Detours

Those of us who study Labor Economics like to think that decisions about human capital investment are made in a logical manner, when people compare the cost of education to the benefits (often, but not always, financial) that arise from such education. However, in looking back over my own life and in seeing the often nonlinear paths taken through life by many people I know, I realize that the “marginal this equals marginal that” approach to such decisions does not always represent the process actually undertaken by people as they make decisions about where they will focus the efforts of their lives.
As we celebrate the birthday of our country, I stumbled across an article an article (well, to be honest, I was caught by “clip bait” when I logged onto my computer) about what the founding fathers did before they signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, an act that gives us all a very long “weekend” this year, due to the fact that its anniversary falls in the middle of the week. As I scrolled through the names and the stories of what they had done before becoming part of the revolution, I was struck by the fact that while some of them had very “successful” lives before their involvement in the revolution, many did not. In fact, some might have been called “failures” had it not been for their later involvement in one of the most successful projects in human history.
As I am someone whose life has taken many non-linear turns, I was amused to hear that these men did not live lives that led them directly to acts that would assure that their names would be read on a computer over 200 years later. And, yes, they were all men who actually signed the document, even though their wives were, I am sure, strong forces that made the document possible. It almost certainly would not have been possible for the men to gather together to write the Declaration of Independence had they not had the support and encouragement of wives. Perhaps some of those wives brought them food and drink during the long days spent composing it, and almost certainly those wives cared for any children at home and kept up with daily chores. As is seen often in history, the acts that are remembered are only made possible by the support and labor of many whose names are not remembered.
Indeed, it would have been very possible for some of the signers’ names to have also been lost to history. As someone whose life did not take the path I expected, learning of this reassures me that such detours are not always the end of the story. I am amused to learn of a signer who is now described as an “incompetent tax collector” and another who survived several shipwrecks while another had several businesses fail and another actually vanished at a young age. There was the cousin of traitor Benedict Arnold, a college dropout and an indentured servant, as well as a smuggler. Reading the stories of the lives of these people whose bravery allow me to write this so many years later, I am humbled and assured that my own failures do not have to be the final word in the story of my own life.

I would like to wish my readers a very happy Fourth of July, and encourage us to recall, in this divided time in our history, all that there is on which we can agree. I suspect that people of all political persuasions appreciate the warmth of sunshine, the smile of a tiny baby, the smell of a barbecue, the taste of cool water on a humid day, and the sound of a babbling brook as we pause to relax. As much as there is that separates us, there is so much that unites us. Let us all join with those we love to appreciate our shared freedoms and hope in the future on this important day.

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Parental Holidays

In 1992, economist Gary Becker won the Nobel Prize in Economics (or rather, the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) for work that applied economic methods to common everyday decisions, including behavior among family members, especially spouses and parents. I found myself thinking of his work recently as May ended and we moved into June, as both months bring us celebrations of parents and the roles those parents play in the family.
May brings with it Mothers’ Day, and now, in June, Fathers’ Day approaches. While cynics may see both days as opportunities for those who sell greeting cards to expand the sale of their products, it is actually the case that Mothers’ Day began for a very different reason. In the devastation of the U.S. civil war, JuliaWard Howe, who also helped to write the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wrote a proclamation calling women, especially those who were mothers, to come together and build a more just and peaceful world. A copy of the proclamation hangs on my office door, a few inches from a sing that my now teenage daughter wrote for me many years ago, saying “I love you, Mom,” complete with a big smiling face. That proclamation , which calls on mothers to work against the violence that had, in 1870, recently engulfed the country, includes the line
“We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Of course, that statement is very different from the Hallmark holiday that it has evolved into, and I doubt that Juliet Ward Howe would recognize our current celebration.
Fathers’ Day does not have such a poetic origin, but seems to have evolved from Mothers’ Day. Both days celebrate the important roles that parents play in the lives of their children.
For me, it took becoming a parent to realize that I would do anything for my child. These holidays are therefore days to celebrate the willingness of parents to sacrifice for their children. These are not just the kind of sacrifices that involve large, life-changing choices, but also the kind of sacrifices that happen every day, when mothers and fathers decide to make their lives less convenient or more challenging so that their children may better flourish. Not every mother or father will risk their lives to save a child in distress, but most parents find ways to carve out time to be with their families when they know that there are other things they might prefer to be doing.
As precise as Economics may be about the decision rules involved in utility maximization, memories of the first days as a parent make wonder what exactly happens to one’s utility function when looking into the eyes of a tiny child, when your eyes catch theirs and a tiny smile that is definitely not just gas appears on their face. How can anyone really think about marginal utility when a beautiful, helpless person relies completely on your care?

