And it’s called north

There is a restaurant in Providence that means an awful lot to me in a lot of different ways. It’s not a secret, it’s north. The place is long since famous, to whatever degree that means here in wee Rhode Island, and critically acclaimed to the maximum. I’m not treading new ground here, is what I mean, and anyway I’m not here to, god forbid, recommend where a person should go eat.

I keep starting and abandoning writing something about north—it always starts to feel a bit over the top, more earnest than I really mean, so I just give up and I think, it’s just a place you like to eat, you know? And what’s the sense in getting weird with that? But it’s an itch I can’t scratch and as I said there’s something about it all that I don’t know what it is, so here we are. I’m not the only one who feels that way about the place, not even the only one I know.

So what’s the deal?

north opened in 2012, when I was in the middle of living mostly in Toronto but still a lot in Providence, where my partner lived. I was constantly getting seriously worked up about border crossings and immigration rules and sort of still mourning having to have uprooted from Providence in the first place but not getting over it because I was back every other week. It was a tricky time. Lots of people have similar stories after grad school because you’ve got a proper grown-up life in a city and then you have to take a job wherever you get it. But that’s a story for another day.

I don’t remember when I first went to north, but right away it became weirdly tied in to my relationship with the city. I’d go “home” and see my friends and go there with them, the tiny, welcoming, happy place. So it was an important place to keep me sane and grounded when other things were so uncertain and contingent. But beyond that, right from the beginning it was just obviously the best. It sounds so cheap to say that it was fucking delicious but of course it was, and the drinks were great, and it was always maybe going to be exactly what you expected or maybe something weird would be going on. It was the best combination of extremely high quality and extremely loose.

[ Interlude for a requiem for the country ham… how long did it stay on the menu? It looked like a real pain in the ass to prepare but hey we always ordered it because it was damn good while it lasted. Also can we do a requiem here for the booze slushie machine, R.I.P. ]

By 2013 we were evangelizing, which I know because I looked it up in my email just now, and this probably seems like the moment to say I have dragged a lot of people to north over the years and everyone has loved it, so there. They all loved it even after however long waiting for the table, which was one hundred percent an important feature, because I can’t imagine what it would have been like with reservations. Anticipation with a bit of uncertainty.

We’re now I think up to two ways so far that north changed the way I think about stuff. It made me rethink how things taste, because I didn’t know that things could taste like several of the many ways things tasted there. It made me rethink going out to eat, because I saw the value of no reservations and the waiting and the way that everyone being happy to be there elevated everything else.

In 2015 I moved back to Providence full time. I finally got some stability and it was quite a relief. It turned out that I still wanted to go to north all the damn time, so it was never just about the dislocation thing. I’m extremely lucky that I could and can afford to eat there regularly, and that I had friends who wanted to do the same. When we’d want to get together and go somewhere, it was always north. A couple drinks across the street waiting for the table, family style so everyone can eat however much they want and actually share a meal like share a meal, and a tiny space that always felt easygoing. Oh, and the tiny ham biscuits, oh god.

When I travel somewhere I’ve never been before I think about where I want to eat differently now too. I think about it a lot more, for one. And north definitely had a part in that too, because it made me want to find similarly joyful spots on the road. I love seeking out places and north elevated my awareness and, I think, my taste too. I feel like I’m getting a better knack for guessing a place’s vibe from clues and telltale signs and I’m always thinking now about how a hundred structural choices ultimately manifest as a feeling. Maybe with a bit of alchemy. Integrity and daring, trust and talent.

Pause here for the Falling Sakura (when did it show up on the menu? Somewhere around here?), a cocktail so perfect and smart that I am jealous as hell that I didn’t think of it, but how could I when the ingenuity and the work is in the time, as ever the hardest corner to cut, in the ingredient that gives it its name.

I’ve taken seminar speakers and job candidates to north now too. What better way is there to show off weird little Providence than a restaurant that seems so clearly Rhode Island but is just as hard to define? It’s a risk, I suppose, not just in the obvious ways but also because I get so weirdly protective of the place that if I thought they didn’t like it I’d never look at them the same way again. They like it, though, or at least they see the look in my eye.

In 2017 it was me in a period of rest in Providence and north itself that was on the move. The last couple of visits to the old place were especially joyous and if memory serves we even might have taken a couple of photos of ourselves to commemorate the end of a little era. Not the end, of course, of north, which is old and new and still changing all the time at the new location, like seeing your cool friend in a well-tailored grown-up suit for the first time, and not the end of the old space, now big king, which I am as of this moment extremely impatient to try as soon as possible. But a nice little ending of something or other.

