Monday, December 31, 2007

The depressingly low value of a GED

Although GED recipients have the same measured academic ability as high school graduates who do not attend college, they have the economic and social outcomes of otherwise similar dropouts without certification. Despite measures of cognitive ability similar to high school graduates, GED recipients perform significantly worse in all dimensions when compared to them (Heckman and Rubinstein [2001]). GED recipients lack noncognitive skills such as perseverance and motivation that are essential to success in school and in life. The GED opens education and training opportunities but GED recipients do not reap the potential benefits because they are unable to finish these activities. GED recipients attrite from the military at the same rate as other dropouts and they exit post-secondary schooling with nearly the same degree attainment rates as other dropouts who start with no credential.
--James Heckman and Paul LaFontaine, "The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels"

Did the South have a chance?

Using a unique dataset of Confederate gold bonds in Amsterdam, we... estimate the probability of a Southern victory from the summer of 1863 until the end of the war. Our results suggest that European investors gave the Confederacy approximately a 42 percent chance of victory prior to the battle of Gettysburg/Vicksburg. News of the severity of the two rebel defeats led to a sell-off in Confederate bonds. By the end of 1863, the probability of a Southern victory fell to about 15 percent. Confederate victory prospects generally decreased for the remainder of the war.
--Marc Weidenmeir and Kim Oosterlinck, "Victory or Repudiation? The Probability of the Southern Confederacy Winning the Civil War"

Venturing outside the ivory tower

I wonder how different the economics profession would be if economists were expected to do a year of service outside of academia or, at the very least, if hiring committees rewarded a year of real-world experience as the equivalent of, say, a couple of academic publications. My conjecture is that the profession would be less creative but more useful.
--Greg Mankiw on polluting the economics profession with the real world

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Human subjects protection gone amok

In Bethesda, Md., in a squat building off a suburban parkway, sits a small federal agency called the Office for Human Research Protections. Its aim is to protect people. But lately you have to wonder. Consider this recent case.

A year ago, researchers at Johns Hopkins University published the results of a program that instituted in nearly every intensive care unit in Michigan a simple five-step checklist designed to prevent certain hospital infections. It reminds doctors to make sure, for example, that before putting large intravenous lines into patients, they actually wash their hands and don a sterile gown and gloves.

The results were stunning. Within three months, the rate of bloodstream infections from these I.V. lines fell by two-thirds. The average I.C.U. cut its infection rate from 4 percent to zero. Over 18 months, the program saved more than 1,500 lives and nearly $200 million.

Yet this past month, the Office for Human Research Protections shut the program down. The agency issued notice to the researchers and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association that, by introducing a checklist and tracking the results without written, informed consent from each patient and health-care provider, they had violated scientific ethics regulations. Johns Hopkins had to halt not only the program in Michigan but also its plans to extend it to hospitals in New Jersey and Rhode Island.
--Atul Gawande, NYT, on ethics bureaucracy excesses

The Harvard ego

Actually, Harvard performs an educational miracle. It is, I believe, an educational miracle. Year after year we seem to deny the laws of mathematics. Here’s how we do it. We survey the freshmen, and we ask them, do you think you’re in the top half of the class or in the bottom half of the class? About 60 percent say that they’re in the bottom half of the class. We also survey seniors. Are you in the top half of the class or are you in the bottom half of the class? And almost two-thirds say that they are in the top half of the class. It’s really quite remarkable what we are able to do for you.
--Larry Summers, addressing entering Harvard freshmen in 2004, on the nurturing of the Harvard ego

Friday, December 28, 2007

Black Friday "bargains"

Of 52 items the Globe tracked over the five-week holiday shopping season, only five items were cheapest on Black Friday. The vast majority of the products either stayed the same price or fluctuated above and below the Black Friday price from week to week. Seven items were actually cheaper the day before Christmas than on Black Friday.
--Jenn Abelson and Rebecca Fitzgerald, Boston Globe, on why you shouldn't wake up at 3 A.M. the day after Thanksgiving

The benefits of fame

Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, you know?
--Chris Rock on fame

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The odds

My favorite statistic in the world is that you would have a better chance surviving the Titanic than getting a tenure track job in the humanities...
--Penelope Trunk, Boston Globe, on reconsidering that humanities Ph.D.

Santa and the IRB

Dr. K Kringle
Adjunct Professor of Child Psychology
Far Northern University

Dear Dr. Kringle (Ph.D, M.D., D.O.? Please verify your credentials):

At the regularly scheduled December 24 meeting, the IRB reviewed your protocol, "A Global Observational Study of Behavior in Children" While we believe it has many good features, it could not be approved as submitted. If you choose to revise your study, please address the following IRB concerns:

1. You propose to study "children of all ages." Please provide an exact lower and upper age limit, as well as the precise number of subjects. Provide a statistically valid power calculation to justify this large of a study.

2. Your only inclusion criterion is "belief in Santa Clause." Please provide a copy of the screening questionnaire that determines such a belief. Provide a Waiver of Authorization under MPAA in order to record these beliefs prior to enrollment in your study. The Board recommends that you obtain a Certificate of Confidentiality as beliefs are sensitive and personal information.

3. You propose to "how when they are sleeping and know when they are awake". How will this be done? Will children undergo video monitoring in their beds? Will they have sleep EEGs? You list 100 elves as research assistants. Are any of them sleep physiologists? Please provide credentials of elves.

4. Your primary outcome measure is to "how when they've been bad or good." What standard is being used to determine "goodness'? Do children have to be good all year or just most of the time? Please specify required duration and provide the instrumentation, with appropriate consent forms, that will be used for operationally defining "goodness".

5. You propose to conduct your research by entering the subjects' homes through the chimney. Have you considered the liability potential, i.e., damage to the roof, carpeting, etc., that this will cause? Moreover, children are likely to be startled by your appearance late at night. Please revise your protocol to conduct your home visits between 9 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday with at least one parent being present and all risks and benefits carefully described.

6. You state that compensation for participation will be "sugarplums, candy, and toys" for the good little girls and boys. This may not be appropriate for the chiIdren with obesity, dental cavities, and hyperactivity. Also, your proposal to leave a lump of coal in the stockings of the bad children will be unfairly stigmatizing to them individually and as a group. In general, the Board suggests a small token of appreciation for all participants. Perhaps a $5 Toys-R-Us gift card would be more appropriate in order to avoid potential coercion.

7. The database of good and bad children will be kept "on a scroll at the North Pole." Please describe the location of the scroll and the security provisions you have in place to protect the data. Is the scroll kept in a locked cabinet in a locked room? Who has access to the scroll? Are there backup copies of the scroll and how often are they compared to the original?

8. You mention the participation of "eight tiny reindeer" in your protocol. Please provide the Board with documentation of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approval.

9. Please provide the Human Subjects Protection training dates for Mrs. Claus and the elves.

10. As this study involves prospective data collection and is more than minimal risk without prospect of direct benefit to the subjects, informed consent signed by both parents will be required. Please have the consent form translated into every language spoken by children.

Please submit 25 copies of your revised protocol to the IRB. The IRB will be on Holiday Season schedule for the next two weeks. If approved, you will be able to conduct your study sometime in the spring, if all items are appropriately addressed.

E. Scrooge, MD
Chair, Institutional Review Board

Friday, December 21, 2007

Is it sexual harassment?

Case Study: Gorilla Suit

Kendra was a research associate for The Gorilla Foundation. As part of her duties, Kendra helped care for Koko, the sign-language talking gorilla.

Using sign language, Koko is able to communicate with humans. Over the years, Koko has repeatedly requested that female human visitors display their breasts to her. In fact, certain of Koko's hand movements were interpreted as a "demand" by Koko to see exposed human nipples.

Accordingly, when Koko made the signs about Kendra, Koko's primary caregiver instructed Kendra to expose her breasts to Koko as a way to bond with the great ape.

Although Kendra used to regularly dress in front of the pet parrot that lived in the Foundation's women's locker room, Kendra is uncomfortable with Koko's "demand."

