Knowledge for 1990 Children

We picked up a yard sale book: People and Places: A Random House Tell Me About Book.* When I saw that the U.S.S.R. was a huge swath across the northern hemisphere (drawn as a Mercator projection), I checked the publication date. It was published in New York in 1991 by Random House.**

This content would have been considered uncontroversial knowledge for children. It was written by Boomers for Millennials, one year before The End of History came out.***

The first fact discussed is that the earth had about 5 billion people and they saw no end to population growth. The book states that the world could be up to 15 billion people within 60 years (which would be 2050). Today, it is predicted that world population will peak soon and then decline. Fertility rates in most rich countries are currently below replacement and birth rates are falling everywhere. I guess the authors didn’t see that coming.

On the next page is a matter-of-fact explanation that A.D. stands for Anno Domini. If there was a new edition printed today, they would likely follow the academic trend of using BCE/CE, to avoid referencing religion.

Much of the book is about culture, with illustrations. In today’s terminology, this might be considered an attempt at color-blindness. All of the major world religions are presented next to each other with a neutral/positive spin on each. Racial and gender representation is carefully balanced, like the stock images I grew up with in American public school.

Considering how many students were forced to learn remotely this year, I liked the section on the Australian School of the Air. Remote farm children talked to a teacher by radio and sent written work by mail.

At the end is the answer to, “How will we live in the future?” Jeff Bezos might be happy to know that they predict space travel will be more common and people will live in space colonies. The stated reason for space colonization was the predicted unrelenting population growth. There wasn’t a hint of pessimism about, for example, global warming.

Their diagram of a futuristic house has a “Main computer” prominently featured. They predicted that computerized machines would do more work for humans, which has already happened in the past 30 years. The idea of mobile computers and internet services was probably not considered. They imagined house-bound clunky robots that could follow simple instructions.

*Currently still available on Amazon

** Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. I suppose the publishers couldn’t be bothered to stop the presses.

*** In 1991, Gen X may have been too old to be the target audience of a children’s’ book.

Sympathy and Predicting Behavior

Part One of The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith is called “Of the Propriety of Action”.  Smith argues that we naturally share the emotions and to a certain extent the physical sensations that we witness in others. “Sympathy” is a term Smith used for the feeling of moral sentiments.

In Section One, Chapter Five, Smith writes

In all such cases, that there may be some correspondence of sentiments between the spectator and the person principally concerned, the spectator must, first of all, endeavour … to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer. He must adopt the whole case of his companion with all its minutest incidents; and strive to render as perfect as possible, that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded.

After all this, however, the emotions of the spectator will still be very apt to fall short of the violence of what is felt by the sufferer. Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another… That imaginary change of situation, upon which their sympathy is founded, is but momentary. The thought of their own safety… continually intrudes itself upon them…  

The modern word “empathy” is the capacity to step into the shoes of another person and feel their pain or joy from within the other person’s frame of reference.

Adam Smith suggests that if we hear a neighbor just experienced the death of a loved one, then we can briefly experience some sadness on their account. The more we put ourselves in their shoes, the more sadness we can experience on their behalf.

We usually think of it as a nice thing to have empathy for others. It can also be instrumental to be able to think through the perspective of another person, in order to predict what they will do next. In practical dealings, it is an economic advantage to make accurate predictions about future behavior.

If I work backward through my 2020 paper “My Reference Point, Not Yours”, then I can start by saying that people can sometimes predict what others will do.

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Reading Sarah Ruden’s The Gospels

Sarah Ruden is an scholar of ancient literature who has translated classic works such as The Aeneid. Her new book is an English translation of the 4 first books of the Bible’s New Testament, the Gospels.

If you buy a standard Bible, there is usually only a 2-page preface to a 500+ page book. Ruden’s introduction and glossary takes up closer to 50 of the first pages. I would pay just to read the introduction. Ruden describes what it was like, as a professional translator of classics, to approach the Gospels. A reader who is already familiar with the Bible will learn as much from this introduction as from the translation itself. It’s rare to hear the Gospels discussed simply as books instead of as weapons wielded by all sides of the culture wars. I found it interesting to learn about how the Gospels, stylistically, compare to other ancient texts.

