The Research Process: Identifying the Ideas that Motivate You

Hello to all the EWED readers! I’m Dr. Darwyyn Deyo, an Assistant Professor of Economics at San José State University and a Visiting Scholar at the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation. I research law and economics, occupational licensing, and the economics of crime. I would also like to thank Joy for inviting me to write some blog posts this summer! I’ll be writing a series of posts about the curriculum of the research process, from the initial idea to the development of a complete draft. This week, I’m focusing on the mechanics behind choosing that initial idea.

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Working Hard for the Money

40 hours. That’s what we think of as a typical workweek. 8 hours per day. 5 days per week. Perhaps the widespread practice of working from home during the pandemic (as well as the abnormal schedule changes for those unable to work from home), has led some to rethink the nature of the workweek. But the truth is that the workweek has always been evolving.

Take this chart, for example. It comes from Our World in Data (be sure to read their excellent related essay as well), and the historical data comes from a paper by Huberman and Minns. I’ve singled out 4 countries, but you can add others at the OWiD link.

The historical declines are dramatic. This is especially true in Sweden. The average Swedish worker labored for over 3,400 hours per year in 1870. Today, that’s down to 1,600 hours. In other words, the typical Swede works less than half as many hours as her historical counterpart. Wow! The decline for the US is not quite as dramatic, but still astonishing: a US worker today labors for only about 57% of the hours of his 1870 predecessor.

It’s tempting to focus on the differences across countries today: the average worker in the US works about 250 hours more than the average French worker. That’s 6 weeks of vacation! And as recently as 1980, the US and France were roughly equal on this measure. We might also wonder why these historical changes happened. For a very brief introduction to the research, I recommend the last section of this essay by Robert Whaples.

But still, the historical declines are dramatic, even if we in the US haven’t seen much improvement in the past generation (and those poor Swedes, working 100 hours per year more than 40 years ago).

I think another natural question to ask is whether GDP data is distorted, at least as a measure of well being, given these differences in working hours. The answer is partially. Let’s look at the data!

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Power Drill Versus Python 3.9

I wrote this Complaint on Wednesday:

Consider the power drill. I learned how to use one when I was a child. I have one today that I occasionally bring out for home repair projects. It works just the way it did when I was 8 years old, and I expect nothing to change. There is something nice about tools that function the way they worked the last time you pulled them out of the basement.

Consider programming a web app. Two years ago, I created a web app that I will refer to as Buchanan2. This week I wanted to create a new web app, called Buchanan3. I thought, if I’m lucky, I can use Buchanan2 code as a scaffold upon which to build Buchanan3 in a matter of hours.

To build Buchanan2, I used ToolA and ToolB and Python-based coding. When I opened up ToolA, I got a message that Old ToolA would be deleting next month, so I better upgrade to New ToolA. Ok. I upgraded, hoping it wouldn’t break Buchanan2. Then I opened up ToolB, and it was worse in the sense that more had changed. Also, Buchanan2 had been build using Old Python. New ToolA will not tolerate Old Python. I must figure out how to upgrade to New Python. I fear that Buchanan2 will break if I make all these changes.

While navigating all the changes and upgrades, I fight to stay on the free tier of ToolB, since I already pay for ToolA.

I spent hours searching through documentation. Maybe I could have worked faster. The flesh rebels against this labyrinth, as you would flee a room when the fire alarm sounds. Suddenly, I was on Twitter, and then I was in the kitchen getting snacks.

These situations make me very frustrated, but not hopeless. I have faith that if I bang my head against the desk enough times, and read one more message board reply, that Buchanan3 will work. It has to work. It will work, eventually. I hate New Python, and New ToolB, and anyone who would force me to learn new things all over again. Yet, in this fashion, I somehow got Buchanan2 to work, years ago.

I will keep at it, as a reluctant irritable self-taught programmer.

Today is Sunday. Since writing that, I have progressed and I feel much better. One thing that helped was getting on the lowest paid tier of Tool B and writing an email directly to the creator of Tool B. He wrote back quickly and helped me see my user error. If I’m lucky, Buchanan3 will be working within 2 weeks.

This situation reminds of research by David Deming and Kadeem Noray of Harvard. They find that recent STEM graduates make more money than their peers who picked softer subjects to study in college. Demin and Noray suggest that technical skills become obsolete in a matter of years and thus the wage premium for studying STEM in college declines over the first decade of working life.

My experience is just one anecdote, but there is no way that my college education a decade ago could have exactly prepared me for New Python, New ToolA and New ToolB. Those tools didn’t exist back then.

