Philosophy from a POW: Wittgenstein via Keynes

For now, I will not write blog posts on the weekend. This weekend I made a little progress reading through (500+ page) The Price of Peace about John Maynard Keynes. This is not an economics textbook, although you will come away from it with a better understanding of “Keynesian economics”. The author presents the most intriguing parts of a life that could fill both a salacious tabloid and a respectable financial newspaper.

Here’s a story that surprised me:

Previous chapters describes Keynes’ involvement in winning World War I. He had a literal seat at the table for negotiating resulting peace and reparations agreements. Before the war, intellectuals from central Europe were exchanging ideas with Keynes at Cambridge University.

The horrific WWI pitted some of these Cambridge friends against each other, since some were British and others happened to be born in Hungary or Austria. Some died and never got to re-join the conversation. Brilliant Ludwig Wittgenstein ended up on a POW camp near Italy after the war.

Keynes used his government privileges to get Wittgenstein’s manuscript shipped out of the POW camp and into the hands of Bertrand Russell of Cambridge. This led to the English-language publication of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922. According to The Price of Peace, Keynes’ own work on philosophy was completely eclipsed by Wittgenstein’s book. The book that might easily have ended up burned or thrown in the garbage of a POW camp.

Would Keynes and Wittgenstein blog if they were alive today? Would they have produced brilliant books, or would they be too distracted by Reddit and video games?

Bento Lunchbox Centerfold

The magazine version of school lunches is like the magazine version of humans. It’s unbelievable. My header image for this post is a picture I took of a glossy centerfold in Parents magazine.

I can’t stop looking at these bright colors and whimsical shapes. Are there parents who cut food into stars for their kids on a daily basis? As soon as women were told that we don’t have to physically measure up to supermodels, we immediately joined the bento lunch rat race. Check out this one from Instagram!

Personally, I am content to drool over the contrasting bright colors in the pictures of supermodel bento lunches and yet also never make them myself. I am new to the school lunch packing world. So far I have made PB&J on wheat every day. Take it or leave it, kid. Nothing smiles at my son when he opens his lunchbox.

As much as I refuse to join the bento beauty contest, I do like to pack fun sides in my son’s lunch. Fruit, cookies or pretzels add crunch. It was the cute unattainable pictures that inspired me to invest in this bento-style lunchbox.

That link will take you to the product on Amazon that I bought and really like. My 5 year old can navigate the snaps. It’s well made. You can take it apart and clean it easily. The extra compartments make it easy to add snacks that stay crisp.

The alternative is to send several items in zip lock plastic bags that mush around in a (semi-waterproof, maybe) zipper lunchbox. ‘When I was a boy’ (girl, actually) that’s what we had. I love NOT having that mess of moist flaccid baggies to deal with.

Econ Pop Up: Lunch boxes are qualitatively better than they used to be. Cell phones are obviously better than they used to be. This makes is difficult to accurately measure inflation. The US government tries. They track how prices of products change over time. Usually, products become a bit more expensive every year. We say that the real purchasing power of $100 declines with inflation. However, I’m glad that I live today. I’d rather have $100 to spend today on our better stuff than $100 to spend in 1994 when I was toting my soggy lunchbox to school.

Assume the worst of online retailers

I’m so embarrassed every time I fall for a scam on the internet. I like to think of myself as too smart for that. Since I just did it again today, I would like to share.

When you are on a retail website and you see beautiful photos of products and impossibly low prices, assume it’s a scam. If it’s not a trusted site like Amazon or Etsy, assume they will take your money and you will never get a quality item. You might be able to use the customer service email that they might have provided to ask for your money back.

If you are looking at glossy photos and wanting very badly for the deal to be legitimate, there is a good chance that the good people of the internet are already chatting about whether or not the site is a scam. Do that research BEFORE you put in your credit card information. Don’t do it AFTER you have paid and suddenly get a sinking feeling.

Code Burst: Podcast on Coding Bootcamps

Journalist and researcher Henry Kronk has a podcast (link above) about a coding bootcamp aimed at the population in Appalachia that has seen their economic opportunities decline with the loss of many coal mining jobs.

The primary reason for recommending this podcast is that retraining the American workforce for tech jobs is huge news. If it only takes 3 months of classes to turn any unemployed ex-miner into a highly-paid computer programmer, then let’s fund the heck out of coding bootcamps. The bootcamp that is the subject of this podcast did benefit from some public funding. Unfortunately, the teachers did not deliver everything that they promised to their student or to the US government.

Code Burst introduces the listener to a fascinating cast of real characters. I have been studying aggregate statistics on this topic for years, but I learned a lot from these anecdotes. If programming sounds boring but you liked the podcast S-Town, then I would encourage you to check out Henry Kronk’s work. There is intrigue and drama to go along with discussions of whether Ruby on Rails is superior to Java for web programming.

