Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The mechanics of regular blogging

Chris Blattman sums it up:
My only worry: The trouble with posting substantive stuff daily is that the regimen is hard to maintain. Most academic bloggers burn out after a couple of years of this.
I am on year four. My secret to longevity? Six days out of seven I cut and paste peculiar drivel I that catches my interest on the web. Sometimes I even read part of the papers I reference. Once in a while I re-read a draft before hitting “Publish”. And on the seventh day, I rant. The secret is out!
I resolve more or less daily to increase the ratio on this blog of economics (or at least econometrics) to amusement of various sorts but Chris is correct about the time constraint. It binds with a vengeance.

Save the NLSY

I received two emails like this yesterday from different people. The NLS is a very worthy cause. It is one of the best of the major social science panel data projects. Moreover, unlikely the vast majority of things that the US federal government produces, it is actually a public good.


Dear Colleague, I am writing to alert you that the National Longitudinal Surveys (NLS) program faces the biggest threat in its 47-year history, due to a recent disturbing decision by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Despite receiving almost level funding in the current federal Fiscal Year (FY12) budget, the BLS has decided that for the remainder of FY12, it is cutting NLS funding from $5.6 million to less than $1 million – essentially eliminating the program for this year. The FY12 budget for the BLS, finalized recently, represented a reduction of 0.18% while the impact on the NLS for the unspent remainder of FY12 is a reduction of 83.9%. This disproportionate reduction represents a devastating erosion to the viability of the NLS and has resulted in an immediate cessation of field activities. Of even greater concern is that this funding reduction is being accompanied with a plan to move the NLS to a triennial data collection. Pushing these surveys out from annually to every three years will reduce the reliability of the data and could potentially be the beginning of the end of this essential national data resource. We can only achieve a reversal of this decision with your help!

At this time of economic uncertainty, we need access to the detailed longitudinal data collected by the NLS. Both the NLSY79 and the NLSY97 garner response rates of 80% or higher, and provide invaluable employment, economic, health, housing, education, joblessness, and other information to approximately 5,000 researchers in the public, private, academic, and non-profit sectors. By conservative estimates, there are more than 7,000 studies that utilize NLS data, and NLS findings have played an integral role in informing policymaking at all levels of government.

We cannot afford to lose this precious national resource. Therefore, I ask you to join me in taking action to help to preserve the NLS:

(1) Please contact Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (Hilda.Solis@dol.gov or 202-693-6000) and Acting Deputy Commissioner of BLS, Jack Galvin, (Galvin.John@bls.gov or 202-691-5200) to stress the utility and importance of the NLS and ask them to rescind these cuts.

(2) Please share this information and the attached national stakeholder letter with your network and your own institution and urge them to sign-on. The letter will be sent to Secretary Solis, urging her to restore $4.7 million to the NLS program for this year. We need many institutions and organizations to add their voice to this cause. To sign onto the letter, please contact Rebecca McGrath at 202-230-5679, or Rebecca.mcgrath@dbr.com.

(3) Please contact your Members of Congress and ask them to support the NLS, by sending the attached letter to Secretary Solis. To reach your elected officials in Congress by phone, please call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to be connected to the office of your Representative in the House and then call back to be connected to your two U.S. Senators (just let the operator know from which state you are calling). Tell each of them to contact Secretary of Labor Solis voicing their opposition to the reduction in funding for the National Longitudinal Surveys and urging her to restore $4.7 million in funding for FY12 to support this important national resource. Please join me in this effort to preserve these valuable data.

Thank you for your help.


[famous labor economist]

Monday, February 27, 2012

Assorted links

1. A fine British meditation on higher education disguised as a book review in the Financial Times.

2. The science of dinosaur sex. Maybe it is just me, but it sounds like the scientists are mostly making it up as they go along.

3. Ayn Rand on love. Seems to me that on the spectrum from complete self-sacrifice to complete selfishness, neither corner solution is optimal.

4. If you needed a reminder that generic republicans only care about the deficit when they are not in charge, here is another one.

5. Wise thoughts on the U.S. social safety net from Will Wilkinson. I would actually like to see a clearer distinction between insurance programs where the government's role is to eliminate moral hazard by forcing participation and transfer programs, where the government's role is to insure a minimum standard of living for those who cannot or will not provide one for themselves.

