Post-ASSA 2019: lingering issues in academic economics

This was originally just going to be a bullet-point in a What I’ve Been Reading post, but it ended up quite crowded and most crucially, I couldn’t figure out how to embed tweets in between sub–bullet points.

…it also deprives economics, in general, of its best chance to serve the public most effectively. A narrow pipeline of economists has created a profession vulnerable to groupthink. Lacking the widest possible range of perspectives, life experiences, and expertise, the profession stands to miss crucial information, and make poor decisions.

How different would US economic policy be if people from ethnic minorities more consistently took part in policymaking? How different would policies be if the macroeconomic models they were founded on more fully reflected people’s lived experiences? A black man living in the US doesn’t need a research study to tell him his chances of good employment and decent credit are worse than for his white peers. But maybe a policymaker does.

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What I've been reading, featuring the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event and the infuriating etymology of narwhals

  • Was intrigued by this excerpt on the basis for the asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction. I was interested since like everyone, I was aware it was the prevailing explanation but had always been taught to beware it was unsettled science and never learned the basis for its favored status. Too interesting that the theory’s originator also contributed to the Manhattan Project and the design of the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

With the help of his father, Alvarez had samples of the clay analysed for iridium, a heavy metal that is rarely found on Earth’s surface, but which is common in space, and which falls from the heavens as cosmic dust at a fairly constant rate. The Alvarezes were trying to ascertain how quickly or slowly the band had been deposited. If one assumes the typical pace of accumulation, a large amount of iridium would suggest it had taken a long time, indicating that the extinction process may also have been lengthy; a small amount would suggest that a quick event had overtaken the Earth. But the samples contained a surprise: huge amounts of iridium, so much that it would have taken tens or hundreds of millions of years to deposit at background rates. What could explain it? The Alvarezes came to a radical conclusion: the high concentration of iridium in the band must have come from outer space, and it must have been delivered in bulk by a colossal asteroid strike – an event destructive enough to have triggered the end-Cretaceous extinction. The iridium-rich clay band at Gubbio was the shroud of dust and debris that had eventually settled on a devastated world.

As the same iridium anomaly began to be detected at sites around the world, the Alvarezes’ notion of an asteroid strike followed by the blotting out of the sun was substantiated. It also had an influence beyond palaeontology; when Brusatte describes the aftermath of the impact as being like a nuclear winter, he is gently reverse-engineering the concept, for the idea of a nuclear winter – the darkening and cooling of the world by the dust thrown into the atmosphere after a nuclear exchange – was explored and popularised in the 1980s partly with reference to the Alvarez hypothesis. Meanwhile, the iridium testing and the hypothesis itself came of the Alvarezes’ connections to nuclear science. Luis Alvarez had been a key player in the Manhattan Project, and had helped design ‘Fat Man’, the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.

The title of the article derives from the author contemplating the modern-day relevance of the end-Cretaceous event eliminating all dinosaurs but not other animals: “When there is sudden global environmental and climate change, what lives and what dies?” And before you reject the assumption there, it acknowledges "the realisation that birds are dinosaurs is probably the single most important fact ever discovered by dinosaur palaeontologists.”

Also, the article begins with a graphic description of the extinction event, but I find it pales in comparison to this one from a different book:

 

Still, there are a small minority of holdouts in the debate, such as Prof. Gerta Keller of Princeton, who is a proponent of the Deccan Traps explanation, which attributes dinosaur extinction mostly to a series of volcanic eruptions in West India. The Atlantic had a lengthy article last year on the academic debate surrounding the end-Cretaceous event titled “The Nastiest Feud in Science” featuring some ad hominem attacks and cross-disciplinary antagonism with dissenters fearing for their careers, which makes the natural and social sciences seem not so different after all. It’s more a fascinating portrait of academic hostility on an apolitical topic than an educational one that reliably weighs the balance of evidence, I think. I myself am partial to this theory:

 

What I've been reading, featuring "Reporter" by Seymour Hersh, "Normal People" by Sally Rooney, and literary hot takes

  • “Reporter” by Seymour Hersh. Very apt one-word title; Hersh despite or because of his hard-headedness comes across as the living embodiment of the profession. Highly recommend to anyone with any interest in or respect for investigative journalism. Hersh is now one of my few heroes.

