Sunday, July 31, 2011

D. B. Cooper

According to the Daily Mail, the FBI thinks it may have finally found D.B. Cooper, the early 70s hijacker who parachuted out of a Northwest Orient (as they were back then) plane over southern Washington State and was never found.

Cooper became a bit of a folk hero; wikipedia has a whole separate page about his appearances in popular culture. There is even a song, the "Ballad of D.B. Cooper," that received some radio attention, at least in the Pacific Northwest. And, particularly in the wake of 9/11, his antics do have an innocence to them. No one was hurt, he didn't take all that much money, and he was pushing no political or religious agenda other than the enrichment of D.B. Cooper. There are worse things.

I have a very slight personal connection to old D.B. Cooper as my father, who had just been working at the Seattle-Tacoma airport for a year or so at the time of the hijacking, was called out to the airport that night, though as I recall he ended up doing nothing other than standing around and watching the proceedings.

And, what are we to make of the Daily Mail calling it the Tacoma International Airport? Not hardly. At the time, Tacoma was best known locally for the awful smell that emitted from a large smelter.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Saturday, July 30, 2011

BBQ in Ann Arbor

I've been meaning to post a shout-out for Satchel's BBQ for a while now. It is a very fine addition to the local restaurant scene and great for take-out too. My favorites are the ribs and the brisket. Plus it is low attitude, with friendly staff and reasonable prices.

Debt ceiling

Megan McArdle has a very nice summary of the likely effects of not raising the debt ceiling (an unlikely outcome in my view - I predict another short term delay in the deadline) and of dithering about raising the deadline and demonstrating institutional and personal failure at the highest levels while doing so.

It seems to me that it is not really that hard to do the two things one wants to do: not cut current spending too much but cut future spending a lot in a way that has some credibility, which is to say in a way that is hard to reverse.

Rejecting theories in international relations

Daniel Drezner wonders if it is time for the McDonald's theory of international conflict to go.

More on Mark Thoma

Larry Summers has an excellent response with which I largely agree.

I would only quibble with the failure to focus on variation across subfields in economics. This is important not for blame assignment, but because the existing equilibria differ across fields as do the possibilities for credible empirical work. There can be no "credibility revolution" in the study of business cycles, for example, because we will never have plausible exogenous variation in them. That does not mean that we should give up, but it does mean that macro is necessarily different from, say, labor economics or the micro part of development economics (which, at present, is essentially all of development economics, though that was not the case in the past).

My original response is here, which includes a link to the Thoma piece on professors and practitioners.

Happy 99th Milton

A fine birthday tribute, with video, for Milton Friedman, courtesy of reason.

I particularly like the emphasis on the process - of following arguments wherever they lead and of speaking truth to power and taking on conventional "wisdom" - that Friedman did such a fine job of demonstrating.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Oxford comma

A fine meditation on language, by way of commas in lists.

Via Chris Blattman

Dietary supplements illustrated

Via the orgtheory blog, a fine graphic presentation of the quality of the evidence for different dietary supplements.

It is worthwhile both for the method of presentation and for the information it presents.

I was surprised to see Vitamin C below the "worth it" bar.

Travel checklist for the over-50 set

From the Economist Gulliver blog, a humorous travel list for older travelers.

Sadly, the website that the list is advertising does not have quite the same charm, at least not based on my pretty quick visit.

Movie: Captain America

Yet another comic book movie. I think the Marvel people should be worrying a bit about over-saturating their market.

This particular comic book movie one is fine but not extraordinary. I agree with the NYT reviewer's 15-year-old colleague who said that Captain America is better than Thor. Given the reviews I saw of Green Lantern, it is likely better than that as well.

Weakly recommended as summer fluff.

Professors and practitioners

Mark Thoma argues that academic economists need to pay more attention to practitioners as a way of making themselves more useful to society.

I have several responses to this; I'll start with criticisms:

First, the article is really only about macroeconomists. They are important, and a big chunk of the profession, but hardly all of it. Talking about economists as a vague whole misleads the reader. There is no problem along these lines in development economics, for example, or in the economics of education. Indeed, if anything, those fields would be better balanced if they had a bit more detached theory.

Second, even within macroeconomics, Thoma surely overstates the problem. At least one of my macro colleagues shuttles back and forth to DC all the time to provide aid and counsel on policy choices. A look at any macro journal will reveal a mix of theory and empirical work, with much of the empirical work devoted to estimating policy relevant parameters.

Third, I think a bit more recognition that there is a tension between specialization and division of labor on the one hand and lots of interaction between academics and practitioners would have improved the piece. I suspect that the optimal setup includes some academics who specialize theory and some who delve more into the real world of application. What's that you say ... that is what we have now? Well, perhaps.

Fourth, I think Thoma overstates the value of forecasting. Academic economists disdain forecasters not because they use old models, but because they are mostly selling snake oil, which is to say that most forecasts are not very good. Indeed, as John Cochrane has pointed out many times, in some sense the model says that forecasts should never be very good because current prices already reflect all the available information. In this sense, improving the knowledge base - they "how it works" knowledge that Thoma criticizes in his piece - may be the best way to improve the forecasts that matter most, which are the ones implicit in current prices.

Fourth, I am not convinced that science = "theory and math".

At the same time, I do think there is something to what Thoma has to say. Part of why I do some consulting is precisely to have the interactions with practitioners that Thoma describes. I have learned a huge amount from these interactions about how the econometric methods that I study and use in my academic work get understood and applied in real world applications. Some of those lessons have improved my later academic work and/or guided my choice of things to work on.

