Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Filling Up on the Best Tacos in the DC/Baltimore Corridor

Defeated from a 3 hour wait to get my cruise control fixed at my car dealership and being told I needed to come back in a few days, I realized that R&R Taqueria, better known as Gas Station Tacos, was only minutes away. I had been meaning to go there since Tyler Cowen raved about R&R a few months ago then they were featured in the Wall Street Journal.

Cowen is a big proponent of looking for tasty authentic cuisine in locations where the rent in cheap, and a corner of a gas station seems to fit that description.

R&R is located at 7894 Washington Blvd,Elkridge,MD
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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Is Using a Free Textbook a Good Idea?

I will no longer be using Greg Mankiw's favorite textbook in my class, which I used myself as a first year college student 13 years ago and have used in every principles class since. I'm switching to Libby Rittenberg and Timothy Tregarthen Principles of Macroeconomics, which is published by Flatworld Knowledge. The main reason for the switch was that the new book is free online* (here is the free textbook). Of course if you want to print it or a paper copy it will cost you, but it will be cheaper than any other Principles text as a new book and close in price to used books.

The other change is I'll no longer be using Aplia, which is an online homework system. I liked a lot of things about it, they made things really easy for the professor. With Aplia and an electronic copy of Mankiw my students paid $80 a semester. I will now be doing home work through blackboard, which loses some of the nice graphing features of Aplia, but is also free. I can also use homework questions from Flatworld that I can import into blackboard.

So the question is with 70 students a semester at $80 each is this switch worth the $5,600 a semester (or about one student's tuition at Towson).

Will the students be better off? With money we could design an experiment where I use different books in my sections, then compare test scores controlling for student characteristics. If either publisher is willing to fund this experiment let me know. We would then have to estimate if the difference in learning if in fact Mankiw/Aplia are better is worth $80 per student, which would be hard.

Instead I think it will take a semester or two to see how students feel about the textbook and judge how they do on the exams, where I write all of the questions. I get no monetary benefit by switching and I have had to spend sometime switching my syllabus and will spend a fair amount of time getting used to the new homework system.

Over the semester I'll be going back to compare my new book to the old one and possibly a couple of other major textbooks.

* Opportunity Costs of free textbook not included.
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Monday, August 29, 2011

Strasburg Fever and Prospects Influence on Attendance

Shameless Self Promotion Alert, but here is an article about my work with Tom Rhoads on minor league prospects' influence on attendance. Thanks to Ben Cohen for the great write up.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Professors Using Linkedin Could Lead to Productivity Gains

I have been trying to keep in touch with my former students, so I joined linkedin. My main goal was to find alumni I could put current students seeking jobs with in touch. Finding a job is costly (it takes time) and by developing a network these cost can be reduced. Economic research (like this paper) also suggests that by developing a network the best workers can be matched up to the right job, improving productivity of both the worker and employer. Recently I helped an employer find someone to hire I had worked with both are happy and there appear to be productivity gains on both sides. Plus I get bonus good feeling utility!

So far I think linkedin could work well. I have already found former students working for Congress and in Yemen who I hadn't been in touch with since graduation. So if you are a former student or not here is my linkedin page

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

One Man's Tale of Deportation and Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk

Before you read my post today on immigration, go read Dani Zamora's story of being deported. Dani is still in Mexico and trying to get back to the US. Dani graduated from Grinnell College in 2008 and is currently applying for MFA programs in the US. He is a friend of a friend, but as a Grinnellian, I consider him part of my extended family. Again, read his account. I'm not sure at this point what can be done to support Dani (unless you know a good immigration lawyer), but as I have more info I will pass it on.

Dani is not alone many people throughout the world could see significant improvements in their lives by migrating to richer countries. In a new paper by Michael Clemens in Journal of Economic Perspectives, he cites research showing by lowering barrier to immigration World GDP could increase by trillions of dollars. Compared to reducing trade or capital barriers which are substantially smaller. The paper is well worth a read and is accessible to even those without training in economics.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bad Signs at the Coffee Shop

i was working on a paper in a new coffee shop that opened blocks from my house. In the hour I was there 4 people came in

1. To sell advertising
2. To sell baked goods
3. To apply for a job, but only to get evidence of doing it for unemployment insurance
4. To ask directions to a different coffee shop.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cheap Internet for Low Income Families

Comcast is offering $10 a month internet service for low income families. My guess is that the marginal cost of adding one more internet line is close to $10. To verify that families are low income, their children must be enrolled in reduced/free school lunch program. This helps Comcast prevent high income people from enrolling.

