IWPR, Janet Yellen, and the next Fed Chair

All signs lately point to Larry Summers being named as the next Chairman of the Federal Reserve. I have to say I’m rather disappointed. I’m sure he’s very intelligent and qualified, but for someone with those qualities, he’s certainly made a few public blunders that seem to indicate he wouldn’t be an effective leader. There have been several articles written about this over the past two months and so I will not attempt to either link to them, summarize them, or even provide novel arguments. I will however, encourage professional economists to read (and sign if you are so moved) this open letter to President Obama in support of Janet Yellen for that same position.

The letter is being supported by IWPR, an organization that tends to focus on issues pertaining to gender, but what is so wonderful about this letter, and about Yellen, is that her gender is irrelevant. The letter doesn’t even mention it. I kind of feel like this is one of those experiments where we sent identical resumes, just changing the names and apparent genders of the applicants to show discrimination. Not because we’re trying to identify discrimination, but rather because she’s that good. Her experience and qualifications put her at the top of the bunch, regardless of gender or other demographic consideration.

Job listing of the month

It’s August. Well, almost August. And in Econoland, that means that Job Openings for Economists has come out again after taking its July break. This means the start of the job-hunting season for many, and sure enough, there are already a few positions to be had, or at least applied for. We all know none of these people are making decisions until January or February. Such a long process.

At any rate, I thought this position at Colgate was notable. Mostly, it’s interesting to me because it’s pretty applicable to my field and research interests–gender and economics, but I’m also intrigued to see an economics position posted as really, truly interdisciplinary. My PhD institution has a strong interdisciplinary component, with students melding history and economics, environment and economics, and many professors holding joint appointments with the somewhat unfortunately named Institute for Behavioral Science, but I don’t think that’s the norm. Maybe we’re working our way there.

Zimbabwe bleg

I’m headed to Zimbabwe tomorrow! I’m super excited to see this beautiful country about which I’ve heard so much and meet with a number of government and UNICEF officials. We’ll be working on getting the ball rolling on a project to implement and cost victim services and prevention programs for child victims of sexual and interpersonal violence.

I’d also love to talk to some scholars in Zim while I’m there. I have a few local contacts, but if anyone knows any economists or political scientists or statisticians or sociologists or anthropologists, particularly those with knowledge of Zimbabwean data sources, send them my way. I’ll buy the Zambezi (does anyone actually drink that?).

On being careful

Early on in my graduate career, a professor hired me to do some data cleaning on a set of historical data she and a coauthor had collected. Eventually, my data analysis and stata skills became more useful than my data cleaning skills and at some point, she asked me to perform some sort of regression or matching analysis. I did it sort of slap-dash and sent it out, returning later to find at least one big mistake. Though I presented the corrected version to her in a meeting later, she had already seen the incorrect version and begun to make changes to the paper to fall in line with it. What followed was a 30 minute lecture on how I needed to be careful, how she couldn’t write me a good recommendation if I wasn’t careful, how specific employers wouldn’t want me if I wasn’t careful.

It is a conversation I’ve relived several times throughout my still very new career as a PhD economist, admonishing myself to be careful and diligent in all my work, but more than ever in the past week or two as the Reinhart-Rogoff Excel error uncovered by a UMass-Amherst grad student has come to light. It hasn’t gone well for them and according to some, may even be changing the debate on austerity in politics.

While I understand the excitement of finding something big, it seems that the bigger a deal this paper was to be, the more careful they would have been. I once asked Robert Barro whether he thought people went easy on him because he held so much sway. Not at all, he told me, if anything, they’re harder on me.

And we should be, hard on each other that is. We should demand transparency and replication, and not just by chance in some random graduate classroom. If evidenced by nothing else than the number of “you’re an economist, aren’t you used to being wrong?” jokes I heard this weekend, we need to be more careful.

Mental labor of the always connected

Amanda Marcotte has an excellent piece out on the mental labor that falls more heavily upon women in the household. While chores may be more evenly split, women are still the ones exerting the effort to split the work, to nag when it doesn’t get done, and finally, likely to do it if really doesn’t get done.

Though perhaps unrelated to gender, the piece prompted me to think about how my workload has changed over the course of my short teaching career. In particular, I find myself spending a lot more time with my students than I did when I first started, and more time fretting about them getting their work done. This is my invisible work, keeping track of student assignments, making sure they’re on track to finish their research papers, worrying about their sick grandmothers, and more. It reminds me of my college roommate, who since we’ve aged and mellowed a bit, has reminded me several times how stressed out I made her through my procrastination while students at Duke. As the years have gone by, students seem to want more of my email time, and at all hours of the day, even as the face time has not changed much. Like many professors, I try to limit my time on email. There are many activities and conversations that can be more efficiently performed in person. For instance, if you email me asking how to calculate Adjusted R squared and ask why it’s different from R squared, I’m going to ask you to come talk to me instead of typing out those equations. I promise you’ll learn it better and it will take both of us less time.

