Friday, February 01, 2008

What Will Economists Say to Get Quoted in the New York Times?

While I haven't done a formal analysis, I've always thought that the New York Times likes to quote Harvard professors. I know that they are an excellent set of scholars but holding "quality" constant, Harvard is an outlier. In such a world of "Harvard Discrimination", non-Harvard academics either have to do something impressive or say something sufficiently strange to merit being mentioned in the Times.

Recall Gary Becker's PHD thesis --- if a group such as women are discriminated against in the labor market then the select set of women who do get promoted to partner at a law firm must be extraordinary.

With that drumroll, I now present an article in today's New York Times with a sufficiently wacky quote from myself. John Leland is a very smart guy. While his core thesis was a little off-beat, I sensed that he was looking for some intellectual "firepower" to back up his thesis. You will see that he creates some tension below ---- citing 2 academics who call his idea cute but small potatoes and then uses me to buttress his claim.

New York Times
February 1, 2008
Reporter’s Notebook
From the Housing Market to the Maternity Ward

For the first time in 35 years, America’s total fertility rate — the estimated number of children a woman will have in her lifetime — reached 2.1, the theoretical level required to maintain the country’s population, according to recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Demographers caution that it is too soon to say whether the increase is a blip or a trend, or to determine its causes, which may include changes in the economy, immigration and the availability of abortion. “All this could turn around on a dime,” said Stephanie J. Ventura, chief of the reproductive statistics branch of the statistics center.

But at a time when no cocktail conversation is complete without a discussion of real estate, the boomlet raises a question that has long interested social scientists: What is the relationship between fertility and real estate?

In the wide-open mortgage climate early this decade, creative loan products allowed more people than ever to buy homes, often a precursor to having children. In 2006, the babies arrived — a reminder, perhaps, that if you build it, they will toddle.

Is real estate destiny?

“It’s something a bunch of us have been thinking about,” said Morris A. Davis, an assistant professor of real estate and urban land economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business. “If you reduce down-payment constraints, more people can buy homes, or buy bigger homes. Does that encourage them to have more kids? I would say nobody knows.”

Social scientists have long traced a connection between housing and fertility. When homes are scarce or beyond the means of young couples, as in the 1930s, couples delay marriage or have fewer children. This tendency helps account for the relatively dismal birth rates of many developed nations, said Robert Engelman, vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization, and author of the forthcoming “More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want.”

“One reason there are so few children in Italy is that housing is so hard to come by,” Mr. Engelman said. “Houses are bigger in the U.S. and generally more available. That may help explain why Americans have more babies.”

Several population specialists emphasized that housing is just one influence on fertility, and difficult to tease out from other factors, like income or optimism. “If you lower the cost of housing, you’re going to lower the cost of raising a child,” said Seth Sanders, director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland. “But if you look at how much it costs to raise a child, only one-third of the cost is housing. So my guess is that the impact is not very large.”

But Matthew E. Kahn, an economist at the Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggested another way housing trends might be complicit in the baby boomlet of 2006. For decades, Americans have built increasingly bigger houses, even as family size declined. Bigger houses mean incentives to stay home and fructify, Mr. Kahn said.

“Those ARM-financed McMansions are in the middle of nowhere, where land is cheap,” he said, using the acronym for adjustable-rate mortgage. “That increases the time it takes to get to work, meaning it raises the cost for women to go to work. That should increase fertility.”

The 4,265,996 babies born in 2006, the most since 1961, reflect increases in birth rates for women in all parts of the country and nearly every demographic group studied — including teenagers, whose rate had dropped every year since 1991. The only decline was among girls under 15.

But that does not mean the new arrivals look like their parents’ generation. For starters, they are much more likely to be Hispanic, to live in a red state and to be part of an evangelical Christian family.

Hispanic women in 2006 gave birth at a rate corresponding to lifetime averages of 2.96 children per woman, compared with 2.11 for non-Hispanic black women and 1.86 for non-Hispanic whites. The fertility rates for Hispanic immigrants were higher than those in many of their countries of origin, including Mexico, where the rate is 2.4, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

General birth rates were highest in Republican strongholds like Utah (94.1 births per 1,000 women), Arizona (81.6), Idaho (80.9) and Texas (78.8). They were lowest in states won by John Kerry in 2004, including Vermont (52.2), New Hampshire (53.4), Maine (54.5), Rhode Island (54.6) and Massachusetts (57). The rate in New York was 61.1, well below the national average of 68.5. The rate in New Jersey was 64.4; in Connecticut, 58.8.

