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These are my thoughts and not those of Northwestern University, Northwestern Athletics, the Northwestern football team, nor of the Northwestern football players.

  1. As usual, the emergence of a unionization movement is the symptom of a problem rather than the cause.  Also as usual, a union is likely to only make the problem worse.
  2. From a strategic point of view the NCAA has made a huge blunder in not making a few pre-emptive moves that would have removed all of the political momentum this movement might eventually have.  Few in the general public are ever going to get behind the idea of paying college athletes.  Many however will support the idea of giving college athletes long-term health insurance and guaranteeing scholarships to players who can no longer play due to injury.  Eventually the NCAA will concede on at least those two dimensions.  Waiting to be forced into it by a union or the threat of a union will only lead to a situation which is far worse for  the NCAA in the long run.
  3. The personalities of Kain Colter and Northwestern football add to the interest in the case because as Rodger Sherman points out Northwestern treats its athletes better than just about any other university and Kain Colter is on record saying he loves Northwestern and his coaches.  But these developments are bigger than the individuals involved. They stem from economic forces that were going to come to a head sooner or later anyway.
  4. Before taking sides, take the following line of thought for a spin.  If today the NCAA lifted restrictions on player compensation, tomorrow all major athletic programs and their players would mutually, voluntarily enter into agreements where players were paid in some form or another in return for their commitment to the team.  We know this because those programs are trying hard to do exactly that every single year.  We call those efforts recruiting violations.
  5. Once that is understood it is clear that to support the NCAA’s position is to support restricting trade that its member schools and student athletes reveal year after year that they want very much.  When you hear that universities oppose removing those restrictions you understand that whey they really oppose is removing those restrictions for their opponents.  In other words, the NCAA is imposing a collusive arrangement because the NCAA has a claim to a significant portion of the rents from collusion.
  6. Therefore, in order to take a principled position against these developments you must point to some externality that makes this the exceptional case where collusion is justified.
  7. For sure, “Everyone will lose interest in college athletics once the players become true professionals” is a valid argument along these lines.  Indeed it is easy to write down a model where paying players destroys the sport and yet the only equilibrium is all teams pay their players and the sport is destroyed.
  8. However, the statement in quotes above is almost surely false. Professional sports are pretty popular. And anyway this kind of argument is usually just a way to avoid thinking seriously about tradeoffs and incremental changes. For example, how many would lose interest in college athletics if tomorrow football players were given a 1% stake in total revenue from the sale of tickets to see them play?
  9. My summary of all this would be that there are clearly desirable compromises that could be found but the more entrenched the parties get the smaller will be the benefits of those compromises when they eventually, inevitably, happen.

Roy is coming to plant flowers in Zoe’s garden. Zoe loves flowers, her utility for a garden with x flowers is

z(x) = x.

Roy plants a unit mass of seeds and the fraction of these that will bloom into flowers depends on how attentive Roy is as a gardener. Roy’s attentiveness is his type \theta. In particular when Roy’s type is \theta, absent any sabotage by Zoe, there will be \theta flowers in Zoe’s garden in Spring. Roy’s attentiveness is unknown to everyone and it is believed by all to be uniformly distributed on the unit interval.

Jane, Zoe’s neighbor, is looking for a gardener for the following Spring. Jane has high standards, she will hire Roy if and only if he is sufficiently attentive. In particular, Jane’s utility for hiring Roy when his true type is \theta is given by

j(\theta) = \theta - 2/3.

(Her utility is zero if she does not hire Roy.)

Roy tends to one and only one garden per year. Therefore Roy will continue to plant flowers in Zoe’s garden for a second year if and only if Jane does not hire him away from her.

Consequently, Zoe is contemplating sabotaging Roy’s flowers this year. If Zoe destroys a fraction 1 - \alpha of Roy’s seeds then the total number of flowers in Zoe’s garden when Spring arrives will be x = \alpha\theta. Of course sabotage is costly for Zoe because she loves flowers.

There will be no sabotage in the second year because after two years of gardening Roy goes into retirement. Therefore, if Zoe destroys 1-\alpha in the first year and Roy continues to work for Zoe in the second year, Zoe’s total payoff will be

z(\alpha\theta) + z(\theta)

whereas if Roy is hired away by Jane, then Zoe’s total payoff is just z(\alpha\theta).

This is a two-player (Zoe and Jane) extensive-form game with incomplete information. The timing is as follows. First, Roy’s type is realized. Nobody observes Roy’s type. Zoe moves first and chooses \alpha \in [0,1]. Then Spring arrives and the flowers bloom.  Jane does not observe \alpha but does observe the number of flowers in Zoe’s garden. Then Jane chooses whether or not to hire Roy away from Zoe. Then the game ends.

Describe the set of all Perfect Bayesian Equilibria.

