Go watch Dune

That’s the column this week. No ad hoc economic theory, no deep insight into the profession. No silly sports talk. Just a recommendation to watch a beautiful looking and sounding movie. Allow yourself to get invested in the world they are building. Reward their willingness to be sufficiently faithful to a masterpiece while also having the maturity to know that much of the intrigue, as designed in the book, wouldn’t translate to the screen.

They’re building a world where a single commodity is so valuable, and it’s supply so inelastic, that it serves as the fulcrum for an entire galaxy. Worries about peak oil feel like fretting about a possible shortage of student selfies when compared to the economics of spice. The political economy is coming, don’t you worry. For the moment though, just take in a cool movie.

Go watch Dune.

Joy Recommends Running Products

Late October is a nice time to get outside in Alabama. I have answered the primal call to suburban moms and signed up for a 5K running race at the end of the month. To make running practice safe and fun, I dropped a few hundred dollars this month on products.

Now that I’m old, my first concern is not injuring myself. Having good new shoes that absorbs some of the impact from running is important. I went to a local running store and ended up getting Asics Gel Nimbus.

I really like them. Amazon link. It seems like the price ($150) in the boutique store and the Asics website and Amazon is all the same.

Assuming you are not considering getting these shoes for yourself, do not buy a woman running shoes for Christmas, obviously, unless you’ve discussed it with her. You could buy a family member the other big purchase I made for running: AirPods.

Many people already have AirPods but I’ll review them anyway. I bet there are at least 10 people out there just like me who view them as newfangled and unnecessary.

My primary reason for getting them was so that I can listen to music while I run and not have the annoying headphones cord in my face. They are great for running. By the way, I got the cheapest version since I only use them occasionally.

AirPods are more than wireless headphones.  They are smart. They allow you to take hands free phone calls when your phone is two rooms away (which can be a reason to keep them in even when you are not listening to music). They respond to voice commands and prompt you on what to say. Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I was surprised by how easy it was to start using them.

I use a free application called RunKeeper. Without any fiddling from me, the AirPods give me useful feedback on my run from RunKeeper. I don’t have to stop the music or pull out my phone to get this feedback. It just knows, and the AI is correct about what I want to hear when.

While I was at the Apple store getting AirPods, I considered getting an Apple Watch. It turns out that the Apple Watch does not have a long range from the phone. So, I cannot run a mile away from my phone and still get all services on the Watch. Since I’m not a serious runner, I did not want to spend hundreds of dollars on a new watch plus pay for a separate cellular plan for the device. I run while holding my small-ish iPhone.

Apple Watch records your heart beat. I can be a privacy grump, even though I use a lot of tech. Apple Corp. can C it’s way right out of my vital signs. I don’t even want data on my heart rate and sleep patterns, for myself. I’m already mentally overloaded, so I don’t want more data to think about.

Here’s a song I like to put at the beginning of my running song playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxmkYugYu7Q

Lastly, for your holiday shopping list, I will make one plug for the shirts in our Blog Store. These make a fun gift for math majors or Econ Ph.D. folk.

Gen Z on TikTok

I did an informal survey among undergraduate students. This is not a representative sample of American youth. Before answering the question “How is TikTok affecting your peers?” they had just heard about the TikTok recommendation algorithm. Answers might have been slightly different if they had not been primed to think about the app from a business perspective.

Most of the answers were negative, both among students who use TikTok themselves and especially from students who are staying off of the app. Some answers presented both a positive and a negative reply.

Here is one of the more positive replies:

“TikTok is affecting my peers in a few different ways. On the positive side, people can learn very useful things on the app. On the negative side, it can be very time consuming. I have heard from many friends how they have wasted a lot of their time on TikTok when they could have been doing something more productive.”

Some students emphasized the social aspect:

“TikTok is one of the biggest social platforms amongst my friends and I. When we hangout, we are creating our own TikToks, but when we are apart we are able to share videos with each other. TikTok for me is a big rabbit hole that I find myself spending way too much time on.”

Also, they believe that this platform, more so than the original social networks, allow a new user to break out. “The idea that a normal, average person can post on TikTok and have a likelihood of it becoming viral is what has launched the platform.” I can see how a 20-year-old today would think Twitter is less fun because it is hard for a newcomer to get noticed.

