Saturday, May 31, 2008

Exercise advice from China

Hat tip: Ye Zhang

Calling Dr. Tiebout

This Washington Post story has New Jersey governor John Corzine threatening small NJ towns with loss of state funds if they do not amalgamate. This type of municipal amalgamation in search of, presumably, economies in the provision of government services, was quite common in Ontario as well.

I always wondered if there was actually any solid evidence on the size of such economies. Technological economies have to be weighed, of course, against the salutary benefits of jurisditional competition for businesses and residents. The only evidence I am aware of is Caroline Hoxby's paper that uses school district size as a proxy for competition among school districts and finds that cities with many small districts have higher average test scores than cities with one or a few large school districts.

There is also the secondary question of why it makes sense to run tax dollars for local services through the state government. I can see having the state hand out, say, sales tax revenues but I do not see the value of having discretionary state handouts as New Jersey apparently does.

Hat tip: yahoo!

Reasonable thoughts on global warming ...

This review by Freeman Dyson is remarkably thoughtful and reasonable, both qualities which are quite rare even in the highbrow policy literature on global warming.

Hat tip: Ken Troske (who is easily pleased)

Friday, May 30, 2008

My one year old can tell a small bottle from a large one ...

The one inconsistency that never seems to come up regarding nanny state regulation is why it is that consumers who cannot even manage to distinguish between 0.5 liter and 0.6 liter bottles, a in this story of outrage from Denmark, should be trusted to vote.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

My favorite signs from China

The picture above is from near the White Swan hotel in Guangzhou. We stayed there during the second week of our journey to pick up our adopted daughter.

The picture below is from one of the Ming tombs outside Beijing, which I visited on an earlier trip for a Global Development Network conference. The fifth instruction is the best one.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Getting tenure in economics: evaluating the research record

Marginal revolution has a nice discussion of how a vita is evaluated for tenure here.

I would add a few points:

First, the derivative over time matters. If you have three great papers but they are all from your dissertation, this is much less good than three great papers, one of which is from your thesis and the other two of which came later. Papers in the dissertation are presumed to embody a lot of help from your committee and so (rightly in my view) count a bit less, absent evidence in the letters that the amount of help was less than is typical.

Second, if you co-author a lot with your dissertation advisor or someone of similar stature then it is really important to help solve the identification problem by having some good papers not with the advisor.

Third, some places will read the papers and some will not. Some pleases have deans and provosts who will trust them to read the papers and some will not. If you are at a place that reads the papers, then you can get away with having great papers in non-top-five journals. If you are at a place that does not trust the department to read the papers, then you need to max out on the bean-counting criterion in order to get the tenure you seek. Which sort of department you are in is something to find out early on after taking a job, if not sooner.

I will also add a couple of remarks about the situation at Notre Dame, which comes up in the MR comments. I know a bit about this as they have hired two of my former Maryland colleagues in recent years, plus I know Jim Sullivan who has been there for a while. I also know people who have advised ND over the years on how to sort out its economics situation. First, books do not count in economics. That may be good or bad but that is how it is. Someone who responds to that information by writing books is making an informed choice. Books are fine things - I read many of them - and I think writing big picture books is a great thing for senior faculty to do as they have the breadth of vision to do it well. But it is articles in refereed journals that count and I am not sure that is such a bad thing. Second, ND has faced a lot of demand from the folks who pay its bills (that is, parents and donors) over a period of at least a couple of decades to have an economics department that teaches and has some research prominence in standard neoclassical economics. There were attempts to transform the existing department into such a department over time. These attempts failed which resulted in the rather draconian solution of simply relabeling (and consigning to a slow death through attrition and lack of funds) the existing department and more or less starting anew. Third, ND is not just maximizing the national rankings. They are also trying to satisfy a demand among their customers for a more Catholic flavored faculty. This seems perfectly reasonable for a Catholic school. So I think the history and the politics are a bit richer than the MR commenter lets on. Moreoever, there is nothing sinister about the process. ND is trying to please its customers. That is exactly what it should be doing.


