Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When did overconsumption stop being shameful?

Simultaneously in the "Vera is getting a head start both on being a crazy old cat lady and a crotchety grandpa who loves to moan about the decline of civilization" series and the "David Brooks adulation" series, here's one more you should definitely read and take to heart.

And then stop giving me such a hard time about being cheap wisely frugal. (More on the virtue of stingyness coming post-midterms.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

When Writers Speak

This is one of those articles that made me internally jump up and down excitedly saying "yesyesyesyesyes exactly!!"

Why, oh why, are in-person meetings considered so crucial and more-productive compared to written correspondence? And why, oh why, are scientists forced to teach?

I'll admit a couple caveats. In person conversation is often faster and at a minimum forces those present to engage rather than skimming your email and then ignoring you or responding with a one line "got your message, sounds good". And I do think that spreading ideas is an integral responsibility of scientists; a thinker who can't communicate his thoughts is as good as none at all. That's about where my empathy for these standards ends.

Why should you force someone whose comparative advantage is in thinking to be judged based on a completely unrelated standard - their ability to speak about those ideas to students or colleagues in person? The world would be vastly better off if students had better choices than research universities with research opportunities and horrendous teaching, or liberal arts colleges with great teachers and little else. And research seminars are only good for debating details and asking questions; I'd always prefer to read the paper and skip to that than waste so much time with powerpoints recited by awkward scientists with thick accents.

And why insist on communicating face to face when writing is more precise, complete, avoids talking past each other, avoids forgetting what was said, and allows for deeper and more careful contemplation before making your next point?

As anyone who knows me even at all can testify, I am an absolute moron at verbal communication. My mind turns into a barren staticy nothingness when faced with the requirement of small talk. Or large talk for that matter. Any talk not written. I never, ever go into a meeting without writing down exactly what I have to say ahead of time. And even then I'm lucky to get a coherent sentence in edgewise and invariably follow up by email to clarify the gibberish. I suspect that with practice and a well-defined script, I wouldn't be the worst lecturer in history. But one-on-one tutoring, requiring verbal give and take? Forget about it.

But writing is a different story altogether. I'm certainly not a great wordsmith but, I think, am perfectly competent at conveying ideas clearly in written form. And, I love doing it (if I weren't a scientist, science writing would be way up on the list of preferred alternatives) exactly because of the phenomenon described by Krystal in the essay linked above -
"‘People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.' ... And it’s not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought or, at least supplies a Petri dish for its genesis." How true. Even the nibble-sized bits of pseudointellectualism that end up on this blog are only ghosts of thoughts until I actually have fingers on the keyboard and the details and organization spontaneously pop into existence.

And I'm far from alone! Especially in science. Please, let's embrace it.

(And if you're a Berkeley non-macro economist willing to be my advisor and communicate near-exclusively by email, please email me...)

Friday, September 25, 2009


"It’s funny how the nation’s mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary."

(Did I mention I love David Brooks? Although, I would go farther and insist that the trend he speaks of is a sign of cultural decline.)

Monday, September 21, 2009


Matthew Rabin in class last week made an off-hand comment that, as expected, richer people turn out to be happier when you measure happiness correctly. I'm curious as to the details of these measurements because I would reject both the accuracy (or at least the robustness) of that trend (based on my own observations) and the assertion that that's what we should expect to see. But, I'm not surprised that this is the common wisdom.

First of all, here's why I disagree with the overall claim (note that I am referring to day-to-day happiness, not a long-term sense of fulfillment or long-run discontentment): Wall Street Investors: rich and unhappy. Parents with lots of kids to support: A little poor, medium happy. Destitute and dysfunctional Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn residents: poor and fairly happy. Average Oklahomans: a little poor, a little happy. Average Manhattanite: a little rich, a little unhappy. Enough examples, you see my point...

