Complacency and American Girl Dolls

Two recent books warn Americans that our society stagnated after the moon landing: The Decadent Society and The Complacent Class. Both imply that the 2000’s are running on the fumes of the Saturn V rocket. We have barely altered our physical world in decades, improvements in cell phones notwithstanding.

This has launched an interesting debate (you could even call it a game) where people look for counterexamples. Here’s the most recent one I’ve seen

This week I saw a reinforcing example of stagnation.

In the 1990’s I used to read the American Girl doll catalogue from cover to cover every year. Everything is terribly expensive but also delightful to look at. I had the Molly doll and I read a few AG books about how she was inconvenienced on the homefront during World War II. She complained about having to eat turnips from a Victory garden, but she was encouraged to be patriotic and support a cause greater than herself. Her father is away with the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

I was a little dismayed when I saw that you can now buy a mini Molly doll for your 80’s doll. My life is now “historical”, so I am officially old. Great.

It’s not lost on me that American Girl is playing on nostalgia to sell more product. Millennials like myself might buy this mini Molly doll so we can re-live memories of childhood vicariously. However, I’m going to use this to illustrate “the great stagnation”.

You can be inwardly focused or outwardly focused. The WWII war effort was a time when America was dynamic and focused on achieving great things.

“Courtney” the 80’s doll is pictured next to a Pac-Man arcade machine. Her goal is to keep herself sufficiently entertained. She can listen to her Walkman if Pac-Man gets boring.

Today, 40 years later, people are still starting at screens just like Courtney the 80’s doll. The reason we are buying a mini 1940’s doll to gift to a 1980’s doll is because so little has happened since 1980.

You can make jokes about an infinite recursion of American Girl dolls. It’s funny because it won’t happen. You can be inwardly focused or outwardly focused. Molly’s America is outwardly focused, and that makes her exciting.

I don’t think anyone is going to give a 2050 doll a mini Courtney 80’s doll. I’m even more certain that no 2050 doll is going to get a mini 2010 doll complete with tiny 2010 iPhone.

Maybe by 2040, there will be something new to ignite the imagination.

Incidentally, LEGO seems to think humans will be on Mars soon.

Camping in Style in an “Instant Cabin” Tent

This is the time of year when we often think of gifts to give to others, or for others to give to us, if they are so moved. So I will share an item which took a bit of research to lock in on, and which has worked out very well in practice.

When I was in my teens, I was content to throw a sleeping bag on a tarp right on the ground when camping. In my 20s, I used a half inch thick dense foam pad, a classic Ridge Rest. I wanted a little more cushion under me in my 30s, and so graduated to a 1.5 inch thick self-inflating sleeping pad like this Stansport. For backpacking in my 40s and 50s, I craved yet more air space underneath me, especially for curling up on my side, and got good usage out of a narrow, 2.5 inch thick inflatable sleeping pad.

Now my wife and I are pretty much done with roughing it. We still enjoy the great outdoors, but find we enjoy it even more when we have essentially all the comforts of home, which includes a full size queen air mattress. It takes a pretty big tent to accommodate that plus all our other gear, without feeling squashed.

I have had some large tents in the past, which were very tedious to set up. So I was pleased to find a huge, airy tent, which almost erects itself. This is the Ozark Trails 9-Person Instant Cabin.

Image from Amazon website

The main room is 9 x 14 ft, which is plenty big for glamor-camping (glamping) for two people. In huddled masses mode, probably 8 bodies would fit comfortably. The tent has a screen room across the front, for a bug-free place to sit. The fly over the screen room provides a roof over the door to the main room, keeping out rain even when the tent door is opened.  Here are two views from within on our latest camping trip, first looking out the door through the screen room, and then looking straight up through the roof before we put the fly over the tent at the end of the day.