Ruben’s enthusiasm for listening to the voices of ancient writers is contagious. She makes it all sound so interesting that anyone, regardless of their previous stance on god (the lowercase g is her idea of what the ancients would write), will want to keep reading. Speaking as someone who has already read the New Testament, I have never been more excited to read the Gospels as I was after finishing Ruden’s introduction. Ruden promises to deliver to modern readers the voices of the ancient writers, with as much accuracy as possible.

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Bad Jobs Exist

I’m James Bailey, an economist at Providence College who studies how government policies affect health care and the labor market. Thanks to Joy for the chance to join the blog for a few months!

For my first post, I have to share the brand new book I wrote a chapter of, “Regulation and Economic Opportunity: Blueprints for Reform“. Normally academic volumes like this are sold for hundreds of dollars, so only a few people with access to academic libraries end up reading them. But the publisher of this volume, the Center for Growth and Opportunity, released it as a free Ebook– so I hope you’ll check it out. It covers everything from housing and health care to energy and education to beer and cigarettes.

I wrote chapter 5, on how various regulations affect wages and employment. Here’s an excerpt:

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Joy’s Cartoon is in a French Textbook

This is my day in the sun. A decade ago, I started ecoNomNomNomics.com. Back then, I knew that my dream job was “economics professor”, but I was years away and also thousands of miles away from where I am now. I have barely updated the site since 2011, but every now and then new people find it. My hope has always been that it would be both helpful and happy.

A French publisher reached out to me and asked for permission to use one of my cartoons in their workbooks that will reach actual French students. I was delighted to say yes.

Allons-y! With their permission, I reproduce the page that has my picture:

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Business Analytics Textbook with R

There have been moments in my career as a data analytics instructor that I have considered writing my own textbook, just so I could have one that works. When I started in 2017, Samford University was one of the first schools to seriously reshape the undergraduate business school curriculum in response to the increase in demand for analytics skills. The pickings for appropriate textbooks were slim. Students in my class have already taken “business statistics”, which is a class I had to take as an undergraduate as well. I was trying to smash together business case studies, analytics that was more advanced than basic stats but also not beyond the undergrads, all while using a software program for applications.

I am pleased with what I see in my review copy of the new book by Saltz & Stanton Data Science for Business with R

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Chesterton on Patriotism

America is in the news, and not for reasons I’d like. Here is G.K. Chesterton on “patriotism.” I will always remember this quote from reading his book Orthodoxy (emphasis mine):

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

G.K. Chesterton

The Pimlico reference is to some unsavory district of London at the time.

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The Joad Family in 2020

The following is by Hannah Florence.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath details the impoverished circumstances of the fictional Joad family during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Initially, the Joads are tenant farmers in Oklahoma, but due to the consolidation and mechanization of agriculture during the 1920s, they are displaced from their farm and without many options. After receiving a leaflet that promises abundant jobs and housing, the family follows in the path of many of their neighbors that have already left for California in search of more opportunity. Yet the hardships continue for the Joads. The grandfather dies on the arduous trip and find that they have been misled about the availability of jobs and the conditions of the squalid camps.  

According to Steinbeck, the introduction of the tractor and the power of the bank are responsible for their initial misfortunes. The tractor makes farming easier and more efficient, but leaves families without work including the Joads. In an encounter with a tractor driver, a tenant farmer without work asks, “what you doing this kind of work for—against your own people?” (pg. 25). The tractor driver is seen as treasonous because he improves his own standing while a hundred other people—his people— are left without a means to provide for their own families. But the tractor driver doesn’t revel in his improved circumstances, instead he is blunt about all of their predicaments, “crop land isn’t for little guys like us anymore” (pg.25). This assessment indicates that despite their divergent trajectories, neither the tractor driver nor the tenant farmers have any influence, but they are both pawns of a larger power. Steinbeck insinuates that both individuals—the tenant farmer and the tractor driver– is largely expendable. If the driver leaves another tractor driver would gladly accept the job; if that one left, still another one would come along. The greater enemy is the big-wigs in ‘the East’ who give orders to ‘the bank,’ who are ultimately responsible for displacing the farmers.

