Saturday, 26 July 2014

There is an app for that!

Everybody know that I like to talk about higher ed and tech together: flipped classroom, MOOCs and all that. The flipped classroom is in fashion on the Potch campus this semester, but I have always been worried about what to do in the classroom if the students did the reading, or watched the video and completed the online MCQs before they get to the class. The examples on the internet show that you can then use the time for Socratic discussion, class debates, more in-class cooperative learning etc, but those examples are hardly ever in classes of 200 and more.

Of course you can just try old school cajoling of students until they answer your questions, or put up the MCQs and get some answers by show of hands. It takes a special sort of enthusiasm to "work" with 200 people at a time.

Another solution to flipping a massive class (is it distance learning beyond the third row anyway?) is to add more tech to the ed. There are some cool examples of BYOD classrooms, screen sharing and many different student response systems. Unfortunately, none of them work in the underground bunker that I am teaching ECON121 in.

Until this week when I discovered plickers. It works like the show of hands or clickers system, but the in-class response the students use printed QR-like codes.

  • We did elasticity this week - they have a textbook, study guide and some video's explaining it. I then recapped a few key points and showed a few examples.
  • Then we practice the calculation and interpretation. The multiple choice questions are up on the PPTs.
  • The students get the printed code that shows options A through D.
  • When they are ready to answer they show the code and I scan them with my smart phone's camera.
  • Then I add a bit more explanation and those that have questions ask.
And it worked really well. They enjoyed the novelty and the scanning is quick. On my phone I see the following after each question: Question 4 had options A through to D. You can type up the whole question but I did not bother. You cannot add you options, only which one is the correct option - in this case B. Here 14 students answered the question correctly, choosing option B. Only 2 chose A and 1 chose C. You can also see the number of the response card and the option that they chose. Here, number 9 was incorrect with option A.

In my class of 200+ this could work nicely for checking group participation. If I assign students to groups and I know who is group number 9 or 16 or 12, I know that they missed this bit of the work. In small groups every student can have their own card and participation can easily be linked back to their other marks.

It is clickers made simple. You can read more about the use of clickers here, or just Google "using clickers in class". There are loads of resources out there.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Submitting to that better class of journal

Last month at an ERSA Economic History workshop James Fenske shared some ideas about how to do and write up economic history research for submission to top-5 economics journals. That sets a particularly high bar, but I think that his ideas apply more generally to normal people's efforts to submit to a slightly better class of journal. I finally got around to writing it up for the School blog yesterday.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Day of days on the interwebs

It was a big day on the interwebs. Johan made a post with Econ paper clickbait: the titles of famous economics papers re-imagined as clickbait. The sharing got us a mention by Justin Wolfers:

Then Nick Powdthavee shared this post from the Economic Job Market Rumours site:

The internal narrative has not been so reassuring lately and I could'a should'a written it myself. Feeling much better about it all now.

Monday, 2 June 2014

EdTech for higher ed

A few colleagues from our faculty have put together a workshop this week on using technology in your classroom. They want info and demonstrations of things that people are doing right now. I volunteered to talk a bit about the cloud services that I use, Dropbox and Evernote, and how I use the iPad app Explain Everything to make little voice-over-PowerPoint video's for the "flipped classroom". Here is my video of the story:

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Workshop on climate, geography and African economic history

This week I attended an ERSA economic history workshop and want to briefly report just how interesting it was.The theme was climate, geography and African economic history and there were a number of interesting papers.

James Fenske (in a paper with Namrata Kala) spoke about climate and the slave trade. They examine the influence of African factors on the supply of slaves, specifically environmental shocks. They have port-level data for the transatlantic slave trade as well as temperature, climate and climate shocks. Places that were cooler had higher productivity, lower mortality and more slavery (than warmer regions that typically had more tse tse flies and malaria). In warmer (drier) years these places experienced climate shocks that increased the cost of slavery and reduced the supply of slaves. They then go on to link this to modern development outcomes using light density at night to proxy for economic activity. The areas around the ports that received cold temperature shocks at the peak of the transatlantic slave trade are poorer today! In other words, their better agricultural productivity could not make up for the fact that they lost more people to slavery and had the institutions that made them lose people to slavery. Check out James' web site for the paper, slides and a link to a Vox.EU post. The paper is also a great example of thorough work. It controls for everything and checks robustness from every angle.

Ed Kerby also presented interesting work in the Kenyan railways from a paper with Remi Jedwab and Alex Moradi.The full title is History, path dependence and development: Evidence from colonial railroads, settlers and cities in Kenya. Their focus is on urban emergence, persistence and optimality using the exogenous placement of the so-called "lunatic line" as a natural experiment. The analysis shows that colonial railroads causally determined the location of European settlers, which in turn decided the location of the main cities of the country at independence. Railroads declined and settlers left after independence, yet cities persisted. The paper has some really interesting data and use of "placebo lines" to test the robustness of the results. It is well worth the read if you are interested in economic geography and economic history.

