Thursday, June 30, 2011

Medical education in Paris in the 1830's--cheap cadavers

Lewis Lapham discusses David McCullough's “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris."

Cadavers at $2.50 Lured Americans to 1830s Paris

"At noon, the cadavers were delivered to the dissecting rooms at the Amphitheatre d’Anatomie -- carts had arrived earlier and dumped the bodies of naked men and women on the pavement outside. Corpses came cheap: An adult cost 6 francs or about $2.50; a child could be had for less.

"The amphitheater was big enough for 600 students. They smoked cigars to offset the nauseating smell of putrefaction and walked gingerly to avoid slipping on the fragments of flesh littering the floor. Larger pieces were fed to caged dogs.

"It was a scene that in the 1830s drew students from all over to Paris, the medical capital of the world. Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the first Americans trained in the new clinical methods, wrote that to understand anatomy, he’d cut his subject “into inch pieces.” He could not have done so anywhere else, he added.

"Upon returning to the U.S., Holmes taught at Harvard Medical School until 1882, expounding the benefits of dissection, the microscope and the stethoscope, all of which were largely unknown in the U.S."

The situation in Britain (and the U.S.) was much less freewheeling. I wrote about cadavers for anatomy study in my article  Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets "

"When the British medical journal The Lancet published its first volume in 1824, its pages reflected a concern that too few cadavers were available for anatomy classes. The main source of cadavers was an illegal black market supplied by so-called “resurrection men,” and an editorial by that name opens with the news that a reliable resurrection man had recently been arrested and sentenced. The editorial goes on to suggest—in an early observation that how issues are framed may influence how they are perceived—that the government policy of only allowing the bodies of executed murderers to be used for anatomy studies “tends to keep up . . . the prejudice which is at present so strong against the obtaining of bodies for dissection” (Lancet, 1824).
... In Britain, the Anatomy Act of 1832 considerably expanded the source of legal cadavers for dissection.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

School choice in Denver

Denver Public Schools is getting ready to develop a new public school choice plan, with the help of IIPSC (The Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice), the nonprofit founded by Neil Dorosin after he helped implement New York City's high school choice plan. The plan is that Neil will again be assisted by the same team of economists. An innovative element of the plan is that both public and charter schools will participate in the same school choice process.

Here's a story in Colorado Education News, by Charlie Brennan: Streamlined DPS enrollment in works

"Denver Public Schools is planning to streamline its enrollment system and will ask – but not require – all students to choose their schools beginning as soon as fall 2012.

"Under the proposed plan, families for the first time would be able to use one form to apply to traditional DPS schools, magnets or charter schools, and all applications would be on the same deadline.

"Families not wishing to participate would be assigned to their neighborhood school by default, as always. District officials say people exercising choice should find this new system easier to navigate.

"Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the change is really simply one of “mechanics.”

“For those families who do exercise choice, it will be a system that is more equitable, more efficient and more transparent,” Boasberg said.
"District officials say the plan’s main purpose is to streamline and unify the district’s current patchwork and often confusing systems of school choice. During the 2010-11 school year, 53 percent of DPS students attended schools outside their assigned attendance area. This includes charter schools.

"Dorosin said he knows no other major urban district that uses one application form for district schools and charter schools.

"The proposal would continue guaranteed enrollment in neighborhood schools as well as priority status for those with siblings already attending a school.

"Board member Mary Seawell has met with Dorosin and said she supports the change, if it will put all district families on a level playing field when choosing schools.

“To me, it is really about, is our system working and is it fair? Is there equity for all kids? And I’ve learned that it isn’t fair, and we need to be fair,” she said.
"In the 2004 New York system Dorosin helped design, eighth-graders were asked to rank up to 12 schools in order of preference, while schools ranked applicants without seeing how those students ranked the schools. A computer then compared rankings, using an algorithm originally created to match medical residents with hospitals.

"New York and Boston did not include its charter schools in the choice process as Denver will. New York implemented the plan only for high school students. Denver will do it systemwide, as has Boston. New York did away with wait-lists, Denver will not.

"For 2010-11 in New York, of 78,747 students who applied, the computer placed 83 percent of the students with one of their top five choices. Another 7 percent matched to schools further down their preference lists.

"However, roughly 10 percent of the city’s eighth-graders were matched with none of their listed choices.

“That just means they didn’t get matched in the first round,” said New York City Department of Education spokesman Matt Mittenthal. “We’re currently in a supplementary round, so the process is not by any means over. There’s always a period for appeals but after the supplementary round, they are essentially given one assignment.”

"Mittenthal added there are “hundreds of appeals every year.”

"Dorosin said technical aspects of the Denver program are still under development. Using a formula to match students to schools prevents savvy parents from gaming the system at the expense of less sophisticated families, he said.

"While Dorosin said the New York and Boston models hold lessons for Denver, DPS spokesman Vaughn underscored a fundamental difference in what’s contemplated here.

“We do think it’s good to encourage families to think proactively about their choices, but in no way is any part of this mandatory,” Vaughn said.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

School choice in England

László Sándor points me to an Economist blog post about school choice: Schools admissions codes--Playing games.

It begins with a nice paragraph about how school choice, and other selection processes, are two-sided matching markets.

"CHOICE is a central tenet to the reform of public services, whether it is made by patients seeking the best hospital care or parents looking for a decent education for their child. But there is another, widely neglected aspect to choice: that made by those who head publicly-funded institutions. It is all very well for a youngster to chose to apply to Oxford University, but admissions tutors also chose which candidates to admit.
"The rule book that governs all this is absurdly complex, and education secretary Michael Gove is bent on simplifying it. On May 27th he  launched a consultation* on the proposed new admissions code. It suggests that selecting pupils by lottery (as Brighton does) rather than by how close they live to the school should be banned. More controversially it also proposes that the children of school staff should be offered places ahead of others, a practise that was banned only a few years ago and which,  research suggests, led to good schools being forced to take pupils from poorer homes. For the first time, it recommends, head teachers should be free to admit children whose families have incomes that are so low that the children are offered free school meals.
The reasoning behind these proposals is fairly clear: they are necessary to make palatable the opening of the independently-run but state-funded "free" schools, the first tranche of which will admit pupils in September. These schools can be established by parents who might then be unable to get their child into the schol under the existing rules, hence the suggestion that such pupils should be favoured over others."

