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.: .

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.


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.

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.


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:


Teaching note

I love to teach using Socratic dialogue, with a few extra twists thrown in. This video explains:



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 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: