Monthly Archives: April 2014

RIP Seth Roberts

seth-roberts-headshot-colorNews came today that Seth Roberts, the UC Berkeley professor of psychology, collapsed during a hike near his home. I met Seth through our respective blogs and shared a few meals with him in the Bay Area over the years.

I’ve blogged about him several times. Seth taught me about self-experimentation and science. He taught me about nutrition and fish oil. He taught me about innovation and creative thinking.  Most importantly, he taught me the value of appreciative thinking, which I once summarized thusly:

School teaches us to be proactively skeptical and critical. We’re taught to immediately look for the flaws in experiments or theories. An appreciative approach, by contrast, simply asks, “What’s redeeming about this experiment or idea? What’s done right?”

Some VCs are naturally appreciative, others naturally critical. After an entrepreneur pitch their first feedback will either be, “OK, here’s what I like about what you’re doing” versus “Here’s where I think the problems are.”

I am trying to take a more appreciative approach to people. When I meet someone new at a cocktail party, I am trying to ask myself more regularly, “What’s cool / impressive / interesting about this person?” as opposed to dwelling on their imperfections.

Like many who knew him or read his stuff, I’ll miss Seth. He was a one-of-a-kind thinker. And a deeply compassionate person.

Book Review: Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh

For those of us for whom “vice” equals sending text messages while driving over the speed limit on a freeway, there’s a natural curiosity about the dark side of society — curiosity about what happens after hours, in seedy neighborhoods, among those whose livelihoods depend on breaking the law. Hookers. Drug dealers. Loan shark frauds. The curiosity begins with complete ignorance about the practical realities. For example, if I wanted to buy cocaine in San Francisco, I have no idea where I’d even start. I don’t want to, but I’m still curious about the process and the people. Who controls a given block? Who are the pimps and how do they recruit the hookers? Where and how do the bosses keep their cash?

This curiosity partially explains why so many of us are glued to TV shows like The Wire — it opens up a side of urban American life that’s as foreign as Beijing to someone like me. And yet, despite several of these shows on the air, it was still a total shock to find out a couple weeks ago — via an FBI affidavit — that just a few miles away, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, there is serious organized crime going on, with state politicians trafficking guns across the border, gang leaders ordering hits on enemies down the block, briefcases of cash being delivered to drug kingpins in dark alleyways, and other allegations pulled straight out of Hollywood bang-bang-shoot-em-up central casting. This stuff is happening right here, right now, just across the way. And I am utterly ignorant of all of it.

51crPRZL9JLA few years ago, a University of Chicago sociologist named Sudhir Venkatesh made waves by integrating himself into the Chicago gang scene. Now, in his latest book called Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy, he integrates himself into New York’s sex trade. He meets people in the ecosystem, somehow earns their trust, follows them around, and writes about what he sees.

It’s an interesting book, and I had a couple broad impressions. First, there’s a fluid connection between the underground economy and the above-board economy in a given city–the hookers who sleep with Goldman Sachs managers; the hotel maids cleaning the semen-stained beds who owe their immigration status to a Yale finance graduate who runs an immigration smuggling ring; the drug dealers who cut deals with cops in order to make sure the Wall Street trader is hyped up enough to want to order the full menu from the prostitute; and so on. This overground/underground relationship is best understood in network terms, with distributed nodes and a constantly shifting structure. A second big picture impression was about the nature of global cities like New York, where the desperately poor interact with the exceptionally wealthy in such varied off-the-books ways. These mega diverse American cities play host to a recent immigrant’s quest for the American dream, a quest that oftentimes is financed by an “alternative economic path” that should be framed, Venkatesh reminds us, in more complex terms than just by the laws they transgress.

Venkatesh writes that “good sociology is always a mixture of close focus and long shot. You dial in and pull back, dial in and pull back, a delicate dance over the data gaps.” The book’s highlights come more in the form of colorful nuggets (“dial in”) than scintillating sociological conclusions (“pull back”). It may seem surprising, for example, that after spending so much time with prostitutes Venkatesh failed to discuss the question of whether prostitution should be legalized in the U.S. But I, for one, am glad he didn’t. Isn’t it more interesting to find out that hotel bellmen and taxi hailers get kickbacks in the form of free sex with the prostitutes to whom they refer a lot business?

Venkatesh himself is definitely part of the book. Plenty of sentences begin with “I.” Other reviewers have criticized this aspect of the narrative. Perhaps I’m more interested than most in the internal machinations of an academic sociologist spending his days surrounded by hookers and drug dealers and trying to write a book through it all and, surprise surprise, whose own marriage is falling apart in the process — so I didn’t mind the authorial interjections. It does add a dark tone to the book. But it makes the author’s own sympathy for his subjects feel authentic. And that sympathy is contagious. I came away feeling more understanding of the need for many of the people in the book to hustle their way to a living–to create a better life than the impoverished environment they were born into.

(Thanks to Aaron Hurst for sending the book to me.)

