Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Students Come with me to Cuba!

I'm very excited to see that the US has ended a half century of an embargo and economic sanctions against Cuba! I will be taking students from Towson and any other university who interested on a study abroad program May 26th to June 6th of this year for more information and to apply click here.

Cuba is quite the economic mystery. An old joke about Castro is that his three greatest accomplishments where healthcare, education and sports, but his three biggest failures were breakfast lunch and dinner. Cubans enjoy one of the best health systems out side of OECD countries, their life expectancy is within a year of the US in part because of their well trained medical staff that services the rest of Latin America and has been at the forefront in the fight against ebola. Any baseball fan knows that Cuba is one of the hotbeds of talent with 186 MLB players born there. Yet, Cuba is still home to persistent poverty. In part because Cubans cannot gain remittances from their family abroad. Research in economics has shown in some cases that remittances can help start businesses  in the sending country.  In other cases economic research does not show this effect. I'm guessing Cuba is much more likely to see growth in business from remittances given all of the opportunities that exist through lack of capital.

I look forward to traveling there this summer and hope to learn about the next chapter for Cuba.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Montgomery County District 20 Voter Guide

A public good is a good which is non-rival and non-excludable or in other words my use of it does not take way from your use (rival) and I can't stop anyone from using it (excluding). So with that my wife Marie Mapes created a public good, a voters guide for Montgomery County District 20 in the state house it's non-rival and now that's it is on the internet it's non-excluding. The guide provides links to candidates answers to the League of Women voters and links/recaps of the Post and Gazette endorsement and info from Maryland juice. The endorsements are not necessarily those of Marie, myself, or even our kids (although our oldest daughter would vote for certain district 20 candidate that had an ice cream party)

Where to start: Use this site to find your sample ballot and your polling place which you can vote at June 24th from 7am until 8pm.

Vote June 19th (today) until 8pm at these locations

League of Women Voter's Guides:

Washington Post Governor & Gazette Governor

State Delegate, vote for 3.

From the Washington Post:District 20: Nine candidates want to represent this area that includes parts of Silver Spring and Takoma Park; just one, longtime House Ways and Means Committee chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, is an incumbent. There is little ideological variation among the contenders, so voters will have to distinguish based on experience and personal qualities, which are generally strong in this bright, diverse field. We pick Ms. Hixson for another term employing her veteran’s clout on behalf of the county; Howard University business school instructor Darian Unger, for his technical smarts and life-saving experience as a volunteer firefighter; and Will Jawando for his energy and his work in the Obama administration building private-sector support for education reform.

Blurb from Gazette:
District 20 has a wealth of remarkably sharp, qualified, progressive candidates, separated largely by nuance. If only we could export some to other districts.

Turnover’s guaranteed, with Heather Mizeur and Tom Hucker leaving. The most vexing question is the third seat, which 38-year delegate Sheila Hixson wants to keep.

Is it self-damaging for Montgomery County to unseat the longtime Ways and Means Committee chairwoman? Connections matter in entrenched Annapolis, but, frankly, longevity’s no substitute for the passion that’s abundant elsewhere in the race.

Former Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board Chairman Darian Unger and legal workhorse Jonathan Shurberg have built reputations of substantive achievement, and offer the best potential for effective state representation.

For the third spot, political strategist David Moon’s idealism and political acumen are appealing, but we lean toward the homegrown commitment of Will Smith, who sounds the right note on just about everything.

Whoever wins would be wise to draw upon competitors’ wisdom and work, including Justin Chappell’s understanding of the struggles of the marginalized and D’Juan Hopewell’s admirable toil on universal breakfast for children.

