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.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

James Garner, RIP

I still think of The Rockford Files as my all-time favorite TV show, although having seen an episode or two recently, it has not aged as well as I might have hoped. Still, Garner was an irresistible natural, and the show's gritty, shaggy-dog sensibility was an essential aspect of 70s pop culture at its best.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Condemned by history"

John Quiggin's analysis of the Australian right's views on climate policy applies pretty well to our very own Republicans as well. At least we don't have a carbon tax to repeal, should the GOP regain power.

Sad. Infuriating.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Have you been inside a hydroelectric plant? Now I have. The facility at El Chorro, outside Málaga, is interesting for the fact that during periods of low demand they pump the water up the cliffs to a reservoir to store the energy in anticipation of periods of higher demand, when it will be released to drive the turbines below. The beautiful, rugged canyon in which the dam and hydro plant sit is most famous for the treacherous Caminito del Rey, which can be seen from the dam. Our group did not hike up the caminito, but descended into the hydro facility, which was a pleasure. Why? Big, old machinery, doing what it's supposed to do, day after day...

Some of the big turbines were whirring (loudly), while others sat idle, being maintained.

In the control room, this exquisite old console is apparently no longer functional, but is a beautiful example of mid-century high-tech design. Imagine this baby in your living room!

In the machine shop, there is evidence that people have been working here for a while...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why'd ya have to leave so slow?

Obama quote of the day

I know, I'm biased, and I'm sure he has talented writers, but the man is genuinely funny, often LOL funny... and damn cutting...
As Mr. Obama once said about the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky: “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”
Not quite as good as his "orange really is the new black" remark about Boehner. But not bad at all.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Pour some water on me!

Funky from start to finish... hat tip to BoingBoing...

Málaga, Part II

What to see there?

The Alcazaba: Not to be missed. The remains of a medieval Moorish fortification, it is a maze of lovely archways and some splendid palace rooms and courtyards with burbling Moorish fountains and pools. The view of the city and mountainous coastline from its walls and the adjacent Gibralfaro fort uphill are breathtaking.

Center for Contemporary Art (CAC): You can skip the Picasso Museum as well as Carmen Thyssen and head down past the market to this converted warehouse... a huge space with a great collection of local modern artists, including Málaga native Chema Lumbreras, whose whimsical little people (and the occasional bunny) are so lifelike you expect them to jump down and run away...

While I was there the museum was offering a major retrospective on the performance artist Marina Abramovic. Her recent works, stark photographic self-portraits, are amazing...

There was also a room inhabited by menacing over-sized cartoon figures created by KAWS. Here I am with the biggest one. Not Michelangelo's David, but worth a look-see...

My favorite painting was by Peter Halley. The photo does not do it justice: the light green square is in a stucco-like texture, which contrasts with the flat day-glo intensity of the surrounding stripes and creates an unsettling depth...

My favorite piece overall was a video work by Bill Viola, "The Innocents." You can watch it on YouTube, although it is mesmerizing and gorgeous in person...

The view from the back of the building... so cool.

The cathedral: The Renaissance exterior is lovely... the interior... eh... but there is an exquisite carved choir by Pedro de Mena...

... and there are some very fine paintings, especially this Madonna of the Rosary by Alonso Cano. The pyramidal composition suggests that our eyes should be drawn to the lovely and colorful Virgin herself at the apex, but inevitably the composition pushes our attention downward to the receiving saints, each set off against a column, who are awestruck to the point of supporting one another hand to shoulder. Wonderful.

The world's best farmer's market

California Avenue, Palo Alto, every Sunday year-round... newly expanded, featuring several blocks of fantastic food and big friendly crowds. Ask around for the bootleg hard cider (the guy will reach into the cooler for an unlabeled bottle)... Plus, they have kittens!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Málaga, Part I

Málaga was full of pleasant surprises. It's a port town with aspects of a beach resort. The beautiful old central city is mostly closed to traffic. The result is a great town for strolling, with a wide main drag that resembles an upscale shopping mall, surrounded by a warren of windy narrow old streets in all directions. Tourists mingle with locals in the tapas bars and shops. Near downtown is an excellent covered marketplace with an amazing array of fishmongers selling everything you could imagine or hope for in a Mediterranean port. If you'd rather let someone else do the cooking, you can head down to the beach and buy a skewer of sardines, fresh off the charcoal. A medieval Moorish fortification, the Alcazaba, rises on the hilltop above the ruins of a Roman theatre (more on that in Part II).

We were in Málaga just in time for two different Catholic/solstice festivals: Corpus Christi and the festival of San Juan. These events made for a nice contrast. As in other towns, Corpus Christi here culminates in a procession through town with the Eucharist carried in an enormous ornate monstrance past elaborate temporary shrines. A noisy drum and bugle corps leads the front, and an equally loud marching band brings up the rear. The streets are lined with folks greeting their friends and kin in the procession. The demographic for Corpus Christi is decidedly weighted toward the older set, although a little batch of first communion kids dressed to the nines takes pride of place near the rear.