Hat tip on #2 and #4 to Charlie Brown. #3 is via Chris Blattman.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Apple, the NYT, and the Law of Large Numbers

The NYT worries about Apple's stock price, imagining apparently that the law of large numbers is somehow relevant to making a prediction of its future course.

At times confusing the law of large numbers, which is about the behavior of means of draws from identically distributed random variables, and an imagined law of numbers that are large, such as Apple's market capitalization, at other times confusing stock variables, such as Apple's market capitalization, with flow variables such as the GDP of countries, and, more basically, never indicating the random variable (the price? the change in the price? some other thing?) that the law of large numbers is supposed to apply to, the NYT makes a complete statistical hash of the entire discussion. There is no reason, for example, to think that stock price draws over time for a particular company represent independent, identically distributed random variables, which is what the law of large numbers applies to, yet that is what one must believe for the arguments in the article regarding the stock price to make sense.

What a mess.

Hat tip: Nic Duquette

Interpreting Rick Santorum

Also perhaps relevant, an article from Science in 1970 (!) that reports that a large majority of American Catholic women at that time (and surely the fraction has not declined since then) were using birth control methods disapproved of by the church.

My sense is that this is a manufactured culture war controversy designed to excite the social conservative base. More broadly, my general thought about moral issues is that if you think it is wrong, then don't do it, and make the case to others that they should not do it. If you convince everyone (or almost everyone) not to do it, then a law is unnecessary. If you don't, then a law is inappropriate.

In regard to this particular context, and putting aside moral / religious issues, I think it is a bad idea for government to mandate the contents of private health insurance policies. My sense is that these mandates are usually the result of coalitions of activists preoccupied with particular products or health conditions and providers seeking to promote their financial interests. My preference would be for the government to define a set of generic policies of varying levels of generosity, to provide focal points ideally based on the science and the economics, and then for private plans to be able to choose one of these and then be very clear about where and how they deviate. This view is a parallel to my view about the marriage contract, where I think that the government should define one or two default contracts, that private parties can then accept or else contract relative to. In complex contractual situations like marriage and health insurance, there is a public good aspect to having some reasonable default contracts around to serve as baselines / focal points.

Hat tip on the comic: Charlie Brown

Imbibing in Utah

Utah considers requiring that at least two members of the commission in charge of regulating alcohol sales in the state have (imagine!) actually consumed some alcohol, and not just in their wild youth.

Key bit:
Utah’s liquor regulations are among the strictest in the nation, with state-owned retail stores and tight rules in bars. And as the Control Commission’s Web site makes clear, that is not about to change soon, no matter who sits, or sips, on the board.
“The purpose of control is to make liquor available to those adults who choose to drink responsibly — but not to promote the sale,” the site says. Mr. Doughty said in an interview that the language in his bill about drinking for at least a year was meant to guarantee that the commission gets a real, current perspective on how alcohol is sold and used in the state, and weed out applicants who might have had a wild, one-time fling long ago.
“I didn’t want someone to be able to say, ‘I had glass of wine or a beer 10 years ago, and that makes me a consumer of alcohol,’ ” he said.
For foreign readers, it helps to know that a large majority of Utah residents are latter-day saints, and so do not drink.

I think this idea of having regulators be familiar with the things they regulate is an excellent one, and suggest requiring some actual pot-users in high level positions at the Drug Enforcement Agency. It certainly couldn't make that agency any worse and, at least, they might chill out a bit.

Hat tip: Ken Troske

NYC releases individual teacher value-added measures

The New York City schools have released value-added estimates for individual teaches over five years.

This should make for some lively discussion over the next few days.

For the technically inclined, the NYT reporters' mangling of basic statistics about 2/3 of the way through the article will provide some entertainment. In particular, the NYT reports seem quite innocent regarding the types of variation that will be picked up, or not, in the estimated standard errors.

The Brits report school-level, rather than teacher-level, performance measures (also based on "value-added" models), which reduces the micro-numerosity (i.e. small n)  problem a bit. My sense is that principals in the UK have a lot more control over their schools than do principals in NYC, which also argues for school-level rather than individual reporting.

Related paper by yours truly here.

Hat tip: Sara Goldrick-Rab

Friday, February 24, 2012

Assorted links

1. John Cochrane on Fed independence.

2. Blue Tractor in Ann Arbor doubles in size and gets a new menu. They are my third favorite local place for BBQ, after Zingerman's Roadhouse and Satchel's. Blue Tractor has the advantage of being walkable.