Comcast didn't do this out of the kindness of their own heart, instead it was required as part of the governments stipulations for Comcast buying NBC. PC World also has a good rundown of the pros and cons of the merger. To outweigh some of these cons home internet for disadvantage children seems like it could be a public good.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Are Restaurant Websites in Silver Spring Terrible?

Farhad Manjoo in slate yesterday had an article on why restaurant website are so overdone. Typical annoyances include unnecessary flash animations, annoying music and hard to find menus (see this example) or better yet don't click on it.

Manjoo doesn't have any hard data, but he thinks it is due to naive chefs and owners, as well as website builders who can make more by doing complex stuff than just posting the menu, hours, reservation info, and directions. This would be a good question for economists, are people irrational, is information imperfect (chef don't know what makes a good website) or our we missing something.

So how about Silver Spring, my town, how do they stack up on terrible websites. I'm not an expert on food or websites but I think I can review what is terrible or generally good about both. A quick review doesn't show anything too bad.

So here a few from Silver Spring

8407 kitchen bar a place I like to eat out on a date night, the website is a little busy but I was able to find things quickly. I also agree "The lamb Bolognese is legendary"
Jackie's another good date night option, tends to do better appetizer than main dishes. Website looks good and not to hard to find anything. Menu's are in pdf form, but they change enough that I don't find that a big deal.
Ray's The Classic is minimalist with pdf menus. One of the better deals in town is the Hell Burger served in the bar.
Pacci's Pizza makes the best pizza in town, but their website menus lacks prices and could use a little formatting, but I found the phone and menu pretty easily
Thai Derm my takeout standby has pdf menus but info is easy to find

So my quick sampling of places in Silver Spring, doesn't show any website that make me not want to go there. After reviewing a few others, I nominate Mrs K's Tollhouse as the most annoying Silver Spring restaurant website based on the music.

Anyone have examples of worse ones in the DC area?

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Cash Transfers in Guatemala

I have written previously about conditional cash transfers that give money to mothers who give their kids to school and go in for health checkups. The programs have worked well in Mexico and Brazil, but what about poorer countries.

Guatemala in 2007 started its own conditional cash transfer program Mi Familia Progresa or my family progresses. This article about the program lists a series of examples of how these programs can fail. From the article we can see three main reasons the program is perceived to be failing

1.) The money isn't getting to the right people as evident by many of the registration documents belong to the same people
2.) Health workers have renamed the program my bar progress for Dads taking the money for drinking, I have heard this other places but the data doesn't generally support increased drinking from cash transfers in Nicaragua based on my own work.
3.) More kids are going to school but school budgets haven't been increased. So the schools can't handle the increased numbers of kids.

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Monday, August 8, 2011

Phones and Economic Development in Africa

"The percentage of Africans who could access a mobile phone leapt from only 10% in 1999 to more than 60% by 2008—far outstripping improvements in other infrastructure (roads, clean water, or indeed landline telephones)" from Jenny Aker writing on the Center for Global Development's Blog

As described in the link cell phones can do a lot of great things. People can get updates on the latest prices, order goods faster, and communicate with their safety net in times of trouble. Cell phones are not a substitute for everything. To work well farmers have to have goods to sell or money to buy things. To complement cell phones Aker suggests there also needs to be improvements in education and health infrastructure. Related Aker is also working in Niger to see if phones can help improve literacy. Early evaluations by Aker and coauthors suggest that phones can in fact help people learn to write and improve their math skills.

I also recall using cell phones to deliver health information. So as Aker points out they may not be silver bullets, but her work suggests a lot of promise for phones.