I haven’t decided yet and I can’t figure out which side this is evidence for:

Me:  Oh I have to remember to set up your desk today because I promised that I would and that if I didn’t I would give you $2.

7 year old:  I was hoping you would forget.

Me:  Are you saying you would rather have $2 than your desk?

7yo:  No, I am saying I would rather have $2 today and my desk tomorrow.

Me:  Hold on, what would you rather have:  $2 today and your desk tomorrow or $2 today, another $2 tomorrow and then your desk the next day?

7yo:   $2 today, another $2 tomorrow and then my desk the next day.

Me:  $2 today, $2 tomorrow, $2 the next day, and then your desk the day after that?

7yo:  Yep.

Me:  And what is the number of days you would like to have $2 before you finally get your desk?

7yo:  Infinity.

Here’s the preview:

Students all over are starting college this month, and some of them still have a nagging question: what, exactly, got me in? An admissions officer tells us the most wrongheaded things applicants try. And Michael Lewis has the incredible story of how a stolen library book got one man — Emir Kamenica — into his dream school. (Photo: Emir as a Harvard undergrad. Credit Terri Wang.)

When you over-inflate a kid’s self-esteem you achieve a short-run gain (boost in confidence) at the expense of a long-run cost (jaded kids who learn that praise is just noise.) For that reason, emphasis on managing self-esteem gets a lot of scorn.

But what is the cost of jaded kids? They learn to see through your lies. All that means is that their credence is a scarce resource that parents must manage. In a first-best world you are honest with your kids right up until the stage in their lives when a false boost of self-confidence has maximal payoff. Probably when they are taking the SAT.

Unfortunately it’s not a first-best world: even if you don’t lie to them, other people will and eventually they will learn to be appropriately skeptical. Which means that a child’s trust is an exogenously depreciating resource. It’s just a matter of time before they are relieved of it.

Given the inevitability of that process you have two alternatives. Deplete their credence yourself and choose what lies they get told in the process, or be always truthful and allow their trust to be violated by outside forces.

Doing it yourself at least gives them the admittedly transient benefit that comes from an artificial boost of self-confidence.  And the sooner the better.

Say you are speaking for an hour to an audience of 100.  Its just a fact of human nature that nobody in the audience is going to be paying close attention to what you are saying for more than 1/4 of the time.  The other 45 minutes of the time people will be thinking, talking, or just daydreaming. You must accept this as an unavoidable constraint.

Absent any intervention on your part then you will get a randomly selected 15 minutes of attention from each member of the audience.  This means that at any one point in time you will have the attention of only 1/4 of your audience or 25 out of the 100 people.  The very important things you will have to say will be processed and potentially remembered by 1/4 of your audience, the same fraction that will be paying attention to the least important things you have to say.

So what you should do to prepare is ask yourself what are the three important things you have to say and you want remembered.  Each of them should take you five minutes to say.  Then imagine you have a sign that will flash above you which tells everyone in the audience whether now is the time to be paying close attention or now is an opportunity to doze off.  With that sign you could coordinate their attention so that all of them are listening during the same 15 minutes, those 15 minutes when you will be saying your three important things.

Now you probably won’t be bringing that sign with you.  But you can achieve the same effect by using the way that you stand, the way that you talk, and the style of your slides.  When you are saying something important you speak slowly and loudly and you walk up and down the room and make eye contact and your slides have just one or two things on them so that they are easy to read and process.

You are telling them with your demeanor that now is the time to listen.  Later, when you are saying something less important you lower your voice, go faster, stand still and read off your busy slides. You are doing these things to tell your audience that now is the time to think, talk or doodle and rest up for the next important moment.

In my first year as an Assistant Professor I was assigned the job of teaching Microeconomic Principles, aka Econ 1, aka the Freshman economics class which is for most students the first introduction to economics they will have and for a large fraction of them also the last.  I sucked at it.  But not because I didn’t care.  I cared a lot and I put a lot of effort into preparing each class and making the whole sequence of classes fit together as a coherent whole.  But that first year of teaching my evaluations were absolutely awful.

So I tried harder the next year, and put more and more effort into the class each year and yet each year my evaluations got worse and worse.  The lowest point for me was when I decided I would write out every lecture word for word to make sure I was saying everything I needed to say and saying it right.  That year my evaluations hit bottom and it was the last time I taught the course.

The next undergraduate course I taught was Intermediate Microeconomics and when I was planning how to teach it I decided to go to the completely opposite extreme and not prepare anything at all except for the topics of each lecture and how they would fit together.  Apart from knowing what I needed to teach them I went into each class with no preparation at all, just chalk and a board.  It couldn’t be any worse than before.

