I see economics people

Tag: I see economics people

Master of Supply & Demand… and Lots of Other Stuff

In a twist on the “Life After Lawrence” meme, Professor Merton D. “Marty” Finkler officially retired yesterday, after serving on the economics faculty for more than 30 years.  Professor Finkler is the consummate economist, always interested in talking about economics and ideas whether in class or at the ball game.   He also has a remarkable versatility, from his principal field of health economics to his core (and terrifying?) macro theory course to urban economics to sports economics to environmental economics and on to China.  It certainly is not possible to replace his expertise, at least not with one person.  Fortunately, he will continue to teach and engage with our students as an emeritus professor, beginning this fall with his Investments class.

Here he is pictured in his new hood (!), along with our faculty and one of our more photogenic students.   His Honorary Degree citation is below the break.

Last Hurrah

Continue reading Master of Supply & Demand… and Lots of Other Stuff

No, Really, It’s Hard to Predict Stock Prices

The Economist and Vox each have nice pieces up on what economists do and do not agree upon.   To take the second part first, the piece from Vox shows that there is a pretty large degree of consensus on this issues.

What this shows is that out of about 80 questions, economists completely agree on just over 30 (about 40%) and agree between 90 and 99% of the time on about three of four questions.   There are very few things that economists don’t generally agree upon, and those appear to be issues where “little” research has been done by anyone.  Where research has been done, economists seem to agree on pretty much everything.

Next, we find out some of the central issues where not only do we do agree, we adamantly disagree with the conventional public view.  For example, we all seem to agree that it’s hard to predict stock prices!  (Who knew?!?).  I think we are disabused of the notion early on when we sit down with our pet scheme and lose our shirts. My “investments” tutorials typically go something like this — “put your money in an index fund.”

We also agree that price instruments are better than fuel economy standards (I’ve been saying that for years), that supply & demand factors drive oil prices, and “buy local” policies don’t save jobs, among other things.  It’s interesting to me that when it comes to net benefits of the stimulus, our views dovetail with the public views (i.e., who knows).  

We previously posted about this important topic right here.

“Economics is what economists do”

"Economics is as Economics does!"

As I was preparing for Econ 100 for next term, I came across a piece by Roger Backhouse and Steven Medema on the definition of economics.  Or, to put it more bluntly, what exactly is economics anyway?

Backhouse and Medema run through a bunch of textbook descriptions of what dismal scientists spend their time thinking about, and offer up a few choice quotes.  The first candidate is from the indefatigable Paul Krugman and Robin Wells from their intro textbook:  “Economics is the study of economies, at both the level of individuals and of society as a whole.”

That seems pretty accurate, but I don’t think economics is nearly as exciting as they make it sound. ;-)

Here’s another from David Colander, a man who knows a thing or two about The Making of an Economist.  He says “Economics is the study of how human beings coordinate their wants and desires, given the decision-making mechanisms, social customs, and political realities of the society.”

Coordination, indeed.  For us market types, scarce resources are generated and distributed via market forces (e.g., prices), and there are all sorts of “agents” running around maximizing this and that — utility, profit, market share, Facebook friends, etc…

Harvard’s Greg Mankiw simply says “Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources.”  Pithy, to the point, possibly accurate, and consistent with what Robert Heilbronner tells us in The Worldly Philosophers More on that later.

Or perhaps try the more pro-market friendly Gwartney and Stroup et al.: “[E]conomics is the study of human behavior, with a particular focus on human decision making.”

Couldn’t that describe psychology?

Scarcity, choices, allocation, behavior, decision making — not exactly narrowing down our subject here, are we?

So, for the punch line, here is the classic Jacob Viner quip, “Economics is what economists do.”

That’s it!

Thanks to Mr. T for the tip.  You can read the full piece here.

And here is the citation:   Roger E. Backhouse and Steven G. Medema. 2009. “Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23(1): 221–33.

Backhouse, by the way, is one of the co-authors of our ECON DS-391 and Econ 601 books.  So we’ll be hearing more from him in the coming weeks.

“Get Her Something Expensive and Useless”

It’s that time of year where we bid you Happy Holidays from the Economics profession.

Up first, we have a truly heroic figure, Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogeonomics.*  I don’t know your preferences as well as you do, so whatever I give you is probably sub-optimal, unless you tell me exactly what you want.  And even then, wouldn’t you rather just have the cash anyway?  For those of you intermediate micro students, you know that kids prefer cash over any in-kind equivalent.

Kudos to Professor Waldfogel for willing to be “that guy.”

Speaking of Scrooge, was he really such a bad guy?  Not so, says Steven Landsburg. Let’s give it up for our annual Scrooge endorsement from this classic Slate piece:

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser–the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.

If you build a house and refuse to buy a house, the rest of the world is one house richer. If you earn a dollar and refuse to spend a dollar, the rest of the world is one dollar richer–because you produced a dollar’s worth of goods and didn’t consume them.

Ah, I just feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Moving on to The Atlantic, where we have “The Behavioral Economist’s Guide to Buying Presents.” Now this is some truly indispensable advice.  Like Waldfogel above, the money point is to just give money. But, for the true romantics who feel compelled to give a gift, the behavioralists recommend this:

Buying for a guy? Get him a gadget. Buying for a girl? Get her something expensive and useless.

The gadget I get.**  The expensive and useless? That’s from Geoffrey Miller’s, The Mating Mind.  Here’s a brief explanation of courtship:

The wastefulness of courtship is what makes it romantic. The wasteful dancing, the wasteful gift-giving, the wasteful conversation, the wasteful laughter, the wasteful foreplay, the wasteful adventures.  From the viewpoint of “survival of the fittest” the waste looks mad and pointless and maladaptive… However, from the viewpoint of fitness indicator theory, this waste is the most efficient and reliable way to discover someone’s fitness. Where you see conspicuous waste in nature, sexual choice has often been at work.

This presents something of a conundrum because “expensive and useless” seems to be at odds with Waldfogel’s hyper-utilitarian cold, hard cash suggestion.

So if you want to hedge your bets, give her Euro!

* The book is a follow up to the classic, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.”  Clearly, the book title Scroogonomics can be chalked up to the value-added of the publishing house.

**Conceptually, that is. I generally get ties and socks.

The Piece I’ve Been Expecting about Robert Lucas

The Wall Street Journal has a short profile of Robert Lucas,  one of the most influential macroeconomists of at least the past 20 years (when I picked up my first grad macro text).  Lucas is probably best known for integrating “rational expectations” into macro models (he convinced his wife, at least).  He is also the namesake of the “Lucas Critique”  of using past behavior to predict the future.   Here’s a nice summary of his contributions.

Lucas might sound like someone affiliated with the Chicago School, and indeed, that is the case.  Someone you should know.

Surely make you lose your mind…

Our first edition of the summer mailbag is here with a contribution from the always ebullient “Mr. O,” who says he sees economics everywhere these days.  The article in question has to do with a congesting pricing scheme in Chicago, and of particular interest to Mr. O is the methodology in which people’s time is valued.  As you may recall from, well, from all of my classes, a classic study by Deacon and Sonstelie that valued time by watching how long people were willing to wait to fill up their gasoline at price-controlled stations rather than paying market prices across the street.

In Chicago, as the saying goes, there are two seasons: winter and construction. And all that construction [isn’t] free. So the program would benefit those who are willing to pay for a faster commute (in the so-called “Lexis Lanes”) and raise bucketloads of cash for the metro area.

What’s the down side?

Our Readers Respond

As you can imagine, a blog like this generates a lot of reader response.  From our post on the American Power Act, astute reader NS writes in:


Pithy, yes.  He also sends along this piece on the flow of corporate money supporting the bill.  For those of you interested, the capture theory posits that firms often “capture” regulators, and consequently legislation &/or regulation is used as a means to redistribute resources from one group to another. I’d probably go with the Becker model on this one, but he gets an A for brevity and wit.

Also on the corporate interest front comes this great article from alert reader “Mr. O.” The “beverage lobby,” folks with a lot a stake in the soda (a.k.a. “pop”) tax, have dispensed with the niceties and are offering up cold hard cash to quash it:

Yet with the nation’s obesity burden and states and municipalities parched for new cash sources in this recession, the beverage lobby isn’t underestimating the tenacity of those who would impose taxes. So they’ve unveiled a new tact in Philadelphia: abandon the tax and the beverage industry will donate $10 million over two years to the Pew Charitable Trusts to fund health and wellness programs in this city, if Pew would accept the funds, reported BNET.com.

I kid you negative, Mr. O was laughing out loud (LOLZing, as the kids say) at the audacity of this proposal.

So, for any of you other readers out there that identify something of interest, please bring it to our attention. If it clears the bar, it might be you seeing your initials right here on the blog.

Imagine that.