Gary Becker examined the economics of the choices made within the family structure, but I have to believe that the decisions made daily by parents go beyond the utility maximizing decisions that economists like to model with precise calculus. Indeed, these decisions are probably much more complicated and selfless than could be caught by the usual assumptions of Economics. But what about the card companies? I am sure that the profit maximizing decisions made by those businesses can still be modeled by traditional microeconomics.

Wishing all of my readers who are fathers a very Happy Fathers’ Day!

 

Game Theory in Cleveland

When I spent a portion of a recent sabbatical writing part of a chapter of a book that focused on topics drawn from “game theory”, I received a lot of questioning looks from people who either did not understand the concept of a sabbatical or did not know what “game theory” was. Indeed, one person asked me if I was now part of the Early Childhood Education department, not realizing that the “games” I was studying were not ones that could be played at recess.

I usually ended up explaining to them that game theory was a branch of Mathematics that is often applied to Economics, and that it studies how choices are made when the probable behavior of other players are considered in making a decision. For example, the decisions made by a small group of firms that interact closely, such as the handful of automobile manufacturers in the United States, are made while anticipating the reaction to choices by the other firms that produce the same type of good. Being a citizen of the Cleveland area, I am well aware, especially at this time of the year, that such behavior is always on the mind of the long-suffering sports fans of a city that has had more than its share of difficulties in playoff competition.

It was only two years ago that Cleveland’s basketball team brought home the first championship of any kind to this city in over fifty years. I was on vacation with my family as that last basketball fell into the last hoop, and soon my family was jumping around the condo, screaming as my eighty-something father looked on in disbelief. “I couldn’t believe how excited you were” he told us later. However, he came to have some understanding of the source of our excitement when he learned that any championship at all had been elusive for Cleveland for almost as long as I had been alive. This year, the basketball team is once again making its way through the playoffs. We all wait to see what these games will bring as the chilly weeks of what counts for spring in Cleveland unfold.

That same year, the Cleveland baseball team came incredibly close to winning their own championship, but, alas, lost in overtime in the seventh game of the final playoff round. I remember hearing the neighborhood break into applause every time the team made a run, sounds that were audible even though windows that were closed as air-conditioning cranked through the muggy evening. It would have been impossible for anyone to ignore what was happening, even if they had wanted to. And, of course, no one in this sports town with a sad record of victories wanted to ignore any of these games. Once this year’s basketball season is over this year, the baseball season will start to heat up, and a loyal city will be there to cheer on their team.

I cannot say that the Cleveland football team had a great year that year, too, because that team has struggled for many years. Indeed, last year, it had so much difficulty that some began to spell its name as “the BRO NS”, since, as one person put it, “there is no ‘W’ in ‘Browns’” However, this year there is some new hope, as a recent football draft has brought new talent to the team.

Of course, the most memorable competition of 2016 was not on the court or the field, but in the ballot box. That was the year that many said the United States would elect it’s first woman president. I even brought my daughter to the Clinton headquarters on election night, so she would have a memory of that event, an event that did not unfold as predicted. This year, my book-rep-turned-lawyer husband is running for a judicial position, and therefore political “games” are the new focus of our family and most of our lives, at least for now.

And so, as the spring unfolds, I want to take a chance to wish all of the Cleveland sports teams the best of luck in their respective journeys to, hopefully, another trophy for this city. And to my husband (who has a different last name than I do), I will do my best to help all of your dreams come true.

The Value of Information (or why I never joined Facebook)

When I teach Microeconomics, there is always a day or two when I discuss “market failures.” These are reasons why the intersection of supply and demand curves may not be as elegant as economist like to believe. As I list some of the reasons why the free market may not yield outcomes that are as efficient as possible, I talk about such things as the existence of market power (by the presence of monopolies, oligopolies or monopsonies), the presence of public goods, and the situation in which some parties to a transaction have more information than other parties. This last issue, the situation of “asymmetric information” is central to my thoughts when I decided years ago to not join my (real life) friends on Facebook.
Of course, some people would think it is kind of silly for someone who spent nine years writing a blog column for an online publication (Inside Higher Ed) to be so protective of her personal information. However, even with my postings as “Math Geek Mom,” I hid some details that would allow readers to find me or my family. My daughter, the reason for my presence on the “Mama, Ph.D.” site, was always slightly disguised, with small details of her life being hidden from all but the most astute reader who would need to know us to discover the truth. I felt that, although I had no problem with sharing my own (very non-linear) story, I wanted to make sure that she retained some privacy. When she did find the blog, she was amused that her precious Teddy appeared there, but did not seem upset that I was talking about her to the world.
As for me, the commitment of writing a weekly blog for IHE made the decision to not join Facebook all the easier. I could not imagine yet another reason why I would need to write something on a regular basis. Adding postings on Facebook to my academic work, including research, and my weekly Mama, Ph.D. blog seemed too overwhelming. So, in some ways, the real reason I never joined Facebook is that I just didn’t have the TIME to do it and do it right.
However, on another level, I didn’t want to share my life with the world in such a detailed manner. If anyone from my past wanted to reach me, it would not be hard, as my academic life, and the fact that I kept my own name, makes me very “searchable.” And if I wanted to send pictures to relatives, I could do that directly. And I certainly didn’t want the world to know what it was that I “liked.” I do realize, however, that for years, it kept me from communicating on a large scale with groups of people who might have, on some level, been interested in the details of my life. Indeed, my husband’s high school class plans and carries out all of their class reunions via Facebook. I guess that the assumption is that EVERYONE is on it, so there is no reason to use old-fashioned invitations. It makes me kind of wonder how many class reunions of my own class I have missed, thanks to my absence on social media.
The recent news about Facebook and its interactions with a data firm makes me realize that this choice was actually a pretty good one, even years before the 2016 election. As economists study situations in which perfect information may not exist, we realize that information itself has value in a free market. And so, while the sharing of information about oneself may be fun and a great way to stay in touch, what we are actually doing is giving away things that have value. Imagine freely dropping ten dollar bills on the sidewalk, for anyone with the knowledge and ability to pick them up being able to do so. The cynic in me compares sharing information so broadly with just such a situation.
Will Facebook evolve into a medium in which information is more secure? Perhaps, but until I can be sure of that security, I am, alas, not going to join in on the social media craze.

Have any of my readers also declined to join?

April’s blog is on the way….

Economics is the study of decisions made under constraints, and, as I tell my students, one of the most important constraints we all face is that of time. Therefore, as I face a particularly busy time of the semester, I hope that my readers will understand that my blog for this month is still being written. I promise that it will appear in the next week or two. Thank you for understanding!

-Rosemarie Emanuele

Happy Birthday, Daylight Saving Time!