*this link only seems to work from the original article, linked at the top...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Options for nondirected kidney donors

There was a time not long ago when nondirected kidney donation was so unusual that donors had few options. Recent developments in kidney exchange, in particular long nonsimultaneous nondirected donor chains have changed that. Yesterday's NY Times Magazine's column The Ethicist starts with the following question:

"A few months ago, I signed up to be a living kidney donor to help someone in need who was not related to me. Recently I was told that I was a match for a local 16-year-old. But if I were to enroll in the national kidney registry, my donation could facilitate a donor chain, potentially benefiting 5 or 10 patients. Should I help one person now or several people in the future? It’s hard to say no to a child, yet does the good of the many outweigh the good of the one in this case?"

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Design of enforcement mechanisms: policing versus gunfighting

A new addition to the experimental literature on how the possibility of punishment influences the efficient provision of public goods (and the inefficient provision of punishments):

Gun For Hire: Does Delegated Enforcement Crowd out Peer Punishment in Giving to Public Goods? -- by James Andreoni, Laura K. Gee
This paper compares two methods to encourage socially optimal provision of a public good. We compare the efficacy of vigilante justice, as represented by peer-to-peer punishment, to delegated policing, as represented by the "hired gun" mechanism, to deter free riding and improve group welfare. The "hired gun" mechanism (Andreoni and Gee, 2011) is an example of a low cost device that promotes complete compliances and minimal enforcement as the unique Nash equilibrium. We find that subjects are willing to pay to hire a delegated policing mechanism over 70% of the time, and that this mechanism increases welfare between 15% to 40%. Moreover, the lion's share of the welfare gain comes because the hired gun crowds out vigilante peer-to-peer punishments.

The Hired Gun Mechanism -- by James Andreoni, Laura K. Gee

We present and experimentally test a mechanism that provides a simple, natural, low cost, and realistic solution to the problem of compliance with socially determined efficient actions, such as contributing to a public good. We note that small self-governing organizations often place enforcement in the hands of an appointed leader-the department chair, the building superintendent, the team captain. This hired gun, we show, need only punish the least compliant group member, and then only punish this person enough so that the person would have rather been the second least compliant. We show experimentally this mechanism, despite having very small penalties out of equilibrium, reaches the full compliance equilibrium almost instantly.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

N.Y. legalizes same sex marriage

After a close vote, NY State legalizes same sex marriage.

"The marriage bill, whose fate was uncertain until moments before the vote, was approved 33 to 29 in a packed but hushed Senate chamber. Four members of the Republican majority joined all but one Democrat in the Senate in supporting the measure after an intense and emotional campaign aimed at the handful of lawmakers wrestling with a decision that divided their friends, their constituents and sometimes their own homes.

"With his position still undeclared, Senator Mark J. Grisanti, a Republican from Buffalo who had sought office promising to oppose same-sex marriage, told his colleagues he had agonized for months before concluding he had been wrong.

“I apologize for those who feel offended,” Mr. Grisanti said, adding, “I cannot deny a person, a human being, a taxpayer, a worker, the people of my district and across this state, the State of New York, and those people who make this the great state that it is the same rights that I have with my wife.”

"Senate approval was the final hurdle for the same-sex marriage legislation, which was approved last week by the Assembly. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the measure at 11:55 p.m., and the law will go into effect in 30 days, meaning that same-sex couples could begin marrying in New York by late July.

"Passage of same-sex marriage here followed a daunting run of defeats in other states where voters barred same-sex marriage by legislative action, constitutional amendment or referendum. Just five states currently permit same-sex marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia."

The difficult transformation of a formerly repugnant transaction into a normal one is fascinating to witness.

Service upgrades

This sentence is, in my experience, more typical of service upgrades than its author perhaps realized.

"We are enhancing your online experience, and my AT&T is temporarily unavailable."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cramton appeals to Obama on Medicare auction design

HomeCare, a website for suppliers of medical equipment reports:
Cramton Calls for Presidential Action on Competitive Bidding

"In what one stakeholder termed "the strongest case yet" against competitive bidding, economist Peter Cramton wrote a letter to President Barack Obama underscoring the fatal flaws in CMS' bidding design and asking for presidential involvement in getting the program redrawn. The letter, sent Friday, was signed by 244 auction design experts.
"Given the disregard by [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] of the market design recommendations received from recognized experts, we call upon the executive branch to direct CMS to proceed otherwise," read the letter, which was copied to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and the President's Council of Economic Advisors.
"We also ask that you consider supporting new legislation that requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct efficient Medicare auctions, consistent with the best practice and the best science," the letter added.
The letter is the latest volley in Cramton's battle to get CMS to address the major defects in its competitive bidding design. Those efforts began in September, when Cramton, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, sent a letter signed by 166 other renowned auction experts to Congress detailing the program's deficiencies and calling for its implementation to be halted.
CMS brushed aside concerns expressed by members of Congress, implementing the program — as designed — in January in nine competitive bidding areas across the country. Cramton and the scores of other economists continued their crusade, holding meetings with powerbrokers, congressional briefings and a mock auction attended by home medical equipment providers, economists and even some CMS officials."
And here's the letter.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The assignation game: attempting to make an illegal market safe

Scott Cunningham (who studies risky behavior, crime, and illicit labor markets) points me to this story, which illustrates some of the difficulties of running a recommender system for an illegal transaction:  Fairleigh Dickinson professor accused of running prostitution website

"a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, was arrested Sunday while sitting in a Starbucks in Albuquerque, N.M., said Lt. William Roseman of the Albuquerque police."

"Flory’s website, Southwest Companions, had operated for months before several prostitutes in Albuquerque mentioned the site to police and they began investigating late last year, Roseman said.

