Posts Tagged ‘Georgetown’

Olivier Blanchard is a cool guy

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Olivier Blanchard, currently chief economist at the IMF, gave a talk at Georgetown on Wednesday 3/24. So, of course, I went to see him, since occasionally listening to awesome people talk is one of the fringe benefits of being a Georgetown student. His talk was titled “Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy”, which as interesting to me because I rarely even think about macroeconomic policy, let alone rethink it. I’m going to summarize what I found most interesting and prescient in what he said.

Blanchard noted that monetary policy in the past has focused on one target and one instrument. He said that, in the future, monetary policy should instead have many targets and many instruments. His reasoning was that, while in this past crisis there was a housing boom, there wasn’t an overall boom, so raising the federal funds rate may have slowed the housing sector, but it would have hurt other sectors. He also said that the future of central banks should be that they are 1) transparent about objectives, and 2) flexible as to their instruments.

Another thing I really like was an example of what Blanchard called a “schizophrenia” in economic thinking. When economists discuss fiscal policy, there is usually mention of automatic stabilizers, and how they are better than active policies because of the time lag of the political process. But, Blanchard noted, there is no talk about how to design better automatic stabilizers. It’s like the progressive tax system and social services, exactly the way they exist now, just so happen to be optimal as automatic stabilizers. I think this is a really good point — from first-hand experience, I can vouch that Greg Mankiw’s favorite textbook glosses over automatic stabilizers in this exact way.

Blanchard’s thoughts seem to be consistent with my view that economics should become more of an engineering discipline than it currently is.

General Petraeus, all-around nice guy

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

General Petraeus gave a talk at Georgetown in late January. I decided to go, since it’s the first time I had a chance to hear a four-star general give a talk. He seemed really cool. I mean, never mind the fact that the guy has an absurd number of awards, honors, and distinctions — being a general with a PhD must be awesome.  Oh, he’s also the Commander of CENTCOM, meaning he’s in charge of thousands of men in twenty countries. But I digress.

But in spite of (or because of) his awesomeness, it seems like a large group of people make a sport out of being a dick to General Petraeus. I cannot understand why. At his presentation, there were at least a dozen student sleeper agents in the audience who would interrupt his talk by reading the names of people killed in military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m all for non-violent protests, but this was egregious and poorly targeted. Essentially a group of rabble rousers perverted free speech to their twisted ends, not to mention infringed on a lot of peoples’ good time.

I don’t know why General Petraeus is constantly a target for blind hatred. From his Wikipedia article, it seems to me like he made a bad situation way better in Iraq, and helped save a bunch of lives. Also it’s not like this guy embodies the military industrial complex. If you don’t like that we’re in Iraq, go heckle George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. Generals don’t make those sorts of decisions — not least of all generals who weren’t in charge of things at the time. David Petraeus is a gentleman and a scholar, and attacking him only makes you look like an r-tard.

When you decide it’s imperative to be a dick to someone, at least make sure you’re targeting the right person.

High point

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Yesterday was unequivocally the high point in my graduate school career to date. The big event was our first Micro 2 class, in game theory. Micro was the only class we hadn’t had yet, and my expectations were high: Econometrics is typically dry and exceedingly difficult, and our Macro class is shaping up to be intense, courtesy of our new professor. I was hoping that Micro could be the class to keep me sane this semester.

Luca Anderlini is our professor for Micro. He’s the new Director of Graduate Studies too, so my performance in Micro serves the dual role of not failing out of the program and not embarrassing myself in front of the guy running things. I had seen him present a paper last semester, and this gave me high hopes. He had a sense of humor, an entertaining manner of lecturing, and a way of making the topics at hand seem relevant.

Let me cut to the chase: my hopes were realized. The lecture was interesting, but most important, something crucial happened, something I have been waiting my entire time at Georgetown to hear someone admit. Before Professor Anderlini got into the meat of the lecture, he made a caveat. He expressed to us, in no uncertain terms, that math is not the point of what we’re doing. While, he explained, he enjoys math a great deal, and even considered a career in math, he stressed that math is a just a tool to clarify our thinking. Anyone can reason, he argued, and make a convincing case. The key is that math is a rigorous formal language to express our ideas,  so that we can make sure we are not just deluding ourselves with words. Again, math is not the end, it is only the means.

That was the breath of fresh air I needed.