This scenario is based on a 2005 case called Keller v. The Gorilla Foundation. Could Kendra complain that she was sexually harassed?

* No, because Kendra exposed herself to the Foundation's parrot and Koko wanted Kendra do the same thing.

* Probably not, because Koko is not a human.

* Only if she first "signs" to Koko that she will not indulge Koko's request.

* Yes, and the Foundation was required to take effective action to stop the harassment from continuing.
--Actual material from a sexual harassment training course, as reported by

Medical myths

  • People should drink at least eight glasses of water a day
  • We use only 10% of our brains
  • Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death
  • Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster, darker, or coarser
  • Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight
  • Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy
  • Mobile phones create considerable electromagnetic interference in hospitals
--Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll, British Medical Journal, on medical "facts" that have no supporting evidence

Incomplete adaptation

Many of you asked why [Tony] Romo would date [Jessica] Simpson in the first place. After all, he could date anyone he wants, and even if he's attracted to Simpson because he has a thing for top-heavy blondes -- we don't know this for sure, but I'm guessing -- he could just as easily find an equally top-heavy Texas blonde who a.) doesn't have a Svengali father who travels everywhere with her, b.) doesn't have press following her every move, c.) isn't divorced, and d.) didn't become famous simply for being dumb, right?

Here's my theory, which we could call the Affleck/J-Lo Corollary: When people become famous, we think of them only as celebrities and forget they were once normal -- people like you and me -- who became normal people who were also suddenly famous. Now, fame eventually changes just about everyone, but a small part of every celebrity will always be in perpetual disbelief that they're famous and their life worked out the way they wanted it to work out. It's that small "part" that draws celebrities like Ben Affleck and J-Lo to each other ... they're always in disbelief they scored the other celeb.
--Bill Simmons,, on the origin of bad celebrity romances

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The butler didn't do it?

For most of the post war period, economic expansions did not die of old age. They were murdered by the Federal Reserve in the name of fighting inflation.
--Larry Summers

So true

Five studies investigate identity denial, the situation in which an individual is not recognized as a member of an important in-group. Asian Americans are seen as less American than other Americans (Study 1) and realize this is the case, although they do not report being any less American than White Americans (Studies 2A and 2B). Identity denial is a common occurrence in Asian Americans' daily lives (Study 3). They react to instances of identity denial by presenting American cultural knowledge and claiming greater participation in American practices (Studies 4 & 5). Identity denial furthers the understanding of group dynamics by capturing the experience of less prototypical group members who desire to have their common in-group identity recognized by fellow group members.
--Sapna Cheryan and Benoit Monin, "'Where Are You Really From?': Asian Americans and Identity Denial," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, November 2005

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The mystery of our motivations

“You get a focus group together and you ask them which toothpaste they use,” [Republican consultant Mike] Murphy told me, “and they say, Crest. And you ask them, ‘Is it because of the ads?’

“‘Oh no, of course not!’ they say. ‘I never listen to ads. Ads don’t affect me. I make up my own mind.’

“‘Oh, OK, so why do you use Crest?’

“‘Because four out of five dentists recommend it!’ ”
--Matt Bai, NYT, on the limits of self reports of motivation

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A home run every time

It’s not possible to make one perfect movie every time. I don’t know of anyone who has done it. I guess Kurosawa has come the closest.
--Francis Ford Coppola, NYT Magazine, on the greatness of Akira Kurosawa


I was able to follow what my heart desired without overstepping the moral bounds.
--Confucius on freedom at age 70

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Expanding the coffee pie

[Taylor] Clark is frank about his bias: “Starbucks diminishes the world’s diversity every time it builds a new cafe, and I can’t help but feel troubled by this.” But when Clark looks at whether the towering Mount St. Helens that is Starbucks, with its volcanic eruptions of store openings, has buried the competition, he has the grace — not given to every pundit — to look at what he’s actually seeing. Clark informs us that in 1989 there were 585 coffee houses in America. Now there are more than 24,000. Fifty-seven percent of these are what Clark calls “mom and pops.” “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the surest way to boost sales at your mom-and-pop cafe may be to have a Starbucks move in next door.”'
--P.J. O'Rourke, NYT, on why Starbucks has been good for local cultural flavor

Friday, December 14, 2007

1984 in 2007

Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell’s “1984,” worked at a government job he hated, rewriting history to conform to current propaganda imperatives. This week, a group called Wikileaks asserted that the United States military appeared to have a Winston Smith of its own at the Guantánamo Bay naval base, mucking about with the way Wikipedia and news sites portray the base and, curiously, posting odd assertions about Fidel Castro.
--Patrick Lyons, NYT, on cyber-propaganda

Labels and pleasure

At the Cornell lab, Dr. [Brian] Wansink and his colleagues offered six different foods to cafeteria diners on different days for six weeks — but they changed the names. Sometimes they served “red beans and rice” and “seafood fillet.” Other days they served “Traditional Cajun Red Beans With Rice” and “Succulent Italian Seafood Fillet.”

After eating, diners rated the foods. Foods with fancier names were rated as more appealing and tastier than the identical foods with the less enticing labels, he says.
--Tara Parker-Pope, NYT, on the power of labels

Tree-hugger meets hunter

In New York State alone, roughly half a million hunters harvest around 190,000 deer in the fall deer hunting season — that’s close to eight million pounds of venison. In the traditional vernacular, we’d call that “game meat.” But, in keeping with the times, it might be better to relabel it as free-range, grass-fed, organic, locally produced, locally harvested, sustainable, native, low-stress, low-impact, humanely slaughtered meat.
--Steven Rinella, NYT, on reframing the political correctness of hunting

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Against electronic classroom distractions

Halfway through the semester in his market research course at Roanoke College last fall, only moments after announcing a policy of zero tolerance for cellphone use in the classroom, Prof. Ali Nazemi heard a telltale ring. Then he spotted a young man named Neil Noland fumbling with his phone, trying to turn it off before being caught.

“Neil, can I see that phone?” Professor Nazemi said, more in a command than a question. The student surrendered it. Professor Nazemi opened his briefcase, produced a hammer and proceeded to smash the offending device. Throughout the classroom, student faces went ashen.

“How am I going to call my Mom now?” Neil asked. As Professor Nazemi refused to answer, a classmate offered, “Dude, you can sue.”

Let’s be clear about one thing. Ali Nazemi is a hero. Ali Nazemi deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Let’s be clear about another thing. The episode in his classroom had been plotted and scripted ahead of time, with Neil Noland part of the charade all along. The phone was an extra of his mother’s, its service contract long expired.
--Samuel Freedman, NYT, on the losing battle against electronic classroom distractions

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The power of checklists

Line infections occur in eighty thousand people a year in the United States, and are fatal between five and twenty-eight per cent of the time, depending on how sick one is at the start. ...

In 2001, though, a critical-care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give it a try. ... On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line in. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check. These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist just for them. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his I.C.U. to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients, and record how often they completed each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.

The next month, he and his team persuaded the hospital administration to authorize nurses to stop doctors if they saw them skipping a step on the checklist; nurses were also to ask them each day whether any lines ought to be removed, so as not to leave them in longer than necessary. ...

Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened for a year afterward. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate went from eleven per cent to zero.
--Atul Gawande, New Yorker, on the power of checklists

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

DIY higher taxes

Anyone is free to pay more tax than the legal minimum. For that matter, Clinton absurdly receives $191,000 annually in presidential retirement subsidies -- though Clinton is a multimillionaire who does not need the money and is not retired! If Clinton feels he is insufficiently taxed, he could simply tear the annual $191,000 check in half and cause that amount to remain in the Treasury.