Unlike this bootcamp for miners, some of the other bootcamps that appear to have the best outcomes for students carefully screen the people they are willing to take on. There is some value added to the intense training provided for students who already have significant coding skills, but it would be incorrect to assume that any American chosen at random would benefit from the same training.

Students who appear to benefit from coding bootcamps:

  • often had some high level skills before they started, which could include programming experience
  • usually work extremely hard for very long hours, meaning that they forgo opportunities to make money or advance in another career during the period of the bootcamp

I’ll end with the description from the podcast:

In the practice of coal mining, there’s something known as rock burst. It happens in deep mines and tunnels around the world. Deep drilling causes the rock to shift and buckle. Shards can unexpectedly burst from the tunnel walls, injuring or killing miners.

Code Burst is a story about a violent, unexpected shift in the structure of the global economy. It involves the growing skills gap, the growing tech industry, the growing obsolescence of higher education, and one married couple who either tried to make a difference, or tried to make a buck. This is a story about trust.

New Blog: Via Egnatia

My friend Dr. Alex Salter started a blog a month before I did. We are almost blog twins. His blog, which has multiple contributors, is Via Egnatia. You know it’s going to be good when the name is in Latin and immediately sends you to Google a fascinating ancient road.

These posts are deep. The modern mind (I’m thinking of you, dear reader, and myself) likes to go deep but not for too long. Thus, a blog post is the perfect size.

Liberal Economics? is Alex’s first post. Alex has articulated what the opposition thinks:

Perhaps a well-rounded education contains a bit of economics, as a concession to the distasteful reality of our calculating, commercial society.

Alex’s summary of what many people think about economics classes

I believe that my students can incorporate the economics they learn in our department with the “great books” they read as Freshman at Samford. Economics makes a student more well-rounded. Commercial society is not distasteful. You don’t have to take my word for it. Alex is going to convince you, one blog post at a time.

I will be posting in the future about the elective course I teach in which students will study The Grapes of Wrath alongside Tyler Cowen alongside a mainstream economics textbook.

Back to school, in person

For almost 30 consecutive years, I have had the privilege of starting school in the Fall. This year, I’m wearing a mask and I’m only coming to campus when I teach. I just taught my first class to 18 people in the room and to more than 20 students who logged in virtually. It wasn’t perfect. I had to restart the live stream twice.

My Samford students were very helpful. They are happy to be back in school, even though it’s nowhere near what we like to offer in terms of events and activities. The students who I couldn’t see chatted in to thank me and even told me I was doing a great job.

I don’t anticipate having any trouble with safety rules being followed during class time. Of course, there is the potential for things to go awry. Only time will tell if the rules and cooperation can allow our campus to stay open until Thanksgiving. As our President keeps saying, we are only opening for 100 days.

Like most colleges, we required every single member of the campus to get a test before starting back. The problem is that positive cases are still circulating in Jefferson county where we all live.

As far as I can tell, universal masking rules in the state of Alabama have helped slow the spread of the coronavirus as more people emerge from their houses to shop and even eat at restaurants. The opening of many schools across the state will be a big test.

Internet reading that has shaped me

For the first time, I’m starting my day by writing in my blog. EWED for short. That’s the past tense of a female sheep.

I’m going to dedicate this post to some of the online resources that have been useful to me. As I said before, Marginal Revolution is a blog that I have checked every day for years. I never intended to make that into a habit. It’s just so interesting and fun that I would go there to avoid doing my actual work. There is a lot competing for my attention when I sit down at my computer to start my work day. Social media is fun but not always a good use of time. MR never leaves me feeling guilty like I just wasted the time I should have spent working.

Aside from MR, I do read other blog posts written by economists that interest me as a citizen or help me with my work. No matter what is broken in your house or what you dream of cooking for dinner, today you can always find a blogger who has explained it all for you.

I read articles by publications, not just individual bloggers. There is not much to say about that, except that I do think good writing is worth paying for. If an article is behind a paywall, I never get resentful. In theory, the rational version of me never gets resentful.

Lastly, I have gotten excellent advice from the comments in message boards. Hackers have provided me code snippets that I use for my work. I learned to code primarily from message boards that I found through Googling. There are dozens of us. Dozens!

A student once wrote in my teaching evaluations, “Dr. Buchanan doesn’t know anything because she told us to Google our problems.” Since getting that comment, I have tried to be more intentional with the way that I explain to undergraduates how real professionals search the internet for answers all the time. I feel indebted to the people who write good comments. Sometimes they can leverage their reputation professionally, but most truly want to help.

It was the puzzle of unpaid labor that contributes to open source code bases that sparked my first idea for an economics journal article. If I’m being completely honest, it was also the experience of watching the loading bar creep forward for two hours in middle school while I waiting for one pop song to come to me free courtesy of Napster.