City Council at Large: Vote for 4 Washington Post & Gazette
WaPo recommends Nancy Floreen, Marc Elrich, George Leventhal, Hans Reimer, the only major challenger to these incumbents is Beth Daly,

From Maryland Juice:
AT-LARGE: Lastly, Montgomery County elects four at-large County Councilmembers, and all four incumbents are seeking re-election: Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal and Hans Riemer. Two challengers have entered the race: Beth Daly & Vivian Malloy. In previous election cycles, one at-large Councilmember typically loses, but it seems too early to size up the state of this race. So far newcomer Beth Daly has earned endorsements from the Sierra Club, public school retirees, Delegate Charles Barkley and Gaithersburg Councilmember Mike Sesma. Marc Elrich also has the support of the Sierra Club, while George Leventhal's supporters include Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams and City Councilmember Seth Grimes. - See more at:

County Council District 5:
Gazette Blurb:

Montgomery County Council District 5

There is a little for everyone in the District 5 candidate pool.

With no incumbent — the seat was Valerie Ervin’s (D) until she resigned to head a nonprofit organization — five candidates ran: school board member Christopher Barclay; Silver Spring activists Evan Glass and Jeffrey Thames; Del. Tom Hucker; and Takoma Park activist Terrill North.

Glass, while green to holding office, is not a newcomer to the community. He has grassroots experience on the transportation, housing and economic needs of the district — a valuable perspective when weighing issues. For this work on the ground floor, he earns The Gazette’s endorsement.

WaPo blurb:

In the open-seat race in District 5, five Democrats are seeking to replace two-term council member Valerie Ervin, who resigned. The best is Evan Glass, a communications consultant and former CNN producer who has been a community activist in Silver Spring. Mr. Glass, who would be the council’s first openly gay member, is pragmatic and deeply committed to the community, where he’s been an effective advocate for affordable housing. He’s the sort of independent-minded candidate who could make an important mark on the council and help rebrand Montgomery as a more welcoming place for employers.

His main rivals are Del. Tom Hucker and Christopher Barclay, a school board member, both of whom are in thrall to the unions and would set the county back on a path toward profligate spending. Mr. Barclay, in particular, is exactly what Montgomery does not need. He pays lip service to the county’s need to attract good employers and jobs but then says he would oppose new development around Purple Line stations, many of which would be ideal magnets for good employers and jobs. In addition, Mr. Barclay has been dogged by a scandal involving his use of a county-issued credit card for personal expenses.

From Maryland Juice:
DISTRICT 5: In the District 5 open seat race, candidates include Delegate Tom Hucker, school board member Chris Barclay, and activists Evan Glass, Terrill North and Jeffrey Thames. Tom Hucker has earned endorsements from NARAL, Sierra Club, public school retirees and labor unions representing firefighters, police, county employees, electricians and more. Meanwhile, Chris Barclay has been endorsed by the teachers, alongside current and former Councilmembers: Valerie Ervin, Craig Rice, Cherri Branson and Nancy Navarro. Evan Glass has the support of Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams and City Councilmember Seth Grimes.Terrill North has endorsements from Takoma Park Councilmembers Jarrett Smith and Fred Schultz, along with former Takoma Park Councilmembers Kay Daniels Cohen, Hank Prensky and Donna Victoria. - See more at:

County Executive:Washington Post & Gazette
WaPO endorses Ike L, but there were good reasons for supporting Gazette endorsed Phil Andrews, which were spelled out well in the endorsement article:

Attorney General: Washington Post
WaPo endorses Brian Frosh, makes good arguments, and definitely good arguements for not Cardin.

Gazette Endorsements: Sheriff, Clerk of Circuit Court, and Judges
Gazette endorses Darren M. Popkin
Gazette endorses Barbara Meiklejohn
Judges of the Circuit Court, Circuit 6:
Gazette endorses the 4 incumbents: Audrey Anne Creighton, Nelson W. Rupp Jr., Joan E. Ryon and Gary E. Bair

Dem Central Committee At Large
Dem Central Committee District 20:

School Board At Large
WaPo and Gazette endorses Jill Ortman Fouse, Gazette has more compelling reasoning

