sometimes the dismal science just gets you down

Hi everyone! With all this discussion of incentives going on, or something, Jeremy lent me the keys to bring in a view from the economics (and/or non-academic) side of things.

If I were offered the chance to eliminate forever one influence of Econ 101 reasoning from the popular discourse, it would be hard to resist the temptation to spare the world justifications of various policies based on reverse Mary Poppins incentive arguments. That is, there must be a spoonful of medicine to keep peoples’ mitts out of various sugar bowls. [*]

Apart from the one being a joke and one not, there’s not much difference in logic between:

Threatening to slicing off a bit of someone’s toe provides an incentive to stay away from Coldstone Creamery and promotes a healthy diet,


Threatening cervical cancer provides an incentive to stay away from premarital sex and promotes chastity;

the latter being an actual argument floated in some parts of Greater Wingnuttia against vaccination for HPV. [**] The particular annoyance, I suppose, is that the incentive arrangement is often irrelevant in these cases; the religious right may well oppose STD vaccination even if they couldn’t try to argue that it would make society sluttier. This separates these from ordinary disincentive cases such as taxing gasoline to align private and social costs of driving or threatening would-be criminals with time in the slammer.


[*] Why yes, I did recently watch Mary Poppins with the kids.

[**] As policies, these would likely fail for different reasons. The former is effective-looking but lacks a commitment mechanism for people who don’t have professional torturers shadowing them during Coldstone Creamery’s business hours [***]. The latter is likely to suffer from some combination of bounded rationality and imperfect information.

[***] Why yes, I am reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, an account of the adventures of a journeyman torturer in a far-future dystopia.

jeremy’s annual asa genderwatch

So, you know I’m having trouble sleeping when it’s past 3am and I think, “I haven’t read Footnotes in awhile.” (Footnotes is the American Sociological Association newsletter.) I see the election slate for 2008 has been announced. We are now two years removed from the curious turn of events where ASA followed up the sweep of top six ASA positions by women in 2005 with the mysterious nomination of only men for top positions in 2006 [see coverage on my old blog here and here]. Last year, the gender preference of the electorate was not undemocratically precluded, and the outcome was 13 women vs. 5 men for the top 18 posts. This year, the nominations seem like they’ve gone farther to just enact the electorate’s preference at the outset, as the nominee count is 26 women versus 10 men. My prediction is that it will end up 14-4, with the male victories including one seat on Council and one on Publications. I think the 18-0 full gynosweep that ASA election observers have been waiting for is still 7-10 years away.

pointless activity #725: nsf 2-page cvs

Three colleagues and I are putting the final touches on an NSF grant, due Tuesday, and one of today’s tasks is to produce the 2-page version of our CVs.  The format of the two pager is laid out in the Grant Proposal Guide, and is longer in words than most of these “biographical sketches” will be.   It starts with a long list of things to NOT list and then goes on to enumerate what MUST be included.  The NOT list are things that are “irrelevant to the merits of the proposal.”  Of course, if you ask me, the very first thing on the MUST list is irrelevant as well: Continue reading “pointless activity #725: nsf 2-page cvs”

we have stars, they have punctuation.

The other day Omar and I were listening to an NPR segment reporting that leading economists were predicting a 50/50 chance of a recession in 2008. We immediately turned to one another and asked where our careers would be heading if we made a habit out of predicting 50/50 chances of anything. Continue reading “we have stars, they have punctuation.”

dieting for altruists

So, you and your friends care about each other. You are trying to harness that fondness to get off those holiday pounds. People say nothing is stronger than The Power Of Love, after all. What to do? A certain friend recently proposed the following to a group of close pals:

Is there anything you are trying not to eat? Fried pickles? Buffalo wings? Whole Food’s truffles? Our agreement would be that anytime you eat something you are not supposed to, the others of us have to eat whatever it is we are trying to avoid. If [friend A] eats a fistful of Chick-o-Sticks, for example, then I have to eat a pice of chocolate cake. Do you see how it works? I don’t want [friend B] o have to go to KFC, so I will avoid Peanut Butter Patties. Instead of just a normal pact between us, digressions would actually hurt the other people involved.

Her friends are skeptical that this wouldn’t actually motivate them. Instead Continue reading “dieting for altruists”