology needs more of. I like the unapologetic stance of the orgtheory folks.

2. A not-bad David Leonhardt post on higher education.

3. MR points to a cool study of the overall effects of school report cards by Simon Burgess and colleagues.

4. A Facebook application that encourages "trading up"

5. Another seminal contribution.

Economists, left and not left

Tyler Cowen provides lists of mistakes of left and non-left economists. I think he is pretty much on target throughout. My favorite was this one, from the left list:
12. Implicitly constructing a two-stage moral theory, which first cordons off the sphere of the nation-state (public goods provision, etc.) and then pushing cosmopolitan questions off the agenda in the interests of expanding a social welfare state. (In fairness, many individuals on the right don't give cosmopolitan considerations even this much consideration, although right-oriented economists tend to be quite cosmopolitan.)
I'd like to add some additional differences between left and non-left economists:

1. Left economists tend to think the marginal social cost of public funds (the direct and indirect cost of raising a dollar of tax revenue with a distortionary tax system) is very low while non-left economists think it is very high.

2. Left economists tend to think all behavioral elasticities related to taxes and transfers are very small while non-left economists think they are very large. Tyler's item about non-left economists and the effects of marginal tax rates is a special case of the more general rule, which also shows up in discussions of transfer programs.

3. Left economists tend to approach unions morally rather than analytically. So do non-left economists, but the morals are different.

4. Left economists focus on the bits of psychology that suggest market failures and bolster the case for government intervention while paying less attention to the bits of psychology that do the reverse. Non-left economists focus on the bits of psychology that suggest government failure and bolster the case for markets while paying less attention to the bits of psychology that do the reverse.

I would also argue that there are some areas where all economists do poorly:

1. Taking account of the implications of mass domestic imprisonment for US labor markets and for other outcomes among the disadvantaged.

2. Explaining why such a high fraction of low-skill Western Europeans work despite the availability of relatively attractive transfers.

Seville Beach Hotel

The most interesting thing we saw walking along the beach in Miami was the Seville Beach Hotel, which has been closed (surprisingly given the value of the real estate that it sits on) for over five years. I poked around a bit trying to find pictures from someone who had climbed the fence and gone inside but came up empty so my external pictures will have to do. Pictures of the hotel in better days from Tripadvisor here and news on its future here.


I've added the blog MethodLogical to the blog roll. It is a development economics blog that includes one of our gradual students as a co-conspirator.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Club Michigan

As the picture in an earlier post indicates, I wore a Michigan t-shirt for our walk around South Beach in Miami on Saturday. After all, they are always and everywhere in style!

While walking around, not one but two different people, one on a bike and one on foot, smiled and said "Go Blue!" as they went past.

We dined at a very nice open air restaurant called the Cafe at Books & Books. The manager there turned out to have a sibling who teaches at Michigan, so we had a long and enjoyable chat about life in Miami versus life in the Midwest. We were even treated to free carrot cake.

I've had similar things happen elsewhere. I was sitting in an airport in Germany one time, again wearing a Michigan t-shirt, and had a very nice older gentleman start a conversation about how much he enjoyed his undergraduate days at Michigan.

It is fun to be a part of an enterprise that so many people identify with in such positive ways.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Assorted links

1. When I saw the title, I assumed the flight attendant was trying to reduce the noise and disruption for other passengers, an aim to which I am often sympathetic.

2. You've been missing the Village People, haven't you?

3. Glad to learn that the Chinese may be driving up the value of my youthful stamp collection. I do wonder what happens to philately when regular mail disappears, as I think it will, other than packages, in my lifetime.

4. I think the interesting thing here is why people who want to philander don't maintain multiple Facebook accounts.

5. An ethnographic taster that looks at call center workers in India.

Responses to negative academic book reviews

One possible response is to sue for libel in France.

Thankfully, the French court got this one right.

World's coolest parking garage?