I have also seen academic economists who feigned knowledge of particular applied areas but in fact had no clue about them. In my experience this is most common in industrial organization. That field has experienced a methodological revolution in the past 10-15 years. One result has been a strong emphasis on tools, particularly among students on the job market. Improving tools is a very good thing, but for the moment one of the old virtues of the field, which was strong subject area knowledge, has fallen a bit to the wayside. When I was at UWO we hired an applied theorist who claimed their job market paper showed that Microsoft should be broken up by the anti-trust authorities. In fact, the model in the paper had nothing really to do with the Microsoft situation; rather, some misbehaving member of the student's dissertation committee had pushed them to claim that it did so that they would appear more "applied" and topical on the job market.

So, yes, there is a point here, but at the same time we don't really need to have evolutionary biologists hanging out in operating theaters, to borrow Thoma's medical analogy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Only rubes need apply

These folks fundamentally misunderstand the problem.

Via the Agitator

Mommy, mommy, they want to enforce my contract!

Contracts do go both ways, as some folks learned in the Baltimore heat this weekend.

This is certainly a teachable moment. One suspects though, that the wrong lesson will be taught, and learned.

We have one of these deals, bequeathed to us by the previous owner of our house. It allows DTE Energy to turn off the A/C half the time when they are experiencing peak loads. It does get warmer on hot days, but then we go to the basement. It would never occur to me to complain about an arrangement that has been made very clear from day one. And we save a lot of money on A/C.

Expansion at Salon Vox

Regular readers will recall that I have my hair "styled" at Salon Vox by the amazing Jenna.

Today comes news that Salon Vox is expanding vertically. I'm delighted to hear that they are doing well, and pleased to learn that:
“Jen [the owner] wanted her salon’s core values to be about education, customer service and staying on top of current trends and fashion,” Lupo [the director of sales and marketing] said.
I suppose that if grocery stores can have core values, so can hair salons.

Craig and Britney

Craig has become my favorite of the late night hosts. He is less obviously partisan that Jay and Dave and has a freshness that they lack. Plus he really seems to like the US, and to like it for the right reasons.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Let there be (fewer) light (bulb choices)

Former reason editor Virginia Postrel dissects the light bulb "ban" in her Bloomberg column.

Bottom line:
The bulb ban makes sense only one of two ways: either as an expression of cultural sanctimony, with a little technophilia thrown in for added glamour, or as a roundabout way to transfer wealth from the general public to the few businesses with the know-how to produce the light bulbs consumers don’t really want to buy.

Or, of course, as both.
Of course, the simple, easy way to do energy policy is via a carbon tax, not via light bulb performance standards, mileage standards for cars and all the rest. This is ECON 101 stuff and shows, as do so many things, the fundamental non-seriousness of our legislature.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

In defense of polygamy?

Will Wilkinson defends polygamy at the Economist Democracy in America blog.

I think the distributional consequences of polygamy are poorly understood. In a large sense, the policy redistributes from women to men. By constraining the "best" husbands from taking more than one wife, it reduces the implicit price of wives for less desirable husbands. Put differently, it constrains the choices of women about whom to marry, which can hardly make them better off. There is also, though, important implicit within-group redistribution as well.

One wonders if polygamy's good friend polyandry will make an appearance in China and India as the effects of selective abortion of women make themselves felt in the marriage market.

Bob Fogel on life expectancy and health policy

Chicago Booth School economic historian Bob Fogel writes on how to think about longevity, his thoughts on likely health breakthroughs in the near future and on how to think about health expenditures and health policy. There is wisdom throughout.

I took Bob's class on "business ethics in historical perspective" when I was in graduate school and thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite the title, what it really was about was the general history of ethical movements in the US. That subject matter formed a natural outgrowth of Bob's famous research on slavery and the civil war. I read his second civil war book, Without Consent or Contract, late in graduate school. It changed my views in many ways and also sharpened my sense of the valuable toolkit that economic historians bring to the economics discipline as a whole.

Another "no effect" NYC conditional cash transfer

David McKenzie summarizes the results of the Rand Corporation evaluation and justly celebrates one small victory for evidence over enthusiasm.

Blogroll update

I added back Grant McCraken, who was removed some time ago when his website was hacked, and also added in the Grandiloquent Bloviator, which I discovered yesterday via Chris Blattman.

I dropped Jeff Miron, who gave up on blogging, and Mickey Kaus.

European terror alerts

This is from my inbox (and can be found many other places on the internet). Snopes has a discussion of whether or not it should be attributed to former Python John Cleese, as it was in the email I received. My sense is that it should not.



The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have therefore raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved."

Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or even "A Bit Cross." The English have not been "A Bit Cross" since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from "Tiresome" to "A Bloody Nuisance." The last time the British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

The Scots have raised their threat level from "Pissed Off" to "Let's get the Bastards." They don't have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide." The only two higher levels in France are "Collaborate" and "Surrender." The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France's white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the
country's military capability.

Italy has increased the alert level from "Shout Loudly and Excitedly" to "Elaborate Military Posturing." Two more levels remain: "Ineffective Combat Operations" and "Change Sides."

The Germans have increased their alert state from "Disdainful Arrogance" to "Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs." They also have two higher levels: "Invade a Neighbor" and "Lose."

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels .

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Australia , meanwhile, has raised its security level from "No worries" to "She'll be alright, Mate." Three more escalation levels remain: "Crikey!", "I think we'll need to cancel the barbie this weekend", and "The barbie is cancelled."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Australian TV

Maybe it is just me, or maybe I am mistakenly generalizing from a selected sample of clips plus my semi-informed priors based on visits to Oz, but it just really seems like they have a lot more fun on Australian TV than in the US or Canada.

