Monday, July 7, 2014

The Standard Model

I spend my time in a school of public policy, a field much dominated by social scientists such as economists. It is striking how their best theories have very weak mechanisms to account for what happens in the world, how often it is a matter of A being likely related to B, but with no idea of the size of that relationship. They do have an idea of what to do if there is a problem, and it would seem that their intuitions are helpful. They can model an economy in equilibrium, but it would be helpful to know how sensitive their models are to assumptions and to less than equilibrium, and how much they would bet on a claim they are right. There is remarkable disagreement among, them, only some of which is scientific.

I believe I understand their basic microeconomic ideas and some of the Nobel-Prize improvements. I'm less sure about their macroeconomic ideas, but the basics seem clear. I am not sure if there are any quantitative tests that are decisive.

It is almost surely the case that when we measure or theorize about society, if we know the order of magnitude of a relationship, is it say 1% or 10%, or positive or negative, we are making progress, and it is likely that we know such numbers with at most two significant figures, usually just one--0.1 is different from 0.2, but unlikely that 0.16 is different than 0.17 once we are honest about how well we can measure something taking into account confounding effects. This is not an indictment of economics or social science, for to learn that A is actually related to B, and to get that relationship roughly right with an honest sense of how good is our measurement is a major achievement. It is also a major achievement to identify significant phenomena, such as the role of information asymmetry in markets, and indicate how they work. But the next question is how much and when.

I was brought up in a different field, one that was not so precise fifty years ago.  Over the last forty years, elementary particle physicists--experimentalists and theorists--have developed a remarkably good account of the basic constituents of matter. The Standard Model, as it is called, accounts for forces between nuclei, between charged particles, and for radioactive decay--the strong, electromagnetic, and weak forces, as they are called. Gravity has not yet been incorporated in that model, but general relativity (Einstein's theory) is powerful in explaining the largest phenomena we see at the everyday to cosmic scale. Those theories have proven valuable for those studying the origin of our universe, for it tells them just what kinds of particles existed in the early hottest state of the universe, in its first few minutes, and they have used that knowledge to figure out much of what happened in those first few minutes. And what has happened after.

The experimental physicists and the observational astronomers have made unbelievably accurate measurements of the world we live in, unbelievable to anyone who was in graduate school when I was in the 1960s. Practically, we now have an origin story about our universe that is quite rich and accurate. It is surely the greatest gift from physics to religion and metaphysics. But the physicists do not pretend to have an account of our moral and personal origins, and a wide variety of explanations, from religious to anthropological are offered. Moreover, there is no conflict between the physicists' account and the moral accounts. They occupy different realms.

What is most remarkable is the accuracy of the Standard Model. It is not unusual for the theory to predict not only the rough size the effects, but to predict them to an accuracy of three decimal places. Enormous effort has been required to make that theory useful to such accuracy, but it works and it works quite well.

Any such theory will have stuff it does not explain or explains inaccurately. Sometimes we have to learn to calculate more accurately, sometimes we will need a more comprehensive theory, so-called "beyond" the Standard Model. That theory might explain some of the facts the Model does not pretend to explain, such as the mass of the electron or the values of the interaction constants.

I do not expect anything like this for public policy and social science. I am not sure there could be a standard model of society and economy. The social scientists' attempts have been very smart, but too smart by a half. Physicists do not need to account for many features of the material world, as long as they focus on the main ones as they understand them. Social scientists seem to make what they take as progress by ignoring features that most people consider important. Perhaps they should not be so imitative of the physicists. The model of economic man or political man (or woman) are notably productive of theory and Nobel Prizes, but it's hard to find out how important are parts that they leave out.

Physics is not the model science or theory. But it does suggest that there is a need for more careful consideration by social scientists of what they leave out of consideration, and the sensitivity of their theorizing to those external factors. I would think social scientists and finance theorists would be excited to incorporate the experience of the Great Recession into their theorizing, what I imagine would cause of substantial revision of their ideas. Maybe their ideas incorporated the Great Recession already. Perhaps it is not possible. To defend your theories and blame others for doing something wrong is to find yourself condemned to irrelevance.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

On Hiatus Until the End of August

This blog will be on hiatus until the end of August--unless something sufficiently provocative comes my way. Most of these blog postings are the result of an event, usually the n+1-th of similar events, and so I am driven to discuss. For the moment it will have to be the 2n+1 -th before I think of posting, and that should be rare.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Academic Scholarly Meetings

I've just read through the program of the Society of Health Economists. I kept asking myself, What do those folks know in some systematic way about how the health systems work? Can they have titles that give away the main point of their paper? Could there be rapporteurs who go to the sessions and tell us what is important and widely relevant?

