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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Commutes that Kill

My two hour commute last night from Intramuros to Libis, reminded me of this piece on Slate:
This week, researchers at Umea University in Sweden released a startling finding: Couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce. ... 
In 2006, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Princeton economist Alan Krueger surveyed 900 Texan women, asking them how much they enjoyed a number of common activities. Having sex came in first. Socializing after work came second. Commuting came in dead last. ... 
Long commutes also make us feel lonely. Robert Putnam, the famed Harvard political scientist and author of Bowling Alone, names long commuting times as one of the most robust predictors of social isolation. He posits that every 10 minutes spent commuting results in 10 percent fewer "social connections." Those social connections tend to make us feel happy and fulfilled. ... 
Those stressful hours spent listening to drive-time radio do not merely make us less happy. They also make us less healthy. The Gallup survey, for instance, found that one in three workers with a 90-minute daily commute has recurrent neck or back problems. Our behaviors change as well, conspiring to make us less fit: When we spend more time commuting, we spend less time exercising and fixing ourselves meals at home. ... 
It is commuting, not the total length of the workday, that matters, [Thomas James Christian of Brown University] found. Take a worker with a negligible commute and a 12-hour workday and a worker with an hourlong commute and a 10-hour workday. The former will have healthier habits than the latter, even though total time spent on the relatively stressful, unpleasant tasks is equal. 
Two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, actually went about quantifying it, in a now famous 2004 paper entitled "Stress That Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox." They found that for an extra hour of commuting time, you would need to be compensated with a massive 40 percent increase in salary to make it worthwhile.
Perhaps my time in the States has made me more irritable about Manila traffic, but it really is a waste of time. Plus with gas at ~50 pesos, how does our future look like?

Let me say this: if our public transportation gets better, and I can walk and commute with relative ease inasmuch as I do in the States today, then I will migrate back for sure.

HT to James Choi for the block quotes

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Let the Diploma Mills Be

Harvey Keh in his latest Manila Times column advices the government to close down low-quality nursing schools. I disagree. Harvey tells of the story of Edward, a minimum wage earner, who enrolled in a well-advertised nursing college only to fail the Nursing licensure examinations twice, ending up unemployed and unable to help his family, who invested heavily in him.

I see the problem that Harvey is citing, but I do not think his solution is commensurate to the situation at hand. If the main problem is that people are misled to enroll in "diploma mills", then the appropriate solution is to provide more accurate information for these "Edwards" to make better choices. Or at least to make sure all the information nursing schools provide are correct.

Believe it or not, some people, even with full information, are willing to pay to go to low quality schools. It's the same with cars: some people are willing to pay for used and low quality cars. Because of this, the market for low quality things should be kept open. Otherwise, all that will be left are high quality institutions at high unaffordable prices, inasmuch as all that will be left are high quality cars whose prices will be pushed upwards, to continue the analogy. That's just how supply and demand work. But not everyone can afford to go to an Ateneo or La Salle. Not everyone would even want to. In this scenario, more would not get to go to school.

But because I think that low education is still better than no education, I am skeptical of Harvey's advice.

Let the diploma mills be.

*Note that it's not even clear whether students are failing out because the schools are poor or because the schools simply attract lower quality students, but that's a totally different argument.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Filipino Food Into Escargot

Food is the main attraction in the Philippines. Whenever I come back, I always ask for what's new, and besides malls, people point me to restaurants that have opened up.

It takes different eyes sometimes to appreciate the huge variety of food here. My foreign friend jokes that in her stay here, she's now eaten food of every color. Red for rambutan, brown for adobo, white for lanzones, yellow for mango, and purple for ube and the Pili nut that Sorsogon is famous for. Okay, maybe except for blue.

One wonders why then, despite the richness of our food, international recognition of it has been lacking. My friend agrees that adobo would be an instant hit, so would halu-halo. But ask a random person in the US and most likely, he would hardly have a clue what Filipino food is. He would know Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, and Chinese, but not Filipino. It is disappointing, considering Filipinos make up a large portion of immigrants in the country.

The french cook snails, call it escargot, and suddenly it's a $100. It's snails for crying out loud. Present a product well, make an experience out of it, and it will sell.

Is there any way we can market adobo better? Is there a way to market our sisig, mangoes, pinakbet, bicol express, and bangus that will capture the imagination of the western world?

We bring our food overseas but cater it to the OFW market, like that Jollibee in New York. (Not that Jollibee is any good anyway.) But observe filipino stores, in general. Little effort is done to entice foreigners to take part in our food. We do not adopt them to a different palate. This is the problem.