"Users were split into three categories, and first-time visitors had to first gain the trust of Flory before gaining any access. Ordinarily this was done, Roseman said, by "sleeping with a prostitute." The prostitute would then report to Flory what sexual acts the two had engaged in, as well as how much money was exchanged.

"After that process, users were designated as "Verified," gaining access to a wider circle of women to choose from, Roseman said. If users became more frequent customers, their status was increased to "Trusted," which gave them access to more women and more portions of the website, including message boards explaining how to avoid the police, Roseman said.

"They had descriptions of my officers, phone numbers they used, videos of an attorney telling them that if you get busted by the police, here’s what you should do," Roseman said. "This was a website designed, managed and run fully for prostitution."

"The site also included message boards where users could rate the prostitutes with stars, including the rating of specific sexual acts, Roseman said.

"Roseman said Flory told police he did not make money off of the website and instead saw it as a hobby, "a safe place for guys to find female prostitutes," Roseman said."

Another news account gives more details on the police operation, which made use of an informant:

"Seemingly aware of possible legal issues, the site notes its content is for "entertainment purposes" only.

"Police, however, contend that Flory knew he was promoting illegal activity. A detective infiltrated the site, gaining a “verified account” through an informant, according to an arrest warrant. Using the screen name “David8,” the warrant said Flory posted “helpful tips” on how to avoid arrest and removed users who he thought had contact with authorities.

"Through a subpoena to Internet domain registration company, police learned that Flory used his FDU e-mail account to create the site. A GoDaddy spokesman declined to comment on the case, but issued a statement noting the company "routinely" works with law enforcement. According to the warrant, Flory also used for e-mail on the prostitution site, with the domain matching his initials. "

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Marriage and location and career choice

The three things in the title of this post surely interact. The map below, from a Globe article by Richard Florida, looks at one factor--ratio of single men to single women--that is both a cause and an effect.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Report of the economics Job Market Committee in the May AER

The Report of Ad Hoc Committee on the Job Market in the May 2011 AER (pp 744-6) has four sections:

I. Signaling;
"The number of participating job candidates held steady at roughly 1,000 signalers per year. About two-thirds of those in the job market signal each year."
"We note that at least a small number of ads in JOE this season solicit signals (e.g., “Candidates will be interviewed at ASSA (Denver) and are encouraged to use AEA signaling”).

II. Scramble;
"Survey results indicate that about half of the employers who register for the scramble initiate an interview as a result of the scramble. It is difficult to count the number of job placements initiated by the scramble. For the 2009–2010 job market, it appears that there were at least 15 job placements facilitated by the scramble."

III. Letters of Reference;
"The Committee is keeping an eye on the proliferation of websites to which letters of reference for new PhDs have to be uploaded, with many universities having their own sites."
"The Job Market Committee has considered whether the AEA ought to recommend a short list of application service providers and suggest that departments use one of just a few Internet portals, eschewing the unique url approach that is so costly. However, economics departments may not always be in a position to override their human resources departments, which seek other advantages by having all the jobs offered by their university handled on the same software. In this case it might be useful to press for common interfaces, so that centralized job market services that provide efficiencies to letter writers could upload letters to centralized university-specific services (many of which depend on only a small numberof software providers).

IV. Applications to Ph.D. programs
"There is a related issue not pertaining to the job market that affects a broader group of economics departments than just those that produce PhDs. It is the PhD admission process.
"The problem, even more than in the job market, is that the graduate school admission process usually is not under the control of the economics department. Often the platform and application apply to all PhD programs in the graduate school. The process stands in contrast to law schools and medical schools, which have centralized admissions forms and recommendation procedures. It is ironic that electronic processing of graduate school and job applications has increased the time required to apply and write letters in support of applicants."

Here's our original report:
Peter Coles, John Cawley, Phillip B. Levine, Muriel Niederle, Alvin E. Roth, and John J. Siegfried , " The Job Market for New Economists: A Market Design Perspective," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24,4 (Fall) 2010, 187-206.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Economics of Privacy, continued

Privacy is complicated, and this is made clear when we think about buying and selling personal data in ways that preserve privacy. Suppose, for example, that I ask you whether I can have access to your medical records for $1,000. If you say yes, I'll learn your medical history, but if you say no, I can already draw some conclusions about the likelihood that you have some medical condition that you would like to keep private.

Here is an announcement for a Postdoc in Economics of Privacy at UPenn, with application details at the link.

"Applications are invited for a postdoc position in the theory of privacy and economics at the University of Pennsylvania. An outline of the hosting project is below.

The ideal candidate will have a Ph.D. in Computer Science, Economics, or Statistics and a strong record of publication. 
"In the last decade private data has become a commodity: it is gathered, bought and sold, and contributes to the primary business of many Internet and information technology companies. At the same time, various formalizations of the notion of ‘privacy’ have been developed and studied by computer scientists. Nevertheless, to date, we lack a theory for the economics of digital privacy, and we propose to close this important gap.

"Concretely, we propose to develop the theory to address the following questions:

"How should a market for private data be structured? How can we design an auction that accommodates issues specific to private data analysis: that the buyer of private data often wishes to buy from a representative sample from the population, and that individuals value for their privacy can itself be a very sensitive piece of information?

"How should we structure other markets to properly account for participants concerns about privacy? How should we properly model privacy in auction settings, and design markets to address issues relating to utility for privacy?

"Studying economic interactions necessitates studying learning – but what is the cost of privacy on agent learning? How does the incomplete information that is the necessary result of privacy preserving mechanisms affect how individuals engaged in a dynamic interaction can learn and coordinate, and how do perturbed measurements affect learning dynamics in games? How can market research be conducted both usefully and privately?

"Our investigation of these questions will blend models and methods from several relevant fields, including computer science, economics, algorithmic game theory and machine learning.

