A philosophically-minded MR reader writes to me:

Tenure ought to be an occasion to explore radically new intellectual paths, ones not pre-approved by one’s field and ones that could, perhaps, do something to bridge the chasm between academic and non-academic intellectual life–and yet as a matter of fact what seems to happen is that people either stop working altogether or continue barreling down the groove they wore themselves into to get tenure.  (You mentioned this issue in a post last year:  But I want to hear more.

So: why does this happen, how can we prevent it at the University/ departmental level, and, most of all, how can we prevent it at the personal level?  (Keeping in mind that most of us are not cognitively capable of processing information at the speed to go your route!)   The idea that we are incentivized to keep working by the prospect of being promoted to full Professor seems silly, given the increased administrative responsibilities.

Related problem: as one moves up the tenure hierarchy, the administrative responsibilities tend to fall disproportionately on fewer and fewer people,  b/c there are lots of deadbeats. I repeatedly see the few responsible people overwhelmed with administrative tasks which they refuse to delegate to those they know will not take them seriously.  (And I observe these responsible people are disproportionately women, even in a field–like mine–that is disproportionately male.)

I have a few suggestions, all feasible but only a few are practical:

1. All schools should copy the committee obligations policy of the school, within their quality tier, that has the fewest committee assignments for faculty.  Yes this can be done.

2. I don’t know how to operationalize this one, but on average give women half the committee assignments that men have.  That still won’t equalize the total work burden (women on average work harder per committee assignment), but it is a start.

3. Study your lecture preparation, and experiment with cutting parts of it out.  See if that matters.

4. Each year take at least one trip to a place you didn’t think you wanted to visit.

5. Go to some Liberty Fund conferences.

6. Refuse to have colleague lunches based around local politics, politics, small talk, sports (unless of the analytic variety), and campus gossip.  Just don’t do it.  Also avoid lunches with too many people attending.

7. Of the five or so smartest people you hang out with (family aside), try to ensure that no more than half of them are in your department.

8. Change the ratio of foreign-to-domestic TV shows you watch, in favor of the foreign.

9. Hang at least one piece of non-cheery art on your wall that will remind yourself of an ever-pending death.  Change its angle every now and then, or better yet change the picture, so you don’t get too used to it and stop noticing it altogether.  If need be, supplement this with Brahms’s German Requiem.

10. Write a periodic blog post, if only a secret and non-published one.  If you don’t find this process is going well, ask yourself what is wrong.

11. Worry if no one thinks you are crazy.  Supplement this with actually being crazy.

12. What else?

Bruce Caldwell emails me:

The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University will be hosting another Summer Institute on the History of Economics this summer from June 4 – 16, 2017. The program is designed for students in graduate programs in economics, though students in graduate school in other fields as well as newly minted PhD’s will also be considered. Students will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive free housing and reading materials. The deadline for applying is March 3. Travel stipends for those coming from afar will be considered on a case by case basis.

We are very excited about this year’s two week program, which has a somewhat different format from other years. The first week Bruce Caldwell will be the sole lecturer, and will present a mini-history of economic thought class, providing both content and tips on how to set up such a course. The second week is thematic. Steve Medema will present a history of the concept of market failure, and Kevin Hoover will present a history of macroeconomics. Applicants may sigh up for either week, or both. More information on the Summer Institute is available at our website,

I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace.  Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions.  In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.


LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.

LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.

It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.


COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?

LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?

Jhumpa on Kolkaata:

…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.

Do read (or listen to) the whole thing.  Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated.  One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.

Several loyal MR readers requested I cover this topic.  My views are pretty simple, namely that I am a fan of the movement.  Police in this country kill, beat, arrest, fine, and confiscate the property of black people at unfair and disproportionate rates.  The movement directs people’s attention to this fact, and the now-common use of cell phone video and recordings have driven the point home.

I don’t doubt that many policemen perceive they are at higher risk when dealing with young black males, and that is part of why they may act more brutally or be quicker to shoot or otherwise misbehave.  I would respond that statistical discrimination, even if it is rational, does not excuse what are often crimes against innocent people.  For instance, a man is far more likely to kill you than is a woman, but that fact does not excuse the shooting of an innocent man.

I also don’t see that citing “Black Lives Matter” has to denigrate the value of the life of anyone else.  Rather, the use of the slogan reflects the fact that many white people have been unaware of the extra burdens that many innocent black people must carry due to their treatment at the hands of the police.  The slogan is a way of informing others of this reality.

“Black Lives Matter” is a large movement, if that is the proper word for it, and you can find many objectionable statements, alliances, and political views within it.  I don’t mean to endorse those, but at its essence I see this as a libertarian idea to be admired and promoted.

The Danish parliament on Monday passed a bill that will bar students from taking a second university degree.

The bill restricts individuals who already have a higher education degree from pursuing a degree in another field at the same or a lower level.

The bill was supported by the three government parties as well as the Danish People’s Party and the Social Democrats. Its backers say the move is a matter or priorities.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.

I receive requests for recommendations in this area fairly often.  I don’t feel I am qualified to judge the outputs, but here are three that have come across my path as of late and seem to me very good:

Connor Boyack, illustrated by Elijah Stanfield, The Tuttle Twins and The Road to Surfdom.  Recommended ages 5-11.

I.M. Lerner and Catherine L. Osornio, The Secret Under the Staircase, and The Hidden Entrance.  Here the age range seems to be higher, maybe 10-12?  I feel I could have read them younger than that, however.

Someone should write a bibliographic essay on the books in this category.  What else can you recommend?

The test

by on January 1, 2017 at 12:43 am in Economics, Education, Travel | Permalink

I arrived at the Lagos airport and knew I needed to change some money.  And there is in fact a famed “airport market” for exchange.  At the baggage claim, an earnest young man came up to me and asked how much I wanted to change.  “$200,” I said.  He said “Give me the money, I will be back in five minutes with your Naira.”

I paused, and gave him the money.

He came back.

Happy New Year!

Addendum: Samir Varma sends along this interesting piece on global stereotypes.

That is the title of a new paper by Jakob B. Madsen and Stojanka Andric, here is the abstract:

Using annual data from 1850 to 2010 for Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, and the USA, this paper examines the impact of immigration and the immigrants’ educational and cultural background on unemployment. Instruments for 27 emigrating countries are used to deal with the feedback effects from unemployment to immigration. The results show that educated immigrants, in particular, and immigrants from Protestant countries significantly reduce unemployment, while poorly educated and non-Protestant immigrants enhance unemployment.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

He is from Brown University, we met at a tacqueria, here is the interview, here is one bit from it, from me:

Popular culture is not nearly pro-science enough…. It should be much higher status to be in science. This would boost the rate of innovation. I think people privately can just choose to respect science more. In a sense it’s a free lunch! You don’t have to spend money, people just have to actually believe science is really good. So that’s what I advocate. And that’s a question of role models and exposure when you’re young. I think TV shows are very important… Star Trek and even Gilligan’s Island I think made science cool to a lot of people. I think President Obama actually has done a pretty good job of being a pro-science role model and how he talks about science. His powers are limited but I think he actually gets this pretty well, because he’s made a real concerted attempt rhetorically to work that into what he’s about. I think historically, America has not been all that pro-science, but we invented the atomic bomb, we industrialized in this fantastic manner. In a bunch of ways pro-science and nationalism should overlap. Being the first country to put a man on the moon gave a huge boost to science. That boost has proven temporary, much to my dismay.

Here are bits and pieces on the very smart Noah Cowan, who was a Jeopardy champion at a very young age.

Both male and female scientists felt that female scientists (light bars) were more objective, intelligent, etc. than male ones (dark bars), although the differences were larger when it was female scientists making the ratings.

I found this interesting too:

Strikingly, though, early-career scientists were rated as having less objectivity, integrity and open-mindedness than PhD students – or so thought the senior scientists.

Junior researchers, however, saw themselves as being slightly superior to PhD students…

Here is more, via the excellent Samir Varma.

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Petinal Gappah, The Book of Memory

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.

Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, used or Kindle edition is recommended

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.

Primo Levi, If This is a Man

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1, also on-line.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Reputations

Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act


Movies: Difret, Court, The Chinese Mayor, A Separation

Maybe understanding that opposition from the other tribe was not the reason for failure can help overcome polarization?

