About William Breit, Milton Friedman and poking skunks

The current Southern Economic Journal includes a tribute to my former History of Economic Thought professor, William Breit. In one of the articles Breit himself talks about the time he heard Milton Friedman speak on economic freedom.

Friedman’s formidable intellect left him the clear winner of a Q-and-A session, despite many hostile questions from the audience. But one of the potential questioners who remained silent was named Don Market. The day after the speech, someone asked him (now quoting from the article): ‘‘Mr. Market, you told us there were no intelligent conservatives. We waited for you to ask Professor Friedman a question that would prove your point. But you sat perfectly still. Why did you not challenge any of his arguments?’’ I listened intently for Market’s reply and have never forgotten it:

‘‘Listen, I’m a country boy raised on a farm. Long ago I learned that you don’t poke a skunk.”

Star Wars: Boomer reflections

How’s this for 2011-12 holiday fun? Watching all six Star Wars films in order. And no, we didn’t do it all at one time!

My generation, the Baby Boomers, has a sentimental connection with Star Wars. The first film premiered in 1977, when we were young adults. It was followed by The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). The three-film prequel series premiered in 1999, by which time many of us had families and mid-career working lives.

Follow this link if you’d like to see a nice set of Star Wars reviews. Rather than attempt a recap of all those, I’ll just post a few thoughts from my perspective as a Boomer:

  • It’s hard to communicate just how special the 1977 premiere of the original Star Wars was. I was working at my first career job, as a reporter in Richmond, Va., when my news editor told me: “You’ve got to take your girlfriend to this new movie. It’s science fiction — and I hate science fiction — but I loved this movie.” So my girlfriend (now my wife of 34 years) and I went. It was a new universe, with Wookiees and lightsabers and Darth Vader. Previous space adventure films just hadn’t come close. We eagerly awaited each new film, and we were not disappointed.
  • The theater experience in general was vastly more engaging than anything else in our audio-visual lives in 1977. Today big-screen TVs with big sound provide a theater-like experience at home. In 1977, a 19-inch screen was considered large, the sound was poor, and many of the screens were black-and-white. Going to the theater for Star Wars pulled us out of our universe, figuratively anyway.
  • Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi hold up well, all these years later.
  • Today’s viewers seeing the films in order, starting with the 1999-2005 prequels, can’t enjoy the delight I felt on first meeting Yoda. That’s because the prequels show that Yoda is an influential and wise Jedi master. But when we Boomers first saw him on screen in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, we weren’t sure who he was. He looked like a comic relief character as he ransacked Luke’s supplies. It was a total surprise to me when I found out the little green guy was himself Yoda, the Jedi master.
  • Just as I was surprised to find out the little green guy was a Jedi master, I was stunned when Darth Vader told Luke, “I am your father.” Really. I didn’t see it coming. And today’s viewers, seeing the films in order, can’t feel what I felt in the theater that day — because they know Luke’s history from the start. (To my wife, who was way ahead of me in reading science fiction and fantasy at the time, it was obvious.)
  • About the three prequels, from The Phantom Menace to Revenge of the Sith: As much of a Star Wars fan as I am, I have to agree they’re not up to the quality of the original trilogy. In seeing the films again recently, however, I can offer up two good things about them: (1) The final prequel redeems the first two, by allowing us to see how Darth Vader could have become so evil; and (2) The wedding scene at the end of Attack of the Clones is beautiful in a tragic way. John Williams’s score, the staging, and the acting without dialogue (thank goodness!) combined to produce in me a sweet sadness, knowing that Anakin and Padme’s marriage was doomed.

My bottom line is that the six-film series is well worth watching, even if the first three films are flawed. I will leave the deeper questions about the franchise, including the theology of The Force and the elitist nature of the Star Wars universe, to others. To me it’s just a fantasy tale from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” But to young viewers today, I recommend seeing all six films, if for no other reason that to appreciate this part of the culture. We Boomers will always have a soft spot for Star Wars.

