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


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?

New Years’ Resolutions


Economists think of decisions as being made “on the margin,” where the costs and benefits of one approach are weighed against each other. It would, therefore, seem that any change in a decision would be made when the costs or the benefits associated with that decision change.

This made me wonder about the habit of making New Years’ resolutions. Why do so many people make these promises to themselves at this time of year? I propose that the answer to this question can be found in the answer to the question of “what has changed?” For, at the beginning of the new year, it would seem that both the costs and the benefits of a decision to assume new (and presumably better) habits have changed.
With the start of a new year, the benefits of adopting a new approach to life can be seen clearly. What will I look like in one year, if I lose a pound a week, or month? How will my life improve if I can make it through this next year without swearing? And how much can I save if I stop buying fancy coffees on the way to work every day, but instead use that money to invest in the well-being of my family or to give to charity of some sort? As the numbers on the calendar change, the positive benefits of a change in behavior become more clear, and the perception of what might be the benefits of these changes therefore increases.
At the same time, the costs of making such changes seems to diminish at the beginning of a new year. While changing behavior on any given day may seem like an impossible task, the habit of making such resolutions on a particular day in a particular month means that it is easier to overcome the inertia that ordinarily keeps one from making positive changes in their lives. With a definite date to begin marked on the calendar, taking the first step that one hopes will be one of many makes the process less painful and more “do-able.”
As for me, this year I am making two New Years’ resolutions. I plan on finishing a few writing projects, and look forward to eventually seeing them in print. One, a textbook written with several co-authors, will definitely be published, while publishing the others is really a second part of this first resolution. I look forward to seeing my name on a text book, and, perhaps someday, on at least one novel. In hopes of pursuing publications that do not include any equations or statistics, I plan to begin revising the first draft of one of those novels, with hopes of maybe someday also seeing it in print.
As for my second resolution, I, along with many others, I am sure, plan on exercising more. However, the exercise I anticipate is not just for my body, but, specifically, for my arm. Last spring, I fell and broke my arm, and, despite using up all of the physical therapy appointments allotted to me by my insurance (not really enough,) I have not completely gained back the strength and range of motion I had in the days before my fall. I hope that when this new year is over, I will all but forget the fact that I once wondered if I would ever be able to use that hand to snap my fingers again. The fact that I can now type with it quite easily gives me hope that the remaining use will come back in the coming months.
So, readers, what are your New Years’ resolutions, and what are the (perhaps changing) costs and benefits of such decisions?

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!