Letters of recommendation

Students ask professors to write letters of recommendation for them. Today’s professors frequently respond by asking the student to write a first draft of the letter. Henry Farrell at CrookedTimber comments on this practice. Obviously the ethics of such a request are questionable. Furthermore it puts the student in a very difficult position. How great can you claim to be and keep a straight face, not to mention a reputation for probity?

That being said, I am not very worried about the practical repercussions. Most people, especially undergraduates, do not know how to write a very good recommendation letter. They fail to realize that such letters, to be effective, should offer very specific and pointed comparisons. Those few students who understand this fact are probably too shy to call themselves “comparable to Greg Mankiw as an undergraduate.” Nor will they write “comparable to your Professor Mediocre [fill in the name yourself!] as an undergraduate.” So if a professor asks the student to write the letter, the professor does not care about the letter or student very much. The resulting letter is likely to be very generic and thus not very effective. In addition, the professor probably has a hard time saying much about the student. This again suggests the letter will be less than overwhelming, no matter who writes it.

The really good candidates still will be able to produce credible signals of quality. They will find some professors able to make coherent and specific claims on their behalf. In fact, if professors ask the lesser students to write their own letters, the relative advantage of the very best students may rise.

A Reader’s Dilemma

A reader, who wishes to remain anonymous and whom I shall refer to only as Jedi Knight, writes with a difficult problem:

I love your Marginal Revolution blog enough to read it every day. In fact, I check back several times a day and I’m disappointed when I find no new entries.

However, I have told no one about it. Your blog makes me appear smart and full of interesting takes on the topics of the day. If I shared with people where I get my information, people would not be anywhere near as impressed with me.

So, I have a dilemma. I should hope that your blog stays popular enough to encourage you to keep up your publishing efforts, but I don’t want to be the one who spreads the word. I can only imagine that there are many others out there like me…

Dear Jedi Knight,

First, you imagine correctly. Many readers have come to us with exactly this dilemma. How can one keep a public good private? We at MR have puzzled over this and have several suggestions. Instead of telling your friends about MR try telling strangers. Sidle up to someone on the street and whisper “Pssst, want some good econ blog? Marginal Revolution is phat.” We have found that this works well. Also, as Cowen and Tabarrok (2000) discuss, there are two strategies in the arts. Sell to a lot of people at a low price or sell to a few cognoscenti at a high price. You, Jedi Knight, are among the cognoscenti! Send cash. Or at least shop at Amazon with the MR link /marginalrevol-20.

The commissar vanishes, Beatles style

[Yoko] Ono’s weirdest piece of video trickery comes on the recently released DVD “Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon.” On one film, for the classic song “#9 Dream,” Ono has edited herself into the original video. There you will find her mouthing the backup vocals that were sung on the original hit recording by Lennon’s girlfriend at that time, May Pang.

In addition:

Ono has dropped [Paul McCartney’s] name from the songwriting credit on “Give Peace a Chance.” The song was written by Lennon only, but at the time the songwriting duo was still putting their two names on everything.

Here is the full story. McCartney, on his side, removed Lennon’s songs “Maggie Mae” and “Dig It” from the re-release of the Beatles’s Let It Be album. He never thought much of these songs, so he added another Lennon composition, “Don’t Let Me Down,” in their place. He also has sought to have many of the Beatles songs switched from the universal “Lennon-McCartney” tag to “McCartney-Lennon.”

Adam Smith suggested that people become more insecure about reputation, the more reputation they have. The theme of vanity as an addiction dates back to the early Christian writers, such as Boethius. But my query is simpler: don’t these people have anything better to do? Oh yes, if the title of the post interests you see here.

The Return of the King, French style

I just saw the third installment of Lord of the Rings in a French cinema, on the Left Bank. The crowd loved it, although they kept on laughing at all the faux endings. (I’m not giving anything away by noting that the movie is longer than it needs to be. In the last fifteen minutes it repeatedly feels as if it is just about to end.) Interestingly, “Frodo,” in the subtitles, is presented as Frodon. You know, like “Napoleon” and “Michelin.” That is just in case you might have thought that Frodon wasn’t French. Yes I know about the silent n, still I thought this was ridiculous.


Often I love the idea of science fiction more than science fiction itself. I’ve read most of the classics, and I am left with junk at the relevant margin. But lately I’ve been wrapped up in Stephen Baxter’s Evolution, published earlier this year. The book, spanning almost six hundred pages, tells the story of evolution from the point of view of our genes. To be sure, the book would be easy to satirize. It has no central characters, covers 65 million years of history, and frequently presents how different animals think [sic] about copulation. OK, that doesn’t sound like an obvious recipe for success but Baxter pulls it off to a surprising degree. The treatment is reminiscent of H.G. Wells or Olaf Stapledon, a particular favorite of mine. If you, like me, are desperate for science fiction that is actually intellectually stimulating, give this book a try. We are told, by the way, that the capacity to believe contradictory ideas is what makes human beings special.