The increasing efficiency of agriculture and its effect on the fictional Joad family illustrates what many families have faced due to the increasing efficiency of manufacturing. For the Joads, there is a strong sense of alienation. Their family home is damaged by a tractor, the neighbors are leaving, and there is no work available. Similarly, as factories and plants that were economic drivers have shuttered in rust belt towns, other main street staples such as the barber shop, the diner, and the hardware store can’t afford to stay open. As a result, formerly vibrant communities are emptied. Individuals are faced with the reality that the relatively straight-forward path to the middle class afforded to their parents will not be the same for them as options diminish for blue-collar work. The next steps for people, specifically without a college education, may not seem clear or within reach.

The monsters outlined in the first section of The Grapes of Wrath— the bank and the tractor—could be subbed in for the current monsters in our current political and economic discourse—automation and trade. The novel picks up on some of our current anti-establishment rhetoric as individuals in ‘the East’ that run the bank profit handsomely while families such as the Joads have their lives uprooted. The bank and the people in the East create a new class of winners and losers as well. The winners in this case are the tractor drivers who can now afford to give their kids shoes for the first time; the losers are the tenant farmers who have no income for food. The income inequality between the tractor driver and the tenant farmers is a microcosm of increasing income inequality in the U.S. as a result of rapidly increasing productively for a small sector of the labor force. In Average is Over, Tyler Cowen illustrates how low-skilled laborers face a similar scenario to the tenant farmer of the 1920s: individuals who are a complement to innovative technology are richly rewarded, but unskilled labor that can be replaced by it will struggle to find work in the knowledge economy.

The Grapes of Wrath demonstrates how creative destruction brought about by innovation and technology is an enduring phenomenon. Yet the characterization of this trend in The Grapes of Wrath seems prescient given the sentiments of many Americans that computers, automation, and globalization are richly benefitting a small portion of Americans that can harness these technologies at the drastic expense of many Americans that have been automated or outsourced out of their jobs.

  • Hannah Florence is a student at Samford University, where she studies economics, political science, and data analytics. She is currently a Young Scholar for the American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life. After graduation, she hopes to continue her public policy research as she begins a career in Washington, D.C.

EWED Recommends Gifts for 2020 Holidays

For the past two weeks, several of us have been describing books and items we enjoy. I’ll summarize all of these potential gifts for both adults and children here. We’ve got everything from what goes in a perfect cocktail to gifts under $20 for toddlers. Hopefully this helps you cross someone off your holiday shopping list.

Things for Adults

Lined pants for cold weather (Joy’s review)

The gift blog that has the most reader traffic to date is Jeremy’s blog on cocktail ice. The True Ice mold is going to transform your home bar.

Along the same theme, Doug suggests ingredients for an Old Fashioned.

More light will make you happier. For example the Day-Light Sky Lamp (Scott’s review)

Scott reviews camping tents. The Ozark Trails 9-Person Instant Cabin is fun and huge and easy to set up.

Books for Adults

Jeremy says Werner Troesken’s book The Pox of Liberty is a great book for understanding the current pandemic. Interestingly, it was published in 2016! We have been vulnerable to a disease outbreak for a long time.

Doug recommends The Sabbath. Doug made a great point in his review that people in quarantine might not be getting any rest even though their schedule might look empty. A quote from Doug’s review: “genuine rest — not diversion — seems necessary in the tensions of our present moment.”

Review of How the Scots Invented the Modern World. I’ll borrow from the book’s own tagline “How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World”

Doug reviews The Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture (a set of books).

Undergraduate students review Tyler Cowen’s excellent The Complacent Class. Review #1 and #2.

for Kids

Joy suggests several different toys for kids. See the blog for a bike and a tablet game. A fail-safe mid-budget present for a 4-8 year-old is this remote control car ($25). For the even younger crowd (I suppose geared toward girls) is  Minnie Wooden Magnetic Dress-Up ($10).

Joy reviews several books for kids. Most recently, I have been reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with my elementary-aged son and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s important to read fiction together. We are having great talks about these vignettes on the sea voyage.

Gen Z reads The Complacent Class

One of my undergraduate students has written a review of The Complacent Class. Her name is Hannah Florence and she’s going on to great things.

In his speech at Rice University about the United States’ intention to reach the moon, President Kennedy declared these iconic words: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…the challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.

