All I Want In Econ’s A “C”


In my many years writing as “Math Geek Mom” for Inside Higher Ed, I began a tradition for the waning days of the semester. As the students focused on final exams and the rest of the world pulled out their credit cards and, as like characters from The Flintstones, gleefully yelled “Charge”, I wrote my own versions of classic seasonal songs. Beginning in 2014, and then continuing into 2015 and later 2016, I posted updated songs that revolved around my role as a Math professor. Now that I am back to my original identity as an economist, I am making this year’s song one that an Economics professor might hear. So, with all due respect to Mariah Carey, here is the 2017 contribution to my collection.

All I Want in Econ’s a “C”

I don’t need an “A” in Econ
That is something I don’t need.
I just need to have some fun
With curves we call “S” and “D”.
I don’t need to make the dean’s list
And impress my dad and mom;
I just need to know the reasons
For moves in equilibrium.
I just want to pass this class
More than you could ever see
So, grant my wish so fast,
Cause all I want in Econ’s a “C”

I don’t need to know the reasons
Supply of labor might bend on back
I just need to know the way that Keynes
Got the nation back on track.
I won’t ask for extra credit
Or claim that grandma’s taken sick.
I’ll study and keep at it
‘Till those deep ideas click
I just want to see the effect
Of decreasing the budget deficit.
Professor, can’t you see,
All I want in Econ’s a “C”.

Oh all the firms are producing
Excess inventories
And so, we know that things are shrinking
Or so says professor’s stories.
As all the curves are shifting
Out of recession we are lifting
Teacher, won’t you give me what I need?
Won’t you give me a grade of “C”?

Oh, I don’t want an “A” in Econ
This is all I’m asking for
I just want to understand
What moves an invisible hand
Hurry, get this in my head
‘Cause in the long run we’re all dead.
Professor, can’t you see,
All I want in Econ’s a “C”.

Wishing all of my readers a wonderful Holiday Season. I’ll see you back here in 2018!






November, 2017

In my first Microeconomics course in graduate school, my professor presented the underlying assumptions that are found in most of the subject we were beginning to study. His list included some assumptions, such as “perfect information,” which often become victims of market failure. As he wrote a list on the board, at one point the professor turned to us with a look of questing on his face and threw out a comment that turned out to have a major impact on my life. In listing the assumption that people are self-interested, he asked the class, “Do you all believe that?”

I was sitting in the front row, quietly taking notes, when the question was asked. Immediately I thought of the many friends from college who were heavily involved in service work, including two friends who had, almost at that minute, just landed in Cameroon to begin two years of volunteer work in Africa. Although I was still somewhat intimidated by this whole “graduate school” thing, I raised my hand to offer my thoughts. “I don’t know if I agree,” I said, going on to describe by friends who were acting in ways that were not obviously self-interested. The professor went on to offer some thoughts about why, although being very altruistic, they might still be described as “self-interested.” “Humm,” I thought to myself, and was not entirely convinced that the assumption of self-interest always applied to everyone, everywhere.

I had no way of knowing that this exchange would become the major theme of my graduate school experience. As I proceeded through that class and the ones that followed, I kept my eyes open for examples of people acting out of motivations that could not necessarily be described as primarily motivated by self-interest. By the time I began to write a dissertation, it was clear that I would be writing about volunteerism and philanthropy. I find myself thinking of this exchange this week, as the world celebrates the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Revolution. Years ago, a monk in Germany dared to ask questions about the major assumptions that just about everyone else agreed were true. I am thankful for that professor who dared to do the same for a hodge-podge group of first year graduate students who were probably all as overwhelmed as I was that day. While he did not post a list of questions on any cathedral, he helped to open my eyes to the possibility that assumptions that seemed to be written in stone could be questioned and perhaps modified.

I found myself thinking of the list of iconoclastic questions posted on that door when I once again read the “Mindset List” describing our incoming (traditional age) students this year. As usual, I found that I had to laugh at some of them, especially the one about a phone being used primarily for things other than just talking to people. As one of the last people to use a “dumb phone,” it is clear that my students live in a very different world than I inhabit. It is, however, a world that I can visit on occasion.

When I think back to that late summer day in Boston, I am very grateful to the teacher who dared to encourage us to think about things in ways that we were not used to. I hope that I can do the same for my students as this year unfolds. For any readers who are teachers, I hope this story reminds you of the fact that you can often, sometimes inadvertently, direct our students onto new and often wonderful paths.

Does anyone have a similar story about becoming, or helping someone become an intellectual “iconoclast?”

But is there such a thing as a “free” cell phone?

I often ask my Economics classes to brainstorm about the phrase “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” This phrase is used by economists to illustrate the fact that every choice made involves giving up other options, and is used to describe the concept of “opportunity cost.” The idea of “opportunity cost” highlights the fact that every decision to do something involves giving up the possibility of doing something else.  As doing something involves time or effort, it therefore involves a “cost” of some kind. Going to class means that a student chooses not to nap or to go to lunch with that time, and certainly means that they don’t get to work to earn money with that time. This concept therefore increases the true cost of attending a class well beyond the value on the check they wrote for tuition to pay for that class.