Alfonso Herranz-Loncan and Johan Fourie also presented some first-round work on the social savings of the South African railways. It is a paper to look forward to as we talk about modern day extension of infrastructure in South Africa.

And there were some other interesting papers on local labour markets, on settlement patterns and on climate change in Africa. All round a big success (the people + the Noordhoek venue + the visit to the District 6 museum). A special word of thanks is due to ERSA and Johan Fourie for making the workshop possible.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Economics research and some MOOC thoughts

I want to write a post about students calling for an overhaul of how Economics is taught. You have probably seen the posts - too mathematical, more heterodox stuff...(yada, yada). I think there is a possible project in there - asking fourth years about this, maybe starting a blog on which they can help co-create a syllabus. I'm going to get a team together and do something like this for a paper at next year's ESSA conference. But at the moment I can't make the time for enough reading for a sensible post. Give me a shout if this sounds like something you and your students would be interested in.

I have written about MOOCs before and following my reading of Average is over I also think that there are limits to what students will teach themselves online. There is a big role for professor as missionary and coach, and face-to-face higher ed is here to stay. And then I had my ideas confirmed by a post at the Education Outrage blog. It makes some good points, for example:

What is education? Its an experience, mentored by an expert, in which the student tries to accomplish something, fails, and then after some discussion with peers and mentors, tries again.
This is not a new idea, Most PhD programs work this way. But since universities care about undergraduates just enough to require a thousand of them to fill a lecture hall, now they are doing it online so the numbers can get much bigger. It's all about money. (And, to be honest, the fear of seeming to be falling behind.)
For me the big insight was how boring those lectured captured MOOC video's are. Watch any of them, or watch all that the post links to - you will have to be really motivated to work through a whole course like that on your own. I doubt if many of my students are. And that probably means that they are coming to class for other reasons than to hear me speak.

Luckily we are close to the end of the semester now, with more sensible posts (and hopefully classes) to follow after the exam.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

More on SoTL

At the end of last month I wrote a short post on the scholarship of teaching-learning and my concerns about the idea that lecturers can easily publish a bit of research about their teaching. The past two days I have attended a workshop on blended learning and how one would do research about blended learning. I learned a few interesting things.

The workshop was presented by Anthony Picciano of CUNY (check out his blog here) and hosted by by a new research entity at the Vaal Triangle Campus called TELHE: Technology Enhanced Learning for Higher Education.

We covered some of the issues in doing education research, the grand debate on the medium vs the message, research paradigms, methodologies and methods. Tony also outlined some topics for research in education technology.

If you are interested mainly in the education technology part, he also has a nice SlideShare presentation called Blending with purpose.

For me the best part was the prescribed reading. He provided us with examples of different questions and different methods used in this line of research:
  • Bowen et al. looks at interactive learning online at public universities. It is about the impact of interactive online learning on student outcomes. These are compared to more traditional face-to-face instruction using RCTs and speaks to an economist's post-positivism heart.
  • Han & Hill examines online discussions, and uses discourse analysis. The idea of collaborative, co-creation of knowledge is something that economists would think about in terms of networks, or learning-by-doing, but putting it in the education context and using discourse analysis is something else.
  • There were also two chapters from a book by Picciano et al. that I cannot link to. The one looked at student perspectives of engagement in a blended course and used a survey + a blog for some participatory action research. The other was about lecturers' perspectives of workload when they tackled online learning and used interviews and focus groups.
I still don't think that it will be easy for a regular economist to do research in this field. Just because you like to flip the class room, maybe blend face-to-face with online video's, quizzes or run a class blog, does not mean that you can easily publish papers about it. There will be lots of theories and new methods to learn. But it can definitely be interesting.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Links from the interwebs

Unfortunately I have not had time to think through a proper "20 years of democracy"-post for today. So I'm only sharing a few interesting links for my one reader to enjoy along with freedom!

First, an interesting post and cool map on industrial diversity in the US. Economic geography is still a first love for me.

Closer to home the International Growth Centre is doing enterprise maps for African countries.

The past week saw a torrent of Piketty reviews. I have not managed to read them all and I am thinking about a separate post with links to everything Pikkety. For now I can recommend Robert Solow's review in The New Republic (as @noahpinion tweeted, it is from the only guy with a working macro model, so you should read it).

Piketty resonated in SA with Hilary Joffe giving it a mention in Business Day and linking it to our inequality and redistribution issues.

