Posts Tagged ‘John Whitehead’

Picture of the Day: Rocket Science

September 22, 2010

Today’s picture is a tounge-in-cheek response to John Whitehead’s picture over at Env-Econ:


Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

September 10, 2010

After having it on my shelf for quite a while, I finally sat down and read Superfreakonomics; Levitt and Dubner’s follow-up to their bestselling book Freakonomics. Superfreakonomics is laid out much the same way as Freakonomics was, although less time is spent on declearing Levitt to be a genius.  However, with chapter titles as How is a street prostitute like a department-store santa?, Why should suicide bombers buy life insurance?, and What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?, the similarity to Freakonomics is unmistakeable. The similarity also makes Superfreakonomics feel like an act of duty more than a work of inspiration.

Just like John Whitehead, I enjoyed Freakonomics more than I did Superfreakonomics. I also agree with Whitehead that the highlight is the epilog on monkeys learning to use money. Levitt and Dubner do a great job, however, coming up with surprising conclusions:

This is a strange twist. Many of the best and brightest womenin the United States get an MBA so they can earn high wages, but they end up marrying the best and brightest men, who also earn high wages which affords these women the luxury of not having to work so much (p. 46).*

So, perhaps there’s more to getting an MBA than high wages? Bright men, for example. Next, do what you want to do:

Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. The people who become excellent at a given thing aren’t necessarily the same ones who seemed to be “gifted” at a young age. This suggest that when it comes to choosing a life path, people should do what they love […] because if you don’t love what you’re doing, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good at it (p. 61).

Partly beg to differ. I think many of those really good at something (like, world-class-good), at least has to begin practicing at an early age.

Other amusing and at times unsettling conclusions are that death rates in Los Angeles drop when doctors go on strike (p. 81), in Singapore they have the the Manitenance of Parents Act (p. 106), economists believe more in theory than in the real world (“Sure, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”, p. 115), the Endangered Species Act endanger rather than protect species (p. 139), buying locally produced food increases greenhouse-gas emissions (p. 167), and the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion (p. 169).

Perhaps the most controversial part of the book is the chapter on global warming, where Levitt and Dubner embrace geoengineering as the short-term solution. The noise around the chapter was seemingly so annoying to someone that critical posts on the Freakonomics blog were removed (see here, for example). Among the disturbing claims Levitt and Dubner provide is that climate scientists ‘turn their knobs’ such that their model do not provide outlier estimates, because an outlier model is hard to get funded. The economic reality of research funding generate a scientific consensus, rather than independent research (p. 182). The claim ressonates with a seminar I recently attended. The seminar was given by a Danish climate scientist who were concerned that the famous hockey stick graph, hailed as the undisputable proof of man-made climate change, resulted from lack of data, inappropriate methods, and an assumed stable temperature prior to the industiral revolution. The discussion in Superfreakonomics do, however, seem fairly balanced in places, see for example the discussion on page 199.

I would recommend Superfreakonomics to anyone unfamiliar with Freakonomics, but, honestly, it’s a Freakonomics 2, and not any more super than it’s predecessor, which is, notwithstanding, quite superb. Superfreakonomics is perhaps an easier read (or I’ve become a better and quicker reader), but lacks a character like Sudhir Venkatesh.

* Page numbers refer to the Allen Lane UK edition.

Whitehead: It’s Time to Get Moving

May 11, 2009

John Whitehead of Environmental Economics starts to grow tired of the ongoing debate in the U.S. over how to react to climate change and the need to do something about all the carbon in the atmosphere. He asks Is the house burning while we debate what type of extinguisher to use? :

Enough already.  It’s time to stop.  And start.


The academic debate over the minutae of CNT [cap’n’trade] or CT [carbon tax] misses the bigger point:  Both price carbon.  Sure they go about it in different ways and have different distributional properties and one may be more politically or socially or morally or religiously palatable than the other, but in the end they both do the same thing–put a price on the external costs of carbon-based consumption.


…I realize the debate is starting to hinder rather than help progress.  It’s time to get moving.

The Cost of Standby Computers

April 1, 2009

On Freakonomics, Daniel Hamermesh rebuff a claim that standby computers in the U.S. waste $2.8 billion on energy.