This coming weekend, many in the United States will move their clocks ahead one hour, in a tradition knows as “Daylight Saving Time.” While I welcome the added hour of sunlight in the evening, I must admit that I often dread losing an hour of sleep to get it. The trade-off reminded me of the question that economists ask ourselves often; is the marginal benefit of a change worth its marginal cost? Indeed, this question, applied to the loss of one hour to gain an hour of evening sunshine, is exactly the question that is being asked by many, and the idea has been floated that perhaps we should just choose one time or another; standard time or daylight-saving time. Indeed, if daylight saving time is in any danger, this is a good year to think about the tradition, as this year, daylight saving time turns one hundred years old. And it doesn’t show its age at all.
Some states have already detached themselves from the tradition of springing forward (or falling back), and there is a growing list of others that are considering doing the same, with some considering staying on Daylight Saving time permanently, and others thinking about doing away with it completely. In addition, others are thinking about doing away with it completely To add to the discussion, I want to highlight some of the reasons that people might choose to keep or not keep the practice, a kind of marginal cost vs. marginal benefit analysis about sunshine.
The first days after moving from one time structure to another are usually difficult for many, as we struggle to get used to how the new times affect our eating and sleeping patterns. For those of us who take medicine daily, the switch can cause extra confusion to bodies that don’t recognize the reason why we are not taking medicine at the regular time. Indeed, it has been shown that there is an increase in the number of auto accidents when the time changes go into effect and many people casually report being extra tired on the days after the change. I wonder how much productivity is lost in the first week after a change occurs, and whether it is worth the effort?
On the other hand, there is the added benefit of having summer days that last into the evenings as summer unfolds. While not as much of a technical issue as are the increase in auto accidents or the change in productivity, the value of a day that does not seem to want to end, spent with children, friends and family at the public pool must be worth something, perhaps more than can be quantified by simple statistics.  Indeed, recalling many memories of swimming until 9PM, I would venture to say that the benefit of having those extra hours far outweighs the temporary cost of switching. While I recognize the arguments against the tradition, I am thrilled that this coming weekend, we will wish Daylight Saving Time a very happy 100th birthday.

 

What are your thoughts (or memories) relating to Daylight Saving
Time?

Public Goods

As someone who studies the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, I often focus on the idea of a “public good.” These goods are unlike “private goods,” such as cookies or cars, where the person purchasing them consumes all of the “utility” from that good, and others do not share in the rewards. Rather, public goods are goods in which many people reap the benefits at the same time, without the ability to exclude others from consuming that good. In addition, while the sad truth is that someone eating the cookie I was eyeing means that I can’t have that cookie, things are different with a public good. There, one person consuming that good does not prevent others from also enjoying it. Typical examples of such a good include parks and roads This, of course, is only to a point- I have memories of people waiting in long lines of cars to visit Walden Pond on one hot summer day in the late 1980s.

I found myself thinking of public goods on two occasions recently, one involving my home, and one involving my work.

Late last summer, my husband remarked to me that perhaps we should chop down an apple tree in our front yard. It was growing too big for the space it is in, and I recalled that it had not produced edible apples in years. I was almost ready to agree, when a neighbor came over to ask us if she could pick some of our apples. I was so used to thinking of the apples from that tree as being “crab apples” (which they are not) that I almost didn’t let her, for fear that she would get sick from them. “No,” she assured me; “those apples are fine.” Not completely convinced, I let her start picking. Very soon, she had a bucket filled with apples, and returned the next day with an apple pie baked from them, which was delicious and quickly devoured. On our close-knit street, it was not long until the word was out, and others stopped by to take home some of the only edible apples our tree had produced in years. It was not long until waves of neighbors came in groups carrying ladders and returning with jars of apple sauce as a token of thanks. I was reminded of “Charlotte’s Web” as I realized that the apple tree was only inches from being cut down, but now was a gathering place for the entire neighborhood.

Public goods can appear in many spheres, and one recent place they have been cited includes educational material, often in the form of what is known as “OER,” or “open educational resources.” These videos or classroom activities can be found throughout the internet, and are usually created by academics, and, unlike expensive text books, are free to (honestly) use by anyone interested in using them. Such material is often listed with a “creative commons” license, meaning that other faculty members are welcome to take them and use them in their own classrooms. I have recently joined a group that is creating an open access “text” for a Linear Algebra course, and have been amazed at how many publically available and usable resources already exist for use by those teaching such a math course. While I often put in extra effort to create problems for students in many of my classes to study from or for in-class activities to reinforce concepts, I am beginning to realize that I am doing more work than I need to. There are many smart people who have already done much of this work, and what I really need to do is to remember this and reap the benefits of these “public goods” that others have produced.

I am amused when I realize that, as I work with this group, I will also be creating new “open access” material for others to us. After years of publishing articles that will probably be read by only one or two people (if that!), it is exciting to think that I am writing something that someone, somewhere may actually find useful.

Have any of my readers participated in creating OER content?