Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Books I have read, am currently reading, and my upcoming reading list

Recently Read:

I had 9 books assigned for my Political Economic Thought course, so I didn’t read much else from January-April. I did read The Great Stagnation and (most of) Scorecasting: both were great. Currently I am reading “The Right to Earn a Living: Economic Freedom and the Law.” This book details the legal basis for economic freedom. I have only read the preface and first couple of chapters, but so far it is simultaneously great and aggravating. Stories about how our government sets up laws to prevent people from earning a living are so disgusting yet common.

I started reading Bourgeois Dignity in January but got stalled – I recently restarted that book and find it fascinating. In fact, I wish I would have required this book instead of another book in the Political Economic Thought course. McCloskey makes a compelling case that it was an attitude of acceptance towards the bourgeois that caused the amazing boom in the standard of living we have seen over the past several hundred years. The chapter “Opposing the Bourgeoisie Hurts the Poor” might be the single most well-written and compelling chapter I have read in an economics book written for non-economists. It should be required reading for every single college student (not just those studying economics). I have thought/known most of what she said, but she s makes her points much more clearly than I could. (Not surprising, since she is known as one of the best writers in economics.)

I also read Bill Bryson’s book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. It is several years old but I hadn’t read it, so it was new to me. He writes well and I found it informative. I am now reading his book “A Short History of Private Life.”

Fun with Travel Books:

Next January-(early) May, I get the privilege of living in London leading a study abroad program.  We also will be taking trips to Prague, Rome, and likely Wales, Scotland, and Paris.  So ... I am currently reading several travel books.  Among them, a couple general guide books on London (Frommer’s and Rick Steves), along with a book on London with kids, and a book showing 24 walks to take in London.  I also have a “24 walks in Rome” book and a Edinburgh & Glasgow Frommer's book.

Finally, I have 3 books I just bought for my Kindle that I plan to read in June (plane reading):

• Up from the Projects: An Autobiography by Walter Williams

• Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford, and

• Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Taleb.

Should be a fun summer!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Republicans and Democrats Grade Differently - Thoughts

Link here

I have a very unequal grade distribution, especially in my introductory economics courses.  I structure my tests so that it is very difficult to get 100s, and I typically get many scores below 50.  I curve my tests, but each semester I have a non-trivial percentage of students who will get a D+ or worse.  At my university, you then must retake the course if you are a business or economics major.

I view equal grading as unequal treatment, at least for a course like principles of microeconomics where assessment is straightforward.  If I were grade more equally, that would be extremely unfair to those who work hard to earn their Bs or As. 
Do I feel bad about the students who get a D+ or worse and have to retake the class?  Well, I don't feel good about it, but most who do poorly don't put in the required time and effort to succeed.  For those students, I don't lose any sleep over their earning a low grade.  They don't know the material, didn't work hard to learn it, and should be retaking the course.  There are some students who seem to work hard and still struggle to get results.  These cases are certainly rarer, but when it happens I am not happy.  I appreciate that economic thinking doesn't come easy to all students.  When one of these students comes in and puts in a sufficient amount of time studying, however, they usually do pass.

I guess this is roughly consistent with my views on income distribution as well.  Many who make lower incomes aren't earning their low incomes by accident.  Should we feel bad for the person who didn't work hard in high school, doesn't work hard now to improve him or herself, and has a job that pays slightly over the minimum wage?  I don't.  Note that I am not excited that a person is struggling, I simply don't get upset when a person's wages are commiserate with his/her effort. 

Further, some people make reasonable livings but made the choice to go into careers that pay less (teachers, artists, etc.) than other (perhaps less-appealing) careers that pay more (accountants, actuaries).  Unequal incomes here are a good thing, because if incomes were equal, we would have an imbalance in supply and demand in the various fields. 

Reading this report on grades - it makes sense to me.  Equality in incomes would mean inequality.  Equality in grading would mean inequality as well.

Note: The comment about grades by race is troubling.  Anyone who adjusts a grade upward or downward for a person because of his or her race should be fired. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Political Economic Thought

This semester, I taught a course titled “Political Economic Thought”. It was the first time I taught this course – and I think it was a success. We read nine books (in this order):

1. Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engles. “The Communist Manifesto.” Signet Classic. 1998.

2. Sowell, Thomas. “The Quest for Cosmic Justice.” Simon & Schuster. 1999.

3. Krugman, Paul. “The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008.” W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2009.

4. Powell, Jim. “FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression.” Three Rivers Press. 2003.

5. Stiglitz, Joseph E. “Freefall: American, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy.” W.W. Norton. 2010.

6. Sowell, Thomas. “The Housing Boom and Bust.” Simon & Schuster. 2009.

7. Thaler, Richard H. and Cass R. Sunstein. “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Revised and Expanded Edition.” Penguin Books. 2009.

8. Friedman, Milton. “Capitalism and Freedom, Fortieth Anniversary Version.” The University of Chicago Press. 2002.

9. Cowen, Tyler. “Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist.” Dutton Adult. 2007.

Overall, the objective of this course was to give students several different perspectives on economic issues from extremely bright individuals. I think we succeeded in that. When asking whether students changed their political philosophies, most said no, although two who thought of themselves as more “liberal” at the beginning of class said they are now more libertarian on some economic issues, and one who was more conservative said he is more convinced of the need for government intervention in some cases. Almost all seemed to say they had a greater appreciation for the “other side’s” perspectives on the issues.

Some comments from the students:

There was wide disagreement on what they viewed as the best and worst books. Some thought The Communist Manifesto was clearly worst, but it was so short and historical that they didn’t really think it was bad. Two thought Friedman was the worst – although I think the timing (at the end of the semester between two less-controversial books) might have had something to do with that. One student thought Friedman was the best. Several thought Nudge was the best. One thought the Quest for Cosmic Justice was best, and one two thought Stiglitz was the best. A couple didn't like Powell's books, but several really liked them.  Several thought Powell’s Great Depression book was the worst, but the class was unanimous about leaving it on the reading list. Why?

What did the students agree about at the end of the term?

The overwhelming response was that they were educated inadequately about the Great Depression. Our book by Powell goes into the nitty-gritty details of the Great Depression.  It is tough to read that book and come out with a good impression of FDR or think that his policies improved lives during the Great Depression. Students overwhelmingly got the impression by their high school (and even college) teachers that FDR helped improve the economy while he was in office. More than one student now thinks FDR was one of (if not the) worst president in US history. (I agree.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How a professor spends his summer “vacation”

How a professor spends his summer “vacation”

Courses have ended for the school year and my grades have been turned in. I attended commencement Sunday and said goodbye to some outstanding students (and people) that I got to know well over the past four years. I am excited about summer starting, but many people assume that I have a vacation until late August. (I have literally had some people say “so you’re on vacation for 4 months, wow!) I don’t blame them, honestly, as they wouldn’t necessarily have any reason for knowing what a (productive) professor might do over the summer “break”. However, a professor who doesn’t keep active in his/her field quickly will be far less interesting and informed, and teaching and research skills will diminish quickly. I don’t let that happen.

I get excited about summer as it is a change in routine, and I get to do what I want (mostly) for the time. I do work a lighter schedule than during the school year, but I am by no means doing nothing.

Here I will detail a bit about how I plan to spend my summer vacation:

Day-to-day research activities:

• Complete a requested revision on a paper on Internet Poker for the Journal of Gambling Issues.

• Revise a paper on the willingness-to-pay/willingness-to-accept disparity for submission to a new journal.

• Run experimental auctions to collected data from smokers on a project funded by the National Institutes of Health.

• Begin a new project I am beginning that will systematically review economic impact studies and critique their bias. (new website soon to be up:

• Write a new paper with a colleague from Kenyon College examining the impact of practice round bids on experimental auctions

• Continue writing two papers with a colleague from the University of South Carolina examining issues relating to experimental auction bids on cigarettes from a dataset we collected in 2009.

• Work on other projects as they arise.

Day-to-day non-research (work) activities:

• Continue work on other consulting projects as they may arise.

• Start to prepare the schedule for when I will be in London in the spring 2012 semester.

• Get prepared for courses that I will teach in the fall (this won’t likely happen until August).

Scheduled Events:

Here is my list of scheduled trips (as of now). More might be added, but as of now I know I will:

Early June: Travel to MN to visit family and attend my cousin’s wedding (4 nights).

Mid June: Travel to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker (5 nights).

Late June: Camping trip with son for Cub Scouts (3 nights)

Late July: Trip to Pittsburgh for conference where I will present a paper. Family is attending and we will stay an extra day to enjoy the city.


I am starting a new workout regime – P90X. One advantage of my summer schedule is I can devote a bit more time to getting in shape. I actually now am 30 lbs. lighter than my heaviest weight, but am hoping to drop another 10-15 over the summer.

I am blessed to have such a great job. I love teaching, but I also love being able to work on these other areas.  Summer will be busy, but fun!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Another consequence of minimum wage laws ...

McDonald's goes more to touch screens for food ordering

Introductory economic theory shows that if you have ways of producing a product, and the price of one of them goes up - you are more likely to substitute to the other. 

With the unemployment rate among teenagers already sky high (well over 25%), I wonder how long it is before policy makers on both the left and right realize their minimum wage laws are causing some of the pain felt by this economic downturn.