Any wealthy person who claims to favor higher taxes on the rich should voluntarily donate to the Treasury whatever additional amount he or she believes the rich should pay. For Clinton, or any wealthy person, to proclaim a willingness to be taxed more but then not voluntarily tax himself, is self-promotional hypocrisy. Clinton and other rich people who make claims about favoring higher taxes on the wealthy, but then hoard their money, want to be admired for seeming to be willing to sacrifice -- without the annoying complication of actually making any sacrifice.
--Gregg Easterbrook,, on manufacturing your own higher tax rate

Monday, December 3, 2007

Movie violence outside the lab

Laboratory experiments in psychology find that media violence increases aggression in the short run. We analyze whether media violence affects violent crime in the field. We exploit variation in the violence of blockbuster movies from 1995 to 2004, and study the effect on same-day assaults. We find that violent crime decreases on days with larger theater audiences for violent movies. The effect is partly due to voluntary incapacitation: between 6PM and 12AM, a one million increase in the audience for violent movies reduces violent crime by 1.1 to 1.3 percent. After exposure to the movie, between 12AM and 6AM, violent crime is reduced by an even larger percent. This finding can be explained by the self-selection of violent individuals into violent movie attendance, leading to substitution away from more volatile activities. In particular, movie attendance appears to reduce alcohol consumption. We find suggestive evidence that strongly violent movies trigger an increase in violence; however, this increase is dominated by a substitution away from more dangerous activities. Overall, our estimates suggest that in the short-run violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend. While our design does not allow us to estimate long-run effects, we find no evidence of medium-run effects up to three weeks after initial exposure.
--Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna, "Does Movie Violence Increase Violent Crime," on the good of the lesser of evils

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What about a quick sort?

The proceedings at Google are not unremittingly serious affairs. Mr. Schmidt asked Senator McCain, “How do you determine good ways of sorting one million 32-bit integers in two megabytes of RAM?” Immediately signaling that the question was asked in jest, Mr. Schmidt moved on. Six months later, Senator Obama faced the same question, but his staff had prepared him. When he replied in fluent tech-speak (“A bubble sort is the wrong way to go”), the quip brought down the house.
--Randall Stross, NYT, on the value of good advance briefings

Friday, November 30, 2007

Dominance + vengeance

What if the Pats left Chris Hanson inactive for the Jets game and played without a punter? Wouldn't that be the ultimate slap in the face? Know this going in, Mangini ... we're not punting. Can you think of a better psychological ploy?
--Bill Simmons,, on the confluence of vengeance and utter dominance that is the New England Patriots playing the Jets

Glenn and Julia

There is a kind of artistic branding. Sometimes I think I like the Glenn Gould approach. He obsessively played Bach’s ‘‘Goldberg’’ Variations over and over until he achieved a kind of perfection. Julia Roberts has a Glenn Gould-like career.
--Natalie Portman, NYT Style Magazine, making an unlikely connection

Thursday, November 29, 2007

To run or walk?

Yet another wonder of Japanese television: When the world record holder for race walk is under life-threatening danger from a fake gang of murderous samurai, will he run or walk?

Considerate Bo

"I wasn't scared. I wasn't scared because I knew I could outrun my white buddy. You've got to think about these things, man."
--Bo Jackson,, on the time he shot a 300-pound bear at point-blank range with a .45-caliber pistol

A turn in the spam war

The volume of junk e-mail transmitted worldwide is still enormous. But a remarkable trend is underfoot, according to Brad Taylor, a staff software engineer at Google: The number of spam attempts -- that is, the number of junk messages sent out by spammers -- is flat, and may even be declining for the first time in years.

Google won't disclose numbers, but the company says that spam attempts, as a percentage of e-mail that's transmitted through its Gmail system, have waned over the last year. That could indicate that some spammers have gotten discouraged and have stopped trying to get through Google’s spam filters. ...

E-mail providers like Google, Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft's Hotmail use sophisticated filtering algorithms that are constantly updated based on spam reports from individual users. Google says it can delete all instances of a single spam message across the Gmail network in seconds.
--Betsy Schiffman, Wired, on a turn in the war against spam

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is it torture?

So I said something to the Nightline guy about waterboarding, and if the Bush administration didn't think it was torture, they ought to do some personal investigation. Someone in the Bush family should actually be waterboarded so they could report on it to George. I said, I didn't think he would do it, but I suggested Jenna be waterboarded and then she could talk about whether or not she thought it was torture.
--Stephen King, Time, on waterboarding as not-torture

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A real-life Oldboy scene

Astonishing. I had thought that real-life fights never look like fight scenes from movies.

These guys likewise commit the double error of messing with the wrong opponent and being unready for a fast start. As a general rule, if you pick a fight with someone who immediately assumes a relaxed but erect shuffle-stepping stance with his hands up and his chin tucked and a blandly businesslike expression on his face, you have probably just answered the question of the day wrong, even if you have him outnumbered.
--Carlo Rotella, Slate, on universal patterns in street fight videos

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why I'm glad I don't own a house

Forward-looking indicators suggest that the housing sector may be in free-fall from what felt like the basement levels of a few months ago. Single family home construction may be down over the next year by as much as half from previous peak levels. There are forecasts implied by at least one property derivatives market indicating that nationwide house prices could fall from their previous peaks by as much as 25 per cent over the next several years.
--Larry Summers, Financial Times, on bad times ahead for housing prices

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Gangsta Santa

All the way from Australia, comes the first “War on Christmas” dust-up with word that some Santas there have been asked to say “Ha! Ha! Ha!” rather than “Ho! Ho! Ho!” since the latter — post gangsta rap and post Imus — now is seen as demeaning to women. I am not making this up.
--Peter Applebome, NYT, on the co-option of a familiar syllable


Hillary Clinton: "We can't afford on-the-job training for our next president."

Barack Obama: "My understanding is that she wasn't treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. I don't know exactly what experience she's claiming."

Michael Kinsley on the above exchange: "As wit, that round goes to Obama. Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000, and that was her first experience in public office. Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and was an Illinois state senator for seven years before that. In terms of experience in elected office, this seems to be about a wash."

Science as a form of faith

All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. ...

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” ... If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science. ...

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships. ...

But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
--Paul Davies, NYT, on how all the ways we know how to know are faith-based

Mandating it don't make it so

A year after Massachusetts became the only state to require that individuals have health coverage, residents face deadlines to either sign up or lose their personal tax exemption, worth $219 on next year’s state income tax returns. More than 200,000 previously uninsured residents have enrolled, but state officials estimate that at least that number, and perhaps twice as many, have not.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, support a mandate. It is, they say, the only way to guarantee that everyone is covered and to thereby bring down costs by spreading the country’s insurance risk as broadly as possible. ...

“At 27, it’s not like I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man, what if I need an operation down the line?’ ” said Samuel B. Hagan of Lenox, a courier who remains uninsured. “Furthest thing from my head.” ...

John E. McDonough, executive director of Health Care for All, an advocacy group based here, said he found it breathtaking that political leaders were calling for an individual mandate well before there was any way to measure the success of the Massachusetts experiment.
--Kevin Sack, NYT, on data-free wishful thinking

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Communist Thanksgiving

Because of sharing, the first Thanksgiving in 1623 almost didn't happen.

The failure of Soviet communism is only the latest demonstration that freedom and property rights, not sharing, are essential to prosperity. ...

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved.

Why? When people can get the same return with a small amount of effort as with a large amount, most people will make little effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. Some ate rats, dogs, horses and cats. This went on for two years.

"So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented," wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, "began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length after much debate of things, [I] (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land."

The people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic.

"This had very good success," Bradford wrote, "for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. ... By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many. ... "
--John Stossel, BusinessWeek, on the importance of private property incentives

Monday, November 19, 2007

What sleep used to be like

More surprising still, [historian A. Roger] Ekirch reports that for many centuries, and perhaps back to Homer, Western society slept in two shifts. People went to sleep, got up in the middle of the night for an hour or so, and then went to sleep again. Thus night — divided into a “first sleep” and “second sleep” — also included a curious intermission. “There was an extraordinary level of activity,” Ekirch told me. People got up and tended to their animals or did housekeeping. Others had sex or just lay in bed thinking, smoking a pipe, or gossiping with bedfellows. Benjamin Franklin took “cold-air baths,” reading naked in a chair.