In a related vein, Nancy Birdsall had a good post at the Centre of Global Development blog on why we should stop calling people living on between $2 and $10 per day "middle class". It also provides good perspective on the news stories of Africa's rising middle class.

Finally, a funny post on a "study" of the joke of how many historians it takes to change a light bulb and the response from the reviewers. I particularly like nr. 3:

Inestimably excellent and scarcely in need of revision. I have only two minor suggestions: instead of a joke, make it a haiku, and instead of light bulbs, make the subject daffodils.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The scholarship of teaching-learning

Yesterday I attended a colloquium on the scholarship of teaching-learning. I came away from it thinking that it is much tougher than what is being argued in institutional committees. All universities are now research focussed, but also have staff members who's first love is teaching. No problem says the managers. If you like doing different and interesting things with your class, why don't you also write a paper about it and we will get closer to our target outputs. While I am not against the idea of scholarship of teaching-learning - in every field there are a few people busy with 'whatever-your-field-is' education - I just want to say that it is tough and probably not the research growth area that bean counters are hoping for.

So here is some unsolicited advice to colleagues in the economic and management sciences who are interested in education research:

  • Yes, it would be interesting to know what the impact of the educational / pedagogical intervention that you try in class is on academic performance, but it is going to be a lot of work to get such a study published in an economics journal. It is already going to be a lot of work to use clickers, blogs, or the flipped classroom, but economist reviewers will be asking hard questions about causality. If you want to show that group work helps with learning, you will have to control for everything and unobserved heterogeneity - that means a panel study or a randomised control trial. Now this is hard core research and a world away from a first love for teaching and doing interesting, fun things in class.
  • Ok, you can say, forget the economists, I am going to try education journals with qualitative or mixed methods: develop a questionnaire, have focus groups and ask students what are their experience of group work and learning. But coming from an economics background you'll quickly realise that you don't speak the language of the journals and have not been trained in the methods. It is not group work, it is cooperative learning. And how does a good focus group discussion actually work? No R-squared there. Thus, to aim for education journals will mean that you have to do a lot of reading, get to know the schools of thought and the language and learn new methods.

Both of these are good options, but not quick or easy. We should not pretend that people who love teaching and are not that keen on on research can just go and write a few papers about what they do in class. MOAR research! may have to come from somewhere else.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A few good links: Economics and academia

Next month we are hosting the annual campus open day and I am thinking that the School of Economics should lead with the slogan: Come for the signalling, stay for the human capital! As it turns out, it is probably a combination of the two that matters. The blog Cognito Mentoring has an interesting post on why Economics majors in the US earn more than majors in the other social sciences. It could be:

  • That we teach them more employable skills,
  • That they have greater pre-existing ability,
  • That economics students seek higher paying jobs,
  • That they have a pre-existing desire to make money,
  • Or some signalling combination of all of the above.
The blog promises some evidence soon.

I also found a excellent post at The Blue Review on how academics spend their time. It is a long post, explaining the study, the sample, the method and results, but worth the read. We sometimes think that US academics are all important, high-impact researcher types, so it is heartening to read that the the average Joe also spend lots of time on the mundane tasks of academia. Scary amounts of time go towards meetings and emails. It also says that Departmental chairs work slightly fewer hours per week, so I am clearly doing something wrong!

But, if you are not caught in that rat race you may be an academic celebrity. The Chronicle had a good post this week on TED speakers, celebrity authors and bloggers. I wonder who their South African counterparts may be…

Finally, Felix Salmon had an interesting bit in Politico magazine and asked if there is a wonk bubble. It is all about the data journalism, storytelling and policy etc that you see in new sites like and and other familiar sites / mega blogs. He argues that the wonk bubble is still relatively small and the more wonkery there is, the more valuable it becomes. I am following both of the above via Flipboard and both have interesting content. 538 has more US content, sport etc that I am less interested in (but there was an interesting post on 'peak beard' today), but Vox has had some good pieces and posts with a nice flip card, web native format. Check it out and support the wonks.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

A few thoughts and links on inequality and on growth

As ever, there were a few interesting posts to read over the past week and I want to mention two:

Krugman's review of Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century is online at the New York Review of Books. He calls it awesome and writes amongst other things: "It therefore came as a revelation when Piketty and his colleagues showed that incomes of the now famous “one percent,” and of even narrower groups, are actually the big story in rising inequality. And this discovery came with a second revelation: talk of a second Gilded Age, which might have seemed like hyperbole, was nothing of the kind." Tables of this kind tell the story:
He gives an overview of the data collected, the theoretical view that such inequality is caused by the the rate of return to capital being higher than the rate of economic growth, the importance of inherited wealth and the call for wealth and inheritance taxation. When he does criticize, it is about the neglect of super-salaries in the US - where you can still do as well by becoming a hedge fund manager as you can by marrying wealth!

