Tuesday, June 30, 2009

High-maintenance parenthood, part 2

Despite shrinking families and dramatic increases in women’s time spent in the workforce, the amount of time married parents spent with children rose from 1975 to 2000. ... Linking twelve time use surveys between 1965 and 2007, we show that the increase in time spent with children occurred starting in the mid-1990s. We also show that the increase in childcare has been twice as great for college-educated parents. ...

The first leading explanation argues that because parenthood is mostly voluntary now, individuals can choose whether and when to be parents. This selection effect suggests that parents are now more likely to be individuals who enjoy interacting with children, and hence to spend more time on childcare. Our findings continue to hold, however, even when we consider time spent in childcare averaged over all adults. Thus, compositional changes in the population of parents cannot explain our results.

Second, time spent in childcare may be positively related to income. If this is true, one could explain both the rise in overall childcare as well as the increase in the college differential. We test this explanation and find that once we control for education, there is no quantitatively significant relationship between income and time spent in childcare. Thus, the effects of rising income cannot explain the trends.

As a third possibility, heightened safety concerns induce parents to accompany their children in their activities and to substitute structured activities for the free, unaccompanied play on neighborhood streets that was the norm in earlier times. According to this explanation, there has been a form of “negative technological progress” in raising children. But trends in crime rates and parents’ perceptions of safety correlate negatively with trends in childcare, which is at odds with this explanation.

A fourth possible explanation may be that childcare is best classified as leisure because it generates high enjoyment. We show that surveys of enjoyment of basic childcare in 1985 and in the mid-2000s do not support this notion. We also show that our trends are robust to the exclusion of the high enjoyment childcare activities involving playing with children.

A fifth explanation is that parents’ work schedules are more flexible, so that they can spend more time with their children. However, we find that the greatest increases in childcare time occurred among nonworking mothers.

The inability of existing explanations to account for the evidence leads us to offer a new explanation for the upward trends. We argue that the increase in time spent in childcare, particularly among the college educated, may be a response to an increase in the perceived return to attending a good college, coupled with an increase in competition in college admissions. Importantly, the size of college-bound cohorts rose dramatically beginning in the early 1990s, coincident with the increase in time spent on childcare. ...

We provide support for this explanation by comparing childcare trends in the U.S. to those in Canada. The U.S. and Canada are similar in many respects, but differ in two ways that are key to our explanation. First, Canadians do not experience the intense rivalry to gain admission into higher rated colleges. Second, the returns to a college degree have increased much less in Canada. ... Employing time-use data from Canada’s General Social Survey, we show that time spent in childcare by educated parents in Canada changed very little over this period, corroborating our theory.
--"The Rug Rat Race," by Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey. HT: Freakonomics blog

Monday, June 29, 2009

An interview with economist Kevin Murphy

Highly recommended, and not easily condensed. Highlights for me were the discussions on healthcare research and intellectual property rights. Find it here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Deja vu

Our elected officials in Sacramento are facing a budget crisis unseen in this state since the Great Depression, and it was entirely avoidable.
--Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2003, on fiscal crisis

Friday, June 26, 2009

McDonald's French jujitsu

By 2007, France had become the second-most profitable market in the world for McDonald's, surpassed only by the land that gave the world fast food. ...

The principal architect (or culprit, depending on your point of view) was Denis Hennequin, a forty-nine-year-old Parisian. ...

That same year, Hennequin rolled another, bigger grenade under [McDonald's protester] Bové's tractor by opening the McDonald's booth at the Salon de l'Agriculture. ... McDonald's France was sourcing 75 percent of its ingredients domestically, and he felt it was imperative from a PR standpoint to force French farmers, hypocritically applauding Bové, to publicly acknowledge the large volume of business that they were doing with McDo. ...

McDonald's appealed to budget-conscious students, of course, but with France's high unemployment and sluggish economy, it attracted people of all ages. Pensioners, for instance, were among the chain's most loyal clients. The food at McDonald's was cheap, and it was made cheaper still because its restaurants were officially designated as takeout joints. The value-added tax on meals at such establishments was just 5.5 percent, versus the 19.6 percent levied at "gastronomic" restaurants.
--Mike Steinberger, Slate, on how the French enabled McDonald's success in France

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Is there sexism in theater?

[Emily Glassberg] Sands, a Princeton economics student who is heading to Harvard this fall for graduate work ... conducted three separate studies. The first considered the playwrights themselves. Artistic directors of theater companies have maintained that no discrimination exists, rather that good scripts by women are in short supply. That claim elicited snorts and laughter from the audience when it was repeated Monday night, but Ms. Sands declared, “They’re right.”

