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