The book is being read and commented on by everyone - you can just try "Piketty " and "Capital" in Google. The Economist has a book club for Capital. The New Yorker summarised it in six charts. Marginal Revolution posted some good comments by Matt Rognlie following Krugman.

Get your Kindle copy here.

In a different vein Dani Rodrik had an interesting post at Project Syndicate blog on the way that developing economies are growing. He writes:

Even in countries that are doing well, industrialization is running out of steam much faster than it did in previous episodes of catch-up growth – a phenomenon that I have called premature deindustrialization. Though young people are still flocking to the cities from the countryside, they end up not in factories but mostly in informal, low-productivity services. Indeed, structural change has become increasingly perverse: from manufacturing to services (prematurely), tradable to non-tradable activities, organized sectors to informality, modern to traditional firms, and medium-size and large firms to small firms. Quantitative studies show that such patterns of structural change are exerting a substantial drag on economic growth in Latin America, Africa, and in many Asian countries.
This has a SA counterpart in Andrew Kerr and co-authors' article in the latest issue of the SAJE. On the topic of job creation and destruction they write:
We also find that larger firms are better net creators of jobs than small firms and that net job creation rates are negative in manufacturing. Our research has important policy implications – particularly for the South African National Planning Commission's 2030 plan, in which new jobs are envisaged to come mainly from small- and medium-sized firms. Our research suggests that this scenario is not likely without changes to policy or legislation.
Food for thought all round.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Links from the interwebs

Once I get interested in something, I see it everywhere. The posts and articles that I tag "future of jobs" have been everywhere recently:

  • The economist had two interesting pieces: We, robot and How productive are robots? The first argues that distributed knowledge, or the so-called extended mind of the cloud is going to fuel further automation. The second compares the productivity of robots across countries. Ryan Avent concludes with the paragraph:
There is another possibility, however, which is simply that robots are straightforward substitutes for labour, not complements. Robots are labour-augmenting in the sense that fewer workers are required to produce a given level of output, but not in the direct sense that might allow for roboticisation to generate higher wages. Robots generate more income for the owners of the firm's capital, and unless there is an institutional structure in place to compel the owners to share those gains (as in some European economies) the income benefits of higher productivity escape workers entirely. Maybe.

  • In a related vein J Bradford DeLong writes in a Project Syndicate piece that Marx was wrong about capital and labour being substitutes, but that may not be the case today: Marx and the mechanical Turk
If you are interested in inequality (who is not these days?), have a look at the Chartbook of Inequality.

Finally, if you wonder whether a developmental state can something about unemployment, poverty and inequality in South Africa, read Philippe Burger's new ECON3x3 post, drawing on his Presidential Address at last year's ESSA meeting.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Average is over: Future of Economics

For the final part of my Average is over posts I want to share some of Tyler Cowan's thoughts on the future of Economics.

In chapter 11 of the book he writes about the end of average science. He argues that science is going to become harder to understand for three reasons:
  • The problems are ever more complex and simple, intuitive, big breakthroughs are unlikely.
  • Individual contributions are becoming more specialised, and
  • Soon intelligent machines will become researchers in their own right.
He goes on to explain how machine intelligence and specialisation are reshaping theoretical mathematics and physics, and how the average age of Nobel Prize winners has increased over time. Once machine science goes beyond human understanding - think of proofs in the multi-dimensions of string theory - science will also become harder to regulate. But what does all that mean for Economics?

Cowan argues that in recent times data gathering and crunching has been pushing out theoretical intuition. (if this sound interesting, also read Noah Smith's post on the death of theory) Economists still like their models but, "the real action and value-add comes from the data and its handling, including data from field experiments, laboratory experiments and from randomised control trials". Sooner rather than later, big data will reinforce the use of machine intelligence in Economics. Data from, for example, your social media profiles, online shopping and loyalty cards will be looked at by a computer programme and it will search for patterns in more complex ways than researchers can do. Cowan hopes that this will reinforce our understanding of some basic regularities behind economic phenomena. He goes on to write:
We are not far a way from having a single de facto, more or less unified, empirical social science. In that social science, researchers invest a lot in learning empirical techniques and then invest some marginal energies in the simpler theories that surround their chosen field of study. Finally, they spend their research time looking for new data sets, or looking to create that data, whether by detective work or by lab and field experiments.
I'm sure this sounds familiar.

He goes on to write that economists who favour more intuitive approaches will have to take a different approach to survive. They will focus less on producing their own original research and will become clearinghouses for and evaluators of the work of others. That means translating the work of others for fellow economists and for the public. It is about seeking out, absorbing and evaluating information.

If you are blogging already, this will sound familiar too.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Links from the interwebs

I had to delete my post with the links to recent posts and articles on inequality, Piketty, social mobility and what it means to be middle class in SA - formatting issues. I'll try this again later this week. For now a few interesting links to check out:

  • Every bureaucracy probably has one, but this example from the Washington Post makes for an amazing story: There is a mine where US federal government workers process the retirement documents of government workers by hand!
  • In the spirit of the 'Average is over' posts this story from Washington University's Department of Economics: They are offering a spring course in Machine Learning Economics.
  • And Datanami has some examples of how big algorithm are changing the world.
  • Fast Company has an excellent article on the so-called gig economy: trying to use apps and services like TaskRabbit and Postmates to be a micro-entrepreneur.
  • Finally at WCI Frances Wooley has a great post about the wrong things that beginner econometricians get worked up about. A keeper to post to the LMS.

Average is over: Future of Academia

In Average is over Tyler Cowan argues that the future of work will be about working with intelligent machines and how effectively we will do that, will depend a lot on education.

Part of the story about education is online education as one of the places where new information technologies is playing a role. Think MOOCs, but also of blogs, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube and TED. Cowan argues that there are new ways of learning and they are based on the following principles:
  • Time-shifting,
  • User control,
  • Direct feedback,
  • Online communities, and
  • The packaging of information into much smaller bits than the traditional lecture or texbook chapter.
So does he believe in the "disruption" and "revolution" that people have been blogging about? Not quite. He highlights some of the important features of the economics of online education that will influence the role it can play: that it will be cheap, that it is flexible, that the profits from teaching innovations will be high and that it allows for much more precise measurement of learning. But then goes on to argue that online education and learning games will supplement current systems.

He makes an interesting point about who will provide online education to supplement current systems. The MOOC model is to be replicable and universal. The business model of universities is to market the quality of exclusivity. Though Harvard and Princeton provide MOOCs, they are unlikely to dilute their brands by providing credits and having thousands of partial alums walking around.

Cowan says that online education will be egalitarian in a specific way: smart, motivated learners from non-elite communities will use it to get ahead, but it will not push the uninterested student to the head of the pack. "This kind of learning is driven by the hunger for knowledge, not by a desire to show off your talent or to "signal" as we economists say".

Given all this, what will the new world of face-to-face teaching look like?

Probably something like the so-called flipped classroom that everyone is talking about: watch a video on YouTube, come to class for some discussion, practice to homework problems on the e-learning system. Cowan writes: "It will become increasingly apparent how much of current education is driven by human weakness, namely the inability of most students to simply sit down and learning something on their own". He argues that the better performing students will be treated like the chess prodigy's are today - they use intelligent software to teach themselves, they cooperate with each other and they get guidance and feedback from coaches. "Their conscientiousness, and the understanding that high wages await them in the world, will enforce hard work and discipline". The lesser performing students will specialise in receiving motivation. In this, there are some choice bits that made me smile:
Education will become more like the Marines, full of discipline and team spirit.
The teacher is first and foremost a role model and a motivator and to some extent an entertainer.
In the longer run, professors will need to become more like motivational coaches and missionaries.
We could think of the forthcoming educational model as professor as impressario.
Let's treat professors more like athletics coaches, personal therapists, and preachers, because that is what they will evolve to be.
 And then finally:
Of course, educational institutions are not ready to admit how much they share with churches. These temples of secularism don't want to admit that they are about simple tasks such as motivating the slugs or acculturating people into the work habits and sociological expectations of the so-called educated class.
I think that it is an excellent chapter and well worth the read.

And what do I think it means for me and colleagues in the School? For example, should I jump into edtech and develop an e-guide, make video's or apps? It depends.

If your resource is uniquely interesting and well explained, you could have a world market for it. If you are just animating your PowerPoints because the Dean says so, you are probably better off curating resources than creating it. I think that there is already a lot of good resources out there. My contribution can be in how I put them together for my students.

Whether you decide to create or curate, the next question you should ask yourself is whether it will help the conscientious students to teach themselves, or whether it is aimed at inspiring and motivating the others. I frequently hear the hope expressed that interactive pdf's or slick mobile apps will engage this new generation. But I fear that nice graphics and pop-up messages are the sort of things that everyone gets used to very quickly. If we accept the idea of being coaches and preachers I think that it is obvious that you should spend your extra time on your live show in class, on getting to know your student, on being that real-life exemplar - not creating more e-resources.