And, to a large extent, this still holds when you take long-term happiness into account. Not many single moms with boyfriends in prison in section 8 housing living on food stamps in Brooklyn expect life to be any different or better. They won't be disappointed. Meanwhile, doctors expect to heroically fix the world's problems and retire millionaires with loving families comfortably taken care of. They will be.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt a priori that more money makes you happier:

  • Ambition is a result of perpetual discontentment: people who are never happy will tend to get farther because they're always trying to get to the next level where magically they will finally have enough money to be happy.
  • Ambition is also a mix of a reaction to actual desires and societal expectations: and when you're doing something just because you think you have to, it won't make you very happy.
  • Ambition is also a result of putting high standards on yourself: and when you do that, you're frustrated or disappointed whenever you inevitably and probably perpetually don't live up to those expectations completely.
  • Material comforts are like candy: there can be too much of a good thing. Everyone wants the option to afford a car to drive to work and to live in a climate controlled environment and to have other people cook for you, and when you have that option, you almost always take it. But exercise, fresh air, and manual labor is still needed to avoid falling into a metaphorical sugar coma (ie the perptual depressive nature of suburbanites) and to appreciate the material comforts when you use them.

Of course it's not impossible to have your cake and eat it too. Figure out what you love and do it for a living. If you're lucky you happen to love something that pays the bills. (And this is why academics are so happy.)

And of course it makes sense that the common wisdom is that, nonetheless, richer people are happier. We all think we would be happier with more money. After all, how can having more options make you less happy? But we fail to take into account that having more options leaves you more prone to self-destructively hedonistic behavior, and that if you had more money, you would be a different type of person entirely, so it's not a valid comparison (outside of universal lotteries and unexpected inheritances...)

And yet, I wouldn't know how to go about proving my theory. I bet if you ask all those Brooklyn teenage single moms if they're happy, they will say no. And it's mindboggling to me to think that they could be, in that situation. Yet I've never seen a population of people who spends such a high fraction of time hanging around laughing and dancing to music and having fun with friends and family. They're evidentally usually in a very good mood despite the impossible situation, I assume just because they've gotten so used to that standard of living, but the impossible situation is what they refer to when asked if they're happy.

Actually, I bet they'd admit to being happy to their peers. Maybe that's the way to do it. Being asked by an anonymous third party triggers a comparison to the overall average standard of living, which doesn't have anything to do with what mood you're usually in. Or, specifically ask about moods in short timespans: "how happy were you at 8am, 9am, 10am..."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Theory of Grad School

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

football science

For the small percentage of science geeks who love football, or the small percentage of football fans who are science geeks, via Freakonomics, a great NYTimes article on football injury statistics.

These observations are so fascinating and far enough from common knowledge, sometimes even counterintuitive, that it points out a broader need for better football statistics. Baseball sure is boring to watch but it's a statistic lover's paradise - why can't football follow suit? There's a much richer realm of subtle patterns there than in baseball to start with and I want to hear about it.

(And as I was typing that, I noticed that the tagline for the website that the above article's author normal writes for, Football Outsiders, is "Innovative statistics, intelligent analysis". *grin* I will soon be assessing the legitimacy of that claim...)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

sluggishness and urgency

Woke up to a cold rainy day today. I was instantly un-tempted by the possibility of football and tailgating, or a barbecue with old college friends, two possible alternatives to catching up on homework and RA work all day. In fact there's really not much of anything I want to do besides stay home, and not much of anything to do at home besides work. The opportunity cost of homework collapsed.

Yet I'm less inclined to do it anyway. Who wants to get energized for deep thinking when it's so dreary? And besides, having to pass up on fun is great motivation to work hard, so that just maybe you'll have time for both or at least not have to pass it up in the future. But now the urgency is gone.

So instead I lazily muse about how these two factors might influence aggregate economic outcomes.

And then hit the limit of a reasonable amount of musing in the medium of blogs, and decide to get back to work...

Monday, September 7, 2009

David Brooks on Health Care

I don't have a lot to say about the raging health care debate. The current system is already so dysfunctional that, despite my libertarianism, I sometimes think single-payer would be an improvement that's at least more likely to be politically feasible than fixing the problems in the piecemeal opaque disaster we have now. And maybe medical innovation won't even collapse when the last first world economy strangles its health care industry - can't China pick up the slack...?

(The fact I'm capable of this train of thought makes it clear what a depressing mess the issue really is.)

