It's Not You, It's the Data

At McSweeney's, Josh Freedman breaks up with his girlfriend, economist-style:

Susan, we need to talk. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. About us. I really like you, but ever since we met in that econ class in college I knew there was something missing from how I felt: quantitative reasoning. We can say we love each other all we want, but I just can’t trust it without the data. And after performing an in-depth cost-benefit analysis of our relationship, I just don’t think this is working out.

Please know that this decision was not rash. In fact, it was anything but—it was completely devoid of emotion. I just made a series of quantitative calculations, culled from available OECD data on comparable families and conservative estimates of future likelihoods. I then assigned weights to various “feelings” based on importance, as judged by the relevant scholarly literature. From this, it was easy to determine that given all of the options available, the winning decision on both cost-effectiveness and comparative-effectiveness grounds was to see other people.

(HT: Greg Mankiw)

Financial Aid for College Students With Drug Convictions

A new working paper (PDF; abstract) from economists Michael F. Lovenheim and Emily G. Owens examines the effects of federal financial aid, a somewhat controversial issue during last fall's campaign, on the college attendance of students with drug convictions. From the abstract:

In 2001, amendments to the Higher Education Act made people convicted of drug offenses ineligible for federal financial aid for up to two years after their conviction. Using rich data on educational outcomes and drug charges in the NLSY 1997, we show that this law change had a large negative impact on the college attendance of students with drug convictions. On average, the temporary ban on federal financial aid increased the amount of time between high school graduation and college enrollment by about two years, and we also present suggestive evidence that affected students were less likely to ever enroll in college. Students living in urban areas and those whose mothers did not attend college appear to be the most affected by these amendments. 

Is the Analytics Revolution Coming to Football?

In the New Republic, Nate Cohn explores the small but growing role of advanced statistics in football. Projects like Football Freakonomics notwithstanding, the NFL isn't usually thought of as a realm where stats hold all that much sway, in part because the game is so much more of a complex-dynamic system than, say, baseball. Here's Cohn on one big change fans might notice if more coaches start relying on statistics:

The one place where fans could see analytics at work is in play calling, which also happens to be the place where analytics could impact the average fan’s experience of the game. The numbers suggest, for instance, that teams should be aggressive on fourth down, and that it’s better to go for first down with a lead in a game’s final minutes than to run the ball on third down to run out the clock. Yet even the teams with well-regarded analytics departments, including San Francisco and Baltimore, largely adhere to a conservative and traditional play calling approach: the coaches “just aren’t listening to them yet,” [Brian] Burke says. And the few coaches with a reputation for following the statistics, like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, aren’t even close to as aggressive as the numbers would advise.  

A Health Upside of Natural Gas

A working paper (PDF; abstract) from economists Resul Cesur, Erdal Tekin, and Aydogan Ulker explores the effects of increased natural gas use on infant mortality:

In this paper, we use the variation across space and time in the expansion of natural gas infrastructure in Turkish provinces using data between 2001 and 2011. Our results indicate that the rate of increase in the use of natural gas has resulted in a significant reduction in the rate of infant mortality in Turkey. In particular, a one-percentage point increase in the rate of subscriptions to natural gas services would cause the infant mortality rate to decline by 4 percent, which could result in 348 infant lives saved in 2011 alone. These results are robust to a large number of specifications.

The authors outline two ways through which the effect may occur:

FREAK-est Links

1. You too can outsource your job to China.

2. What are all those bacteria doing in the troposphere? (academic paper/press summary)

3. How much of your state's road budget is funded by the government?

4. North Korea gets the Google Maps treatment.

The Mixed Blessings of a Welfare Program

A new paper (abstract; PDF) by Gustavo J. Bobonis, Melissa González-Brenes, and Roberto Castro examines the effects the Mexican welfare program Oportunidades on spousal abuse:

Beneficiary women are 40 percent less likely to be victims of physical abuse, but are more likely to receive violent threats with no associated abuse. This evidence is consistent with a model of decision-makers' interactions with asymmetric information in the male partner's gains to marriage, who can then use threats of violence to extract rents from their female partners.

"The article may have important implications for policy, since it provide a mixed view of conditional cash transfer programs’ effectiveness in improving women’s empowerment within the household," the authors wrote in an earlier draft. "The program may increase the likelihood of violent threats, which may in turn compromise women’s emotional health and other aspects of their wellbeing."

In SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner wrote about another interesting research finding gleaned from Oportunidades data:

The Undercover Economist's New Radio Series

Tim Harford, a.k.a. the Undercover Economist (also a Financial Times columnist) has a new radio series on the BBC called Pop-Up Economics:

The show is all about storytelling – and the stories are of remarkable lives or surprising ideas in economics. We’ll learn about the impromptu engineering genius Bill Phillips, the cold war guru Thomas Schelling, and life-saving market designer Al Roth. We’ll discover how the geeks took over poker, and what happened to them.

And the series begins with the innovation lessons from the London Olympics – or as we’ve called it, “Hot Pants vs. the Knockout Mouse.”

We'll be tuning in.

A History of Facebook's New Search Engine

Steven Levy of Wired provides the "inside story" of Facebook's new search engine, Graph Search:

For years now, Facebook watchers have wondered when the company would unleash the potential of its underpowered search bar. (Nobody has feared this day more than Google, which suddenly faces a competitor able to index tons of data that Google’s own search engine can’t access.) They have also wondered how a Facebook search product might work. Now we know. Graph Search is fundamentally different from web search. Instead of a Google-like effort to help users find answers from a stitched-together corpus of all the world’s information, Facebook is helping them tap its vast, monolithic database to make better use of their “social graph,” the term Zuckerberg uses to describe the network of one’s relationships with friends, acquaintances, favorite celebrities, and preferred brands.

FREAK-est Links

1. Austin tries to incentivize employees to leave their cars at home, but it doesn't work.

2. Are 60 percent of New York State's cigarettes smuggled in?

3. Freakonomics movie trailer in Italian.

4. Sunk costs and Mark Sanchez.

5. Garlic smugglers in the E.U. dodge high import duties. (HT: Rich)

How to Get More Out of College

We've blogged and podcasted about the value (or lack thereof?) of a college education.  A new paper (summarized here) by sociologist Laura Hamilton suggests one way parents can help their kids get more out of college: help them a little less -- with tuition, at least.  Here's the abstract:

Evidence shows that parental financial investments increase college attendance, but we know little about how these investments shape postsecondary achievement. Two theoretical frameworks suggest diametric conclusions. Some studies operate from amore-is-more perspective in which children use calculated parental allocations to make academic progress. In contrast, a more-is-less perspective, rooted in a different model of rational behavior, suggests that parental investments create a disincentive for student achievement. I adjudicate between these frameworks, using data from nationally representative postsecondary datasets to determine what effect financial parental investments have on student GPA and degree completion. The findings suggest seemingly contradictory processes. Parental aid decreases student GPA, but it increases the odds of graduating—net of explanatory variables and accounting for alternative funding. Rather than strategically using resources in accordance with parental goals, or maximizing on their ability to avoid academic work, students are satisficing: they meet the criteria for adequacy on multiple fronts, rather than optimizing their chances for a particular outcome. As a result, students with parental funding often perform well enough to stay in school but dial down their academic efforts. I conclude by highlighting the importance of life stage and institutional context for parental investment.