"The proposed research directly addresses one of the most important tensions that the Internet era has thrust upon society: the tension between the tremendous societal and commercial value of private and potentially sensitive data about individual citizens, and the interests and rights of those individuals to control their data. Despite the attention and controversy this tension has evoked, we lack a comprehensive and coherent science for understanding it. Furthermore, science (rather than technology alone) is required, since the technological and social factors underlying data privacy are undergoing perpetual change. Within the field of computer science, the recently introduced subfield of privacy preserving computation has pointed the way to potential advances. The proposed research aims to both broaden and deepen these directions."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Red Market: from grave robbers to organ brokers in India

Laura Miller at Salon reviews "The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers"

"It includes vivid, on-the-spot reports from Indian "bone farms," where remains looted from graveyards are processed into skeletons for Western anatomy students (hundreds of reeking bones left out to bleach in the sun) and tsunami refugee camps where most of the residents bear the scars of kidney "donations."
"Poor people supply human flesh in various forms for rich people, while a well-meaning ethical system of anonymity and mandated "altruism" allows middlemen to siphon off most of the profits.

      "When the supply isn't sufficient to the demand, some enterprising individuals take it upon themselves to even things up.
"Carney argues that the inequities of the red market were only exacerbated by regulations like the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, which prohibited the sale of human organs and tissue and was championed by then-Sen. Al Gore as a way to make sure that the human body could not be treated as "a mere assemblage of spare parts." Although Carney is no fan of the market philosophy that would reduce our bodies to salable "widgets," he thinks we need to face up to the fact that altruistic donation will never provide as much of these precious materials as we desire. "As a society we neither want to accept open trade in human tissue, nor do we want to reduce our access to life-extending treatments. In other words, we want to have our cake and eat it, too."

HT: Steve Leider (who knows something about repugnant markets)

And here's the NY Times review.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Maine outlaws

Those Maine outlaws are at it again: Maine outlaws texting while driving

(If you outlaw texting while driving, only outlaws will text 'n drive...)

"Governor Paul LePage signed legislation yesterday that outlaws text messaging while driving, becoming the 33d state, along with the District of Columbia and Guam, to do so."

Friday, June 17, 2011

McAfee on economists as engineers:the view from Yahoo!

From The Register ("biting the hand that feeds IT"), an old interview that I don't think I saw before: Yahoo! economist rebuilds ad empire with 'Magic Formula'

"McAfee is an economist, but he's the sort of economist who's actually useful. In the early-90s, he helped build the simultaneous ascending auction, a mathematical contraption that governments across the globe have since used to license over $100 million in wireless spectrum. And nowadays, as the man who oversees the microeconomics and social sciences research group at Yahoo!, he builds things that are so useful, they wind up on the boss's chest.

"I'm a member of a group of people — you might even call it a movement — who do economics as an engineering discipline," McAfee tells The Reg. "If you look at the humor of economics, it's all about how useless economists are. What economists have traditionally done for the world is block stupid ideas. Economists go to Washington just so they can stop Washington from doing the silly things it would otherwise do. That may serve a greater purpose, but it's still a negative thing to do.

"Economics as engineering discipline is all about building things with economics that are positive — as opposed to stopping things, things that won't work."

I like it.
Roth, Alvin E., "The Economist as Engineer: Game Theory, Experimentation, and Computation as Tools for Design Economics," Fisher-Schultz Lecture, Econometrica, 70,4, July 2002, 1341-1378. 

(And I'm in Montreal at a relevant conference: Society for Economic Design Conference in Montreal)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Britain's Chief Rabbi Cautions Organ Donors

The American Journal of Transplantation reports on disagreement about what constitutes death:

"Is brainstem death accepted by Jewish law? Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth and the Dayanim (rabbis who sit on a religious court) of the London Beth Din believe that Jewish law, or Halacha, recognizes only cardiorespiratory death. After an edict issued last fall by the Jewish leader, there is concern that organ donation in the United Kingdom could be affected.

"The statement focuses on the definition of death, stating that some believe brainstem death is an acceptable Halachic criterion in the determination of death, but, “it is the considered opinion of the London Beth Din in line with most Poskim [Jewish legal scholars who decide the Halacha] worldwide that in Halacha, cardiorespiratory death is definitive.”The Chief Rabbi and Dayanim have said they were in consultation with the National Organ Donor Registry in the U.K. to explore ways to facilitate an option for Jews to indicate their willingness for donation.

"The U.K. news media have carried numerous stories about the issue, including one in the Guardian quoting concern on the part of the British Medical Association that the London Beth Din stance may restrict the number of donations available.1 Meanwhile, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) issued a statement saying: “The Halachic definition of death is a long-standing debate … and it should not be forgotten that, among others in the U.S. and Israel, the former Chief Rabbis of Israel … are proponents of the position that brainstem death constitutes the Halachic definition of death.”2

"The RCA reaffirmed its position that brain stem death is a Halachically operational definition of death and, in light of the serious moral issues and lifesaving potential presented by organ donation, they “strongly recommend that rabbis who are rendering decision for their laity on this matter demonstrate a strong predisposition to accept the Halachic view of the gedolei haposkim [Halachic adjudicators], who define the moment of Halachic death to be that of brainstem death, or that they refer their laity to rabbis who do so.”

Butt R. Doctors criticise chief rabbi's edict against donor cards. Guardian. Updated January 12, 2011. Accessed March 26, 2011.

  • 2
    Linzer D. Rabbinic statement regarding organ donation and brain death. Updated January 7, 2011. Accessed March 26, 2011.
  • Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    Crisis response and organization

    Companies that manage big facilities like power plants do a certain amount of planning for emergencies, as do local authorities. But when disasters rise beyond a certain level, national leaders become involved. They may of course not have relevant expertise, and may even lack access to relevant information.

    The NY Times has a very interesting article about some of the organizational (and organization design) issues that impeded the Japanese response to the nuclear power plant failures that accompanied and amplified the recent earthquake/tsunami disaster: In Nuclear Crisis, Crippling Mistrust

    "At this crucial moment, it became clear that a prime minister who had built his career on suspicion of the collusive ties between Japan’s industry and bureaucracy was acting nearly in the dark. He had received a confusing risk analysis from the chief nuclear regulator, a fervently pro-nuclear academic whom aides said Mr. Kan did not trust. He was also wary of the company that operated the plant, given its history of trying to cover up troubles."
    "At the drama’s heart was an outsider prime minister who saw the need for quick action but whose well-founded mistrust of a system of alliances between powerful plant operators, compliant bureaucrats and sympathetic politicians deprived him of resources he could have used to make better-informed decisions.