Some students mentioned the addictive aspect of TikTok:

“I see a lot of my peers stay on the app for long periods of time. I can’t count the amount of times people say something about how they didn’t realize they were scrolling for an hour before they looked at the clock.”

“I have three friends back home who are being affected by Tik Tok in the worse way possible. All they do is watch Tik Toks all day and has even affected their sleep schedule cause they can’t put their phone down. It’s hard to see my friends sucked in the rabbit hole.”

“Personally, I have had to set screen time limits for TikTok through my phone’s settings because I can easily spend extended periods of time of the app without even realizing it; and even then, sometimes, I even override the limits I have set in place because I want to see even more content.”

The funniest line award goes to: “I personally hate TikTok and think it is rat poison.”

I wonder how the responses might have differed if I had asked a similar question to college students about TV and video games 20 years ago.

I use Twitter frequently. Maybe I spend more time on it than I should, and I don’t support as many paid media outlets as I might otherwise. Thus, the non-Twitter world is less rich for today’s college students.

For balance, here’s how Big Tech helped me in the past week. I needed to help my son build a model rocket from a kit. Some stranger kind young man had made an excellent YouTube video detailing how to make this rocket. This video really helped me, and the man should get the satisfaction of one more watch on his views count.

Stocking Stuffers: First Mover Advantage & Nested Utility Functions

I have two gift recommendations for you this year. Typically, I purchase a lot of very practical items. My wife makes fun of me for requesting tools and hardware as gifts – but hopefully the following list will provide some crossover between practicality and good gift ideas.

Depending on your family’s traditions both of these gifts are stocking stuffers.

1) Laurie Berkner CDs

Having children means that you hear opinions and preferences from more people. And children are sure to share those opinions. When you’re in the car, I recommend that you strike first with 2 different CDs (or mp3 albums) by Laurie Berkner. Laurie Berkner is a singer songwriter who creates outright good children’s music. She has variety and produces earworms that are not too bad to have around. The Ultimate Laurie Berkner Band Collection is a crowd-pleaser. If you’ve got a more intense personality and your children can handle it, then I strongly recommend The Dance Remixes. It rocks.

The idea here is game theoretical. Your children are going to find something that they like. A lot. Odds are good that waiting for them to encounter something won’t bode well for your happiness once they find it. Take the first-mover advantage and introduce them to Laurie Berkner. They’ll get hooked and you’ll be stuck listening to a lot of children’s music. But at least it will be good/tolerable that you also enjoy… Unlike some other alternatives

2) Highly Specific Treats

We live in a rich society. Most of us walk the store aisles implicitly saying ‘no’ to the vast majority of goods. Even the ones that we like. Take the opportunity that the holiday season provides and say “yes” to getting some special treats. These treats fall into two categories: 1) “Nostalgic Treats” & 2) “I’ve never tried it”.

1) Sharable Nostalgic Treats

When I was about 4-5 years old, I remember getting great big bags of pretzels that were covered in a mustard powder (“mustard pretzels”). As it turns out, they are only a regionally available product and I never saw them again after my family moved from Tennessee. But 33 year old me thought “Surely, the internet has them”. And indeed they do! I made this purchase at a per-unit price that I would not typically indulge. However, I got to share the story and the experience with my family. It pleased me to share a deep memory with them and it pleased them to get a ‘special’ snack. For me, it was mustard pretzels. For my wife, it was a bulk pack of Heath and Skor bars.

2) I’ve never tried it

Separately, while watching Captain America and the Winter Soldier, it occurred to me that I had never knowingly had Turkish Delights. So, I found a variety pack of fancy ones. First, they’re delicious and you feel fancy while eating them. Second, this is 21st century America. What’s the point in saying that we’re rich if we’re not willing to act like it a little? Maybe it’s not Turkish Delights for you. Maybe it’s Pilipino rice candies or Mexican Tamarind candies. Make sure that you get a couple of new treats and share them with others. The purchases are much more worth the price when you consider the nested utility function among your loved ones.

Gifts for a Time of Inflation and Supply Bottlenecks

I’ve never been great at gifts, and don’t have much in the way of specific ideas now. But I’ve been thinking about what the macroeconomic environment means for gift-giving.

