Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thought for the day

"I look forward to faculty meetings. It's like going to the zoo."

A tenured colleague of mine who, for obvious reasons, will remain unnamed.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Blogito, ergo sum

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Adriana Kugler at DOL

I learned yesterday that the new chief economist at the US Department of Labor, replacing the outgoing Betsey Stevenson, is my friend Adriana Kugler.

Congratulations Adriana!

Alan Krueger as CEA chair

I think Alan is a very good choice. He is serious, thoughtful, empirically oriented and, as far as I know, didn't really want the job.

Washington plays its first non-conference opponent

The Seattle Times has the story on the first ever match-up between the University of Washington football team and a non-BCS opponent.

An interesting sub-theme in the article concerns what BCS teams looking for an easy opponent are willing to pay to a team willing to take a pounding in exchange for some cash:
And with BCS teams trying to schedule as advantageously as possible, the ante has risen in attracting opponents. San Jose State, for instance, got $900,000 for a trip to Alabama last year. [UW athletic director] Woodward said "it's just nuts" what some non-BCS FBS schools are seeking in guarantees.
I think there is a paper waiting to be written (or maybe already written ...) looking at the determination of these payouts.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hard times for Fast Casual

.. plus 600 new Five Guys outlets in the next two years. A summary of what's up in the restaurant industry from Business Week.

Welcome to the Pac-12

A guide for new members Colorado and Utah from Bud Withers at the Seattle Times.

Only a week to go ....

Other people's hobbies #1

A Barbie and Ken wedding.

Slick Rick update

Ted Miller offers some optimism (?) and some kind words (?) about former Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel, now on the hot seat as coach at UCLA.

Amtrak does high speed rail

Damn Arbor notes Amtrak's performance on the Ann Arbor to Detroit run.

I sometimes think about taking the train rather than flying when going to Chicago, but it is always statistics like this that get in my way. Perhaps Amtrak should focus on being on time with their current schedule first, then try to go faster.

Faculty outreach

The Plan notes that English Departments often get requests for faculty help with grammar. The response is to send the supplicants off to the local library (?) for assistance.

On the other hand, at least at Michigan, the statistics department runs a consulting operation designed both to help researchers in other departments on campus and to give their gradual students practice at consultation, as many of them will indeed go on to do statistical consulting. When contacted by people off campus, I suspect the response from many statistics faculty members is to quote an hourly rate.

Seems to me that English departments ought to follow statistics. They would get bonus points from deans another higher-ups, who love this sort of helping. Or they could make some money by charging for the service. I wonder, though, if the real issue is some concern about whether the average level of grammatical knowledge among English department gradual students these days is actually higher than that of outsiders.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book: The End of Overeating by David Kessler

Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler's book on overeating, which I finished a few days ago, has four main parts.

The first part is all about the brain chemistry of food. I suspect that many readers never got past this part, which is either too technical or not technical enough. It is too technical for the casual reader or the reader with no science background. For that reader, most of the jargon, and many of the pages, should have been cut. For me, it was not technical enough. Lots of jargon, but not enough substance and intuition so that I actually feel like I understand what is going on. Probably the best thing would have been to make the section in the main text shorter and less technical and then to provide a technical appendix for interested reader that would also serve the function of proving that Kessler had read the literature.

The second part is about the food industry, including both restaurants (mid-range chains like Chili's receive most of the attention) and makers of processed foods such as chips and cookies. The key missing link in the literature that tries to tie together the food industry and increased obesity is a trend break in food technology at around the same time as the trend break in obesity. Without some linking of the two time series, one is left wondering why the food industry did not always cause obesity. That case for temporal linkage is not made here, though Kessler does document the not-at-all surprising fact that the food industry focuses their product development on foods that people will want to buy, whether or not the products are good for the consumer when consumed to excess. The most useful thing I took away from bit was Kessler's summary of different food items with phrases like "salt on fat mixed with sugar layered on fat with salt". That kind of sentence summarizes an awful lot of what one can find at restaurants and in the supermarket.

The third section, which I found the most interesting and which should have been longer, provides a simple summary of the cognitive behavioral theory of weight loss. I had heard or read some but not all of this material before.

Finally, there is a short section on policy recommendations. Given that at one point Kessler thanks his good buddy Al Gore for help, and given that Kessler is a public health kind of guy, this could have been a lot worse. I actually had the feeling that the policy section was an add-on demanded by the (otherwise too easygoing) editor. Much of it centers of the provision of more information about calories at restaurants, a policy that may have modest effects at the margin but seems unlikely to substantially change the overall time trend.

I found two other reviews: the NYT review is overly deferential and not very informative. In contrast, reason provides a snarky and entertaining review that emphasizes (surprise!) individuals taking control of their own choices. There is also an official webpage for the book.

Bottom line: this book is probably not worth the time but on the other hand it is far better than most books about these topics. Are there better ones I do not know about?

Page of paper topics

I just found this page of short papers laying out research agendas in economics. I took a look at the ones by Imbens and by Varian (writing about clinical trials!) and both were useful. Imbens emphasizes the econometrics of studying data on networks as well as variable selection problems that arise when the number of candidate conditioning variables rivals the number of data points.

My favorite bit from Imbens' piece:
Research related [networks] has been conducted in multiple disciplines and is a fertile area for interdisciplinary research. Sociologists have a long tradition of studying communities and social interactions, and have contributed many substantive questions to this area. They have also collected interesting data sets, as well as some statistical methodology.
Nice of the sociologists to collect some questions and data for us ...

Imbens is actually very good about paying attention to other disciplines, but I could not resist the tease.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Under the radar

A not all that informative update on Monica Lewinsky. Her wikipedia page is not much better.

How can she be 38 already?

Via instapundit

Who uses medical marijuana?

Jacob Sullum at reason summarizes the results of a survey reported in the Journal of Psychoactive Studies. The responses are remarkably supportive of the medical model, and so suggest less "cheating" than I might have thought. On the other hand, casual observation suggests that most people above the age of 25 or 30 tend to have some stress or strain in their lives that they can rely on to remove any cognitive dissonance around using the medicinal path to gain access to legal pot.

I tend to think of medical marijuana laws as de facto legalization for users clever enough to work the system, though I am sure this varies across states depending on the exact wording of the law, as well as in how it is implemented and enforced. I also think we'll see full legalization and taxation in the next decade or two, spurred on by the fact that medical marijuana laws do not turn out to cause civilization to collapse around us.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Smartphone as serpent ...

... or why I am not a (religious) conservative.

Money 'graphs:
As successor to the Machine Age, the so-called Information Age promises to empower humanity as never before and therefore to complete our liberation. Taking the form of a wireless handheld device, the dynamo of our time has truly become, as Adams wrote, “a symbol of infinity.” Rather than spewing masses of stone and steam, it offers instant access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Information Age does something else as well, however: it displays in stark terms our propensity to bow down before freedom’s reputed source. Anyone who today works with or near young people cannot fail to see this: for members of the present generation, the smartphone has become an amulet. It is a sacred object to be held and caressed and constantly attended to. Previous generations fell in love with their cars or became addicted to TV, but this one elevates devotion to material objects to an altogether different level. In the guise of exercising freedom, its members engage in a form of idolatry. Small wonder that aficionados of Apple’s iPhone call it the Jesus Phone.

It would be an interesting, and not particularly difficult, exercise to rewrite this piece from the perspective of deep environmentalism. Right, meet left. Left, meet right.

Via the Agitator

Gladwell on Lanning

UM doctoral alum Jon Lanning, now teaching at Bryn Mawr, gets attention from Malcolm Gladwell in a column about why it is helpful to think about professional sports franchises as art objects rather than businesses.

A good bit:
... it is one of the surreal qualities of professional sports that they are as welcoming and lucrative for those owners who chose to behave like 14-year-olds as they are of those owners who chose to behave like grown-ups.
Jon's paper is about the racial integration of professional baseball and, among other things, estimates the costs (in foregone profits) that owners implicitly paid to keep their teams white. An apparently ungated version of Jon's paper is here. Gladwell uses it to motivate the general idea of owners getting psychic returns from their teams.

On educational performance measures

I have a new paper:
IZA DP No. 5897
Alastair Muriel, Jeffrey A. Smith:

On Educational Performance Measures
(published in: Fiscal Studies, 2011, 32(2), 187-206)

Quantitative school performance measures (QPMs) are playing an ever larger role in education systems on both sides of the Atlantic. In this paper we outline the rationale for the use of such measures in education, review the literature relating to several important problems associated with their use, and argue that they nonetheless have a positive role to play in improving the educational quality. We delineate several institutional reforms which would help schools to respond "positively" to QPMs, emphasizing the importance of agents' flexibility to change the way they work, and the importance of a sound knowledge base regarding "what works" in raising attainment. We suggest that the present institutional setups in both England and the US too often hold schools accountable for outcomes over which they have little control – but that such problems are far from insurmountable.
The working paper version (not gated) is here, and the published version (gated) is here. They are the same other than minor changes at the proof stage.