    "A onetime grass-roots activist, Mr. Kan struggled to manage the nuclear crisis because he felt he could not rely on the very mechanisms established by his predecessors to respond to such a crisis.

    "Instead, he turned at the beginning only to a handful of close, overwhelmed advisers who knew little about nuclear plants and who barely exchanged information with the plant’s operator and nuclear regulators
    "Critics and supporters alike said Mr. Kan’s decision to bypass this system, choosing instead to rely on a small circle of trusted advisers with little experience in handling a crisis of this scale, blocked him from grasping the severity of the disaster sooner. Sometimes those advisers did not even know all the resources available to them.

    "This includes the existence of a nationwide system of radiation detectors known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or Speedi. Mr. Terada and other advisers said they did not learn of the system’s existence until March 16, five days into the crisis.

    "If they had known earlier, they would have seen Speedi’s early projections that radiation from the Fukushima plant would be blown northwest, said one critic, Hiroshi Kawauchi, a lawmaker in Mr. Kan’s own party. Mr. Kawauchi said that many of the residents around the plant who evacuated went north, on the assumption that winds blew south during winter in that area. That took them directly into the radioactive plume, he said — exposing them to the very radiation that they were fleeing."

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011

    School choice versus neighborhood schools--how you feel depends in part on your local school

    The Boston Globe looks at the downside of school choice in their continuing series:

    "A daily diaspora, a scattered street

    Every morning, children in Boston disperse to schools all over. Childhood chums, and neighborhood feeling, can be left behind

    "In September, the 19 school-age children who live on this one city block in Roslindale will migrate to a dizzying array of 15 public, private, and charter schools, from West Roxbury to Wellesley, traveling a combined 182 miles each day. There was a time — some here remember it well — when all the kids on Montvale went to nearby Wolfgang Mozart Elementary School, making the short walk together in a familiar, noisy pack with neighborhood playmates who were almost like brothers and sisters. Now, the children on this and other streets across the city scatter every morning, due to a lottery system that allows them to travel beyond their neighborhood for a chance to attend a better school — or drives them out of the public schools altogether by assigning them to a disappointing choice.

    "The daily exodus costs the city dearly, both in sky-high transportation costs — almost $80 million a year — and, some sociologists and education specialists say, in weakened ties among families, which can strain the tenuous fabric of neighborhoods.

    "Frustration with the system’s shortcomings has fueled repeated calls for a return to neighborhood schools, which would dispatch children to the nearest school. But in a city with schools of uneven caliber, a return to the old ways would mean many students would lose, primarily minorities, who would be yoked to the struggling schools in many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
    "Kitty-Rousell, 36, was among a group of Roslindale and West Roxbury parents who urged school officials last year to overhaul the lottery system and reconsider neighborhood schools. They soon learned how loaded a term “neighborhood schools’’ is, harkening back to the days when white Bostonians resisted the integration of schools across neighborhood lines.

    “If I had known that ‘neighborhood schools’ was code for racist . . . I certainly would have second-guessed it,’’ added Theresa Strang, a former West Roxbury resident who formed the Coalition for Neighborhood Schools and who, in her own childhood, left the public schools after busing began in Boston. “When I think of neighborhood schools, I think of walking to school with my sister. Another mother picks you up, you go to a friend’s house two doors down.’’

    "In practice, reverting to neighborhood schools could leave Boston’s schools more segregated, because of the city’s demographic patterns. But if that concern could be addressed, said Mark Warren, a sociologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there is reason to believe that children going to school in their neighborhoods could help make schools better.
    "Even some parents disillusioned with the lottery system and the schools their children were assigned to still bristle at the notion of returning to neighborhood schools or revamping the lottery.
    “Neighborhood schools wouldn’t improve the quality of schools overall. It just lets them untether themselves from a segment of society that maybe they don’t feel that they should have to be involved with,’’ said Jeff Rogers, a black father from Roxbury whose children’s experience with the school lottery is also being followed by the Globe."

    Monday, June 13, 2011

    Efforts to ban circumcision in California

    Just as there are efforts to make unrepugnant transactions that have long been regarded as repugnant (like same sex marriage), there are also efforts to make repugnant things that have been accepted since antiquity.

    Efforts to Ban Circumcision Gain Traction in California
    "When a group of activists proposed banning circumcision in San Francisco last fall, many people simply brushed them aside. Even in that liberal seaside city, it seemed implausible that thousands of people would support an effort to outlaw an ancient ritual that Jews and Muslims believe fulfills a commandment issued by God.

    "But last month, the group collected the more than 7,100 signatures needed to get a measure on the fall ballot that would make it illegal to snip the foreskin of a minor within city limits. Now a similar effort is under way in Santa Monica to get such a measure on the ballot for November 2012.

    "If the anticircumcision activists (they prefer the term “intactivists”) have their way, cities across the country may be voting on whether to criminalize a practice that is common in many American hospitals. Activists say the measures would protect children from an unnecessary medical procedure, calling it “male genital mutilation.”

    “This is the furthest we’ve gotten, and it is a huge step for us,” said Matthew Hess, an activist based in San Diego who wrote both bills.

    "Mr. Hess has created similar legislation for states across the country, but those measures never had much traction. Now he is fielding calls from people who want to organize similar movements in their cities.

    “This is a conversation we are long overdue to have in this country,” he said. “The end goal for us is making cutting boys’ foreskin a federal crime.”

    "Jewish groups see the ballot measures as a very real threat, likening them to bans on circumcision that existed in Soviet-era Russia and Eastern Europe and in ancient Roman and Greek times. The circumcision of males is an inviolable requirement of Jewish law that dates back to Abraham’s circumcision of himself in the Book of Genesis."
    "Mr. Hess also writes an online comic book, “Foreskin Man,” with villains like “Monster Mohel.” On Friday, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying the comic employed “grotesque anti-Semitic imagery.”