Advice to little girls

... from Mark Twain. Delightful text, and pictures too.

I especially like the one about humoring one's parents.

Art fair bingo

Today is the final day of Ann Arbor's annual art fair (actually, art fairs, as there are four of them). We wandered through last night (with a stop at Borders to feast on their books with the other vultures). Art fair this year is delightful as always.

You can improve your visit by playing art fair bingo:

College football recruiting rankings

In the latest CBS rankings, Michigan is at #1 and Washington is at #18.

I am amazed that Michigan is doing so well with a new coach.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Duration models with measurement error

The issue of how to think about duration models when there is measurement error in the dependent variable came up in a discussion the other day. If anyone out there in reader-land has a pointer to a paper or two on this, please post a comment or send an email.

Interview with Maggie McNeill's husband ...

... on what it is like to marry an escort.

He seems to have his feet pretty firmly planted on the ground.

Interview with Larry Summers

This is well worth a read. The link is to Felix Salmon's post about the interview; you can get to the interview from there.

The best bit is about the Winklevoss boys, a.k.a. the Winklevii, and the scene related to them from the Facebook movie:
MR. ISAACSON: So was that scene in the social network true?
DR. SUMMERS: I've heard it said that I can be arrogant.
DR. SUMMERS: If that's true, I surely was on that occasion. One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a tie and jacket on Thursday afternoon at three o'clock, there are two possibilities. One is that they're looking for a job and have an interview; the other is that they are an asshole.
(Laughter; applause.)
DR. SUMMERS: This was the latter case. Rarely, have I encountered such swagger, and I tried to respond in kind.
I found the bit near the end where Summers compares the management styles of Clinton and Obama quite interesting. I am probably more like Clinton, to the extent I ever manage anything. Not sure where I would have picked up that management style.

I was also quite impressed with Larry's very moderate partisanship. Unlike certain other famous economists (well, one particular famous economist with a column in the New York Times), Larry finds much good to say about Republicans and about certain of their policy proposals. He really seems to have thought about issues, both political and economic, from multiple perspectives and learned from the experience of having done so. Note, for example, the positive remarks about tort reform and the lukewarm enthusiasm for green technology.

Like Felix Salmon, this interview raised my opinion a lot and helped to fill in why people I know who know Larry personally, as I do not, hold him in such high esteem.

Via: MR

Protecting Saudi Arabia against witches

The Jerusalem Post reports on the component of Saudi Arabia's religious police that track down agents of witchcraft.

It all seems very foreign until you read this bit
The belief in sorcery is so widespread in Saudi Arabia, that it is even used as a defense in criminal court cases. Last October, a judge accused of receiving bribes in a real-estate project told a court in Madinah that he had been bewitched and is undergoing treatment by Quranic incantations, known as ruqiyah, a common remedy for the evil eye.
In the west of course, one would substitute "addiction" for "the evil eye" and "psychiatric incantations" for "Quranic incantations" without changing the underlying meaning.

Via the Agitator

Perfect venue for an intimate wedding

You can now rent Michigan Stadium - a.k.a. the "Big House" - for events.

Just you and 107,000 of your closest friends.

Glad to see that the athletic departments is exploring novel ways to raise money.

Movie: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2

Impressive. The NYT agrees.

Now it is time to read the books.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Le douche

The Atlantic remarks on the difficulties associated with advertising certain types of products.

A Big "10" primer for Nebraska, which will be the 12th team

From ESPN, an informative guide to Big "10" football for the incoming Cornhuskers.


If you want to get under their skin, just go up to Michigan State fans wearing Spartans jerseys and say, "Oh, couldn't get into Michigan, huh?"

Then duck.
Good stuff.

Hat tip: Dann Millimet

Finding a job

Susannah Breslin at Forbes ruminates on finding a job when unemployed.

The advice about getting out the door and not just sitting at home sending out resumes sounds like good advice to me. And the role of chance cannot be denied, even in highly organized markets like that for new Ph.D.'s in economics.

Hated Americanisms

A list of American expressions that readers of the BBC website dislike.

I was not quite sure what to make of this. "I could care less" is just a mistake, not an Americanism. Why maths are plural in the UK and not in the US is something I have always wondered about. I am unclear on why anyone would want "fortnightly" to remain a vital part of the language.

Overall, one might argue that most of these folks out to find more important things to worry about. On the other hand, I get irritated now, thanks to Duncan Thomas, when people say "observable" when they mean "observed" so perhaps I am just as bad.

Via the Agitator

IZA Prize

Congratulations to George Borjas and Barry Chiswick, the winners of this year's IZA prize in labor economics!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sprinkles v. Sprinkles

As usual, the lawyers will likely walk away with the frosting in this dispute over business names.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Toward libertarian progressives

Matt Zwolinski from the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog (link on the right) offers up seven reasons why progressives should be more libertarian.

Off by two orders of magnitude ...

Wow, it sure would be embarrassing to put a statistic in the first sentence of your book and have it be so obviously wrong that nearly anyone who thought about it for more than a second would realize that very fact.

Can poor James Stewart sue his editor?

Club Michigan: Toronto edition

I spent an afternoon in Toronto last week wearing my Michigan baseball cap. This yielded the following Club Michigan encounters:

1. The counter person at the vegan restaurant in the St. Lawrence market that my wife went to for her lunch said that her father had attended Michigan on a tennis scholarship and that she loved driving down to Ann Arbor to see football games.