    It inspires mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, his career is a monumentally successful story that follows a copyboy from the South Side of Chicago who found his calling and thrived amidst a culture of self-censorship, conformity, and hierarchy with his idealism and work ethic exposing the protected secrets of institutions as powerful as the military, the White House, Capitol Hill, and to a smaller extent, Wall Street and the mafia. It’s astonishing too how single-handedly his successes come (on more than one occasion, Hersh refers to himself as a “lone wolf”) in an industry where the impact of reporting is cynically contingent on the politics of self-censorship, publication prestige, personal vendettas, and competitive one-upmanship: his Pulitzer-winning work uncovering the My Lai massacre came as a freelance journalist. Indeed, when his agent refuses his request to approach The New Yorker about any writing vacancies, Hersh visits its editor’s office without an appointment, secures a job on the spot, then fires his agent. Even when he finds a more permanent home in The New York Times and The New Yorker, the arrangements seem more like the hiring of a truth-seeking mercenary than an employee. But the results speak for themselves and the reader cannot help but admire that Hersh’s body of work has come largely on his own terms, without compromise of his integrity, objectivity, or values.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t shake the disappointment at the apparent rarity of Hersh-type reporters. A common thread in Hersh’s work is empathy for the powerless, which is too often unmatched by his peers. At his first reporting job, he is keen to break the story of a horrifying murder of a Chicago family by arson, but relaying the details to his editor, he is asked: “Ah, my good, dear, energetic Mr. Hersh. Do the, alas, poor, unfortunate victims happen to be of the Negro persuasion?” Hersh answers in the affirmative and the story is reduced to a single sentence along the lines of “Five Negroes died in a fire last night on the Southwest Side.” He repeatedly attributes this uncommon compassion, which manifests in his antiwar stance and skepticism of the conduct of every administration from Kennedy to Obama, to his upbringing among minorities in the South Side. I found it difficult then to resist the cynical thought that were it not for this man’s unlikely ascent to the media elite, the brutal rapes of murders of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and the clandestine bombing of Cambodia would have not just been unquestioned, but entirely unknown and the Abu Ghraib abuses underreported. Sad enough that they went largely unpunished, which is in keeping with a recurring theme of the book that is maybe not emphasized enough: that for all the work that can go into an investigation, it is often not enough to have the information out there, so to speak. Change is repeatedly dulled by public disinterest, the industry declining to follow up a competitor’s story, a newspaper’s reach, a public refutation of fact, or irresponsible coverage.

    Underpinning all this pessimism is the certainty that the landscape of investigative journalism is much worse now than in Hersh’s heyday. Hersh alludes to this in the introduction, perhaps because reflecting on the sad state of affairs in an epilogue would sour the mood: “…it’s very painful to think I might not have accomplished what I did if I were at work in the chaotic and unstructured journalism world of today. Of course I’m still trying.”

  • “Normal People” by Sally Rooney (h/t Helena). Really enjoyed this and am finding it difficult to say why without referring to specific details of my personal life. The excellent pacing made it a breeze to read despite its narrative unfolding over several years and it was interesting how modern and accessible the writing was—for example, it’s set in Ireland, but could generically have been set anywhere in the world owing to the lack of idiosyncratic detail and language.

    My mom read it after me and found it unrelatable because of how the characters melodramatize relationships and complicate issues that could be resolved very easily. Maybe this is a reflection of our times, though. My mom moved to Manila after a childhood in the province and stayed there until she was married and had three kids, while I’ve moved countries six times since graduating high school and nine times overall so the constant connection and reconnection in young adulthood that defines the central long-term relationship of the novel is a recurrent theme of my own life. I’m also just a sucker for stories that do a good job of aging and progressing platonic or romantic relationships alike over long time periods like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Boyhood.

  • The legacy of Atticus Finch in light of the December premiere of the Aaron Sorkin Broadway adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which is explicitly influenced by the revelations of “Go Set A Watchman” and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Perhaps his perfection was only ever as a father, and not as a civil-rights crusader. He teaches Scout and Jem a kind of radical empathy that he himself cannot sustain but that they might grow up to embody. That is the version of Atticus still beloved by many of the book’s readers: not a noble lawyer on a par with actual civil-rights heroes such as Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, or Morris Dees but a compassionate, courageous single dad raising his children as best he can.

…Not everyone, however, was inclined to agree, and not long after Rudin announced that Sorkin’s play would première in December, 2018, the estate of Harper Lee filed a lawsuit, alleging that the adaptation violated the spirit of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” At the heart of the dispute was a disagreement about the essential nature of Atticus. According to the estate, the character, as written by Lee, was “a model of wisdom, integrity, and professionalism,” while Sorkin had made him into an “apologist for the racial status quo.”

…In this new production, the empathy for which Atticus has always been celebrated— his belief, as Sorkin sees it, in the “goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists”—would be his fundamental flaw. Of course, framing Atticus in this way compounds the complication of putting him at the center of the story: the tragedy, it suggest, isn’t that a black man loses his life, but that a white man loses his case.”

  • Two Roads for the New French Right: “Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic populist outbursts. Ideas are being developed, and transnational networks for disseminating them are being established… In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern… France is a good place to start.”

  • Two recent books imagine the lives of the overlooked female characters in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey respectively. I did a similar exercise in high school imagining a dream of Penelope’s that is only alluded to in Book XIX.

  • From Twitter: “Give me your spiciest, maddest, most sacrilegious book opinion.” Some embedded below. One of mine is that books are a poor medium for comedy and those that are joke-dense enough that Humor is one of its listed genres are almost always bad, especially memoirs. I’ll generally dismiss books that feature a critic calling it “uproarious” on the front cover. I haven’t come across a book funnier than Weird Twitter or Demi Adejuyigbe’s Instagram stories on a good day.