Congratulations to two of my friends who have just gotten tenure:

Jill Horwitz at Michigan Law

Carolyn Hill at Georgetown Public Policy

It is very well deserved in both cases.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Ellen on the rebound

I've always had a bit of a crush on Ellen and have always admired her ability to be funny without making jokes about pedophilia or simply saying "f***" a lot. At the same time, the 15 year age difference with her new girl toy, combined with Portia's vacant stare, suggest a bit of a mid-life crisis at work.

Lessons in applied public administration

It is not a winning strategy to rely on government officials having a sense of humor, particularly German government officials.

Hat tip: can't recall because it has been a few days - ugh!


A humorous look at the life cycle of a Republican congressman.

Hat tip: instapundit

Monday, May 26, 2008

Lump sum transfers in Namibia

BIG payments in Namibia. The BBC article is a puff piece but the idea is nonetheless an interesting one. This is not a negative income tax - it is lump sum transfers from outside the system. I think much of the action will lie in the long run when the BIG recipients come to view the money as normal rather than unusual.

Also, notice the BBCs suggestion at the end that by taxing the lump sum transfers they can become self-financing. I guess addition is not a requirement for employ at the BBC.

Hat tip (on the BBC piece): Jessica Goldberg

Things the US and Iran have in common

It turns out that there is much concern in both the US and Iran about high ratios of women to men among undergraduates. I am not sure how worried I am in the US case; in the Iranian case having more educated women around seems sure to be good. Nonetheless, it is surely a phenomenon worthy of study in both cases.

Here is a piece by my friend Djavad Selehi on the situation in Iran.

As an aside, my experience in getting to know Djavad and his Iranian co-authors as a result of being their econometrics advisor for a project sponsored by the Global Development Network has been really interesting and valuable. It has changed my views on the value of personal contact with people in places that are our enemies of the moment. Back in Cold War days I used to scoff at people who thought some good could come from cultural exchanges between the US and USSR. I am more sympathetic now.

Texas polygamists

David Friedman has some thoughtful posts on the debacle in Texas around the raid on the polygamist compound.

I think the taxpayers of Texas are going to be out quite a big stack of money when all the lawsuits that result from this are over. I hope they think it was worth it for the pleasure of imposing large costs on people who are different.

And yes, the polygamists are nutbars (probably even within the set of all polygamists), but, as noted in an earlier post, defending freedom starts with defending the nutbars.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


The economics gossip world is awash in talk about the decision of Harvard President Drew Faust to nix an offer voted by the economics department to Christina Romer.

Coverage from David Warsh of Economic Principals here. Economic Principals is well worth reading in general though I think he would reject the term blog that the Crimson applies in favor of internet column or something like that.

Coverage from the Harvard Crimson here. You really notice at the end that David Card did not go to Harvard, which I guess is the point of putting the year of graduation after the names of those who did.

As far as I can recall I have never met either Chrsitina Romer or her husband David Romer but Christina was the speaker at one of the more memorable applications workshops I attended as a student.

Hat tip (on the Crimson piece) to marginal revolution.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Religion and happiness: cross-country comparisons

Will Wilkinson of the blog Fly Bottle has a nice discussion of claims about the role of religion in cross-national comparisons of happiness.

I think the key here may be mismeasurement of the religion "treatment". My sense is that for many Europeans political movements of various sorts play the same role that religion plays for many Americans. I am not the first to make this point, but political movements like environmentalism and feminism feature their own stories of original sin as well as sacraments (e.g. recycling) and the opportunity for redemption via faith (in political action) and works. They also offer social activities and a sense of contributing to and being a part of something larger than the self. To the extent that these movements, as well as social democracy (i.e. worship of the state) have replaced the traditional state-supported quasi-monopoly churches while playing the same role in generating (or not) individual happiness, then measures of religiosity that focus solely on church-going mismeasure the treatment in a way that varies systematically across countries.

