Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Two Gentlemen of Lebowski

An excerpt from Jonathan Chait.

The whole thing.


SNOW?? What the fuck??

Earth today

-Mirabeau B.

It’s just paper!

The Onion versus South Carolina.

Background on the South Carolina bill here.

Health economics and statistics

In the context of responding to an article in The Atlantic by Megan McArdle, J. Michael McWilliams does a good job of laying out some of the statistical problems that underlie attempts to measure things such as the effectiveness of insurance in health outcomes.  For example:

From the quasi-experimental literature, McArdle cites evidence of a lack of immediate survival gains with near-universal Medicare coverage after age 65 in the general population (Card et al. 2004; Levy, and Meltzer 2008).  From a clinical perspective, however, we should not expect immediate survival gains for most previously uninsured adults because mortality is such a distal outcome.  Survival gains may not manifest for years after improved chronic disease control and cancer screening are established, suggesting much more complex improvements in mortality trends are likely to evolve after age 65 in response to universal coverage.  Quasi-experiments that rely on abrupt discontinuities occurring with age are not well suited to capturing these complex but potentially large effects.  Consequently, the absence of evidence suggested by these studies is not evidence of absence.  In contrast to the general population, immediate mortality effects might be expected for acutely ill patients for whom coverage may improve access to life-saving procedures and therapies.

Climate change and labor supply

The topic of a new working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The Republican Health Care Plan

With a new round of health care negotiations about to start, it seems likely that Republicans will try to put forward their version of reform.  The basic idea of the Republican plan is that it allows insurers to sell across state lines, increasing competition and lowering costs in the process.  The typical response to this from liberals is that adopting this plan would essentially deregulate the insurance industry, where companies would cluster in the states with the most lax regulatory standards.  Indeed, some states may lower their standards to entice companies to relocate to their state.  That being said, I think it’s important to point out that, even beyond the issue of regulation, that there is little reason to believe that the Republican health care plan would actually lower costs. Continue reading

We Need More Paul Krugmans

By this, I don’t mean that we need more liberal economists.  We need more versions of the 1990 era Paul Krugman, someone with expertise who can be an ambassador of economic ideas to the general public.  Much of Krugman’s writing in the  nineties was so great because he not only wrote about current events, but really tried to pass on lessons about economics in the process.

Instead, one of the most influential economic writers today is Robert Samuelson, who has featured economic columns in both The Washington Post and Newsweek.  The problem with Samuelson is that he’s never received formal training in economics and has never taken the time to learn the basics.  He graduated with a BA in government from Harvard in 1967, and then began his career as a journalist writing about economic issues.  Since then, he has survived by trying to be the “reasonable moderate” on issues while working in his own pet theories.  Economists who read his stuff often complain about how ill-informed it is (and really, it isn’t hard to find economists complaining about Robert Samuelson), but he has a much bigger forum than all of them, save Krugman.

Samuelson’s lack of familiarity with empirical economic research has led to some very weird pet theories.  For instance, he believes that tax cuts are more effective as stimulus when given to the rich, because the rich will use the money to buy things like houses.  Once they buy a house, they will have to buy things such as new furniture and end up spending way more than the original tax cut.  The poor, on the other hand only spend on necessities, and in the best case will only spend the full tax cut.  He also believes that it was LBJ’s economic policy which caused the stagflation of the 1970’s (he even wrote a whole book on it), apparently unaware that most research points to artificially low interest rates, adverse oil shocks, and a productivity slow down as the (probable) culprits.

I realize that a post where I’m just complaining about Robert Samuelson is not that interesting, so here’s the main point: why is this the case?  Are there simply no economists who have the desire to write on a weekly basis about these topics?  Do they lack the ability to write lucidly about them?  Or is there simply a greater demand for Samuelson’s style of writing?  Perhaps macroeconomics is in such turmoil right now that it’s just difficult to find an economist who can write what looks objective to an audience of uninformed readers, he will always appear to be favoring one side or the other.  In any case, we’re facing a host of complex economic problems, and an informed public seems crucial for making good choices to deal with them.  Unfortunately, it seems like Robert Samuelson will be doing a lot of that informing.

Lockhart’s Lament (Seguin’s response)

I just read Meusebach’s post on Lockhart’s paper on mathematics education.  As someone who will be teaching high school math in the near future I feel like I should make my critique.  In many ways I agree with Lockhart.  Mathematics education as I remember it sucks all of the creativity and artistry out of mathematics.  I hated math class all through middle and high school and I never excelled in the subject like I did with History and English.  It was not until college forced calculus on me, did I actually enjoy the subject.  I realized that math was not a spirit crushing exercise in monotony.  In my classroom, one of my overarching though nebulous goals is to show that math is not a game of following directions, but as creative as poetry, art, and music.

However I disagree with Lockhart on a number of points.  First he asserts that the true value of mathematics is its artistry.  This is wrong.  Mathematics is valuable because it is extremely practical.  The labor market makes this fact painfully clear.  Simply compare the salaries of mathematicians, engineers, statisticians, economists, and actuaries to careers that do not require the same quant skills.  The market rewards quantitative reasoning very well.  In fact one of the most accurate predictors of lifetime income is the number of math courses a person has taken.  Math may be beautiful because it is the art of reasoning, but it is valuable because it can do a lot of good to the world around us.

Furthermore, Lockhart doesn’t understand the challenge of teaching, or teaching math specifically.  He writes:

Teaching is not about information.  It’s about having an honest intellectual relationship with
your students.  It requires no method, no tools, and no training.  Just the ability to be real.  And if
you can’t be real, then you have no right to inflict yourself upon innocent children.
In particular, you can’t teach teaching.  Schools of education are a complete crock.  Oh, you
can take classes in early childhood development and whatnot, and you can be trained to use a
blackboard “effectively” and to prepare an organized “lesson plan” (which, by the way, insures
that your lesson will be planned, and therefore false), but you will never be a real teacher if you
are unwilling to be a real person.

Lockhart demonstrates the common misconception that teaching is simply an exercise in engagement.  Teaching is damn hard.  Students do not walk in as eager pupils ready to learn for the pure sake of learning.  The vast majority do not want to be there, and would leave at the drop of a hat if given the chance.  One of the most difficult challenges for teachers is not figuring out how to “be real” but getting control of their classrooms.  Lockhart’s brand of teaching describes an organic discussion where topics are introduced as they are discovered.  It sounds great and very Dead Poets like, but it is completely unworkable in a real classroom.  To say that all lessons are to be improvised  is like saying an essay should be written as a stream of consciousness.  In fact, the data is very clear that the best teachers meticulously plan lessons.  Lesson plans are effective because they provide order to an extremely chaotic situation.

I think, in my very limited experience, that the best teaching model will merge the current curriculum with many of Lockhart’s recommendations.  I agree that math, as it is taught now, fails to engage many of our most creative students.  But teaching in the real world requires much more than a passion for math.

Save the Catus Cafe!…or not

The Texas Tribune reports that Austin’s beloved Catus Cafe is set to close this coming August.  UT administration cite budgetary constraints as the reason to shut down the modest but tradition rich venue.  As a semi-regular, it hurts me to see the place go.  It still is one of my favorite places to enjoy a drink, and the only place that I can between class.  However if the cafe is struggling it should not be permanently propped up by the administration.  It is shocking how few students know about the place tucked away in a corner of the Union.  I have not seen the management put any effort to engage the student population (in fact I have seen the management do little else than read the newspaper at the bar.)  I am all for letting the place be took over by the Texas Exes, or allowing private donations to subsidize the place if it cannot turn a profit.  But at the end of the day the Catus Cafe cannot cite its tradition as the only reason to keep the doors open.  The place needs to find a way to make money, or at the bare minimum, look like it is trying to.


James Hamilton says that some of the short term inflationary pressures the economy has been facing are subsiding.  At the same time, the prospect of deflation no longer seems as likely.  What does this mean?  I’m not really sure.  But perhaps without as much risk of runaway asset prices and without such strong deflationary pressure, the federal reserve can more easily generate moderate short term inflation to help lower the real interest rate and  boost employment.