2. A young man in Yorkville offered a hearty "Go Blue!" and a smile as he walked by.

3. A street musician at Bay and Bloor spotted my cap, called out to me, and then did a perfect rendition of "Hail to the Victors" on his various instruments. Turns out he is from Detroit, and was admitted to UM back in the day, but decided not to enroll so that he could pursue his goal of being the "next Jimi Hendrix". You can meet this very same musician at the Ann Arbor Art Fair this week.

Funny t-shirt for your child

From a t-shirt shop in the St. Lawrence market in Toronto

WSJ on Borders

The Wall Street Journal on the death of Borders Store No. 1.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Stripper career paths

An interview with a stripper from Susannah Breslin at Forbes. Note the important social work component in the job description.

Larry and FDR

Via Mankiw, the best short summary of FDR's economic achievements that I have ever seen.

Napoleon Kaufman

Former U of Washington star running back Napoleon Kaufman now runs, and ministers to, his own church in Oakland.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Borders reaches the end of the road

Liquidation for Borders, announced this afternoon.

I hope another bookstore will fill their space in downtown Ann Arbor, across from the Michigan Theater.

Update: full coverage here, including a piece on the local location.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Cough, cough: Rick Snyder and the War on (certain) Drugs

Some reactions to this story on recent drug law changes in Michigan:

1. Given the economic situation in Michigan, one might have thought our legislators would have something better to do with their time.

2. According to the article, the drug companies will pay for this all this monitoring (of cold and allergy medicine purchases!) out of their profits so that it is "no cost to retailers or taxpayers". Somehow I suspect that this is not how it will actually work out.

3. It is amazing what supposedly freedom-loving Americans will put up with.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Broader lessons from DSK

Cathy Young of reason has some useful thoughts on the broader implications of the DSK scandal.

Frying Franzen

B.R. Myers takes down Jonathan Franzen, and a large related literature, in his Atlantic review of Freedom. This is one of those reviews that is entertaining enough to read even if you had no plans to read the corresponding book. A taster:
One keeps waiting for something that will make these flat characters develop in some way, and finally the Nice Man is struck by a great blow of fate. But rather than write his way through it, Franzen suspends things just before the moment of impact, then resumes Walter’s story six years later—updating us with the glib aside that the event in question “had effectively ended his life.” A writer’s got to know his limitations, but this stratagem is clumsy enough to make one want to laugh for the first time in the book. It certainly beats the part where a wedding ring is retrieved from a bowl of feces.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tax holidays

Dan Hamermesh blogs about the economics of tax holidays on the Freakonomics blog.

Of course, recent Michigan economics Ph.D. Adam Cole is the world expert on tax holidays. You can find his papers about them on his web page.

Liberty magazine

Liberty magazine, a long-running competitor to reason, which makes reason look like the quite moderate journal that it is, has ceased producing its print edition and is now solely on-line.

Looking about the web site today for the first time in a while - they have been on-line only since the end of 2010 - I found this most excellent rant by Stephen Cox (a professor of literature at UCSD) on the deeper social meaning of Weinergate. Here is a taster:
“Democrats consider the scandal all the more sad because Weiner is married to Huma Abedin, a hugely popular aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”

Did you ever see that phrase before — “all the more sad”? If you haven’t, I’m not surprised. It’s one of those expressions that today’s journalists use when they need to get around the fact that they don’t know grammar. “More sad” means “sadder,” in your grandmother’s untutored but accurate vocabulary. The difference is that your grandmother knew how to form a common English comparative and therefore didn’t have to invent cumbersome phrases to circumvent the obvious.

So journalists are naïve about grammar — so what? Well, ex ungue leonem: they are also naïve about the rest of the world. Do you believe — does anyone believe — that Democrats went into terminal depression because of their sympathy for Huma Abedin, or that more than ten of them had ever heard of Huma Abedin? “Hugely popular”? Who’s buying this stuff? Hillary Clinton isn’t “hugely popular” — so how should Huma, her assistant, be? And are we supposed to believe that a top aide to one of the Clintons is to be pitied for her association with a sex scandal?
Good stuff!

Finding people from the past

There was a fellow in my entering class at Chicago called Derek Scissors who left the program after a year to get a doctorate in political science at Stanford. Perhaps because his name is easy to remember, it has stuck with me all these years and I have always wondered where he ended up.

The other day while surfing around I saw a mention of a Derek Scissors and decided to track him down. It turns out he is now at the Heritage Foundation in their Asian Studies Center. The Heritage folks should get Derek to sit down for another picture and make him smile for it.

Now ... all I have to do is figure out whatever happened to Claire Marie Hintz, who also started the Chicago doctoral program with me but never finished.

Your date with the tax man

On the tax consequences of being paid to go on a date.

Via: instapundit

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sherwood Schwartz, RIP

The creator of the Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island has left us for the big sitcom in the sky.

Both shows played a non-trivial role in my wasted youth.

TSA = that's some agency!

Jeffrey Goldberg on airport security, humbug and the TSA.

"Confirmation bias is everywhere"

Reason's Ron Bailey summarizes provocative research on the role of scientific literacy and cultural commitments in views on global warming / climate change.

Thought question: does the confirmation bias study itself confirm my biases? That would, I suppose, be meta confirmation bias.

College Board follies

The College Board has trouble writing, and trouble admitting when it makes mistakes.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Innovation by sector

A pictorial comparison of progress in different sectors with a useful punchline.

Via MR.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Underwater shipping containers

I was surprised by the number of containers lost in the sea each year.

Via MR

Strange Fruit

We saw Strange Fruit at Ann Arbor's summer festival a couple of weeks ago. They do not really do very much, in some sense, but their performance is nonetheless oddly compelling.