3. Upgrading Disney's California Adventure.

4. This sort of thing is why people sometimes giggle about Alabama.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's the data mining, baby

This is a funny and technically impressive story.

I am not sure why Chris Blattman finds it irritating. They are helping to bring together customers with products that are likely to be of interest to them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Assorted links

1. A sad piece on the de facto privatization of household security in Detroit.

2. The amazing Danish sperm bike.

3. On Ostalgie (which is, of all things, nostalgia for the German Democratic Republic).

4. Nothing to cut in Medicare ... no sir ... not a bit.

5.The Export-Import bank is pure and simple corporate pork. Rather than expanding its mission it should be zeroed out.

Hat tips on #2 to both (!) Lars Skipper and Charlie Brown

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Roy model = Emerson model?

"There is no special adaptation or universal applicability in men, but each has his special talent, and the mastery of successful men consists in adroitly keeping themselves where and when that turn shall be oftenest to be practiced."
From Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay entitled "Experience"

Friday, February 17, 2012

LA and the adult film industry

Reason provides a fine rant about the recent decision by the city of Los Angeles to require male adult film actors to wear condoms while on the job.

Gulliver on crying babies

The Economist's travel blog considers the important question of crying babies on planes. Gulliver suggests just putting up with it, but surely we can do better than that with a particularly unpleasant, and presently unpriced (other than the "look" from nearby passengers), negative externality.

The stand-up economist from this year's American Economic Association meetings. Warning: lots of s-bombs.

Via: Greg Mankiw

Assorted links

1. Gentrification continues in Hyde Park. It's not like the old days when we were constantly dodging small arms fire.

2. Maybe collaborative workplaces are not a panacea ...

3. Scary face pillows.

4. James Q. Wilson on inequality and the rich

5. Don't drink and drive .. your zamboni.

Tax law as applied philosophy of objects

Are X-men human?

Remind me, we still have tariffs because ...

Hat tip: Nic Duquette

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ed does transport

I try to avoid linking to things that are also linked to on Marginal Revolution, but this piece by my graduate school colleague Ed Glaeser on transport policy is too excellent not to link to.

I particularly liked this:
Infrastructure investment only makes sense when there is a clear problem that needs solving and when benefits exceed costs. U.S. transportation does have problems -- traffic delays in airports and on city streets, decaying older structures, excessive dependence on imported oil -- but none of these challenges requires the heroics of a 21st century Erie Canal. Instead, they need smart, incremental changes that will demonstrate more wisdom than brute strength.
And this:
There is an old joke that 40 years of transportation economics at Harvard can be boiled down to four words: “Bus Good, Train Bad.'
Most of this, of course, is Economics 101 (non-zero price good, zero price bad) or Public Finance 101 (have transport projects financed by the states or localities that actually benefit them rather than by the central government). But you can go an awfully long way toward improving the state of public policy in any area by just taking seriously undergraduate economics, undergraduate econometrics and cost-benefit analysis.

Valentine fun for math geeks

Google this function and guess (it's really difficult) what you will get:

sqrt(cos(x))*cos(300x)+sqrt(abs(x))-0.7) *(4-x*x)^0.01, sqrt(6-x^2),-sqrt(6-x^2) from -4.5 to 4

Hat tip: Lisa Neidert

Assorted links

1. Canada moves West

2. Religion in China

3. Extreme golf in Texas

4. Frum on Keystone

5. NYT on foreign students at my alma mater, the University of Washington

Hat tip to Dann Millimet on #3.

Applied theory question in re: junior job market

This question was raised by our junior job candidate yesterday: why do economics departments require junior job candidates to wear suits, when they will not be required to (and, in nearly all cases, will choose not to) once they have a job.

Not requiring a suit for the job talk would seem to provide a possible recruiting advantage for economics departments relative to biz schools as it would make very salient to the candidate the fact that a decent chunk of that higher biz school salary will be spent at clothing stores and, of what is left, at least some is compensating difference for having to play dress up all the time.

I tried to think of a reason why making the candidate wear a suit could be a good idea, and the only thing I could come up with is that it makes them stand out in the department during their visit. If you see a young person standing in the hall looking lost in a suit in January and  February, you know it is a junior job candidate!  But this seems like a thin reed to support such a strongly set behavior.

Perhaps the cheap talkers have an answer?

Hat tip: Herr Stroebel

Urinal economics

Cheap Talk provides economics you can use, at least if you are male.

