Categories
Observations

Reflections, 50 years later

Note: This is something I wrote for my high school class’s 50-year reunion page:

Everybody has a story. Here’s mine: Fifty years ago this month, I left Berry High School for Auburn University intent on becoming an engineer and not thinking much about the whole marriage thing. Ten years later, I was a married economics professor after five crazy years in the ethic of journalism (four as a major, one as a working reporter). Life changed a lot faster back then.

In all of those changes, I’m now pretty confident that journalism brought out the worst in me and economics, by the grace of God, has brought out the best in me. Most of this was from the influence of two people:

  1. My graduate school girlfriend Jane, now my wife of 43 years, who has made me kinder and gentler – not by nagging, but by the everyday living of life.
  2. My mentor Professor Kenneth Elzinga at U.Va., who modeled what it was like to care deeply for students, care deeply for the field of economics, and view life as a calling. I can’t describe his influence in words, but this video helps explain why he’s a legend at U.Va.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXMTk4MBTqI .

And to think I had the opportunity to study under him, teach alongside him, do research with him in antitrust economics, and be in a Bible study with him. Yes, there are Jesus-followers in the universities and in the field of economics – but to the extent that we succeed, students of all faiths will be glad to have been in our classes because of our commitment to them and our respect for the varied faith traditions that students bring to their college years.

Many of us can claim that we are blessed, and I do, but that doesn’t mean the absence of sadness. It’s been years now, but I still feel the loss of our friend and Berry classmate Melanie Albright ’70. Some of you knew my brother Alan Wood, Berry Class of ’68, whom we lost to cancer at the age of 67. I miss him keenly. Time being what it is, there are more than a few other graduates from our time that have passed on also. We honor their memory by carrying on.

And, to all my Alabama friends from years past: You probably wouldn’t imagine how I value memories and friendships from our time together, because of the years and miles between us. I left for Virginia after wrapping up at Auburn and have not been back much. But for the record: I value all of you and I hope life has been kind to you.

Fifty years out, I wish all of you the best.

https://sites.lib.jmu.edu/woodecon/

Categories
Plain Money ideas

My book adventure

Way back in 2002, I wrote a book and, as something of an experiment, tried out what it would be like to be an author — you know, more full-time. (Every professor is at least a part-time author.) My book, Getting a Grip on Your Money, was a faith-based approach to personal finance. It’s still available on Amazon and if you’re looking for the support files, I’ll email them to you. Here are a few lessons I picked up from this authoring experiment:

  • People think books are a big deal. In economics, journal articles are highly valued and books not so much — but my friends and neighbors were impressed at knowing an author.
  • Mass-market books are driven by marketing, not content. In working with my publisher, I was close to signing a contract — my editor told me things looked favorable — and he said he was soon going to get around to reading my manuscript. What? Reading the manuscript was an afterthought? Yes, he explained. The book would sell based on the marketing, not the content. He only wanted to read the book to ensure that the marketing wasn’t wildly inaccurate.
  • It doesn’t take many sales at all to zoom up the Amazon ranks. Sell 12 books on a single day and you’ll go up thousands of ranks.
  • Publicity sells. I did a talk radio show on a Chicago station and sold a few books that day — and zoomed up thousands of ranks. As the talk show was aired on a delayed basis around the country, I sold even more.
  • Websites are difficult. I started a website at plainmoney.com to support the book. It worked well for a number of years but then became highly vulnerable to hacking. For some reason, hackers’ bots got in — nothing good there, no personal information, no credit card numbers. I have since restored some of the more recent posts, below.
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Observations

Satisfaction isn’t expensive

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.
Categories
Observations

Star Wars: The whole thing

Now with Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, the nine Star Wars films are complete. I was in the theater for the first film with my girlfriend about 43 years ago. A lot has happened in my life (that girlfriend is now my wife of 42 years), and . . . I’m a fan. I truly enjoyed what Star Wars did for filmmaking. I’m not a big-time movie-goer, but Star Wars will always get me to the theater.

Still, after leaving the theater this time I felt mostly relief and exhaustion — relief that the producers ended it with one that didn’t stink up the theater, and exhaustion because they have more than fully exploited that Star Wars universe. Taking the whole series in perspective (and from re-watching the first six at home), here are my impressions:

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, after Star Wars was absent from theaters from 1983 until 1999’s Star Wars I premiere . . . 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. (Hey, I didn’t know somebody would save the melted face helmet from the pyre.)

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 Technology 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 Technology 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 was 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. I’ll just say that after seeing VIII, I then liked 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.” But in this film, clearly the franchise is getting old. There was no time in this movie that in the theater I told myself “Wow, I didn’t expect that!” Contrast that with the original Star Wars IV (1977), which surprised and delighted at every turn.

Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker. On this one I’ll leave the big reviews to others and just sink down in relief and exhaustion. Yes, I’m relieved that the franchise’s new owners didn’t totally stink up the theater with this one. But as I walked out of the theater, I realized that I have set the bar very low — “just get it over with.” I’m still 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. Yet another Big Destructive Space Technology That Has a Key Weakness to be Exploited by a Few Inside Attackers. An empire that has faster-than-light propulsion never invented GPS for navigation? Come on!
  • 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 (posthumously) and Mark Hamill as Luke finally line 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 before mellowing out at the end. Neither actor was a superstar, but the writing and direction were just right for them and their characters.