Gen Z on Deep Work

I asked students to read an excerpt of the first chapter of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and comment in a discussion board. The prompt asked whether deep work goes on in college and what are the barriers to deep work. I think it’s important for society that some people engage in deep work on our problems. I’m interested in how 20-year-olds perceive Newport’s ideas on focus and what barriers they identify to deep work.

Replies ranged from “I do believe that deep work is happening at college, but I think that it is hard to find students using this strategy regularly.” to “I know multiple people who do not practice deep work….” They each have a different subjective view of “deep work” and their replies are anecdotal. It’s possible that some students are too hard on themselves, considering that I biased them to be negative with the discussion prompt. Some of them might have thought that “deep work” requires many consecutive hours of focus, which is not actually what I expect of undergraduates. Still, the discussion could be helpful to others who aspire to deep work.

The following barriers to deep work were identified:

“The barriers that we experience include social media, roommates, friends, significant others, going to classes, having to work, and any number of other things that cause our day to become disjointed …  We are the first generation that has spent the majority of our life utilizing social media… and in general, are used to taking in information from a large number of sources over a short period of time.

“Most students cannot spend a large amount of hours just focused on the one task at hand and that is required for deep work. For most college students it will be nearly impossible to practice deep work because of a job, outside social life, or a heavy class workload …

“I believe that deep work happens in college a lot.  Students often times must prepare/study for tests for a long time and that is when it happens the most.  When someone has to study for hours they are intensely focused if they put themselves in a good studying environment…

“This can be achieved when you are able to clear your mind of external things and place yourself in a non-distracting environment. As a college student, this can be difficult especially because we are constantly thinking about our to-do list, when will we hang out with friends, or what’s for dinner.

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Andrew Weaver is Searching for the Skills Gap

Andrew Weaver is doing interesting work on “the skills gap.” One of his key methods is to create new data by interviewing firms. As someone who has looked hard for good data on the skills gap, I can say that we need more work like his.

Weaver’s 2017 paper with Paul Osterman is about data for U.S. manufacturing firms. These findings may or may not generalize perfectly outside of manufacturing, but I think this was a great place to start. There is plenty of talk about the decline of U.S. manufacturing and at least some of the talk was about a lack of skilled Americans to meet the great demand for high-tech doings. For this survey, they only ask about “core workers” who are doing the specialized roles of making widgets.  

Here are two important empirical questions:  a.) do American manufacturing firms want high-skill workers? b.) do they have trouble finding them? The authors answer, “not as much as you might think from policy discussions.”

There are lots of details in the paper that I don’t have time to cover. In table 2, they go over the determinants of a firm facing long-term vacancies. What is common among the (minority of) firms that report having long-term vacancies? Advanced computer proficiency is not associated with difficulty of filling jobs. The implication is that most manufacturing companies around 2017 were able to find workers who had the computer-related skills needed to do the core production tasks. What seemed to be a limiting factor was not computer skills but advanced reading skills. Half of the establishments surveyed said that they require workers with extended reading skills. That could mean, for example, reading a 10-page technical article in a trade journal.

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Scheduling The Day

What to do on the Monday before Christmas? My 5-y-o son was beginning a long winter break from school. Thanks to Covid, we were home all day. I wanted my son to do a few chores and some learning.

There were some fun activities I knew we would end up doing that day, such as playing chess and letting him watch some TV. One option would have been for me to order him around all day. If he balked at cleaning up his room, I could threaten to withhold TV. Instead, I made a jar of activities written on slips of paper.

He picked papers out one at a time. The only rule I imposed was that he would do that activity immediately. If he drew tidying his room, then we went straight to his room. Mixing in papers that read “30 minutes of TV” and “pick a snack to share” made the game seem fun. He would have ended up watching TV anyway. I included a paper in the bowl that said, “give Mommy a compliment.” Everyone needs some affirmation!

This tactic was so successful that it got me thinking about how adults, including myself, could benefit from something similar. Adults need structure. I contemplated whether I would want someone to put all my activities for the day in a jar. Something I have done and even paid for is to go to a gym and have a fitness instructor tell me what to do for an hour.

One reason the jar game worked is that my son could not do all the fun activities first before the more unpleasant tasks (i.e. math worksheet). Almost every successful writer says that they write first thing in the morning. They don’t procrastinate.

If you’d like to hear from a real live human who actually does the writing scheduling thing, you can listen to Jennifer Doleac’s recent interview on The Hidden Curriculum podcast. She really does the thing! No wonder she’s so amazing and professionally successful. (She’s also generous with her time and supportive of young scholars.)