Our conception of sleep as an unbroken block is so innate that it can seem inconceivable that people only two centuries ago should have experienced it so differently. Yet in an experiment at the National Institutes of Health a decade ago, men kept on a schedule of 10 hours of light and 14 hours of darkness — mimicking the duration of day and night during winter — fell into the same, segmented pattern... Some sleep disorders, namely waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall asleep again, “may simply be this traditional pattern, this normal pattern, reasserting itself,” Ekirch told me. “It’s the seamless sleep that we aspire to that’s the anomaly, the creation of the modern world.”
--Jon Mooallem, NYT Magazine, on innovations in sleep

Monday, November 5, 2007

Acting Asian

Economist Roland Fryer has done research on “acting white,” i.e. the phenomenon by which black children who excel academically are stigmatized by their peers.

Recently, he was in a New York City school and asked some of the seventh graders he was talking to whether they had ever heard the phrase “acting white.”

The kids laughed at him and said, “Of course, but that’s old school. Now it’s called ‘acting Asian.’”
--Steve Levitt, Freakonomics blog, on the new whites

Monday, October 29, 2007

Only in L.A.

Everyone is constantly telling everyone else how great they look. (No one actually told me I looked great, but they told each other how great they looked without fail.)
--Steve Levitt, Freakonomics blog, on how he knows he's in L.A. and not Chicago

Monday, October 22, 2007

The miracle of sleep

His subjects were young healthy people who said they were chronically sleepy, just not getting enough time to sleep at night. Dr. Roehrs had them stay in bed 10 hours a night. The extra sleep, he said, reduced their sensitivity to pain to the same degree as a tablet of codeine.
--Gina Kolata, NYT, on another reason to get more shut-eye

I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death.
--Nas, "N.Y. State of Mind"

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Making foreign aid work better

While foreign aid works in some situations, it has two huge problems. First, there is never enough money to go around. Last year, the United States provided $23 billion of development aid to foreign countries. This was more than any other donor, but it still resulted in very little for the billion people who live on less than $1 per day.

The second problem is that the money that does get distributed doesn’t always reach the people who need it. As the economist Jeffrey Sachs has noted, of every dollar given to sub-Saharan Africa, only about 40 cents is actually directed toward economic development. The rest goes to debt service, consultants and humanitarian emergencies. And after those expenses are subtracted, the remaining money is further reduced by mismanagement and corruption. ...

Congress should provide a 39-cent tax credit for every dollar of American investment in developing countries. If Company X were to build a $100 million factory in Madagascar, its tax bill would be reduced by $39 million. The lost tax revenue would be offset by reducing direct foreign aid by the same amount. ... For the same cost to the federal government, Madagascar receives far more resources. ...

Using tax credits instead of traditional foreign aid also means that the money will be spent more prudently. Because for-profit companies are focused on the bottom line, they will be more protective than government agencies of the money they invest in developing countries.
--Justin Muzinich and Eric Werker, NYT, on how to make foreign aid more effective. Eric was in the Harvard economics Ph.D. program with me, and is now an assistant professor at HBS.

Friday, October 19, 2007

What happens afterwards matters too

Ray Liotta inadvertently hurts "Goodfellas" in the "greatest movies of the past 25 years" discussion. Liotta was great in "Goodfellas," but the fact that he carried so much of the movie undermined it in some way because the rest of his career didn't hold up. On the flip side, "The Godfather" and "The Godfather II" became greater and greater over the years partly because of what happened to Pacino, DeNiro and Duvall as the years passed. If Ray Liotta was Michael Corleone, you would NOT feel the same way about the two Godfather movies. You wouldn't.
--Bill Simmons,, on intertemporal complementarities in acting quality

Providential movie making

It’s 1980 when Zabka first hears the story at a Christian camp. “I was there for the hotdogs and Frisbee. I was a squirrelly skateboard kid.”

But that night, a youth leader tells a campfire story about a father and son, a story that some say is true, others say is urban legend.

One day the father takes his son to work where he operates a drawbridge along the railroad tracks. The father raises the bridge for a boat, but a train arrives ahead of schedule, barreling down the tracks. As they frantically try to lower the bridge, the boy falls into the gears. The father has seconds to decide: Lower the bridge, killing his only son, or let an entire trainload of passengers perish?

“It just left a really big impression on my heart,” [Billy] Zabka says. He becomes a youth counselor himself, retelling the story often.

When he is 18, Zabka finds himself suddenly famous as the jock bully in the 1984 hit movie “The Karate Kid.” He becomes friends with [Bobby] Garabedian, a fellow teen actor getting roles in TV shows like “Who’s The Boss?”

Fast-forward 10 years. It’s morning and Garabedian’s radio alarm goes off. He awakens to someone on a talk show telling a story – about a father and a son and a drawbridge and a decision.

Garabedian is blown away. He tells the story to Zabka (“Wait a second, I know this story!”) and talks about turning it into a movie. Cut to September 2001. Arriving at a Malibu get-together, Garabedian overhears two women who are leaving.

They’re telling someone how they came to L.A. from Australia because they believed they had been called by God, possibly to meet someone, who is maybe making a movie, which could have an effect on viewer’s hearts.

Garabedian runs after them and announces that he’s pretty sure he’s the person God wants them to meet.
--Lori Basheda, OC Register, on the providential making of the movie "Most"

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The supply of jobs is not fixed

It is also widely believed that immigrants take local workers’ jobs, with the assumption that only a fixed number of jobs exist to go around. This is nonsense. We heard similar scare stories when women began to enter the labor force in large numbers: many men thought that if women started working, there would be fewer jobs for them. In fact, of course, most women now work, as do most men.
--Philippe Legrain, Freakonomics blog, on false fears of immigrants

Monday, October 15, 2007

What ails the humanities

Even a half-century ago, the question of life's meaning had a more central and respected place in higher education than it does today. Institutions of higher learning felt they had the right and duty to address, in an explicit and disciplined way, the question of how to spend one's life, of what to care about and why, of which relations, projects, and pleasures are capable of giving life purpose and value. The responsibility for doing this fell in particular to the humanities.

Since the 1960s, the humanities have largely abandoned this responsibility, under pressure from the modern research ideal. The result has been a deepening anxiety within these disciplines about the nature and value of their contribution to higher education. The culture of political correctness that has dominated the humanities for the past 40 years has sought to allay this anxiety by offering teachers of the humanities a new role as the champions of racial justice and other liberal values. These values are fundamental and worthy of support. But by converting them from political to pedagogical values, the humanities have not strengthened their authority but compromised it instead.
--Anthony Kronman, "Against Political Correctness: A Liberal's Cri de Coeur," Yale Alumni Magazine

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How to use slides

See Steve Jobs's masterful presentation here.

For commentary on Jobs's presentation style and slides, in contrast to Bill Gates's, see this Presentation Zen post.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mitigating circumstances

In my own defense, I can point out that I have also written heartwarming books where people return from the dead. Usually to eat the living, it's true, but surely that is a quibble — a miracle is a miracle.
--Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly, on his lighter side

Dubious virtual pleasures

An Indian entrepreneur has given a new twist to the concept of low-cost airlines. The passengers boarding his Airbus 300 in Delhi do not expect to go anywhere because it never takes off.

All they want is the chance to know what it is like to sit on a plane, listen to announcements and be waited on by stewardesses bustling up and down the aisle.

In a country where 99% of the population have never experienced air travel, the “virtual journeys” of Bahadur Chand Gupta, a retired Indian Airlines engineer, have proved a roaring success.
--Matthew Campbell, The Sunday Times, on virtual reality that is better than the real thing

Male economists as mates

Just as politics often trumps economics when it comes to public policy, rational arguments rarely win the day in dating, love, and marriage.

I wouldn’t expect male economists to marry very well. Firstly, they tend to think like the guy who wrote this letter. Secondly, they tend to be nerds. Thirdly, they make very little money when they are young because they get so much education, even though their lifetime income is quite high. Yet I think it is fair to say that the economists I know have married stunningly well (myself included). We’ve all been puzzling over this fact for the fifteen years I have been in the profession. As of yet, no one has come up with a good explanation. I doubt it could be perfect foresight on the part of the women we marry.

