Category: Education

Duke 2022 Summer Institute on the History of Economic Thought

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 20-29, 2022. The program is designed for students in graduate programs in economics, though students in graduate school in other fields as well as newly minted PhDs will also be considered.

Students will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive free (double occupancy) housing, a booklet of readings, and stipends for travel and food. The deadline for applying is March 1.

We are very excited about this year’s program, which will focus on giving participants the tools to set up and teach their own undergraduate course in the history of economic thought. There will also be sessions devoted to showing how concepts and ideas from the history of economics might be introduced into other classes. The sessions will be run by Duke faculty members Bruce Caldwell, Steve Medema, and Jason Brent. More information on the Summer Institute is available at our website,


The reader requests of Celestus

I’ll break this into parts, and put my answer after each query:

1) I’m a remote worker. Why should I live in a city? Heck, why should I live in a suburb, or anywhere that has a state income tax? Even if I want “city amenities” why bother with NYC or SF or anywhere else that is built around the local job market? Why don’t I live in Puerto Rico and skirt income tax entirely?

You live in a city for culture, for sex, and to marry well.  If those don’t apply to you, don’t live in a city.  And your state income tax probably does not lower your level of happiness, so for most people it should not be a major factor in their location decisions.  Puerto Rico has seen population outflow for a long time, what is that telling you?  Or do you love mofongos?  I would have a hard time making friends there, though I love the place and have visited twice, and hope to go again.  (Did you see the museum in Ponce is closed right now?  It has excellent pre-Raphaelite works.)

2) Why is it so hard for non-US countries to develop a tech industry?

The best entrepreneurs so often want to come to the U.S., and can.  Venture capital as a financial center also tends to be relatively centralized, as are many other financial centers, and that pushes some centralization onto tech itself, though less and less in this age of work from a distance.  That said, I challenge the premise of this question.  There are plenty of start-up scenes around the world, and most of them are growing.  I don’t see an obvious end to that process in sight.

3) If, tomorrow, we get a breaking news alert that an epidemic of a previously unknown disease is spreading in, say, Gabon, how should the federal government- before it gets any other information about spread, severity, etc- react?

The federal government needs to ban travel from Gabon.  I am far from sure this will prove effective, but it is the kind of security theater you need for the rest of the public health response not to get too caught up with recriminations over this issue.  There are some (possible) stupidities you simply need to tolerate.

4) Seriously, why a University of Austin and not “Socrates Institutes” or whatever at established universities?

Established universities already are dominated by a particular set of interest groups and incentives.  Let’s try something new!  That said, I am all in favor of innovating within established universities too, and have made various efforts in that direction myself.  New universities were common in the American past, why should we be running away from them now?

5) Content creator economy discussion. For example in the long run who will have higher mean/median earnings on Twitch, men or women? Will people with college degrees have higher earnings (and if so will it be causal, or just because people with degrees happen to be more conscientious or whatever)?

The very highest earners will be men with college degrees, but with a very long second-tier tail of women earning lots.

6) Seems like a lot of people are claiming that immigration is a solution for low fertility rates. So why doesn’t the US go all the way and set a target of 75% of immigrants being young unmarried women and buy them a account?

“A good start,” but since single-parent families usually are suboptimal, we should import the men to marry them as well.


My Conversation with Ana Vidović

She is one of the world’s leading classical guitarists.  Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss that transition from prodigy to touring musician and more, including how Bach challenges her to become a better musician, the most difficult piece in guitar repertoire, the composers she wish had written for classical guitar, the Beatles songs she’d most like to transcribe, why it’s important to study a score before touching the guitar, the reason she won’t practice more than seven hours per day, how she prevents mistakes during performances, what she looks for in young classical guitarists, why she doesn’t have much music on streaming services, how the pandemic has changed audiences, why she stopped doing competitions early on, what she’d change about conservatory education for classical guitarists, her favorite electric guitarists, her love of Croatian pop music, the benefits and drawbacks of YouTube for young musicians, and what she’ll do next.


COWEN: You once said that you don’t practice past seven hours a day. What would happen in that eighth hour if you were to go there?

VIDOVIĆ: [laughs] I would probably go crazy.

COWEN: Is it mental? Is it physical? Or . . . ?

VIDOVIĆ: I just had a conversation with a friend of mine about that — how the amount of hours are actually not important as much as the quality of the practice. As a child, I used to practice many, many hours because I didn’t know, I didn’t find a way. You kind of experiment over the years. At this age, I finally learned that it’s more about concrete work, focused work, working on things that give you trouble, either if it’s technical or musical, and then you practice in sections. That takes less time.

You practice very slowly before playing fast, and then you put it all together. It just takes a lot of years to get to a point where you know what you need to work on. Two or three hours of focused practice is more efficient than seven or eight hours because sometimes there is a danger of just playing the piece through and not really working on sections and things that we should work on. I think at the eighth hour, we should all stop. [laughs]

And here is a very good Ana performance on YouTube.  And here is Bartkus discussing Conversations with Tyler.

What are good long-term investments in your health?

Stuart asks:

1) what do you think are good long-term investments in your health? I know you’re a teetotaler and non-smoker, what about exercise? where do returns start not making sense?

I do not think I am the expert you should consult, but I can tell you where my knowledge base comes from.  I have endured a lifetime of people with very exact ideas about health maximization, but with a paucity of data or carefully controlled studies.  I thus tend to be skeptical of very specific advice.  At the same time, common sense appears to yield some broad dividends, or will involve no real cost.  I think the answers that follow are pretty stupid and uninteresting, but this was the highest rated reader request, so here goes:

1. Don’t drink.  It is fine or even beneficial for most people, but terrible for 10-15%  That might be you.  And even for those who are not “problem drinkers,” I’ve had plenty of people write me and tell me their lives are much better since they stopped drinking.  Stop treating “drinking” as a default.

2. Exercise every day.  For me the main options are basketball, tennis, walking, weights, and Peloton.  I am not suggesting those are best, they are simply what I bring myself to do.  And indeed that is probably the most important factor for you.  I am skeptical of very high stress exercises, such as risky rock climbing, and so on.  I don’t see the case for making your exercise into a health risk.

3. Get good sleep.  I am blessed in this regard.  For me what works is going to bed and waking up at regular hours, and not treating weekends any differently.  I don’t pretend that advice has universal validity, but perhaps for some of you it is worth trying.  Other people have theories about sleeping in the cold, sleeping with masks, etc.  I am not opposed!  Try those if you need them.  I don’t.

4. Don’t eat junk food.  Try to eat mostly unprocessed foods.  That said, I don’t think we understand diet very well or have good data on what works.  I just don’t seem the harm in eating mostly natural foods.  They taste better anyway, and there is possible upside.

5. Be happy.  Have goals and projects.  Have sex.  Have good social networks.  There is some evidence on these, I am not sure how strongly causal it is.  “Go to church” might work as well, but I don’t do that one.  It would frustrate me more than anything.

6. Unless you have strong evidence to the contrary, take a minimum of medications.  Don’t just pop random stuff because it might have some modest short-run benefit.  But yes I do believe in vaccines and most of all those kinds of medicine that have direct parallels with what we do to try to fix animals.

That is my advice.  I consider it mostly trivial, but still it is better than violating the advice.

How does an electric car work?

Sean requests:

Say you were trying to teach yourself, to a 99th percentile *layperson’s* level, how, say, an electric car actually worked. How would you go about doing that, precisely?

I am not sure exactly how high (or low) a standard that is, but here is what I would do.

1. Watch a few YouTube videos.

2. Read a book or two on how electric cars work, along the way finding an expert or mentor who could answer my questions.

3. If needed, read a more general book about electricity.

4. Try to explain to someone else how electric cars work.  Try again.

I would recommend this same general method for many particular questions.

Do all left-leaning institutions need to unionize?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Columbia University, with its sizable endowment, is a relatively well-capitalized entity. Still, it’s appropriate to ask what problem is solved by a graduate student union. The main difficulty for these students seems to be a lack of jobs when they graduate, and a pay hike might crowd the field further, with unwelcome consequences for the job market. And in the long run, the university could simply cut back on its initial financial aid offerings. The point is, it is hard for graduate student unions to bargain effectively across many of the most relevant dimensions of their student and work experience.