I discovered that when you are teaching something that you know very well, preparation only gets in the way.  Improvisation

  1. Forces you to develop the ideas from scratch out loud which gives the students a glimpse at how to arrive at those ideas rather than just seeing them fully baked on an overhead.
  2. Creates an element of danger that you naturally respond to by digging deeper and finding your way through.
  3. Gets the students’ attention.  They can tell you are doing it without a net and the drama of that hooks them in.
  4. Makes it less like a lecture and more like a conversation.

From Catherine Rampell:

In several computer science courses at Johns Hopkins University, the grading curve was set by giving the highest score on the final an A, and then adjusting all lower scores accordingly. The students determined that if they collectively boycotted, then the highest score would be a zero, and so everyone would get an A. Amazingly, the students pulled it off:

Her analysis of the problem would be the starting point for a nice introductory example in a game theory class (although it appears what she is saying is that taking the test is weakly dominant, but I doubt that is true if there is a positive opportunity cost of time.)

Kava tembel tumble:  Arthur Robson

When I was back home over Winter Break my Mom tried to get me to throw away all the old papers and junk that I left behind in a box but it didn’t work.  Still I rummaged through and I found this gem.  Its an essay assignment in a Freshman history class about racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  This is very typical of my work in college.  The grader’s comments in red are especially entertaining, again quite typical.

Have you seen Dragon Box?  Once you do, you will be a believer in the power of technology for learning.  I wasn’t before, I am now. My son is 6 and after about 4 hours of fun he can solve simple one-variable equations.  Here’s how it works.

In the first level of Dragon Box you see a screen with two halves, “This side” and “That side.” There is a box on one side and some cards with random pictures on them.  Your job is to isolate the box on one side, i.e. remove all the cards from the same side of the box.

This is very simple at the beginning because the only cards on that side are these funky vortex cards and all you have to do is touch them and they disappear. Vortex cards represent zero, but only you know that.

Later, other cards start appearing on the box’s side but then you learn something new:  every card has a “night card” which graphically is represented by a card with the same picture but in negative exposure.  Negative.  If you slide a card onto its night card (or vice versa) the card turns into a vortex which you then dispatch with a subsequent tap.

Later again it happens that cards appear on the same side of the box but with no night card.  But then you learn something new. You have cards in your deck and you can drag them onto either side of the screen.  A card in your deck can be turned into its “night” version by tapping.  Thus, you can eliminate a card on the box’s side by taking the same card from the deck, “nighting” it and then using it to vortex the offending card.

But any card you drag from the deck to one side of the screen you must drag to the other side also.  This represents adding or subtracting a constant from both sides of an equation.  After you have isolated the box on one side you have shown that the box equals the sum of all the cards remaining on the other side.  But only you know these things.

Later still, cards appear with “partners,” i.e. another card right up next to it with an inexplicable dot connecting them.  If the box has a partner you can eliminate the partner by dragging the corresponding card from your deck below a line which magically appears below the partners as you drag.

Dragon Box requires that whenever you drag a card from the deck below the line of any card, you must drag the same card below the lines of all card-groups on both sides of the screen. Once you have done that you can drag the card that is below the line onto its duplicate above the line and they together turn into a card with looks like a die with one pip showing.  Such a card can then be dragged onto the box leaving only the box.

Here’s a demonstration (by me of an early level.)


The partners represent multiplication, the line represents division, the die with one pip represents the number 1 (i.e. the identity) and 1 times the box is just the box. After you have isolated the box you have shown that the box equals the sum and/or products of cards that appear on the other side.  But only you know this.

Finally, the box mysteriously becomes the letter x.  The cards lose their pretty pictures and become numbers and other constants.  Night cards are now negative numbers. The vortex becomes zero and the die becomes the number 1.  In the dividing zone between the two sides of the screen eventually appears an equals sign, and all the operations the child has learned now take their more familiar form and by pure sleight of hand he has been tricked into porting the very very simple logic of combining symbolic operations into the otherwise tedious world of “solve for x.”

I personally am astounded.


A few final thoughts.

  1. The reason a six-year-old can learn algebra with Dragon Box but could not before is that Dragon Box unbundles algebra from arithmetic.  You don’t have to know what crazy-frog times lizard-fish equals to know that Box = CF times LF.  Simplifying the right-hand-side is beside the point.  Conventionally algebra comes after arithmetic because you need arithmetic to simplify the right-hand side.  
  2. Actually what you learn from this is that algebra is far more elementary than arithmetic.  My son can add numbers (up to one digit plus two digit) but just barely grasps the concept of multiplication.  He has no idea what division is.
  3. Someone who already knows arithmetic can still learn algebra faster (and have more fun in the process) because Dragon Box shows how all the arithmetic can essentially be saved for the very end, modularizing the learning.
  4. Dragon box also rewards you if you solve the equation with the precise number of operations recommended.  (This is usually the minimum number but not always.)  This is a clever addition to the game because all of my kids refused out of pure pride to move on until they had solved each one in the right number of moves.  Imagine asking a kid learning algebra to do that.

David McAdams sends this along:

I’ve created a fun and simple game-theory problem that I thought you might enjoy …  This is the sort of problem you could give undergrads to find out who are the really bright ones.  It might also be fun to mention (or play) in class.
Problem: Find the (unique) symmetic equilibrium of “The World’s Simplest Poker Game”, played as follows:
**0** two players
**1** each player pays ante of $100
**2** each player receives ONE card, which we can think of as independent random numbers on [0,1]
**3** each player SIMULTANEOUSLY decides whether to “raise” $100 or “stay”
**4A** if one player raises and the other stays, the raiser wins the pot, for net gain +$100
**4B** if both raise, the players show their cards and whoever has the highest card wins for net gain +$200
**4C** if both stay, the players show their cards and whoever has the highest card wins for net gain +$100
If you decide to solve this problem, please let me know how long it takes you … I’m curious how immediately obvious the answer is to you 🙂  I have solved it myself and, I can tell you, the answer is simple and elegant.

N.B. My answer based on 5 minutes of thinking was wrong.  I will post David’s solution over the weekend.


Update:  As promised, here is David’s solution.  Looks like Keith was the first to post the correct answer in the comments and thanks to Nicolas for pointing out that this example appeared in von Neumann and Morgenstern.

Announced yesterday. The main points seem to be:  enrollment for credit, a coalition of schools merging curriculum in some way, and some kind of real-time virtual classroom.

“Students from all over the country, or even from abroad, will be able to attend these online classes in real time — classes of about 15 to 20 students taught by professors at some of the nation’s leading universities,” said Daniel Linzer, Northwestern University provost.

Besides Northwestern, consortium members include Brandeis University, Duke University, Emory University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt University, Wake Forest University and Washington University in St. Louis.

“These courses will expand curricular options for students and will enable consortium schools to work collaboratively to develop the most innovative and successful ways to utilize new learning technologies,” Northwestern Provost Linzer said.

Initial Semester Online courses will feature primarily the same faculty and curricula as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, with additional courses designed for the online format to be included in the future. Through a state-of-the-art virtual classroom, students will participate in discussions and exercises, attend lectures and collaborate with peers while guided by renowned professors — engaging in as close to the on-campus class experience that is currently possible online.

Beginning in the fall of 2013, Semester Online will be available to academically qualified students attending consortium schools as well as other top schools across the country. Information about Semester Online courses and the application process will be available in early 2013. The consortium anticipates adding a small number of institutions prior to next year’s launch.

The website for Semester Online is back there.

Luigi Zingales writes that business schools are teaching MBA students to be criminals.

Oddly, most economists see their subject as divorced from morality. They liken themselves to physicists, who teach how atoms do behave, not how they should behave. But physicists do not teach to atoms, and atoms do not have free will. If they did, physicists would and should be concerned about how the atoms being instructed could change their behavior and affect the universe. Experimental evidence suggests that the teaching of economics does have an effect on students’ behavior: It makes them more selfish and less concerned about the common good. This is not intentional. Most teachers are not aware of what they are doing.

My colleague Gary Becker pioneered the economic study of crime. Employing a basic utilitarian approach, he compared the benefits of a crime with the expected cost of punishment (that is, the cost of punishment times the probability of receiving that punishment). While very insightful, Becker’s model, which had no intention of telling people how they should behave, had some unintended consequences. A former student of Becker’s told me that he found many of his classmates to be remarkably amoral, a fact he took as a sign that they interpreted Becker’s descriptive model of crime as prescriptive. They perceived any failure to commit a high-benefit crime with a low expected cost as a failure to act rationally, almost a proof of stupidity. The student’s experience is consistent with the experimental findings I mentioned above.

On the definitions of Pareto efficiency and surplus maximization and their connection.  I have also updated my slides for this lecture, presenting things in a different order in a way that I think makes a bigger impact.  You can find them here.

[vimeo 50833662 w=500&h=280]

When you grade exams in a large class you inevitably face the misunderstood question dilemma. A student has given a correct answer to a question but not the question you asked.  As an answer to the question you asked it is flat out wrong. How much credit should you give?

It should not be zero. You can make this argument at two levels. First, ex post, the student’s answer reveals some understanding. To award zero points would be to equate this with writing nothing at all. That’s unfair.

You might respond by saying, tough luck, it is my policy not to reward misunderstanding the question. But even ex ante it is optimal to commit to a policy which gives at least partial credit to fortuitous misunderstanding. The only additional constraint at the ex ante stage is incentive compatibility. You don’t want to reward a student who interprets the question in a way that makes it easier and then supplies a correct answer to the easier question.