From Maryland Juice:
AT LARGE (OPEN SEAT): The open seat race for at-large school board has drawn four contenders: Edward Amatetti, Shebra Evans, Merry Eisner-Heidorn and Jill Ortman-Fouse. Shebra Evans is the choice of the teachers union, Merry Eisner-Heidorn has the support of the public school retirees, and Jill Ortman-Fouse has the support of Attorney General Doug Gansler, Sen. Jamie Raskin, and County Councilmember George Leventhal. - See more at: Bookmark and Share

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cash Transfers Mixed Results on Height

Giving money to directly to the poor has become such a widely popular policy tool it is harder to find a country that is not doing it than one that is. One choice that policy makers face is if to put conditions on the money they send. The Economist has an excellent article that compares conditional to unconditional programs. Conditional cash transfers pay money to mothers conditional on their children attending schooling and going in for regular health checkups. Despite conditionality on regular health checkup and growth monitoring there are mixed results of conditional transfer programs to improve children's height and the new study on an unconditional transfer shows no impact on height. I use children's height because it is one of the better indicators of long term human capital development.

I make this claim of mixed results of cash transfer performance on height based on a meta-analysis I co-authored with James Manley and Vanya Slavchevska published in World Development. We find conditional and unconditional cash transfer programs have only small and statistically not significant impacts on height when aggregated across programs.  We find similar results when we look at only Latin American conditional cash transfers. I have also heard reports of a few cash transfer programs collecting height data but not reporting them in their impact evaluations, so the small impacts are likely an overestimate.

The economic development blogosphere has been talking about a recent study (David McKenzie,Chris Blattman, Brent Keller; Amanda Glassman)  of a program called Give Directly where you can as the website suggests make donations directly to Kenyan families. The study find a lot of positive effects: household eat more food, were happier and accumulated assets.
On thing I did notice is that Give Directly had no impact on children's height (see Table 6 in the study link).Amanda Glassman in her post highlights some of success of cash transfer programs, which include reducing stunting (that is helping the most malnourished). She pointed to a study of a conditional cash transfer program in the Philippines that reduced stunting, however like Give Directly it did not seem to increase overall height.

My take it seems cash transfers are doing a decent job in some cases of reducing the worst forms of malnutrition (stunting), the other results are little less clear if there are any impacts. It seems from reading several pieces that we understand cash increases food intake however is not leading to the nutrition gains expected. Like others I think understanding the pathways that cash leads to improved height increases needs more study. What I would like to see is (and perhaps I'm just not finding them) is more nutritionists participating in the discussions and thinking carefully about how to adapt programs so cash actually leads to human development with stronger results.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, April 29, 2013

Coffee and Ennui

Sitting in the new La Madeleine in Silver Spring and have to say I’m a little bit disappointed and feeling ennui on a rainy day. My local Silver Spring advice is to head down Georgia Ave to Zed’s cafĂ©, which is friendlier, has better coffee,  more comfortable chairs, and working wi-fi.  A larger thought on restaurants and coffee shops. They are good example of the third factor in production. The first two factors in any output model in economics are labor and capital. That is how many people work there and how many machines (eg cash register, grills, toaster, coffee makers)  there are.  The goal of a chain restaurant like La Madeleine is to create a model where the same capital can be bought, the same number of staff can be hired and you get the same production. As anyone who visited multiple locations of the same chain can tell you some are better than other [side note, I often pass the Starbucks in the Towson library to go to the Towson Starbucks on York road because of the better service]. These differences exists despite the same amount labor and capital. This third factor in production could include human capital (how educated the workers are), local norms (do people typically work hard) and local governance (management). Just like a bad Starbucks,  La Madeleine or any chain restaurant a country like Nicaragua might produce a lot less than Costa Rica even they have similar population sizes and land endowments.

A second thought. My favorite all time coffee shops include Saint’s Rest Grinnell Iowa,  Indie Coffee Madison Wisconsin and Java House Iowa City. I’m not ready to put Zed’s in that category yet, although the free piece of cake on my last visit didn’t hurt. What I think is that changes have a problem of making the truly special at a large scale. As Matt Yglesia points out today although many economic interventions work on a small scale very few can work on a larger scale (perhaps pills are one of the few) since scaling is so much easier. Starbucks has done a decent job of scaling the small coffee shop feel, and as evident by this Washington Post article its hard on a large restaurant too. 