I think many of us could think of an excuse for not scheduling every hour of our work days a week ahead of time, as she does. I feel like I have excuses, but I also bet I could get closer. A great book on productivity is Deep Work. Something I took away from that book is that, even if you can’t go full Doleac, every person can do better.

The author, Cal Newport, points out something we all know by now: constantly checking email and social media eats up your day and reduces productivity. After arguing that it’s optimal to block out hours for exclusive intense focus, Newport deals with the objection that some people need to be accessible to others throughout the day. A manager or teacher needs to read and respond to emails promptly. Newport’s response was something like “Ok. However, you can probably check your email LESS frequently than you currently do.”

The New Year is coming. Let’s try again. Let’s try harder. I want to waste LESS time than I currently do. And I’ll so some more of the surprise jar game with my son.

Thanks for the Patent System

Although I write on a variety of subjects, my main professional training (through the PhD level) is as a chemical engineer. Chemical engineering is one of the broader technical disciplines. It bridges between chemistry, which is mainly associated with academic-type laboratory work, and huge chemical plant equipment. One year I was making and testing catalysts in the lab, then next I was calculating fluid flows and designing internals for a 100 ft high distillation tower (and climbing around inside that tower to insure the parts were being properly welded in place):

In my work in industrial research, I have been paid to develop technical improvements which could have economic value. A key incentive my company had for investing in this research was the expectation that if we came up with a novel improvement, that we could have exclusive rights to practice that improvement. There would have been little point in paying for research if our competitors could immediately make use of our hard-won insights. A snip of one of my patents is shown below.

For the world, and for most large groupings such as nations, the average income per capital is roughly equal to the average production per capita. The way to get more “stuff” (goods and services, and all their benefits) is to make more stuff. The way to make more stuff (per capita, and for fixed a workweek) is to make workers more productive. A key factor in productivity is technology. Two hundred years ago, nearly everyone in the U.S. had to be out in the sun and cold, working the soil, sowing by hand and plowing with the aid of animals, to grow enough food to feed everyone. Now I believe we are fed by only 2% of the workforce, using artificial fertilizers, improved seeds, huge tractors and combines, and satellite-aided computer scheduling. Most of the rest of us get to work in air-conditioned offices (or homes, in a pandemic year) and eat as much food as we want.

The patent system of the U.S. and other nations is designed to promote progress in productive technology. Early on, the newborn U.S. Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790, titled “An Act to promote the progress of useful Arts”.  Without getting into all the legal details, a valid U.S. patent allows the inventor to exclude any other party from practicing their invention, for a period of twenty years. However, one of the requirement for a patent application is to clearly explain to the public how the invention works. When the twenty years is over, anyone can take advantage of the technology which the inventor has disclosed, which hopefully leads to widespread practice of technical improvements. While we can always ponder improvements to our system of patents, readers can thank it in part for many medical advances, and for delivering them from trudging behind a plow.

Charter Cities and Genetic Algorithms

My dear friend Mark Lutter has had me all riled up about charter cities for a few years now. I link to a new podcast from USFQ’s Aula Magna magazine on the subject that gives a very short introduction to the topic. After recording the podcast I returned to preping a class on genetic algorithms and got all riled up because I saw a connection between the two I hadn’t seen (clearly) before. Charter cities can be real life genetic algorithms for institutional innnovation.

Genetic algorithms are a form of machine learning that searches for solutions to problems by trying out a variety of solutions. As the name implies they are based on the evolutionary algorithm of diversity-selection-amplification to adapt solutions. In a genetic algorithm a population of of possible solutions to an optimization problem is instantiated and solutions with high fitness and reproduce (using cross over, mutation, and other genetic operators) to create new populations of solutions. over enough iterations genetic algorithms are goods ways to search for solutions whe the solution space is complex and poorly defined, which is probably what institutional space looks like.

Now imagine a country that is designed as a genetic algorithm and charter cities within the country as posible institutional solutions. The constitution of the central government is the overall framework of the genetic algorithm and the diversity of institutional arrangments at local government levels (i.e. different charters) are posible solutions.

Viewing charter cities in this light, the interesting question now turns to the rules of the central government and not necesarily to the rules implemented by the charters themselves.

A few of the questions that have begun to bother me follow. What country level rules lead to convergence, or at least continual adaptation to better institutional arrangments at the local level? What should the constriants be imposed on the charters for better, faster convergence and learning? Zoning and housing restrictions would be a clear impediment to convergence as they limit foot voting. If we view charter cities (and fiscal federalism) as an experiment to search for solutions to institutional arrangements for governance, can we use the criteria used by IRB boards as the minimum set of requirements that informa the central government constitution/framework where this experiment takes place?