I recall the urinal game - see the comment from Lones Smith - from graduate school. And, you know, I bet it was Lones who was passing it around then too.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

UM history: typewriter edition

Great old photos of UM students typing up their work on coin-operated typewriters.

Live music: Dorkestra

We caught the first set of Dorkestra's performance last night at a local venue and quite enjoyed it. They reminded me a bit of Manhattan Transfer, though with broader musical tastes and, well, more dorks.

Recommended for locals interested in a bit of musical fun.

The link is to their myspace page; they are on facebook too.

Alternative job search strategies in economics: Justin and Betsey edition

Nice of the NYT to produce a puff piece on Justin and Betsey in the midst of their senior job search! I wonder how one goes about setting that up?

I was a bit surprised by this:
BUT it is their work on lovenomics, as it might be called, and their popularity with the news media, that have brought them attention outside the academy. Their modest celebrity has led to some sniping among their peers — several would not publicly declare their criticism — but their fans are effusive.
I do not always agree with Justin on policy stuff, but he never embarrasses the profession by lowering the level of debate to personal attacks in the way that some other economists do.  My sense too is that Betsey did a fine job in what is truly a thankless and mind-numbing (and poorly paid) position as chief economist at the Department of Labor. And the debate within the profession about whether the economics of the family is a good idea or a bad one was settled a long time ago in the affirmative.  Moreover, popular economists who emphasize the economics over the politics do both society and the profession a big favor by encouraging interest in undergraduate economics courses.

I was surprised by this bit too:
They are now writing an introductory economics textbook.
Seems like a bad productivity signal for the senior job market to me.

And worse yet is this:
Ms. Stevenson has ... a stylish taste in clothes and shoes. 
Those familiar with the level of dress in the typical economics department will understand that hiring a colleague with a "stylish taste in clothes and shoes" imposes a huge burden on everyone else, who then looks worse by comparison and, as a result, feels badly about their appearance and/or wastes real resources trying to catch up. Really, the NYT is not helping them here.

If you can get past occasional airhead reader stuff like this bit:
Their home in Philadelphia, in a historic building that once housed an African-American publishing house, features soaring ceilings and custom iron work. A glass-top Noguchi coffee table is in the living room, next to a white Jonathan Adler casting couch covered in a sheepskin throw from Costco. In the attic is a home gym with a treadmill, a boxing bag, a recumbent bicycle and a flat-screen television.
the remainder of the article is well worth reading and includes some information about what graduate courses in economics are like.

Addendum: Tyler Cowen thinks about the NYT profile of Justin and Betsey in terms of the new Charles Murray book as well as his older book the Bell Curve.

Addendum 2: Additional interpretative information for those new to this blog: This post was not really intended as a "zing" but rather as some gentle teasing, a bit of praise, and some cheerful mocking of the NYT and (some of) its readers and their evident interest in the dress and decorating habits of economists, the latter of which strikes me as rather like looking to actors for guidance in politics. Finally, I know both Justin and Betsey, though not well, and my impression is that one or both of them reads this blog at least occasionally. I wrote the post with the understanding that they would read it.

Addendum 3: In just over a day, this post is third on my all time list, after only my post on matching and my post on journal spam.

Via: Greg Mankiw

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Aborting the contraception policy follies

The economist reports an apparent "compromise" on the issue of forcing insurers to cover contraceptives but neglects to actually mention the economics of the issue. To wit:

1. Health insurance and, indeed, many health expenditures in general are, for historical reasons, tax favored in the US. Put differently, the tax system distorts prices in favor of health care and away from other goods. This results in over-consumption of health care and a loss in welfare to society as a whole. A welfare-increasing policy would seek to reduce the number of price distortions, rather than increasing it.

2. More broadly, it makes little sense for "insurance" to cover small, predictable expenditures. No one does this with their car insurance. The reason they do it with health insurance is because of the tax favoring mentioned above, which overcomes the lost output due to the administrative overhead associated with the insurance system. We should be trying to move away from this equilibrium, not swimming further out into the seething ocean of bad policy design.

There is no reason to even wheel in moral concerns here. All you need is economics.

A different angle on the issue from Greg Mankiw.

Requests for letters of recommendation

This is from the LSE:


Dear Jeffrey Smith,
You have been asked by NAME OF STUDENT (EMAIL OF STUDENT) to complete a letter of reference for the London School of Economics and Political Science in support of FIRST NAME OF STUDENT's application for the following programme(s):


Firstly, thank you on behalf of LSE and NAME OF STUDENT EMAIL OF STUDENT for agreeing to supply a reference. We realise this is a busy time of year and that you will receive many such requests.