Grades posted, students headed out

Even after 32 years, this never gets old — posting fall grades and wishing safe travels to my students headed out on break. Having experienced college-student-home-for Christmas from the student side and (25+ years later) from the parent side, I can say it’s a most special time of year. Remember, students, your worth as a human being is not defined by your grade in any class. You are of infinite worth to your family and your Creator, whose love is not conditional on achievement. Best wishes to all in this season of light and hope.


Virginia-Virginia Tech game week! Sure, I’m as loyal a Cavalier as ever there was, but I have lots of good friends who are Hokies, and appreciate each one. And I enjoy the good-natured teasing that goes back and forth — like the stereotype that the Hokies are a bunch of hayseeds and the Cavaliers are clueless and helpless. (Let’s see, I need to hire someone to check my tire pressures.) But anyway, go Cavaliers, and may the better team win!

Steele and Alice to fight human trafficking

My friends Steele and Alice have decided to fight human trafficking, dedicating their lives for some months or years to the cause. You can find out more about human trafficking at http://www.humantrafficking.org/ — it’s heartbreaking to learn of the millions of people forced into slavery. Yes, “slavery”; no other word is really accurate for what goes on. Steele and Alice will be posting to their site http://steeleandalice.tumblr.com as their plans mature. At that site you can donate to their mission.

The fragility of timelines

Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau may not strike you as similar films, but consider this: They both address, in their own way, the fragility of timelines.

Here’s what I mean: Here in this space and time, there seems to be only one timeline. What you did yesterday is unchangeable. What you’ll do tomorrow is up to you. But how “fragile” is the timeline? That is, do small changes in day-to-day decisions have major effects on what happens next?

It’s easy to answer “no.” I get a cup of tea instead of a bottle of water at lunch — how will that affect anything important in my life?

But it’s also possible to answer “yes.” A young guy from Alabama has a choice of jobs and picks the one at the Newport News shipyard. He meets a nurse from Gladehill, Virginia who’s there on a temporary assignment. They marry, their paths change, and three new human beings exist who otherwise would not have. (This actually happened to my mom and dad. I’m one of the three.)

This second example makes timelines seem fragile to me. How would an Alabama guy have met that particular Virginia girl if he had taken a job closer to home? Would the timeline have sent him to Virginia somehow, so that they would have met anyway? We who are Christian believe that God is in control of the timeline, but how do free will and destiny interact on the timeline?

These ideas came to mind as I thought about The Adjustment Bureau. In this film, an ambitious politician (played by Matt Damon) needs to save the world, but apparently he won’t if he finds a particular woman (played by Emily Blunt). They were made for each other; together they will find happiness; but if they do he won’t save the world. Mysterious operatives called “the Adjustment Bureau” know the timelines and they try to keep the two apart.

Source Code is a very different film but timelines are important there too. Thanks to some fancy technology, our hero (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) relives the same eight minutes over and over — the last eight minutes before a train is bombed and many people are killed. From these repeated timelines, our hero can possibly relay information to military authorities who might save some lives. In Source Code, the timelines are fragile. In some of the timelines the train wouldn’t explode at all. And, how could I forget? Our hero becomes romantically involved with a woman (played by Michelle Monaghan) whose life will end in the explosion unless he intervenes.

Both films embody love stories. That’s no coincidence, because our relationships are by far the most interesting things that happen along our timelines.  Farther down the timeline, will you care more about your career, your car or your relationships? I think I know the answer.

Here are reviews of The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code that I found interesting. Meanwhile, I’ll see you on the timeline.

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.

Sneezing controversy: not me

There’s a teacher at William C. Wood High School who punished a student for responding “God bless you” to a fellow student’s sneeze. Much as I’d like to have a high school named after me, that William C. Wood High School isn’t. And that high school is in Vacaville, California, thousands of miles from where I live. So, to those who find this site by looking for that school: I had nothing to do with it. In my part of the world, “Bless you” is a common reaction to a sneeze — not universal, but frequent. Nobody means any offense by it and typically none is taken.