Conventional economics invokes the idea of a race between our limited means and our unlimited wants. Let’s run faster and spend more! But what if we opt out of that race, finding ways to get more satisfaction without consuming more? On this site I explore these ideas, plus themes from popular culture and other random thoughts.

Teaching Econometrics
In econometrics class at 8 a.m.

Econometrics

This fall I’m teaching two sections of econometrics (ECON 385) and, while it’s fun, there’s a lot of power in econometrics for good or ill. Econometrics can be used honestly to study and understand the material world (my favorite use) or dishonestly to advance the agendas of corrupt politicians, executives and others. At one point the practice of econometrics got so bad that a leading practitioner wrote an article, “Let’s Take the Con Out of Econometrics.” That’s the agenda this fall — no con job, just deliberately seeking the best that econometrics has to offer.

A few rogue notes

Just a few things about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (I’ll leave the big reviews to others):

  • I like the Star Wars universe, so I’ll happily go there. Yes, I’m a fan.
  • In Rogue One, nothing surprised me. Of course, the overall plot line was well known, since in Star Wars IV: A New Hope [SPOILER ALERT!] we see that the rebels do successfully get the plans to the Death Star and Luke blows it up. But more than that, even at the micro level every scene was highly predictable (blaster battle, covert mission, blaster battle . . . you get the picture).
  • Jyn Erso was a great character, well-played by Felicity Jones (a Star Wars lead being a woman without the film self-consciously pointing out, “hey, look, our lead is female!”)
  • I liked the back story about why the Death Star was so vulnerable to a lucky hit by Luke — the conscientious act of a scientist who had been forced to help the evil Empire.
  • When  Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor met their end — the end of any rebel on an impossible mission — we got a fading into yellow light instead of a tender farewell. Not only was it easier on the fan base; it also leaves open the possibility that we’ll see Jyn again. As uproxx.com says, “Nothing is impossible when you are one with the Force and the Force is with you.”

And finally, as usual I have mixed feelings about the Force. It’s a neat storytelling device, but in our world there is a stronger force and a deeper magic: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, New Living Translation)




Election year advice

In election years, people sometimes ask me who should get their vote, based on economic policy. I don’t make endorsements, but I do try to help people understand some things about economics and candidates:

  • They can’t implement their policies. In almost every case, an elected official is unable to act alone, but instead must compromise and build coalitions. If you like a candidate’s stand on trade or the minimum wage, fine — but don’t assume that electing that person will get you the policy.
  • Their policies wouldn’t have the intended effects. Political campaigns tend to overstate the effectiveness of policies. Raise tariffs on foreign goods? Fine, but don’t expect a bunch of jobs to come flooding back to the U.S. Take the minimum wage up to $15 per hour, no exceptions? OK, but if you’re a non-economist you’ll probably overestimate the effects.
  • Political campaigns understate uncertainty. The fact is, we often don’t know what the effects of a policy will be. It’s hard to admit that in a political campaign but we economists know it’s true. The range of possible outcomes from any given policy is vast.
  • If you rely on social media, you’re too sure about economic policy. Facebook, for example, is great for keeping up with friends but a really poor way to stay informed on economics. Why? Because you’ll see a lot of opinions you already agree with — and not so much from the other side. Thus it’s possible for you to link to a really strong article and get nothing but affirmation from your friends. You’ll think only a dope could believe differently.

Be especially aware of Facebook links to articles that say “there’s no evidence” on a particular side of an economic controversy. If it’s a controversy at all . . . trust me, there is evidence on both sides. I have a graduate degree in economics and I’ve been studying economic policy for 40 years now, and I am much less certain about the effects of a $15 minimum wage than the average Facebook poster, pro or con.

So who should get your vote? Look for a candidate who shares your values, and disregard promises about economic policy.

WONK ALERT: This is “down in the weeds,” but in case you want to know, here are the two big problems that make economic policies less effective and more uncertain than political campaigns lead you to believe:
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Star Wars: The whole thing

I watched all 13 hours and 17 minutes of Star Wars I-VI before going to the theater with family for Star Wars VII, and here are a few thoughts (SAFE AT FIRST, THEN MILD SPOILERS SEPARATELY NOTED):

Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. On seeing it again, the best part was the opening fanfare and crawl. “The franchise will live!” I thought . . . and everything was downhill from there.

Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. Now after seeing it again, my favorite scene is the closing: Anakin and Padme’s wedding, with C3PO and R2D2 as witnesses. Why my favorite? Because the music foreshadows the tragedy and, more importantly, the bride and groom speak no words. Thus they save us from more dialogue like the earlier: “Now that I’m with you again, I’m in agony.”

Star Wars III:  Revenge of the Sith. Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not so good, but at least we find out why Darth Vader turned out to be the baddest guy in the galaxy. The best scenes are the ones that link him to Star Wars IV.

Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Woohoo! Somebody just opened the creative windows in a stuffy oppressive room (so to speak), and a fresh breeze is blowing in. What else from 1977 holds up so well as this movie?

Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back. Another great film, in which a running time of just over two hours gets us action, romance, Yoda and the big reveal: Darth Vader is Luke’s father! (I was one of the three people in a packed Birmingham, Alabama, theater who did not see that coming.) And the scene still shocks me on the Blu-Ray replay, even though I know every line.

Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. Nice film to wrap up the Darth Vader story line. The franchise is getting a little tired by now, but seeing the characters again makes it worthwhile. The scene where Luke tells Leia she’s his sister, the pyre on which Vader’s body burns, and the celebrations at the end wrap things up nicely.

I’m a fan through and through, so I can only quibble a little with the franchise on this point: The bad guys have a fatal over-reliance on A Big Destructive Space Station That Has a Key Weakness to be Exploited by a Few Inside Attackers and a Few Bold Fighter Pilots.

–SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS BELOW—

And you know what? The bad guys change their name from the Empire to the First Order but they still didn’t learn their lesson about A Big Destructive Space Station That Has a Key Weakness to be Exploited by a Few Inside Attackers and a Few Bold Fighter Pilots. This time the space station is actually an entire planet but it’s just as vulnerable. The inability of the villains to learn and adapt puts them way below the level of the Borg (different universe, I know).

All that makes Star Wars VII for me a competent sequel and no more. (Better a competent sequel than three incompetent prequels, you think?) And because I’m a Star Wars fan, a competent sequel is good enough. I love it! – seeing the old characters aged about 38 Earth years, and meeting Finn and Rey.

And now the running time for the whole saga is 15+ hours, all of which I’ll probably see again before heading down to the theater for Star Wars VIII.

Sci-fi and fantasy: blasters vs. swords

At our house, one of us is a huge fan of fantasy fiction while the the other favors science fiction (anything beyond Earth orbit!). We recently read a new book that we both liked — how? Fantasy deals with swords and castles, while science fiction is usually set in a spacefaring future. Here’s how: Laura Montgomery’s Sleeping Duty follows the story of Gideon Tan, a soldier who signed on as a sleeper to journey to a distant plant with his wife, also a sleeper. But when he was awakened, he found himself on the wrong planet — a planet  that, in fact, had somehow chosen a monarchy over the free and advanced technological society that it might have become. Action ensues, wrapped up with a beautiful-but-not-sappy love story. Recommended!

UntitledDisclosure: If you follow this link and buy this title on Amazon, I receive a small (really small) commission. I do not know Laura Montgomery, but I like her writing and her world-building.

A pro-technology no-technology zone

That’s how I think of the classroom I’m teaching in: “a pro-technology no-technology zone.” It is a place where we deliberately put aside social media and personal electronic devices (I don’t even bring my smartphone) and concentrate on learning economics. Then, when we go back on the grid, we’re empowered to think analytically rather than dashing from tweet to tweet.

If you don’t believe that staying continuously “on” with electronic devices reduces learning, just check the following references:

. . . and check your intuition on a couple of points. When you’re in a learning environment, do you stay focused on the subject at hand if you have a laptop or smartphone continuously on and in view? And, if the person next to you is checking Facebook or Twitter, how does that affect your concentration?

 

Shout-out to Brooklyn Tech

It’s great to see Brooklyn Tech High School students benefiting from the game that took over my life, back during the development phase. Together with co-authors Mark Schug and Scott Niederjohn, I developed the economic content for this game, and then served as project director for the print accompaniment, Learning, Earning and Investing for a New Generation. Now, from New York 1, here’s proof positive that students are using the game and learning from it. Go, Brooklyn Tech!

brooklyntech

The BBC challenge

No, it’s not a formal challenge, but here it is: If you are a news fan, watch the BBC World News America for a week and see what it tells you about the news source you were following.

In my case that was ABC World News Tonight with David Muir (formerly Diane Sawyer). Here’s what my time with the BBC showed me:

  • ABC has gotten lazy, or underfunded, or something. ABC now covers far too many stories by capturing tweets and using voiceover. The BBC still has actual reporters in a lot of places, especially overseas. Those actual reporters can tell you a lot more about what’s going on in places like Syria and Egypt than you can get from ABC’s scanning of Twitter.
  • ABC News is for children. I don’t want to be too harsh, but ABC anchors often take on the tone of a preschool teacher telling her children they must be very, very sad about the people who were caught in the tornado. BBC World News America is more likely to simply report the story and let the tragedy explain itself. The BBC’s anchors (Katty Kay and Laura Trevelyan are the ones I have seen the most) are more like your British cousins than your preschool teacher.
  • ABC News is in love with shallow “solutions” to public policy problems. Was there a school shooting? Pass a law. Is there an unemployment problem? Buy American. That’s the ABC approach. BBC World News America has more interviews, and while this can seem like “talking head” news, there’s more room for nuance. ABC News wants to divide the world into two parts: good people who favor their solutions (usually law or regulation) and bad people who do not. BBC holds open the possibility of a third group: people who are for solving the problem, but not in favor of the conventional solution.
  • ABC News over-covers entertainment. Maybe it’s the Disney ownership of ABC, maybe it’s what the audience wants. But ABC News is obsessed with entertainment and entertainers. One thing I noticed with BBC World News America was that it just didn’t spend much time on entertainers, box office totals and the like. ABC over-covers entertainment, and it cross-promotes Disney, often without any notice or apology.
I don’t think BBC World News America will ever get great ratings. It’s a splinter audience at best. But it has helped me become more aware of how ABC News has changed in recent years.
(Note: I’m a news fan. It was my career before I went into economics, and even now I follow more news sources than I should — partly for entertainment, and partly for good teaching examples. Here’s a guy who recommends not watching the news at all, and I don’t really disagree with anything he says.)