Anyway food for thought.

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Happy Chanukah to all my favorite Jewish economic boys and girls!

Want to celebrate the holiday more. Here's my Miracle PPF if you need a little music Jodi Beggs from Economists Do it With Models sings a song I wrote for the season
Bookmark and Share

Monday, December 3, 2012

Signal in a bottle, Reviewing Job Applications

I'm on the hiring committee for an assistant professor position in the economics department at Towson. We have a couple hundred applications to review and I know that many applicants apply to over 100 jobs. So how can I tell as a reviewer who is really interested in the job and who is just sending their application in. I care, because as part of the committee we will decide on a couple dozen people to interview in San Diego.

Luckily economists have devised a clever solution to help make sure candidates who really want a job can indicate it. Each job candidate is allowed 2 schools to signal. All that happens is the hiring school receives an e-mail of all the candidates who used their signal at their school.  The idea is that you can show you really care about a couple of jobs, but if a school doesn't receive a signal it doesn't show you don't care because you only can send 2. More info here

When I applied for my job at Towson, I sent one of  my signals to Towson. I'm not sure if it made a difference in me getting an interview. I sent the signal because I really wanted to move to the DC area to be with my wife and the job seemed like a really good fit given my research and teaching interest. I wasn't sure if my application would stand out enough given my background. On the other hand I did not send a signal to a job at a well known small liberal arts school in the midwest, because I thought my record with 1 year teaching at Beloit (a similar school) and an undergrad at Grinnell would be enough to get me an interview. I was right I did get an interview and an on campus interview with the well known SLAC (although not a job offer). The SLAC department chair did notice they didn't receive a signal from me, although this was more pointed out by the Dean and the Chair had explained to the Dean that I probably believed I had already shown enough interest in teaching at SLAC given my experience and didn't need a signal. I think the chair was right (given I got the interview).

In the past based on talking to my colleagues  a signal will give your application a little more attention. I think it might also help if departments are worried that a candidate won't take a job, this could also help.

I think signaling is good particularly since there is a non-zero change that it helped me get a great job.
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Nudge vs a Shove: Let's hold off planning 401k's Execution

In response to a recent paper by Chetty et al. showing that lowering benefits to tax sheltered retirement account does not have much influence on retirement savings  Ray Fisman in Slate and other economists on twitter have asked if its time to end the 401k.

As Fisman states in his article "But getting rid of the tax shelters that burn a $100 billion hole in the government balance sheet might be one reform both sides can get behind"

I haven't read the Chetty paper fully, but I think a closer look might be necessary. What the paper does is estimate the influence of reducing, but not eliminating the subsidy for tax sheltered retirement accounts. The paper uses data from Denmark, which has similar tax laws but much better data availability.  The authors find that for each dollar the government increases taxes on retirement there is a less than 1 cent reduction in total savings. In other words raising taxes on retirement savings doesn't change savings much. Driving this result is the fact that 85% of savers do not respond to changes in tax laws by adjusting their savings. 

I was thinking about this in terms of the idea of a nudge vs a shove. If tax rates are adjusted just a little bit on savings, my guess is that most people wouldn't change their habits (consistent with the cited paper).  If the changes are drastic those 85% passive savers might start to make adjustments. Furthermore, if tax breaks are eliminated for retirement savings then lazy savers might not start saving in the first place. 

Many Americans use rules of thumbs to save 10-15% in their tax sheltered retirement accounts, if we eliminate the tax shelter totally the rule of thumb might change and you might see drastic changes.

The take away is behavioral economics is hard and a nudge of adjusting the benefit to retirement savings might produce a different result than a shove that eliminates the benefit totally.

That said I agree with Fisman and other economists that the tax break is mainly geared toward those with financial knowledge and/or wealth, so considering it might be worthwhile once we understand better the implications.  

Bookmark and Share