By then we’d seen exciting collaborative dinners, whole fried fish heads, countless bowls of dan dan noodles, and every vegetable under the Rhode Island sun elevated to high art. We never got tired of any of it, not a bit. By then we knew—from public stances and statements—that we were supporting a place that cared and shared about the hidden sides of the business, wages, diversity, symbiosis with the community and the supply chain, dialogue with customers. Is it just ex post reasoning to think that maybe we could tell all along?

I guess after all that it’s just my favorite place to eat, but I don’t think that’s a small thing. I’ve been glad it’s there ever since visit number one. I did a bad job just now of explaining myself and I think it might be because I don’t really know. As I said at the top, north is not an establishment short of fans. You may agree by this point that I am worryingly attached to it. I’m choosing for now to be OK with that because it’s fun to celebrate something once in a while and it might as well be something awesome. north has been there for me for nigh on six years now and I’ll be there for it too, damn it.

Kindness in the economics profession

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Economics Twitter spent some of the past week reacting to a new paper reporting survey results on how economists evaluate peers’ publication lists. Here’s a description of the results from the authors:

highlights

I’m not here to stop anyone from evaluating publication lists however they see fit. There have definitely been some snotty responses on Twitter that of course this is the right way to judge the publications of others, and that wouldn’t it be good if other disciplines did the same. I find that a little tactless and bratty, but fair enough. If you feel like you want a mechanism to sort your peers and you feel like this is the right one, knock yourself out. Maybe be a little more tactful about it, but okay.

Another class of response has been much gentler: not all strands of research pan out or are super groundbreaking, but they may still be worth publishing somewhere rather than being trashed. This is arguing against the attitude in the survey and against the kind of incentives those attitudes might generate. In a similar spirit lots of folks have been making good sport out of pointing out examples of ultra-influential papers outside of the “top” journals.

These seem a lot kinder in spirit than the “yeah, so?”, but they still make me a bit uncomfortable. The problem here isn’t merely that some not-so-brilliant research is buried or that some not-immediately-influential research upends the conclusion. To my ears the problem here is the erasure of vast numbers of hard-working economists.

The majority of professional economists don’t publish regularly or at all in “top” journals. There are countless reasons why some economists may not be willing or able to conduct research that will be accepted there. And being willing and able is in any case not enough to guarantee that it will happen. (For one thing, let’s recall another paper that had Economics Twitter buzzing recently on the importance of social ties in the publication process.)

Are the people who happily brag about their distaste for research outside of “top” journals ignorant or cruel? I take for granted that they do not consider someone a true colleague if they are not “good enough”, but what I do not easily understand is whether they don’t comprehend what they are implying or if they don’t care.

Pages in “top” journals are finite and the number of Ph.D. economists grows. How can you ask for nothing but “top” publications and sustain the industry as it is now? You cannot. If economists whose job requires research output refuse to publish outside of the “top” journals, they will lose their jobs. If instead they continue to publish outside of the “top” journals, then not one of their colleagues should treat them unkindly for it. Naturally there is a role for systems to identify great, broadly interesting research, and naturally such a system tends towards elitism, with all the pros and cons that implies. But it needn’t be toxic.

Once again: I’m not the thought police, and it is your right to look down on others if you want. But my advice, if you want it, is to shut up about it. I’ve argued before that economics is structurally not very good at supporting the average economist, and this is another manifestation of that.

If all economists who were not willing, not able, or not lucky enough to place research in a “top” journal were to leave the profession, what would you have? The graduate students you rely on, the citations you covet, the undergraduate enrollments you are enriched by, and the textbook royalties you enjoy would disappear with them. May you get what you wish for.

Efficient outrage

Matt Damon put yet another foot in his already quite full mouth this week. In an interview with ABC, he was invited to discuss the reckoning of sexual harassment and assault in his and other industries. He decided, for some reason, to go to bat for the idea that not enough is being made of what he perceives as a gradation of harm across different manifestations of workplace misogyny. Implicit is an attack on those who would advocate swift and severe punishment for what Damon would have us believe are minor sins.

I want to make the case that textbook economic theory will firmly reject Damon’s line of reasoning. Outrage of the type that Damon describes is more than justified, it is efficient. The market and the law don’t have the tools to reckon with the full, true cost of misogyny. This market failure makes for fertile soil for institutions that force perpetrators and enablers to internalize some of those costs. Outrage-of-the-day culture invites a lot of criticism from those looking to score a cool, contrarian take, but it is smart economics.

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The pedagogy of parameters

A difficult thing that I ask my students to do is to parameterize everything.

The ideas that my game theorists come up with for applied theory projects are uniformly great. The puzzles they want to study are rich with potential, and many are easily original enough to be of publishable grade.