Focusing on the important things

The tempest in a teapot over Paul Ryan's wine from the Agitator and the Washington Examiner.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect is that the "too expensive" line for wine lies between the $80 bottle consumed by the informant and the $350 bottle consumed by Ryan and his companions. I suspect that no one at either table could consistently distinguish between $20 bottles and $100 bottles in blind taste tests.

And, really, people in restaurants should be left alone to eat their dinner in peace, no matter how obnoxious their politics.

Externalities in the dating market

xkcd sums them up.

Monday, July 11, 2011

New business in Ann Arbor

Bongs and Thongs comes to, appropriately enough, Liberty Street in Ann Arbor. columnist sees the demise of the downtown. Chill out, Paula Gardner, I say. Berkeley is 10 times wilder than Ann Arbor and seems to be doing okay, though they would do well to pick up the litter more often.


Thanks to Sue Dynarski, I am now on Google+.

This xkcd comic expresses my thoughts.

Bookstores and the future

The Economist ponders the future of bricks-and-mortar bookstores in light of the ongoing troubles at Borders.

I am not as pessimistic as they are, but I think the future may lie with smaller bookstores in which part of the value-added is the selection of the books rather than in mega-stores that try to compete with Amazon. I enjoy Nicola's books in Ann Arbor for precisely this reason.

Space shuttle lessons

A nice piece from Popular Mechanics on the lessons to be learned, and the lessons not to be learned, from three decades of the NASA space shuttle.

Via: instapundit

A revealing episode from the Royals' visit to Canada

Who knew that Duchesses were allowed to wear thongs?

And isn't there some staff person in charge of being sure that thongs are not worn on windy days? Presumably that person's job is now available.

Husky football offers their preview of the fall season.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The problems of prestigious universities

A really excellent essay from the American Scholar, the publication of Phi Beta Kappa, that lays out the problems with elite higher education in the US as it presently operates.

The essay is more negative than I would be. I don't think any reorganization of the system would produce all that many more of the sort of intellectual seekers that the author really wants to have as students, but maybe we could reduce the number of self-inflated jerks that the system produces. And the bonus slam at George W. Bush, itself an example of the sort of behavior the author is complaining about, sounds an off note in an essay otherwise well above partisan politics.

In reading the essay, as in my academic life more generally, I find myself with mixed feelings. At times I am very grateful to have gone to deeply mediocre public primary and secondary schools and to Big State U precisely because they kept me in contact with people very different from myself. At other times I regret all the learning that didn't happen because I did not press my parents to send me to a private high school, which they probably would have done if I had pushed a bit, and because I did not press myself to go to a more elite college, though I might well have gotten into one. People who wear their Harvard pedigrees on their sleeves annoy me, but so do anti-intellectuals who denigrate the value of scholarship. Mixed, mixed, mixed.

Recommended for students, professors and parents.

Creating hysteria with fake statistics

The Village Voice goes after Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, their celebrity charity consultants, a host of credulous big-name media organizations and a bunch of faux charities enriching themselves with government grants for promulgating essentially meaningless statistics regarding child prostitution in the US.

This sort of statistical foolishness is hardly new nor is it limited to attacks on the sex industry; indeed, it accompanies most every media scare, from upcoming ice ages to dangerous vegetables to Satanism.

Ashton Kutcher - I'd never heard of him but then I mostly stopped watching TV other than sports and elections in the early 1980s - responds to the Village Voice piece like a spoiled child rather than like, to pick a phrase, a real man. Maybe he needs a twitter consultant / editor too.

A better reaction would be for Ashton and Demi to apologize to the public and then to give some money to the American Statistical Association to fund their educational efforts. With a large enough donation, perhaps the ASA would even set up a special program called "The Ashton and Demi Program in Basic Statistics for Celebrities and Journalists."

Understanding structural retirement models

Hat tip (and title): Charlie Brown

Life at Goldman

Goldman's desire to control its employees even outside work hours is pretty creepy.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown, who notes that this is one compensating differentials regression that would yield the correct sign.

State of the labor market

Heidi Shierholz at the Employment Policy Institute, a Michigan Ph.D. from (just) before my arrival here, provides a useful summary the dismal recent statistics.

Note that the policy recommendations in the last paragraph do not follow in any obvious way from the discussion that precedes them.

Arrow Prize

The BE Press 2010 Arrow for Junior Economists goes to:

Vincenzo Caponi, Ryerson University
Burc Kayahan, Acadia University
Miana Plesca, University of Guelph

Miana is my student from Western Ontario and I am very happy for her!

Congratulations to all three authors!

Friday, July 8, 2011

How did I miss this?

Wednesday, as it turns out, was National Fried Chicken Day.

I'll second the recommendation by the columnist of the fried chicken at Zingerman's Roadhouse. I have not tried the other place she mentions, but it is now on the list.

Back to school in Charlotte-Mecklenberg

Can there be any greater bummer than finding out that you're not really done with high school, even after you've been through the ceremony and gotten your diploma?

And, really, how hard is this to get right? At least the principal had the good manners to resign.

John Stossel doesn't like college

I usually like John Stossel, but this poorly researched piece denouncing college is embarrassingly bad. Some reasons:

1. The piece confuses two different points: (1) it is not optimal for some students to go to a four-year college, including some of those who presently do and (2) it is not optimal for anyone to go to college. The first point is clearly correct and worth highlighting. The second is clearly, given the large literature on the effects of higher education on life outcomes, incorrect.

2. The optimal number of students who start but do not finish four-year college is not zero. College, particularly four-year college, is what economists call an experience good, which means that you cannot fully evaluate it without actually consuming some of it. I would agree that current dropout rates are probably too high, but that implies a call for research on how better identify students unlikely to finish based on their applications, something that colleges would actually like to do better. Those high dropout rates are not good publicity; for colleges that depend on the goodwill of the local state legislature, good publicity is very important.