The monstrance is partly protected in shrink-wrap while it sits in the back of the cathedral, waiting for the procession.

The procession passes what I came to think of as "my" shrine (at the end of the alley to my hotel, a handy landmark until they took it down after the procession)...

We were told that the festival of San Juan in Málaga would involve lighting a bonfire on the beach and jumping over it for good luck. But the festival has been partly commercialized and has become a huge all-night beach party replete with a stage and (to my ear) pretty bad electronic dance music. Not surprisingly, the demographic tilts heavily toward teenagers and young adults. The whiff of pot smoke competes with the bonfires. But there was also a decent representation of oldsters and families with little kids. Setting off little hot-air balloons around midnight is a popular activity, and the effect of the reddish globes floating on the breeze above the bay is magical, if not exactly ecologically correct...

Picasso was born in Málaga, although he left as a child and apparently never looked back. Nevertheless, one can visit his home as well as the city's Picasso museum, which apparently houses some of his lesser works from various periods. Not the biggest fan even of many of his best-known works, I visited neither, but several of my students did and reportedly enjoyed both. For my art fix I visited the Museo Carmen Thyssen, which has a large collection of 19th-Century Spanish art (not really my cup of tea either), and the excellent Contemporary Art Museum... more on that in Part II as well.

Charlie Haden, RIP

A giant. He was an essential force in the jazz avant-garde. But forever an Iowa country boy too.

Friday, July 11, 2014


In Seville when you ask for a cerveza with your tapas you are most likely to get a glass of Cruzcampo, which is brewed here and is Spain's biggest-selling brand. It is now owned by Heineken. In fact, Heineken's Seville brewery is its largest in Europe, and produces both Cruzcampo (80% of its output) and Heineken. We toured the facility on our sustainability trip. Spain had just been eliminated from the World Cup after being shut out by Chile, and some noted the irony that the mighty Dutch, who had trounced Spain 5-1 in an earlier match, also owned Spain's most popular brand of beer. Still, our Spanish guide took some pains to insist that Cruzcampo is not just Heineken with a different label, pointing out the different orientation of the giant cylindrical fermentation tanks (vertical for C, horizontal for H), noting that the yeast is a different breed, etc. I can vouch for the fact that Cruzcampo is its own beer. Not Lagunitas IPA by any stretch, but better than Heineken to my palate.

The enormous brewery, only a few years old, is a marvel of modern industrial technology. Beer brewing is a bulk process and is subject to significant economies of scale, at least for mass-market rather than craft-style production. So I was already expecting big vats and a lot of automation. The reality exceeded my expectations on both counts. Basically, most of the operation is controlled by a handful of workers. The students picked up on this, noting that such facilities are unlikely to contribute much to "sustainable employment" in this regional economy that is suffering 35% unemployment. But it's been a long time since breweries were a significant source of jobs, except maybe upstream for barley farmers, and downstream for bartenders and bouncers...

Here is the outside, done up in the official Cruzcampo and Heineken color schemes...

Mixing, cooking, and filtration are done in these enormous vats...

Do you like pipes? I do...

Here's where the bugs get to work and do the fermentation...

The bottling plant extends as far as the eye can see and has only three workers...

Still more impressive, the shipping warehouse, which is the size of three soccer fields and employs various robotic forklifts and other vehicles but only two human workers... what happens when these obedient fellows get sick of schlepping cases and kegs and decide to team up with their drone friends in the military?...

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Activated sludge

This would be a great name for a metal band, but it happens to be the key process used in treating urban wastewater... i.e., sewage. An affection for sewage treatment runs deep in my veins (bowels?), as my father, a retired professor of chemical engineering, specialized in researching wastewater treatment for many years (in fact, he wrote the book on it). Among his favorite aphorisms were, "Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink" and "It may be shit to you, but it's bread and butter to me." Anyway, effective and efficient treatment of wastewater probably deserves a place among the most important advances of human civilization.

On our sustainability tour in Spain we visited one of Seville's EMASESA treatment plants. Our friendly and knowledgeable guide Enrique Toro did his best to explain what was happening, given the language barrier. One interesting thing they do at EMASESA is to use an anaerobic process to obtain methane gas from the sludge. This provides a large percentage of the energy for the plant.

The real action takes place in the activated sludge reactors, where the bugs, as they are known in the business, eat the crap out of the crap, quite literally. Maintaining a healthy culture of bugs is a major task of the plant's employees. Here's where it all goes down:

After the sludge does its work, it settles to the bottom and the clear water flows from the top, in this case in large very humid geodesic domes:

The resulting treated water is not of drinkable quality but is more than clean enough to release into the Guadalquivir River. Old dead sludge that is not consumed by the next generation of bugs, known as "bug bones", is composted for fertilizer. Neat!