Actually, if the LSE admissions office really cared about my time, they would add a line or two of code to the program that generates these emails that would write out the names (i.e. actual English words) of the programs being  applied to rather than providing obscure administrative codes, as if I had nothing better to do all day than to poke around the internet trying to find out what N3UA might be.


Fed humor

Valentine's Day humor with a money and banking flavor from the folks at the Fed.

As an aside, I think there is a bit more competition for being "the closest thing the economics profession has to being a certified hipster" than the Wall Street Journal lets on, perhaps even from among my junior colleagues at Michigan.

Via Justin Wolfers on Facebook

My favorite Economist cover ever

One of my colleagues at Western Ontario had this on his door for a long time.  I've gone looking for it on the internet a couple of times, but finally found it the other day in an article about the best Economist covers.

Prices matter: luggage edition

Imagine the surprise of the airlines when they started charging for checked bags but not carry-on bags! People started carrying-on more bags. Who could have predicted this? Surely there is some model about to capture this odd behavior.

For me at least, one of the two main values of being a frequent flyer on Delta is getting to board early, which implies not having to worry about overhead bin space (the other is sometimes getting to sit in the front). The frequent flyer miles themselves are a distant third.

Of course, I never checked bags unless I absolutely had to, even without the fees, because it sucks up an extra 20-30 minutes at the end of the flight and runs the risk of damage or loss of the bag.

Math in the UK

Is math (or maths, as the brits would say) falling out of fashion in the UK? So says a recent report.

There are few better investments one can make in one's youth than learning lots of math. Perhaps the most important benefit that I received in college from majoring in both economics and computer science was that computer science required math through numerical analysis, while economics, at the time, required only one quarter of college calculus. I would never have survived the first year in the Chicago economics program  (nor, probably, would I have been given the opportunity to try) without the extra math.

The trick, of course, is making the point about the importance of math as a parent without simply causing rebellion and the opposite of the behavior one intends to promote.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Does being a union boss pay well?

From portside.org, a meditation on highly paid trade union presidents.

I think I would be more worried about the long terms in office than about the salary levels. Perhaps some term limits might be useful in the labor union context?  An interesting comparison would be to the typical tenures of CEOs of similarly sized public companies. I suspect the mean is lower for the CEOs.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My day, yesterday

7:00 Get up, eat breakfast, check email, be astounded at how many people have read my post on graduate admissions, surf a bit.

7:30 Walk (!) to campus

8:30 Attend the "causal inference in education research seminar" which features a really interesting paper by a graduate student in statistics on bandwidth selection in regression discontinuity designs. Make lots of comments. Think interesting thoughts.

10:00 Walk to my office, check emails, meet with a clever student, be happy that one of my students got a great post-doc offer.

11:30 Attend a junior job talk by an interesting and entertaining job candidate. My colleagues hold the mistaken belief that we gain some sort of strategic advantage by keeping our flyouts a secret, so I cannot say who the candidate was, but the candidate had an Australian accent.

1:00 Have a nice chat about junior hiring and about some graduate students with one of my clever junior colleagues.

1:30 Meet with one of my clever graduate students about our joint paper.

2:00 Meet with one of the students in my undergraduate class about her presentation next week. She is well-prepared and eager to learn more about the methods used in the paper.

2:30 Yesterday was the first day of student presentations of published papers followed by class discussion in my undergraduate seminar on program evaluation. The presenter did a very good job and, unlike in some past years, the discussion took right off among the students so that I hardly had to say anything. This makes me very happy.

4:00 Attend the quantitative methodology seminar at the Institute for Social Research. The presenter is one of my graduate students. She does a good job with her opening my remarks, and then my colleagues, drawn from five or six different departments and schools around campus, provide a non-stop stream of really useful comments on the work. Huge value-added.

6:30 Go to dinner at Zingerman's Roadhouse with the job candidate and two of my clever and entertaining colleagues. The service and the food, as always, are as good as the company.

9:45 Check my email and find out that one of my students (a different one than the one who got the post-doc offer) got another flyout. I am very happy.

The amazing bit: I am paid to have days like this.

Addendum: there are a lot of grumpy people on econjobmarketrumors.