The paper tries to steer a middle course on the question of quantitative educational performance measures, arguing that they have some value, and so should not be simply abolished, but that they should not be the whole, or even the majority, of the institutional system that seeks to improve and maintain school quality. Moreover, there is much to complain about in regard to the current design of such systems, particularly the system put in place by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in the US. The performance measures in the US job training system have problems at well, as I (again with co-authors) have written about elsewhere.

This paper is based on a presentation I gave at a conference-within-a-conference at Oxford in the summer of 2010. It is unusual for me in that the nice folks at the Institute for Fiscal Studies provided me with a co-author to help transform the talk into the paper. My co-author Alistair Muriel, whom I first met at the conference, turned out to be the perfect partner, which is to say that he writes well, works hard, and put up with the oddities of my work style. The paper is also notable for the speed of publication; due to a few days lag by me in submitting the final version to IZA, and some backlog at IZA in announcing their new discussion papers, the "working" paper actually came out after the published journal version in Fiscal Studies.

I went with IZA rather than NBER (the NBER prohibits circulation in multiple working paper series, though that rule is widely ignored by people other than me) because of the European content to the paper.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bryan Caplan on happiness and books about happiness

A generally quite good review essay from the Wall Street Journal.

High achievers at Farmville

Though I played my share of the original Sim City back in the day, I never caught the Farmville bug.

Libertarian anti-capitalism

A thoughtful and useful piece at Bleeding Heart Libertarians that tries to sort out the different meanings of the term capitalism as used in conventional political discourse. This is useful, because left and right, and various groups within the left and right, often use the term in quite different ways.

The piece also indirectly highlights the ways in which anarchists of the with and without property rights varieties resemble one another in important ways. Thinking about anarchy of both sorts is a very good way to clarify one's thinking about the state, its justification and role in economic and social life. The best modern treatment of with property rights anarchism is probably David Friedman's Machinery of Freedom.

I do think that the author implicitly understates the importance of economies of scale, as well as the potential roles of government regulation in the form of joint stock corporations and bankruptcy laws in driving economic growth. But the overall point that the free market and government support for big corporations are very different, indeed mutually incompatible things, is most important.

Really bad predictions

Hard scientist Clifford Stoll writing about the internet in Newsweek in 1995.

Not only economists make bad predictions!!

Via the Agitator. Feel free to insert your own snide remark about Paul Ehrlich.

Depends on what you mean by "free"

Maggie McNeill on celebrities, escorts, and why they don't just get it for "free" from their fans.

European financial crisis

The Economist mocks the converts to fiscal responsibility.

Gay marriage

I found this economist piece pretty heartwarming.

Friday, August 19, 2011

NCAA busy addressing important issues

In particular, the important issue of what bagel spreads schools can offer to their athletic recruits.

Hat tip: Dann Millimet

More on the media and Ron Paul

A thoughtful (as always) post from Will Wilkinson at the economist comparing the major media's treatment of Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann.

A somewhat different explanation than the one he offers is that the standard issue establishment democrats in the major media simply do not know how to think or talk about Ron Paul because he does not fit into the comfortable but conceptually incoherent boxes of red and blue that they are used to deploying when analyzing partisan politics. Under this theory, they avoid talking about Ron Paul for the same reason I generally avoid talking about macroeconomics or baseball: they want to avoid the unpleasant feeling of not understanding what they are talking about.

Economist post-tenure hobbies

In the last couple of months I have learned that two of my economist friends have embarked on novel post-tenure hobbies. One is restoring old tractors. To my surprise, there is a whole industry devoted to supplying this hobby, such as this store. The other has become a part-time lavender farmer. Oddly, the website for my friend's lavender farm does not highlight the fact that it is run in part by an economist, something one might imagine would be a major selling point.

Lately, my hobby has been buying too many books at Borders before it closes for good. I'll have to think of a new one after that.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Nicholson Baker

Odd bird Nicholson Baker profiled in the NYT.