The report does not include information on religion or socioeconomic status, but researchers have long linked religious observance and affiliation with higher rates of fertility, even attributing the growth of evangelical churches and decline of mainline Protestant churches to differences in fertility rates.

In a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of evangelicals said they had children, compared with 73 percent of nonevangelical Protestants and 62 percent of those who described themselves as secular. For Catholics and Protestants, the more often they attended services, the more likely they were to have children.

Ms. Ventura of the health statistics center said it was unusual that 2006 birth rates rose for both teenagers and older women. In the past, a strong economy “contributed to a decline in the teenage birth rate, because they saw they could get good jobs, so they put off childbirth,” she said. “For older people, a good economy makes them say, ‘We can afford to have another child.’ ”

With their low birth rates, Europe, Japan, China and parts of the Middle East face the burden of shrinking productive work forces and aging populations (a vicious cycle: gloomy economic prospects lead to low birth rates, which lead to gloomy economic prospects). For the United States, then, the boomlet is a healthy sign, said Michael Rendall, director of the Population Research Center at the RAND Corporation, a research group. “It’s not a huge amount, but it’s a sign in a positive direction. Timing is very important.”

Mr. Rendall considered the cohort born in 1960, at the height of the baby boom. In 2040, when that group turns 80, the people born in 2006 will be in their prime earning years, he said. “The baby boom peak will be benefiting from 34-year-olds born in 2006. They’ll be in the labor force just in time.”

The recent downturn in the economy and the housing market bodes poorly for a continued boomlet. Last year, the National Association of Home Builders reported that houses had stopped growing. Foreclosures discourage people from having children. “What could be happening now is that people will have wealth shock, and reduce need for everything, including children,” said Mr. Sanders of the Maryland Population Research Center.

Which would drive down house prices, making homes more affordable. Which could start the cycle again.


Boyd said...


The most rigorous part of the dissertation includes the

Methods Section
Study Design
Research questions and hypothesis formulation
Development of instrumentation
Describing the independent and dependent variables
Writing the data analysis plan
Performing a Power Analysis to justify the sample size and writing about it

Results Section
Performing the Data Analysis
Understanding the analysis results
Reporting the results.
When you enter this phase of the program, you are nearing the end of the journey. Given the difficulty of this phase, one often wishes they had previewed what was to come.
Many Ph.D candidates seem to hit a brick wall and feel disarmed when called upon to work on the methods and results section of their dissertation.
This is the point where many students diligently search for help calling on their advisor, peers, university assistance and even Google.
This is also the time when the student asks themselves the question" HOW MUCH HELP IS TOO MUCH".
Surely no one will deny that having your dissertation written for you is very wrong.

On the other hand, it is not unusual for doctoral students to get help on specific aspects of their dissertation.(e.g. APA formating and editing) It also is not unusual for advisors to encourage students to seek outside help.

If you are a distance learning student it is almost essential you seek outside assistance for the methods and results section of your dissertation. The very nature of distance learning suggest the need for not only outside help but help from someone gifted in explaining highly technical concepts in understandible language by telephone and e-mail.

Distance learning, and the avaiability of programs, has increased exponetially over the last few years with some of the most respected institutions (Columbia University, Engineering; Boston University and others) offering a Ph.D in a variety of fields. If you are enrolled in a distance learning program, or considering one, you will be interested in reviewing the reference sites listed at the bottom of this page.

As stated above, many students hit their dissertation "brick wall" when they encounter the statistics section. Frequently, a student will struggle for months with that section before they seek a consultant to help them. This often leads to additional tuition costs and missed graduation dates.

If I were to name a single reason why a PhD candidate gets off track in their program it is the statistics and their fear of statistics.

So, the question is whether or not it is ethical to get help at all. If so, how much help is too much.

I don't know if there has ever been a survey of dissertation committee members who were asked this question, however, I know many advisors take the following position when they suggest or approve outside help:

To a large extent the process is self controlling. If the student relies too much on a consultant, the product may look good, however, the student will be unable to defend his/her dissertation.

It takes a committed effort on the part of the student and the consultant (resulting in a collaborative/teaching exchange) to have the student responsible for the data and thoroughly understand the statistics. The day the student walks in front of the committee to defend, there should be no question as to his/her understanding of statistics.

When their defense is successful, the question of "was the help too much" is answered.

If you are a Ph.D candidate and would like additional information, you may email me at:


Reference sites:

Tom said...

It's too bad that economists will try and say just about anything to attempt to get some recognition. It really makes it hard to believe anything they are saying. I like to stick with statistical consulting if I can, they tend to be more trustworthy.