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.

A new challenge

Effective July 1, 2019, I became the department head in economics at James Madison University. This is my second term of service in this job — but when I did it before, I was Luke Skywalker and now I’m Obi-Wan Kenobi (“or Yoda!” says my Star Wars analogy-checker). Anyway, in my Obi-Wan role I’m looking forward to helping all the department faculty be the best they can be, with a special emphasis on those launching their academic careers. And, on the student side, I’m starting a few initiatives to try to help students in our department get the classes they need. Let’s make it happen!

Return to macro

In spring 2019 I’m teaching the macro principles class for the first time in a few years — and I’m looking forward to it. I’m a regular participant in our department’s weekly macro seminar and I have some new material and in-class tricks to try out. One important note at the start: Macroeconomics is harder than you’d think if you spend much time on social media. There, people get lots of agreement when they say the case is “overwhelming” for one macro policy and there’s “no evidence” for another. Trust me, on all of the major controversies, from the minimum wage to monetary policy, there are no overwhelming cases or totally unsupported positions. With the framework of introductory macroeconomics, though, you can make sense of the competing arguments and come to a reasoned judgment. Here we go!

What I did on my summer vacation

“Don’t mix business and pleasure,” says the old proverb, but this vacation worked out well with both — a trip to Lambeau Field for a professional conference with lots of fun and sightseeing with my family too. (Trust me, the actual body of water Green Bay is big, and it’s just a bay on Lake Michigan with is really big! And the town Green Bay is delightful, though very much centered on the Packers. You can see Lambeau Field from all over town and navigate by the street that runs right by — Lombardi Street, of course.) I could have acted dignified on conference day, I suppose, but I went around instead during free time taking pictures with classic Packers art.

Other highlights:

Here I am below with Coach Lombardi:

Update: Yes, in 2019 I went to that conference again and had a great time again — check this out: https://www.facebook.com/EconEpisodes

Star Wars: The whole thing

It was not a great use of time, but I watched all 15 hours and 32 minutes of Star Wars I-VII before going to the theater with the family for Star Wars VIII, and here are a few thoughts:

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.

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. 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 made 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 loved it! – seeing the old characters aged about 38 Earth years, and meeting Finn and Rey.

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. So after watching over 15 hours of Star Wars and seeing Star Wars VIII in the theater, I’ll leave the big reviews to others and just pass along these few points:

  • I now like VII as more than a competent sequel, because it nicely set up Finn and Rey for VIII. To me, “The Last Jedi” redeemed “The Force Awakens” in much the same way that “Revenge of the Sith” redeemed “Attack of the Clones.”
  • Yeah, I’m a fan. I’ll go to anything Star Wars. But:
  • The franchise is getting old. Lightsaber battles can’t do very much that’s creative.
  • The franchise is getting old. The complexity of the space battle scenes has gotten out of hand — to the point that it interferes with the story-telling. Example: The opening scene of “A New Hope” still looks great, 40 years later. A huge Star Destroyer is going by overhead, firing on Princess Leia’s much smaller ship. The scene had to be simple because it’s all that the limited technology of the time would allow, but it works better than the more complicated battles now technically possible.
  • The franchise is getting old. There cannot now be a new introduction of a villain as bad as Darth Vader in “A New Hope.” Kylo Ren is a weak reflection of Vader, despite Adam Driver’s excellent portrayal of the character. (Did I mention that I think the franchise is getting old?)
  • Carrie Fisher as Leia and Mark Hamill as Luke both lined up nicely with their characters, as written. In the original trilogy they were young and inexperienced actors, but that played nicely into the impossible situations their characters faced. All these years later, Fisher had aged to become a thoughtful general rather than a princess with an attitude. Hamill played the embittered former hero well. Neither actor was a superstar, but the writing and direction were just right for them and their characters. As a fan, I appreciated the tasteful closing title dedication “In Loving Memory of our Princess: Carrie Fisher.”
  • Can Star Wars IX nicely tie all this off and go in a new direction?  I hope so as a fan. I’ll be there. (But I’ve got to stop this habit of a full Star Wars marathon before each new release.)

Econometrics

When I teach econometrics it’s fun (really!), but 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 in my class — 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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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 and concentrate on learning economics. (I wouldn’t even bring my own phone, but it’s required to log in to the classroom computer.) 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?