Monday, December 31, 2018


Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Friday, December 28, 2018

On professional behavior in economics

I am delighted to see the names of so many students I know and respect (at five different instituitons!) on this open letter.

I generally agree with the contents but have two concerns about omission. First, in order for this all to work, the procedures that departments and universities use to adjudicate claims need to be completely serious, well-documented, and scrupulously fair. Without that, they serve only to generate sympathy for the guilty and abuse for the innocent. Second, harassment comes in many shapes in forms, and includes bullying of faculty by graduate students and mistreatment of one faculty member by another. Those behaviors matter too and should be taken equally seriously rather than being ignored.


Despite our supposedly hyper-partisan present, bipartisan support for ill-advised military deployments shows no sign of going away. In regard to Syria, I liked this piece and this piece by Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Professorial disses

A fine thread of professorial digs at twitter.

Addendum: A former Michigan doctoral student on whose committee I served reminded me by email that another committee member (who will remain anonymous despite how entertaining it would be to out them) said that their first draft read like it had been "written by someone who was autistic."

Addendum: On the other end of the spectrum, there is this.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Assorted links

1. Fabio Rojas on what happy sociology would look like.

2. I quite enjoyed this Atlantic piece on "refugee detectives" in Germany. As always, the applied epistemology draws me in.

3. Stormy Daniels' visit to Madison.

4. An entertaining economics tweet with a point.

On presidential funeral rites

I am with these folks at CATO and at National Review. The spectacle is appalling, and better suited to an emperor than an elected manager.

Perhaps what people really want to morn is what someone - I do not recall just who - noted, which is that the first Bush was the last president recognized as clearly legitimate by both legacy parties.

Monday, November 26, 2018

My past self speaking at the AEI

I was at AEI a couple of weeks ago and, with the help of Michael Strain, who was sitting next to me, managed to re-find this video of my past self speaking at a 2012 event which had disappeared from the AEI webpage. I do not usually enjoy watching myself on video, but I watched this one and did not mind it too much, perhaps because the remarks have held up relatively well.

On the differences between the teams, or the lack thereof ...

Glenn Greenwald on the bipartisan lack of enthusiasm for press freedom.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Assorted links

1. A fascinating post about spending a day with a leading art dealer.

2. Sometimes a folding chair is just a folding chair. The history of Franklin in Peanuts.

3. Defacing Soviet statues in Bulgaria. I really like the one with Ronald McDonald.

4. A fine rant by Alex Tabbarok on the too-high cost of getting anything done.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Marvels of the past: Northwest Orient Gong Edition

No one believes me when I say that these commercials used to end with a gong. They did.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Family Feud: Gilligan's Island vs. Batman

This bit of pop cultural history works on many dimensions of social and technological history.

My favorite bit is when the Skipper can't come up with an answer for the question "name an actor who is also a political activist". Those were the days of specialization and division of labor ...

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Book: The Economist's Diet by Christopher Payne and Rob Barnett

Payne, Christopher, and Rob Barnett. 2018. The Economist's Diet: The Surprising Formula for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off. Touchstone Books.

The book does not really provide a diet at all, in the sense of lists of things to eat or lists of calories to count. Rather, it describes the rules of thumb that a couple of humble and entertaining economists came up with in the course of their respective weight loss adventures. Some bits of advice will not surprise: simply eating less plays a big role in their success. They frame the eating less as having one "regular" (they call it square) meal each day and two small-to-medium meals, rather than three squares. Reasonable enough, and the next square meal is never too far away. They say not to drink your calories, except beer. But what if you are a member of the wine economists' association? And they recommend weighing yourself every day. Indeed, they ascribe great power and insight to the daily ups and downs that they study via their informal mental time series analysis. I was less convinced by this part; my sense has always been that day-to-day fluctuations in weight have too much other stuff in them to justify much in the way of substantive conclusions. Maybe you have to be a macro to buy into that part of the scheme.

Fun stuff and an easy read, plus a couple of useful mind games to play on yourself that I had not heard of before; if the title sounds interesting, you will probably enjoy it.

Amazon page.
Barnes and Noble page.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

China and Trump

I found this Atlantic piece from a couple of months ago quite interesting. I think Americans (and American journalists) often forget that people in other countries see American politics through the lens of their own history and concerns, which can often make them look quite different. The line about the democrats and the cultural revolution is particularly funny.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Assorted links

1. An article title pun worthy of Jim Hines.

2. Service sector liberalization in Spain.

3. Actually, you should pretty much never rely on just one study.

4. A t-shirt I saw at Wisconsin that I don't think I ever would have seen at Michigan (or Maryland, or Chicago, or Washington)

Addendum: the link in (4) has gone away. Here is an alternative.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Book: An Academic Life: A Memoir by Hanna Gray

Gray, Hanna Holborn. 2018. An Academic Life: A Memoir. Princeton University Press.