The Bicol Express I had the other day was wonderful.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Notes from the Field: Getting the Feel

I need a foot massage. In the past three days, I have been accompanying Jaye, our program associate, back and forth Bulan, Irosin, and Sorsogon City to meet with our project's satellite offices, train encoders and to accompany them in some of their interviews. The bus rides have been long. The view, thankfully, has been scenic. We are trying to get people jobs abroad. We are trying to see what happens if the barriers to migration are lowered.

Jaye is an amazing project manager, and compared to her, I feel utterly useless. There is something I admire about her, coming to live here in rural Philippines, even for just a year, to leave a comfortable life in the States. In contrast, I am an eager PhD student, who seems to have brought the wrong guns to battle. The theories I have painstakingly learned in my first year are of no use here at the moment. I am no project manager.

Nevertheless, I am starting to get the feel of this place. I am realizing how important this is: to get a non-cognitive assessment, to take in the environment, to sniff out what the critical issues and questions could be in the research. Sure, many just sit in front of a computer and do some analysis, regressions. But analysis without experience seems impoverishing. At least for me, I feel like I would be able to write a much richer paper now that I will be here for some time.

What is the main benefit of a randomized control trial? Many have praised it for advancing our capability for causal identification in development. But now that I am here in the field, working on one such experiment, could it be that its main benefit has simply been that it has brought more development economists into the field?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cities aren't structures; cities are people

I have arrived in Sorsogon City in rural Philippines. Because I have yet to see action in our research project, and there is not much to do yet especially here in the province, I have taken to reading. Currently, "The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier" is proving to be compelling. In particular, this sequence of passages struck me:
Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project -- a new stadium or light rail system, a convention center, or a housing project. With very few exceptions, no public policy can stem the tidal forces of urban change. We mustn't ignore the needs of the poor people who live in the Rust Belt, but public policy should help poor people not poor places.

The hallmark of declining cities is that they have too much housing and infrastructure relative to the strength of their economies. With all that supply of structure and so little demand, it makes no sense to use public money to build more supply. The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren't structures; cities are people.

After Hurricane Katrina, the building boosters wanted to spend hundreds of billions rebuilding New Orleans, but if $200 billion had been given to the people who lived there, each of them would have gotten $400,000 to pay for moving or education or better housing somewhere else. Even before the flood, New Orleans had done a mediocre job caring for its poor. Did it really make sense to spend billions on the city's infrastructure, when money was so badly needed to help educate the children of New Orleans? New Orleans' greatness always came from its people, not from its buildings. Wouldn't it have made more sense to ask how federal spending could have done the most for the lives of Katrina's victims, even if they moved somewhere else.

Ultimately, the job of urban government isn't to fund buildings or rail lines that can't possibly cover their costs, but to care for the city's citizens. A mayor who can better educate a city's children so that they can find opportunity on the other side of the globe is succeeding, even if his city is getting smaller.
Bravo. Development strictly speaking is not about place, but about people. This should have implications on how we should think about migration and development.

Additionally, I am thinking of Manila, Bayani Fernando, and in some ways Gawad Kalinga. I am thinking of how we should go about rebuilding in areas perpetually hard hit by typhoon.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.

The passage is from a book I just finished, "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement." The focus is on the latest research about the brain, particularly the unconscious, and its implications on how one ought to live life. It reads like a Philo 104 discussion couched in a story, lighter and more entertaining. Keen observers will note that the gist is strongly anti-"the Tiger Mom" way of bringing up kids, referring to Amy Chua's latest book.

Highly recommended. Chapter after chapter, I found myself highlighting tidbits of info I'd like to repeat to myself later on as a guide to life. Some passages I would like to reuse as conversational pieces. Did you know, for instance, that

...most adults have a vocabulary of about sixty thousand words. To build that vocabulary, children must learn ten to twenty words a day between the ages of eighteen months and eighteen years. And yet the most frequent one hundred words account for 60 percent of all conversations. The most common four thousand words account for 98 percent of conversations. Why do humans bother knowing those extra fifty-six thousand words?

The rationalist approach by mainstream economics got bashed, while recent work in behavioral economics got praised. I do not mind. (Note though, as I always like to contend, that no serious minded economist actually believes that humans are perfectly rational beings. No one. It's just easier to start with a model that assumes rationality inasmuch as it is useful in physics to start with a world without friction. And that's when you put in complexity. For how else would one start? What would be the baseline?)

The book however is most rewarding in its discussion of moral reasoning. Plato is given a run for his money here:  The notion that morality is all about reason conquering one's passions is taken down. Goodness then, it is argued, is composed of emotion, passion, and perception. It is an argument I have not heard before.

After reading, I felt compelled to do a better job at life. Buy it.