First, as you’ve probably heard by now from us or elsewhere, if you want to get any physical gift I’d order it now, since shipping is a mess and prices are only going up. I’d especially recommend this for complex electronics that could become hard to find- its part of why I got my wife an iPad for her birthday this summer. Foreign food and drink that can be stockpiled is always a good idea, but perhaps especially now; think wine, Scotch, or Beirao liqueur (a Portuguese drink that was my favorite discovery this year). Wine and liquor make good stores of value in an time of inflation.

Alternatively, you could avoid the scarcity of physical goods by turning to the digital realm. If your economistic heart yearns to give cash, consider giving some your favorite stock or cryptocurrency instead- its both more personalized and less subject to inflation. Or if you think you can judge the recipient’s taste well enough, subscribe them to one of your favorite Substacks or podcasts. My recommendations:

Unsupervised Learning, Razib Khan– Genomics and History

The Diff, Byrne Hobart– Finance and Strategy

Astral Codex Ten, Scott Alexander– Rationality, Psychiatry, Everything

The Readers Karamazov– Funny podcast on literature and philosophy (now seems entirely free though)

Or if you really have money to burn, go for the Bloomberg subscription. I always run out of free reads on the Tyler Cowen articles and so can’t read Matt Levine, even though he has the magic ability to teach you finance while making you laugh. But the subscription is expensive and Mike Bloomberg doesn’t need the money, while the Substacks are relatively cheap and enable talented writers to spend a lot more time writing instead of needing to focus on a real job.

You Need a Better Battery

As we did last year, Joy has asked us to recommend some gifts for our readers. My recommendation is simple: a battery.

But not just any battery. I’m not talking about adding to your cardboard box full of AAs, AAAs, and weird watch batteries.

Instead, what you and everyone on your gift list needs is a portable battery for charging your many devices. There are plenty of good options out there, but anything under 30 bucks with at least 20,000mAh (the standard measure for battery life) is what you want. Here’s a good one on Amazon right now which should be $25 after a coupon and gives you 36,800mAh of charging power.

How much battery life is that? An iPhone has around 3,000mAh of power. You can charge an iPhone over 10 times with this thing! That may sound like overkill, but if you are charging multiple devices on a long trip, this battery is worth its weight in gold (it weighs about 13.4 ounces, which would be about $24,000 worth of gold — maybe I’m exaggerating a little).

For better or worse, our devices are how we communicate, navigate, and entertain ourselves on a daily basis. Especially on long trips. You don’t want your phone to die when you land at a strange, new airport. You also don’t want your friend’s phone to die: more than once, I have been the “battery hero” by loaning my portable battery to a friend at a conference.

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Some Gear I Like: Keychain Light, Helicopter Spinner Toy, and Folding Bicycle

Here are three things that I would recommend as gifts, depending on circumstances. The first is a really small, really bright keychain light, the second is a very inexpensive (40 cents apiece) flying spinner, and the third is a bike that folds up.

Photon Keychain Flashlight

I like the tiny lights from PhotonLight.com. They are so small that they do not burden your keychain, but they are powerful and physically tough. Most models are waterproof, and let you change batteries if they wear out. Nowadays everyone has a cell phone with a built-in light, but there are times when I am not actually carrying my phone (I know that may be hard for some readers to conceive of) and I need a flashlight function. If I pull out my keys to use in a dark situation, it is helpful to be able to just feel this little guy on my keychain and squeeze it, rather than pulling out my phone and manipulating that to get a light. I encourage other family members to use these little lights as a safety item.

The base model is the MicroLight I ($7.95):

This one you just squeeze to make it light up. That is perfect it you only need the light for a few seconds at a time. The MicroLight II ($11.95) adds a tiny slider on/off switch, so you can turn it on for minutes at a time, like a regular flashlight.

The Photon light model I carry is the Freedom light ($15.95). It has a number of modes you can access by squeezing for a couple of extra seconds. I put it in flashing light mode to get car drivers’ attention when I need to cross a busy road in our neighborhood. Photon sells a larger, rechargeable, very bright keychain light for $24.95.