3. Contra Richard Vedder, the literature that estimates the impact of college actually does take account of ability differences between those who do and do not attend college. Even an hour of research by Stossel's underlings would have made that quite clear. And Vedder surely knows better and should be spanked. The correct criticism to make is that estimates of the average impact of college on those who attend are often naively generalized to those who do not presently attend.

4. The problem with Hilary Clinton's "extra million dollars" argument or, more precisely, with similar numbers actually based on the literature, is its failure to discount, not its failure to take account of ability differences. Again, a bit of research, or perhaps talking to someone less ideological than Vedder and Riley, would have given Stossel a good criticism to use in place of all the stupid stuff.

5. There is plenty of scientific evidence that going to a higher quality university increases later earnings. You don't just have to take Harvard's word for it, as the Stossel piece suggests.

6. The research that pays tends to be research that matters. Most people who write pieces on "obscure topics for journals that nobody reads" are not getting grants to do it.

Shame on Stossel for putting this rubbish out and on my friends at reason for putting it on their website.

Why I love the What Works Clearinghouse

From my inbox this morning:
The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) has released an intervention report this week that reviews the research on Great Books.

Great Books is a program that aims to improve the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills of students in kindergarten through high school. The program is implemented as a core or complementary curriculum and is based on the Shared Inquiry™ method of learning. The program includes both oral and written activities designed to help students think and talk about the multiple meanings of texts. Great Books reading selections are collections of traditional and modern literature. This report focuses on Great Books programs for reading in grade 4 and higher. The WWC identified 36 studies of Great Books for adolescent learners that were published or released between 1989 and 2010. Five studies are within the scope of the Adolescent Literacy review protocol but do not meet WWC evidence standards. Thirty-one studies are outside the scope of the Adolescent Literacy review protocol. No studies of Great Books that fall within the scope of the Adolescent Literacy review protocol meet WWC evidence standards; meaning that, at this time, the WWC is unable to draw any conclusions based on research about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Great Books on adolescent learners. Read the full report now at [link].
I like this on several levels. First, and most important, it seriously engages and summarizes the available evidence on a particular educational intervention. The summary is based on precise substantive criteria. Second, it highlights how much time, energy and money is wasted in the education literature on studies that do not meet even very basic standards of evidence. Third, it helps to illustrate how educational interventions can spread despite the lack of any serious empirical demonstration of their effectiveness.

3-D printer

Very cool!

Hat tip: Jackie Smith

Movie: Buck

We saw Buck on Monday at the Michigan Theater. It is the story of Buck Brannaman, a cowboy of sorts who travels around giving courses on horse training, which often turn out to indirectly be courses on people training as well. As it happens, horses, like people, respond better to good management than to bad. Who would have thought?

I found the movie quite interesting as this is a world I know very little about. I have a couple of friends who are, or were, in the horse world, and I imagine that this gave me some insight into what attracts them to it. The NYT liked it too, probably a bit more than I did.

I should note that we went to this partly on the theory that our four-year-old would like it. She did not; there was too much talk and not enough plot for her taste.


Mocking Ohio State on the recent wave of t-shirts taking advantage of the recent ethical lapses at Michigan's arch rival in Columbus.

Performance art: Tom Tom Crew

We saw the Australian musical circus Tom Tom Crew last night at the Power Center. The show is part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. We chose the show as something we thought our four-year-old daughter might like - she did - and so I had almost zero information going in. Ex post, I would say that it is one of most original bits of entertainment I have seen in a while.

I found the "beatboxer" the most impressive; not only does he have a skill set I don't have, he has a skill set I had never, before last night, even though of having! The wikipedia page on beatboxing describes such developments as SBN, or standard beatbox notation! liked Tom Tom Crew, and last nights audience gave them an enthusiastic standing ovation - something that is pretty hard to come by in Ann Arbor.

Highly recommended - there is another show tonight, mate.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Financial development

At the least they could figure out a way to stagger the payments so people don't have to waste time in line.

Addendum (7/8): Be sure to read the corrective comment by Jessica Goldberg.

The Economist on DSK

As (almost) always, an insightful and balanced update from the Economist.

This paragraph sums things up well:
Sympathy for DSK has, however, to be set against distaste at the wider revelations about his way of life. Polls suggest that women and older voters have the biggest reservations. Many French voters who find ostentatious wealth obnoxious have been taken aback to see DSK flaunt his fabulous riches. They also know that the collapse of the case does not prove there was no sexual encounter. Mr Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers have stated only that there was “no element of forcible compulsion”. This week the maid sued the New York Post for reporting that she was a prostitute. Whatever the nature of the encounter, one French left-wing editor, Laurent Joffrin, puts it well: “you do not take such risks when one seeks the highest office”.
Politics, wealth, fame and a media frenzy are a potent mix indeed.

WSJ on TAA study

Jobs Study Is Too Late for Debate on Trade


As a divided Congress moves closer to a decision on three big international trade pacts, the Labor Department is four years late in delivering a study that is supposed to measure the efficacy of a program to provide extra benefits to workers who lose their jobs through globalization.

The deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama, which could add billions in exports, are on a knife-edge over disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over Trade Adjustment Assistance, taxpayer funds paid to workers who lose their jobs as a direct result of trade.

The lack of up-to-date government data on how effective the $1 billion-a-year program is at helping the unemployed find well-paying work has hobbled efforts to identify and make improvements.