    • I’ve started a GoodReads account and will try at some point to add some text to some of my reviews. Also thinking of starting a LetterBoxd.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In tweets: academic economics reckons with its discriminatory culture

Here’s as comprehensive a summary of events and reactions as I can manage on vacation, currently in a cabin in a Tasmanian national park. I think it is important to consider these events in the context of the #MeToo movement broadly and Alice Wu’s paper on the latent toxicity of academic economics, which I cannot adequately summarize in this space.

I approach this topic not with any familiarity, but with frustration and regret that experiences like mine have been deprived from others just as enthusiastic and qualified (in many cases surely more so) as I am. This post is just me documenting a critical turning point in my chosen line of work using my two main strengths: a tendency to fixate on projects and topics I care about and spending time on Twitter.

Click through to read on.

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What I've been reading, featuring vicarious patriotism about the NHS, re-visiting Avril Lavigne's debut, and post-9/11 pop culture

 
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  • A response to a troubling passage in Michelle Obama’s new memoir: “Jeremiah Wright knew what America was becoming. The Obamas can’t see what it is.”

  • “This is Going to Hurt” by Adam Kay (h/t Helena)

    • Immersive and powerful read that contains a common-sense appeal to protect socialized healthcare made all the more convincing by its brevity (a few pages).

    • It weirdly made me feel patriotic about and protective of the NHS even though I’m Filipino and grew up up in Indonesia and Vietnam. I was moved to talk to my dad today about healthcare, which hasn’t really factored into our lives largely due to good fortune health-wise but also coming from not having a national health program to speak of and living in areas with sketchy quality of service. I’ve lived in the West for the past almost-eight years and have only seen a doctor once and even then only under the insistence of my supervisor. Most of my European friends, who aren’t to my knowledge any less healthy than me, all seem to make a habit of going multiple times a year. To me, this speaks to a cultural adjustment that, against my own interests, I still have not learned to make. From my perspective, the American philosophical resistance to universal coverage comes across as a shocking squandering of opportunity and morally criminal neglect of their most vulnerable. If affordable, insuring against illness and injury is a top-three reason to even have a government.

    • Side note: I generally dislike books that pack punchlines this densely, but this was fun to read. I still found myself impatiently yearning for the earnest bits so maybe too many anecdotes and footnotes for my personal taste, which is admittedly weird. Must be something about the book as a medium for comedy because dumb tweets like this or this or this can make me cry.

  • Pitchfork revisits Avril Lavigne’s debut album “Let Go”. Contains this description of “Sk8er Boi”: “It sounds like Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’ as if written by a normal teenager instead of a precocious musical cyborg.”

Let Go is the foundation of her surprisingly considerable legacy. Her feelings about it might be, well, complicated: She’d grown up enough by its release to know it wasn’t the album she wanted to make, and she never quite escaped its shadow. But you can imagine her listening to Let Go like she’s flipping through a yearbook or watching some long-forgotten DVD from a high-school talent show. It feels like a true dispatch from the frontlines of a teenager’s brain: unsure of itself, inelegant and occasionally inane, crackling with nervous energy.

My dad moved to Iowa from China in the ’90s. He felt that Barkley and him had similar experiences.

"So, to me, as an Asian in the U.S., I felt as long as I do a good job, people will respect me," my dad said.

Barkley and my dad both worked hard — so hard, they believed, that the color of their skin didn’t matter. In Chinese, we’d say that dad sometimes would 胡说八道(hú shuō bā dào) — that meant that sometimes he was known for spewing rubbish. I know that basketball fans might say Barkley often does the same.

  • A sensitive and earnest yet humorous two-part series on how pop culture has depicted 9/11 (both parts also embeded below). Summary: “Awkwardly, for the most part.” Terrifically researched, edited, and narrated. The channel is full of high-effort material and is sponsored by a Patreon.

 

Part 1

Part 2

 

A request for raw data from the corresponding authors of 771 animal biotelemetry-focused manuscripts, published between 1995 and 2015, highlighted a difference in data sharing practices across researcher career levels. Responses were positive in only 11% of requests made to corresponding authors that were senior researchers, while 72% of responses were positive when CAs were early career researchers.

  • McKinsey & Co. respond to the New York Times article linked to in my last post.

    • A good thread critical of the hand-waviness of some parts of the Times piece but also relating the validity of the controversy to the firm’s public image and idealistic recruitment strategy. (h/t Marginal Revolution, though I did not find much value in Tyler Cowen’s Bloomberg column on the topic, which read mostly as a proxy defense of the thesis of his new book)

    • Management consulting firms employ around 10% of the Ivy League’s graduating classes, usually by appealing to young people’s idealism. More so for business undergrads like the one I did my bachelor’s in.

  • Final note (will try to have a stand-alone post on the topic at some point soon for posterity):