But you should reward a student who invents a harder question and answers that. And you should make it known in advance that you will do so. Indeed, taken to its limit, the optimal exam policy is to instruct the students to make up their own question and answer it, with harder questions (correctly answered) worth more than easier ones.

Incidentally I was once in a class where a certain professor asked exactly such a question.

The excellent people ant NUIT have helped me put together a series of small videos that complement my Microeconomic Theory course.  I start teaching today and I will be posting the videos here as the course progresses.  You can find my slides here and eventually all the videos will be there too, organized by lecture.  These videos are 5-10 minutes each and are meant to be high-level synopses of the main themes of each lecture.  The slides as well as the videos are released to the public domain under Creative Commons (non-commercial, attribution, share-alike) licenses.  The first video is on Welfare Economics and features figure skating.

While we are on the subject please read Josh Gans’ on-the-money thoughts about free online education.

If you got out a pencil and graphed my kids’ time outside, with the date on the horizontal axis and the number of hours spent outside (and not fraying their parents nerves alternately bickering with one another and submitting requests to play on the iPad or watch TV) on the vertical, you would find a dramatic and sustained upward spike beginning right after Labor Day.

What is the underlying structural change that explains this?  School has begun.  Indeed, just as the school year begins and forces them to stay inside half the day (thankfully under the care of somebody else), suddenly going outside and playing with their friends becomes their favorite way to pass the time.

It’s not because time outside has suddenly become more precious.  On any August day when they have already wasted half of it sitting around inside, the time has become equally scarce.  And it’s not because time outside is a way to escape homework because that doesn’t really start until the second or third week of school.

I think the reason is coordination failure.  Playing outside by yourself is not very much fun, you only want to go outside when everyone else is outside.  But when you have the luxury of the entire day, it becomes difficult to predict the precise time of day when all the neighborhood kids are going to be outside.  And since they all have the same problem there in fact is no time of the day when all the neighborhood kids are outside and therefore no time of day when any of the neighborhood kids are outside.

Uniformly robbing all children in the neighborhood of 6 hours of prime playtime leaves them with only a few hours left in the day in which to coordinate.  And releasing them all from captivity at exactly the same time synchronizes them and creates an ideal focal point.  You find your friends outside immediately after school is out.

Unfortunately, in September in Chicago the sun is going to set not long after that, the weather is getting cool, and we really have only a month or so before playing outside is not going to be feasible anymore.  And that’s why “Summer Vacation” is a badly misguided convention.  School should be in session through the entire summer so that kids can make the most out of its coordination benefits.  There would be no more “summer time blues.”

Since kids spend their vacation indoors anyway, the vacation should be in the Winter when going outside isn’t an option.  Then we can really put Winter Vacation to good use:  they can catch up on all of the homework they avoided during the Summer School year when they were instead outside playing.

Via my favorite source for toilet humor, Adriana Lleras-Muney, here is a paper describing how the urinal game and other bathroom customs can be used in introductory Sociology classes.

the use of “interactive exercises” can also be a valuable way by which to underscore the connection between individual actions and social structure. So stated, this paper identifies a number of “everyday” participatory exercises designed to spur classroom interaction and highlight core sociological concepts. Specifically, I use interactional scenarios within the typical American men’s public restroom to emphasize: 1) that individual actions, even those that exist in the mundane, are influenced by larger social-cultural forces; and 2) that a number of core sociological concepts can be found and explored in a place generally ignored or taken for granted.

I wrote about the urinal game here and the trough variant here.

College sports. The NBA and the NFL, two of the most sought-after professional sports in the United States outsource the scouting and training of young talent to college athletics programs. And because the vast majority of professionals are recruited out of college the competition for professional placement continues four years longer than it would if there were no college sports.

The very best athletes play basketball and football in college, but only a tiny percentage of them will make it as professionals. If professionals were recruited out of high school then those that don’t make it would find out four years earlier than they do now. Many of them would look to other sports where they still have chances. Better athletes would go into soccer at earlier ages.

As long as college athletics programs serve as the unofficial farm teams for professional basketball and football, many top athletes won’t have enough incentive to try soccer as a career until it is already too late for them.

A key passage:

You poor sap. I know you won’t believe any of this, but you should. How can I get it through your thick, acne-pocked skull? All the stupid things you are so worried about really aren’t very important at all. In fact, they are the opposite of important. What if I told you that all the “winners” around you right now were actually the losers? Well, I just did tell you that, but you still don’t believe me because I’m an adult and 16 year olds can never trust adults.

What if I tried to explain it this way: That feeling you’ve never been able to put a name on — it feels something like, let’s say, a bone-crushing insecurity and cluelessness about your place in the world — just forget about it! That’s right. You can forget about it and go about your days — confident with the knowledge that it’s all going to work out just fine.

Could it be that this kind of confidence would just turn his 16 year old self into one of the winners who will eventually turn out to be a loser?  Isn’t that kind of confidence exactly what separates the winners in high school from the losers?  And what else but insecurity and cluelessness about your place in the world leads a 16 year old to give up on the present and try to explore ways of being that might one day give him real self-confidence and not just the artificially, socially propped-up kind?

Drawing:  Follow Your Heart from

He was clearly going nowhere:

  • (Mathematics) Not very good.  He spends a good deal of time apparently in investigations in advanced mathematics to the neglect of his elementary work.  A sound ground work is essential in any subject.  His work is dirty.
  • (Greek) He seems to find the subject a very hard one & most of his work has been very poor in quality.  I think he tries.
  • (Latin) His Latin work is for the most part careless & slovenly: he can do much better when he tries.
  • (“House report”) No doubt he is a strange mixture: trying to build a roof before he has laid the foundations.  Having secured one privileged exemption, he is mistaken in acting as if idleness and indifference will procure further release from uncongenial subjects.

The pointer came from Josh Gans on Google+

(It used to be 4 and 5.)

A student in her 5th year who doesn’t have a stellar job market paper is always tempted to stay another year and try to produce something better. This is the ex post incentive of an individual student.

But ex ante the department as a whole would like to enforce a commitment for all students to go on the market in 5, even those whose job market paper at that stage leaves something to be desired. The basic reason is risk aversion. Every year they spend in grad school they produce another signal for the market. Good signals improve their prospects but bad signals make them worse. They would avoid the additional risk by committing to stay only 5 years rather than 6.

Now consider a student whose job market paper in year 5 leaves something to be desired. If she stays another year and produces a good paper, then although she is better off, she raises the bar for her colleagues and thereby strengthens their incentives to stay another year. A department policy that strongly incentivizes students to finish in 5 is needed to prevent the implied unraveling.

But that’s MIT.  Then there’s everybody else. Students in other departments have to compete with MIT students for top jobs. At a department like Yale, only the best students will be able to compete for top jobs and this makes them risk loving not risk averse. Instead of wanting to minimize signals, the best Yale students want to produce enough signals in hopes that at least one of them is good enough to give them a shot at a top department job.

So one should expect funding, TAships, and face time with advisors to drop after 5 years at MIT but continue into the 6th year at Yale.  (Note: I have no data on this.)

Great prelim question:

 To provide some interpretation, consider a set of equidistant urinals in a washroom and men who enter the room sequentially. Men dislike to choose a urinal next to another urinal which is already in use. If no urinal providing at least basic privacy is available, each man prefers to leave the room immediately. Each man prefers larger distances to the next man compared to smaller distances. The men enter the bathroom one by one in rapid succession, so men will only consider the privacy they have after no further men decides to use a urinal (e.g., the privacy the first man enjoys before the second man enters is too short to influence the first man’s utility).

One of the paper’s main results is that maximizing throughput (Beavis!) of a washroom may, paradoxically, entail restricting total capacity.  Consider a wall lined with 5 urinals.  The subgame perfect equilibrium has the first gentleman take urinal 2 and the second caballero take urinal 5.  These strategies are pre-emptive moves that induce subsequent monsieurs to opt for a stall instead out of privacy concerns.  Thus urinals 1, 3, and 4 go unused.  If instead urinals 2 and 4 are replaced with decorative foliage, and assuming that gentleman #1 is above relieving himself into same, then the new subgame perfect equilibrium has him taking urinal 1, and urinals 3 and 5 hosting the subsequently arriving blokes.  See the example on page 11.

Free cowboy hat tip:  Josh Gans

Beginning in February of 2012 Stanford economist Matt Jackson and computer scientist Yoav Shoham will be offering an online course in game theory.  2 hours of video lectures will be posted each week online and there will be a forum to ask questions of the instructors.  Here is their introductory video.

The website where you can sign up for the course is here. Northwestern/Kellogg should do stuff like this.

In academia, Americans are a small minority of your colleagues.  And so very frequently the conversation turns to the subject of American public schools.  Europeans, Asians, even Canadians are deeply suspicious about the quality of education in American public schools.  All but a few of them put their kids in private schools.

As for the Americans, while they also favor private schools more than the typical non-academic family, still a majority of them happily enroll their kids in public schools.

And the conversation about schools is remarkable because there is general agreement about the facts but polarized opinions about their consequences.  American public schools are less rigorous, less challenging, and less disciplined; they are more focused on socialization, “creativity” and self-esteem.  For the Europeans these are the weaknesses and for Americans these are the strengths.  (Of course I am exaggerating the polarization but not by a lot.)

Having been involved in countless variations of this debate I have finally figured out why its so entrenched:  both sides are right.

Academics are a highly selected set of people.  Many accidents have to happen to produce someone with the qualities and preferences leading them here.  The type of education you had must have matched perfectly the type of person you are for all of that to come together.  And since people come in different types, they require different styles of education to succeed.