Is Employee Job Tenure Really Shortening? (Yes, It Is)

Catherine Rampell, writing in the Washington Post, says churn in companies is down:

The share of people getting laid off each month — as well as, more disturbingly, the shares getting hired and quitting their jobs — is near record lows. That’s according to Labor Department data released this weekand calculations from John Haltiwanger, an economist at the University of Maryland. Haltiwanger estimates that private-sector layoffs, hires and resignations are 21 percent to 26 percent below their rates two decades ago.

But is it true? It seems counterintuitive. The new Five Thirty Eight helpfully digs into the tenure data:

The median “tenure” of a worker — how long the typical worker has been with the same employer — rose by 14 percent between 1983 and 2006, to four years from 3.5. When the recession hit, the trend accelerated, with median tenure hitting 4.4 years in 2010 and 4.6 years in 2012. As counterintuitive narratives go, it would be hard to beat, “Job security continues to rise.” …

But when you look closer, it becomes clear that this counterintuitive narrative is counterintuitive for a reason. The Labor Department’s data on tenure look only at people who are employed. That means that if a large number of recent hires lose their jobs at once — as tends to happen when a recession hits — median tenure will rise, even though people aren’t staying in their jobs for longer.

The prerecession trend of increased tenure turns out to be equally misleading in a different way. There are two major forces at work. The first is age: Older workers are more likely to have been in their jobs for longer, so the gradual aging of the U.S. population has pushed up workers’ average tenure. The second is the entrance of women into the workforce and, particularly, into career-track jobs. In 1983, the average woman had been with her employer a year less than the average man; 30 years later, their average tenures are nearly equal. If we set aside those factors and focus just on men in their prime working years, there was a decline in tenure in the years before the recession. This is one case where conventional wisdom holds up.

Of course, the correct, conventional wisdom of shortening employee tenure is even more apparent when you’re looking at high skilled workers in dynamic industries.

My Favorite Podcast: The Always-Enlightening EconTalk

listening-to-mp3Audiobooks and podcasts are handy when you’re on-the-go–while in the car as driver or passenger, sitting in an airplane (especially during meal time), or walking around outside. Both formats are experiencing a renaissance: audiobook sales are booming, and, more anecdotally, I’m told podcast listenership and ad rates are up across the board.

The comparative advantage of podcasts over audiobooks is that they are short and self-contained, so unlike in a book, you needn’t remember where in a long narrative you left off. If you drive or fly every day, or have an especially long one-off drive or flight, an audiobook makes sense. Otherwise, I prefer podcasts.

I subscribe to several. The HBR Idea Cast delivers informative 15 minute segments on important business themes. Dan Savage’s Savage LoveCast is frequently hilarious and wise on all things love and sex. Longform has interviews with interesting writers.

But the best podcast I subscribe to is EconTalk. It really is a central part of my continuing education. Russ is a first rate host and moderator, and his guests are distinguished in their fields. The topics run the gamut–sometimes Russ pairs a fundamental economic framework with a timely issue of the day, other times the topic is completely random. Almost always I leave feeling enlightened and entertained.

One podcast tip: if a guest is speaking slowly, change the speed on your audioplayer to 1.5x, and you’ll finish an hour-long podcast in no time.

Here are a dozen of my favorite episodes from the EconTalk archives.

Nina Munk on the Millennium Villages Project

Nina Munk, journalist and author of The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about her book. Munk spent six years following Jeffrey Sachs and the evolution of the Millennium Villages Project–an attempt to jumpstart a set of African villages in hopes of discovering a new template for development. Munk details the great optimism at the beginning of the project and the discouraging results after six years of high levels of aid. Sach’s story is one of the great lessons in unintended consequences and the complexity of the development process.

Jeff Sachs Responds on the Millennium Villages Project

Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and the Millennium Villages Project talks with EconTalk host about poverty in Africa and the efforts of the Millennium Villages Project to fight hunger, disease, and illiteracy. The project tries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in a set of poor African villages using an integrated strategy fighting hunger, poverty, and disease. In this lively conversation, Sachs argues that this approach has achieved great success so far and responds to criticisms from development economists and Nina Munk in her recent EconTalk interview.

Jonathan Haidt on How Morality Binds and Blinds

Jonathan Haidt of New York University and author of The Righteous Mind talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book, the nature of human nature, and how our brain affects our morality and politics. Haidt argues that reason often serves our emotions rather than the mind being in charge. We can be less interested in the truth and more interested in finding facts and stories that fit preconceived narratives and ideology. We are genetically predisposed to work with each other rather than being purely self-interested and our genes influence our morality and ideology as well. Haidt tries to understand why people come to different visions of morality and politics and how we might understand each other despite those differences.

Michael Munger on Violence in Sports

Michael Munger of Duke University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the role of formal rules and informal rules in sports. Many sports restrain violence and retaliation through formal rules while in others, protective equipment is used to reduce injury. In all sports, codes of conduct emerge to deal with violence and unobserved violations of formal rules. Munger explores the interaction of these forces across different sports and how they relate to insights of Coase and Hayek.

