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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)




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Observations

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.

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Observations

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?

 

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Beautiful post on a beautiful book

UntitledIf you haven’t read Cry the Beloved Country, you should. And after you do, read this post. The book was once part of the required first-year reading program at a university where I was employed. It is a moving novel about South Africa that taught the students more about diversity than ten diversity-training workshops ever could.

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Observations

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

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Observations

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.)
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Observations

On upward mobility and colleges

My own personal view is that all people of faith should help people make more of their lives: to prosper in faith, friendship and love. Sadly, the sector I work in — higher education — has done a bad job in its part of that, especially with students from poor backgrounds.

This piece from the New York Times outlines some of the issues. The real problem is fairly simple: it just costs too much to get a college degree. Higher education’s answer, as costs have escalated, has been to provide more need-based financial aid to the poor. That answer is inadequate because, as the Times piece points out, the college completion gap between rich and poor has been growing, even with all the financial aid.

Financial aid isn’t the answer. To a large degree it’s the problem. Try this thought experiment with me: Suppose the government said everybody had to eat a lot of apples. Suppose further that it said apples are so important that we’ll give you payment to help cover the cost when apple prices go up. Do you think apple producers would keep their prices low? Of course not!

Well, in higher education, we now have the government saying people really should go to college, and providing payments to help pay when colleges raise their prices. The colleges have not restrained their price increases, but instead have taken advantage of the fact that they can raise them even more when the government is helping people pay.

I would like to live in a country where bright but poor students get a good, fair shot at a college education. Unfortunately, we are farther from this ideal today than when I first entered the field. We have to do better.

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Just saying

I have never seen a time when kindness toward political opponents was more needed, or less rewarded. Those who deal civilly with their opponents are characterized by “their” side as sellouts. Those who demean their opponents are rewarded with attention and approval from their own base. The most worrisome thing of all is this: It works. Given the polarized nature of our country today, bullying political opponents seems to work better than debating them.

Fellow citizens, we have the cure in our hands. Make it stop working. Ignore negative political commercials, read a lot and get informed. And when one of your Facebook friends posts a highly appealing but deceptive attack on a political position — even if you’re on the same side with your friend — don’t hit that “like” button.

That’s what I’m doing, anyway.

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Apollo moon shots: brilliant, crazy


This excellent documentary made me realize a few things about the brilliant, crazy Apollo program to send astronauts to the moon and back using the crude technology of the time (1969-1972):

  • Those missions were something that united us as a nation. As I recall, nobody worried much about whether the Democrats or Republicans would get the credit. I wish we had something nonpartisan like that to unite us today.
  • The technology just wasn’t ready. We did it all backwards. We should have done a lot of orbital work, followed by a shuttle program and space station. Then we could have gone more safely to the moon. But we didn’t do it that way. President Kennedy put out the challenge, before we had even  achieved earth orbit with an astronaut, to get to the moon and back before the end of the decade. And we did it!
  • Humans are like that. Have you seen the reproductions of the original ships that went to Jamestown, Virginia? They went all the way across the Atlantic in ships that size. It would have been a lot safer to wait for the technology to mature. But we didn’t do it that way.
  • Apollo 11 was the most famous of the flights, since it was the first lunar landing. But Apollo 13, recovering from a failure that could easily have resulted in a total loss of crew, may well have been the biggest achievement of the program.
  • It 1969 when the first Apollo lunar landing took place. The last one was in 1972. If you had told me then, “Forty years from now we’ll all carry phones with more computing power than the Apollo moon ship but we won’t have gone back to the moon and won’t even be planning to,” I would have said you were crazy. I would have expected a moon base and expeditions to Mars by now.

So — what will get us back in space, big time, and back to the moon? The same thing that got us to Jamestown — the profit motive. But that’s a story for another day. Ad astra.