This explains a lot when you look backwards through that process.  An American who survived the American public school system and wound up in academia is almost surely someone for whom that system works well.  And a European who succeeded did so precisely because he didn’t go to schools like that.  This is not saying that Europeans wouldn’t benefit from wishy-washy American schools, just that all of the Eurpoeans who would have didn’t get that and so they didn’t turn out as successful as the Europeans whose schools matched their type.

And so European parents look at American schools and rightly see that those schools would have been a disaster for them.  They extrapolate to their kids and conclude, rightly or wrongly, that their kids should avoid American public schools.    American parents, just as rightly, see the opposite.

(Trivia:  I am a product of public schools.  Here are some of my better-known classmates.  See if you can guess which one I got in a fight with in junior high.)

In the last of our weekly readings, my daughter’s 4th grade class read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Pit And The Pendulum” (a two minute read) and today I led the kids in a discussion of the story.  Here are my notes.

The story reads like a scholarly thesis on the art and strategy of torture.  My fourth graders had no trouble picking out the themes of commitment, credibility, resistance, and escalation as if they themselves were seasoned experts on the age-old institution.  We went around the table associating passages in the story to everyday scenes on the playground and in the lunch line. Many of the children especially identified with this account of the delicate balance between hope and despair in the victim:

And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. The thought came gently and stealthily, and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation; but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it, the figures of the judges vanished, as if magically, from before me; the tall candles sank into nothingness; their flames went out utterly; the blackness of darkness supervened; all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades.

We had a lengthy discussion of  how the victim was made to wish for death and one especially precocious youngster observed that the longing for death cultivates in the detainee what is known as the Stockholm Syndrome in which the victim begins to feel a sense of common purpose with his captors.

By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung, until I trembled at the sound of my own voice, and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me.

Here Poe gives a nod to the eternal debate about the psychology of torture. Does psychological stress of torture bring the victim to a state in which he abandons all rationality?  There in the hush of the elementary school library, the children were insistent that Poe was right to suggest instead that torture, judiciously applied, only heightens the victim’s strategic awareness.

In light of that observation it came as no surprise to the sharpest among my students that the instrument to be used would leverage to the fullest the interrogators’ strategic advantage in this contest of wills.

It might have been half an hour, perhaps even an hour, (for in cast my I could take but imperfect note of time) before I again cast my eyes upward. What I then saw confounded and amazed me. The sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a yard. As a natural consequence, its velocity was also much greater. But what mainly disturbed me was the idea that had perceptibly descended. I now observed — with what horror it is needless to say — that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel, about a foot in length from horn to horn; the horns upward, and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor. Like a razor also, it seemed massy and heavy, tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass, and the whole hissed as it swung through the air.

Still we were, every one of us, in awe of Poe’s ingenious device.  The pendulum, serving both as a symbol of the deterministic and inexorable march of time, and a literal instrument of torture inheriting that same aura of inevitability.

I asked the youngest of my students, a gentle and charming, if somewhat reserved little girl to take her reader out of her Hello Kitty book bag and read aloud this entry, which I had highlighted as one whose vibrant color and imagery was sure to endear the students at such an early age to the rich joys of literature.

What boots it to tell of the long, long hours of horror more than mortal, during which I counted the rushing vibrations of the steel! Inch by inch — line by line — with a descent only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages — down and still down it came! Days passed — it might have been that many days passed — ere it swept so closely over me as to fan me with its acrid breath. The odor of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. I prayed — I wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent.

This was the moment of my greatest pride in our weekly literary expeditions as I could tell that the child so was overcome with the joy and power of Poe’s insights into the art of interrogation, that she was nearly weeping at the end.

The story concludes with Poe’s most hopeful verdict on the limits of torture as a mechanism. Our victim persevered, resisted to the very end, and his steadfastness was rewarded with escape and rescue.  Likewise, the little boys and girls went back to their classroom and I detected that they were moving unusually slowly.  I surmised, I must say with a little pride, that they were still deep in thought about the valuable lesson we had explored together.  Indeed many of them confided in me that they were eager to tell their parents about me and the story I picked for them and everything they learned today.

This was going to happen eventually.

Una advertencia: el lector desprevenido podrá suponer que el contenido de este artículo es irónico, exagerado o hasta apócrifo. Han sido recurrentes las ironías acerca de los efectos letales de los planes de ajuste que han impulsado e impulsan ciertos economistas. Marcelo Matellanes, el fallecido filósofo y economista, sostenía que a los economistas se les debería exigir, como a los médicos, el juramento hipocrático, pero con un detalle adicional: la mala praxis de los médicos tiene efectos más acotados que los programas de ajuste estructural que algunos economistas han puesto en práctica en las economías latinoamericanas. En otras palabras, los malos médicos matan de a uno; los malos economistas hacen un daño generalizado.