Compared to coming up with ideas, kicking it up a notch into something that looks like an economics paper is much harder. There are two main hurdles:

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Soliciting strategies

I once was a research assistant on a project that called on participants in an experiment to make a decision that depended on the expected value of a randomly drawn object. The scenario and instructions were printed on a bit of paper and we asked players to put a checkmark next to their choice. So far, so good.

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Killing EJMR

For the last couple of weeks, the online economics community has been discussing and reacting to rampant misogyny on a website, Economics Job Market Rumors. A Justin Wolfers post to The Upshot at the New York Times reported on research by Alice Wu that laid bare the ugly, shocking language used to describe women on the website.

I recommend this post by Emily Eisner, Fiona Burlig and Aluma Dembo for a brief overview of recent research on gender inequality and discrimination in economics. Beatrice Cherrier’s post on the topic is rich and thoughtful.

The context of this discussion is that women are unacceptably underrepresented at all levels of the economics profession (source):

pipeline.png

Our profession, our work, and our image suffer from being male-dominated. EJMR is both a disease unto itself, and a symptom of a sick discipline.

Killing EJMR

One: the supply of bullying and bile on this anonymous forum must be stopped. A minimally moderated website dominated by lowest forms of vulgar misogyny cannot continue to be a significant institution in economics. And no, I do not want to hear it that EJMR is “just another” facet of tantrum-and-harassment masculinity on the internet. Don’t even say that. It makes you look like you are grasping for excuses.

Two: the sexist culture of the profession must be changed. Even if EJMR as it is now is mercifully destroyed, the rot is deeper. Smarter people than me have been fighting for women in economics for decades. We all must promote a culture that allows all people to succeed. This means confronting and shutting down “locker room talk” in any setting, including private conversation. It means reflecting on the structure of our institutions, from our classes to our schools to our professional associations, to promote diversity. It means mentoring women at all stages.

In no way am I looking to deflect from, minimize, or excuse these top, difficult priorities. I view this as an urgent crisis.

But three: I think, though, that there is one more thing we could all be more conscious of: what can we do better to reduce the demand for EJMR, or whatever comes next?

The EJMR website has been an open and significant part of the experience of graduate students in economics for many years. It is anonymous and extremely lightly moderated, and it is known for sourness, cruelty, and bullying. As with any online community, there is a core user base who either enjoy participating in the vulgarity or are willing to overlook it. However, the site is also widely used by young economists desperate for scraps of information on the gauntlet of the academic job market.

A narrative is emerging in which there is undeniable value to EJMR that helps to explain its persistence as an institution in the economics profession. It’s a place, this narrative goes, where valuable and mostly accurate information flows that young economists want.

Has a school called to schedule interviews yet? What type of candidate are they looking for? Has a job offer gone out? Who to? Are they going to take it?

What journal should I submit to? Why haven’t I heard about my submission yet? Is my dissertation idea garbage? What kind of research are people laughing at?

The academic job market is an intensely stressful experience. It is hard to surrender agency over where you would like to live and work, to navigate dual career concerns with partners, to fly around the country on a shoestring budget, to have one’s work and worth judged over and again, to compete against hundreds of other talented and deserving people, to fear the derailment of a career before it can even properly begin. It is overwhelming.

I want to reject the narrative that EJMR is an inevitable, valuable salve for the understandable neuroses of the young academic. I think that there are concrete steps that individuals and institutions in the economics profession can take to mitigate the need for something like EJMR, not just clean it up.

Superstars and insecurity

EJMR, like so much else in the profession, caters to the elite. Its tone is dominated by the concerns and perspective of the “top schools” and their students. It belittles “low ranked” students and schools. It devours the perceived weak and shrouds itself in the excuse of “the market”. Like a person who treats waitstaff as subhuman, it is a callous manifestation of the insecurity of the wannabe who feels that they must display their superiority by belittling others.

Of course people want to gossip about the “stars” of the market and to know where the “best” research is coming from. Page Six prints gossip about celebrities, not little people. Let us leave aside for a moment that “best” is located in a Catch-22 of “top school” path dependence. We could agree, maybe, that a little luck and a little path dependence do not undermine the achievements of the top economists. Excellence is rewarded. But that’s all a question for another day.

Here’s a funny thing, though. As Trevon Logan pointed out on Twitter, the imprimatur of Berkeley, Harvard, and the New York Times has helped to elevate this story to the attention of the profession at large.

 

EJMR itself could not distract the attention of the profession’s most powerful until it was graced with the formal attention of the elite. It is by the top schools, for the top schools, of the top schools. The vast majority of graduate students desperate for help and reassurance must go begging for scraps at a table of people who will mock them for their perceived shortcomings. It is vulgar in the extreme.