On Saturday after my seminar at Miami, my wife and I drove our rental car to South Beach and spent the late afternoon and early evening walking around looking at the Art Deco architecture, the beautiful people, and the beach.

The parking garage where I parked the rental car, 1111 Lincoln Road, is surely the coolest parking garage I have ever parked in, and attracts many high quality parkers. Above is a picture of me standing next to the Lamborghini that I parked next to. As we walked down the stairs within the garage, which is not all that large, we also saw a Porsche, a Jag and multiple BMWs, Mercedes and Lexi.

Also within the garage is a trendy boutique called Alchemist that appears to sell only white, gray and black cocktail dresses, for those, I guess, who forgot to shop for their evening out before leaving the house.

U of Miami

I gave a seminar at the University of Miami on Friday and had a delightful time. Thanks to everyone there for a very enjoyable visit, some good comments on my paper and useful discussions.

My seminar took place in the Bernie Kosar classroom, pictured above.


I got an email today informing me that I have achieved "Million Miler" status at Delta. That means I have flown over 1,000,000 miles on a combination of Delta and Northwest. These are "real" miles that do not include miles from credit cards and the like.

That puts me ahead of the George Clooney character in Up In the Air.

I even get a free gift and, apparently, silver elite status forever.


More on the American Sociological Association

Crooked Timber focuses on the ASA's lack of financial transparency.

Like CT I have always found it amusing that the economics job market is so much better institutionalized than those in sociology and political science. One possible explanation is just that economists have a better understanding of Coase's theory of the firm and so have a better sense of which activities should be inside institutions and which things should be outside institutions.

An alternative explanation is that, due to their higher value of time (the implication of higher salaries), economists may be less likely to spend time fighting over trivia, which may make organizing a market easier. An interesting study would examine the amount of time faculty in different disciplines spend in department meetings, conditional on department size and the age distribution of faculty. One would expect a negative relationship with average salaries.

A third explanation is that economists do a lot more hiring than sociology and political science, which means that it is easier to justify the fixed costs of both setting up and operating the job market institutions.

Motivating subscribers

The current regular mail reason subscription pitch begins as follows:
Remember a few years ago when you were sitting in class in front of that professor with the over-inflated ego -- who didn't have a clue what he was talking about and wouldn't shut up? ...
What do we learn from this? Some thoughts:

1) Reason thinks there are some professors without over-inflated egos! That's almost certainly too generous, particularly if you condition on having tenure.

2) Reason thinks all professors are men, or that only the male ones don't know what they are talking about or that only the male ones won't shut up. I only add this bit because they claim later on in the letter to be "a cool read" and "not your father's political magazine". Male pronouns are a conservative hobbyhorse, not a libertarian one, and I think even the conservatives have given up on it.

3) Reason sends subscription letters even to people who have been subscribing for 28 years. Turns out it is cheaper to do this than to run a check for duplicate addresses, or so I was told back in my reason intern days. I would have thought that reductions in computer costs would have changed that calculation, but at bulk mail rates, maybe not.

Full disclosure: I feel at liberty to tease reason because I give them money and was their summer intern for two years back in the 1980s.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The non-market time of the poor and cost-benefit analysis

I just learned about a new paper yesterday that makes a point that I think is quite important. Here is the abstract:
Benefit–cost analysis is used extensively in the evaluation of social programs. Often, the success or failure of these programs is judged on the basis of whether the calculated net benefits to society are positive or negative. Almost all existing benefit–cost studies of social programs count entire increases in income accruing to participants in a social program as net benefits to society. However, economic theory implies that the conceptually appropriate measure of the impact of a government program on any group of individuals is the net change in their surplus (or economic rent), rather than the net change in their income. For example, if a social program causes increases in income by increasing work hours, then the lost nonmarket time that accompanies these increases has value that needs to be counted as a cost when assessing the merits of that program. In this paper, we develop a methodology for incorporating lost nonmarket time into benefit–cost analyses of social programs. We apply our methodology to the Self-Sufficiency Project (SSP), an experimental welfare-to-work program tested on a pilot basis in two provinces in Canada during the 1990s. We find that if losses in nonmarket time are ignored, SSP yields a substantial positive net benefit to society. However, if losses in nonmarket time are taken into account, the net societal benefits are greatly reduced, even becoming negative in certain instances. We conclude that future benefit–cost analyses of social programs must take effects on nonmarket time into account in order to give a more accurate picture of the net benefits of the program.
The full citation is:

Greenberg, David and Philip Robins. 2008. Incorporating Non-market Time into Benefit-Cost Analyses of Social Programs: An Application to the Self-Sufficiency Project. Journal of Public Economics 92(3-4): 766-794.

You can find a gated version here.

Valuing the non-market time of the poor means taking the economics seriously in doing the cost-benefit analysis, but it also means that fewer programs will pass cost-benefit tests.

Improving teaching ratings at Northwestern

An NU psychology professor tries something I had not thought of to create student interest. I bet attendance was way up for the next few classes.

More seriously, I am rather disappointed by the censorious tone of the Newsweek piece. Why not seriously engage with this? Both the display itself and the various reactions are social phenomena worthy of study as is human sexuality more broadly.

Hat tip: Ed Vytlacil on FB

Addendum: A quote from a student in the MSNBC coverage:
"It is probably something I will remember the rest of my life," Smith, a 21-year-old senior, told the Tribune. "I can't say that about my Econ 202 class and the material that I learned there."
Hat tip: Charlie Brown


Off Tackle Empire welcomes Nebraska to the Big Ten (11, 12, etc.)

Hat tip: Dann Millimet

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Random drug testing

The IES experimental evaluation of random drug testing in schools is now public. I was part of the Technical Working Group (TWG) for the evaluation, which was performed by Mathematica Policy Research and RMC Research.

The evaluation finds a substantial impact of random drug testing on self-reported recent use of the tested drugs. It does not find an effect on participation in the activities that trigger random drug testing eligibility. I am not surprised by the former as prices matter. What does perhaps surprise me is the lack of a detectable response on the participation margin, though the point estimates are negative.

The key caveats are the self-reported nature of the substance use outcome measures and the use (typical for IES evaluations for political and operational reasons) of volunteer schools.

The most entertaining part of the evaluation was the TWG meeting where I discovered that I was the only one of the technical advisors, some of whom study anti-drug programs for a living, who knew the meaning of "420". Any room where I am the hippest person is a room in serious trouble.

More on Wisconsin

A nice piece from Tim Cavanaugh at reason. I wonder if it would not have been smarter to offer up a law removing defined benefit pension plans from the bargaining table for public workers rather than curtailing their collective bargaining rights more broadly. Most private sector workers already have defined contribution plans so this could have been framed as a move toward comparability in compensation. Switching government workers to defined contribution plans would solve a lot of the problem.

New neighbor for UM economics

The Memorial Christian Church, located one block south of the home of UM economics in palatial Lorch Hall (most decidedly not to be confused with the Big Orange Building - BOB - next door) is on the road to becoming the new home of Sigma Phi Epsilon.

Assorted links

1. Christopher Hitchens with more about the faulty history in The King's Speech.

2. The Onion on science paparazzi.

5. Why can't we all just get along?

Stepping in the cuddle puddle

Former Reasoner Dave Weigel gives a (surprisingly) sympathetic, on-the-ground account of life as a protester inside Wisconsin's state capital building.

One take-away from the Wisconsin episode is that there is a huge latent demand for experiences like this in which one can, in some sense, relive the glory days of the 1960s. If some clever entrepreneur could find a way to reproduce and package this sort of experience she could make a lot of money.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Assorted links

1. Turns out the creator of the Cathy comic strip is a UM alum.

2. How come newspapers don't print more of this sort of important good news?

3. List of Ann Arbor blogs.

4. Correcting the history in The King's Speech. I expected this to be all about the speech therapy!