  • Your counterculture did not fail because the other counterculture opposed it. (They did, but that’s not why.)
  • Your counterculture failed because the majority did not agree with it.
  • The majority rejected your counterculture because it was plainly wrong about many things.
  • It would help if you understood how younger generations relate to meaningness; they are right that some of your main issues are illusory.
  • You need to let go of the sacred myths of your tribe. Decades ago they inspired genuinely positive social change, but now they produce only frustration and hatred and stalemate. Everyone born after 1970 thinks they are idiotic. You are stuck pretending to believe, but even you secretly know they aren’t true.
  • Your counterculture and the other one also agree about many things!
  • Some of what you agree about is wrong; you should admit that and drop it.
  • Some of what you agree about is right; you should work together to support it.
  • Much of what you imagine you fight about is symbolic, not substantive. Your advocacy of these issues is mostly a statement of tribal identity, and claims for high status within your tribe.
  • When your symbolic issues blow up into actual political conflicts, often you are fighting to establish tribal dominance, not to accomplish pragmatic improvements in society.
  • If you understand what you really disagree about, and why, you may be able to find pragmatic compromises, instead of both sides demanding total victory.

While the piece (who wrote it?) is uneven in parts, it is both interesting and important.  Here is the whole on-line manuscript.  Here is the critique of Bayesianism as Eternalism.  For the pointer I thank Jake Seliger.

Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara, and Amanda Pallais have a new paper on this topic (pdf).  Here is the abstract:

Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because these actions could signal personality traits (like ambition) that are undesirable in the marriage market? We answer this question through two field experiments in an elite U.S. MBA program. Newly-admitted MBA students filled out a questionnaire on job preferences and personality traits to be used by the career center in internship placement; randomly selected students thought their answers would be shared with classmates. When they believed their classmates would not see their responses, single and non-single women answered similarly. However, single women reported desired salaries $18,000 lower and being willing to travel seven fewer days per month and work four fewer hours per week when they expected classmates would see their answers. They also reported less professional ambition and tendency for leadership. Neither men nor non-single women changed their answers in response to peer observability. A supplementary experiment asked students to make choices over hypothetical jobs before discussing their choices in their career class small groups; we randomly varied the groups’ gender composition. Single women were much less likely to select career-focused jobs when their answers would be shared with male peers, especially single ones. Two results from observational data support our experimental results. First, in a new survey, almost three-quarters of single female students reported avoiding activities they thought would help their career because they did not want to appear ambitious. They eschewed these activities at higher rates than did men and non-single women. Second, while unmarried women perform similarly to married women in class when their performance is kept private from classmates (on exams and problem sets), they have lower participation grades.

The reference is through Jennifer Doleac and Mark Koyama.

In early November Google Translate took a Japanese translation of the opening of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and returned:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

One day later Google Translate took the same passage and returned:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

What happened on that day is that Google turned its Translate service over to Google Brain, it’s new division that uses “neural networks” to solve AI problems. Google Brain and it’s history is the subject of  an excellent longread, The Great AI Awakening, from Gideon Lewis-Kraus (from which I have drawn the example).

Today, however, I want to make a different point. In my paper, Why Online Education Works, I wrote:

Online education has the potential to break the cost disease by substituting capital for labor and hitching productivity improvements in education to productivity improvements in software, artificial intelligence, and computing.

The improvements to Google Translate provide an example. Our Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics courses at Marginal Revolution University are captioned in over a hundred languages. Professional human-written captions have been produced for most of our videos in English, Spanish, French, Chinese and Arabic and we are working on more translations. Most of the translations, however, including those for Corsican, Kyrgyz, and Urdu are provided by Google. The earlier machine-translations weren’t great but were still useful to students in Pakistan who might need a bit of extra help to understand a new concept. The translations, however, are getting better.

Indeed, every improvement in Google Translate automatically becomes an improvement to Marginal Revolution University. Amazing.

I will be chatting with him for the next Conversation with Tyler, January 26.  Here is an excerpt from his bio:

Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post…In addition to serving as the Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in LA, Rabbi Wolpe has written eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. Rabbi Wolpe also writes a weekly column for His writing has been included in The LA Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and the New York Jewish Week. He has previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the American Jewish University, Hunter College, and UCLA.

Here is his Wikipedia page, and his most recent book is David: The Divided Heart.

This event will be held at the Sixth and I St. Synagogue in Washington, D.C., 7 p.m.; please note they charge admission but that is for them not for me!  This will not be a regular feature of the series moving forward, but they do need to cover their costs and we really wanted to use that venue.

So what should I ask David Wolpe?