Thursday, May 5, 2011

Grad School: The Impressionable Years

Sometimes I wonder if I am an overly impressionable young grad student. Am I being indoctrinated more than I realize?

I mostly ask this because I had very little economics background before coming to Berkeley. I was hardly aware of any of the major debates or viewpoints that characterize different schools of thought. I didn't know much of anything about who the important economists were or what they thought. So first year was particularly formative because I came as a blank slate. My professors impressed, intimidated, and influenced me.

It took me a few months of the program to get a vague sense of the different styles of economics, to start recognizing names and lineages. One of my professors said that a Berkeley economist can't look at a market without seeing a market failure and proposing a complicated mechanism to fix it. That's only partly the case. What stands out more is whom we include among the most revered and celebrated past economists. It's not that the "Berkeley style" is something well-defined, but there is only a finite amount of reading you can do, methods you can learn, and discussions you can have, so the decision of what to include and what to leave out depends a lot on the school. Even Berkeley's econometrics is distinctive. (Click the link, you'll see what I mean!)

I like the so-called Berkeley style a lot, though with admittedly little basis for comparison. Part of my reason for writing this blog is to practice formulating and reformulating my own ideas and formulating my own opinions about other people's ideas.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tone, Voice, and Identity in Economic Writing

I enjoy words a lot. Even as a math major, I knew that my ideal job would be something that allowed me to read and write a lot. And I have gotten to read a lot of economics literature this year. One thing I've noticed is that the writing style and tone varies fairly drastically across papers.

In some, the writing is an afterthought--just some requisite explanations of methods and results. Stiff, formal, dry. Even if there are no problems with the writing, it is just too boring to get through. I don't know if I should be admitting this, or what it says about me as an aspiring economist, but I don't think the results in economics typically speak for themselves.

Presentation plays a huge role. The most notable papers just sparkle with voice and wit. The remarkable economists are the remarkably witty ones. I'm not sure which way the causation runs-- if witty, strong personality types make better economists, or if better economists feel more permitted to allow some personality in their work, or if the boring economists are just as good but I don't realize it because I can't get through their papers...

When writing my economic history paper I often felt unsure about who my audience is. I have this strong desire to write something that my parents and non-economist friends will enjoy. But I also will eventually need to be publishing things in academic journals, and not too many people read those out of sheer interest. Also, I love talking about economics with people in other fields, but sometimes feel resentful when other scientists assume they can understand everything about my field but I can't understand everything about theirs just because they are in a harder science. I really ought to get over that.

I think economists have some age-old unresolved identity issues. More than in most fields, we have these meta-level discussions like I'm having now about the goals and boundaries of our field, whether economics is science, methodological philosophy, the role of models, positive vs. normative analysis, the crossovers between academic and public roles, whether by studying the economy we change the economy, etc. None of this is a bad thing--I also think economists have more fun than most!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Economic History

The Berkeley Economics PhD program is pretty unique in requiring that first year students take economic history as part of the core. The other core classes (macro, micro, metrics) involve lots and lots of problem sets. If I had been blogging the past year, about 95% of my posts, like 95% of my conversations, would have consisted of griping about "p-sets." (I'm surprised I still have any friends other than my classmates!)

History is a welcome difference. Instead of problem sets, we have weekly memos and a research paper. Professors Eichengreen and DeLong post a memo question each week related to that week's assigned readings, and often also related to current issues. The reading list is more thematic than chronological, and covers a lot of classics. Walter Bagehot's Lombard Street gets a week, as does the gold standard; the Great Depression gets three. Plenty of context for comparison with the past few years. Berkeley professors are pretty well represented in the readings, which I like. It fosters school spirit in a way. The lectures are once a week for two hours, and are a lot of fun. On the first day I had to sit on the floor because the room was so full, but attendance fell a bit after that. They were a nice break from the math-class-style lectures for the other courses, and helped put things in context.

I also really enjoyed writing the memos. We were directed to "flex our prose-writing skills," which I took to heart (although, my grades were always negatively correlated with the extent to which I did so; my driest papers got the better scores).

The main assignment is the history research paper. It is due on May 4 and I think I've finally finished. Proposals were due before spring break, and the end project is nothing nearly resembling what I proposed. I wrote partial drafts of several different papers en route to arriving at my eventual topic. I knew I wanted to do some sort of quantitative text analysis, and first thought of an idea related to geography-- an over-complicated scheme relating place mentions to interest rate and wage convergence. Then I saw a paper by one of my macro professors, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, that included a content analysis of speeches by recent Federal Reserve chairmen related to price-level targeting vs. inflation targeting. I got excited about the idea of Federal Reserve content analysis, especially because after really enjoying Professor David Romer's econ 202A course I became a big fan of the "Romer and Romer" papers and the narrative approach to fiscal and monetary policy history.

So I spent most of Spring Break (except for a lovely weekend in LA) learning to program in Python and writing some code using the Natural Language Processing Toolkit to be able to do text analysis of Federal Reserve documents. I ended up being able to do some pretty cool types of analysis, including some things in the style of Google Ngrams, but for .txt documents or html pages. Then I thought the hard part was done-- I would just "run the code" and have my results. Sigh. So naive.