CWA strike

Richard Epstein on the strike by the Communications Workers of America. The analogy to regulated utilities is a useful one, and it had never before struck me to think of strikes and lockouts as generators of negative externalities (i.e. costs imposed on innocent third parties) that are not compensated. Surely the optimal response is to tax those, namely the firms and unions, who generate the externalities?

Movie: Sarah's Key

A sad story of the holocaust in France. I did not know the history involved and was glad to learn it. While the NYT reviewer is correct about there being two movies in one, I thought the juxtaposition worked well at providing perspective on the problems middle class people face in developed countries.


Brainy career advice

I try not to link to things that MR links to (because I think my readers are approximately a small subset of theirs) but this piece of career advice from a neuroscientist is really good.


An Economist rebuttal, of sorts, to the BBC's list of Americanisms that Brits dislike.

Hint: if its in the King James Bible, it is probably not an Americanism.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stealing Justin Bieber

This is sad on many dimensions, not least that the robber has no friends that would come and post $120 in bail on his behalf.

It's the DIESEL jeans, stupid.

James Lileks provides a fine take-down of a very silly ad campaign.

Warren Buffettt on taxes

Warren Buffett made a big splash yesterday with his column urging higher taxes on the "super rich" in the NYT yesterday.

Like most pronouncements on policy by actors and others who are not trained in the relevant disciplines and who do not have the time to learn about them, Buffett partly, or perhaps wholly, undermines his case with relatively obvious errors.

First off, consider his empirical evidence for the claim that the elasticity of taxable income equals zero for high income individuals:
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off.
While there is much to complain about in regard to the literature on the elasticity of taxable income, I suspect that its consistent finding that this elasticity is not only not zero, but of a policy-relevant magnitude, would likely survive improvements in data and methods. This literature is not that hard to find; see e.g. Saez, Slemrod and Giertz (forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Literature) for a recent survey and in particular Section 5.1 for their summary of the evidence on the ETI. It is too bad that Buffett did not have one of his staff members go find it, and thereby avoid making a fool of himself in print.

As others have already pointed out, Buffett also gets his basic tax rate facts wrong. Again, where was the research assistant whose job it was to fact-check the article? Or, from a different angle, why does someone as smart as Buffett think it is a good idea to generalize from small non-random samples of his friends and co-workers?

Finally, like so many others, Buffett confuses income (a flow) and wealth (a stock), but at least he actually picks an income level for "rich" that does not include large numbers of middle class households with two working professionals who live in high wage labor markets like DC, NY or LA.

On the plus side, it is hard not to agree with Buffett's encouragement to his super-rich pals to devote themselves to philanthropy. Foundations can, at least in principal, use the money much more effectively than government as they should be better able to base their activities on evidence rather than interest groups. Also, Buffett is completely correct that the government needs to get its fiscal house in order. It is disappointing indeed that these salutary messages get lost among the errors.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Politics and bedfellows

Jon Stewart disses the media for ignoring Ron Paul. The enemy of his enemies, in this case the social conservatives and the folks who never met a war they didn't like, is indeed Jon Stewart's friend.

Via the Agitator

Monday, August 15, 2011

Musgrave Prize

UM graduate student David Agrawal won the Musgrave prize for the best paper by an economist under 40 presented at the International Institute for Public Finance (IIPF) conference held in Ann Arbor last week.

Given that nearly everyone at the conference was under 40, and that there was stiff competition not only from faculty but also from some of our other graduate students, I would say that this is quite an honor.

So, congratulations David!

Oh, and David is on the job market this year. Hint, hint.

Addendum: not sure why the web page lists David's affiliation as the University of Copenhagen. He's not even Danish.

Addendum 2: the winning paper can be found on David's web page. It is the one about the tax gradient.

Steve Kelly on Sark and UW football

Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelly modestly claims that coach Steve Sarkisian has "raised UW football from the dead."

Maybe so. I'm looking forward to the season.

Anti-war movement goes AWOL

This reason piece makes the good point that the "anti-war" movement seems really just to have been an anti-Bush II movement. That's too bad, because anti-war activism might actually have a larger effect under Obama.

We're #21

Michigan comes out in 21st place in a new set of rankings of undergraduate institutions.

Our niche may consist of combining big time college athletics with a top flight research university that also cares about teaching.