More and more of these emails seem to come in the middle of the night, before exams, before homework assignments are due, etc. I tend not to answer those late night emails and I don’t accept them as excuses for not doing work. I have a policy about late work; It’s in the syllabus. I’m not going to remind you of it a million times either. It’s your job to keep track of your work.

I do this partly for my own sanity (avoiding mental labor at least a few hours of the day), but also because I believe that as an educator, I should be preparing my students for the real world. They need to learn to produce timely work—even if it’s not perfect—to manage their time, to realize that help is not available at all hours. That’s the real world, right?

More and more of what I hear though, is that it’s not. One serious problem that professors have is that they don’t live in the real world they’re trying to prepare students for. The only jobs I’ve worked outside of academia since 2006 have been consulting, hardly indicative of day-to-day office jobs that are commonplace for recent grads (when they’re getting jobs, that is). While some friends assure me I don’t want to be there among the unwashed masses, it’s a real liability for professors, especially if a whole new economy has popped up around being constantly available and connected and cheap, as some are claiming.

In response, some universities are advertising for positions to be just that for students: constantly available, connected, and (likely) cheap. This Western Governors University position wants a PhD economist to be available essentially 24/7 to tutor students who are struggling. I admire them being honest about the hours and expectations, but is that really the most efficient use of a PhD’s time? Answering the same email over and over again at 3am about opportunity costs? And they have similar positions open in almost every field. Is it really in students’ best interests to reinforce that work should be round-the-clock? That someone will be there to answer questions all the time?

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, was recently lambasted by any number of individuals and groups for telling telecommuting employees that their flexible work schedule days are over and that employees can’t work from home anymore. While I disagree with the fundamentals of the decision for reasons that have to do with supporting working parents and caregivers, I’m sure she has internal reasons for her actions and the point about separation is important. It’s ridiculous how many of us check our email at the bar, respond to a client in the middle of dinner with another client, interrupt play time to read another message from our bosses. The WGU positions mentioned above actually erase all of those boundaries between work and home, keeping us constantly connected, constantly answering emails. There is no office, no in-real-life contact with students. It’s not teaching, but “mentoring,” and it reinforces the idea that someone should be working constantly. If you’re a student, it’s you and your professors. If you’re in the workforce, it’s you and your boss. If you’re the boss, it’s you and your employees.

College is kind of a special time. If you’re not up all night writing a paper, you’re up all night debating philosophy, or driving to the nearest Krispy Kreme, or or doing all manner of legal, illegal, silly, and serious things. There’s a reason that we don’t continue that madness (or at least some of us don’t) into our 20s and 30s, and especially not into our work.

And if work is really now 24/7, how the heck do we get it to not be? Certainly not by hiring people specifically for that purpose.

Thanks to @katinalynn for comments on a first draft of this post.

Academia and the Public

Over the past year and eight months or so, I’ve spent a lot more time on twitter than I ever thought I would. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about economics, academia, teaching, women, families, violence, children, marriage, and history than I could have ever imagined as a first-year Ph.D. student. I think that’s why they call this thing called academia a choice to “live the life of the mind,” though I’m not sure that’s entirely an accurate representation at all. With such a defined, rigid path ahead of us, it’s often difficult to imagine anything outside of the trajectory: get a tenure-track job, publish, get pre-tenure, publish, get tenure, publish, get to full professor.

Perhaps it’s the tenuous nature of my position, or perhaps it’s the myriad articles passed my way that decry the future of education, but getting off that path, deviating from it, or expanding it in some way are things I think about often. The public role of academics, sharing their research or influencing policy, or stepping outside the tower, is a constant subject of conversation and visible form of work supported by an online community I have had the pleasure of diving into over the last year or so. It is full of so many amazing individuals, I know I haven’t even begun to explore its depths. Some are academic, some are not. Some are recovering academics, some got a Ph.D., but never took the teaching route, and some remain blissfully ensconced in anonymity. Some are women, most are not. Some are in my field, many are not. All of them, however, make me think every day about the public role of an academic. In the face of increasing education costs, “free” alternatives, attacks on the value of a well-rounded education, and the nagging thought that somehow this house is going to all fall down around us, they make me think and write more deeply about what I do and why it’s important.

All of this is my roundabout way of saying that I’m grateful to be at an institution where there are professors and administrators willing to engage the public about the future of education and about their own research. Gettysburg’s president, in particular, is very vocal, often writing for the Huffington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. This week, a Gettysburg College history professor has a piece in the New York Times. It’s sponsored, and partially with the goal of maximizing exposure for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, but at least they’re reaching out. I don’t always agree with them, but I think it’s great. I’m finding myself more and more invested in the role of academics as public intellectuals, especially women.

Why study social sciences?

Monkey Cage Blog has a great post up in response to criticism of his exhortations to study social sciences. He makes a broad argument about the validity of social science research because it has effects on the way that people live their lives. To be selfish for a moment, he highlights some important questions that I examine every day:

Families.  What makes families more or less successful?   What makes marriages more successful?  What makes them fail?  What are the effects of divorce?  Does it hurt the children of divorce?  How much, in what ways, and for how long?  A medical doctor can treat the effects of family dysfunction and divorce—say, with anti-depressants or therapy and so on—but we can learn and know more about how to prevent some of this dysfunction from doing social science.