Hat tip: marginal revolution

Flarf wars

It was once the case that many educated Americans and Englishmen (and women) learned their favorite poems by heart and drew great solace or inspiration from them at appropriate times. Now, I would guess, that I know no one who actively reads poetry at all. It is a literary genre that, like Marxism, exists only in small corners of academia.

But things are not quiet in those corners as this story of tenure lost due to dueling schools of poetry at Dickinson College. Wasn't that the women's college in Animal House where our heros obtained dates?

Happily, this story leads to the web page for this conference, at which the following presentation will occur:

"Jasper Bernes's essay "On the Poverty of Internet Life: A Call for Poets" (Action, Yes) argues for an understanding of internet culture in terms of the logic of capitalist accumulation and the ideological imperatives of the U.S. ruling class after 9/11. It closes with a call for poets to realize the emancipatory promise of the internet in a space and manner less susceptible to regulation and subsumption. His talk will focus on his plans for such a project, responses to the essay and the subsequent development of his thinking."

Sadly, I have plans that weekend.

Background on flarf here courtesy of wikipedia and more flarfish fun here. Sounds like (very) good fun to me, but then I spent my junior high English courses writing poetry in the style of e. e. cummings rather than learning English grammer. I have no beef with e. e. cummings but knowing how to diagram sentences would have helped in my compiler course a few years later at university.

It is a good day that begins by discovering a new literary movement completely by accident.

Hat tip: bookslut

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Some wise thoughts on Michigan football

The long description of the blog above promises discussion of college football among many other things but as yet none has been provided. The Ann Arbor News published a nice piece today by one of my colleagues in the law school (whom I have not met yet).

Its basic point is "chill out dudes" which I think is the right course. College football is here, it is fun and even if some ideal system we might design if setting up a higher education system anew might not include it in its present form, such speculations are pretty much irrelevant to what to do at the present time.

Time for Hillary to leave the race? A subtle analysis.

Video here.

I laughed out loud several times.

Perhaps not unrelatedly, it may be offensive to some.

Hat tip: Kermit Daniel

Movie: Hors de Prix (Priceless)

We saw Priceless last week at the State Theater here in Ann Arbor.

The movie revolves around a woman who is a sort of soft prostitute - she hangs out in rich resort towns and lets men buy her gifts and meals in exchange for sex and company. She has a long run goal of marrying one of these rich men (preferably an old one who will die soon and leave a large estate).

The plot thickens when she mistakes a hotel employee for a potential target. The hotel employee then falls in love with her and spends the rest of the movie attempting to woo her away from her life as a serially kept woman and into a life of romantic poverty. Did I mention this is a French movie?

The movie is fluff to be sure, but high quality French fluff with the lucious Audrey Tautou and beautiful scenes of the Mediterranean coast and of luxury hotels. There are some very funny moments and the supporting cast of rich men and women trying to recapture their lost youth (and have some fun doing it) are marvelous. I should note that Lisa really didn't like it: the main character was simply far too shallow for her to enjoy.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Structured procrastination

Wise advice, here. I will try to implement this soon.

Hat tip: Scott Wood

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Life in DC

People like Neighborhood Advisory Commissioner Mark Winstead are in fact much more common in DC than the wording of this article would suggest. They perform the not very useful function of making the lying politicians (is there some other sort?) and their courtiers look good. Certainly one would rather have a beer with a politician than with someone like Neighborhood Advisory Commissioner Mark Winstead.

And what is a Neighborhood Advisory Commission anyway? It sounds like an institutionalized forum for busybodys and bluenoses like Mark Winstead to go about making life worse for those who have the misfortune to live in their vicinity, thereby replicating in a small, local way the service that DC performs for the country as a whole.

I am so glad to be back outside the beltway.

Hat tip:

Monday, May 12, 2008

Movie: The Visitor

We saw "The Visitor" last night at the State theatre. It has the unique feature of having an economist as the main character. I was going to take a pass on this one because of some of the reviews that led me to but I am glad that Lisa talked me out of it. It is really a story about multiple equilibiria. The main character has become stuck in an unproductive and unhappy (those things not unrelated of course) equilibrium as a result of his wife passing on. He goes to a conference in New York City and stays in his apartment there, only to discover that it has been fraudulently rented to a couple of illegal immigrants, one from Syria and one from Senegal. They conspire in various ways to bring him to a new and better equilibrium, though without an overly sweet ending like you would expect in a Hollywood movie. There are some nice touches - the movie has a pretty accurate depiction of a conference and even mentions the John Bates Clark medal. The one unrealistic thing is that this very quiet and buttoned-down economist is supposed to be a development economist. I certainly do not know any development economists like that. He should be doing a subfield that involves wearing lots of suits and being overly serious, like macro or finance. I think they picked development economics to make some sort of ironic juxtaposition with his visitors from developing countries but I am not sure the sacrifice in realism is worth making. Nonetheless, the movie is recommended.

Joel Fried

My former colleague Joel Fried passed on earlier this year. Joel was one of the many senior faculty at UWO whose encouragement, good humor and lively intellectual activities made it such an amazing place to start my career.

Sad news, indeed.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Promotion to full professor

Daniel Drezner gets promoted to full professor at Tufts and opines on the many joys that it brings.

I would add that there are two other effects:

First, you start getting a lot of requests to write tenure letters. These are a lot of work as you have to basically read everything the person has written over a five or six year period. At times it is also pretty stressful in the sense that one or two negative letters (or even weakly positive letters) can doom a candidate. Some candidates deserve to be doomed but it is still hard to do. Of course, if it is someone that you think well of and whose work you are already reasonably familiar with, then it can be a pleasure. I've done a couple of those too.

Second, at some places, you start getting asked to serve on deeply boring university-wide or faculty/division/school-wide committies that do things like check on tenure decisions in fields you know nothing about. If have not had much of the second yet but I have had a lot of the first.

Hat tip: Don Hacherl

Thursday, May 8, 2008

British investment bankers gone wild

"Do we really need to ban much-needed stress-defusing banter and jolly outings to strip clubs from an industry already under immense pressure, and whose workers we are relying upon to get our economy out of the mess it is currently in?"

How is it that the British write so well?

Warning: not politically correct and may be challenging for some readers. Includes words such as "arse". My linking to this or any other article, picture, song, movie and so on does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of any or all of the contents; please do not click through if you are prone to lawsuits; do keep in mind that the memory of free speech lingers on, even at universities.

Iron Man

Lisa and I saw Iron Man last night. We had seen three very serious movies in a row - two of them about Nazis - and needed a break. It is exactly that. Conditional on genre it is excellent (with a wonderful surpise / setting up the sequel ending). I do have two minor complaints.

First, near the beginning of the movie our hero, Mr. Stark, spends three months in a cave in Afghanistan. When he comes back, he wants only two things: an American hamburger and to hold a press conference, in that order. What hamburger does his highly paid staff obtain for him? Burger King! After three months in a cave! It is true that in 1979 after two weeks in the USSR and communist Poland, most all of our high school tour group made a beeline for Burger King in West Berlin (ein Whopper mit Kase bitte!). But that is because we did not know (and indeed there may not have been) better burger places in West Berlin in 1979. There most certainly are better burger places in Los Angeles in 2008. I have no objections to product placement per se, but it should not fight against the coherence of the movie. The Maxim product placement works a lot better.

Second, at one point Stark's trusty computer butler tells him not to do something in his newly constructed Iron Man suit because "terrabytes of calclations" remain undone. Now, I recognize that in some broad sense the whole point of Iron Man is ignoring the realities of physics and engineering. At the same time, it seem like in a movie of this sort, if there are details that can be handled correctly, they should be. If you can spend 100 million plus to make the movie, then you can afford to have some actual technical person look at the script. A terrabyte is a unit of computer memory; a gigaflop is a unit of calculation. Jeez!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mr. Foucault: please call your office

Things work differently in other departments: here is a report on how things work in the English department at Dartmouth.