    Of course not all opponents of circumcision are happy to welcome into their coalition those motivated by antipathy to Judaism or Islam:
    In Santa Monica, Circumcision Opponent Abandons Efforts
    "The primary backer of an effort to get a ban on circumcision on the ballot in Santa Monica is abandoning her push, saying the proposed legislation had been misrepresented as an effort to impinge on religious freedom."

    Sunday, June 12, 2011

    The market(s) for law grads

    A new report from the NALP surveys law grads who graduated in 2010 about their employment status as of February 15, 2011, under the headline Class of 2010 Graduates Faced Worst Job Market Since Mid-1990s.

    "The percentage of private practice jobs with large law firms of 501 attorneys or more fell more than five percentage points in a single year to 20.5% for the Class of 2010 compared to 25.6% for the Class of 2009. On the other end of the scale, jobs with firms of two to ten lawyers represented 39.1% of all private practice jobs taken by members of this class, a rise of seven and a half percentage points in two years, up from 31.6% for the Class of 2008. And, the number of graduates reporting that they are working as solo practitioners has similarly soared over two years from 3.3% of all private practice jobs for the Class of 2008 to 5.7% for the Class of 2010. Taken together, jobs at firms of 50 or fewer lawyers accounted for 59% of all private practice jobs."

    The NY Times reports on the growth of non-partner tracks in large law firms:
    At Well-Paying Law Firms, a Low-Paid Corner,
    and on some lower paid American jobs that compete with legal work that has been sent to overseas firms--
    Legal Outsourcing Firms Creating Jobs for American Lawyers

    Saturday, June 11, 2011

    School choice in Israel

    Ran Shorrer writes:
    "Israel is going to start a school choice pilot, a fact that economists (well, basically Victor Lavy, from Hebrew-U) support and others oppose.   

    Google translated version (not perfect but relatively clear):


    Friday, June 10, 2011

    2nd LeeX International Conference on Theoretical and Experimental Macroeconomics


    Friday, June 10
    9:00-9:15                Opening Remarks, John Duffy
    9:15-10:00              "The Economics of Money Illusion"
                                  Keynote Speaker, Jean-Robert Tyrann (Vienna University)
    10:00-10:45            "Sticking to Prices? - Behavioral Differences in Price Setting"
                                   Emma Svensson (Lund University)

    10:45-11:15          Coffeebreak

    11:15-12:00            "Gift Exchange versus Monetary Exchange: Experimental Evidence"
                                  John Duffy (Pittsburgh University)

    12:00-12:45            "The Coordination Value of Monetary Exchange: Experimental Evidence"
                                  Marco Casari (University of Bologna)
    12:45-14:30              Lunch

    14:30-15:15           "Technology, Wage Dispersion and Inflation"
                                 Shoujian Zhang (Vienna University)

    15:15-16:00            "Explaining Rigidities in the Housing Market: Is Loss Aversion at a Loss?"        
                                  Florent Buisson (University Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne)

    16:00-16:30            Coffeebreak

    16:30-17:15           "Self-control Preferences and Fiscal Policies: A Quantitative Analysis in a Life
                                        Cycle Model"      
                                 Cagri Kumru (Australian National University)   

    17:15-18:00            "Market-Based Corrective Actions: An Experimental Investigation"              
                                 Oleg Korenok (Virginia Commonwealth University)
    20.30                          Dinner         

    Saturday, June 12
    9:00-9:45                "Bubbles and Monetary Policy"
                                   Keynote Speaker, Jordi Gali (Universitat Pompeau Fabra)

    9:45-10:30               "Frictions, Persistence, and Central Bank Policy in an Experimental Dynamic Stochastic
    General Equilibrium Economy"
                                   Charles Noussair (Tilburg University)
    10:30 -11:00            Coffeebreak

    11:00-11:45           "Heterogeneous Expectations in Monetary DSGE Models"       
                                 Domenico Massaro (Univeristy of Amsterdam)

    11:45-12:30            "Inflation Expectations and Behavior: Do Survey Respondents Act on their Beliefs?"
                                  Olivier Armantier (NY Federal Reserve Bank)

    12:30-14:30               Lunch

    14:30-15:15            "Inflation Expectations and Monetary Policy Design: Evidence from the Laboratory"        
                                  Damjan Pfajfar (Tilburgh University)      

    15:15-16:00            "The New Keynesian Phillips Curve with Myopic Agents"
                                  Michael Ross (Bochum University)

    16:00-16:30             Coffeebreak

    16:30-17:15           "Information acquisition in a speculative attack: Theory and Experiments"
                                Isabel Trevino (NY-University)

    17:15-18:00           "Are Sunspots Learnable in a General Equilibrium Model"
                                Jasmina Arifovic (Simon Fraser University)

    Organizers: John Duffy, Frank Heinemann, and Rosemarie Nagel

    Thursday, June 9, 2011

    Misc. repugnant transactions: marijuana, camel meat, and concealed carry on campus

    The Maastricht ban on selling marijuana to foreign tourists is spreading to the rest of Holland:
    Dutch govt to ban tourists from cannabis shops (HT Bettina Klaus)
    A little-noticed move by American Express to ban the purchase of medical marijuana with its credit cards has reignited a longstanding debate: How much can a credit card company control what you buy?
            To the surprise of consumers, major credit card companies are making decisions about what they can and can't buy with their credit cards. What's off-limits? Legal purchases like gambling chips and donations to at least one controversial non-profit organization; in some cases, buying pornography is also restricted, and so, increasingly, is medical marijuana. Last month, shortly before Delaware became the 16th state to legalize medical marijuana, American Express told merchants that its cards could not be used to buy it.

    Good news for camel meat lovers: The Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee annulled various outdated regulations Monday, including a longtime ban on the sale of camel meat. (HT Assaf Romm)

    And those of you looking forward to concealed carry on campus will have to wait a bit longer, even in the Lone Star State:
    State legislators in Texas could not meet Monday's end-of-session deadline to pass a bill that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons on campus -- meaning a win for higher education leaders, who almost uniformly opposed the legislation.