The post is really about funding for social science research rather that defending my everyday work. It’s also not really about teaching undergrads social sciences, but clearly, we have train undergrads in social sciences if we eventually want some of them to do research in the social sciences. I think there’s a point to be made about how learning about these wide-reaching social phenomena—families, schools, economies, politics, attitudes, networks and norms—forces students to think about cause and effect in a nuanced way. When it’s not clear how X might affect Y or how Z has effects on X that in turn effect Y, it takes creativity and imagination and critical thinking to sort it out. It’s not that social sciences can do this exclusively, but the nature of the topics student lends itself to varied analysis and the development of skills that are useful in many careers.

The Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop. Or, why we should all commit to reading various news sources

Last week, I was surprised by my students’ apparent belief that debt and deficit spending was high during the first Obama administration and that it was the first thing they thought of when asked about the effects of government spending.

By way of explanation, Greg Sargent of The Plum Line takes on the current Joe Scarborough vs. Krugman (and the world of economists) debate via the Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop.

The relentless bipartisan focus on the deficit convinces voters to be worried about it, which in turn leads lawmakers to spend still more time talking about it and less time talking about the economy, a phenomenon that is self-reinforcing. This is exacerbated by some commentators and news orgs, who continue to treat the deficit scolds with a great deal of deference, while marginalizing the opinion that we should prioritize boosting the economy and job creation as a means of getting the country’s fiscal problems under control over time without savage spending cuts that will hurt a lot of people. Back in 2011 one study actually confirmed that newspapers were spending far more time talking about the deficit than the economy — at a time when the recovery was in serious peril.

h/t @EJDionne

Off to San Diego

This space has been pretty quiet lately as I’ve been preparing for interviews and writing applications and trying to get all that work done that I didn’t do during the semester. It’s not likely to pick up again as I’m off to San Diego today for the meetings of the American Economics Association. It’s a conference also known as the Allied Social Sciences Association Meetings, which makes my sociologist and anthropologist friends laugh out loud (because they’re not invited…shhhh!) It’s weird; it’s true. I don’t pretend to understand.

At any rate, if you’re interested in following along, there is a twitter handle for the meetings @ASSAmeeting, and a hashtag #ASSA2013. There’s even an app for that.

Sorry. I had to. But really, the app is super helpful. So much easier trying to put in meetings  and interviews on Pacific Time than subtracting hours from wherever I happened to be when the meeting was scheduled. It also has the full conference schedule.

If you’re around and want to grab coffee or a drink or a meal, drop me a line, tweet me, or call. I’m here all week, folks.

Oh, the wiki

When I went on the job market for the first time two years ago, I was advised not to consult the economics job market rumors forum. Given that I had no idea what it was, I immediately went and consulted it, only to have my spirit broken by the rank misogyny, stress, and trolling that dominated the forum. EJMR is still full of a lot of that crap, but it’s growing up in a way that I think has the potential to be beneficial to economists and the economics profession.

In particular, EJMR this year redid “the wiki”, or the crowd-sourced table of calls made to applicants on the job market each November and December. The redesign, and incorporation into the EJMR framework, has actually been incredibly user-friendly and informative. Yes, it sucks to hear that Dream University XYZ called someone and didn’t call you, but it’s really nice not to be waiting for them to call anymore. It’s anonymous, but usually updated incredibly rapidly. I’ve received emails or phone calls and went to check the wiki within minutes and seen it updated already.

More proof that EJMR has grown up a bit comes in the form of the recently added journal wiki, which I think is absolutely brilliant. Economics, from what I know, suffers from one of the longest (and most excruciating) publishing cycles in academia. My astrophysicist friends complain that their papers take eight months to get out and my eyes pop of my head. Try two years. Or three. The wiki itself is still kind of a jumble of information and lacks a good way to aggregate data. For instance, it would be useful to be able to find mean and median response times and see the number of entries for a given journal. The data is easily copied and pasted into Excel, so one could feasibly take all the information for a given journal and perform those quick data summaries oneself. Though it would strip away some of the anonymity, it would also be nice to know where those papers were eventually published. But perhaps I’m asking too much.

The journal wiki is similar to the jobs wiki in that it’s anonymous, crowd-sourced, and voluntary. The big difference is that while one school made 20-30 phone calls and only one person had to post the outcome, each journal submission and rejection is separate. You can’t rely on another person’s entering your rejection. The journal wiki poses a larger free-rider problem because each of piece of information is only controlled by a single individual (or author group). I imagine that despite the collective action problem, it will still gets high levels of participation. In fact, it’s already quite filled out and has only been up a few days.

I’m all for more information. I’m all for making publishers and referees more accountable. I also wonder if it won’t push some better papers to lesser known journals. With a clear time-to-publication advantage, lower-ranked journals could attract better papers and upset the hegemonic closed circle that tends to dominate the highly ranked, very slow to publish journals. It could also damn those papers to obscurity, but it will be interesting to see if it has any effect on overall response times and time-to-publication.