It ignores the cost of turning computers off — and having to turn them on again the next morning. Let’s say that process takes five minutes per day, and one does it 250 days per year. That’s 1,250 minutes, or more than 20 hours per person per year.

Assume the average computer user’s wage is $21 per hour, and take the old estimate that time is valued at one-third of the wage. So each person’s time per year turning his/her computer off and on is worth 20 x $7 = $140. I’m being conservative and assuming only 50 million U.S. computer users. That gives a cost of turning computers off/on of 50,000,000 x $140 = $7 billion, which is 2.5 times the alleged savings from turning computers off. Even if people’s time were valued at only $3 per hour (less than half the minimum wage), leaving computers on would still make sense.

This story is yet another example of environmental savings uber alles — that saving $1 in environmental damage is worth much greater costs incurred along other dimensions. These stories assume explicitly — or, more usually, implicitly — that people’s time has no value.

I read through some of the first comments, and every comment had problems with Hamermesh’s argument. Mostly, people claim they do other things while their computer starts up or closes down. Myself, I tend to do unecessary things while the computer starts up and would prefer to just start working.

The story also reminded me of an old post on Environmental Economics on an energy saving plan at the Appalachian State University, linking it to carbon release. Ol’ mighty John Whitehead mixes up the numbers, however (see the comments).

More Voodoo

February 25, 2009

I half-promised myself that I would quite ‘reporting’ on the voodoo-debate. I cannot help it, however; it reaches new levels all the time. The latest attack posted on Gristmill, an environmental blog, generated so hatefull comments that John Whitehead of Env-Econ didn’t want to post his own comment there:

I’m sorry to say I don’t have skin thick enough to comment over at Grist given the hate your post brewed up.

I understand John; here are some samples from the comment section on Gristmill:

economists are arrogant whores

Economics, a science? Don’t make me laugh. […] [E]conomics is about as much science as astrology. Listen to an economist sometime. They always pepper their comments with some kind of jingoistic pro-American boilerplate, usually to cover up the fact that they haven’t a clue about what they just said

Voodoo economics (it’s all a quack religion) and actual science do not mix.  They don’t even seem to understand math principles like exponential change.  Could they be turned into Walmart greeters?  Would Walmart want economists?  Doubtful.

Tim Haab, also of Env-Econ, took the time to sit down and write a brilliant reply to the attack from Gristmill. Some of the anger from the Greens is rooted in economists suggesting that combining green jobs and the stimulus package to the American economy is not necessarily a good idea. Tim:

 It seems odd that Roberts would accept suboptimal stimulus and suboptimal green jobs policy when economists are arguing for good stimulus and good green jobs policy.  As John has said many times–stimulus is short term, green jobs is long term.  Why put bad green jobs policy and bad stimulus in place when we could have both with a little patience and thought and dare I say economics.

And from the comment section (still Tim):

I think there are two different time dimensions. There is immediacy on stimulus and less urgency for green jobs. It’s this difference in time that leads me to urge patience on green jobs.

I can hear the argument 5 yeears from now:

Environmentalist: “OK, now that the recession in over, we can really tackle renewable energy.”

DC: “What do you mean? We threw $XX billion at it back in 2009 in the stimulus package(s). You got your piece.”

Environmentalist: “Yeah, but that wasn’t the right policy, it was just a band-aid.”

DC: “Shouldn’t you have thought about that then?”

Economist: “We did.”

I do, as the commenter Patrick Walsh, find comfort in that economists seem to act most like adults in the debate:

I am comforted by the fact that the response to the attack on [Environmental Economics] has been economists trying to paint the full picture and fill in the details. I have not yet seen a counterattack, where economists bash enviros. This optimistic observation provides hope that there is significant room for collaboration, in the spirit of Tim Haab’s original post.

Related posts:

Replication in Economics

February 23, 2009

Despite the voodoo noise, a different and lot more interesting debate about replication in economics has started on Environmental Economics. The debate on Env-Econ is a response to a post on Market Movers, which opens like this:

Falsifiability and replicability are key cornerstones of any academic research. If you’re running an empirical study, and your results aren’t replicable, your study is largely worthless.

First of all, the claim that falsifiability is a key cornerstone of academic research is simply not true, or at least not agreed upon. I understand falsifiability in the Popperian sense:

For Popper, a theory is scientific only if it is refutable by a conceivable event. Every genuine test of a scientific theory, then, is logically an attempt to refute or to falsify it, and one genuine counter-instance falsifies the whole theory.