Baxter pushes the Stephen Jay Gould line that the results of evolution are highly dependent on small accidents. For a contrasting point of view, from a more scientific front, see Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. The author Simon Conway Morris argues that the path of evolution is much less contingent than is commonly believed. He points to numerous biological structures, such as the eye, that have evolved repeatedly under different guises. Here is one brief summary, here is a longer and more critical presentation. Life’s Solution, which occasionally verges on theology, should be read with a critical eye. Nonetheless if you feel you have read all the good popular books on evolutionary biology, here is a text with something new and provocative.

The best argument for spam I have yet heard

Historian and travel writer Jan Morris was interviewed about America in the British Times, December 13. She offered the following remark:

There is grossly too much of almost everything. There is too much money, too much food, too much choice, too much power, too much capitalism, too much spam on the e-mail. Wal-Mart, the ultimate American retailer, employs three million people: on one single day during my visit it opened 39 new stores, and its annual sales last year were bigger than the GNP of Switzerland. Eighty-three TV channels were available in my hotel room last night. Last Sunday’s edition of the Chicago Tribune contained, by my bemused count, 51 editorial and advertising sections. The president of Harvard occupies a house valued at $11.5 million. The supermarket Shaw’s, in Boston, offered last week, 432 different cheeses.

I had at least three reactions. First, you would think that such a famous historian would stay in a hotel with digital cable. Then she would have more than 83 channels, perhaps as many as five hundred. Second, I just had been thinking about writing a blog post complaining about American trade restrictions on French non-pasteurized cheese, the best kind of cheese I might add. Morris may have seen 432 different cheeses but we could do much much better in this area. Let’s have free trade in cheese and real diversity. How many Americans eat cheese wrapped in paper rather than plastic? Finally, spam must have something good to offer if it can be lumped in with all these rosy developments. Morris refers to the current United States as “sclerotic” and “bloated,” can she be serious?

Is file-sharing dead?

The recent RIAA lawsuits have severely blunted the practice of file-sharing. The music industry has gone after the on-line users who share copyright-protected songs. The movie industry may someday follow suit. Although the number of people prosecuted has been small, the negative publicity has caused many people to shy away from Kazaa, Grokster, and other services.

I don’t know of any good estimates of how much file-sharing has gone down in recent times. All parties to the disputes have incentives to fudge the numbers. But based on conversations and anecdotal observations, combined with written sources, I find it plausible that file-sharing has declined by at least a third.

The days of file-sharing, however, are far from over. First, a judge just ruled that the RIAA cannot petition Verizon for the names of potential file-sharers. CNN.com reported as follows:

…in a strongly worded ruling, the appeals court sided with Verizon, saying a 1998 copyright law does not give copyright holders the ability to subpoena customer names from Internet providers without filing a formal lawsuit.

This ruling should come as no surprise. After all, why should the RIAA have a special right to petition Verizon for the names of potential copyright infringers? I hold some copyrights too. I and many others could petition Verizon for the information concerning various account holders. Without any legal standard of proof privacy is meaningless. More significantly, Verizon would end up swamped under the requests. Imagine various hackers and cyberpunks flooding Verizon with identity requests just to make the reporting system unworkable.

Even if this ruling is reversed, or John Doe suits prove effective in generating the names, file-sharing is likely to return in force. Anonymous networks are becoming more popular rapidly. Read the analysis of Clay Shirky. Right now users are not sure whether these networks are useful or trustworthy. But that information will spread rapidly. Within a year, we will know whether the Palestinian file-sharing network is indeed reliable. If that source of files turns out to be crooked, something else will arise to take its place.

Consider the whole problem in terms of consumer option value. File-sharers have not given up on the idea. They are waiting to see when and how they can start sharing files again. When the proper time comes, they will return in full force.

Addendum: Here is a Washington Post article on the decision. Hit and Run links to the full decision.

The soul of classical liberalism

Here is one of my favorite essays by my colleague James Buchanan, The Soul of Classical Liberalism. Buchanan starts this essay by noting that we have lost the “soul” of classical liberalism in the twentieth century. A new political vision is needed desperately if we are to build that “shining city on the hill.” I have long maintained that Buchanan is one of the last romantic economists, in the spirit of his mentor Frank Knight. By romantic I mean an economist whose work is driven by an intensely personal vision, and driven by an intense desire to root out the truth. Buchanan, perhaps more than any other economist, understands the tension between the objective and the subjective in economic science. Given our commitment to improving the real world, we cannot avoid objective standards for good outcomes. But at the same time economic values and costs are deeply subjective as expressed in neoclassical or Austrian economics. Buchanan’s critics, who do not generally understand this tension, think he is working on pseudo-problems or engaged in mere taxonomy. In contrast, I think Buchanan is far ahead of his time. We are not yet at the point where we can understand the full import of what he is up to. This essay is one good place to get started on his central problems.