When I ask my students to try to come up with examples of truly “free” lunches, the result can lead to interesting suggestions. Are the dinners given by some resort companies to try to entice people to buy time share condos an example of “free lunches?” I see their point, but to claim those dinners, potential customers must sit through a presentation about the resort, there preventing the diners from doing anything else with that time. And what about a dinner created from leftovers in the refrigerator? To prepare those leftovers involves some investment in time and effort, making them not exactly “free.” Indeed, any choice made involves some opportunity cost, even if the cost is not always immediately apparent.
I found myself thinking of this recently as I learned of a new version of a cell phone that will soon hit the market. Costing about what I paid for my first desk top computer, they have new details that I am sure will encourage many to rush out and buy them. I, however, still own a flip phone, something that my students and family sometimes tease me about. While I see the convenience in having a smart phone available at all times, I believe that having a flip phone and a laptop gives me almost the same accessibility that a smart phone gives me. As my flip phone is paid for, and hooking up to it on my husband’s plan does not increase his payments, I like to say that I have a “free cell phone.” Of course, being an economist, I know that I should we suspicious of saying that anything is truly “free.”
While I don’t have to pay monthly bills to run my flip phone, there are still some costs associated with not having a smart phone. Not long ago, I looked into the possibility of calling “Uber” without a smart phone, and, while there are probably ways to do this on a lap top, I was not able immediately to figure out what they would be. And when I received a coupon via e-mail that would not allow me to print it out, the people in the store told me to just bring in the coupon on my smart phone. When I travel with my family, I arrange for the boarding passes to be sent to my husband’s smart phone, even though I am the one who makes the travel arrangements. Recently, someone asked me to send them an electronic photo of my family, and I felt like a bad parent for not having immediate access to such a picture. And, more and more, organizations are using smart phone apps to communicate with members, something that makes being on top of the latest events at my child’s school and my parish more difficult. While the monthly payments to keep my flip phone working appear to be zero, I am learning the economics lesson that there really is no such thing as a “free lunch” (or, for that matter, a free cell phone.) I am sure that I will eventually join the crowd and trade in my flip phone, but for now I am holding out to see how long it will be until I purchase a smart phone.
Are there any of my readers who (for now) also choose not to own a smart phone, and if so, why?


September, 2017


I want to wish a warm welcome to my new readers to this site on what is the first blog posting under the title of “Marginal Musings.” A special welcome goes out to my former readers, who knew me until the middle of August as “Math Geek Mom” under the “Mama, Ph.D.”  blog in Inside Higher Ed. When it came time to put my identity as “Math Geek Mom” aside, I decided that I didn’t want to stop blogging, and so I set up this space. While I don’t plan on writing here every week, as I did for Inside Higher Ed, I do plan on posting in the beginning of the month. And, while “Math Geek Mom” often wrote about topics tangentially related to Math, this space will focus on Economics (with no promise that Math will not sneak in, occasionally.) After all, it is my reclaimed identity as an economist that led me away from being “Math Geek Mom” and into this space.

As my former readers have heard, although I never imagined myself as a “blogger” (and am still not sure I like that term ), I stumbled upon this role after writing a chapter in the book “Mama, Ph.D.” by Elrena Evans and Carolyn Grant, published in 2008. As for finding that book, I was looking for information on possible ways to re-structure a maternity leave when I saw the call for proposals for that collection. Although I was not a literary person, my chapter was included in the book, and, several years later, I began to write for the blog by the same name in “Inside Higher Ed.” That experience, which lasted for nine years, was life changing, and has led me to see myself as kind of a “writer,” beyond the equation-centered work that I (occasionally) produce for academic journals. When my position at Ursuline College changed, in part due to new rules by the Higher Learning Commission which accredits us, I had a difficult time imagining myself not writing a blog of some sort. Hence, the creation of “Marginal Musings,” which officially begins today.

So where did the name “Marginal Musings” come from? Economists, as my students will tell you, think of decisions as being made “on the margin.” Just like the edge of a paper has a “margin,” economists see decisions as being made on the “edge,” when answers to questions such as “what is the cost of doing more of this” and “what are the benefits of doing more of this” are compared. If the costs outweigh the benefits, then it is wise, from an economics point of view to pursue the direction being examined (but perhaps not from other perspectives; it may be economically logical to commit crimes, but not a good idea). Many people are familiar with the term “cost-benefit analysis,” and the idea of making decisions on the margin is just a more technical way of describing that approach. Of course, after teaching Calculus for most of the last twenty years, I can’t refrain from noting that such marginal decisions relate to the value of the derivative of a function, if you can imagine an economic decision as being characterized as a function (which is something we economists like to do, even about such unusual things such as marriage, suicide and volunteer labor.) While I was conscious of representing Ursuline College as “Math Geek Mom,” this blog will be produced on and posted from my own computers, and will therefore not reflect the opinions of Ursuline College in any way. In addition, this time I will not be writing about my daughter, who deserves to live her life without her mother telling the world about her on a regular basis.

And so, welcome to this space! I plan to write here near the start of each month, and I hope that you will join me as I share thoughts relating to what is happening in the world, all seen through the perspective of someone who likes to turn life decisions into mathematical questions. I hope that you enjoy what I post here. I look forward to writing for you in the future.

If you want, please step forward and introduce yourself. I look forward to hearing from you!

                                                      Have a wonderful LONG weekend!