Addendum 2: so the comments on econjobmarketrumors have been on my mind (which is why one should never, ever read comments on econjobmarketrumors). I think the deal is that I write this blog on the assumption that most readers either know me personally, or read regularly, or both. I can see why a reader not in either category might misinterpret both this post and the one on letters of recommendation.  Something to keep in mind going forward as I write.


Congrats to my friend and semi-student (*) Scott Imberman for landing a job at Michigan State, and to my clever friends at Michigan State for hiring him!

(*) I formally left Scott's committee when I left Maryland but still wrote a letter for him when he was first on the job market.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A very entrepreneurial idea from a UM undergraduate

This is priceless! I rarely walk to work late on a Saturday or Sunday morning, but the evidence from the few times I have suggests a non-trivial demand for this important service.

 The video creator's blog is here.

Via: Damn Arbor

Addendum: Apparently this was not working for a while. A new, improved version is here.

Progress in East Lansing

Put slightly differently: only 12 percent of our fans are drunk!

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Monday, February 6, 2012

Urban ruins: North Brother Island

The Daily Mail provides pictures and some history about an abandoned public health facility in New York City.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Callista the Transformational Wife

Maureen Dowd has some catty (and, to be sure, ideologically driven) fun at the expense of Newt's third wife.

While it is certainly possible to go overboard, having a partner who is a bit of a cheerleader is actually pretty nice. I have learned how to do this from my wife, who is very good at it. Mutual cheerleading, up to a certain point, is also, I suspect, one of the keys to a successful relationship.

Via Arthur Robson on Facebook

Summers memo

David Warsh at Economic Principals has some thoughts about the memo on policy responses to the initial phases of the great recession written by Larry Summers during the lead-up to the Obama administration.

Dirty dancing in Mundelein

A fine memo from the Smoking Gun.

Those kids today! Good thing we never got in trouble when we were young.

Graduate school admissions

A fine description of the decision process for graduate admissions from the folks at orgtheory.net. Almost all of it carries over from sociology to economics, with the exception of the fact that in economics you basically must have a GRE math score over 750, if not over 780, or you are done.

I would reinforce two additional bits. First, most letters are completely uninformative. And the reason for that is not that the letter-writers would not like their letters to be informative, but rather because they have very little information about the student requesting the letter that is not obvious from their transcript. I wrote five or six such uninformative letters this year for students from my undergraduate regression class. What I can add to the transcript is (a) information about course content - which is relevant for places looking to hire regression runners, but not so relevant for graduate schools; (b) their relative rather than absolute performance in my class and (c) information about the overall level of grade inflation at Michigan as it relates to their transcript as a whole.

Second, at some point in the winnowing process it comes down to randomization and hunches. When I did graduate admissions at Maryland one year I was handed 120 folders from the "rest of the world" - there, as at Michigan, there is geographic specialization by faculty on this task. I read through them all and managed to narrow down the choice set to about 20 strong applications. At that point, I essentially randomized because that was no more or less arbitrary than any other scheme I might have used given the extreme multi-dimensionality of the choice problem. So, I picked the applicant who said in his personal statement that his friends called him "Golden Eagle" and the one who talked in his personal statement about playing Dungeons and Dragons. I kind of intended to follow up on them to see how they did, but I lost track once I left Maryland.

Addendum: in two days, this is #5 on my all time pageview list.

Good help is hard to find ..

even at the shiny new Whole Foods in Mississauga, Ontario.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

PhD Lexicon

Via Nat Wilcox on Facebook

Strategic responses to performance management: home edition

Our daughter is occasionally the subject of performance management - i.e. numerical targets for particular outcomes - especially around healthy foods.  The other night she had a performance target to meet regarding the number of cucumbers on her plate that she was to eat. The reward for meeting the performance target was some treat or another.

Performance management is, of course, designed to (partially) solve principal agent problems, where in this case the principal is mom and the agent is our daughter. At some point during dinner, the principal left the room, at which point our daughter (but 4.5 years old) realized that she could alter her measured performance without changing her actual performance by engaging in strategic behavior. In particular, she picked up her cucumbers and carried them over to where I was sitting and put them into my salad, and then returned to her chair in time for mom's return to the room.

Imagine the warm glow in my cold economist heart.

You know, someone ought to write a book about all this.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Salvia Salvation

I had never even heard of the drug Salvia until reading this reason story - yes, I am way behind - by Jacob Sullum, author of Saying Yes. Salvia is, of course, the new heroin/crack/etc. despite any serious evidence of it having actual ill effects on people who use it.

