Monday, June 21, 2010


Some reads are just fun, human interest pieces that leave you feeling pensive and satisfied even though you can't identify what you learned. I think there is value in this kind of reading--from time to time--and a favorite example from recent years is There and Back Again: Soul of a Commuter.

Other reads are complete tripe. One type is bad because the author don't make an argument. They are often dealing with a trade-off that necessities thinking about the costs on one hand and the benefits on the other, but they fail to see the big picture and obsess over benefits (if they are pro) or costs (if they are con). This "assessment" of Teach for America is a good example.

Another type of tripe masquerade as being about some important issue--global governance, ethics, religion--but makes trite, unverifiable, and often poorly formed claims. This deeply unsatisfying, but popular, piece from Ross Douthat fits that bill. Conservatives love it for pouring oil on the fire of their unexamined prejudices, but if you're a deep thinker that should be anathema.

The best reads are concise and make an explicit argument. They benefit from giving a sense of the big picture, but their value comes from teaching you something you didn't know before or only had a vague sense of. They can be particularly helpful if you've asked the question they ask but never found an answer. They are hard to find because good ideas don't grow on tree, but if you look in the right places you'll probably find a few each week. This paper, by Angrist and Pischke, is the best I've read the past few days, but I'd only recommend it for people who write empirical economics papers.

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