Inexpensive Helicopter-Type Spinner Toy

Here is a fun kid toy which is really cheap per capita:

On Amazon it goes by the name of POPLAY Twisty Pull String Flying Saucers/Helicopters, 40 PCS.  Each set consists of a twisty stick, a helicopter spinner, and a little shover piece. You hold the stick in one hand, drop the collar-like shover piece down over it, then thread the spinner down the stick. To launch, hold the shover piece and lift quickly. It the spinner will reliably fly up 10-15 feet and then settle down. Kids can try to catch it on the way down.

For $15.99 you get 40 of these sets, which is 40 cents apiece (!!). So you can hand them out as party favors or whatever.

High Quality, Low-Priced Folding Columba Bicycles

I wanted to get a on-road/off-road bike that would not take up too much room in our townhouse, and that could fit in my Civic trunk. (I ditched my ancient previous bike when we moved a year ago, partly because it would have taken up too much room in our moving pod).

After a lot of roaming the web, I found a vendor that offers direct from-China-to-you savings. (Nearly all bikes are made in China, so there is no getting around that).  K2Silver supplies a wide line of “Columba” brand folding bikes. The Columba name is probably a knockoff of the highly-regarded  “Columbia” brand, but in fact the Columba bikes seem to be solid, middle-grade machines with Shimano derailleurs.   

I eyed their line-up of 20-inch wheel folding bikes, like this one ($250 plus shipping):

It weighs only 27 pounds (  kg) and folds down to 31″x14″x25″. People sometimes take a bike like this on the train for commuting; they can ride to the train station, then ride from the station in town to their office. The 20” Columba bikes look fine for that application, but with the small wheels and the 7-speed gearing only on the back wheel, the internet opinion is that this sort of bike would get tiresome riding long distances or off-road. It might make a good mid-sized children’s bike.

I ended up getting an alloy-framed bike with 26” tires and 18 speeds, for $310 plus shipping:

I have been really happy with it. The tires and gearing are perfect for my casual on/off road use (moderate-length road trips or dirt/gravel trails; not 100-mile marathons or extreme mountain biking). It has shock absorbers in the front fork and below the seat. The frame folds in half, and the seat post and handlebar assembly pop out quickly to make a package that will fit in a cloth bag. But it is a good machine at a good price even if you don’t care about compact storage.

One touch I appreciated about the web site is that (unlike some sites) they were realistic about the comfort level for tall riders. I bought the recommended longer seat post, so my legs are not crunched. They used to offer an extended handlebar stem so you are not so hunched over while riding. That seems to be out of stock, so I bought some “Bar Ends” that attach to the ends of the handlebars and stick up a couple of inches. For a younger teen or for shorter men or most women, these accessories would probably not be needed.

The seat that came with this bike was a perfectly fine, standard narrow seat. However, I find it painful to have my weight on those little “sit” bones like you are supposed to. So I ended up getting a big fat padded Bikeroo bike seat, and then putting a gel seat pad on top of that, for luxurious sitting comfort.

Bottom line: If you are in the market for a general-purpose bike for you or a family member, I’d recommend looking at the bikes available on the K2Silver site.

La Dolce Vita Economica

I thought about writing about soccer (again). I thought about writing about time management and personal production functions. I considered writing about Lebron James or how I manage multiple research projects. I thought about writing about a classic, and entirely addictive to the point of career ruination, video game. They all seem a little redundant at the moment, though, because they are all the same basic story.

One soccer manager is over-exhausting their resources because of a confluence of bad contractual incentives while another team is witnessing a renaissance in a player they essentially forced to take 7 weeks off. While so many NBA careers of the 80s evaporated in a cloud of cocaine and clubbing, Lebron James’ entire life is built around managing the only two resources whose limits are salient to his life: his body and relationship with his family. Playing baseball growing up I watched pitchers blow out their arms before they finished puberty in service to Little League glory, while modern professional pitchers are (finally) on strictly managed pitch counts to maximize their expected output.

There are two manners in which I armchair quarterback the rest of the world. One is the things in which I have just enough knowledge to be frustrated by others decisions, but no so much as to actually know what I am talking about. These frustrations are ephemeral, they flatter myself to the point of mild embarrassment upon reflection, and, if I am being honest with myself, are fun.