The story is notable for two things. The first is that Sullum actually takes one for the team and gives a first hand account of trying Salvia, both via tincture and via water pipe. The second is its portrayal of state legislators, quite a number of whom, from many states, Sullum interviewed for the story. One sort of knows intellectually that the sort of people who sort into state legislatures are not very clever, nor particularly concerned with, or even good at dealing with, empirical evidence. But this story just rubs you in the face with their willingness to ban substances about which their only knowledge is a youtube video or some remark by a relative.

The real bad drug here is government. It truly is amazing that we have any freedom left at all.

Movie: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

We saw Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a couple of weeks ago at the State Theater.

I really liked it. It is a very old school, highbrow sort of spy movie - the antithesis of, say, Mission Impossible - with impeccable acting, gorgeous sets and scenes that capture the grey soul of 1970s Britain, and an intricate plot that slowly unravels throughout the movie. Don't expect a lot of chase scenes, explosions or automatic weapons. Do expect a stimulating couple of hours. The NYT likes it too.


Dump Ellen?

Social conservative group "One Million Moms" wants JC Penny to drop Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson because well, you know, she fools around with women. And that, is very, very naughty.

I have to fess up that I have always had a bit of a crush (unrequited, obviously) on Ellen. So maybe I am overly defensive. But let me, for the moment, try to put myself in the head of a social conservative (eeek!). Ellen is probably (certainly?) the only major comedian whose routine is not filled with swearing and sex both on (where there are limits) and off (where there are not) of network television. Indeed, part of what makes her such a great comedian is that she can get laughs without dropping the f-bomb or making people squirm with jokes about pedophilia and incest (as in the last George Carlin show I saw). One might, as a social conservative, contrast Ellen with, say, my favorite late-night host Craig Ferguson, who drops the f-bomb constantly even on his network show (bleep, bleep!) and who, for example, might spend an entire monologue on jokes related to the adult video awards. Is what you do in bed, where no one can see, so important to social conservatives relative to what you do in public that it trumps everything else?

Frankly, I think the Million Moms need to get their collective minds out of the gutter (or at least out of Ellen's bed) and find something actually useful to do with their time, energy and money. I commend Martha Stewart's website for this purpose.

Hat tip: Dann Millimet

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Super Bowl in London?

Richard Florida on holding a Super Bowl in London.

At first blush, I thought this seemed like an odd idea given the failure of NFL Europe to create a successful American football league outside of the US.

On the other hand, perhaps the NFL will end up like the England's Premier League in soccer (i.e. football everywhere but the US and Canada) with fans around the world following via satellite TV and the internet. Fox Sports was hyping Premier League games during its NFL playoff broadcasts.

And in Canada, my sense is that the NFL actually has more fans than the local league, the CFL, even though there are not any NFL teams (unlike the other major sports leagues - NBA, NHL and MLB) in Canada. I am not sure I ever met an actual Canadian who would fess up to having watched a regular season CFL game, though many watch the Grey Cup (the Super Bowl of Canadian football) as a sort of patriotic duty.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I gather that the "state of the union" address was last week. As is my habit, I took a pass on sixty minutes of lies, mangled statistics, anecdotes posing as data and patriotic balderdash.

Much more entertaining than this year's SOTU is Matt Welch's uber (how does one get an umlaut on here?) SOTU constructed by taking one sentence from each SOTU starting in 1961 and then cobbling them together. Not only are the speeches empty, they are remarkably stable in their emptiness.

Supplier induced demand

This picture is from outside Northwestern University Hospital in downtown Chicago. It was taken a few weeks ago when I was in Chicago for the American Economic Association meetings.

Learning about the graduate students

I have been reminded a couple of times in recent weeks that one side benefit to writing letters of recommendation for students who are trying to get funding from the university or from outside sources so that they do not have to be teaching assistants is that you learn a lot about what they have been up to - e.g. learning other languages - or about their backgrounds - e.g. founding an NGO as an undergraduate - that they otherwise neglect to tell you.

Given that writing letters of recommendation (and filling out the associated forms that require guessing how much everyone else who is filling out the form is inflating their ratings of their students, so that you inflate by just the right amount to keep the overall ranking consistent with underlying student performance) has no other direct faculty payoff, it is good that it plays this indirect informational role.

Defining macroeconomics

"Macro is micro without micro data."

- A colleague who likely prefers to remain anonymous