Month: May 2008

What are the benefits of being full professor?

Dan Drezner, who just won the title (congratulations!), gives a list.  Oddly he leaves off the most important (only?) benefit, namely that no one can tell you any more that you won’t make full professor.  I know that sounds silly but in essence you choke off the ability of your university to send you one very particular negative status signal.  Nor can they hold that threat over your head.

Sometimes I think this is also a benefit of being married.  Let’s say you and your significant other are not married.  In that case proposing, and having that proposal turned down, often causes couples to split up.  By marrying you remove this scenario as the source of a possible split.

There are advantages to sitting at the very top and very bottom of status distributions; it is often the in-between spots that are problematic.

The Man Who Loved China

That’s the new Simon Winchester book and it concerns Joseph Needham, who wrote the famous series on the history of science in China and focused the attention of the scholarly world on the question: why no capitalism in China?  This books offers a love story, a story of a quest, a story of science, a tale of politics, and did you know that Needham (unwittingly) was the guy who taught the Unabomber to use explosives?

Here is one short bit from the book:

In 1989, more than half a century after they first met, Needham and Lu Gwei-djen were married in Cambridge.  She died two years later, whereupon Needham invited three other women to marry him.  All politely declined.

Definitely recommended.  The subtitle is "The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom."  Here is one review.

Letter to the NEJM

The issue of off-label prescribing is heating up again.  A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine by Randall Stafford made the case for greater regulation.  I am concerned that the benefits of off-label prescribing are not fully appreciated.  Dan Klein and I wrote a letter to the NEJM – which they declined to publish – in response.  Here’s the letter:

Dear NEJM,

R.S. Stafford writes that off-label prescribing “permits innovation in clinical practice … offers patients and physicians earlier access to potentially valuable medications and allows physicians to adopt new practices based on emerging evidence.”  Nevertheless, he calls for greater FDA regulation.

In contrast, we argue that the efficacy of off-label usage suggests that less FDA regulation of first or on-label usage would increase innovation and offer patients earlier access to new medications. 

Off-label prescribing is regulated by the judgments of doctors, medical researchers, industry, the patient community, and patients.  This system offers patients a more nuanced approach to care than a top-down approach.  We should extend this approach to new drugs as well as to new uses for old drugs.

Our perspective is bolstered by a large survey of physicians which demonstrates strong support for off-label prescribing and considerable support for reducing FDA regulations on new drugs.

Daniel Klein
Alexander Tabarrok
George Mason University

Where do the kept women go?

Zubin Jelveh reports:

If you’re a married woman living in the New York City area, there’s
a better than 50 percent chance that you don’t work, according to a recent analysis of Census data by economists affiliated with the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.

More specifically, only 49 percent of white high school-educated
married women in their prime working ages were holding down jobs in the
New York area as of the 2000 Census. To put that in perspective, there
are roughly 2 million woman over 15-years-old who are married in the
New York area.

The national average for this particular demographic is 67 percent.
At the other end of the spectrum is Minneapolis where almost 80 percent
of these married women are employed — that’s larger than the
percentage of working men aged 25 and older in the U.S.

And why is this?

Surprisingly, the economists argue, the most important specific thing seems to be traffic.

And if you do work in these traffic-heavy areas, you are likely to work more hours.  But is it all causal?

With all due respect to The Walker Art Center, if I wanted to be a kept woman I would not start my quest in Minneapolis.  High density, as you find in Manhattan, means lots of fun things to do in your copious free time as a kept woman and also a higher degree of income inequality and thus the hope of snaring a rich man.  There’s a reason why they didn’t set Sex in the City in Paramus and most of the women there will be working even when the traffic gets worse.

Russia fact of the day

By 2015, Moscow will boast the 10 tallest office buildings in Europe–and already prime office rents in Moscow are going above $2,000 a square meter, 50 percent higher than the most prestigious skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan.

Here is more, interesting throughout, and thanks to John Bailey for the pointer.

Addendum: Don’t forget this part — about corruption — either:

Indeed, by some estimates, Russia’s GDP growth should have been closer to 14 percent–after all, Russia is the world’s largest energy exporter at a time when prices have tripled during the last half decade.

I hate perfume

I really, really do.  All perfume, and yes that means yours too.  But I loved the book Perfumes: The Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.  If you are rating this book along the single dimension of how skillfully it informs the reader, it is one of the best non-fiction books I have read, ever.

Plus it has good sentences like:

Nobody ever died from wearing Mitsouko, but lots of babies were born as a result of it.


Fragrances for men are mostly identical crap, designed to trap you and give you away as a lout.


Bryan Caplan on the McCain/Clinton gas tax relief plan

You’ll find his contrarian take in The New York Times this morning.  It’s a second best, public choice argument: according to Bryan we are usually too nasty to energy companies in bad times, so sending them some excess profits is a bit of needed TLC.  McCain’s plan of course is better in his eyes because it doesn’t include the punitive windfall profits tax.  And without a gas tax holiday we might be tempted to do something worse.  Excerpt:

…even a “giveaway” to the oil industry sets a positive course for the
future. During the last crisis, the industry was a scapegoat for
scarcity. Politicians scrambled to stop oil companies from profiting
from the crisis, even though temporarily high profits end shortages by
giving businesses an incentive to figure out how to increase output.

Stephen Colbert dissents.  And here’s Bryan’s own summary of Bryan.  I don’t know the data on the average rate of tax paid by energy companies, compared to other endeavors, but looking at that would be one place to start.