The other manner is resource management. These are the times when armchair quarterbacking is less fun and more exasperating because they are the moments when outsiders, with inferior levels of narrowly-applicable expertise, are often actually right. Which is not to say the knowledge that resources are being poorly managed is uniquely held by outsiders. Insiders are more often than not quite aware of the suboptimal deployment and conservation of resources, but are unable to overcome the status quo institutions, incentives, or inertia of decision-making power loci. It’s obvious to lots of people that athletes, CEOs, doctors, and congressional representatives are over-extended. What’s not obvious is how to get out of these equilibria.

When I see most attempts at self-improvement, I am generally skeptical of anything that doesn’t start with the identification of a key resource that is salient to outcomes and the options available to better manage it. Maybe its calories and how to budget them. Maybe its time and how to better partition and conserve it. It could always be money, but in general I find that money is so immediately identifiable as a finite resource and entirely fungible that people who ostensibly are managing it poorly are, in actuality, failing at managing a different resource (time, emotional energy, vices, etc) that is intertwined with financial resources.

When I see successful firms, teams, and individuals, what I most often find myself admiring is not (just) a worldly talent, but a facility with managing resources that others haven’t yet adopted or mimicked. An appreciation for sleep, a protection of time blocked for creativity, an adeptness trading low opportunity competitive minutes for higher opportunity cost moments on the biggest stages. Or even just the ability to recognize that this is the moment to savor a 600 calorie dessert with a loved one because the emotional sustenance will make it easier to walk away from three vending machine Hostess pies during the high-stress moments in the week to come.

Once you learn to manage your donut-based caloric intake, the spreadsheet of your life will be revealed before you, an endless cascade of resources to be managed and optimized. A life with the right donuts at the right time. The dolce vita economica.

Reading Slavery and American Economic Development

Slavery is a bad and we should rid ourselves of it. One of the arguments made by abolitionists before the Civil War in the United States is that slaves make poor workers and therefore it’s not that costly to get rid of slavery. Of course, it doesn’t matter if slaves worked hard or not. Slavery was a moral abomination, regardless. However, it does make it easier to argue that we should direct government resources to fight enslavers when we can make a case that slavery makes the entire country poorer.

On the one hand, there were many non-slave workers and farmers in North America, demonstrating that products including cotton could be produced by free labor. On the other hand, slavery as an institution expanded into the South and the West, presumably because of the economic advantage it gave to slave-owners.

In Slavery and American Economic Development, economist Gavin Wright states that whether or not slaves were as productive as free/wage labor is hard to measure and also is not hugely important. Slavery might have provided wealth to slave owners in the South, but that is only because of the institutional setting that was created explicitly to maintain the slave society.

The American South had some of the best land in the world for growing cotton and cotton became a lucrative export crop thanks to British demand before the Civil War. Before the Civil War, there were some extremely profitable plantations on which slaves worked. It is true that some enslavers became rich and that drives up what appears to be the GDP per capita in the South at the time.

Wright explains that a slave owner living closer to the East Coast was better able to go on an entrepreneurial venture into Alabama to clear a large plantation for cotton farming than a typical free family farmer. The slave owner could obtain large loans and had a future guarantee of workers (thanks to the local laws and police state). So, something like a modern corporation employing free labor could also have accomplished the venture. But, at the time, it was an opportunity that was easier for enslavers to take advantage of. Free farmers also expanded West into the United States, but they tended to move more slowly and focus on subsistence (e.g. wheat for consumption). That is, partly, what Wright means when he speaks of slavery as a “system of property” as opposed to just a “system of production”. That helps explain why slavery was on the rise in the American South.

Wright also examines slavery as a political regime. In a place with many slaves, resources had to be allocated to policing and preventing revolts. It might have been individually rational for a landowner to offer freedom to slaves as a form of compensation for work, but this was disallowed by that broader political environment. So, everyone was somewhat trapped. Most importantly, the slaves were abused and trapped. But the free residents of the South had to live in a stagnant society. Governments did not invest in schooling, even for white children.

Municipalities in the North were booming and attracting free migrants with public investments. These investments set the North on a path to overtake the South economically and demonstrate which system is superior for creating wealth. Wright blames property owners in the South for continuing to fail to vote for good institutions that foster economic growth after the Civil War.