Gen Z on “The Social Dilemma”

Undergraduate student of data analytics, Liza Thornell, writes her reaction to the documentary on social media. My earlier post on the same topic is here.

A new Netflix documentary has recently caught the public’s attention. The Social Dilemma has caused speculation to form around big tech companies and has also sparked the deletion of social media applications across the nation. The Social Dilemma explores the steps that were taken to create the powerhouse social media platforms, along with exposing the negative effects the platforms have on its users.

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, gain the majority of their revenue through advertising. Due to its privacy settings (or lack thereof) Facebook is able to obtain astronomical amounts of data about its users. The data that is collected from social media platforms entices marketers because they can reach more customers for less money. These platforms market specific products based on the data that they collect through their users. According to The Social Dilemma not only can social media market products to you, it can also mold and shape your opinion as well, changing your preferences over time. In the Social Dilemma several former Silicon Valley executives explain why this can be bad.

According to the documentary, social media is harmful due to its design and how it affects mental health. The purpose of these apps is to hold your attention captive for as long as possible. In order to do so, it is important that the app keeps providing fresh new content that is relevant to your preferences. Everything we do on our phones becomes predictive data for what we will do next. The ideal situation for social media platforms is that you will end up down the ‘rabbit hole’ of specifically tailored content because the longer you spend scrolling and clicking through social media, the more data these platforms can collect about you. According to the Social Dilemma, the rabbit hole is a dangerous place to be.

Social media in its initial design was not created to be hurtful. It was made to bring people together. The Social Dilemma states that big tech companies have strayed away from their initial creation story. Now, social media is about holding its audience captive, molding public opinion, and increasing sales through tailoring marketing. The content is distracting us from the serious ramifications that can come from spending all of our free time scrolling instead of engaging with the world around us. It makes us crave instant approval at all times, from people and the media.

The Social Dilemma does not condemn social media. This documentary supports social media, just not the way it’s currently working. The biggest take away from this documentary is that we have gotten lost in the rabbit hole and have to find our way out to preserve our privacy.

From the standpoint of a college student, I found this documentary to be eye opening. I believe that the average college student struggles with being addicted to social media platforms and our attention spans are shortening as a result. Reliance on social media directly correlates with the decline of in-person interaction and interpersonal communication skills. Companies such as Apple have released features on phones that track screen time in order to enlighten consumers on their usage. The ability to track usage is a tool for managing and limiting social media use. For college students, cutting down on social media consumption can positively impact mental health and productivity.

The Problem of Paying Attention in Online Classes

Currently, I subscribe to Bloomberg Businessweek. Instead of ranking MBA programs, this year they decided to report on a survey of students about switching to online classes. (in the Sept. 21 issue)

Overall, the reaction from students has been negative. They believe an online MBA is not as valuable as the traditional in-person experience.

Something MBA students state, which I have already heard from my own undergraduates, is that it’s difficult to focus during online instruction hours. If your face isn’t being watched through your webcam, then it’s tempting to “multitask” and not pay attention to the professor. I feel the same temptation when I join online research seminars.

What’s the most sympathetic view of this situation? Doing your online classes “isn’t that hard”. I feel like the scold looking over my bifocals at millennials saying, “going to a dry cleaner isn’t that hard”. (We millennials cannot be bothered to go to a dry cleaner.)

Here’s my first and brief thought: College students today have been taught to use screens for recreation by their parents.

Parents put kids in front of screens to get rid of them. I get rid of my own kids by putting them on screens. I ensure that they are not watching something evil.

I hope parents are diligently ensuring that their preteen daughters are not chatting up predators. What responsible parents have been told is to try to limit total screen hours and also to try to keep your child out of the digital equivalent of dark alleys.

That kind of guidance doesn’t teach students how to use screens constructively. They are suddenly being asked by teachers to be constructive on the screen. Some of them can hack it. Some of them can’t. None of them were prepared for this.

Your typical 20-year-old college student today must have done well in traditional classrooms because they did, after all, get admitted to college. But when they were on their screens, they were scrolling and gaming and indulging their impulses. As long as they physically showed up to class on Monday morning and turned in enough homework assignments, no adult was going to make them do chores on screens.

Since screens are here to stay, we need a lot more research on how to raise humans who know how to be responsible on screens.

No answers came to me when posed this question to the hive mind: