Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The power of incentives - weight loss edition

About a month ago, I promised my students that if I didn't lose 7 pounds in about 2 months, I would pay them $100.

My initial weight was 212.5.

After a bit more exercise, along with eating smarter (apples for snacks, salads at fast food restaurants, etc.), here was my weight today (26 days later):

I won!

Incentives are powerful.  Yet, I'm thinking of doing something more.  I'd really like to get down to 195-197 range on this scale (I'm fully dressed, with shoes, on this scale), so perhaps I'll offer to pay them if I can't lose a few more pounds.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The most offensive part of "Rent" (the musical)

As those who read my blog regularly will know, I enjoy musical theatre.  One of the most popular musicals of the past 20 years is Rent.  I just saw a production of it this past weekend at our local community theatre (I'd also seen it about 15 years ago with a Broadway touring company).  I was lucky, as an economics major that I taught in two courses, Seth Confer, was the lead role (Mark).  He was outstanding, as was the show.

The show, while great, isn't for all ages.  There are many parts of the show that are objectionable for children.  There is adult language along with many references to drugs and casual sex (some scenes are quite explicit about this as well).  That said, as a parent and an economist, that's not the part of Rent that's most inappropriate for children.  It's a song at the beginning, Rent.  This song doesn't contain the conventional items that parents that would consider inappropriate.  They should, however.

Here are some of the lyrics:  (Link to song here on Youtube)
How do you document real life
When real life's getting more like fiction each day?
Headlines, bread-lines blow my mind
And now this deadline, eviction or pay rent
And more:
We're hungry and frozen, some life that we've chosen
How we gonna pay? How we gonna pay?
How we gonna pay? Last year's rent?
And more:
Draw a line in the sand and then make a stand
Use your camera to spar, use your guitar
When they act tough, you call they're bluff
We're not gonna pay, we're not gonna pay
We're not gonna pay, last year's rent
This year's rent, next year's rent
This is what's offensive.  It's easy to teach that drug use and promiscuous sex are bad.  A song that celebrates people who want to live for free in a place without paying rent, that's a bit tougher.  This is a rock-and-roll song celebrating people who feel they've been wronged because they're being asked to ... gasp ... pay rent.

The show is entertaining, but if you take your children (or teens), be sure to have a discussion of why the song Rent is so inappropriate.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

My newest publication ...

One of my most recent published papers is titled Estimating Demand for Alternatives to Cigarettes with Online Purchase Tasks.  It was published in the American Journal of Health Behavior.

Here's the abstract:


To explore how advertising affects demand for cigarettes and potential substitutes, including snus, dissolvable tobacco, and medicinal nicotine.


A Web-based experiment randomized 1062 smokers to see advertisements for alternative nicotine products or soft drinks, then complete a series of purchase tasks, which were used to estimate demand elasticity, peak consumption, and cross-price elasticity (CPE) for tobacco products.


Lower demand elasticity and greater peak consumption were seen for cigarettes compared to all alternative products (p < .05). CPE did not differ across the alternative products (p ≤ .03). Seeing relevant advertisements was not significantly related to demand.


These findings suggest significantly lower demand for alternative nicotine sources among smokers than previously revealed.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Travel time

Sorry for the lack of posts recently.  During spring break, I visited family near Phoenix, AZ.  I also just had a trip to Buffalo, NY.  (Buffalo is often called the "Arizona of upstate NY".)

Throw in the kickoff of a big NIH-funded research grant and my usual commitment to being an excellent teacher, and blogging has been put on the back-burner.  I'll be posting again semi-frequently soon, however.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

From the comments about the $4.25 training wage, small businesses exemptions, and more

Someone commenting wasn't convinced about the minimum wage/unemployment link I mentioned in my recent post on teenagers and the unemployment rate.  Let's look through the arguments:

Argument 1 by Jim:

In states that have minimum wages that mirrow the federal minimum wage those under 20 years of age can be pay only 4.25 hour for the first 90 days their employed. Its a training wage so to speak yet the unemployment rate for teenagers in these states is not that low. Companies should be falling over each other to hire teenagers if they are only required to pay them 4.25 an hour for their first nindy days of employment.
My response:

A training wage is good, but there are problems.  After 90 days, you have to pay them the minimum wage.  Unless the firm can train quickly or has huge worker turnover, it won't be too helpful.  I don't know the law, but I suspect firms would be in trouble (legally) if they only hired people for 3 months to take advantage of a training wage law.