Put differently, one might think that economists have a systemic view of the health care enterprise, so that all its various features are connected by a model. You have physicians and health workers, practices, hospitals, pharma, patients, payers and insurers and a variety of governmental programs. It would be a complicated model, but I think it might be described, and then we might ask how the system responds to various probes and shocks. We might also include various public health initiatives. Perhaps at the center would be patients, a diverse group to be sure, or maybe the physicians, or...

Of course, this is not only an economic system. It is much influenced by custom and nonpecuniary forces, and politics also plays a role. But one might model it in any case.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Please write me,

I'm not sure why, and it does not matter (do I have a wrong setting?), but I get few if any real comments. But if you have comments or thoughts, you can write me directly:

Martin Krieger

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Academic Novels and Reality

Academic novels have a married man or woman, who is a dean or a provost or a president, sleeping with someone who is under their charge. In one case, the president (now divorced?) moves the paramour into the president's house. In another, the dean is involved with one of the professors in the department, having appointed their paramour to a position. In another a graduate student is after the thesis advisor. In all cases, what makes them work is the supposedly forbidden "fraternizing" and the infidelity, although in the latter case, perhaps the spouse is up to their own shenanigans.

Nowadays, the liaison may be hetero- or homo-sexual, although perhaps in the past that was also the case.

I know nothing nonpublic of actual fraternizing and infidelity. (I am out of the gossip loop, so if I know it is well known to everyone already.)

After you have done the first and second 90% of the work of writing an article or book

I am now finishing my work on a second edition of my 2003 book. I still have to be concerned with diagrams, page references, and lots of little things. But in editing a chapter just now, I discovered that I had not italicized m or n, referring to numbers, and other such minor features, and other getting other symbols just right. 

I believe there must be some people in the first 90% of the work, actually have only 10% more work to do, but I am not one of them. I discover new things I am not sure I really understand, various points I need to check, and I am still unsure if chapter 4 should stay as it is, or be split into two chapters.

These are of course nice problems to have. You have an earlier book already, someone wants to put out a second edition, and you have a sense that you can take care of most of the issues one-by-one. But, I keep thinking of those 90%/10% folks--although I do not know anyone who claims to work this way. In fact, I have little idea of how any of my scholarly friends write and edit and rework stuff. It's the big secret of the academic life, since we write in private for the most part. People are more likely to hint of their intimate escapades than how they actually work, although in fact you hear very little of either since people are more likely to go on about what's wrong with the institutions, its administration, and their colleagues. It's almost impossible to get them to tell you the argument of what they are writing or even its theme, unless you use instruments employed by oral surgeons to remove wisdom teeth with problematic roots.

When it's all done, I'm not sure what to do. It's out of my hands. I've done what I could. Time to move on.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


If you want to do work, and you have work to do, you cannot allow yourself the luxury or curse of putting energy into energy-sinks. These may involve committees, campaigns, cabals, conspiracies, or just plain acting out and going ballistic, or being obsessed about something wrong in the world. At least I cannot. Moreover, my ability to focus deeply is limited: after an hour or an hour and a half, I need to nap a bit, and then I can continue. By "focus deeply," I mean the ability to be hypervigilant in your writing or editing, not let things slide by, and figure out what you meant when you wrote something a while ago.

You may be very different than I am, and can work in a more chaotic environment, and switch to something else and back again. Wonderful!

But I observe that too many scholars get diverted. I am not talking about being a good family member and friend, and attending to others you care about. Some of the time, illness or crisis will take over--maybe for longer than you would like. But eventually, it would seem, things settle down, and you can carve out a few hours each day to do your work. If so, you are OK--as long as everything else does not make you so tired that you cannot focus on your work.