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011

    Harvey Mansfield on game theory

    My Harvard colleague Harvey Mansfield writing in the WSJ about "Sociology and Other 'Meathead' Majors"  has this to say about economics and game theory:

    "Others try to imitate the sciences and call themselves "social scientists." The best imitators of scientists are the economists. Among social scientists they rank highest in rigor, which means in mathematics. They also rank highest in boastful pretension, and you can lose more money listening to them than by trying to read books in sociology. Just as Gender Studies taints the whole university with its sexless fantasies, so economists infect their neighbors with the imitation science they peddle. (Game theorists, I'm talking about you.)"

    In a weak moment, I sent him the following email:

    Dear Professor Mansfield: I read with interest your recent WSJ article.  It looks like it was fun to write.

    I noticed that you particularly called out game theorists (of which I am one).
    Since you take a long view, I couldn’t help but wonder if your appreciation of game theory was in any way influenced by the most recent developments, of the past two decades, in which game theory has become (as the sociologists would say) “performative,” through market design.

    In case they might be of interest, below are two links, the first to a non-technical paper written for economists, and the second to an easier to read Boston Globe article covering some of the same ground.  (My view is that we game theorists are better grounded than we used to be, or than might have been apparent even twenty years ago…)

    Here’s the survey article:
    Roth, Alvin E. "What have we learned from market design?" Hahn Lecture, Economic Journal, 118 (March), 2008, 285-310.

    And here’s the Globe story, from April 3, 2011:


    Al Roth
    this led to the following reply (and permission to publish it here)

    Dear Professor Roth,

    Thank you for introducing yourself.  

    One sign of being a science is having to write non-scientific communications of it.  My forays in the WSJ etc are merely shorter than the longer stuff.

    I suppose game theory from the first, and perhaps like all science these days, has practice implied in the theoretical statement.  But the goal is ambiguous in game theory.  Is it for the purpose of conflict resolution, as with T. Schelling, or is it to teach people to be more strategic, less moralistic, in their daily living?  Perhaps both, the latter as means to the former. But then you have the goal of a peacenik or a Buddhist and the manners of a calculator or a crook.

    I hope we meet sometime,

    Yours,  Harvey Mansfield
    I replied that one goal of market design is to produce institutions that make it easier for people to achieve their goals straightforwardly...

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011

    Unpaid Internships

    Bookforum has a thoughtful review by Roger Hodge of
    Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy by Ross Perlin

    "According to Ross Perlin, the author of Intern Nation, the rise of this relatively new employment category, which is taken for granted by everyone from the antiunion governor of Wisconsin to the managers of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, is a clear indication of the decline of labor rights in the United States.
    "The College Employment Research Institute estimates that 75 percent of college students do at least one internship before graduation. ...nowadays, interns are everywhere, in publishing, merchandising, insurance, finance, consulting, law, engineering, and the defense industry. It seems that most large corporations pay their interns, but the number of unpaid jobs in the economy is booming. ...Based on his reporting, Perlin estimates that one to two million Americans work as interns every year, though he suspects that this number might be on the low end. Most interns are students or recent graduates, and large numbers, perhaps 50 percent overall, work for free. Worse, many actually pay tuition for the privilege of working, as a result of the common misconception on the part of both universities and employers that the bestowal of academic credit somehow nullifies the strictures of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which prohibits uncompensated labor except under carefully defined circumstances. Academic programs, both undergraduate and graduate, have increasingly adopted the internship as a degree requirement. Such requirements foster an economy of scarcity among the most prestigious internship programs... Highly coveted internships at places like Vogue magazine have recently been auctioned off for as much as $42,500; Perlin notes the irony that this obscene sum was raised for the benefit of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Apparently, no one was troubled by the contradiction.
    "Unpaid internships function as a class filter, ensuring that the children of the affluent and well connected are overwhelmingly represented in our elite cultural institutions. In addition to politics and journalism, the internship model predominates in the art world, book publishing, Hollywood, television, the music business, and many other industries that were traditionally prolabor. Increasingly, even public school teachers, who do not enjoy particularly high wages or status in our society, work as “student teachers” before gaining permanent positions. The basic issue, which is well articulated by Perlin, is that offering or being compelled to work for free is a paradigmatic example of an unfair labor practice; it creates a toxic race to the bottom as ever more desperate workers compete with one another to drive wages down. The internship economy demonstrates that wages, like interest rates, are capable of dropping to less than zero.

    "Perlin recognizes that illegal, unpaid internships can lead to paying jobs. But to respond, as I might have before reading this vigorous and persuasive book, that working without pay for a few months can be an excellent investment is to miss the point. Although I no doubt made an economically rational decision many years ago to abandon my doctoral dissertation on Spinoza for an unpaid magazine internship, it would be far better if employment laws were strictly enforced and that valuable on-the-job training were available to those who don’t have a fellowship stipend or some other means of support. The fact that many individuals can point to significant career benefits from their investments in unpaid labor does not touch the larger argument from inequality."

    Monday, June 6, 2011

    Jack Kevorkian, 1928-2011

    I've written before about assisted suicide as a repugnant transaction. Some of the history of the debate in the United States is captured in the life of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, sometimes nicknamed "Dr.Death," who died on Friday.

    Dr. Jack Kevorkian Dies at 83; A Doctor Who Helped End Lives

    "Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the medical pathologist who willfully helped dozens of terminally ill people end their lives, becoming the central figure in a national drama surrounding assisted suicide, died on Friday in Royal Oak., Mich. He was 83."
    "In arguing for the right of the terminally ill to choose how they die, Dr. Kevorkian challenged social taboos about disease and dying while defying prosecutors and the courts. He spent eight years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the death of the last of about 130 ailing patients whose lives he had helped end, beginning in 1990."
    "His critics were as impassioned as his supporters, but all generally agreed that his stubborn and often intemperate advocacy of assisted suicide helped spur the growth of hospice care in the United States and made many doctors more sympathetic to those in severe pain and more willing to prescribe medication to relieve it.