The trouble was deciding what documents to analyze and what to analyze them for. I met with Prof. Gorodnichenko, who suggested I try to study the perceived tradeoff between inflation and unemployment. I wasn't entirely sure how to go about doing that, but decided to start trying things out with some historical Fed documents. Problem: lots of the historical documents (e.g. this one) are in secured pdf format. That means you can't save them as a text file or copy and paste the text from them into a text file. Which means you can't do anything with them except read them by eyeball. I figured that Prof. Romer might have access to unsecured pdfs and went to meet with him, but he didn't either.

Now, I was pretty aggravated not only because I couldn't run my code, but also because I used to do research related to people with disabilities and accessible digital technology, and know that secured pdfs are far from accessible. They are incompatible with screen readers, for example. And yet the Federal Reserve website claims:
"The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System is committed to making its website accessible to all users and ensuring that it meets or exceeds the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The majority of documents on our website are presented in PDF, HTML, or plain text format. When documents are provided in multiple formats, at least one version is designed to be accessible to users of assistive technology."

The Freedom of Information Act, which requires public documents to be disclosed, has only nine exceptions and I can't see how Fed historical documents fit under any of the exceptions.

Being in Berkeley has taught me a thing or two about righteous indignation, so I called the FOIA office and explained what I was after, using every bit of Southern charm I could muster. They promised to get back to me in two days. Guess what? They didn't. So I called back and used my Berkeley voice and they took down my email address. At first I didn't get the email because they misspelled Berkeley, but then I finally got an email, which consisted of a link to the exact webpage where I got their phone number, and instructions that I could fill out a FOIA request but they were really backed up so I should expect a long wait.

I knew I wouldn't get any results in time to do my history paper, so I had to come up with a different topic. At this point I'm debating the wisdom of FOIA-ing the Fed as a first year grad student. A FOIA request would be more or less a matter of principle at this point. Maybe for future research too, but mostly I want them to put accessible versions of all the public documents on the website. I'm leaning towards doing it. Anyone have advice?

For awhile I got sidetracked into making fancier and fancier Python code with less and less clarity about what to use it for. But I happened to notice a very simple, but very striking, result. The frequency of mention of the word "unemployment" in the New York Times is highly correlated with the actual unemployment rate, and the relationship is stable over time (I started in 1914, before unemployment statistics were even published). I was reluctant to not use the more "high tech" functions I programmed, but could tell that this result would make for a better, less convoluted paper. I hope I was right! Here's my favorite line:

If it’s hard to know what people know, and harder to know what people knew, it’s hardest to know what people knew but didn’t know they knew.

It's my first shot at independent economic research, and I'm pleased with how it turned out and glad I enjoyed the process. I'll be anxious for feedback from my professors and peers.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Back with a Bang

I fell pretty hard off of my bike yesterday and broke my elbow. I didn't realize it was broken, so I waited until this morning to walk to the emergency room. I always keep a stack of general equilibrium flashcards in my purse, and thought of flipping through some fixed point theorems in the five hours in the waiting room, but as you might imagine that's not too physically or mentally feasible when one arm is in excruciating pain.

So instead, I distracted myself from the pain (and the waiting room television news) by catching up on economics blogs on my phone. My history professor Brad DeLong's recent post strengthened my resolve to leave the flashcards unflashed.

I realized I haven't posted on my own blog since I've been in Berkeley. I never imagined nine months could be so transformative. I've learned so much about myself and about economics that it is daunting trying to dive back into blogging. Better to reveal things over the next few posts than to try to give a comprehensive report now, especially with one arm in a sling.

Berkeley is a special place. It is simultaneously aggravating and endearing. Everywhere you see juxtapositions of purity and filth, idealism and cynicism. Every sort of ambition and depravity is here. People are passionate about every cause in the world, yet still manage to live primarily in their own worlds. You can see anything on the streets of Berkeley, which means you can do anything on the streets of Berkeley and not be seen. It is both freeing and unnerving. It is unsouthern and unsettling. In Berkeley it is never quite warm enough long enough to be convincing. Berkeley is not for basking. It is just gray enough for introspection.

On the first day of classes, I went for a morning run to the Berkeley marina. To get there you cross a pedestrian bridge over the highway. The bridge was chalked with the sayings "Capitali$m is evil" and "Get the United States out of America." The chalk has long since worn off, but I still think of that bridge as the capitalism is evil bridge and run across it on mornings of exams as a personal ritual. Once you cross the bridge, you can run on these trails that have been built upon mounds of trash. You can't tell they are built on trash, except by reading the signs that proudly explain it. If you go farther North to the Albany bulb you can see larger than life art made out of trash. You get a view of the bay, the bridge, the hills, houses, tracks, highway, and industry.

Berkeley views never get old. They'll have you asking, Who am I to try to save the world? and at the same time, Who am I not to? Place matters a lot, I think. People matter more, but you can hardly make that distinction, because people are a part of the place and the place is a part of them. Berkeley is a good place for graduate school. The best place, in my mind, to become an economist.