I think that we should all think back to the professors who inspired us in the days before e-learning. Were they the ones who read from the book, or had perfect over-head projector transparencies, or a nice list of prescribed reading? The modern day equivalents are the e-guides and apps. Or were they the ones who could motivate and inspire? Now put that in your twitter.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Average is over: Future of work

I suppose that it started with Beyond 2000 and today I always click on the Twitter links to stories about technology and how it is shaping the future. So, speaking at a leadership event hosted for first-year students, I thought the natural choice is to talk about the future of work. There is a lot of stuff out there on the internet and I decided to anchor the story with Tyler Cowan's new book Average is over. But this is not a book review, it is some of my thoughts, inspired by the book and a bunch of other sources.

I started drawing on a piece called Better than human, in Wired magazine: suppose that before the end of the century 7 out of 10 people will lose their jobs. In the early 19th century 70% of American workers lived on farms and today automation has eliminated all but 1% of their jobs. This will happen again on farms, in factories and to white collar jobs. It is driven by globalisation and what Cowan calls the increasing productivity of intelligent machines.

Before we get to what this means in terms of job polarisation, inequality and average being over, lots of people need some convincing about the technology. The internet is awash with interesting sites an stories:
  • The blog RobotEnomics has categories on AI, driverless cars, drones, the machine economy.
  • For the possible future of manufacturing have a look at the factory for Tesla's model S.
  • For logistics have a look at these Kiva robots at work (the telling part is how personal it gets but the people are referred to as "warehouse associates"). PS. We already know that working for Amazon is no picnic, but even those jobs are clearly in danger.
  • And it is not only large-scale manufacturing or distribution processes that are being changed by technology. Have a look at Baxter. He is designed to work alongside people, is easy to train and relatively cheap. Get Baxter and a 3D printer and traditional blue collar jobs are changing.
  • And then there is iRobot's Ava 500 robot: "telepresence-on-a-stick". I could send it to a few of my meetings.
At a very basic level the point is that in the future we need to work with intelligent machines and that makes for the importance of education and training.

The Wired article breaks down the changes in the workplace of the future into four parts:
  • Current jobs that humans cannot do, but machines can: think of making a computer chip, or internet search, or high-frequency trading.
  • Jobs that humans do today, but machines will eventually do better: think of auto pilots, computerised mortgage appraisal, x-ray analysis, pretrial evidence gathering, telemarketing.
  • Jobs that only humans will be able to do, at first: the advances lie in speech recognition, Watson winning at Jeopardy, algorithms writing like journalists and deciding what movies should be made.
  • Robot jobs that we cannot imagine yet.
Average is over emphasises that we are not in a race against machines but with them. The key question is whether you will be good at working with intelligent machines. Cowan's best examples are from the world of free-style chess - humans have to decide on the openings and strategy but software is used for tactical play, humans have to look for the gaps or turning points in the game, but they use the software to play out the probabilities many moves deep. The future belongs to effective man-machine teams. But he thinks that does not mean that everyone has to learn to write code. Only that you will have to understand how the systems work and what their failings are likely to be.

This has any number of implications for everything (as a scary side note, read Noah Smith's post on drones and the end of the age of the gun), but for the future of work it means futher polarisation. It means pressure on middle-skill, middle-wage jobs. A lot has been written about this already, so I am only going to give a few links:
And the end result is likely to be more inquality. Owners of capital and supermanagers will have a greater share of wealth (Piketty, again!).

In the book Cowan goes on to explain who will prosper in the new wold. You can read the short version on the NYT Opinionator blog.
  • If education and training is everything for working with intelligent machines, then open education will benefit the conscientious.
  • People who listen to computers will benefit: from recommending web pages, to products, to partners on dating sites etc., computers can deal with more data and parse out better decisions that most of us who go with our gut. And your smart phone will push this info to you.
  • If you have the human touch to manage and motivate. We still need people for that.
In the book he also proposes other ways in which people will deal with this changing world of under-employment and lower incomes. Amongst other things he hopes that they will move to live in more affordable places and waste less money on useless stuff.

But before we get to the future I still want to write posts about what this all means for higher education and for Economics. It really is a thought-provoking book.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Thinking about the future of work

I agreed to do a talk at a student leadership get together next weekend and have been wondering what an economist can talk about. A first thought was to tell a roots of development story, throw in some institutions and then leadership. But that might be a lot to think about if you're a first-year student spending your Saturday morning listening to lesser-known experts.

So I though the future of work, the data society and machine intelligence story could be interesting. I don't have anything ready yet, but want to share a few links:
  • Johan probably made me think about this when he wrote about technology, robots and MOOCs why his and my jobs are probably safe.
  • I wrote about the knowledge sharing, co-working story last year, with reference to MOOCs.
  • If you are still worried that open-education and MOOCs might disrupt your academic work, Acemoglu and some co-authors has a math model showing that web-based educational technologies will complement your work.
  • Last week I also caught a Project Syndicate post on the displacement of workers by intelligent machines.
The bulk of my story will probably be inspired by Tyler Cowan's book Average is over. I am about a third of the way in and he makes some interesting points about teams working with intelligent machines and the lessons from freestyle chess. Earlier this year he shared a few thoughts on the NYT Opinionator blog on who will do well in the future: the conscientious, people who listen to computers, those with a marketing touch and motivators.