Also, completely contrary to what an economic model might predict, I can’t think of any economist who left his wife in middle age for a younger “trophy” wife. There must be cases, but none that spring to mind.

So maybe economists aren’t such heartless, conniving people after all. Or maybe economists just care so little about human relationships that it’s not worth the trouble to try to acquire a trophy wife.
--Steve Levitt, Freakonomics blog, on male economists in the marriage market. Actually, I can think of one middle-aged economist with a decades younger, very beautiful wife, although I don't know if he left another wife for her.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Requiring health insurance purchases

From Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger, politicians across the spectrum have tried or vowed to solve America's health-care woes by enacting an individual mandate--a law requiring every adult to purchase health insurance. ...

Individual mandate supporters typically justify the policy by citing the problem of uncompensated care. When uninsured patients receive health services but don't pay for them, the rest of us end up footing the bill one way or another. So advocates of insurance mandates contend, plausibly enough, that we should make the free riders pay.

But how big is the free-rider problem, really? According to an Urban Institute study released in 2003, uncompensated care for the uninsured constitutes less than 3% of all health expenditures.

Of course, it will not work exactly as planned. ... 47 states require drivers to buy liability auto insurance, yet the median percentage of uninsured drivers in those states is 12%. ...

None of this means the uninsured are not a problem. Yet the true issue isn't that they cost the rest of us too much. It's that they simply get less care than most people (one reason uncompensated care is such a small fraction of health-care spending). And if the real concern is making health insurance and health care available to those in need, we should focus on reducing health-care prices and insurance premiums. The individual mandate is, at best, a distraction from that goal. ...

To enact any mandate, legislators and bureaucrats must specify a minimum benefits package that an insurance policy must cover. ... A better approach to health reform would focus on removing mandates that drive up insurance premiums. States ought to repeal some or all of their mandated benefit laws, allowing firms to offer lower-priced catastrophic care policies to their customers.
--Glen Whitman, BusinessWeek, on misdirected healthcare reform

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Every American should at some point in their lives go to China, participate in an African safari, and visit ancient Egypt.
--Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommer's Travel Guides, on high-priority trips

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The wrong message

[Michael] Douglas says he's still stunned by the number of people who tell him that his Oscar-winning role [as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street] was the reason they went to work on Wall Street. "It's so depressing and sad," Douglas says.
--Jessica Winter, Slate, on the wrong reason to work on Wall Street

Friday, September 21, 2007

"No" is the new "yes"

I've recently noticed a pernicious linguistic trend of saying "no" when you really mean "yes." A common usage: "No, I agree with you," in order to say, "Yes, I agree with you."

I've caught myself doing this from time to time. And it's definitely not something isolated to Connecticut residents.

How the heck did this trend get started?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Square peg in round hole

The spectacle of Alan Greenspan on Comedy Central trying to explain monetary economics is pretty discombobulating. Jon Stewart asks great questions, but Greenspan's answers are incomprehensible to anybody but an economist. I understand what he's trying to say, but there's just not enough time in a 7-minute interview to do any of the questions justice.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Laffer curve of home improvement

It is not true that remodeling a house is an investment that pays for itself financially. You only recover about 80% of the cost upon resale. See the 2006 national average rate of return on various remodeling projects here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Fighting terrorists everywhere

Nalini Ghuman, an up-and-coming musicologist and expert on the British composer Edward Elgar, was stopped at the San Francisco airport in August last year and, without explanation, told that she was no longer allowed to enter the United States.

Her case has become a cause célèbre among musicologists and the subject of a protest campaign by the American Musicological Society and by academic leaders like Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where Ms. Ghuman was to have participated last month in the Bard Music Festival, showcasing Elgar’s music.

But the door has remained closed to Ms. Ghuman, an assistant professor at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., who is British and who had lived, studied and worked in this country for 10 years before her abrupt exclusion.

The mystery of her case shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is to defend against such a decision once the secretive government process has been set in motion.

After a year of letters and inquiries, Ms. Ghuman and her Mills College lawyer have been unable to find out why her residency visa was suddenly revoked, or whether she was on some security watch list. ...

In a tearful telephone interview from her parents’ home in western Wales, Ms. Ghuman, 34, an Oxford graduate who earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, said she felt like a character in Kafka.
--Nina Bernstein, NYT, on more immigration idiocy

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The student loan racket

Here's how the program works: Banks and other private companies lend money to students. The federal government pays part or all of the interest—currently 7 percent or 8 percent. The government also guarantees the loans.

What is wrong with this picture? Well, the government itself borrows the odd nickel to finance the national debt. This borrowing, obviously, is also guaranteed by the government. For that reason, it carries an interest rate of only 3 percent or 4 percent. If the government can borrow money at 3 percent or 4 percent, why should it be paying 7 percent or 8 percent for the privilege of guaranteeing loans to someone else? Wouldn't it make more sense for the government to loan out the money itself?

That is the $4 billion question (the approximate annual cost of the interest subsidy). ...

It seems that kickbacks were being paid to university financial aid officers who delivered customers. Some of them even got stock in some of the more specialized, and dubious, student loan companies. When the government is giving away free money—which is what the program amounts to (and I mean giving it away to the banks, not to the students)—it's worth a good deal to get cut in on such a good deal.
--Michael Kinsley, Slate, on no-arbitrage violations in government borrowing

Friday, September 14, 2007

In search of a noble cause

In many ways and for many months, the protest outside Memorial Stadium at the University of California has been business, and Berkeley, as usual.

On one side are the protesting tree lovers who have been living Tarzan-like since December in a stand of coastal oaks and other trees. On the other is the university, which wants to cut down the trees to build a $125 million athletic center, part of a larger plan to upgrade its aging, seismically challenged football stadium. ... Zachary Running Wolf, an American Indian activist... has been living in the grove for nearly 300 days.
--Jesse McKinley, NYT, on a protest that could only happen at Berkeley

Do you really want this job?

“Being the chief investment officer of an endowment is one of the hardest jobs in the investment business because there are so many constituencies involved,” said Verne O. Sedlacek, president and chief executive of Commonfund and a former chief financial officer at Harvard Management Company. “In my job, I have 1,800 clients with one objective — investment performance. An endowment has one client with 1,800 objectives

Consider the constituencies: students who may want you to shed your holdings in companies that do business in Sudan because of the genocide in Darfur, or professors who do not make a lot of money and happen to have very specific expertise in just about everything. It is a clash of civilizations; liberal academia meets cold, crass capitalism.

“I’ve never been called names worse than those I was called by professors and others on campus,” one former endowment head said. “It gets personal very quickly.”

And don’t forget the endowment boards, often packed with passionate and well-heeled alumni who did not make their fortunes by simply rubber-stamping investment decisions.

Nationally, more than 40 percent of the top investment executives within universities and endowments left in 2005 and 2006, according to a 2007 compensation survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting (now Mercer) that excluded Harvard and Yale. The number is high even for Wall Street, which tends to chew people up at impressive rates.
--Jenny Anderson, NYT, on another reason why Yale endowment manager David Swensen is amazing

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Star Wars anti-gravity

Levitation has been elevated from being pure science fiction to science fact, according to a study reported today by physicists.

In earlier work the same team of theoretical physicists showed that invisibility cloaks are feasible.

Now, in another report that sounds like it comes out of the pages of a Harry Potter book, the University of St Andrews team has created an 'incredible levitation effects’ by engineering the force of nature which normally causes objects to stick together.

Professor Ulf Leonhardt and Dr Thomas Philbin, from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, have worked out a way of reversing this pheneomenon, known as the Casimir force, so that it repels instead of attracts.

Their discovery could ultimately lead to frictionless micro-machines with moving parts that levitate. But they say that, in principle at least, the same effect could be used to levitate bigger objects too, even a person.
--Roger Highfield, Telegraph, on anti-gravity

Star Wars laser guns

Now, a US team has created thousands of the molecules by merging electrons with their antimatter equivalent: positrons.