As an engineer, I am tickled by the clever joints that allow you to make the structure arise with just a few strategic tugs. Going from stage 2 to stage 3 in the photo below takes all of fifteen seconds. Taking the tent down for storage simply involves doing all these motions in reverse. The tent itself stays always attached to the poles.

Image from Amazon website

The only major drawback is the price, about $300, which is a lot for a tent. Considering our wants at this stage, for us that is a fair exchange. It gives us much of the space and utility of a small pop-up camper trailer, for a fraction of the cost.

American Moments

The presidential debate on September 29, 2020 was an embarrassment. I don’t remember what the candidates said because I just kept panicking thinking about the fact that other people could see what was happening. Didn’t some adult somewhere have a kill switch?

After an hour of listening, I expressed my sincere wish that this had never happened:

Tyler had a more nuanced take:

It’s not just true in America. Much of what passes for “debate” is just people firing off talking points at each other. Usually it’s not quite so obvious and awkward because there are not such clear rules being broken.

If there’s one thing that Americans agree on, it’s that you wait your turn in line. This is the most basic schoolyard etiquette. No matter how rich or famous you are, cutting in line is deeply resented. It felt like President Trump was not taking turns (so then it was strange for me to fact check this and see that Biden spoke only 2 minutes less total than President Trump).

If it were in my power to undo that night I would. However, a new podcast gave me some more to ponder about in terms of what Americans can be proud of. A lot of true news comes out about Americans making mistakes. That can be useful for others. Audrey Tang said of our misdeeds:

COWEN: … the United States, has made … many mistakes … What’s our deeper failing behind all those mistakes?

TANG: I don’t know. Isn’t America this grand experiment to keep making mistakes and correcting them in the open and share it with the world? That’s the American experiment.

Being open about our mistakes might be the next best thing to not making them in the first place.

Tang, a transgender Taiwanese computer policy expert, said something that I think Americans can be happy about.

Speaking of software, here’s a recent conversation with a 5 year old about what exactly is software and what does it mean to buy it. My son imagined that if I bought it in a store I must have picked something up off a shelf. (I could have explained that software is a nonrival good, but I think it’s too soon.)

The Problem of Paying Attention in Online Classes

Currently, I subscribe to Bloomberg Businessweek. Instead of ranking MBA programs, this year they decided to report on a survey of students about switching to online classes. (in the Sept. 21 issue)

Overall, the reaction from students has been negative. They believe an online MBA is not as valuable as the traditional in-person experience.

Something MBA students state, which I have already heard from my own undergraduates, is that it’s difficult to focus during online instruction hours. If your face isn’t being watched through your webcam, then it’s tempting to “multitask” and not pay attention to the professor. I feel the same temptation when I join online research seminars.

What’s the most sympathetic view of this situation? Doing your online classes “isn’t that hard”. I feel like the scold looking over my bifocals at millennials saying, “going to a dry cleaner isn’t that hard”. (We millennials cannot be bothered to go to a dry cleaner.)

Here’s my first and brief thought: College students today have been taught to use screens for recreation by their parents.

Parents put kids in front of screens to get rid of them. I get rid of my own kids by putting them on screens. I ensure that they are not watching something evil.

I hope parents are diligently ensuring that their preteen daughters are not chatting up predators. What responsible parents have been told is to try to limit total screen hours and also to try to keep your child out of the digital equivalent of dark alleys.

That kind of guidance doesn’t teach students how to use screens constructively. They are suddenly being asked by teachers to be constructive on the screen. Some of them can hack it. Some of them can’t. None of them were prepared for this.

Your typical 20-year-old college student today must have done well in traditional classrooms because they did, after all, get admitted to college. But when they were on their screens, they were scrolling and gaming and indulging their impulses. As long as they physically showed up to class on Monday morning and turned in enough homework assignments, no adult was going to make them do chores on screens.

Since screens are here to stay, we need a lot more research on how to raise humans who know how to be responsible on screens.

No answers came to me when posed this question to the hive mind:  

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.

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.