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers on Happiness and Money Being Correlated

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, of the University of Michigan talk with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about their work on the relationship between income and happiness. They argue that there is a positive relationship over time and across countries between income and self-reported measures of happiness. The second part of the conversation looks at the recent controversy surrounding work by Reinhart and Rogoff on the relationship between debt and growth. Stevenson and Wolfers give their take on the controversy and the lessons for economists and policy-makers. This conversation was recorded shortly before Betsey Stevenson was nominated to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Dan Pallotta on The Idiocy of Measuring Non-Profits by Their Overhead

Dan Pallotta, Chief Humanity Officer of Advertising for Humanity and author ofUncharitable talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in his book. Pallotta argues that charities are deeply handicapped by their culture and how we view them. The use of overhead as a measure of effectiveness makes it difficult for charities to attract the best talent, advertise, and invest for the future. Pallotta advocates a new culture for non-profits that takes the best aspects of the for-profit sector to enhance the mission and effectiveness of charities.

First of all, this focus on costs and this focus on overhead eliminates any conversation about impact. So, we’re not having a conversation about how effective the organization actually is at solving problems. So, who cares if the overhead is low if no problem is getting solved? And really, who cares if the overhead is high if the problem is getting solved, because ultimately we want the problem to get solved?

 

Kevin Kelly on Productivity in the Internet Age

Kevin Kelly talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about measuring productivity in the internet age and recent claims that the U.S. economy has entered a prolonged period of stagnation. Then the conversation turns to the potential of robots to change the quality of our daily lives.

Gary Taubes on Why We Get Fat (Low Carbs)

Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, talks with EconTalk host Russ Robertsabout why we get fat and the nature of evidence in a complex system. The current mainstream view is that we get fat because we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. Taubes challenges this seemingly uncontroversial argument with a number of empirical observations, arguing instead that excessive carbohydrate consumption causes obesity. In this conversation he explains how your body reacts to carbohydrates and explains why the mainstream argument of “calories in/calories out” is inadequate for explaining obesity. He also discusses the history of the idea of carbohydrates’ importance tracing it back to German and Austrian nutritionists whose work was ignored after WWII. Roberts ties the discussion to other emergent, complex phenomena such as the economy. The conversation closes with a discussion of the risks of confirmation bias and cherry-picking data to suit one’s pet hypotheses.

Richard Burkhauser on the Trickiness of Measuring the Middle Class

Richard Burkhauser of Cornell University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the state of the middle class. Drawing on recently published papers, Burkhauser shows that changes in the standard of living of the middle class and other parts of the income distribution are extremely sensitive to various assumptions about how income is defined as well as whether you look at tax units or households. He shows that under one set of assumptions, there has been no change in median income, but under a different and equally reasonable set of assumptions, median income has grown 36%. Burkhauser explains how different assumptions can lead to such different results and argues that the assumptions that lead to the larger growth figure are more appropriate for capturing what has happened over the last 40 years than those that suggest stagnation.

David Weinberger on How Knowledge Has Changed in the Age of the Internet

David Weinberger of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of Too Big to Know, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in the book–how knowledge and data and our understanding of the world around us are being changed by the internet. Weinberger discusses knowledge and how it is attained have changed over time, particularly with the advent of the internet. He argues the internet has dispersed the power of authority and expertise. And he discusses whether the internet is making us smarter or stupider, and the costs and benefits of being able to tailor information to one’s own interests and biases.

Alain de Botton on the Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Author Alain de Botton talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. How has the nature of work changed with the increase in specialization? Why is the search for meaningful work a modern phenomenon? Has the change in the workplace changed parenting? Why does technology become invisible? These are some of the questions discussed by de Botton in a wide-ranging discussion of the modern workplace and the modern worker.

Adam Davidson on Manufacturing in America

Adam Davidson of NPR’s Planet Money talks with EconTalk host Russ Robertsabout manufacturing. Based on an article Davidson wrote for The Atlantic, the conversation looks at the past, present, and future of manufacturing. Davidson visited an after-market auto parts factory in Greenville, South Carolina and talked with employees there as well as with executives at corporate headquarters. What is the future of factory work in America? Why are some manufacturing jobs in America while others are in China or elsewhere? The conversation looks at these questions as well as how well or poorly the U.S. education system prepares students for the world of work.

Dani Rodrik on Productivity and Globalization

Dani Rodrik of Harvard University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about trade, the labor market, and trade policy. Drawing on a recent paper with Margaret McMillan on trade and productivity, Rodrik argues that countries have very differing abilities to respond to increases in productivity that allow production to expand using fewer workers in a particular sector. When workers are displaced by productivity increases, what is their next best alternative? Rodrik discusses how this varies across countries and policies that might improve matters. He argues that poor countries should subsidize new products as a way of overcoming uncertainty and externalities from new ventures.