Finally, an economic meta-point. (Well, I’m an economist; what did you expect?) The original Star Wars of 1977 was produced by Hollywood’s rebels — a merry band defying convention. Star Wars IX was produced by the Galactic Empire, or its modern day equivalent: a crushing conglomerate with loads of intellectual property and no sense of humor. Economic freedom, “you’re my only hope” for resisting the Mouse’s dominance, and your shields are failing.

Categories
Plain Money ideas

Summary of smart moves (or maybe just less stupid)

Smart things I did (or maybe just less stupid) in the personal finances of myself and my family (see footnotes):

  • Abandoned the default 50-50 split between stocks and bonds in my long-term saving, going instead for the Stupid Financial Plan’s* default of my age in bonds — for example, 40 percent bonds when I turned 40, leaving 60 percent in stocks.
  • Got blooom.com to manage my 401(k)-403(b) plans. I think I’m hundreds or thousands of dollars ahead by now, just from this.
  • Put just enough money into my matching plan at work to get the match (as in your 403b plans), and stopped putting any more there. Instead I diverted the money to index funds at Vanguard.
  • Got a local independent insurance agency to look for quotes for my auto, home and umbrella insurance, saving lots (!) compared with staying with my then-current insurer, a leading nationally advertised company.
  • Dropped my extra life insurance (group insurance through work and one whole-life policy) after replacing it with term life insurance through zanderinsurance.com
  • Stopped buying new cars (bad habit!) and instead went used with Carmax, where there’s no bargaining. I’m a bad bargainer.
  • Cut the cable, replacing cable TV with an over-the-air antenna and streaming services.
  • Dropped expensive cellphone, replacing it with a Moto X4 on the Fi wireless service. I use wifi wherever possible and my bill is now about $28 per month. The Moto cost me $149 to purchase after service credits. (Others have reported good results from prepaid carriers ranging from Cricket to TracFone.)

Footnotes:

  1. I’m not endorsing any financial provider or service, just telling you what worked for me.
  2. In many cases, doing something is way better than doing nothing. So, if the only way you’ll save for your future is through your bad 403(b) plan at work, that’s better than not saving at all. Don’t cancel your 403(b) contributions until you have your new plan in place.
  3. I’ve heard that Fidelity and Schwab are just as good as Vanguard, maybe better for some customers. I’ve just always had good luck with Vanguard.
  4. SelectQuote and other services will get you life insurance quotes just the same way that Zander Insurance will. Do a search and you’ll find many possibilities. I had good luck with Zander. And, absolutely do not cancel your old life insurance until the new coverage is in place.
  5. I have since upgraded to a Pixel 4a that was $349. It has great performance and battery life, and a really nice camera. But if I were saving money big-time I’d get a refurbished Moto X4. My old one is still in the family and it’s a very capable phone.

*The Stupid Financial Plan is something I use with some adult groups, showing very basic steps toward financial security.

Categories
Observations

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!

Categories
Observations

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!

Categories
Observations

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

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Plain Money ideas

About “Plain Money”

Getting a Grip on Your Money was published in 2002 and had a good five-year run. It was featured on nationally syndicated talk shows, published overseas, and used for group discussions in a variety of settings. The book is still available from Amazon.com and free leader resources are available but now that its active promotion has ended, this site seeks to promote and extend the “plain money” theme of the book.



Categories
Plain Money ideas

Can you automate good investing habits?

Blooom piggy bank logoThe Plain Money approach to investing isn’t fancy — it’s just developing some good habits: buy and hold index funds, keep costs low, keep things in balance. But in some 401(k) situations that’s not easy. You may have multiple accounts, some left over from earlier employers. To do the job right, you need to keep up with the available investment choices and make sure your portfolio doesn’t get out of line.

Or you could use a service like Blooom, which I’m currently testing. So far I’m impressed! I have some tax-advantaged accounts from a couple of earlier jobs and several others with my current employer. I signed up with Blooom and it took only a few clicks to get my accounts in much better shape. Here’s what Blooom did for me:

  • Using only the assets available and keeping my balances with my current provider, found lower-cost alternatives with similar performance.
  • By requesting rebalancing through my current provider, lined up my asset allocation with my investment goals.
  • Set up future rebalancing to keep my asset allocation in line with my goals.

The cost is affordable: $10 a month for a single account. If you have multiple accounts (as I did), there are discounts. Quick chat support helped me get everything set up.

The one disadvantage was that Blooom could not manage all of my accounts with my provider — and those unmanaged accounts are heavily invested in bond equivalents. So I had to adjust my Blooom-managed accounts away from bonds to get my overall percentage of stocks and bonds right.

In my judgment, Blooom will repay its modest monthly fees many times over, just in finding ways to reduce investment fees. And it already has shown me some investment alternatives (low-cost passively managed assets, of course!) that I didn’t know were available in some of my older investment accounts.

You can even get your first month free at this link for Plain Money readers:
Try Out Blooom. If you do try it out, please let me know your experience. I’ll update this post from time to time and let you know how things are working out.

That link again: Try Out Blooom free for a month.

Full disclosure: If you do try out Blooom, I will receive an affiliate referral premium.

Finally, this obvious question: “Hey, you’re a Ph.D. in economics, can’t you figure out what Blooom does by yourself?” And the answer is yes, in principle, but I don’t have the time or patience to investigate everything about my old investment accounts. Blooom is essentially automating the principles that I advocate in Getting a Grip on Your Money.