In reviewing information on 20,000 playwrights in the Dramatists Guild and Doollee.com, an online database of playwrights, she found that there were twice as many male playwrights as female ones, and that the men tended to be more prolific, turning out more plays.

What’s more, Ms. Sands found, over all, the work of men and women is produced at the same rate.

For the second study, Ms. Sands sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country. The only difference was that half named a man as the writer (for example, Michael Walker), while half named a woman (i.e., Mary Walker). It turned out that Mary’s scripts received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael’s. The biggest surprise? “These results are driven exclusively by the responses of female artistic directors and literary managers,” Ms. Sands said. ...

For the third piece ... Ms. Sands examined the 329 new plays and musicals produced on Broadway in the past 10 years to determine whether the bar was set higher. Did scripts by women have to be better than those by men? ...

The answer is yes. Plays and musicals by women sold 16 percent more tickets a week and were 18 percent more profitable over all.
--Patricia Cohen, NYT, on what the data say about discrimination on Broadway

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Overcoming

As long as she can remember, Khadijah [Williams] has floated from shelters to motels to armories along the West Coast with her mother. She has attended 12 schools in 12 years; lived out of garbage bags among pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers...

Khadijah was in third grade when she first realized the power of test scores, placing in the 99th percentile on a state exam. Her teachers marked the 9-year-old as gifted, a special category that Khadijah, even at that early age, vowed to keep. ...

She finished only half of fourth grade, half of fifth and skipped sixth. Seventh grade was split between Los Angeles and San Diego. Eighth grade consisted of two weeks in San Bernardino. ...

When she enrolled in the fall of her junior year at Jefferson High School, she was determined to stay put, regardless of where her mother moved. Graduation was not far off and she needed strong college letters of recommendation from teachers who were familiar with her work.

This soon meant commuting by bus from an Orange County armory. She awoke at 4 a.m. and returned at 11 p.m., and kept her grade-point average at just below a 4.0 while participating in the Academic Decathlon, the debate team and leading the school's track and field team. ...

Khadijah graduated Friday evening with high honors, fourth in her class. She was accepted to more than 20 universities nationwide, including Brown, Columbia, Amherst and Williams. She chose a full scholarship to Harvard and aspires to become an education attorney.
--Esmeralda Bermudez, L.A. Times, on going from homeless to Harvard

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Knowledge is not the constraint

According to a paper written by two philosophy professors, Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California at Riverside and Joshua Rust of Stetson University, a college professorship in ethics does not necessary translate into moral behavior. At least, that’s what the people who work with ethicists say.

Equipped with free Ghirardelli chocolate to entice potential survey-takers, Schwitzgebel set out to test that assumption at a 2007 meeting of the American Philosophical Association by distributing questionnaires asking how well philosophers presumed their peers in ethics behave. Not any better than the next guy, they said. ...

If being pushed toward the good means not stealing, ethicists might not be feeling the push. In another of Schwitzgebel’s papers forthcoming in a peer review journal, he looks at whether ethics books are more likely to be missing from libraries than non-ethics books. Focusing on the especially obscure ethics texts that only specialized professors or graduate students would go looking for, Schwitzgebel found the ethics books to be slightly more likely to be unaccounted for.
--Kate Maternowski, Inside Higher Ed, on the durability of original sin

Thursday, June 11, 2009

No, it's really not a girdle

It was only a matter of time before shapewear took on men's wear. A new phenomenon we'll call the mirdle (short for man girdle) is now starting to take off. For the past few years, underwear companies such as Aussie Bum and 2(X)ist have been producing undergarments designed to slim, lift, or enhance. Last year, Saks Fifth Avenue began carrying the 2(X)ist Spandex briefs and tops that keep love handles under control. In July, they'll start carrying another mirdle product, the Wondershirt.

The trick with men, however, is that you can't call a girdle a girdle. You have to stress that it has other benefits, like it will help with posture (I know so many men who are concerned about their posture) or a sore back. At least that's what the Wondershirt folks are doing. Cofounder Corie Chung fesses up that she knows the product will sound more desirable to men if the shirt is marketed as sportswear rather than shapewear.
--Christopher Muther, Boston Globe, on imperfect substitutes for time at the gym

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Truly useful education

At the moment, I’m thinking of talking about the chief way our society is messed up. That is to say, it is structured to distract people from the decisions that have a huge impact on happiness in order to focus attention on the decisions that have a marginal impact on happiness.

The most important decision any of us make is who we marry. Yet there are no courses on how to choose a spouse. There’s no graduate department in spouse selection studies. Institutions of higher learning devote more resources to semiotics than love.

