Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Surprisingly high non-success?

This article by Conley and Önder in the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives purports to show the alarmingly low rates of research productivity among the large majority of Econ PhDs from even the very top departments. From their discussion:
Only a small percentage of economics PhDs manage to produce a creditable number of publications by their sixth year after graduation. Even at the top five departments, it would be hard to argue that the bottom half of their students are successful in terms of academic research. The number of AER-equivalent papers of the median at year six is below 0.1 in all cases and is in fact zero in most. At the majority of the departments ranked in the top ten in conventional rankings (such as Coupé 2003), 60 percent of their students fail to meet this 0.1 AER-equivalent standard, and for the majority of the PhD graduates of the top 30 departments, 70 percent fail. A tenure standard of 0.1 AER-equivalent papers is roughly equal to publishing one paper in a second-tier field journal over six years.
For all you non-economists, AER is the American Economic Review, by most reckonings the top economics journal. To place the final sentence of the passage in context, I can say with considerable confidence that at my university, "one paper in a second-tier field journal over six years" would not come even close to meeting the research requirements for tenure. In other words, the typical PhD from a top-ten department would be unlikely to make tenure at my mid-level university, never mind a major R-1 institution. Depressing news, for sure.

But hold on a sec. Let's unpack the numbers a little. To count "AER-equivalent papers," Conley and Önder assign a fraction of an AER "hit" to articles in journals with lower impact factors, using a journal ranking created by Kalaitzidakis et al. I have read the Kalaitzidakis paper, and their methods make some sense. But according to their adjusted impact factors, the very top field journal in my own sub-discipline, the Journal of Economic History, receives about 5 percent* the weight of the AER. That's right, by their calculation, I would need 20 articles in JEH to have one AER-equivalent. That would keep me very busy!

And there's more. Without justification, Conley and Önder discount co-authored papers proportionally by the number of authors. So suppose you have published ten articles in JEH or equivalent journals: four solo-authored, three with a single co-author, and three with two co-authors. Co-authorship, by the way, is increasingly common in economics. This would be an enviable record for an economic historian at many schools, if not perhaps Harvard or Berkeley. For Conley and Önder, it would count as (4+3/2+3/3)*.05 = 0.325 AER-equivalents. That's right: your 10-article CV is worth one-third of a (solo-authored) AER article.

Some other even more competitive field journals, such as the Journal of Labor Economics or the Rand Journal, score higher than JEH in the rankings, but they still count for only a fraction (about 14 percent) of the AER. So you'd need seven of those to get an AER's worth.

The authors also fail to account for the possibility that some not insignificant fraction of highly accomplished PhDs in economics choose not to pursue the academic publishing route, but may instead work for organizations for which their performance is judged on the quality of internal reports and advice. Their lack of peer-reviewed publications is hardly a sign of failure.

The authors conclude that the top PhD programs are serving their students ill, and I won't necessarily argue with that. Academia is changing, and the path to tenure at a decent university seems more fraught with hard work and long odds than ever. But their analysis needs a heavy dose of realism–in particular, specification of what economists would call an objective function. If your goal is to be a tenured professor at a decent college or university, what would it take to succeed? And how likely is success if you can get yourself through a top 10 or 20 program? I don't think Conley and Önder have really answered these questions.

[* Actually Kalaitzidakis et al present several different numbers, and the number Conley and Önder use for JEH may even be under 4%, which would only strengthen my point.]

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

College costs

A nice column by David Leonhardt today on the exaggeration of inflation in college tuition costs. As is often the case these days, a simple graphic tells much of the story. Basically, the sticker price ("full freight" tuition) has risen dramatically in the last couple decades, but to a considerable extent this has been offset by rising financial aid, especially among private schools. The last two decades have seen a substantial rise in the real net cost of public higher education, but more on the order of 50% than the 100+% that official government statistics suggest. It would be interesting to know how the financial aid has been allocated by economic class, something Leonhardt does not address.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Good to see the NYT on board. Maybe this helps explain David Brooks.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Another promising African export... the sun!

Or at least electricity from the sun. There's a pretty damn cool win-win energy utopia right around the corner... but I'm not betting on the humans to seize the day...

Monday, July 21, 2014

Smart City

The chain-smoking bearded fellow in this picture is Jaime Briales Guerrero, who works for the Agencia Municipal de la Energía in Málaga.

Briales is an impressive and enthusiastic advocate of electric vehicles and smart grids. Between drags from his cigarette (which somehow adds to his gravitas), he explained to us that Málaga presently has a very small number of EVs, which pose no real challenges to the electrical grid... but significant electrification of transit, on the scale of, say, 25% of vehicles, would lead to possibly catastrophic demands on the grid. Hence Málaga's participation in a very interesting project, Zem2all, funded by a generous grant from the Japanese government, to study electric cars and how different kinds of consumers would use them and adapt to them.

One issue being examined in the project is how important it is to have super-fast charging stations, as opposed to letting people charge their car overnight at home or all day at work. Elon Musk's vision for Tesla, for example, seems to be that you will be able to "gas up" your EV in not much more time than it would take to gas up your Civic. Jaime's view, based on their early findings, is a little different: Most EV drivers readily adapt to the regime of planning their slow charging... fast charges are reserved for emergencies and unanticipated contingencies.

Another dimension being explored by Zem2all is the possibility of using EVs as storage devices in a smarter grid. For example, your car is sitting at home fully charged, and you receive a text from your friendly local power company: "We need some juice... Could we pay you to tap a little bit of your car's electricity for the grid?"

Málaga has some other very interesting energy conservation projects, including its smart grid Smart City Málaga project. Pretty cool, and unexpectedly well ahead of Silicon Valley. I like this town.

(Non-) wage growth for recent college grads

This is discouraging news. But it would have been interesting if the authors had plotted wage growth for another comparison group, namely workers of the same age group (21-25) as recent college grads but without a college degree. One presumes those folks may be hurting even worse.

Median weekly earnings in the U.S. economy:

Liberal delusions

Kevin Drum hits the nail on the head here, as far as I am concerned.
Look: Obama made some mistakes. He should have done more about housing. He shouldn't have pivoted to deficit-mongering so quickly. Maybe he could have kept a public option in Obamacare if he'd fought harder for it. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But probably not. Like it or not, America was not poised for a huge liberal wave in 2008. It just wasn't. It was poised for a fairly routine cycle of throwing out the old bums and electing new bums, who would, as usual, be given a very short and very limited honeymoon. Democrats actually accomplished a fair amount during that honeymoon, but no, they didn't turn American into a lefty paradise. That was never in the cards.