Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Glaeser on life expectancy in New York

Ed Glaeser writes about trends in life expectancy in New York City (all of it) versus those for the nation over the last century or so. He cites a New York penalty that declined and reversed by 1940, then increased again to 1990, and then reversed. New Yorkers now enjoy 1.5 more years in period life expectancy at birth than do Americans as a whole. The causes remain rather mysterious; Glaeser reports that mortality rates above age 55 are consistently lower in NYC than elsewhere, but while cancer deaths are less prevalent among New Yorkers, heart disease deaths are not.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Times Smackdown on student evals

Stanley Fish, a professor of humanities and law at FIU, argues against student evaluations here and here, and Alan Jacobs seconds him. Ross Douthat sees more rationality and consistency, but also acknowledges the case against that. A few weeks ago, I had blogged about the latter, a new JPE article by Carrell and West.

The main difference of opinion seems to be over whether "good teaching" can be appreciated by students while engaged in learning, or whether students typically can't appreciate it until later, perhaps once learning has either been achieved or operationalized elsewhere.

A passage from today's column by David Brooks is coincidentally related: "Much of what we do in public policy is to try to get people to behave in their own long-term interests — to finish school, get married, avoid gangs, lose weight, save money. Because the soul is so complicated, much of what we do fails." At least in high school and college, the primary objective of education seems to be imparting long-term gains. Brooks argues that trying to do so is difficult because of the complexities of human behavior and motivations.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Rajan on the financial crisis

Yesterday the Freakonomics blog posted an interview with Raghuram Rajan, who pillories the federal government for a second-rate redistribution policy via extending (housing) credit, and Greenspan's Fed for remaining on the sidelines during the growth of the asset bubble.

I think Rajan could take his analysis about housing credit one step further, but it may not be a direction he'd want to take. During the 1990s, fiscal policy was relatively tight, resulting in monotonic reductions in deficits from 1992 and surpluses in 1998 through 2001. Politically, the balance of power produced PAYGO budget caps, welfare reform, and an environment where small, compartmentalized fiscal policies like the lifetime learning tax credit and other carve-outs were the only ones feasible. It seems to me that one could characterize Fannie and Freddie's expansion of credit to low-income home buyers as the same.

It would appear that some of these policies were more harmless than others. But stepping back, would it be right to blame this circuitous path to income redistribution, as called correctly by Rajan, on the overall program of fiscal austerity?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Incentivizing healthy behaviors

Yesterday's Room for Debate blog included a discussion of financial incentives for individuals to engage in healthy behaviors, like lose weight, quit smoking, and exercise. Kevin Pho cites two studies, one in JAMA and one in NEJM, but his critique is that the NEJM study on smoking cessation includes a racially homogeneous sample. The other sample is smaller but more diverse.

Arthur Caplan writes about the asymmetries; fast-food providers are completely free to peddle unhealthy food, leaving it to individuals to get it right or wrong on their own. Another option that might place a greater burden on suppliers of unhealthy products would be to tax them rather than subsidize healthy behaviors. We already do this with alcohol and cigarette taxes, of course, but we do not tax fast food.

One of the questions is what kind of behavioral response to expect from taxes or subsidies. One might imagine that people engage in unhealthy behaviors because they are addictive, and their demand for them might be relatively inelastic. Only a very high tax would produce behavioral change. Subsidizing healthy behaviors might be more effective in eliciting a behavioral response because demand might be much more elastic.

Mineral wealth and development

The announcement, apparently by the Pentagon, of significant mineral deposits in Afghanistan, perhaps totaling a trillion dollars in value, was greeted by many with enthusiasm. Compared with Afghanistan's current economy, which is heavily dependent on opium production, this may seem like a real upgrade.

But research suggests that extractive industries may not be good for growth. Sachs and Warner (EER 2001) show that levels of income and rates of growth have both been lower in countries with abundant natural resources. They posit that because such countries tended to have higher prices, their exports, especially in manufacturing, were less competitive, which retarded growth.

The other thought that immediately comes to mind is that natural resource wealth and liberal democracy do not seem to be correlated. But Sachs and Warner point out that liberal democracy is not tightly correlated with growth, however.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Student evaluations and teacher quality

Think teaching at the Air Force Academy might not be rewarding? Think again. Scott Carrell and James West show that it pays off big time in terms of randomized trials in which students are exogenously assigned to instructors. Their research shows that students' evaluations of instructors and their current performance are positively related, while both are negatively related to students' future academic performance!

One interpretation they offer is that less experienced and less qualified professors might be "teaching to the test" more than others, so that current performance is higher but future performance is lower. The authors argue their "results show that student evaluations reward professors who increase achievement in the contemporaneous course being taught, not those who increase deep learning."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Happiness and aging

A few days ago the New York Times reported on happiness and aging, based on a recent PNAS paper that examined Gallup survey data on well-being by age. Their results showed U-shaped trajectories of self-assessed well-being throughout the life span.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What we don't know can certainly hurt us

Today Ed Glaeser writes about macroeconomic stabilization policies and our relative lack of knowledge about causes and effects, compared to topics in microeconomics.

Glaeser writes, "there are too many moving parts. Times change, so it isn’t obvious that the lessons of the 1930s – not that we can agree on those, either – are applicable today." This is one of the key problems. Underlying conditions can vary so much that it's difficult either to judge the counterfactual, what would happen without intervention, and it's tough to guess how consumers and businesses will respond.