What a delightful book! Hanna Gray was president of the University of Chicago during much of my time there - she handed me my MA in 1987 but not my doctorate in 1996. Her memoirs comprise two main parts. The first part, which reflects her background as an academic historian, concerns growing up as the child of German academic refugee immigrants who came to the US during the 1930s. This part of the book contains a very interesting (and largely new to me) discussion of this broader migration and how it played out in the US. The second part concerns Hanna's own educational and professional progress through a private high school in New Haven, Bryn Mawr, Harvard, and Oxford, and then employment as a professor and then an administrator at Northwestern, Yale and Chicago. I learned a lot about the daily life of a university administrator and about the history of the University of Chicago in particular. Of special interest for me was the short discussion of the history of the Harris School; I worked as a TA, a tutor, and then as a teacher of my own class during the transition from the Committee on Public Policy Studies to the school. Hanna's love of academic life and of historical inquiry shines through the book, as do her wise sense of perspective and dry sense of humor.

Highly recommended.

Princeton U Press webpage.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Yours truly in the NYT ...

... in this article about the Job Corps program by reporter Glenn Thrush.

I really enjoyed my conversation with Glenn but I am a bit surprised that the National Job Corps Study did not make it into the article.

Addendum: an exchange between Glenn Thrush and Alan Krueger. As I expected, Glenn argues that the NJCS is too old to be relevant. I would disagree given the stability in program design and operation. Glenn, Alan and I might all agree that we should be doing "rigorous" evaluations of active labor market programs more often that we do.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Monday, August 20, 2018

Marvels of the past: miniature golf edition

No one ever believes me when I tell them I can remember watching miniature golf tournaments on television when I was little ...

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Goth ice cream in Toronto

The ice cream is pretty good but the real selling point here is not the taste, nor the dubious health claims, but the fact that it looks really cool.

Insert your own comment about how this is some sort of metaphor for modern society here.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The return of IQ tests for work

The Atlantic documents the return of IQ tests, now re-branded as tests of cognitive abilities, to the private labor market.

I would have liked more about the legal angle - I had thought that the courts had made it rather difficult to require general tests like this that are not directly and obviously related to specific skills required on specific jobs.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Reason on the press

A very fine piece from Elizabeth Nolan Brown on the problematic priorities of the preening press.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Small town NIMBY

There were signs about this banquet hall for miles on the way to my daughter's away camp.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Monday, August 6, 2018

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Book: Wild Ducks Flying Backward: The Short Writings of Tom Robbins

I think of Tom Robbins of embodying, in his person and in his writing, many of the things I value the most about my forsaken homeland in the Great Pacific Northwest.

Many years had passed since I had read any Robbins, and reading Wild Ducks Flying Backwards over the past few weeks reminded me of why I like him. 

Two bits to illustrate:

"... language is not the frosting, it's the cake."

And the entirety of his response to the question "How Do You Feel About America?" from 1997 (hopefully the copyright police will not come after me for this):

"America is a nation of 270 million people: 100 million of them are gangsters, another 100 million are hustlers, 50 million are complete lunatics, and every single one of us is secretly in show business. Isn't that fabulous? I mean, how could you fail to have a good time in a country like that? I could live literally anywhere in the world and do what I do so, obviously, I live in America by choice - not for any patriotic or financial reasons necessarily, but because it's so interesting there. America may be the least boring country on earth, and this despite the fact that the dullards on the religious right and the dullards on the academic left (the two faces of Yankee puritanism) seem to be in competition to see who can do the most to promote compulsory homogenization and institutionalized mediocrity. It won't work. In America, the chronically wild, persistently haywire, strongly individualistic, surprisingly good-humored, flamboyant con-man hoopla is simply bigger than all of them." 

I also quite liked the essay "What is Art and, If We Know What Art is, What is Politics?

Recommended (but maybe read one of the novels first if you are new to the enterprise).

Friday, July 20, 2018

Some rather expensive memorabilia

The Brady Bunch house is on the market for only $1.855 million.

Update: the house has sold!

And another update: the house has sold to someone else.

Funny, I always thought of the Brady Bunch as a comedy rather than a drama ...

Still another update: HGTV is the buyer.

Hat tip on the updates to Charlie Brown

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

And there was great rejoicing ....

Michigan LSA Dean Andrew Martin, bane of the Michigan economics department, is leaving!

I am told that the party in Lorch Hall will continue until his departure in early November.

A bit of political humor

In the window of Screen Door Printing in Madison.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Movie: Dead Pool 2

The first Dead Pool is one of my favorite comic books movies ever. The second one is more of the same, and also clearly aiming to start a new franchise.

The NYT review captures it well, though marred by some dopey (and unnecessary) politics at the end.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Thought question

In a meeting of Donald Trump, Dennis Rodman, and Kim Jong Un, who is the weirdest man in the room?

Thinking about this will help you to clarify your notion of weirdness.

Hat tip (on the article and the question): Charlie Brown

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The culture that is Wisconsin

Best burgers in town - at least among the places I have tried so far. Plus they have Ale Asylum's Pantheon on tap.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Dierdre McCloskey gets cross ...

... with Richard Thaler in Reason.

This is (a good bit) stronger than I would be, but very entertaining to read.

Hat tip: student with shiny new job

Monday, May 28, 2018

"The Usefulness of Experiments" on the IZA World of Labor

My contribution to the IZA World of Labor entitled "The Usefulness of Experiments" is now online.

The creators of the World of Labor love their standard article format very (very) much, and admit of no exceptions to it, so writing for this outlet has a bit of the flavor of writing "haiku". It also requires more effort than one might expect given the length.

I would be curious to know how much traffic they get overall and from their stated audience of policymakers and (even more so) the policy wonks who attend to them.

Other world of labor articles I have read and liked:

Michael Rosholm: "Do Case Workers Help the Unemployed?"

Dan Black: "Matching as a Regression Estimator"

Thursday, May 24, 2018

On the sad decline of American education

Come again? What did you say you wanted on your cake?

This is much worse than "Please RSVP", but in the same spirit.

Hat tip: an old friend

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Movie: Lady Bird

I share A. O. Scott's enthusiasm for "Lady Bird" - it is probably my favorite of the movies I saw in 2017. It really captures the feel of high school as I remember it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Assorted links

1. Some good advice on avoiding low value meetings.

2. Perhaps Wisconsin economics should have a recruiting video featuring fried cheese curds.

3. Frontiers of public art in Ann Arbor.

4. Proctor and Gamble needs to hire a sense of humor. Or, educational technology runs amok at the busyness school.

Hat tip on #1: ML and on #2 to the dean and on #3 and #4 to a former colleague.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Robert LaLonde, RIP

Last week brought the very sad news that Bob LaLonde passed away after a long illness. The Harris School provides a basic biography here; the University of Chicago statement is here. I add some reflections about Bob's personal and intellectual influence on me and, more broadly, about his influence on some of the literatures into which I have followed him.

Bob was on my dissertation committee at Chicago, along with Jim Heckman (the chair) and Joe Hotz. At the time, Bob was in the Graduate School of Business (not yet the Booth School). He proved a most valuable committee member both intellectually and personally. In particular, Bob put a lot of emphasis on understanding the details of program rules and program operation. He also led by example in terms of care with data. Personally, Bob provided moral support and inspiration when the going got tough, as it sometimes does in graduate school.

Bob's job market paper, the 1986 "Evaluating the Evaluations" paper in the American Economic Review was one of the two first "within-study designs" in the labor economics literature (the other being the 1987 Fraker and Maynard paper in the Journal of Human Resources). Bob had the excellent idea of comparing the experimental impacts from the National Supported Work (NSW) Demonstration, an evaluation of a costly and intensive intervention for four groups of disadvantaged workers, to non-experimental estimates obtained by applying the econometric evaluation technology of the time to the NSW treatment group data combined with comparison groups drawn from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and the Current Population Survey. That paper had a major effect on the way that labor economists thought about evaluating labor market programs (though, oddly, its quite negative conclusions regarding the performance of non-experimental methods did not, at least in the short run, carry over into other substantive, and perhaps equally methodologically dubious, literatures). One could argue, though it would take much more space than I have here to do so in a compelling way, that the Bob's job market paper set the stage, in a way, for the "credibility revolution" that would follow 10-15 years later.

More practically, Bob's 1986 paper resulted in the Department of Labor's (DOL) decision to do its first experimental evaluation of an on-going program, namely the National Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) Study (NJS). At the same time, the follow-on Heckman and Hotz (1989) Journal of the American Statistical Association paper, which provided a critique of the LaLonde (1986) paper and which attempted a partial rehabilitation of (certain) non-experimental methods via a stricter regime of specification testing, led DOL to spend several million dollars collecting "ideal" comparison group data in four of the sites in the NJS. It was the data from the NJS that I ended up using for my dissertation (and for quite a few other papers as well).

I have two published papers that directly follow-up on Bob's 1986 paper.  The first of these, Smith and Todd (2005), written with my friend and graduate school (and Heckmanland, as they call it these days) colleague Petra Todd, arose as a response to the Dehejia and Wahba (1999, 2002) papers, the first published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association and the second in the Review of Economics and Statistics. These papers applied matching methods (and, in draft, inverse propensity weighting methods) to (a subset of) the data from the LaLonde (1986) paper. Though not encouraged by the authors, their work led some some less temperate researchers to conclude the matching could magically solve all problems of non-random selection into programs, regardless of the plausibility of the underlying identification via conditional independence. My paper with Petra aimed to restore a more temperate view of matching, one that recognizes the value of focusing attention on the support condition and relaxing linearity assumption as matching does while noting that matching does not solve the problem of not having the conditioning variables required for conditional independence and, as such, is more in keeping with Bob's original critique of non-experimental methods.

I wrote the second of the papers that follows directly from LaLonde (1986) with my student Sebastian Calonico. It appears in the recent special issue of the Journal of Labor Economics in Bob's honor.  In it, we recreate, as best we can, Bob's data on women by returning to the raw data from the NSW and the PSID. Bob's analysis file for women was lost in the 1990s, with the result that the Dehejia and Wahba papers, the Smith and Todd (2005) paper, rely solely on his analysis file for the men, as do dozens of other papers that use it to test various new treatment effects estimators. My paper with Sebastian finds that Bob's work holds up pretty well, while shedding some new light on some of the conclusions drawn from the men in Smith and Todd (2005). Bob's consistent support of such research, even when it called into question some of his choices in writing the paper, testifies to his seriousness as a scholar. More broadly, the fact that people (and I am not the only one) are still responding to a paper published more than three decades ago provides impressive evidence of its importance.

Finally, Bob had an important intellectual impact on me as a co-author. Our first co-authorial adventure was the 1999 Handbook of Labor Economics chapter on the evaluation of active labor market programs that we co-authored with Jim Heckman. Almost all of the work on this chapter took place in the course of a four-month-long forced march in the late spring of 1999. Throughout that intense and stressful and crazy but very, very productive and intellectually exciting time, Bob kept his spirits up even as the pace began to wear on all of us. He took the lead on the very fine literature survey (a chapter within our very long chapter) and also played an active role on the remaining components, particularly the discussion of social experiments, wherein the three of us aimed to lay out a middle path between naive cheerleading for random assignment and dour rejection of the often immensely useful variation in treatment status it can provide. Our second co-authorial adventure, on a paper about testing for selection in the context of instrumental variables estimators, has been interrupted by his passing. All of the co-authors on the paper, a set that also includes Dan Black, Bob's student Joonhwi Joon, and my student Evan Taylor, already feel Bob's absence.

So rest in peace, Bob, and thanks for all that you have taught me about how to be an economist and about how to be a good person while being an economist. You'll be much missed.

[I am indebted to two regular readers of my irregular blog posts for helpful comments on a draft.]

Monday, January 8, 2018

You can run from the economics but you cannot hide: Tim Horton's edition

On minimum wages in Ontario.

Who knew there were multiple dimensions to compensation?

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Science on uncited publications

This Science article was linked to on MR a couple of months ago.

It makes a case that this is less of an issue than one might think. It is surely the case that influence is only imperfectly measured by citation counts, and that there may be types of systematic (as opposed to classical).

On the other hand, what the author does not emphasize is that a more important question is the fraction of research activity that would not pass an ex ante social cost-benefit test if the researcher's private incentives (e.g. getting tenure and/or raises) were omitted from the calculation. I suspect that there is quite a lot of such research.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Assorted links

1. An update on Farrell's Ice Cream Parlours. I would have kept a bit more nostalgia, but then I used to work there. Most of the other "new" locations have closed.

2. Adding restaurants to Barnes and Noble?

3. Innovation in breakfast cereal names.

4. A quintessential Ann Arbor headline.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Economists and politics

I really enjoyed this rant from John Cochrane regarding economists as public intellectuals and, more broadly, about how economists should engage with everyday partisan politics. I am always a bit astounded that any economist is willing to identify in any but the most grudging way with either of the major legacy parties.

Via MR.