And of course I plan to mention movies: Gattaca, Minority report and Elysium. Any other good ones that anyone would like to recommend for machine intelligence driven future dystopia? For things turning out really bad there is Terminator and The Matrix. Battlestar Galactica? But maybe this is going too far from "the future of work" topic!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The budget and some links from the interwebs

This week the Minister of Finance read the 2014/15 Budget Speech in Parliament. These days everyone has opinions out and nice infographics and you can find these everywhere. I also made some points at the School blog. Mainly about the three gaps that we face. I also had the opportunity to speak about it on the campus radio station PUKfm - thanks Carla!

For interesting views about the budget have a look at these links:
  • On the one hand Mike Schussler worries about the debt. Dawie Roodt also made similar points on Robinson Regstreeks.
  • On the other hand Christopher Malikane made some excellent points about the three gaps as well. I don't agree that the solution is a developmental macro policy, but his point that the budget does not lay the basis for economic transformation is true.
There were some other interesting links worth sharing as well:
  • On the use of logarithms in Economics.
  • The Economist starting its "book club" reading of Pickety's Capital.
  • The idea of "home college" (like home schooling) from the Marginal Revolution blog.
  • MR also made a post about new research that shows that Catholics were much less likely to vote for the Nazi's. I thought the last part of the abstract was interesting: "We are currently testing multiple hypotheses to explain this effect and are in the process of collecting additional data". To me this is the power of working papers and blogs: get the work out there and get people to discuss it, even if it is not quite finished or perfect
  • We are currently testing multiple hypotheses to explain this effect and are in the process of collecting additional data - See more at:
    We are currently testing multiple hypotheses to explain this effect and are in the process of collecting additional data - See more at:

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Academic writing and the blogosphere

Following on the previous post's links to the plea for academics to have a voice in the real world, I discovered an article and a blog post that makes some good points.

Chris Blattman links to an argument that "some stuff that applied academics do shouldn’t be things that are easily explained to your family at Thanksgiving". It warns against the Freakonomics-ization of Economics. Blattman writes that there are academics who do well at having a voice in the real world and who enjoy it, but "we wouldn’t want the public intellectualism to crowd out deeper research".

In an interesting article in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman argues that
It won’t do any good, in short, to ask professors to become more populist. Academic writing and research may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish—but that’s because academia has become that way, too.
This is very much the South African view about why no Economics Profs are regularly writing op-eds in the Business Day - in an increasingly competitive system you have to write for colleagues, journal editors and reviewers and NRF rating panels. There is little scope (and time left in the day) for being a public intellectual.

I think that academic research and having a voice in the real word can be complements in production, but then again, I would since I'm typing this on a Sunday afternoon one of the two blogs that I try to keep going!

If your are interested in find such a voice, the Impact of Social Sciences blog at the LSE, has some good thoughts.

If you are busy with academic research, you'll be glad to know that the Development Impact blog now has a list of posts on technical topics!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The econoblogosphere

Everyone knows this is a favourite topic of mine and this week there has been links to share to interesting stories:

In the New York Times Nicholas Kristof wrote: Professors, we need you! saying amongst other things: 
Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.

There were quite a few responses including:
Chris Blattman posted an interview with him on how social media is shaping academia.

The New Yorker had a good article on Eric Jarosinski, the Prof behind @NeinQuarterly and how he "developed a crisp, allusive, irreverent Twitter voice: “Signifying nothing is harder than it looks.”"

Finally, John Cochrane, The Grumpy Economist, had an excellent blog on Mooconomics. He has some really good thoughts about massive open online learning. Read the whole thing.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

A few thoughts on demand management and the SA economy

So many ideas so little time to write blogs. But I have been writing a few Afrikaans posts on the School's blog. They are part of the resources we are trying to develop for high school Economics learners.
  • The first is on the demand side of the economy: C + I + G + X-Z and how monetary and fiscal policy can be used to manage aggregate demand.
  • The second links this to the SA economy and policymakers' room to maneuver at the moment. The short answer is that is is little that the Reserve Bank and/or the Minister of Finance can do at the moment to boost aggregate demand and economic growth.
Waldo, Mr Uctu, Prof Jafta, Prof du Plessis and Dr Boshoff

In addition I made a quick visit to Stellenbosch for a PhD defence this week. It was a first for me, in South Africa and as part of the panel. The candidate, Mr Uctu worked on bio-technology firms that are spun off from universities and presented some interesting results.