(Read more about Popper and his ideas at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Popper’s philosophy of science has been subject to extended debates. Thomas Kuhn, for example, claims that science consist of problem solving within a paradigm, and that paradigms change through scientific revolutions. In particular, Kuhn did not think that a statement had to be falsifiable to be scientific, as Popper did.

I am more willing to agree on the importance of replication. In the hard sciences like physics and chemistry, replication was truly important and researchers (ideally) remained sceptic towards new results until they had been replicated independently from the initial study. Since most research in physics and chemistry are conducted in laboratories, controlled experiments could fairly easily be replicated and results compared.

In economics, however, only recently have researchers started to conduct controlled experiments in laboratories. Tim Haab writes (On replicability in economics and the validation of models)

With economics models, at least until recently, we don’t have labs.  We are working with real observations from highly complex systems.  As such, we are forced to rely on modeling by assumption and measurement through statistical force rather than isolated direct observation.  This makes external validation of economic models extremely difficult.

This is changing over the past decade or so with the advent of experimental economics research in which researchers are testing fundamental economic results in a controlled setting.  Unfortunately, these experiments often suffer from over control which makes generalizability and practical applicability of laboratory results difficult at best. […]

To me, lack of replicability is not a condemnation of economics as a field, rather a challenge to the field to continue the unending pursuit of defensibility.

As Tim also points out, the post on Market Movers is primarily concerned with duplication of results (instead of independent replication), which requires the same data set and statistical tools. Such research is quite rare in economics, and it has different reasons (see Tim’s post). What is more common in economics, however, is that researchers collect their own data and see if they can find the same kind of conclusions as those available in the literature. John Whitehead puts it like this:

Why bother with replication with someone else’s data when you can publish your own study with your own data? The only time you ask for someone else’s data is if you really think they’ve made a horrible mistake or if you have an ax to grind.

However, I do agree with Market Movers that in general, replication and duplication is more important than what it seems to be in academia today.

Hat-tip: Env-Econ

Do economists help fight climate change?

January 12, 2009

This post (from Joseph Romm) on Climate Progress asks what economists brings to the table when it comes to fight climate change (in a rather rude way, I must say). I think the entire post is ‘under the belt’ with a lot of claims that are not justified. Romm touches on both the green jobs debate (more here) and the use of cost-benefit analysis when it comes to climate issues. Anyway, Joseph Romm’s post has ignited debate over on Environmental Economics:

Joseph Romm is not done yet, however; Voodoo economists, Part 2 (and more is coming our way). John Whitehead has no comment.

I don’t know if Joseph Romm is drawing himself, but he lets a very funny cartoon acompany his initial post; I just had to include it myself:


UPDATE: More comments to Mr. Romm:

Hattip: Env-econ

Academic families

January 9, 2009

The quote below is from this post on the Environmental Economics blog. The post is written by John Whitehead and even though it is written in a humoristic tone, it does illustrate a little bit of how life often is in academia and how relationships form. (As far as I know it, at least. Remember; I’m only a naive, grad student still.)

Personal Note: George Tolley was the dissertation chair of my dissertation chair which makes him sort-of like my academic grandfather. Also, as editor of Resource and Energy Economics, he accepted one of my and Glenn Blomquist’s (Tolley’s student, my disseration chair) papers that got unfairly beaten up pretty dang good at the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. I’ve never forgiven AJAE (I’ve only sent them one other paper and it was, er, rejected … yet, this year I’m on the AJAE top paper award committee [go figure]) and I’ve been ever grateful to Tolley.

John Whitehead on the bailout

September 30, 2008

From a post by John Whitehead on the Environmental Economics blog:

The […] problem is that the bailout reveals that free markets don’t really work well, at least in the sense that free markets won’t lead to an avoidance of booms and busts. If unregulated free markets don’t really work in the one place where they might, finance, then how are they expected to work well to solve environmental problems and allocate health care efficiently? My opinion is that financial, environmental and health care markets can be nudged toward efficiency with a little bit of regulation.

Of course, such a statement stirs discussion; the comment section to the post is quite interesting and even funny. John Whitehead is a professor of economics at the Appalachian State University. He is also one of the people behind the Environmental Economics blog.