An experiment on protecting intellectual property” demonstrated that people will sometimes tinker with creative output even if they are not making money from it and have no IP protection. We found that when we did provide IP protection, entrepreneurs emerged who were able to create value for others (and capture money for themselves) by specializing in the creation of non-rivalrous knowledge goods. Experimental subjects who had never experienced IP protection in our environment did not call it theft when their creations got copied. However, if we provided IP protection and then took it away, then we got the following objection from one subject:

The entrepreneur in NoIP12 complained in the chatroom, “why do you
sell my colors? stop re-selling my colors or ill stop making and no1 will have”. This
is the only explicit objection to piracy in our experiments. Experiencing protection in
the IP treatment led him to demand that his intellectual property be respected in the
No IP treatment.

Buchanan and Wilson (2014)

My online real estate

I bought my first domain name in 2008 through Dreamhost. I have been spending some of my own money to sit on internet real estate ever since. I have joybuchanan.com and nicodemusstory.com and economnomnomics.com and a few others. It’s fairly cheap – we are talking coffee money – simply to maintain control over those domain names.

Today I started this blog, so I bought economistwritingeveryday.com through Dreamhost, just in case this every becomes A Thing (TM). Have I mentioned that I am a hoarder? You can tell if you come to my house.

To save myself a lot of time and money, I do not build my websites from scratch. I redirect people to the places where my material is hosted for free in near-zero-work websites. My professional website joybuchanan.com redirects to a Google Site. If you click and look at the URL bar, you’ll see what I mean. I designed the site using the free tools in Google Sites. If I personally ever become A Thing (TM) then I could pay for a custom website and I wouldn’t have to worry about whether the domain name that I really want is available. If you just want to get a page of information out to the public immediately, Google Sites is the easiest tool that I know of. There is no programming or advanced knowledge of the internet required.

WordPress and another product called Blogger (owned by Google) are the easiest ways that I know of to start a blog. I set up this blog today using WordPress. I’m not paying WordPress, but I could advance up to a paid tier easily if I wanted more features or support. It took me two hours to get started, including editing my own first blog post several times. Now, I can publish new blog posts with just a few clicks. In my case, I want the words to be the focus of the site. If you wanted pictures to be the focus of your site, then even with the help of WordPress templates, it would probably take you longer to get started and develop an eye-catching aesthetic.

I wrote the HTML code for nicodemusstory.com myself in a text editor. I took a community college class in HTML when I was in middle school (thank you to my Dad for encouraging me to do it). HTML is not a real programming language, but it is a great introduction to writing for machines. If you can get a middle schooler to play around with HTML, you might be setting them up for lifetime professional success.

Starting to blog today

This is not a good time to start blogging. I have young children and I’m on the tenure track at a university. The current Covid pandemic has made those two things that were already hard to juggle even more difficult.

It’s just time to start writing more. This is a model that I have learned from Tyler Cowen, and most writers I admire write every day whether or not they have time for it. David Perell has tweeted that writing and thinking are the same thing. Thus, if you are a thinker, writing is not a waste of time. Writing is the thing you are doing anyway in your muddled head.

Tyler recently announced that he’s offering a prize to people who start a new blog to advance humanity and defend the liberal order. I don’t expect my new blog to save Western civilization. In fact, one of the reasons I haven’t started a blog sooner is that I wasn’t sure if one more blog would really improve the world.

On the other hand, as a digital information consumer, I have benefited enormously from people putting out free public content. Here are my hot takes and my experiences. Maybe I can help someone who is blogging to save Western civilization.

I am creating a new site because this does not precisely fit within my professional site joybuchanan.com or with my creation economnomnomics.com.

This site is a work in progress.

About

Joy Buchanan is a millennial mom and an economics professor at Samford University. You can also find her on Twitter at @aboutJoy or at her professional website. Writing every day is an aspiration.

Zachary Bartsch is an Assistant Professor at Ave Maria University. His research includes macroeconomics and economic uncertainty. You can find him on twitter at @zachary_bartsch 

Doug Norton teaches economics at his alma mater Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. His research is at the intersection of economics, psychology, and sociology and focuses on topics related to collective action, poverty, religion, and culture. But, man cannot live on economics alone. Doug is also a devoted husband, father to three, and loves his local Catholic church.

Santiago Gangotena – Ecuadorean physicist converted to economics, teaches economics at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Interested in music, philosophy, programming, and the liberal arts. In my research I build artificial worlds to make economic experiments (Agent Based Modeling). Great Danes and gardens in my spare time.

Jeremy Horpedahl is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas. His research has been published in Public Choice, Econ Journal WatchConstitutional Political Economy, the Atlantic Economic Journal, and Public Finance and Management. He has two young children, a wonderful wife, and the best home bar in the largest dry county in the US. Follow him on Twitter @jmhorp, if you dare.

Thanks for reading. We are here every day.