Hat tip:

Ken Troske: elitist?

Ken offers his views on the gas tax holiday proposed by Senators Clinton and McCain in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

In case you find the statement in the article too subtle, I'll give it away and say he does not much like it.

SES != socio-economic status

I was in DC on Monday to talk about an evaluation of the SES program. SES stands for supplemental educational services. It is a program I had not even heard of before but it turns out to be quite an interesting one. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) schools that fail to meet their performance standards (AYP in the jargon, for adequate yearly performance as I recall) for three years running must spend some of their Title I federal funds (or an equivalent amount from other sources) on what are essentially vouchers for after-school tutoring. Districts can re-capture the vouchers by attracting students to their own after-school programs but they must offer parents a choice among all state-approved providers, which includes both non-profits (both faith-based and whatever the opposite of faith-based is) and for-profits such as Sylvan learning centers. The money is pretty big here - the providers can make around $40 per hour of tutoring provided.

One important feature of this program is that spillovers are built in, as Title I funds devoted to SES are not spent on other things. This paper, which one of our ace graduate students pointed me to, is by a student of Caroline Hoxby's at Harvard and emphasizes the spillover issue.

The program raises other interesting issues as well. If vouchers for tutoring are okay, why not vouchers for the school day itself? Is it a good idea to create a new set of private sector actors who depend on federal funding? There is, apparently, a K street lobbying organization for providers of SES services, who will now fight tooth-and-nail to keep the program in place regardless of any evaluation results that might come forth. How do parents choose among alternative tutoring providers? My sense is that the information they have to go on is modest, though it may include recommendations from other parents with students in the various programs. Much of the competition may be on convenience in terms of timing and location. What determines the "dosage" of tutoring that students who do take up the services receive? That is, some students go only once, others go all year and others somewhere in between. What factors lead to this variation? What is the optimal dosage and how does it vary among students? As always, there are more interesting research questions than time to address them.

Hat tip: Alex Resch

Monday, May 5, 2008

Serious graduation advice

P.J. O'Rourke, humorist extraordinaire and one of my favorite writers, returns to peak form with this advice to those newly graduated from college.

Hat tip: Nat Wilcox

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reading First

The Reading First evaluation performed by Abt and MDRC (and a cast of thousands) for the Institute of Education Sciences was finally released today. The executive summary is on the IES website here (as is the entire report for readers with a weekend to kill) and the NYT description is here.

The evaluation is a regression discontinuity design that relies on the use of a deterministic rule based on a single index to assign reading first grants. Of course, that means that the impacts really apply only to schools near the discontinuity rather than all schools, though this fact appears not to be (amazingly) mentioned in the executive summary. The overall impacts on teacher practice are in the expected direction and the overall impacts on reading comprehension are not statistically different from zero. A subgroup analysis does find some positive and statistically significant impacts on later adopting sites.

Some remarks:

1. The study is pretty well done. I participated in one conference call about it and read some material and was impressed with the level of care. Full disclosure: as a result of that one day of activity, my name appears in the executive summary as an external advisor along with the names of a large number of my friends and acquaintances.

2. One of the four main researchers is Robin Jacob, now at Michigan. Perhaps not surprisingly, the local paper - the Ann Arbor News - reprints the NYT piece with no mention of the local angle. For reasons that are not clear to me, even their locally written stories often completely ignore the subject area expertise available at the university.

3. The NYT treats the study as estimating the mean impact of the program everywhere, even though it actually estimates the mean impact only at the study sites, which were selected not at random, to allow external validity, but because they had allocation processes that fit into the RD framework, and even though at those sites it estimates the impact only for schools near the discontinuity. It also ignores the subgroup analysis and neglects to mention who actually performed the study. Remind me, once again, why anyone takes the NYT seriously?