    "In Oregon, where a schoolteacher had become Dr. Kevorkian’s first assisted suicide patient, state lawmakers in 1997 approved a statute making it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal medications to help terminally ill patients end their lives. In 2006 the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found that Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act protected assisted suicide as a legitimate medical practice."
    "In 1984, prompted by the growing number of executions in the United States, Dr. Kevorkian revisited his idea of giving death row inmates a choice. He was invited to brief members of the California Legislature on a bill that would enable prisoners to donate their organs and die by anesthesia instead of poison gas or the electric chair.

    "The experience was a turning point. Energized by the attention of lawmakers and the news media, he became involved in the growing national debate on dying with dignity. In 1987 he visited the Netherlands, where he studied techniques that allowed Dutch physicians to assist in the suicides of terminally ill patients without interference from the legal authorities.

    "A year later, he returned to Michigan and began advertising in Detroit-area newspapers for a new medical practice in what he called “bioethics and obiatry,” which would offer patients and their families “death counseling.” He made reporters aware of his intentions, explaining that he did not charge for his services and bore all the expenses of euthanasia himself.
    "He also talked about the “doctrine” he had developed to achieve two goals: ensuring the patient’s comfort and protecting himself against criminal conviction. He required patients to express clearly a wish to die. Family physicians and mental health professionals were consulted. Patients were given at least a month to consider their decision and possibly change their minds. Dr. Kevorkian videotaped interviews with patients, their families and their friends, and he videotaped the suicides, which he called medicides.

    "By his account, he assisted in some 130 suicides over the next eight years. Patients from across the country traveled to the Detroit region to seek his help. Sometimes the procedure was done in homes, cars and campgrounds.

    "Prosecutors, jurists, the State Legislature, the Michigan health authorities and Gov. John Engler seemed helpless to stop him, though they spent years trying. In 1991 a state judge, Alice Gilbert, issued a permanent injunction barring Dr. Kevorkian from using his suicide machine. The same year, the state suspended his license to practice medicine. In 1993, Michigan approved a statute outlawing assisted suicide. The statute was declared unlawful by a state judge and the state Court of Appeals, but in 1994 the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that assisting in a suicide, while not specifically prohibited by statute, was a common-law felony and that there was no protected right to suicide assistance under the state Constitution.

    "From May 1994 to June 1997, Dr. Kevorkian stood trial four times in the deaths of six patients. With the help of his young and flamboyant defense lawyer, Mr. Fieger, three of those trials ended in acquittals, and the fourth was declared a mistrial.

    "Mr. Fieger based his winning defense on the compassion and mercy that he said Dr. Kevorkian had shown his patients. Prosecutors felt differently. “He’s basically thumbed his nose at law enforcement, in part because he feels he has public support,” Richard Thompson, the prosecutor in Oakland County, Mich., told Time magazine in 1993.

    "But on March 26, 1999, after a trial that lasted less than two days, a Michigan jury found Dr. Kevorkian guilty of second-degree murder. That trial came six months after Dr. Kevorkian had videotaped himself injecting Thomas Youk, a patient suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), with the lethal drugs that caused Mr. Youk’s death on Sept. 17, 1998."

    Subsequent stories make clear that Dr. Kevorkian was a difficult ally of the 'death with dignity' movement that has mobilized e.g. for the Oregon laws on assisted suicide: A Polarizing Figure in End-of-Life Debates

    Sunday, June 5, 2011

    ec11: 12th ACM conference on electronic commerce, June 5-9

    Here is the program for the Electronic Commerce conference, June 5-9 in San Jose.
    Lots of econ, market design, and game theory.

    And here is the schedule of tutorials, including

    Monday, June 6, 2011, Half-Day Tutorial:, 8:30 - 11:20 AM
    T3: Matching and Market Design,
    Tutor: Itai Ashlaghi (MIT), Alvin Roth (Harvard University) and Fuhito Kojima (Stanford)

    Saturday, June 4, 2011

    Further followup on school choice in San Francisco

    My Thursday post, Followup on school choice in San Francisco, has generated some followup on its own, in the form of an audio interview yesterday of School Board member Rachel Norton by Stan Goldberg who follows the SF school system under the name Senior Dad.  He summarizes the interview as "Straight answers from Commissioner Norton “because people have a right to know”."

    The issue is whether the algorithm adopted by the board last year was in fact implemented correctly by the district staff. It's an important question because the correctly implemented algorithm would be strategy proof, and if parents had confidence in this it would vastly simplify the school choice system from parents' point of view.

    Here is my very incomplete and possibly imperfect transcript to give the flavor of the last 5 minutes of the interview (starting just after minute 39) in which Stan Goldberg (SG) raises this issue, and Rachel Norton (RN) replies. It's worth listening to.

    SG “The school district was supposed to release the algorithm they were assigning students on, and so far they have not released that algorithm.”

    RN “you’ve been reading Al Roth’s blog” ...“I’ve advocated for that, and will continue to advocate for that. I don’t think the staff right now wants to do that. [laughter] But short of 5 votes, 4 votes, they don’t have to.
    SG ‘why should the public trust the school district?  “I’ve had the deputy Superintendent say ‘you guys shouldn’t trust us, we haven’t been reliable’. He said that; I believed him.”

    RN “I don’t know what to tell you Sam, I think we should release the algorithm, and I’ve said that to staff, I’ve said that to the Superintendent”…short of 3 other board members joining with me and demanding that it be released the superintendent can do what he thinks is best,  unless he’s ordered by the board to do something else…”

    SG “not releasing the algorithm makes everybody think something funny is going on…”
    RN” well, not everyone…”

    Friday, June 3, 2011

    Privacy and Economics

    It appears that "privacy and economics" may be an emerging topic in computer science, to judge from a postdoc mentioned on a cs blog I follow:

    Differential Privacy Postdoc at UPenn

    "We are building a differential privacy group at UPenn! Below is the announcement for a postdoc position in the theory and practice of differential privacy. If you are a theorist who wants to actually put your contributions into practice as well, please apply.

    "There will be another announcement soon for another pure-theory postdoc position in the exciting new area of "privacy and economics". Stay tuned, and contact me if you are interested."