A different kind of difficult

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

In a previous post I challenged Georgetown’s economics department to “bring it” and kick my ass as best it could. I’m happy to report that they succeeded in winning the first round. Their tactics were a bit sneaky and underhanded, but nothing I couldn’t have anticipated. The fact is that I haven’t been putting in enough time and effort to be learning the most and getting the best grades I can. But that will change: I’m gearing up for round two.

See, what they don’t tell you about serious graduate school programs is the extent to which you are expected to know everything without having been taught it. In undergrad, the professor would only test you on things you covered in class. In grad school, you are lucky if what the professor covers in class is vaguely useful. More than half of what I’ve learned so far has been outside the classroom. This trend will surely continue into the future.

There’s also the little caveat about expectations. Some classes grade homework assignments strictly and care more about answers than methods and effort; some classes don’t even bother to grade homeworks (though if you don’t do them you’re almost guaranteed to fail the exams). Some exams test whether you can regurgitate proofs seen in class, some test mechanical problem solving skills and intuition, and some want you to know damn near everything. Sometimes you may spend more than half of your allotted time on two questions that, you find out after the fact, were only actually worth 18% of the exam grade, and you didn’t get any partial credit on them besides, but that your last five minutes of scribbling on a seemingly unimportant question netted you the majority of your points (a question which, by the way, was worth almost half of the points on the exam). No, you shouldn’t expect all exam questions to be weighted equally, either.

I know how I’m studying for the next round of exams: memorizing proofs, practicing my mechanics, and trying to learn damn near everything. And I am not making any more assumptions about how many points each question is worth.

Pride comes before the fall

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

I’m in my first year of the economics PhD program at Georgetown University, and classes started last week. Everyone I talk to says how hard the first year is. Everyone. They are so certain of the time and effort we’ll have to put in, the sixty hours a week, the studying every day in the library. I’m going to be honest and say that I don’t entirely believe them.

Of course it will be tough. Tough is what I signed up for. But economics is not rocket science. And let’s be honest, I’m kind of good at school. At this point in my life I’ve been through a lot of it, and I’ve gotten my ass kicked a fair number of times. I am certainly no n00b.

So you know what? I hope the econ department gives me its worst. I’m ready. I can take it.

Nerditry checklist

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Living in a pretty little bubble for the summer, I’ve begun to miss the intellectual stimulation of being at a university surrounded by nerds. So, while I’d rather the summer not end too quickly, I am looking forward to being part of a horde of academics come Fall.

It struck me, talking to a friend from RPI, that the types of nerds I encounter at Georgetown will be markedly different from the nerds found at Rensselaer. While (I imagine) it will be easier to find econ nerds, I have a feeling that there will be far fewer techies. And, you know, internet geeks and movie buffs and mathematicians.

So I’m trying to develop a list of  “necessary topics for nerditry,” at least inasmuch as I myself define nerditry. Note that they are necessary conditions but not sufficient conditions, since there is a certain je ne sais quoi about nerds that can’t be defined. And I’m not looking for  “A nerd is X” or “A nerd does Y” either — think of this as: “if I wanted to emulate a nerd, what would I need to know?”

Nerds need to be familiar with at least one and preferably many esoteric academic topics very well. So the first condition isn’t a particular topic, it’s any topic, provided you can speak with authority and are actually interested in it. Next you need to know a bunch of trivia. Again the particular topic isn’t important, though movie quotes and internet memes are sure bets. A nerd should be comfortable with maths. If someone starts talking about sets or normal distributions or Laplace transforms, you should know what they’re saying. Maths provide a useful language for discussion, much like economics, so learning the terminology of your nerd group is vital.

I suppose all nerds are different. I wonder if a set of necessary conditions for nerditry could ever be formulated. This is harder than I had anticipated.

Fool’s gambit

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

My optimal strategy for applying to graduate schools could have used work.  I didn’t think about what subfield of economics I wanted to study. I just aimed at the top programs.

I dunno, I think it worked out pretty well. I mean, none of the top programs accepted me, but that wasn’t really the point. I mean it kind of was. And I don’t mean to engage in excessive revisionist history, or seem like a sore winner.

More than anything, my philosophy about these things is that you must push yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of. In Texas Hold’em, if you’re not being caught bluffing half the time, you’re not bluffing enough. I say if you are not failing consistently, you are not aiming high enough. You owe it to yourself and to those around you to make sure you’re always doing your best.

If you only apply to safety schools you don’t know your limits. On the other hand, if you only apply to first-tier schools, you don’t know how far down the second tier you stand. All I know is that I’m in the best econ program in the District, at one of the swankiest universities I’ve visited, in arguably the most happening place for econmic policy in the world. At least I tried, right?


Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.