The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, is a key step in the creation of ultrapowerful lasers known as gamma-ray annihilation lasers.

"The difference in the power available from a gamma-ray laser compared to a normal laser is the same as the difference between a nuclear explosion and a chemical explosion," said Dr David Cassidy of the University of California, Riverside, and one of the authors of the paper.

"It would have an incredibly high power density."

As a result, there is a huge interest in the technology from the military as well as energy researchers who believe the lasers could be used to kick-start nuclear fusion in a reactor.
--Jonathan Fildes, BBC, on first steps towards Star Wars laser guns

Optimistic headline of the day

Earth Might Survive Sun's Explosion
--Dennis Overbye, NYT, on happy thoughts for 5 billion years in the future

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Another one bites the dust

The president of Harvard Management Co., which manages the world's largest university endowment, plans to leave the job at the end of the year, the university said today.

Mohamed El-Erian, who came to Harvard Management in 2006, plans to return to the firm where he had worked previously, Pacific Investment Management Co., or PIMCO.

El-Erian arrived at Harvard to succeed Jack Meyer, the longtime Harvard Management president who had resigned along with many of his top investment managers to launch a new hedge fund. He spent much of his tenure hiring a new team of senior managers.

Meyer and his managers had become controversial in some Harvard circles because a compensation system designed to reward superior performance was paying a few people as much as $18 million a year.

When he arrived, El-Erian said he would not abolish Harvard Management's performance-oriented compensation plan, but top salaries for the 2006 fiscal year paled in comparison to earlier periods.
--Steve Syre, Boston Globe, on swift departures that accompany being paid a below-market salary

Monday, September 10, 2007

Don't check your bags on BA

This spring, [British Airways] lost one bag for every 36 passengers -- the worst rate for any European carrier, according to the Association of European Airlines.
--Andrea James, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, on astoundingly high baggage loss rates

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Natural selection in singing

The vocal folds start to weaken eventually because of age, and sopranos suffer the most. During a tenor's high C, his vocal folds close 500 times a second; for a soprano's high C, the rate is about 1,300 times each second. When menopause hits, the loss of estrogen lowers women's voices and they lose their highest notes. Since fat cells produce estrogen, though, obese opera sopranos tend to be more resilient. They can keep on singing.
--Michelle Tsai, Slate, on why we see the fat lady singing

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Faking it in Korea

Shin Jeong-ah was the youngest professor at the esteemed Dongguk University in Seoul. Boasting a doctorate from the History of Art department at Yale, she was a rising star, the curator of a celebrated South Korean art museum and the newly-appointed director of one of Southeast Asia’s largest art exhibitions.

But Shin, it turns out, never attended Yale. In Korea, prestigious diplomas are currency for landing top jobs, and Shin has been shunned after the University confirmed this summer that her purported credentials were actually fiction.

The scandal did not stop with Shin. Her downfall spurred a wave of resume-checking across the country, with leading artists, scholars and celebrities falling from grace almost daily as the authorities discovered fabricated credentials.
--Thomas Kaplan, Yale Daily News, on social climbing in a credential-obsessed country

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Carry more cash

For example, suppose that the GMU economist spends $10 per day in cash, takes 10 minutes to go get cash out of his ATM, has a value of time equal to $60 an hour, and earns 5 percent annual interest on balances held at his bank. From this information, the Baumol-Tobin model yields a very specific prediction: The prof should take out $1200 from his bank three times a year and hold an average of $600 in his wallet. (See the textbook for the equations that back up this inference.)

Most people hold much less money on average and go to the ATM much more often than the model predicts for their parameter values. This is a puzzle. It is also a great example to work through in an intermediate macro class. You can generate a good classroom discussion about why the model fails to match behavior.

One possible answer is that people are worried about losing the money. A probability p of loss or theft would affect the opportunity cost of holding cash and thus effectively raise the interest rate that enters the model to r+p. But plugging in numbers makes this a hard case to make. To match behavior, such as a biweekly trip to the ATM, you would need people to lose their wallets far more often than they do.

Many students will then say that they don't hold as much cash as the model predicts because they are afraid they will spend it. This response raises an intriguing behavioral theory: Money burns a hole in your pocket, but the temptation is somehow removed if the money is left at the bank. I don't find this very compelling as a description of my own behavior, but my experience is that many students are more attracted to it.
--Greg Mankiw on why you might want to withdraw more from the ATM next time

Friday, August 31, 2007

--National Science Foundation on countries that pay up for their teachers

Conan O'Brien's Stuyvesant commencement speech

In 2000, Conan O'Brien gave the best Harvard Class Day speech ever, starting a long streak of comedians being invited to give the Class Day speech.

Now, you can see (and read) Conan O'Brien's 2006 Stuyvesant commencement address.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Does Malthusian logic apply to Africa today?

The long history of living standards suggests that the [Jeff] Sachs plan is more likely to further impoverish Africa than enrich it. The promised health improvements and one-time gains in crop yields cannot create sustained improvement of living conditions. ...

Before the Industrial Revolution all societies were caught in the same Malthusian Trap that imprisons Africa today. Living standards stagnated because any improvement caused births to exceed deaths. The resulting population growth, pressing on fixed land resources, inevitably pushed incomes back down to subsistence.

But living conditions did vary across pre-industrial societies. Perversely, rich societies were those where nature or man created high death rates. In such settings living conditions could be good as long as the population did not grow. ...

The African environment has always created high disease mortality. This was a blessing for Africa's living standards. Before the Industrial Revolution, Africa was rich, with material consumption probably double or triple that of China, Japan, or India, and as good as that of Europe. For example, when the British were looking for cheap labor in East Africa in the 1840s they had to turn to India for low-wage workers. Asian living standards were low because of high standards of personal and public hygiene in preindustrial China and Japan. This condemned Asia to subsistence on a minimal diet. Europeans in contrast were lucky to be a filthy people who bathed rarely and squatted happily above their own feces, stored in basement cesspits. Filth engendered wealth.

Most of the world, thankfully, has escaped the topsy-turvy logic of the Malthusian era through the Industrial Revolution. Living standards are now independent of population levels, so any reduction in mortality is an unalloyed blessing. This is how Mr. Sachs thinks of the world.

But much of Africa is still trapped in its Malthusian past. ... Modern medicine, airplanes, gasoline, computers — the whole technological cornucopia of the past two hundred years — have succeeded there in producing the lowest material living standards ever experienced. Modern medicine has reduced the material minimum required for subsistence to a level far below that of the Stone Age. ...

To achieve sustained growth economies, Uganda would have to switch employment to manufactures and services. Despite the astonishing low wage of these economies — apparel workers in East Africa still cost about $0.40 an hour compared to $10-$20 in America and Europe — industrialization has escaped Africa.
--Gregory Clark on another theory of why Africa is poor and how to get it out of poverty

A revolutionary discovery

Ideal for learning about the importance of studying would be a random experiment in which two groups of students that are identical in all respects at the beginning of school are forced to study different amounts during school, but continue to behave identically in all other ways (class attendance, sleeping, drinking, study efficiency, paid employment etc.) that could influence the outcome of interest. In this paper we examine the effect of studying on college grade performance by using an Instrumental Variable (IV) approach that takes advantage of a real-world situation which we find closely resembles this ideal experiment. ...

In this case, we can learn about the causal effect of studying by comparing average grade outcomes between the two groups. Linking our survey data to administrative data, we find that grades are significantly lower, on average, for the group that studies less, on average, and we estimate that studying has an important effect on grade performance.
--Todd Stinebrickner and Ralph Stinebrickner, NBER Working Paper 13341, documenting the stunning fact that studying does raise your grades. I'm all for being careful about conflating correlation with causality, but this is really pushing it to the extreme! This would be a great nominee for an IgNobel Prize. Or an Onion article.