Also, MSc classmate and friend from Warwick, Nick Powdthavee was in the international news with his research. In new work with Andrew Oswald he found that winning the lottery makes people more right-wing. They got mentions by:
along with many newspaper stories and some TV coverage. Congrats Nick.

Finally, a link to a cool post in the @Noahpinion archive: Economists, release your inner nerd! I particularly liked the bit: "But for Milton Friedman's sake, don't be a science nerd!"

Thursday, 30 January 2014

SA economy: The rand, exports and interest rates

I wanted to start my throwing around of ideas about the South African economy with a simpler story of the drivers for growth, but this week the depreciation of the exchange rate and repo rate increase by the Reserve Bank makes for the big news.

One of the stories is that the weak rand will help to boost exports. Mike Schussler ripped into this idea earlier but also talked about a lot of the other challenges facing the SA economy. Depreciation of the rand cannot be seen as a growth strategy.

To add some academic perspective I wrote a post on the School blog drawing on a paper by Lawrence Edwards and Robert Garlic. The heart of the story is the following:
At an aggregate level there is a positive association between exchange rate depreciations and export performance. Edwards and Garlic lists the results from a range of studies and show that “a one percent rand depreciation is estimated to raise long-run manufacturing exports by 0.78 to 1.38 percent”. But this aggregate relationship fails to capture changes in competitiveness at the sectoral level. Their evidence shows that primary products are less responsive to exchange rate shocks than manufactured products. Non-gold merchandise exports (including manufacturing) are less responsive to exchange rate shocks than manufacturing alone. There are also differences across manufacturing sectors: the export response in natural resource-based and machinery & metal products sectors is generally lower than in labour intensive, chemical-intensive beneficiated sectors. And what about the channels through which the exchange rate affects exports? The evidence shows that South African exporters of manufactured goods are price takers in the international market. That means that export growth is not constrained by inelastic foreign demand or an inability to price competitively in the international market. This sound like promising news the minister would like to hear, but as always there are caveats: 
  • The extent of an export boom depends on the composition of exports. Historical evidence showed that manufactured exports are likely to benefit more than commodity exports, but looking at the nature of South Africa’s top-20 exports (from Edwards & Alves in SAJE, 2006) one sees that manufactured exports make up a small part of the mix.
  • The length of an export boom depends on competitiveness, specifically on the cost of imported inputs and labour. The evidence shows that nominal depreciations have not sustained the profitability of exports. Domestic producer prices are very responsive to changes in the exchange rate – a 1 percent rise in import prices has raised domestic producer prices by between 0.85 and 1 percent in the long run.
Even if exporters are winners for a while, the South African consumer is a clear loser when the rand depreciates. Yesterday Neil Rankin tweeted a link to a paper that he wrote with Aron, Creamer and Muellbauer on the exchange rate pass-through to consumer prices. They found that:
overall pass-through to the almost 63 per cent of the CPI covered is about 30 per cent after two years, and higher for food.
Finally, I found this nice tweet on research about the use of interest rates to defend a currency. It is in the context of fixed exchange rates and in the South African case we are not really defending the rand, but rather the current account and fighting inflation expectations, but it still offers an interesting take-away: higher interest rates helps a bit, but only for a while.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

2014 blogging resolutions

It is a new year and I have plenty of resolutions for 2014. One is to try and write more frequently and more sense. If you are dubious about resolutions, have a look at this post by Alain de Botton at the School of Life's page. He writes:
...we need resolutions - even if we don’t actually manage to carry them through or rather, precisely because we rarely manage to do so.
and why is the public nature of resolutions useful?
...because it can be useful to back up our own resolve with the pressure that stems from the expectation of others.
So, aside from links shared and the odd post about my teaching or research, I have a few ideas for a blogging agenda for 2014.
  • Over at the School blog I want to start putting economics resources together for secondary school learners. For almost every topic in their curriculum it is recommended that they also have a look at newspapers, magazines, the internet. I think there is a nice opportunity to translate some academic research for them, share data etc.
  • 2014 is an election year and on face value, a bit part of it will be about the economy. For the ANC's manifesto "President Jacob Zuma said the party would continue to focus on job creation, rural development, land reform, food security, education, health and fighting crime and corruption". They aim to create at least 6 million jobs over the next five years! The point is that there is going to be a lot of nonsense out there and it might be useful to translate some academic research to inform the discussion. Is there a place for a voice of reason? I say let's forget the party politics and ask what research has shown about the nature of growth, or unemployment in South Africa.
I think these are big ideas. Let's see how it goes.