But, while I skim halfheartedly over most health care arguments, David Brooks's editorial (hands down my favorite NYTimes opinion columnist. Always sensible and inspiring, vehemently unbeholden to party line in exactly the right ways, never petty or gossipy.) really hit the nail on the head. Must read.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Behavioral economics makes you a better person

There's a cliche, or a stereotype, about psychologists, that they're in the field to learn about and work out their own problems. I find this amusing and certainly containing more than a grain of truth, but what they should be doing if they want to analyze their own behavior is become an economist.

Psychology is mostly about pathology. It's less concerned with how normal people act, and very concerned with the origin and remedy for pathological deviations from that normal behavior. Studying psychology to understand yourself most often just leads to hypochondrial interpretation of normal actions or normal ranges of actions that can be pathological only in the extreme, just because that's all the literature is talking about.

Economics, meanwhile, is exclusively concerned with how people behave on average, and thus is much more relevant to the average person. And it tells you exactly where you're going wrong, how much it's costing you, and how to do better (well, we usually know how to do better anyway, but pointing out the mechanism and cost and TRUTH of the cost is a darn good impetus to actually make a change.) Procrastination? Overconfidence? Underconfidence? Underestimating the probability of bad events happening to you in particular? Overestimating the probability of winning the lottery or of that sniffle being a sign of ebola? Commitment? Follow-through? Failure to anticipate future desires when you have a chance to do something about them? A strange affinity for credit card debt or payday loans? Grass-is-greener syndrome? Taking too big or too little risks? Economics can help you!

Maybe I'll write a self-help book.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


A Happy Marriage, by Rafael Yglesias - This book was absolutely beautiful. I'm not usually fond of fiction and skim through as much extraneous description as possible, but I savored every single sentence in this book. It is autobiographical, and reads strongly as such despite the third-person pronouns and adamant subtitle "A Novel", but if anything that only enhances the integrity and genuineness of the story and writing.

The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouak - This was admittedly many leagues better than On the Road. However, while I hated On the Road for its complete lack of substance and senseless careless rebel-without-a-cause attitudes of the characters, I still hated a lot of the substance of Dharma Bums for being utter self-evident nonsense. I appreciate the sentiment, I can somewhat empathize with the broad goals of the characters, and a few nuggets of wisdom did sneak through, but overall the main character, who is autobiographical, is such that I am not at all surprised to find out that Kerouak switched back to Catholicism and died of liver failure (I swear every other sentence is something like "we drank some wine and things got crazy") while living with his mom at age 47.

Also, it is hard to fully enjoy Kerouak's writing as a woman due to the fact that the only role females play in these people's lives is as objects of momentary inauthentic passion that they can trade around or dispose of at will. I know they participated willingly, and that was partly just the culture of the time, but hey, if it gets under my skin of all people's it's obviously significant.

Foundations of Human Sociality, by Henrich et al. - I just read this collection of cross-cultural studies of experiments designed to measure fairness and cooperation norms because it is closely related to a project I'm working on, but I highly enjoyed it. (And am self-admittedly very biased since this is the collaborative project that Jean Ensminger at Caltech has been working on, which was got me interested in economics in the first place.) If you have any illusions that any universal human norms exist, read this.

I also enjoyed it in the context of it being a collection of anthropology studies, and standards of research and writing and evidence are quite different between that field and economics. Economists are usually quite smug and superior about their quantitative methods and rigor, and I certainly think those are worthy priorities, but I frankly love reading this anthropology stuff much more than economics papers just because you get so much more contextual information and story telling and they hypothesize wildly and offer anecdotal evidence and statistically very weak evidence without apology, and while that isn't proof of anything, it is still extremely interesting, thought-provoking, and good for guiding future research among scientists who didn't have the privilege of physically being there and acquiring that circumstantial knowledge. Intuition and anecdotes can be very misleading and we should certainly be wary of that, but at least they point in interesting directions to pursue, whereas editing that out for the sake of rigor offers nothing at all.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Um, is this a hold up?

Effective spiel, read by 3rd party activist groups: "Please support small-time entrepreneurs in general in order to keep them off the streets and out of trouble."

Ineffective spiel, read by an individual small-time entrepreneur: "Please buy some of this candy to keep me off the streets and out of trouble."

Someone should notify these subway-hopping candy sellers that their script is fundamentally flawed.