Why I am not a conservative #94850

Michele Bachmann has signed a pledge in which she promises to ban pornography (good luck) and oppose gay marriage. Yet at the same time, Bachmann often goes on in her speeches about freedom. Well, dear, it is one or the other. Freedom only for people who do and say things that you like is not really freedom at all.

Bachmann's confusion is hardly hers alone. American conservatism is knee-deep in people who either simply don't like freedom, despite constantly saying they do, or else support it in theory but run in fear from its exercise. In my view, freedom is not just good in theory, it is good because society is much richer due to the lives and labors of those who actually exercise their freedom, rather than just talking about it.

Rick Perry transcript

This is the sort of transcript you do not want to see when a student asks you to write a letter for something. Here is the coverage from the Huffington Post, which uncovered the transcript.

It is useful to remember that this was before all of the grade inflation we currently enjoy, so that a C or a D was likely not really the same as an F like they are now, but still, this is pretty awful.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Another one crossed off the bucket list ...

#83479 Watching economists dance to Lady Gaga

Addendum: I figured out the song they were dancing to:

I like the irony of playing this at a wedding, though they did not push the joke all the way by playing Paul Anka's wretched "Having My Baby".

Friday, August 12, 2011

Reactions to economics

My former colleague John Palmer at Western Ontario has defined an "official gesture" for his students, and collected photographs of its use.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I have mentioned on here before that some unknown person signed me up to receive five emails each day from the lefties at Sometimes they are quite interesting and other times they are completely off the rails. As an example, consider this sympathetic defense of everyone's favorite regime, the German Democratic Republic.

Oh my.

Rogoff on the financial crisis

I like this piece by Ken Rogoff. I think he is correct to emphasize that recessions generated by financial crises are different, and slower to resolve. I think he is also correct to emphasize the importance of expectations and to criticize those who focus overmuch on short term stimulation.

I would not encourage inflation as Rogoff does, even as a last resort. While Rogoff is certainly correct about what it would do I don't think our institutions are up to it and it could be just another way to defer necessary entitlement reform.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

D.B. Cooper update

Negative evidence from the DNA test on the most recent D.B. Cooper suspect.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Interview with Nicola Rooney interviews Nicola Rooney, proprietor (proprietress?) of Nicola's (resolutely independent) Books about the demise of Borders and other bookish topics.

Nothing left to cut?

The Boston Public Health Commission runs a class for teens on how to manage social media when you break up.

Note also the public health imperialism. Though these behaviors have nothing direct to do with health, the teens were nonetheless trained to describe them in those terms rather than in terms of what is nice or thoughtful.

Even the New York Times struggles (and ultimately fails) to remain serious when describing the program.

Hat tip: Jessica Goldberg, back inside the beltway after six years in Ann Arbor

Another casualty of the war on (certain) drugs

Incompetent police and war on drugs legal overreach combine to kill a Florida teen.

Can we stop now and actually be a free society, instead of just claiming to be one?

Via the Agitator

Movie: X-men First Class

We actually saw X-Men: First Class a few weeks ago, but I have been slow to blog it. I was never a comic book guy growing up, and most of the deluge of comic-based movies over the past few years have come up a bit short, but this one is near the top of the distribution.

The "never again" sub-theme and the associated (and quite explicit - nothing is subtle in this movie) parallels the movie draws between the Jews and the mutants add a worthwhile serious tone to what is otherwise high quality fluff.

Recommended as summer fun.

Ann Arbor parody news site

I have added "News of Ann Arbor" to the blogroll at the right. It is a parody news site.

This post, quoted in its entirety, gives the flavor (and is right on target):
Impasse at 4-way stop snarls rush-hour traffic

The drivers of four vehicles, each insisting that the others go first at the four-way stop at Catherine and Fourth, caused massive traffic backups throughout Ann Arbor during this afternoon's rush hour.

Witnesses said all four vehicles -- one Prius, one SUV, one BMW and one SmartCar -- approached the intersection simultaneously, coasting at about 2 miles per hour. When they stopped, each driver waved the others ahead, but none moved.

After about five minutes, two of the drivers started, but then stopped immediately when they noticed the other car moving. Complicating the situation was a growing crowd of pedestrians, some trying hesitantly to cross the street, others staring at the growing spectacle.

For approximately two hours, the drivers and pedestrians alternated between waving each other on, stopping and starting, and stewing in their own indignation. The debacle only ended after police officers brought the four drivers out of their vehicles into the middle of the intersection for a meeting that lasted 45 minutes. Witnesses reported that the group apparently took several votes -- each tied 2-2 -- before coming to an agreement.

It took several hours to clear the traffic, which had backed up to M-14 and U.S. 23. The police officer responding to the incident said none of the drivers would be charged with any crime, provided that they leave the scene immediately.

Ann Arbor city government and Bongs and Thongs

Details about current Ann Arbor city harassment of Bongs and Thongs before it even opens along with new-to-me history of a "red light district" in Ann Arbor, all from

I have three main reactions to this. First, to my amateur legal eye, the city's ordinance seems impossibly vague. It is described in the article as:
The zoning ordinance does not allow the sale of “devices of simulated human genitals or devices designed for sexual stimulation” in the D1 District of downtown if these items account for more than 20 percent of a business’ sales, according to city documents.
The second bit about "devices designed for sexual stimulation" seems loose enough to apply to every one of the women's clothing boutiques on Main Street. I suspect the ordinance would have fallen quickly to a legal challenge by the owner of Bongs and Thongs, though he has simply given up and changed his business plan without a fight (and I can't honestly argue that his is not the strategy that maximizes expected profits as the city would likely have just replaced the vague ordinance with a more specific one).

Second, the article does not mention it but there is already a sex shop in Ann Arbor, right on South University in the midst of an undergraduate-oriented commercial district, and it seems to do a good business (though, despite its name, it does not actually sell safe sex, just safe sex accessories). In particular, it does not appear to cause people to avoid walking on the north side of South University nor does it seem to cause parents to worry about the well-being of their children attending the university. Could it be that the various prudes interviewed by are just projecting their own, rather than the community's, morality onto Bongs and Thongs?

Third, I was entertained by quotes like this one:
“No one liked it. No one,” Stamoulis said.
Ya know, if it was really true that "no one liked it" then the businesses in Ann Arbor's old red light "district" (which apparently consisted of one side of the street on one block!) all would have disappeared quite quickly due to lack of sales. Instead, they apparently persisted for many years until shut down by a prudish landlord. Someone liked them!

The fact of the matter is that this article, and the thoughts and municipal behaviors it describes, show that Ann Arbor, though a fantastic place to live, is much less hip and tolerant than it likes to think it is.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Roller Derby

Ann Arbor does not strike me as the most natural environment for Roller Derby, but the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes beg to disagree.

There is even time-lapse photography of their new ad on the north side of Ali Baba's. I wonder how much they paid for that. Somehow Ali Baba and roller derby do not seem like the best fit either.


As the time for classes to restart approaches, some helpful thoughts from the Angry Professor on plagiarism.

Movie: The Trip

We saw the trip last week at the Michigan Theater. The basic idea is that two British comics go on a road trip through the north of England checking out highbrow restaurants (and, in one case, checking out the local talent as well).

The landscapes are gorgeous, the banter is clever, and watching the restaurant scenes is great fun. The movie was a bit more smarmy than I was expecting, though that was explained when I read the NYT review and discovered that it had been shown as a short TV series in the UK prior to being reedited for the screen. As best I can tell, much of the point of mass market TV is to make conventional people (who tend to be over-represented among TV viewers) feel good about being conventional, and that is precisely the aim of the smarminess here.

Both of the two main characters are apparently regulars on British TV, and Steve Coogan certainly looked familiar, though I could figure out from his listing where I had seen him before. In any event, he is apparently best known for the character of Alan Partridge. Here is an example, with a nod to my friend Peter Dolton, who hails from Newcastle in the land of Geordie (pronounced "Jordy") accents:

Recommended, if you can handle a bit of smarm.

Bambi and baseball

Apparently ground up deer antlers are all the rage in major league baseball.

Anti-doping policy is an odd bird (or, in this case, an odd mammal). It is not clear to me that the leagues should be in the business of protecting players from their own ambitions.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Geek is the word

Ann Arbor makes the NSF's (??) list of the 20 geekiest US cities.

Pot for pets

The Daily Mail has the low down on a Seattle company developing marijuana pain relief patches for pets.

Of course, SNL was a couple of decades ahead of the curve:

Hat tip on the Daily Mail story: Charlie Brown

Selling off the Borders leases on how the Borders' leases will get disposed of. It sounds like Borders No. 1 will not stay vacant for long, which is not too surprising given the prime location.