The most important talent any person can possess is the ability to make and keep friends. And yet here too there is no curriculum for this.

The most important skill a person can possess is the ability to control one’s impulses. Here too, we’re pretty much on our own.

These are all things with a provable relationship to human happiness. Instead, society is busy preparing us for all the decisions that have a marginal effect on human happiness. There are guidance offices to help people in the monumental task of selecting a college. There are business schools offering lavish career placement services. There is a vast media apparatus offering minute advice on how to furnish your home or expand your deck.
--David Brooks, NYT, on the levers of happiness

Monday, June 8, 2009

Expedia and Orbitz as tax authorities

FOR years, online travel companies like Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and others have successfully defended one of their most profitable practices: capturing the sizable difference between what they charge customers for taxes on hotel rooms and taxes the companies actually pay.

But threats to this enviable income stream are mounting.

On May 28, for example, a Washington State court ruled in a consumer class-action case filed against Expedia that the company’s fee disclosures breached its contract with customers. ...

Those matters revolve around what happened when Expedia bought blocks of hotel rooms at a wholesale price struck with the property’s operator. When it resold those rooms to online customers, Expedia paid so-called bed taxes based on the wholesale price of the rooms. But it collected taxes from its customers on a higher retail price for the rooms that it did not pay.

Expedia then pocketed the difference as part of a single charge it called a “taxes and service fee.”
--Gretchen Morgenson, NYT, on non-government taxes

The evolution of pain mores

The date of the first operation under anesthetic, Oct. 16, 1846, ranks among the most iconic in the history of medicine. ...

But what precisely was invented that day? Not a chemical - the mysterious substance used by William Morton, the local dentist who performed the procedure, turned out to be simply ether, a volatile solvent that had been in common use for decades. And not the idea of anesthesia - ether, and the anesthetic gas nitrous oxide, had both been thoroughly inhaled and explored. As far back as 1525, the Renaissance physician Paracelsus had recorded that it made chickens "fall asleep, but wake up again after some time without any bad effect," and that it "extinguishes pain" for the duration.

What the great moment in the Ether Dome really marked was something less tangible but far more significant: a huge cultural shift in the idea of pain. ... What needed to change first wasn't the technology - that was long since established - but medicine's readiness to use it.

Before 1846, the vast majority of religious and medical opinion held that pain was inseparable from sensation in general, and thus from life itself. ... Since time immemorial, pain had been seen in religious terms as a concomitant of original sin and, as such, an irreducible part of the human condition. Indeed, it was often explained as part of God's mercy, "the voice of nature" that kept us from harm by alerting us to physical dangers.

This view was echoed by the medical opinion of the day. Most doctors still believed it was only pain that kept patients alive through the trauma of operations. ...

Technical advances had led to more sophisticated and extended operations, and the patient's ability to endure them had become the limiting factor in their progress. It was the evolving requirements of surgeons, as much as the feelings of their patients, that eventually tipped the balance.
--Mike Jay, Boston Globe, on surgeons getting what they want (HT: Freakonomics).

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Stanford > Williams

I went to Williams College. I went to Stanford Law School. And I loved them both. I was a strong student at Williams, which I needed to be to get into a school like Stanford. I got to Stanford, and it was clear that the level of brain power among my student peers had just stepped up several levels. It was clear to me pretty quickly that no matter how hard I worked, I was not going to do better than a lot of my peers, because things came quicker to them than they did to me. Even though that was not true at Williams, it was true at Stanford.
--Clarence Otis Jr., CEO of Darden Restaurants, on Stanford vs. Williams

Is Wal-Mart cheaper than Target?

Tropicana with calcium, 2 quarts: $2.73 (Wal-Mart), $2.74 (Target)
Pepperidge Farm Milano Double cookies: $2.88 (Wal-Mart), $2.79 (Target)
Oreo cookies, 18 oz.: $2.78 (Wal-Mart), $2.99 (Target)
Pantene Pro V Moisture Renewal shampoo, 12.6 oz.: $3.96 (Wal-Mart), $3.79 (Target)
Aveeno daily moisturizing lotion with sunscreen, 8 oz.: $7.32 (Wal-Mart), $7.49 (Target)
ReNu MultiPlus solution, 12 oz: $5.88 (Wal-Mart), $6.99 (Target)
Bounty paper towels, 6 megarolls: $11.97 (Wal-Mart), $8.99 (Target)
--Results from a random sample I collected from the Orange, CT stores yesterday

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Night of the dead auto companies

Chrysler scored second to last in customer satisfaction in this 2009 survey of "vehicle ownership satisfaction" in the U.K. Only one company did worse! ... That company? FIAT.
--Mickey Kaus, Slate, on adding zero and zero together


[Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith]: We are not buying GM and Chrysler cars. In fact, we have never bought a GM or Chrysler product. What we do is we survey our members, we ask them what kind of car do they want to drive. And when we hear back what they want to drive, if we don't have it, we consider it and look at it. We have never had a request for a GM product. That's unfortunate, but that's the way it is. Out of 300,000 users that we survey every six months, I have never had a request.
Zipcar's experience, I think, reveals what has to be the biggest barrier to reviving these automakers: nobody wants to even BORROW their cars for a few hours.
--Jason Linkins, Huffington Post, on ten foot poles and American autos

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Scylla and Charybdis as a matter of course

With each new law job I've started, at some point the e-mail arrives: "Invitation to Join the Diversity Committee." It's a workday reminder that not only am I a woman, but I'm a member of an ethnic minority and, as such, a rare commodity in the legal profession. If I don't reply, I unfailingly receive a follow-up call, inquiring why I haven't responded—underscoring the subtle point that as one of the few examples of an "ethnic" attorney, my refusal to join the committee would be noticed. I willingly accept the invitation, spend the occasional lunch hour discussing recruitment, talk on career panels, engage in conversations about race that don't happen elsewhere in the workplace. The e-mail from the diversity committee is the invitation that can't be refused. ...

Recent years have seen a depressing pattern in which notable "ethnic" political figures— from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on down—end up having to extricate themselves from the tangles of racial politics... This may have much to do with the fact that, unlike their "nonethnic" counterparts, such "minority role models" are regularly asked to put on the public record—at lunches, award ceremonies, community events—lengthy statements of their views on America's most explosive topic: race.

Imagine Chief Justice John Roberts being invited by members of his own cultural network to deliver remarks for the Honorable William H. Rehnquist Law & Cultural Diversity Memorial Lecture on what special qualities white men bring to the bench: "What makes your approach, as a white male, different from that of your black judicial colleagues?" "Does being a white man give you special insight into the perspective of white male defendants in discrimination cases?" "Has the presence of white men on the bench made any difference in American law?" Odds are he wouldn't last two minutes before treading on someone's sensibilities. But this political high-wire act is expected from minority figures as a matter of course.
--Monica Youn, Slate, on unequal burden

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The economics of superstars in an education-mad country

In the 1990s, Son Joo-eun was a success in South Korea’s hypercompetitive business of preparing students for the national college entrance exam. He had an annual income of 720 million won — the equivalent of $573,000 today — as a private tutor helping children from rich families in Seoul win admission to elite universities. ...

In 1999, while watching a home-shopping channel on television, Mr. Son came up with the idea for an online test preparatory school. As South Koreans were embracing broadband Internet, he thought: why not bring classes into the home, too? ... South Korea’s multibillion-dollar test preparation industry has never been the same. ...

About 2.8 million students, including approximately half of all college-bound high school seniors, are members of Megastudy, which allows them access to some of the country’s most celebrated exam tutors.

To compete with the free online schools, Megastudy hires teachers with followings that rival those of pop stars. Some teachers lose their contracts if their popularity ratings drop. Last year, one Megastudy teacher generated 10 billion won (nearly $8 million) in online sales and pocketed 23 percent as his share.
--Choe Sang-Hun, NYT, on teachers as rock stars

The benefit of walking during a marathon

Contrary to what you might think, the technique doesn’t mean walking when you’re tired; it means taking brief walk breaks when you’re not.

Depending on one’s fitness level, a walk-break runner might run for a minute and walk for a minute, whether on a 5-mile training run or the 26.2-mile course on race day. A more experienced runner might incorporate a one-minute walk break for every mile of running.

Taking these breaks makes marathon training less grueling and reduces the risk of injury, Mr. Galloway says, because it gives the muscles regular recovery time during a long run. Walk breaks are a way for older, less fit and overweight people to take part in a sport that would otherwise be off limits. But most surprising are the stories from veteran runners who say run-walk training has helped them post faster race times than ever.
--Tara Parker-Pope, NYT, on getting faster by periodically slowing down

Monday, June 1, 2009

Bank bait and switch

A couple years ago, my strat group did a deep dive study of WaMu's strategy. It was interesting. Here was a bank that was advertising all these super consumer-friendly features, like free overdraft protection, free checks, free wiring, zero minimum balance, etc. But when you put all the pieces together, the real strat wasn't top convenience or customer service. That was just the pitch. In reality, every single consumer-friendly feature was secretly encouraging their customers to keep really low balances and increase the chance of penalties and fees. Their fee revenue as a percentage of overall revenue was off the charts.
--Anonymous bank executive