Most people don't appreciate how much of modern life depends on the deployment of bacteria and other microorganisms. It's not just the human biome, which is essential to health (90% of your cells are non-human), but the role of biological decomposition, fermentation and related processes. Up next: fermentation on a grand scale...

Monday, July 7, 2014


A few impressions from my trip to Spain and Italy... starting with Seville. We were there for four days, jet-lagged and kept busy with site visits as part of the sustainability program. Still, I got out to see some sights. The Alcazar is on every tourist's list, and I have no superlatives to add. The buildings are spectacular, and the gardens are worthy of a thorough exploration. Here is a sample of the architecture...

One piece of advice I have to any visitor is that the place rewards patience. In the early evening, as the crowds were thinning out, I took a detour into the Sala de Justicia, near the main entrance. This is a fairly modest room featuring little of the elaborate "Moorish" decoration that is so entrancing here. For that reason, perhaps, I was able to sit in a corner and have the room all to myself for 20 minutes. The little fountain at the center of the room burbled, the water silently drained into the adjacent courtyard pool, and the pigeons ignored me after a while and came in for a sip, softly cooing and chortling as they do. This kind of solitary, meditative moment is a luxury today, but the original builders of the palace clearly had it in mind as a regular feature. It's worth seeking out.

The Seville cathedral is a must-see, if only for the awesome scale of the thing. The pictures I took with my phone don't provide any sense of the enormity, so I'll skip those. On a much more modest scale is the baroque chapel at the Hospital de los Venerables. The chapel is not really my cup of tea, but the price of admission also gets you into the one-room Diego Velázquez Research Centre, sponsored by the Focus-Abengoa Foundation. This little room will bring you up close and personal with some fine paintings of the immaculate conception by Velázquez and Zurbarán, among others, but also in particular with one undeniable masterpiece by Velázquez, of Santa Rufina, who legend has it lived in Triana, the gypsy quarter of town. No photos permitted, so I copy the picture from their web site. Velázquez may have used his own daughter as a model, and if so, I bet she was a handful. Apparently Rufina was one tough cookie, and Velázquez perfectly captures both her youthful charm and her steely determination in this powerful work of art.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Homer and Langley

In E.L Doctorow's beautiful and touching novel, the disordered lives of the notorious Collyer brothers are reimagined as a story of resistance against the main course of establishment U.S. history over the twentieth century. Just as their increasingly pathological hoarding gradually fills up their Manhattan brownstone with hazardous piles of junk from the outside world, so their lives and home accumulate a sequence of archetypal American outsiders, from an African-American cook and her jazz-playing son, to a Japanese-American couple who are dragged away during World War II, to a veritable commune's worth of hippies, to a mobster on the run, to an orphaned piano student who lives with the brothers for a time and eventually leaves for school, later to become a nun, and who still later is murdered (we are led to believe) for her work with the poor in an unnamed Central American country.

The metaphor of hoarding engages some of Doctorow's modernist impulses as a writer—especially his frequent employment of lists—but with intentional irony, he has with this novel crafted one of his most orderly and structured works. As the world literally and figuratively closes in on him, as he loses his hearing and his contact with anyone but his own consciousness and his brother Langley, our narrator, the blind brother Homer, is left with that most Doctorovian of pursuits: he writes. Homer, channeling Doctorow, insists that while the brothers may be eccentric, they are perfectly sane—quite possibly saner than the rest of humanity. But for Homer, sanity is ultimately a curse. "If I could go crazy, if I could will that on myself, I might not know how badly off I am, how awful is this awareness that is irremediably aware of itself. With only the touch of my brother's hand to know that I am not alone."

And that fraternal bond is the other great theme of this unlikely love story.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

[Untitled photo, possibly related to: Abandoned land and poor pasture at Florida Withlacoochee River Agricultural Demonstration Project near Brooksville, Florida]. Carl Mydans, 1936.

Hobby Lobby

This strikes close to home, as many of my colleagues struggle to reverse the recent decision of our employer, Santa Clara University, to drop abortion coverage from our health insurance plans. The impact of Hobby Lobby on our situation, however, is probably at most indirect, because our own legal context involves state regulators rather than the provisions of Obamacare.

One of the arguments we have used in favor of retaining the coverage is that in the labor market, employees actually pay for most of their nonpecuniary benefits (such as health insurance) in the form of lower cash salaries than they would otherwise earn, so benefits should be treated as spending from compensation over which the employees should have choices. The fact that the employer acts as our agent in the health insurance market is an oddity of U.S. labor markets and a historical "accident." Uwe Reinhardt elaborates on the economics a little here. And this excellent post by Brad DeLong places the matter in the historical perspective of welfare capitalism, a topic I studied many long years ago in my Ph.D. dissertation.