The origin of sagging

Sagging [pants] began in prison, where oversized uniforms were issued without belts to prevent suicide and their use as weapons. The style spread through rappers and music videos, from the ghetto to the suburbs and around the world.
--Niko Koppel, NYT, on how that puzzling fashion started

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A housing deflation

The median price of American homes is expected to fall this year for the first time since federal housing agencies began keeping statistics in 1950. ...

The reversal is particularly striking because many government officials and housing-industry executives had said that a nationwide decline would never happen, even though prices had fallen in some coastal areas as recently as the early 1990s. ...

On an inflation-adjusted basis, the national median price — the level at which half of all homes are more expensive and half are less — is not likely to return to its 2007 peak for more than a decade, according to Moody’s, a research firm. ...

In all, Global Insight expects a decline of 4 percent, or roughly 10 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, between the peak earlier this year and the projected low point in 2009. In California, prices are expected to decline 16 percent — or about 20 percent after taking inflation into account.
--David Leonhardt and Vikas Bajaj, NYT, on why I'm glad I don't own a house. Of course, these same forecasters were predicting continued housing price rises just a short while ago.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Faithfulness in darkness

A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, "neither in her heart or in the eucharist."

That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. ...

For all that she had expected and even craved to share in Christ's Passion, she had not anticipated that she might recapitulate the particular moment on the Cross when he asks, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" The idea that rather than a nihilistic vacuum, his felt absence might be the ordeal she had prayed for, that her perseverance in its face might echo his faith unto death on the Cross, that it might indeed be a grace, enhancing the efficacy of her calling, made sense of her pain.
--David van Biema, Newsweek, on how Mother Theresa was like the rest of us

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


To end, I am going to recount one story about [Susan Athey's] work habits. Last year, she was expecting her second child. I got a call that must have been late at night her time. She was trying to complete a few minor things on a project she and I were involved in on timber auctions in Australia. After a few minutes I asked, “So, you must be due soon; how is it going?” Well, apparently, it was going slowly. Susan was clearing her to-do list from the delivery room! We chatted for a while, and for the next hour emails continued to come in. The baby was born soon after.
--Joshua Gans on a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for winning the John Bates Clark Medal , which recognizes the best American economist under 40

Not spam, but...

Bacn is a new problem now plaguing our email inboxes. Putting it simply, Bacn is email you receive that isn’t spam… And isn’t personal mail. It’s the middle class of email. It’s notifications of a new post to your Facebook wall or a new follower on Twitter. It’s the Google alert for your name and the newsletter from your favorite company.

We are a group of like-minded individuals who have realized the problem of bacn, and are out to find a solution. You can now join the discussion in our forum and help us further define bacn as we begin our efforts to manage our bacn.

What Congress is good for

But judging from the passport horror stories readers have set me, millions of Americans must be on the same list. Almost every story has the same ending: If you need your passport before the next Ice Age, your best hope is to ask a member of Congress to intervene. ...

Chuck Slothower of the Durango Herald investigated reader complaints about the Passport Office, and reached the same conclusion. Several Coloradans beat the system by enlisting the help of Rep. John Salazar. One woman who had waited weeks for her son's passport marveled that with Salazar's help, "The passport was here in a day and a half."

No wonder Congress couldn't finish the administration's immigration bill. Members are too busy helping people navigate their way past an administration determined to stop citizens from leaving the country.
--Bruce Reed, Slate, on productive uses of Congressional time

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A finance Ph.D.: better than Hollywood stardom

It frightens me when kids go, "I want to be famous." Why? Because you can get into a restaurant? You know what? If you book [a table], you can get into a restaurant! "I want to be rich and famous." Go and work on the stock market.
--Keira Knightley on why you should get a finance Ph.D.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The value of eyeballs

They stand on corners from Brighton Beach to the Bronx, all but mocking New Yorkers: Pay phones that may or may not work, which you can’t even check for a dial tone without worrying about germs. ...

There is a reason for their survival: Public telephones are one of the stranger cash cows in city finance. Not because of the coins that are fed into them, but rather because of the millions upon millions that companies are willing to pay to put ads on them.

The phone kiosks generate $62 million in advertising revenue annually — and last year the city got $13.7 million of the take. Last year its income from ads was triple what it pulled in from calls.
--Jo Craven McGinty, NYT, on the enduring value of pay phones in a world of cellphones

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Digging with a teaspoon

Conscientious greens fix their sights on plastic water bottles:
In the last few months, bottled water — generally considered a benign, even beneficial, product — has been increasingly portrayed as an environmental villain by city leaders, activist groups and the media. The argument centers not on water, but oil. It takes 1.5 million barrels a year just to make the plastic water bottles Americans use, according to the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, plus countless barrels to transport it from as far as Fiji and refrigerate it. ...

Dave Byers, 65, from Silver Spring, Md., discussed the issue with his wife, Pat, on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a 90-degree Saturday. “I think it should be banned, actually,” he said of bottled water.
The US currently uses 20 million barrels of oil per day. First we’re going to ban plastic bags, slicing away a giant 0.16% of that consumption. Now, bring on the plastic bottle ban, slashing a full 0.02% from the oil guzzling. Take that, global warming!
--Juliet Samuel, Reason, on meaningless acts of conservation. If you're serious about reducing carbon emissions, support a carbon tax and let the price system work its magic!

The new Soviet bureaucracy

The passport office surged to the front lines of the war on terror in January, when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative began requiring U.S. citizens to carry a passport on flights to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, Americans quickly discovered the glitch: It's not easy to squeeze millions more passports out of the same old department. ...

Back in June, my family and I set out to renew our passports. Well-aware of the backlog, we applied in person at the Post Office, paid an extra $60 apiece for rush delivery, and spotted the agency two full months until our trip. ...

Agents assured me that if all else failed, I could sort everything out with a trip to the passport agency in downtown Washington. But 36 hours before our flight, an agent told me not to worry—our passports were ready and would be FedExed to our home the next morning, leaving us plenty of time to get to the airport for a Friday night departure to Australia.

When the morning arrived and the passports didn't, it finally dawned on me that I had been conned. ...

But the full extent of the con didn't hit me until I joined the teeming crowd at the passport office. ... A news ticker streamed across the wall with the message, "The average waiting time is 163 minutes." A clerk gave me a numbered ticket that said, "Upgraded Application." It said my estimated wait would be 5 hours, 41 minutes. ...

I reached the caseworker window in a mere 150 minutes, still with a faint hope of making an evening flight. But the agent at Window 8 had other plans. She angrily questioned why I needed a passport that day, when my flight wouldn't land in Australia until two days later. I tried to explain the International Date Line, but she had already reached a verdict: Our passports couldn't possibly be done in time for us to leave, so that meant she had no obligation to complete them. And since the office was closing for the weekend, she gave me a slip to come back for them—on Monday. ...

Then a minor miracle happened. If the agent at Window 8 had been an immovable object, the agent from American Airlines was an unstoppable force. I told her our story at 5 p.m. on a Friday in August, when Jason Bourne himself couldn't break into the federal government in Washington. Somehow, she tracked down our passports and had them in our hands by 7:30, then rebooked our flights to leave the next day. When I asked her how she did it, she just laughed, the way a weary Russian might once have done in shrugging off the labyrinthine challenges of surviving the Soviet Union.

The mystery deepened as I looked inside the passports. Just two hours earlier, the passport office had insisted our passports didn't exist and wouldn't anytime soon. But according to their "date of issuance," the passports had been issued two weeks before.
--Bruce Reed, Slate, on a warning to get your passport renewed a year in advance

Monday, August 13, 2007

Reducing clutter through revealed preference

After you’ve done a major purge of your closet, remove all the remaining clothes that live on hangers, and put them back in backwards, such that the open end of each hanger now faces you. Got it?

Then, mark your calendar for six months (or whatever) from today, and go back to your business as usual. Except that after every time you wear a shirt or a jacket or a skirt or what have you, when you replace the item, make sure the hanger faces the opposite/usual way (with the opening in the back).