The Fermi paradox revisited

I am still thinking about Nick Bostrom’s stimulating essay (and Robin Hanson’s precursor essay).  Nick of course is worried about finding signs of alien life, which would suggest that life has arisen many times, leading to the question "where are they?" and the fear that life dies out pretty easily.  For Nick it is cheerier, from our point of view at least, to think it is very hard for life to get underway in the first place.

In pondering the Fermi question, I often wonder if I am not simply missing the party, so to speak.  Most people already *do* think they see signs of an alien presence of some kind, of course defining that concept broadly to include The Gods.  So how can we say we don’t see "them"?  Maybe I, the agnotheist, don’t see "them" (Him?) but surely most other people think they do.

Doesn’t that make the Fermi paradox go away in a snap?  No one cites Blind Boy Blake and screams "He doesn’t see them!".

Another way of putting it is to say we don’t take David Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion seriously enough.  We really have just one data point, so who can say what "they" look like, or what kind of "display" they would have made for us?

Alternatively, I am struck by the tension between the Fermi paradox with the "We are probably living in a simulation" claim.  Both are popular with the same group of people because they are nerdy ways of making you believe something weird; in reality the two conundrums don’t fit together.  If you take the simulation option seriously, you again see the creators all around you, albeit in disguised or cloaked form.  Of course you had to use Bayesian inferential reasoning to see them, but what’s wrong with that?  Better than a telescope, some would say.  And since most people believe in God, the creators might even consider their artwork to be already "signed."  (I’ll note rapidly in passing that the arguments against the simulation hypothesis also strike at the Fermi worries, but establishing that would take lots of work.)

Either way, it seems we see "them," or ought to think we see them, even if that turns out to be a visual mistake of sorts.

Addendum: I liked Michael Goodfellow’s point:

After that first species gets control, it makes all the rules.  If it shells over all the stars, no other life can even develop, since all the planets are frozen solid.  If it wants to let biological evolution continue, it can do that, by avoiding stars with fertile planets.  It can prevent any other technology from arising (by monitoring all the planets where life is evolving.)  It can guide or change any life that it does find.

This may seem horrible to you — little robots putting all the stars out!  Spreading like a weed and killing or preventing any new life from developing.  But you’re looking at it the wrong way…The first species out there gets to decide the future, for every species that follows.  For lack of any other evidence, let’s hope it’s us.

Splendid, but I part company at the last sentence.  There is some other evidence (of the Bayesian sort) and I think the most logical assumption is — whether you believe in God or space aliens — to think of ourselves as their product, one way or another.

Or to put it yet another way, what’s the principle of individuation here?  Isn’t "seeing us" and "seeing them" more or less the same thing?

Hail David Hume!

Does the CPI understate inflation?

You’re hearing this a lot these days, most of all from Kevin Phillips.  David Leonhardt sets the record straight.  Here is one excerpt:

During the 1980s and 1990s, though, did you ever stop and marvel at what a small share of your paycheck you were spending at the supermarket? I didn’t. I also didn’t really notice that gas cost less in the late 1990s than it had in the 1980s. Yet lately, every time my wife or I pass a new benchmark for filling up our tank – $40, $50 and now $60 – we have a conversation about it.

Price increases are simply more noticeable – more salient, as psychologists would say – than price decreases. Part of this comes from the notion of loss aversion: human beings dislike a loss more than they like a gain of equivalent size. If you have to sell your house for less than you bought it for, you’re really unhappy. You hate that ground chuck now costs $2.83 a pound, but you didn’t notice that oranges are 31 percent cheaper than they were a year ago.

…The price of major appliances has been flat over the last year. Furniture is 1 percent less expensive. A decade ago, a basic four-door Toyota Corolla LE cost $16,018, according to the company. The 2009 basic model costs $16,650, and it’s a safer, more powerful, more fuel-efficient car than its predecessor.

To top it all off, most people don’t buy any of these items very often. “People tend to remember things they do frequently,” says Stephen Cecchetti, an economist at Brandeis University who studies inflation. “And what do you buy more frequently than gas and food?”

A Public Choice theory of Chinese food

Seth Roberts, citing Jennifer 8 Lee, writes:

Why did Chinese immigrants to America start so many restaurants? Because Chinese cuisine is glorious, right? Well, no. Chinese immigrants started a lot of laundries, too, and there is nothing wonderful about Chinese ways of washing clothes. As Jennifer Lee explains in this excellent talk, the first Chinese immigrants were laborers. They were taking jobs away from American men, and this caused problems. Restaurants and laundries were much safer immigrant jobs because cooking and cleaning were women’s work.

By the way, here is some work on immigrant complementarity with native labor.  George Borjas rebuts.

What I’ve Been Reading

1. Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, by Bill Ivey.  The concrete discussions of cultural issues are consistently interesting and thoughtful; the overall talk of cultural rights which frames the book is not even well-developed enough to be called absurd.  The book is best on copyright and least interesting on the NEA, which Ivey once ran.  Most of all the book reflects a creeping horror that the internet will make its entire series of debates irrelevant.

2. Apples are from Kazakhstan: The Land that Disappeared, by Christopher Robbins.  A substantive travel book about you-know-where; it is both fun and full of substance.  Recommended.

3. The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve: A History, by Robert L. Hetzel.  This is a very serious treatment of what is, from a historical point of view, an understudied topic.  Recommended; note that while the monetarist point of view is not heavy-handed, it may not appeal to everybody.

4. Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century.  A lengthy and thoughtful volume on how WMD are *the* problem of the future, though I found it didn’t get me further to thinking through my views.  A good start, however, for those who don’t buy the premise.

5. 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die.  One of the best books for browsing I have seen, though don’t expect much from the index.  I was most surprised by the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia, have any of you been there?