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Thursday, August 4, 2011

This Post is For You

A loyal reader e-mailed me saying he liked my blog. I'm always a little surprised when someone I've never met finds my writing enjoyable. Of course I shouldn't be as surprised, when it's a fellow home brewer who has lived in many of the same places I have (Ohio, Wisconsin, DC).

Check out his new tublr blog The Homebrewing Triathlete about home brewing, beer, and triathlons.

You will find amusing stories like this about slugs preferences for beer

"The next morning there were two slugs in the Guinness, two in the Moosehead and none in the pan with a blend. Clearly they had no preference for Irish or Canadian brew, or Mexican if I included last week’s Corona. But compared to the number of slugs I found in the Budweiser, this performance was, well, sluggish"

Also amusing aside about the restaurant that chargers for no shows. As my friend Jennie alludes to my wife and I missed brunch with her and friends at a place we had reservations for 6. They didn't really believe Jennie that her friends canceled because they were off to have a baby, well until the other couple walked in saying did Marie, my wife, have the baby.

Finally, for Britt, I miss Beloit's Mexican food. True though outside of that Beloit isn't full of ethnic dinning dreams, but there are quite a few great places for breakfast.

For my other readers, thanks for reading!!

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Cheap Credit: Gordon Ramsay Kitchen Nightmares or Tyler Cowen Dinning Dreams

"The Austrian theory of the trade cycle explains why loans are systematically granted to people who will almost certainly not be successful restaurant owners." From a recent Forbes post by Art Carden

The article explains how poor restaurants featured on Gordon Ramsay's show Kitchen Nightmares are an example of misallocated capital due to cheap credit and with cheap credit people with little restaurant knowledge are more likely to open places wasting valuable resources. On the other hand, I wonder if cheap capital leads to what I would call Cowen dinning dreams, after Tyler Cowen the economist who touts the virtues of small ethnic restaurants. My guess is with out cheaper credit, I wouldn't have excellent Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai places within a couple of blocks. There would likely be more chain restaurants, backed by companies who are wealthy enough to take on loans with higher interest rates and have the collateral to get lower interest rates.

I'm not the right economist to debate the Austrian business cycle, but with increasing information on where to find the best food, cheap credit would seem to lead to a tasty end (or two if you find a good place for Austrian sausage).

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bus Depot at Union Station

Union Station in DC is building a new bus terminal for the numerous buses specializing in short trips between major east coast cities.

I have only taken a bus to New York, one time. I agree with the post article that one of the biggest advantages of a terminal is it will avoid the confusion and congestion caused by having buses pick up passengers on the street. The confusing part is that buses have to change pickup locations from time to time, when I took my trip the Megabus website said the boarding location had recently moved.

Of course nothing is free, the depot will add a 75 cent surcharge to each ticket. Each company will also pay $30,000 per bus parking area. To me it seems worth it to have easier access to metro and the services at Union Station.

I had read but can't find it that some of the smaller bus companies might not move to the station because of the high fixed cost of a parking space.

I'm often skeptical of projects that help a particular business, but overall this one seems to pay for itself and provide some extra benefits.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

What the World Bank Thinks About Fertilizer Subsidies

Last week at the American Agricultural Economics Association meetings I attended a panel on Malawi's fertilizer subsidy program. The program has been touted as a success by the NY Times a few years ago, but the Economist pointed out that the subsidized fertilizer was putting fertilizer sellers out of business.

The World Bank also has an FAQ on the program saying "In combination with favorable rains, this program has contributed to sharp increases in maize harvests in 2006 and 2007. During the most recent harvest, the country produced an estimated 3.4 million metric tons (a surplus of 1.2 million metric tons above national requirements). This has allowed Malawi to start exporting 400,000 t of grain to Zimbabwe and 80,000 t to Swaziland and Lesotho."

My biggest take away from the session was the program was really expensive, taking up 8-12% of Malawi's total government budget a year. I wonder if this is the best use of the funds. As one person at the session pointed out though, they thought this program was more about getting votes than doing what is best for development. It is important to remember development policy also needs to be approved, so sometimes second best is the only options.

More dispatches from the AAEA on chickens from my Towson colleague James Manley

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