In this it is not alone. For example: there are many “guides” to the job market out there for graduate students. They include such concerns as how to politely turn down an interview when you simply cannot fit any more into your busy schedule. They are not helpful to a student who is ill with worry that their handful of interviews will not convert to a job, who will give a job talk to three people in a broken conference room rather than a shiny hall of power to a faculty of famous faces. The guides become useless and scary.

Edited to add (8/31/17): In my haste to make a case for reform, I made unfair generalizations about job market guides. In particular I was remiss not to acknowledge that John Cawley’s guide is one that has helped countless students over the years (myself included) and indeed addresses many of the concerns that I have raised in this post. This is an example of the kind of document that would be complemented by the kind of real-time and in-person information that I have suggested in my proposals would undermine EJMR. I apologize to John and to others like him who give up their time to provide information and advice on the job market process.

For example: insane paper turnaround times on submitted research favor the students of top schools. If each rejection takes most of a year—conservatively—and if you do not have elite mentorship and an elite network, mistakes will happen and be exceptionally costly. Here is the order in which you submit to journals, they say. They are survivors. They are there to advise you because they hit those journals. Their work is surely excellent, and they also managed to place it well. If you are a little less lucky, or a little less brilliant, where will their advice lead?

The profession has no mechanisms to help the average student.

Almost no graduate students can usefully call on the direct experience of the faculty around them. Each Ph.D.-granting institution hires fewer new faculty than it graduates. The bucket overflows. Students will do worse than their advisors. It is in this context that EJMR thrives. Students see how it is. They are desperate for help. They find it, poisoned by insecure hatefulness, in an anonymous forum that in a tragic twist of fate exhibits the very same elite bias that drove them to it in the first place.

What can we do?

1. Formalize interview information reporting through Job Openings for Economists

This is the most obvious way that the AEA can undercut EJMR. I appreciate that the incentive for schools to report when they have made calls or offered interviews is not clear cut. Too bad.

A more radical approach here would truly centralize interview offers on a clearinghouse schedule, but I accept that a centralized mechanism like this is not going to happen in economics.

2. Establish formal cross-school, cross-rank mentorship networks

Students need help and support that their own school’s faculty cannot adequately provide. We must have institutions that connect students with the economists that they will become, not the economists that they are shamed for being unlike.

This is probably awkward on both sides. No-one wants to admit that they are not a top dog. That means some bravery, humility, and discretion is required.

3. Formalize practical information on journal policies and characteristics

If we were starting with a blank slate, I would imagine most economists would have plenty of ideas for how to design research dissemination—submitting, refereeing, editing, publishing.

Given that we’re not starting over, we need a living database of relevant characteristics of as many journals as we can corral. Turnaround times, journal policies, fees, readership, citations, even the distribution of authors’ affiliations.

The Committee for the Status of Women in the Economics Profession has an excellent document on navigating the research publication process. This provides a great template for the kind of concerns we need to address. The more concrete we can make the advice, the better.

Treat the disease

There are two traps here. One is that we succeed in reforming or replacing EJMR without having an impact on the sexist and racist culture of economics. There may even be a risk of backlash as that certain type of Internet Man resents being prevented from being hateful.

The other is that we achieve a minor miracle in affecting true, even if slight, change on a profession that is overdue for it, but that we miss an opportunity to implement complementary positive reforms.

We can take this opportunity to support young economists whose mental and physical wellbeing suffers under the pressures of our job market and early career concerns. A tiny fraction of graduating economists can choose their own adventure. The vast majority can hope, at best, to get a decent job in a decent place, to uproot their life and their family and their support network, again: to survive.

Let’s all commit to helping each other.

Design and development games

I have a new version of a paper on design and development games up. In games like this the private interests of those who generate ideas and those who implement them are partly aligned and partly at odds. What kind of intermediaries can help mediate this process to everyone’s benefit, and how?

You can find the paper on my writing page or at this link. Here’s the abstract:

Upstream players produce design ideas and downstream players select among these ideas to develop finished products. Design diversity is valuable at the upstream stage and coordination is valuable at the downstream stage, in the sense that this maximizes the sum of payoffs to all players. However, this outcome is not always realized since both the upstream and downstream players may have an individual incentive to use different strategies, so that coordination occurs too soon or not at all. This problem is associated with too much predictability or too little difference in the relative value of designs. We show that an intermediary whose interests align with the industry as a whole can solve either problem by selecting among designs in such a way that occasionally rewards inferior ideas, so long as the intermediary has enforcement power or can extract commitments from downstream players. We discuss the application of the model to technology standards, political primaries, and trend-driven industries.