In the meantime, all of these unions are introducing additional veto points into the workplace, sometimes slowing response times. If you run the business and plan to make a big change in how it operates, you might feel — either contractually or tactically — that you need to check with the union first. And if you are a Democrat and a pragmatist, you might prefer a more effective but less unionized DNC, which after all is a major promoter of unionization for the U.S. economy as a whole.

What would a less hypocritical version of a Republican organization look like? Should everyone be given equity shares, or should there be bonuses for star performers? Whatever the answer may be, it probably won’t be debated much in public, as Republicans tend to be more circumspect about such matters. That’s a danger for Republicans, who may find it harder to live up to their principles if no one is calling them to account.

The Democrats, in contrast, tend to stage noisy debates — most of which, sooner or later, seem to settle in the same direction. That’s not a healthy norm of discourse, either.


Debate: The Ethics of Tuberculosis Challenge Trials

On Wed. Jan 12 there will be a live online debate on the bioethics question, If wild type tuberculosis challenge studies would be useful, would they be ethical to conduct? The debate will feature debaters from the The Rikers Debate Project:

  • Jerusalem Demsas, Policy Writer at
  • Kaamilya Finley, Senior One Team Ambassador, Deloitte & Rikers Debate Project Fellow
  • Charles Hopkins, President, National Action Network – PG County, Maryland & Rikers Debate Project Fellow
  • Brian Patrick, Activist, Artist, & Rikers Debate Project Fellow

and will be judged by a panel of experts, policy makers and interested parties including myself:

  • Gabriel Bankman-Fried, Director, Guarding Against Pandemics
  • Camilla Broderick, Community Navigator for Midtown Community Court & Rikers Debate Project Fellow
  • Ann M. Ginsberg, Deputy Director, TB Vaccines Global Health
  • Phil Krause, Former Deputy Director, FDA/CBER/OVRR
  • Jake Liang, Chief of Liver Diseases Branch & Deputy Director of Translational Research, NIDDK, NIH
  • Larissa MacFarquhar, Staff Writer, The New Yorker
  • Matt Memoli, Director, Clinical Studies Unit, IRP’s Laboratory of Infectious Disease, NIAID
  • Jerry Sadoff, Head of Early Development, Crucell Vaccine Institute, Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson
  • Alex Tabarrok, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
  • Nikki Teran, Senior Biosecurity Fellow, The Institute for Progress
  • Matthew Yglesias, Founder, Slow Boring

Should be fun. Admission is free and you can register for attendance here.

How do geologists think?

From Dinwar, in the comments:

As for what it means to think like a geologist….it’s complicated. There definitely is a particular way of thinking unique to geologists. I’m convinced that it’s something you’re either born with or not; training just finishes what you started. Engineers and geologists think VERY differently, in nearly incompatible ways, which is fun because we work together all the time.

The main thing is, geologists think in terms of the context of deep time. We view everything from the perspective of millions of years, minimum. When a geologist looks at a stream they see the depositional zones, the erosional zones, the flood plane–and they are thinking both how the local geology affected it and how the stream will look in five million years. (As an aside, you get really strange looks when you discuss this with your eight-year-old son at a park.) And I do mean EVERYTHING. I remember drinking some loose-leaf tea once, adding the tea to the cup then the water, and realizing as the leaves settled that the high surface-area-to-volume ratio combined with cell damage from desiccation made them get water-logged very quickly, allowing for certain flood deposits to form. I’d always been curious about that.

Another thing to remember is that geologists by definition are polymaths. You can’t be a third-rate geologist unless you have a deep understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, fluid dynamics, engineering, astronomy, and a host of other fields. Geology is what you get when those fields overlap. I learned as much about brachiopod anatomy from a structural geologist as I did from any paleontologist, and my minerology class started with “Here’s the nuclear physics of stellar evolution.” We’re expected to know drilling and surveying and cartography and…well, pretty much anything that could possibly affect dirt.