There are lots of things that do not need to be done or attended to. There are times when you will become stupid or silent, so you are not drawn into shenanigans. There are demands you may have to decline or defer. But if your role in a university is to do your scholarly work, you must do your scholarly work. If you have become a chair of a department, then you will have to take care of that, and you may be delayed or blindsided for 2-3 years. But then you must go back to your work, allowing yourself time to slip back in.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


At most institutions, where the faculty does not have extraordinary reputational strength, the deans or the provosts do what they will within a wide range, as long as they follow procedures. For a reasonable fraction of cases, any dean or provost can arrange procedures to get what they want. I don't know why faculty think they will prevail. I'm not saying this is good, but until the faculty are strong enough, they have no real power. I assume that the Nobel Prize winners and some others will be effective advocates to the provost, but they tend to be careful not to use their power unless they believe it is really needed.

A colleague wrote back to me: FACULTY WITH REAL POWER CAN BE SCARY. My only response is that there are usually countervailing powerful faculty.

I am not much impressed by faculty committees and protest groups. It's not that they are in the wrong, for often they have identified real problems. But they do not have the requisite bureaucratic and political savvy, and they tend to go ballistic and offer manifestos. Again if the committees and groups are populated and led by the faculty with the strongest reputational assets that may be different.

What's the dean or the provost doing?

I have never trafficked much in speculations about my chair, my dean, my provost--let us call them  "the administration." I like gossip, my colleagues in the university believe their gossip is well grounded in actual facts and policies. I have no idea. If someone does not get tenure, either the administration is arbitrary or changing the standards; if someone leaves, the administration did not try to retain them; if someone retires, the administration has forced them out. If a dean does not continue beyond their current term, the provost is out of control,...  And so forth.

I am sure there is some truth to some of what I hear. But of course I never hear the other side: X was not strong enough as a scholar; the attractions of a new position could not be matched by the administration; the retiree has perhaps become less effective; and the dean is not delivering to the provost's expectations.

I do know that it is the provost's job to decide on tenure (the university committee is advisory, not at all determinative), people are let go to other places as a nice way of reinvigorating a faculty, the retiree is actually getting a nice deal for retiring now; and the provost chooses deans and is responsible for who they choose and retain.

If a university is trying to become stronger, there is likely to be disruption, and the situation will get even more tricky. I doubt there is much of a conspiracy, although I am also sure that some moves are meant to help a spouse or friend and they are fishy.

I have found that the best advice I give on promotion and tenure is objective judgments about the quality of the case, and by implication the quality of the candidate. My main concern is improving the quality of the university and making sure processes are fair. I leave to the provost matters of sympathy or special consideration. If I would not trust a dossier, for whatever reason, the provost needs to know. If someone is ok, but not likely to continue to be strong enough, the provost needs to know. And so forth.

The buck stops with the dean or the provost--not with me.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

When departments fall apart

Many years ago I asked one of my esteemed colleagues why he left his A+ university for my university, at that time not an A university. He mentioned that the department had fallen apart, the chair drowned and various people had peeled off. He probably liked coming to LA from someplace less attractive, as well. Maybe it was a chair or money, I do not know.

It's very difficult for a department to stay strong unless it has good people, it supports them well, it makes those people feel wanted, and it brings in more good people. You, as a dean or provost, cannot afford to delude yourself about quality, because your faculty surely knows what's up. Not everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid.

You live in a competitive university environment, the people likely to be bid away are very strong or very promising or both. They are not inexpensive, yet they respond well to having a cohort of colleagues who are very strong. It's more likely you will be able to grow or at least remain stable if you realize that mistaken appointments are corrosive, even one will be noticed. When you hire junior faculty, they need to be people who are ambitious and hard working, and who want to be like their most esteemed colleagues. And they need to be supported, not used up with stuff that prevents them from growing. If your teaching loads are larger and support is weaker than those you'd like to compete with, you will lose people you want to keep.

Now you might want to move from C to B or B+. You still have the same issues, although most B or B+ people are not likely to be bid away. On the other hand, can you make them more productive, more effective? If you do not have the resources, and you expect to squeeze them out of your faculty, you will again have people leaving, and not be able to make the best out of your faculty.

There's no simple answer if you are resource poor. But it helps to have an realistic estimate of your quality and attractiveness, to be in the game rather than on the side. And to have a strategy where you can occupy niches that are important and otherwise ignored.