If you can’t price the roads…

Ban elephants. That is what the Thai Prime Minister has decided.

Thaksin Shinawatra says elephants brought in from the countryside cause road problems in an already congested capital city. In his national weekly radio address, he said he had told the Interior Ministry and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority to “not let elephants into Bangkok”. Scores of domesticated elephants – estimates range from 60 to 250 – roam Bangkok streets with their handlers, begging for food or promoting the sale of ivory trinkets. They sometimes get hit by vehicles or fall into drains. Many of the elephants, extensively used for logging, were made redundant by a 1989 ban on the industry. Thaksin said financial backers purchase elephants and then rent them out to the tourist-tout handlers.

Traffic jams in Bangkok are considered to be among the world’s worst. It can take four hours to cross town, which is one reason why many Thai cabs come equipped with bathroom facilities. At six p.m., in the middle of rush hour, downtown traffic goes less than a mile an hour, on average.

Here is a discussion of Thai traffic problems, and their solutions. More mass transit, rerouting one way roads, and road pricing are the most promising alternatives to the status quo. Banning elephants is not mentioned, which leads me to suspect that the Thai Prime Minister is using them as a scapegoat (or should I say scape-elephant?) for the problem.

Don’t even ask about Thai traffic in the monsoon season.

More on obsolete professors

A number of people wrote both in support and challenging my comments on obsolete professors. Fabio Rojas wrote:

My reading of university history is that academia has always been a superstar market, except for the three decades or so after WWII…Medieval universities were run by a small group of well paid elites, while much of the grunt work was done by low status lecturers. The German research universities of the 19th century were known for giving comfy chairs to a few stars, while privatdozents slaved away at abysmal wages. The only exception to this trend is post-WWII American higher ed. The simultaneous explosion of student enrollments and Cold War money meant that universities could afford lots of research scholars who could teach. Of course, that model is hard to sustain – already a lot of work is being shifted back to part time workers.

My hunch is that in 50 years, maybe less, the higher ed system will be very different. There will still be a core of elite research universities and liberal arts colleges, where people will pay to study with famous scholars, writers and artists. The rest of the educational system will move toward a University of Phoenix model – an elite core of administrators managing an army of part timers, distance learners, on-line learning, adult ed, etc. The traditional universities can probably maintain their monopoly on occupational certification, but the rest of the system will radically change.

Similarly, Roger Meiners wrote “I think you are correct about professors being nearly obsolete. My guess is that large state universities are the institutions due for the largest restructuring. The private schools, as inefficient as they are, still generally stick to their mission better.”

But my colleagues Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan as well as Stephen Brown from the Dallas Fed all asked, If teaching by DVD is so great why haven’t we seen it already? After all, VCRs not to mention movie projectors have been around for a long time. Perhaps, they argue, there are efficiency reasons for the structure that exists today. Stephen writes:

Professors working collaboratively, but in decentralized manner may have substantial advantages in providing certifications (degrees) when compared against a system in which students watch pre-recorded lectures by the great teachers and then are tested for mastery by an administrator through exams–particularly if mastery cannot be well demonstrated by machine-graded, multiple-choice exams.

Robin and Bryan pointed to professors as a disciplinary device. The option of self-learning may in fact be self-defeating. (See also Amy Lamboley’s comment at Crescat Sententia). Moreover, if students attend universities to find mates then big lecture classes may not be such a cost after all.

Universities have been around a long time so caution is justified but it has to make a difference in the provision of education that I can today download to my hard drive 10,000 books from Project Gutenberg or search over 100,000 books at Amazon (another 60,000 are available from Google). Innovations often seem impossible or impractical until someone demonstrates the concept and then they take off. Yes, the last is a trendy reference to the Wright brothers – note that just days before they flew, Samuel P. Langley, Director of the Smithsonian Institution and head of a well-funded government project to invent the airplane, proclaimed the goal years if not decades away.

Saddam’s seizure and good news about the dinar

I have heard numerous scenarios of how the capture of Saddam might prove counterproductive for Iraqi reconstruction. Perhaps the Shiites no longer need U.S. protection from a Saddam return, and they will cease to support us. Perhaps the American public will now demand a premature withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

The market appears to disagree with these fears. Since the capture of Saddam, the Iraqi dinar is up nearly eight percent, as reported by The Financial Times. Since mid-November the currency is up sixteen percent. To be sure, this price is a managed float. Nonetheless the price is set in a daily bank auction, combined with information taken from the street markets. It is commonly conceded that the market is a good barometer of Iraqi political expectations about the future of the country.