Argument 2 by Jim:

Companies that are doing under five hundred thousand dollars in annual sales are exempt from the minimum wage. And that five hundred thousand figure includes the majority of small business. It really bothers me whanever theirs a debate about the minimum wage that these facts are never brought up.
My response:

While I don't know the percentage of businesses that are exempt, a $500,000 annual sales cap would exclude virtually every single fast food restaurant nationwide.  The majority of businesses does not mean the majority of those hires for the minimum wage.  What percent of sub $10/hour jobs go to these firms?  3%?  5%?  

Argument 3 by Jim:

Another thing its generally not that big a deal if you had a job at mcdonald's when you went to high school. If someone has the skills when they leave collage or some tech school when they are being considered for the job I do not believe that the interviewer is really all that concerned about whether or not they worked at a Mcdonald's when they were in high school. Their a lot more concerned about what they took when they went to school. Another thing high students that do not have a job flipping hamburgers when their in high school generally perform better in school get better grades are less likely to drop out of school than their hambuger flipping peers.

My response:

The skills you gain when at a fast food restaurant are very valuable.  An employer may not ask about McDonalds, but they want someone who knows how to show up daily to work, can deal with customers and bosses, understands finances, and basically is a responsible human being.  I gained a number of these skills when I worked at a fast food restaurant.

I see man students today who've never had a job where they earned a paycheck before college.  They're not all lazy, but you can tell a difference.  There's something about those who know how to hold down a job at a young age - it's a good skill to learn before graduating from college.

About the last statement: I'm not sure whether those who have jobs "flipping burgers" really get worse grades.  I doubt it, but even if so we should remember that correlation does not equal causation.  Lots of other factor ps could be going on.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What to do to Russia over Ukraine? Frack!

The mess in the Ukraine is tricky. 

What kind of response would we expect to see from Obama and the west?  I can't imagine there will be an army sent in to intervene.  I also agree with the article's point here:
Sanctions, of course, top the list of options, but the United States will need to prepare for the backlash. Former presidential adviser David Gergen says Putin would consider any sanctions "small potatoes" compared to keeping control of Crimea, while Putin could pull his support for Obama's initiative to reduce nuclear threats in the world, including in Iran. Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Macedonia, Iraq and Poland, says imposing sanctions also raises the risk of alienating a superpower. "That means 20 years of trying to work with Russia down the drain," he said.
I'm not going to pretend that I know the best solution to international situations.  That said, I do know something that could be done to make sure Russia isn't rewarded.

If Western countries did want Russia to suffer some negative consequences for their transgressions, there is certainly one thing it can do - increase fracking in the US, Europe, and China.

This would lower demand and (therefore) natural gas prices for Russia's natural gas, which is a huge part of their economy.  This would definitely harm Russia, while at the same time potentially helping billions with lower energy prices.  It might also provide environmental improvements, especially if natural gas use replaces coal use. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

My weight loss "bet" and teaching behavioral economics

In principles of microeconomics we recently discussed behavioral economics in general and commitment mechanisms specifically.  I decided to personally illustrate a commitment mechanism by committing to pay my students money if I don't lose weight.

The deal: I need to lose 7 pounds in 60 days or I pay my students $100.  That's not a lot of weight, but losing 7 pounds in a time frame is easier said than done.  It will require slightly more exercise and slightly better eating.  I'm hoping to get back to the weight I was when I was in London.

I have until Sunday, April 27th to lose weight.

When announcing this, I had my students vote on how they'd like to be paid should I lose (which I have no intention of doing).  Their options were:

One person wins $100
Two people win $50
Four people win $25
Ten people win $10, or
Twenty people win $5

The class chose to have me pay $25 to four people should I lose.

After class, I went to a weigh-in on the scale at the Susquehanna training room.

My starting weight was far more than I was hoping.  :(  (In my defense, I was fully dressed, shoes and all, as two students were there for the weigh-in.)  I actually hope to get to under 200 pounds - way below the bet.  I'll update my progress here.

Now - it's time to exercise!