Monday, June 7, 2010

Are undergraduates lazy?

Economic Logician has some unkind words for today's undergraduates:

"I find it quite frustrating to teach undergraduates, as they seem to have difficulties grasping simple concepts and often exhibit a disturbing lack of drive to learn. I may say this is due to my teaching, but my sentiment has been echoed by many colleagues, at my place and elsewhere. In addition, this frustration is fueled by the difference I see between undergraduates today and those from my times as a student. That view may very well be biased, as I was a rather good student, thus I am looking forward to some objective measures of student effort and performance.

Philip S. Babcock and Mindy Marks use time use surveys of students in 1961 and 2003. They notice that the time spent studying has been reduced from 40 hours a week to 27. This is not a small change. And this cannot be explained by any composition effect, as it appears no matter how you slice the data. There is some non-measurable way in which students are different."

I would defend the students here. For one thing, a lot of this has to do with grade inflation. If students don't have to work as hard to get an A as they used to, wouldn't we expect them to put in less time studying? And we do not have grade inflation because students are lazy, we have grade inflation because that is equilibrium outcome given the incentives facing professors (the optimal strategy is almost always, "give slightly better grades than the norm.")

Also some of the things that students spend more of their time on these days compared to when I was in school are things like student organizations, volunteering, and studying abroad. I would argue that this is very wise. These kinds of activities build the skills that students will need in their careers. And unlike when people like Economic Logician and I went to college, the job market is a lot more competitive these days. College enrollment rates continue to increase, and just having a degree isn't worth as as much. As a result, college can't be a time when students focus on learning just for the sake of it, much as we might all like it to be- they have to be conscious about what's going to happen next.

Finally, I would argue that most people, most of the time make their behavior choices relative to some mean. The students who study a lot do so because they want to think of themselves as studious. And this isn't defined in absolute terms- "studious" means you study x standard deviations more than the people around you. This is how it works now, and this is how it worked when Economic Logician and I were in school too. The mean that students are defining themselves relative to has changed, but this is more because the incentives facing the students have changed, rather than that the students themselves have changed.

Personally, as a relatively new assistant professor, I find myself wondering more why the students don't study less than they actually do, rather than being frustrated that they don't study more.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Suits, signalling, and social norms

I used to work at a place where people dressed relatively formally, but there was no official dress code. There were some interesting things about the way different people, particularly men, dressed. It was acceptable for more junior people to dress down slightly- you could get away with not wearing a jacket, and also with occaisonally not wearing a tie. It was never acceptable for higher-ups to do that- people above a certain level were never seen without ties, and almost never seen without jackets either. A suit is thus a marker of status- anyone above a certain level needs to be wearing one. Note that it's not that people are just choosing to do this, as any senior person who didn't wear a suit would be violating the norm and hence look the ridiculous- that's just how the norm takes shape.

The social norm about suits in most places in Africa that I've been is that Africans in any kind of high status job (say, any job that would require a university degree) always wear either suits or (sometimes traditional clothes). If you're a foreigner, though, the norm is to dress very informally. Why might this be? Well, particularly if you're a foreigner, it's very hot and uncomfortable to wear a suit. And there's already a rather obvious marker of your status- i.e., you're white- so the suit doesn't convey any extra information about you. Again, it's not that people make a conscious decision based on these factors; these are just some incentives that might explain why the norm evolved that way.

There are two instances I can think of where I've seen a much more flexible norm about wearing suits- one is in Burkina Faso, where I am now. For whatever reason, the norm is that even very important Burkinabe are often dressed casually. Yet, some of the locals wear suits anyway, even though it's very hot (it was about 103 this afternoon). My guess would be, the suit-wearing norm evolves in the kinds of jobs where you are both operating from an insecure position, and you have to impress foreigners (like sales, or trying attract foreign investors). The suit wearing-norm may have been subverted among the Burkinabe somehow, but wearing a suit is still a way to signal to foreigners about your status.