Ultimately, since we are dealing with historical sciences, we are detectives. We examine clues, make hypotheses, and look for evidence to support or refute them (for a fantastic discussion of this find the paper “Strong Inference”–that’s held as an ideal for geologic thinking). Like any scientist we look for subtle things, things that have a bearing on our particular field of study. I’m convinced, for example, that the soil in one area I work in has two distinct layers: a loose, fluffy depositional layer of clay, and a more firm layer of clay derived from the limestone bedrock dissolving. This is due to subtle variations in firmness, moisture content, color, whether or not limestone pieces are in the material, etc.–stuff that most people don’t notice. It’s no special ability on my part–my mother notices things about the weave of cloth that are invisible to me, because she makes the stuff. It’s all training. But the desire to look for it? That’s personality.

Field geologists are even worse–we do all that, only in conditions that would make any sane person run screaming. We’re expected to be athletes, MacGyver, scientists, managers, and Les Stroud all rolled into one. On bad days we add combat medic to the list. Hiking on a broken leg isn’t considered an unreasonable expectation (bear in mind I’m talking about the geologists–my safety manager would be VERY cranky to hear about someone doing that!). People who do this sort of thing routinely view the world in slightly different ways from most ordinary people. Most geologists go through a course called Field Camp, which is an introduction to field work. Walk into any geology department that has this and you can tell who’s gone through the class and who hasn’t.

Are Princeton and Yale imprisoning their students?

That is the question I ask in my latest Bloomberg column, as Princeton won’t let you leave Mercer County and Yale won’t let you go into town.  Here is the closing bit:

I doubt these policies will significantly limit the spread of Covid. But my objection is more fundamental: They put universities in the untenable position of both panicking about Covid and treating Covid as trivial. Given the purpose of a university as an educational leader, a university that is hypocritical and rhetorically corrupt is failing outright.

The restrictions also show these universities as content to treat their students much worse than their faculty and staff — a faculty and staff that is typically older and thus more at risk for Covid. The liberty of Yale students to visit a local bookshop or grocer is less important than freedom of movement for faculty and administrators.

Imagine the reaction if a professor or a dean told a student: “I will go out and about and do largely as I please. But you have to stay on campus, so you do not infect me.” It would be considered outrageous, and rightly so.

Right now some of America’s top universities are essentially sending that message — in the process telling the world that they are not morally serious. They should not be surprised, then, when the world starts believing them.

Those places seem screwed up to me.

On the Responsibility of Universities to their Students

Emily Oster in The Atlantic:

Many universities have announced a pivot to remote learning for at least part of January, among them UCLA, Columbia, Duke, Yale, Stanford, and Michigan State. The list goes on.

This move—in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant—feels like a return to March 2020, when virtually all U.S. universities closed for in-person learning, sending students home for spring break and telling them not to come back. At that point, keeping students away from campus was reasonable. Now, however, this decision is a mistake. It reflects an outmoded level of caution. And it represents a failure of universities to protect their students’ interests.

I agree. Despite being a big fan of online education there is a big difference between online classes developed over many years with substantial funding, like MRU’s classes, and throwing professors into teaching over zoom. College is supposed to be fun. Meeting people is part of the education. Online is great but not for everything.

I would add three points to the those that Oster makes. First, this is where the students are anyway. I gave a talk at UVA recently and everyone was masked according to policy. After the the talk we went to the Corner where the bars and restaurants were packed with unmasked revelers. Mask mandates are pandemic theatre and inconsistent with how much of the country let alone most students are already living. Similarly, going remote is also pandemic theatre and not likely to appreciably reduce interactions in the community at-large.

Second, the elasticity of substitution. It made sense to change behavior substantially when the vaccines were coming. But the vaccines have been here for some time, they are great, they work. So get vaccinated, be thankful, and get back to life.

Finally these arguments apply with at least as much strength if not more to the public schools. Furthermore, we have spent billions of dollars on pandemic preparations for the public schools. Why did we spend that money if not to open the schools?


Does Pot Contribute to GDP?

As Tyler and I explain in our textbook, GDP is the market value of all finished goods and services produced within a country in a year. Sounds simple but there are always edge cases including whether or not illegal goods should count towards GDP. According to the definition, illegal goods should count towards GDP. But in practice they often don’t. In part because some people think that counting illegal goods would signal approval (or that not counting them signals disapproval) but also because it’s hard to count the market value of illegal goods. Do we really expect the BEA to survey drug dealers and prostitutes about the price of their goods and services?

But what happens when an illegal good is legalized? The market value of any finished legal good should definitely count towards GDP but just adding it to GDP on the day of legalization causes problems. Did the economy boom the day pot was legalized? Did the recession end that day? Did we all become wealthier? Some countries shrug and just add footnotes.

In 1987, Italy, whose citizens are famous scofflaws when it comes to reporting income and paying taxes, announced that it was adjusting GDP upward by about a fifth to reflect the underground—but not necessarily illegal—economy. Overnight, Italy became the fifth-largest economy in the world, surpassing the United Kingdom. National euphoria ensued. Italians dubbed it “il sorpasso,” the overtaking.

But when Canada legalized pot in 2018, Statistics Canada decided not just to add pot to GDP but to backdate all their previous GDP statistics to create a consistent series. The Walrus has the interesting story.

The teams had to invent codes to capture classifications for new line items. Among them: 71.0105, in the classification of instructional programs for cannabis culinary arts and cannabis-chef training, and 71.0110, for cannabis-selling skills and sales operations.

…Apart from hammering out semantic protocols, StatCan faced two central hurdles in determining how to count cannabis: How much do Canadians use? And what does it cost? But the economists at StatCan wanted to calculate those numbers not just for the final quarter of 2018, when cannabis became legal, but for every year back to 1961, which is as far back as the national accounts go, at least in their current form.

…So the cannabis team dug back through decades of surveys on drug use, addiction rates, law enforcement, and health data to figure out how much cannabis Canadians were consuming back in the day. It started small, with as little as twenty-four tonnes a year in the early 1960s. By 2015, it was close to 700 tonnes. Until the 1990s, when the US war on drugs ramped up, a lot of that came from abroad. Now, we’re a major exporter.

Still, StatCan craved more detail. So, in 2018, analysts hooked up with researchers at McGill University’s department of chemical engineering for a year-long scrutiny of wastewater in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver. (Halifax clocked in with the highest cannabis load per capita and roughly triple the usage of Vancouverites. Go figure.) That pilot project has now been suspended for lack of money, says Barber-Dueck.

The latest figures show that more than 2 million Canadians use cannabis at least once a week, and more than a third of those use it every day. But what have they been paying? Barber-Dueck says that the team ploughed into historical databases of weed prices, talked to law enforcement officers, and canvassed longtime illegal growers, mining their memories. British Columbians were especially forthcoming. “People are pretty open about it and have been for years,” Barber-Dueck says.

As the legalization date approached, the team created the crowd-sourcing app StatsCannabis, complete with a cannabis logo. “Statistics Canada needs your help collecting cannabis prices,” the app pleads, adding, “Your data is protected!”

The technique had its drawbacks, Peluso notes. Heavy users of cannabis are the most frequent participants in the surveys by default. But they’re also filling out the survey right after they’ve made a purchase. “When you survey heavy users of a psychotropic substance, the error band is always a little bit bigger. You’re picking up people whose—How shall I put it?—whose awareness might be slightly compromised.”

So does pot contribute to GDP? It does in Canada but not in the United States!

Neither Canada nor the United States include prostitution in GDP although the Netherlands does. The United States has higher GDP per capita than either the Netherlands or Canada but if we included pot and prostitution our GDP per capita would be even higher and would better reflect our true standard of living relative to these other countries!

Hat tip: Ryan Briggs on twitter who notes that as another consequence Canada’s CPI now includes pot prices, at a weight of .55%.

How animals decide

Almost all animals must make decisions on the move. Here, employing an approach that integrates theory and high-throughput experiments (using state-of-the-art virtual reality), we reveal that there exist fundamental geometrical principles that result from the inherent interplay between movement and organisms’ internal representation of space. Specifically, we find that animals spontaneously reduce the world into a series of sequential binary decisions, a response that facilitates effective decision-making and is robust both to the number of options available and to context, such as whether options are static (e.g., refuges) or mobile (e.g., other animals). We present evidence that these same principles, hitherto overlooked, apply across scales of biological organization, from individual to collective decision-making.

That is recent work by Vivek H. Sridhar,  And for the pointer I thank Clara.

The new consensus of economists is further to the left

Based on an extensive survey of the members of the American Economic Association this paper compares consensus among economists on a number of economic propositions over four decades. The main result is an increased consensus on many economic propositions, specifically the appropriate role of fiscal policy in macroeconomics and issues surrounding income distribution. Economists now embrace the role of fiscal policy in a way not obvious in previous surveys and are largely supportive of government policies that mitigate income inequality. Another area of consensus is concern with climate change and the use of appropriate policy tools to address climate change.

That is from a new paper by Doris Geide-Stevenson and Alvaro La Parra Perez.  While I believe left-wing economists are more likely to answer such surveys (and maybe this gap is growing over time?), still I do not doubt the essential correctness of this result.  Note also that immigration and floating exchange rates remain popular, tariffs remain unpopular.

Via Jeremy Horpedahl.

The Jeff Holmes Conversation with Tyler Cowen

Jeff is the CWT producer, and it has become our custom to do a year-end round-up and summary.  Here is the transcript and audio and video.  Here is one excerpt:

HOLMES: …Okay, let’s go through your 2011 list really quickly.

COWEN: Sure.

HOLMES: All right, number one — in no particular order, I think — but number one was Incendies. Do you remember what that’s about?

COWEN: That is by the same director of Dune.

HOLMES: Oh, is that Denis Villeneuve?

COWEN: Yes, that’s his breakthrough movie. It’s incredible.

HOLMES: I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of it. French Canadian movie, mostly set in Lebanon.

COWEN: Highly recommended, whether or not you like Dune. That was a good pick. It’s held up very well. The director has proven his merits repeatedly, and the market agrees.

HOLMES: I’m a fan of Denis Villeneuve. Obviously, Arrival was great. I can’t think of the Mexican drug movie off the top of my head.

COWEN: Is it Sicario?

HOLMES: Sicario — awesome.

COWEN: It was interesting, yes.

HOLMES: He is one of the only directors today where, when he now makes something, I know I will go and see it.

COWEN: Well, you must see Incendies. So far, I’m on a roll. What’s next?

HOLMES: All right, number two: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

COWEN: Possibly the best movie of the last 20 years. I’m impressed by myself. It’s a Thai movie. It’s very hard to explain. I’ve seen it three times since. A lot of other people have it as either their favorite movie ever or in a top-10 status, but a large screen is a benefit. If you’re seeing the movie, pay very close attention to its sounds and to the sonic world it creates, not just the images.

There are numerous interesting observations in the dialogue, including about some of the guests and episodes.


Watching economics on TikTok

For my latest Bloomberg column, I ran the experiment of typing “economics” into the TikTok search function, and here is what came up:

The first video I saw was about the high pay of economics majors in the job market, relative to softer majors. The speaker has a strange British accent, and it is possible that he was deliberately trying to look and sound stupid. It has been liked more than 32,000 times. The next was a rant about the outrageous price of beer at sporting events. There is no obvious intelligence or analysis in the video. It has been liked almost 32,000 times.

I also saw a video called “Why I left economics,” in which a student who took an economics class at Brown explains how his professor taught about inequality but lived in a mansion with servants. He argues that economics as a subject distracts our attention from “what the **** we’re supposed to do.” The number of likes exceeds 258,000.

I watched a video of a woman loudly sighing in relief as a caption explains she has just dropped her economics class. Likes: more than 22,000. Then there was one mocking the idea of being an economics major, calling it another religion and suggesting the demand for economist friends is quite low. It had more than 34,000 likes.

But I am not upset at TikTok:

I think of TikTok as a useful wake-up call for economists.

First, TikTok is one of the dominant modes of presenting and debating issues and ideas, including economics, yet it is hardly used or even discussed by professional economists. (University of Houston Professor Chris Clarke is a notable exception.) Economists are ignoring the market signals — to our own detriment.

Second, TikTok’s preoccupation with the status and morality of economics exists beyond TikTok. TikTok offers economists a view of ourselves as much of the world sees us. We are judged not for our analytics, but rather by how we fit into various moral codes. Like it or not, that is something we economists have to come to terms with. Maybe we should thank TikTok for making this so clear.

Recommended.  And whether or not you like TikTok, you all should be spending a non-zero amount of time with it.