When your n months have passed, and your calendar reminds you that it’s time, open your closet and remove every piece of clothing on a backward hanger; the chances are good you can give it away without the slightest pain, because you just clearly demonstrated that you don’t wear it. on actions speaking louder than introspection

If the Peanuts were a manga

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Everything has a price

Economists have a simple response to those who object that costs should play no role in safety decisions: “Do you get your brakes checked on your way to work each morning?”
--Robert Frank, NYT, on the myth of sparing no expense

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A non-existent free lunch

[Current presidential candidates] don’t merely argue that preventive care delivers good bang for the buck. They argue that it delivers good bang for no bucks whatsoever. And this is where the candidates are overreaching.

No one really knows whether preventive medicine will save money in the long run, let alone free up the billions of dollars a year needed to help pay for universal health insurance. In fact, studies have shown that preventive care — be it cancer screening, smoking cessation or plain old checkups — usually ends up costing money. It makes people healthier, but it’s not free...

For a new program to work, it has to reach people who are not being helped by whatever exists now — and who thus will be among the most difficult and expensive patients to treat. The program would also have to treat a whole lot of people who never would have gotten sick.
--David Leonhardt, NYT, on why preventive care is a good but not a free lunch

Saturday, August 4, 2007

We love pork

Eight months after Democrats vowed to shine light on the dark art of “earmarking” money for pet projects, many lawmakers say the new visibility has only intensified the competition for projects by letting each member see exactly how many everyone else is receiving. ...

Far from causing embarrassment, the new transparency has raised the value of earmarks as a measure of members’ clout. Indeed, lawmakers have often competed to have their names attached to individual earmarks and rushed to put out press releases claiming credit for the money they bring home.
--Edmund L. Andrews and Robert Pear, NYT, on disclosure gone awry

Friday, August 3, 2007

Holding on for dear money

In conversations I've had this week with Republican activists in Iowa and New Hampshire, the comments about John McCain's campaign have been of a piece. It's not just that they don't think he has a chance. They've moved past that. They're now trading theories about the real reason he's staying in the race. The prevailing view is that McCain is hanging on until January so he can claim federal matching funds to pay off his debts.
--John Dickerson, Slate, on signs your campaign isn't going well

Thursday, August 2, 2007

More flying pain

As if commercial air travel weren’t miserable enough, more airlines are using narrower jets on long-haul flights, putting an even greater squeeze on travelers in coach. Delta Air Lines is among the latest to announce plans to use the slim Boeing 757 on trans-Atlantic routes serving destinations like Britain and Ireland. Continental, which now flies 21 routes to 20 European cities with the 757, was among the first. Northwest and US Airways also have begun flying the narrower jets to Europe.
--Michelle Higgins, NYT, on even more unpleasantness in the flying experience

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The inexorable laws of supply and demand

Robert G. Mugabe has ruled over this battered nation [Zimbabwe], his every wish endorsed by Parliament and enforced by the police and soldiers, for more than 27 years. It appears, however, that not even an unchallenged autocrat can repeal the laws of supply and demand.

One month after Mr. Mugabe decreed just that, commanding merchants nationwide to counter 10,000-percent-a-year hyperinflation by slashing prices in half and more, Zimbabwe’s economy is at a halt.

Bread, sugar and cornmeal, staples of every Zimbabwean’s diet, have vanished, seized by mobs who denuded stores like locusts in wheat fields. Meat is virtually nonexistent, even for members of the middle class who have money to buy it on the black market. Gasoline is nearly unobtainable. Hospital patients are dying for lack of basic medical supplies. Power blackouts and water cutoffs are endemic.

Manufacturing has slowed to a crawl because few businesses can produce goods for less than their government-imposed sale prices. Raw materials are drying up because suppliers are being forced to sell to factories at a loss. Businesses are laying off workers or reducing their hours.

The chaos, however, seems to have done little to undermine Mr. Mugabe’s authority. To the contrary, the government is moving steadily toward a takeover of major sectors of the economy that have not already been nationalized. ...

The World Food Program issued an urgent appeal Wednesday for $118 million in donations to feed Zimbabweans, stating that drought and political upheaval would empty the organization’s stockpiles by year’s end without more money. The organization now feeds about 300,000 Zimbabweans and has regularly given food to as many as four million citizens at the height of the hunger season, in January.
--Michael Wines, NYT, on the poisonous brew of trying to control hyperinflation through price controls. What is the compassionate thing to do here? Does providing aid simply prop up an evil regime? Or is there no prospect of regime change anyway, simply a choice between an evil regime with lots of suffering or an evil regime with slightly less suffering effected through foreign aid?

Tradeoffs and genocide

One has to admire the honesty of Barack Obama, who argued in the recent Democratic YouTube debate that even if rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq might lead to genocide, he'd favor going ahead and getting the troops out...

It's something Obama has clearly thought about. As he told the Associated Press later, "If [genocide is] the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now—where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife—which we haven't done. We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven't done."

In other words, let's get real. Let's not pretend we care about the possibility of future genocide in Iraq if we do little or nothing about it where it's already happening now. ...

For one thing, after Rwanda, after the former Yugoslavia, and during Darfur, there seems to be an emerging consensus, or at least an unspoken shared assumption, that genocide is not the exception but the rule in human affairs. ...

And now that genocide seems so common, the word seems to have lost some of its special power to move us, to shock us into action.

As a result, even if you call the chaos and killing that might follow troop withdrawal genocide, it's not enough to derail the exit. Genocide: Happens all the time, we can't be paralyzed by the word. ...

Our reaction to Darfur, however, an unequivocal ongoing genocide, illustrates what one might call a feel-good reaction to the phenomenon. It keeps going on and on, and we keep denouncing it and feeling good about ourselves for denouncing it, and nothing gets done. Again, the Democratic YouTube debate is illustrative. A YouTube question from a Darfur refugee camp prompted New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to say he'd been there, at that very refugee camp. And Joe Biden, not to be outdone, proudly boasted that he'd been there, too.

And look how much these powerful politicians who have been there have accomplished! Their tireless advocacy for action to end the genocide in Darfur has decisively turned the tide, hasn't it? Oh, wait. ...

Of course, every presidential candidate would evade the hard question by promising to "work with the United Nations and the world community" to prevent any such eventualities. But look how well that's worked in Darfur. (The July 30 U.N. resolution calling for a troop deployment to Darfur won't begin till the end of the year, may be too little, too late, and will encourage maximized killing for the next five months, at least until the troops arrive.) Tell us: When the United Nations fails, as it almost always does, how many U.S. troops, how many U.S. lives? To save how many people? The question asks the candidates to make a cold, hard calculation. But then, they want to be president, don't they? And that's one of the job requirements.
--Ron Rosenbaum, Slate, on the realpolitik of genocide

Monday, July 30, 2007


In his memoir, “What Mad Pursuit,” Dr. [Francis] Crick recalled going home that day and telling his wife of the historic discovery [of DNA]. Only years later, he wrote, had Mrs. Crick told him that she did not believe a word of it, saying, “You were always coming home and saying things like that, so naturally I thought nothing of it.”
--Dennis Hevesi, NYT, on spousal skepticism

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The inefficiency of tax holidays

The [Massachusetts] House just approved a "tax holiday" in August. As a manager of a retail showroom in Weymouth, I have seen our business consistently hurt by this policy...

Our sales virtually die as soon as the Legislature starts talking about a tax holiday. Consumers won't buy when they think that they save 5 percent in a few weeks. Unless I'm willing to pay the customer's sales tax out of our margin dollars for half the summer, our sales volume plummets.

Then "tax weekend" comes, and I have to pay my staff overtime to work all weekend to try to recoup some of that loss. While the receipts for those "tax free" days are admittedly high, they do not touch the losses caused by consumers holding off on making purchases.
--Chris Sands, Boston Globe, on the inefficiency of tax holidays. Econ 101: the deadweight loss of a tax increases with the square of the tax rate. So for a given average tax rate, it's better to have a tax that is uniform on a broad base, rather than a tax that is high on some items and low on others.