With the House and Senate called back into session this week, debate will resume over TAA, which provides training, unemployment payments and health-care subsidies to displaced workers. The program came due for renewal at the end of 2010.

The White House, Democratic leaders and some Republicans say the 50-year-old program helps laid-off workers learn new skills and find jobs in more vibrant industries. Conservatives label it an outmoded giveaway with results that don't justify the annual price tag.

TAA has become a proxy for the wider budget war, in which entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare as well as less-prominent matters such as financing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have come under scrutiny from budget hawks.

Workers who qualify for TAA get up to 156 weeks of unemployment benefits, compared with a maximum of 99 weeks under standard unemployment benefits for workers in high-unemployment states in a program set to expire at the end of this year. TAA also offers assistance with retraining and health benefits that workers not judged to be idled by trade pacts don't get.

On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means committee said it would hold a hearing Thursday to discuss proposed changes to the trade deals.

But the panel, which has jurisdiction over trade in the House, won't discuss renewing the expired TAA program as part of that process, defying President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama says he won't send the trade agreements to Congress for ratification if lawmakers don't renew TAA.

The president has staked his credibility with U.S. businesses on passing the trade deals, placing them at the heart of his plan to double U.S. exports by the end of 2014.

Hiccups over the pacts' passage damage U.S. credibility with trading partners, at times leading them to seek deals elsewhere. Last week, while U.S. lawmakers bickered, a sweeping trade pact between South Korea and the European Union took effect; one between Colombia and Canada takes force in August.

Labor Department officials say their research on TAA, originally due in 2007, won't be ready until the end of the year. That's likely to be after the fate of the proposed U.S. trade deals has been decided, at least until after the 2012 election. Thus far, the TAA study has cost $8.9 million, the Labor Department estimated.

"The data used for the study is long-term data on individual participants, which was collected over several years; therefore completion of the study is a long process," said Department of Labor spokeswoman Gloria Della.

Howard Rosen, resident visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, helped write 2002 reforms to TAA while he was a congressional aide that also called for a comprehensive evaluation of the program, and he has complained about the Labor Department's failure to deliver it.

"We need to make reforms based on what will work, not what will fly" politically, Mr. Rosen said.
Reports from Labor and the Government Accountability Office have led to changes, for example, in improving worker access to the program. Last year, 235,000 workers—or less than 2% of the nation's 14 million unemployed—were receiving benefits under the TAA program at a cost of $975 million.

In 2009, the program was expanded to include service, not just manufacturing workers, who now make up less than one-fifth of TAA recipients.

More than two-thirds of TAA recipients are over age 40 and three-quarters of them hold at most a high-school diploma. Half of all unemployed workers fall into those two categories. TAA-eligible workers' mean annual wages are $34,000, compared with $28,000 for all unemployed people.

The Labor Department reports that two-thirds of TAA program participants find jobs within three months after leaving the program, and 90% stay in those jobs for at least a year. According to a Labor-sponsored study of TAA applicants in 2008-09, about one-third of eligible workers belong to a trade union; about half of those in the program are union members.

A deal brokered last week by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) would make renewal of TAA hinge on cutting the program's cost.

The Congressional Budget Office has yet to fully determine TAA's new cost under the proposal, agreed to by Mr. Baucus, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.) and White House economic czar Gene Sperling. The biggest proposed changes are cutting TAA recipients' unemployment benefits, and increasing their contribution to health-care coverage.

The deal envisions a cap of 130 weeks of unemployment, down from the current 156. That compares with a maximum of 26 weeks of jobless benefits for non-TAA recipients, unless they live in a high-unemployment state.

Under the 2009 program, TAA enrollees could deduct 80% of their health-care costs; the deal would reduce that deduction to 72.5%. The deduction would end completely at the end of 2013, when TAA enrollees gain access to benefits under Mr. Obama's health-care overhaul.

A Republican House aide says GOP leaders aren't sure whether the agreement approved by Mr. Camp has the votes needed to pass.


This is, almost certainly, the same study referred to in my earlier post, on which I have done a bit of consulting. It really is too bad that the results will not be available to guide debate.

This article was rescued from behind the WSJ's firewall by an anonymous benefactor.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How security theater protects us all

The Economist's Gulliver blog on the latest evidence that security theater is not only not very entertaining, it is not very effective either.

And don't forget to shower!

Real estate news near Lorch

Apparently the Memorial Christian Church located just down the street from Lorch Hall, home of the UM economics department, may not turn into a fraternity after all, or maybe it will.

I am rather surprised the university has not bought the property given its close proximity to campus.

Travel: Cleveland Zoo

We ended up meeting family yesterday at the Cleveland Zoo. I had never been to the Cleveland Zoo; indeed, I think this was my first time really stopping anywhere in Cleveland, though I have driven through several times.

The zoo turned out to be a very positive surprise, which may say more about my priors regarding Cleveland than the zoo itself. In any event, it is large, clean, beautifully landscaped, well-organized. Much of it appears to be recently remodeled. It is organized into zones like a theme park; we got through the Australian, African and rainforest zones; overall I would say we did about a third of what there is to do during our four-hour visit. I thought the rainforest part, which is inside a large climate-controlled building, was the most impressive of what we saw.

This zoo is on the middle of the spectrum of zoo styles that runs from "amusement park with animals" to "we will allow you to be entertained while we do science if you give us money but don't expect us to approve". This means that while there is lots of scientific information about as well as lots of ecologically motivated moral claims (including a quote from the great moral philosopher Sting), there are also slides and mazes and camel rides and such like to entertain younger visitors. And, indeed, the younger visitors in our group - ages 4, 5 and 10 - all quite enjoyed the outing.