The other situation with flexible suit norm is among coaches of European soccer teams. Some wear track suits, while others are dressed to the nines. I have no idea what it says about if you're a suit-wearing soccer coach.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Robin Hanson has some interesting thoughts about why people are so darned hypocritical:

"Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

“X is not about Y,” … mean[s] that while Y is the function commonly said to drive most X behavior, in fact some other function Z drives X … more. … Many are well aware of this but say we are better off pretending X is about Y..."

"I’ve argued that much of our behavior is poorly explained by the reasons we give, and better explained as ways to signal abilities, loyalties, etc. But if so, why do we act so astoundingly ignorant? Why don’t we know about, and explicitly acknowledge, these functions? Yes, it can look bad to brag, or to be consciously strategic about loyalties, and some observers may be usefully fooled by our idealistic stories. But are these really enough to explain our incredible ignorance?

Man the sly rule bender offers a more satisfying explanation: we evolved to overtly and consciously embrace social norms against bragging, dominance, and sub-band coalitions, while covertly and subconsciously signaling our abilities, and loyalties...

It looks bad to brag and to be consciously strategic about loyalties not just because those can in general look bad, but because they violate strong forager norms. We signal covertly and unconsciously because our ancestors were strongly punished for overt and conscious signals...

...the main reason we have huge brains is to hypocritically bend rules"

I'm still thinking about this (and I think Robin is too). It's certainly true that people have a tendency to ascribe loftier motivations to their own behavior than often seems to be the case, not only to others but also in their own minds. I'm not sure I buy the explanation here, though.

Esther Duflo wins the John Bates Clark Medal

Esther Duflo has won the John Bates Clark Medal, which is the most prestigious award in economics other than the Nobel. She is best known for her work at J-PAL in advancing the cause of randomized control trials (RCTs) to evaluate policies and interventions, a topic I have written about here before. I met Esther at a conference recently, she's also a very nice person.

What does it mean? Well, it's good to see a development economist get the award, particularly since development tends to be rather maligned. Hopefully, this award also signals an increase in the emphasis on real-world, policy relevant research within the profession. Some people are worried that this will increase the dominance of RCTs as the approach in development economics. Personally, I don't think it will make much of a difference- the emphasis on RCTs has gone about as far as it can go.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Poverty and vulnerability to risk

Very interesting EconTalk podcast with a sociologist named Katherine Newman. The interview is about her book called Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Job Market. The book is in essence a set of case studies that follow a group of working poor in the US over a relatively long period of time to look at how they fare and why. An interesting issue that she highlighted in the interview was the capacity to use social capital to mitigate risks. The example she used was having someone to call if your kid gets sick when you have to go to work, vs. having to take off work to take care of the kid. The people with someone to call tend to do a lot better in the long run than the people who don't. This issue comes up a lot in development economics (the great Portfolios of the Poor talks about it quite a bit), I wouldn't have thought it would be so important in the US.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Just, wow.

New York City does away with its Conditional Cash Transfer Program

So much for that:

"An unusual and much-heralded program that gave poor families cash to encourage good behavior and self-sufficiency has so far had only modest effects on their lives and economic situation, according to an analysis the Bloomberg administration released on Tuesday.

The three-year-old pilot project, the first of its kind in the country, gave parents payments for things like going to the dentist ($100) or holding down a full-time job ($150 per month). Children were rewarded for attending school regularly ($25 to $50 per month) or passing a high school Regents exam ($600).

But city officials said Tuesday that there were no specific plans at this time to go forward with a publicly financed version of the program... elementary and middle school students who participated made no educational or attendance gains. Neither did high school students who performed below basic proficiency standards before high school."

These programs have been very successful in several developing countries, particularly Mexico's Progresa and Oportunidades programs. Somehow, it seems kind of obvious to me that a program like this would work well in a developing country but not in New York City. Yet, I can't really say why.