Notes from A Guide For the Young Economist (2)

This is a continuation of my previous post on this book.

First, a few tips on cleaning up your text.

1. Delete the redundant information or excessive use of clauses to make yourself across at the least cost of words. Instead of writing “the technology of the firms in the economy is convex”, trim it to “technology is convex” because it is obvious that the firms are the adopters of technology and they exist in the economy (p80 in the book).

2. Do not be obsessed with the word “assume” (or “is/are assumed”). It’s better to state “assumptions” once and list all of them. But when you want to emphasize some aspects of your model that are different from the existing literature, you may start a separate sentence of paragraph highlighting these.

3. Stick with plain words if you can deliver your message. Instead of writing “the set of Nash Equilibrium is nonempty”, write “Nash Equilibrium exists”. The latter expression gets rid of the nerdy feel in the text and makes your writing more accessible.

Then, Thomson talks about how to present a model effectively. I have found the following most useful.

1. When you are introducing your model, go from the infrastructure to the superstructure. For example, when describing a multi-stage game, introduce and describe each of the players separately before bringing them together. Follow the logical steps of defining actors -> relationship -> concepts based on actors and relationship.

2. A good yet under appreciated (in my opinion) way to prevent ambiguity is to avoid using multiple clauses. This is especially true for non-native speakers. Adding clauses will dramatically increase your chance of making grammatical errors. Moreover, badly placed and imbalanced clauses will disorient the reader.

3. When stating a difficult definition, assist the reader by giving an informal and intuitive explanation preceding the formal explanation.

4. Use one enumeration for each object category. Combining different categories into a single list saves your time at the cost of your reader.

5. When specifying your assumptions, make sure there is at least one example satisfying them. If you cannot think of an example, then your assumptions are likely to be practically useless even though they are mathematically meaningful.


Notes from A Guide to the Young Economist (1)

My department has offered a three-week course on writing and presenting in economics, and I have found one of the reference book, A Guide to the Young Economist, very useful. This posts summarizes a few points that I have generally ignored but are important.

1. Doing research is an iterative process. This shows up in the process of getting ideas and formulating questions. Do not get frustrated when you have to revise your research question, adopt a different theoretical model, change your empirical analysis due to data limitations, etc. Try to have fun in this iterative process: remember this is essential for you to become a good researcher.

2. The same iteration process applies to writing papers. Thomson makes the following point about circulating your work: send your paper to a few people that you’re confident who would give you feedback soon.

When you start circulating your paper, it if often better to proceed sequentially, at least initially. Send it first to a few people who are likely to respond and make suggestions. … Revise your paper according to the comments you get, and send it to a few more people. You may once again get suggestions. Revise it again. … After the suggestions have dwindled to a few minor comments, send it to a wider audience.

This approach allows you to acquire the most thoughtful advice (from the people who are most likely to respond) and to impress the people whom you need to impress.

3. Adding to the previous point, always consult your adviser before circulating your work, especially your original data.

4. When you have a specific question to discuss with your adviser, write that down first. Doing so will sharpen your thinking about the question (and maybe solve it!) and will demonstrate to your adviser that you have taken the initiative to solve it. I personally think each meeting with faculty is an opportunity to present your research ideas and to present you as a person.

5. Get into the habit of coming up with research ideas right from the beginning of your program. Carry a notebook with you to seminars and conversations about research and jot down any ideas that come to mind. Reflect on them regularly and see if they are feasible for research.

More thoughts in the next few posts.

Summer readings

Summer means I’ve finally got the time to read some non-economics/technical books. I highly recommend the following:

1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie Chang.

A documentary interwoven with a personal story. Life of the female migrant workers in Dongguan, Guangdong. Some of it reminds me of my early days in Hong Kong.

2. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng.

Wonderfully written story about race, cultural integration, and family. Anyone who has contemplated the question of “fitting in” versus “standing out” will find this novel deeply intriguing.

3. On the Run: Fugitive Life in a American City, by Alice Goffman.

Stories of young men in Philadelphia navigating through searches and raids.

4. The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, by Jonathan Katz.

5. Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, by Richard Dowden.

6. Globalization and Its Discontents, by Joseph Stiglitz.

A detailed, intriguing account of what international aid actually did after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Great writing.

5. The Road to Character, by David Brooks.

Reminds us to be humble and inspect ourselves often. An essential read.

6. 一个村庄里的中国,熊培云著。


Two great books on migration and identity

Since I created a Goodreads account, I have been reading more often lately (because of all the peer pressure?). I hope to recommend two excellent books on race, migration and the search of identity.

1. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. It describes the conflicts and confusion masked under the superficial harmony within an inter-racial family. It is about the delicate balance between “blending in” versus “standing out” for minorities; the universality of this topic extends the core ideas of the story beyond the particular context in the book. The language is simple and crisp.

2. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent. Compared with Celeste Ng’s book, this book is more of a documentary with recounted family history woven in. Through long-term friendships with the migrant girls from rural China to Dongguan, one the biggest migrant destinations in China in the 1990s, the author describes the life choices of these “factory girls”, how they adapted (or failed to adapt) to the city and how the city changed them in fundamental ways.

It is especially interesting to see how the author relates herself, a first-generation Chinese American, to the migrant girls.

Perhaps my strongest link to the girls was one they never knew: I, too, had left home. After graduating from college in America, I moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia. Altogether I lived abroad for fifteen years, going home to see my family once every couple of years as the migrants did. For a long time I resisted the pull of China. In college, I avoided Chinese American organizations and took only one Chinese-language class; I majored in American history and literature and wrote my undergraduate thesis on Larry McMurtry’s novels of the american West. In Prague, I reported on Czech politics and society for an expatriate newspaper. One winter day in 1992, a Chinese couple dragging their suitcases along the slushy sidewalk asked me for directions in Mandarin. I waited a long moment before answering, resentfully, in their language — as if they were forcing me back into a world I had already left behind.

Book Review “Only Hope: Coming of Age under China’s One-Child Policy”

319an3jQyyL._SY300_I’m writing a term paper on the strategic fertility behaviors under China’s One Child Policy, which means I’m starting to write about this subject again. A casual search at Duke library’s website led me to a wonderful book by anthropologist Vanessa Fong on the psychological well-being of singleton children in China.

As the author points out, the “one-child” policy embodies a cultural model that requires reduced fertility and increased per capita investment in children for modernization. Urban residents in Dalian, the city where Fong did her field research, seem to have internalized this model and agreed with the rationale of the birth control policy.

Demographic theorists argue that parents in urban environments are likely to want fewer children because children cannot contribute much to family income though they cost a lot of time and money. Then a natural question would be: does fewer children lead to higher quality of children? The answer is ambiguous.

Undoubtedly, singletons enjoy more resources and care from their parents because they have no siblings to compete with. The unlimited supply of parental care, combined with an aspiration to live a “first world life”, prompted many teenagers to spend heavily on brand clothing, video games and entertainment, and gift exchange. This became a burden for low-income parents who could barely make ends meet.

Being the only child in the family also means enormous pressure to “be successful”. While singletons enjoy all of parents’ resources when they are young, they have to take the full responsibility of taking care of their parents in the future. Since education is considered as the primary way to climb up the social class ladder, singletons are pressed hard to excel academically. Some break down in such pressure, as suggested by the rising suicide rates among Chinese youth.

Compared with their parents’ generation, singletons enjoy a lot more privacy and have a much stronger preference for private space. Many of them do not know how to defer to others, and it can be hard for them to adjust to new environments. Having lived in the school dorm since I was 12, I have witnessed how many “little princesses” transformed into considerate, caring young women that always take others’ perspectives into account. Living in the dorm creates a sibling-like environment where interpersonal skills are learned through constantly resolving conflicts. But singletons who have been sheltered by their parents might find it difficult to forge cooperative relationships when they enter the society.

It is fair to say that the “one-child” policy has empowered girls. Girls in my generation no longer have siblings to fund and are therefore able to accumulate more savings for personal development. The marriage market also works in favor of the girls because of the skewed sex ratio.

Book Review: The Idealist by Nina Munk

I heard about this book from Marginal Revolution. Here are some excerpts. It’s a concise and interesting book, great for anyone interested in economic development and foreign aid in Africa.

Journalist and author Nina Munk presented a vivid narrative of how Professor Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University initiated the Millennium Village Project, a large-scale development program aimed at eliminating extreme poverty and creating opportunities of economic development in Africa. The project has been subject to wide scrutiny especially from development economists like Esther Duflo ever since its birth. It is criticized as untransparent, poorly enforced, and sloppily evaluated.

Sachs expected the project to eradicate extreme poverty and provide a pathway for sustainable economic development among the ultra poor in Africa. This can be seen in his speech in Ruhiira, Uganda:

In five years we are going to end hunger in this community. In five years we are going to bring malaria completely under control. In five years we will have hospitals and clinics through the whole community. In five years you will have beautiful crops. Step by step, poverty will become something of the past!

He probably still holds this aspiration now. But from what I have read in this book, there are four main reasons why this project is unlikely to achieve its goals.

First, it is fundamentally hard to teach people how to be self-reliant, and simply giving them money is not a solution. Many African countries have been receiving aid for as long as they can remember, and their incentive to be self-dependent is low. As Ahmed Mohamed, the former director of MVP’s Dertu project, puts it:

Our people have refugee syndrome. There are so many handouts here. Free food, free medications, free water, free education. And now we come in and talk to them about empowerment.

Second, development projects initiated by foreigners but without the supporting local infrastructure is doomed to fail.

Third, development programs that are not aligned with preexisting market conditions are likely to fail. David Siriri, the person in charge of MVP’s Ruhiira office, once encouraged farmers to grow maize using effective farming methods, hoping that increased yields will lead to higher incomes for them. While the farmers did enjoy a big harvest, they were unable to sell their surplus maize because of the limited demand for maize. To increase the incomes of the poor, development agencies need to consider the dynamics of local markets as well.

Last but not least, cultural conventions and religious beliefs sometimes prevent program beneficiaries from making the most out of development projects. Believing that “everything is written” gives an individual little incentive to work hard because anything can be taken by a supernatural power at anytime. Traditions can also make people economically irrational. For example, Somalis hoard camels even when it makes no economic sense to do so, only because camels symbolize wealth in their culture.

It is a bit poignant for me to see villagers not appreciating the efforts of the MVP staff but asking for more. Common complaints about MVP include lack of transparency, inadequate community participation in decision-making, vaguely defined ownership, etc. Well, all the benefits brought by MVP are essentially a windfall for them, so I guess their high hopes for follow-up work is warranted.

Book review: Flowers for Algernon

Length and complexity do not define a great book; a deep theme and a suitable presentation do.

Like all thought-provoking books, Flowers for Algernon delivers different messages for different people. For me it reveals an important philosophy of life: it is compassion and love, not solely intelligence, that brings us happiness.

Charlie used to be a slow reader, his career restricted by low IQ and self-esteem lowered by discrimination from his mother and sister. But he had friends at the Bakery whom he could chat with and trust. His kindness and his lack of intelligence made him likeable. He stayed in a small but safe and comfortable environment but was eager to become more intelligent, or just to become normal “like everyone else”. This burning desire to learn led Charlie to undergo a risky operation which helped him become smart — probably a lot smarter than he could ever imagine.

As Charlie became smarter, he realized how others hid their selfishness under jokes and kind words. What he didn’t realize, though, was that selfishness is human nature which is found in everyone including himself. Suddenly, the bakery was no longer a warm home for him: it became a brutal circus stage where his foolishness was exhibited and laughed at, though the irony was masked under seemingly inadvertent jokes.

As Charlie’s intelligence grows at an overwhelming speed, he realized that everyone has limitations. He was constantly learning new things and exploring the world at higher levels. It is cool but too lonely sometimes.

It is scary to witness how Charlie turned into the kind of person he once hated: selfish, arrogant, and ignoring people whom he should cherish the most. His relationship with Fay was purely selfish: it was for him to overcome his fear of women. Fay was devoted to their relationship, but Charlie only wanted to have physical pleasure. By contrast, Charlie’s relationship with Ms. Kinnan is perhaps closer to love. Sadly, Charlie did not cherish Ms Kinnan when he could take care of her, and when he realized Ms. Kinnan was his true love he could only be a student in her class but not her lover any more.

The book is unique in its language and presentation. Narrated by Charlie, it creates an amazing intimacy between the changes in Charlie and the reader. This intimacy makes me the reader feel like I am living in Charlie’s world.

I will surely read this book again some time later, and hopefully I will be able to draw deeper insights from it as my life becomes richer. Thanks Jeff for recommending.