The article, in Spanish obviously, is here.  (Google translate is at your service.) My translation:  two evil economists from the center countries (??) named Sandeep Baliga and Jeffrey Ely have written a paper which demonstrates how to use torture optimally.  They, and all economists for that matter, should report at once for ethical reprogramming.

Gat grope:  Santiago Oliveros.

“Bob, the professor business is even sleazier than the jewelry business. At least in the jewelry business we were honest about being fake. Plus, when I go to conferences, I’ve never seen such pretentiousness. These are the most precious people I’ve ever met.”

“Come on, Clancy. Did you really think people were going to be any better in a university?”

“Um, kind of.” Of course I did. “And it’s not that they’re not better. They’re worse.”

“Well, you may have a point there.” (Bob was always very tough on the profession of being a professor.) “Focus on the students and your writing. The rest of it is b.s.” (That was a favorite expression of Bob’s, as it is of a former colleague of his at Princeton, Harry Frankfurt.)

“With the students, I still feel like I’m selling.” (I was very worried about this.)

“You are selling. That’s part of what it is to be a good teacher.” (Bob was in the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers and had won every teaching award in the book. He also made several series of tapes for the Teaching Company.) “To be a good teacher, you have to be part stand-up comic, part door-to-door salesman, part expert, part counselor. Do what feels natural. Be yourself. Are your students liking it? Is it working for you?”

The story of a guy who dropped out, trained himself as a liar in the jewelry business, and then went back to academia. (Montera missive:

As the junior job market rears it ugly head, there are many deep questions:  How good are the candidates’ papers? If the papers are so-so, do the candidates show signs of promise and potential for good work in the future?  Is there a forgiving, omniscient God?  I digress but you get the picture – I have no easy answers for the deep questions.  But I do have trite answers for shallow questions.

So, let us turn to “job market meal,” the mating dance that usually ends the visit.

Let us first consider dinner planning.  If I am in charge of organizing the visit, I find it is imperative to have my ducks lined up before hand, i.e. get the dinner party and restaurant fixed ahead of the visit.  Otherwise, there can be a nightmare scenario where the candidate visit is a disaster, no-one else wants to go to dinner and you are stuck as a silent, unromantic twosome at a pizza joint close to work.

The now planned-ahead  restaurant choice is a delicate matter.  Like a date, you are sending a signal about how much you care via the restaurant choice.  You might like the pizza joint and the very fact you are going to dinner with a spouse and kids at home is a costly signal of your interest.  But the people you are interviewing are young and have no knowledge of spouses and kids. Your signal has to be more obvious so you have to go to an (obviously) good restaurant.

There is another dangerous mistake you can make at this step: choosing a restaurant that is too good. This carries a double risk.  First, you are sending a confused signal: Is this dinner really signaling your interest in the candidate or in an expensive meal subsidized by your university?  Second, and in my experience more pertinently, you are subject to the wonderful but confusing impact of the melting pot that is the American job market for economists.  Students from all over the world get into PhD programs at American universities and if their papers are good, they can get a job anywhere.  As one of the melty bits in the pot, I can’t help but celebrate this but it does lead to some confusion at the dinner table. Is some hardworking nerd from a land-locked country really going to appreciate the raw seafood at the Temple to Sushi you decide to go to?  Chances are that they have been stuck in front of a computer eating toast and processed cheese for the last five years and, before that, they’d never heard of high or low grade tuna.

Play it safe: a good Italian or French restaurant is the best choice.

Moving us one step closer to a centralized interview process (a good thing as I have argued), the Duke department of economics is posting video clips of job talks given by their new PhD candidates.  Here is the Duke Economics YouTube Channel, and here is the talk of Eliot Annenberg (former NU undergrad and student of mine btw.)  I expect more and more departments to be doing this in the future. (Bearskin bend: Econjeff)

While we are on the subject here is a recent paper that studies the Economics academic labor market (beyond the rookie market.)  The abstract:

In this paper we study empirically the labor market of economists. We look at the mobility and promotion patterns of a sample of 1,000 top economists over thirty years and link it to their productivity and other personal characteristics. We find that the probability of promotion and of upward mobility is positively related to past production. However, the sensitivity of promotion and mobility to production diminishes with experience, indicating the presence of a learning process. We also find evidence that economists respond to incentives. They tend to exert more effort at the beginning of their career when dynamic incentives are important. This finding is robust to the introduction of tenure, which has an additional negative ex post impact on production. Our results indicate therefore that both promotions and tenure have an effect on the provision of incentives. Finally, we detect evidence of a sorting process, as the more productive individuals are allocated to the best ranked universities. We provide a very simple theoretical explanation of these results based on Holmström (1982) with heterogeneous firms.

via eric barker.

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