Three more on the debt ceiling "solution"

Thoughts from Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, Larry Summers in a Financial Times op-ed, and the Economist's Buttonwood columnist.

All three have wise things to say. Larry seems to forget that tax increases are the negative of spending and so is in the odd position of simultaneously calling for both fiscal expansion and fiscal restraint. I think what he really wants is net fiscal stimulus plus redistribution. Why not just say that? It's not like he is shy.

I also think both Larry and Buttonwood neglect the potentially important role of the deal in extending the duration of policy uncertainty.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Don't mess with our ducks

10 days in the slammer for "aspiring pro hockey player" Dillon Pierce.

On bowling

From the New Yorker. Hat tip: Stephan Lauermann.

Our modern government ...

... helping to not only slow but actually reverse technological progress.

From the American Economic Association email to members today:
Job Openings for Economists has been published only electronically for the past decade. Starting with the August 2011 issue, the Association resumes publishing JOE in print format, in order to ensure compliance with Department of Labor regulations for obtaining work visas for non-citizen economists. Print issues will be distributed via the U.S. Postal System two to three weeks after they are published electronically. Annual subscriptions will run from August through the following June of each year, and are $50 each. To subscribe go to Single issues are available for $45 each.
My AEA dues at waste. Thanks DOL. And it's not very green either.

Addendum: Alex at Marginal Revolution had the same reaction, about 20 minutes later.

Beltway rhetorical overkill

Reason's Peter Suderman and National Review's Jonah Goldberg review the verbal overreach during the just-concluded debt ceiling horror show. Suderman provides a bipartisan slamming while Goldberg emphasizes the hypocrisy of lefties who, not months ago, made strong, and now quite obviously false, empirical claims about differences between the red gang and the blue gang in the use of violent rhetoric. The nasty verbiage seems particularly inappropriate given that the final debt ceiling deal doesn't actually do much of anything.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Nerd heaven

The tale of a happy internet-based couple in the UK.

Two tasters:
The couple inhabit a topsy-turvy twilight world in which they cook chips or doughnuts at 3am, converse through computers even though they are sitting next to each other, and despite the fact that in theory they have an 'open' relationship, are completely faithful to one another because, as Amy says, somewhat plaintively: 'We literally don't know anyone else.'
'Why do you need to go out when you can talk to so many people on the internet? And the good thing is, online, if you don't like someone, you can block them off. But in real life you can't do that. I just have a dislike of the world. People can be annoying. I am happy this way.'
Most excellent. Does this make William Gibson a sociologist rather than a science fiction writer?

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Book: Bill Bryson, At Home

I read Bill Bryson's book on Australia about a decade ago, shortly after my first visit, and enjoyed it quite a lot. Motivated by that experience I decided to delve into his new book At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

The book is somewhat reminiscent of the old PBS series "Connections". It is well-informed history lite. Nothing is gone into too deeply, but Bryson has done a lot of reading, mostly in secondary sources, and also, perhaps more importantly, actually talked to a lot of academic experts. He also traveled himself to some of the homes he discusses, including George Washington's home at Mount Vernon and (my favorite) Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello. There are also, on occasion, discussions where Bryson is quite honest about differing interpretations in the literature or simply an absence of evidence on particular questions.

Bryson's interests in architectural history and in the history of language come through strongly. He is not much interested in social science, other than a quite interesting discussion of the dangers of stairs. There were a few bits where I thought he could have done a much better job of indicating whether the particularly bizarre behaviors he was discussing applied only to the rich, or to the rich and the upper middle class, or more broadly. One might call this a lack of nuance and detail in places.

The NYT reviewer seems to want to mock the book for being too much in the way of beach reading for people with multiple NPR totebags, but holds back, probably in light of the fact that this is the same demographic in which the NYT itself specializes. Still, the review gives a clear flavor of the book, and one not dissimilar from my own, as outlined above.

Recommended if you are in the mood for some history lite.

Oh, and the notes are here, rather than at the web page listed in the book (at least, in the Canadian edition of the book).

Jeff Ely on applied epistemology

Over at Cheep Talk, a provocative post on interpreting empirical evidence.

There are several different things going on in this post. First, there is an implicit empirical claim about the variability in inferences drawn from alternative statistical tests applied to the same data. I think this claim is incorrect. Usually, different statistical tests of the same null applied to a given data set produce the same inference. If they do not, that is a signal that the evidence provided by the data is not very strong, which is something that should be reported.