 I am struck by how out of touch his words are with the current political environment. Is there a challenge that we are currently not unwilling to postpone? Never mind reaching new frontiers; Congress has been unable to address issues in its direct purview for decades.

The ambition and boldness of Kennedy’s speech directly contrasts with the lack of urgency that characterizes the public square and American life in general. On a societal level, the current political class has not taken the initiative to exercise creative problem-solving with substantial nationwide issues. Yet on an individual level, Americans are more risk-averse in all areas. Despite the perception of increasing American dynamism due to information technologies, Tyler Cowen details the “zeitgeist of community-enforced social stasis” in The Complacent Class (Cowen 7). 

Americans used to be inventive and imaginative. Now Americans are less mobile, less innovative, and more reluctant to sacrifice comfort and safety for the chance at a better life. Cowen discusses how the restlessness of the 1960s – as evidenced in Kennedy’s speech – converged with the trends of the proceeding decades to create the foundation for the rise of The Complacent Class (5).

Cowen’s thesis is that people are less willing to disrupt the status quo, which is making us, writ large, worse off. More Americans don’t want to move or start a new business because the uncertainty of a better future is not worth risking the comfort of their current circumstances.

This thesis takes a different angle on a claim that has often been repeated in various social commentaries: many Americans, willfully or not, are stuck in a cultural and economic malaise. In The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that following the Apollo mission, Americans underwent a period of economic stagnation, demographic decline, and intellectual and cultural repetition (Douthat). In a more dated, but highly prescient argument, Robert Putnam empirically chronicles the decline in volunteerism, political participation, church attendance, and associational involvement. He poignantly illustrates the decline of communal life of many American communities—we used to join bowling leagues, and now we bowl alone (Putnam).

The common thread among these views is that something is amiss with the status quo and yet we are unwilling to challenge it. Across these different writings, there is a common cultural pivot point in the 1980s. Cowen argues that following the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, the Reagan era was a period of newfound wealth and prestige. The safety, prosperity, and stasis of the 1980s provided the means for Americans to dig in (Cowen 11). Douthat pinpoints the Challenger explosion in 1986 as the end of the era of space exploration (2). Putnam attributes a significant part of the decrease in civic involvement to the generational transition from the silent generation to the baby-boomers.

The three authors discuss a variety of different cultural phenomena – increasing income segregation, declines in political participation, institutional sclerosis to name a few – but they utilize the same vocabulary of stagnation, complacency, and resignation. Across all the texts, there is a sense that the grit, audacity, and optimism that characterized the generation that was raised during the Great Depression and served their community through WWII has been lost. If the Space Age represented the idea that tomorrow might hold something new; the ethos of our current era is the fear that it actually will.

The effect of these developments can be seen in the toxicity of our politics. During an ugly election in a strenuous year, we ultimately are the victims of our own complacency. We look to national elections to address our issues, with neither the grit nor audacity to serve our communities or change our circumstances. The high ideals espoused in decades past of service, mutual self-sacrifice, and courage seem beyond our reach.

Although comfortable (for some) in the short-run, Americans will be hindered in their abilities to meet the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly interconnected world without new ideas and people willing to spearhead them. This message is particularly relevant for current students (myself included) who are well-placed to take up this mantle but epitomize many elements of the Complacent Class. Our ambitions are tempered by our anxieties, and our resources are too often used as means of distraction rather than improvement.

In order for my generation to challenge the bulwark of economic and cultural stasis, we need to push against the guardrails we have grown up with. This won’t be an easy for a cohort that has long perfected their test scores and resumes. As I talk to other classmates about The Complacent Class, there is a general consensus that our generation won’t settle for the status quo we have inherited.

            However, the irony of reading The Complacent Class in an international pandemic is that everyone has been forced to adapt to the ‘new normal.’ The coronavirus—and not gen z or millennials– has proved to be the ultimate killer of complacency.  This means that the post-pandemic future may provide the needed margin to create a more dynamic economy and society. One that can bring those on the periphery into the fold and create opportunities for those who had been told to play it safe.

Works Cited

“John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium.” Nasa.gov, er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm. Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.

Cowen, Tyler. The complacent class: The self-defeating quest for the American dream. St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Douthat, Ross. “The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.” (2020).

Putnam, Robert. “Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community.” (1991).