Phil Swagel on the financial crisis

Phil's comments are disguised as on-target movie reviews of Too Big to Fail and Inside Job. He makes the good point, well worth repeating, that one should not assume malevolence when ignorance and incompetence will do as an explanation.

Via: Greg Mankiw

Full disclosure: Phil is the husband of a friend and former colleague of mine, though I think I've only ever met him once.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Cull the farting camels?

When life imitates the Onion.

Hat tip (on the article and the Onion reference): Nat Wilcox

Amateur economist spam

I, along with all of my UM economics colleagues, received the following email:


Hi University of Michigan Department of Economics,

My name is Chris and I have written a short story (attached) that has challenging ideas for our economy. The basic principle of story is that equality is the truth, and if equality is disrupted somehow, that the way back to equality is by sharing. So this is also a truth: love is to share. Therefore there is no need for systems, like a wage system, monetary system, school system, or any system. We can share all the world; our basic necessities of life, but brighter than just basic; our luxuries and commodities; our inventions and creations; our art and other hobbies. The story is a modern day twist on the writings of Plato.

This is not communism or socialism (these things are systems). There is no running government, the people will share all the world together.

There is more to the story. Please take a read or two. You can post or use this story anywhere. I am sending this information out to other schools around the world. Contact me.


Download my free ROCK album:

[phone number]
[email address]


You can find the story that was attached on the webpage.

I'll confess, the whole thing rather leaves me at a loss for words, but I suppose it is at least better than emails from Nigerian bankers, relatives of former dictators and the other bits that make it through UM's email filter, if only because it provides some variety.

Addendum: Name, phone number and email deleted by request of the original sender.

Theorists tackle the financial crisis

David Warsh provides a readable and interesting summary of the goings-on at the 22nd Jerusalem Summer School in Economic Theory.

Reading this piece it struck me how much deeper Warsh's grasp of economics is than certain NYT economics columnists who come in for relatively frequent criticism on this blog. And, unlike certain other NYT economics columnists, Warsh seems to be able to make his points effectively without personal attacks. Seems like a misallocation of resources to me. Someone call the central planner.

Math limerick

The integral z-squared dz
From one to the cuberoot of 3
Times the cosine
Of three pi over nine
Is the log of the cube root of e.

Via Dimitriy Masterov on Facebook

Saturday, July 2, 2011


The Atlantic advertises David Leonhardt's brief talk at the Aspen Institute about the perils of "momism". I look forward to Leonhardt's future remarks on the parallel plight of men and women who spend a lot of time with their boats. Boats, like children. sports cars and flower gardens, are a durable consumption good that often proves so engaging that it consumes a great deal of time that might otherwise be spent on career development. I also look forward to Leonhardt's call for universal boat care and company marinas.

More seriously, I do understand that children are different than boats in important ways, but at the same time I think the comparison is illustrative and useful to provoke some actual thinking in a policy domain where sentiment tends to reigns supreme. There are serious equity issues here not just between men and women, but between people who choose to have children and people who do not. There are also substantive environmental issues associated with subsidizing domestic population growth (the explicit aim of universal daycare policies in other countries but left implicit in discussions that focus on parental gender) as well as links to policy choices related to immigration. Thinking like an economist about these issues can aid in sorting out both the policy and the ethics by identifying the inherent tradeoffs.

Ads at Facebook?

So says the Atlantic in a recent column.

If I recall the movie correctly, the original argument against ads is that they would make Facebook un-cool. Now that everyone's employer, local government and grandparents are on Facebook, it seems like the coolness factor has already been lost. Evidently the Facebookers think so too.

Punny stuff from my inbox

Best friends graduated from medical school at the same time and decided that, in spite of two different specialties, they would open a practice together to share office space and personnel.

Dr. Smith was the psychiatrist and Dr. Jones was the proctologist; they put up a sign reading:

"Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones: Hysterias and Posteriors."

The town council was livid and insisted they change it. So, the docs changed it to read:

"Schizoids and Hemorrhoids."

This was also not acceptable, so they again changed the sign.

"Catatonics and High Colonics"......No go.

Next, they tried

"Manic Depressives and Anal Retentives"....thumbs down again.

Then came

“Minds and Behinds"....still no good.

Another attempt resulted in

"Lost Souls and Butt Holes".......unacceptable again!

So they tried

"Analysis and Anal Cysts".....not a chance.

“Nuts and Butts" way.

"Freaks and Cheeks".....still no good.

"Loons and Moons".....forget it.

Almost at their wit's end, the docs finally came up with:

"Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones--Odds and Ends."

Everyone loved it.


Hat tip: Jackie Smith

John Hospers, RIP

The Libertarian Party's first ever presidential candidate - and only presidential candidate to receive an electoral vote - passed away in June.

Friday, July 1, 2011

DSK update

DSK's accuser turns out to be a serial liar and he is released without bail, though without a reduction in the charges.

Canada Day

This year, Canada Day is really special because their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, a.k.a. Kate and William, have come to visit.

Coverage by the Monarchist League of Canada [!] here and by the Daily Mail in the UK here.

The really, really important bit of this truly momentous occasion is, of course, what Kate is wearing.

The mind reels at the excitement of it all.

Happy Canada Day!

Addendum: it turns out that rumors of Prince Harry dating his sister-in-law Pippa Middleton are apparently false. It's in the WaPo so it must be true.


The Pac-12 officially came into being today, replacing the Pac-10.

Columnist Bud Withers of the Seattle Times ponders the changes in college sports that have transpired since 33 years ago, when the Pac-8 became the Pac-10

And here is a report on the Pac-12's television deal. More games on national TV is good for me.