Second, there is an implicit call for what might label informed Bayesianism. Jeff wants a machine that allows the reader to apply his or her own prior to the data and then obtain the implied posterior distribution of the relevant parameters. In the absence of such a machine (and, in fact, there are Bayesian software packages that could function as such a machine) one might call for, and Jeff might be happy with, applied Bayesian analyses that presented results conditional on a set of thoughtfully chosen informative priors rather than, as is common at present, on a single analytically convenient non-informative prior.

Indeed, one can imagine having all sorts of rhetorical fun with meta-priors over priors, or even obtaining evidence on the distribution of priors in the population of researchers and using that to guide the choice of what is presented. I would argue that, in an informal way that I like to call casual Bayesianism, that this is essentially what we already do as readers of scholarly articles. We take the (almost always) classical statistical (or frequentist, if you prefer) evidence and informally use it to update our informal prior to produce an informal posterior. I would further argue that formalizing this process generally does not pass a cost-benefit test.

Contra Jeff, I think the main danger in most empirical work is not deliberate manipulation of what is presented by researchers (other than, perhaps, choosing regression specifications at the margin to get the standard error from 1.85 to 2.05) but rather coding errors in generating the analysis data or in doing the analysis itself, combined with, on occasion, not getting the standard errors right. It is those problems that keep me awake at night. Well, not really, but I do worry about them.

More on the debt ceiling

Two bits this morning:

1. A fine piece by Will Wilkinson at the Economist.

2. I felt very vindicated in my own assessment yesterday when one of my colleagues at dinner last night, who has different politics than I do, was complaining about the lack of serious (or, indeed, any) entitlement reform in the debt ceiling deal.


4. And via MR, some reality on the defense cuts.

In sum, a great big heap of nothing. Pathetic.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Debt ceiling follies ... the grand finale

There is total chaos in the interwebs about the deal today.

Here are Matt and Nick from the other day. I think their remarks are pretty much still on target.

Here is maybe the worst David Warsh column ever, in which he compares the tea party with Senator Joseph McCarthy. The tea party is just the messenger, and the message is that our institutions are failing at dealing with the principal-agent problem between the public and the state. That failure is bipartisan, both Bush II and Obama (and their associated congress-critters) have been spending like 12-steppers going off the wagon. It is ongoing abject failure to behave responsibly by politicians, combined with poorly designed institutions that allow them to do so, that result in things like the tea party, state balanced budget requirements, Proposition 13 in California and so on. Denouncing those responses just demonstrates lack of understanding of the underlying problem.

Also, was I the only one who was quite confident that the debt ceiling would be lifted? Things that can't happen, don't. This is one of them. Note that this is a variant of Herb Stein's dictum that things that can't go on forever, won't.

The WSJ declares the (apparent) deal a great victory for the tea party while Ezra Klein goes into additional detail. My own take is that it is a win for, essentially, no one. The current cuts appear to be largely reductions relative to scheduled increases, not actual cuts. Among the actual cuts are extended UI benefits, which is not where I would have looked first given the current unemployment rate.

Moreover, there are no definite future cuts of the sort that are difficult to reverse, and thus more likely to actually happen, like raising the age of Medicare eligibility, or getting rid of the first dollar side of the Medicare Part D "donut hole", or reducing social security indexing to reflect the upward bias in the CPI, or zeroing out agricultural price supports or the export-import bank or the Drug Enforcement Agency or HUD or removing all but a token number of US troops from South Korea, which has long since attained the economic wherewithal to take care of its own defensive needs.

More importantly, the broad thrust of the deal is to kick the fiscal responsibility can forward for another 18 months, until after what promises to be a truly nauseating election year. That does nothing to reduce the medium-term uncertainty about tax rates and (many) other policies that is partly responsible for holding back growth.

I give Obama and Congress a "D" for "dud".

Academic freedom

I don't often feel inspired to praise Harvard - a chip on your shoulder about Harvard comes free with graduate degrees at Chicago - but today I will, for apparently talking the talk and, more surprisingly, walking the walk on academic freedom.

The cynic in me, of course, thinks that they merely wanted to avoid detailed scrutiny of the published views of other members of their faculty who lie in different parts of the political topology.

Via Marginal Revolution