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Brainiac

Are the Boston Marathon’s qualifying times fair?

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

It remains to be seen what effect the Marathon bombings will have on participation in future years’ races: Will more people try to run as a way to celebrate the triumph of a great event? Or will runners be scared away by the memory of this year’s attack and the fear of future violence?

Participation in the Boston Marathon also hinges on the more general issue of the qualifying times the Boston Athletic Association sets to allow runners to earn a spot in the race. Boston’s qualifying times are iconic in the sports world, a bar that every serious marathoner hopes to clear. This year was the first in which a new, more stringent set of qualifying times was applied to winnow the huge number of runners applying. The new times start at 3:05 for men and 3:35 for women under 34, and rise for older runners.

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Are the times fair? A recent study published in abstract form online in March in the Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that different relative standards exist between men and women and across age groups. Paul Vanderburgh of the University of Dayton compared men’s and women’s qualifying times for each age group to the world records in those categories. He found that the men’s qualifying times were consistently about 50 percent slower than the world records for each age group, but that the relationship between world record and age group varied considerably for women.

This led Vanderburgh to conclude that current qualifying standards are too lenient for women age 18-54, too strict for women age 55-80, and just right for men. He also notes that the women’s times overall are more lenient—if women’s qualifying standards were changed to hew proportionally and consistently to world records as they do for men, about 40 percent fewer women would end up qualifying for the race, leading to a dramatic gender imbalance in the overall field.

UMass vs. Harvard, econ division

The economics department at the University of
Massachusetts Amherst has long been known for producing unconventional research—and this month a graduate student and two professors there made headlines with a new paper debunking one of the most influential economics studies of the last several years.

That influential study is “Growth in a Time of Debt,” by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (whose research about inflation was featured in Ideas in 2011). They found that a nation’s debt hurts economic growth when the ratio of debt to gross domestic product exceeds 90 percent. The 2010 paper was cited by fiscal planners and politicians seemingly everywhere, especially those looking for reasons to cut government spending.

But when Thomas Herndon, a UMass economics student, endeavored to replicate Reinhart and Rogoff’s results for a class assignment, he quickly found he couldn’t. When he dug a little deeper he realized why: The paper had significant errors, including data omissions, questionable decisions about how to weight data, and a coding typo in the Excel spreadsheet they used to calculate their results. When the adjustments were made, Herndon and his subsequent collaborators, professors Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, found that the conclusion about debt was not so clear: “Average GDP growth at public debt/GDP ratios over 90 percent is not dramatically different than when debt/GDP ratios are lower.”

Reinhart and Rogoff have acknowledged the coding error but disputed the other charges and have said that their fundamental result remains intact. For lay readers it can be hard to figure out which side has the stronger case. It helps to know, then, that both liberal economist Paul Krugman and libertarian economist Tyler Cowen have written that they find the UMass critique convincing.

The whole dust-up has also highlighted a basic issue present all along in Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper: It doesn’t address causality. That is, it doesn’t show whether high debt slows economic growth, or whether slow economic growth leads to high debt. Reinhart and Rogoff have acknowledged this limitation all along, but it was largely ignored in the initial rush around their paper. Now it’s getting more attention.

For the UMass economics department, this moment in the limelight is consistent with a long tradition of iconoclastic thinking. On April 24, Dylan Matthews had a great piece in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog on the history of the department. In the 1970s, he explained, it was remade around a coterie of Marxist radicals and post-Keynesians. Today, faculty members still concentrate on understudied research areas like feminist and LGBT economics, and on using empirical analysis to question tenets of economic thinking—which is just what they’ve done in this case.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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