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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Using social media in Economics (suggested reading)

The winter newsletter is out from CSWEP and may be of particular interest to readers of this blog. I'm tooting my own horn a bit because I was the co-editor, which means I chose the theme and badgered found people to write the articles, but I think the result is definitely worth reading. The three featured articles all have something to do with blogging and social media. From the introduction:

In “The Impact of Economics Blogs,” World Bank economists and bloggers Berk Özler and David McKenzie discuss the role of economics blogs in the dissemination of research. They point out that blogs provide both private benefits, in the form of increased recognition and prestige for bloggers themselves, and external benefits, in the form of increased recognition for the authors of papers that are mentioned on (at least the top) economics blogs, as well as increased knowledge and changed perceptions among readers. John Whitehead (who also blogs himself) turns from research to teaching in “Teaching with Economics Blogs.” His summary of a recent survey of bloggers and blog readers suggests that blogs can be an excellent way to have students begin engaging with economic material and learning the way that economists think. Finally, Rachel Connelly explores the idea of using technology to facilitate self-promotion, providing some concrete suggestions for how to get started in “Using Social Media for Self-Promotion.”
The winter newsletter also has the summary of the annual report on the status of women in the economics profession; as in the past, the levels are somewhat sad, though the trend is encouraging. Do check it out!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Are your office hours open?

I have always assumed that "office hours" means "hours when you are in your office". I think of my office hours the same way I think about classes: unless I'm out of town for a conference (or some other good reason), I'm there. So for years, I have been confused when students ask if they can make an appointment to see me during office hours. I started making a point of telling students on the first day of class that they do not need an appointment unless they cannot make it to office hours, that my office hours are the times when I promise to be in my office so they can just drop by. I'm also an undergraduate advisor so I warn them that there may be other students there ahead of them, especially at the beginning and end of the semester (we don't assign specific advisors to our majors, students can just talk to to any of the advisors), but I'm always there. But I still get emails from students wanting to make appointments during office hours - or even stranger, they want to know simply if I'll be in my office during my office hours.

It wasn't until the beginning of this semester that it dawned on me that maybe the reason students don't seem to get it is that maybe my policy is an exception, not the rule. On the second day of class, students in my Data Analysis class take a quiz on the syllabus - the point is to give them a practice run at how the group quizzes work and for them to get to know their team, but a nice side effect is that students actually learn class policies that are outlined in the syllabus. One of the questions is:
If you need to talk with Professor Imazeki, the best thing to do is
A. just show up during office hours
B. send her an email to set up an appointment only if you cannot make it to her office hours
C. send her an email to set up an appointment during office hours
D. try to catch her on the phone
E. A or B

The correct answer is E - either just show up during office hours or make any appointment if you want to meet outside office hours. As I was walking around the room listening to students discuss the questions, I heard one group debating this question. Most of the students thought the answer was C but one student said, "No, remember how she said she's an undergraduate advisor so she has to be there anyway during office hours and you don't need an appointment?" I wanted to stop and point out that it doesn't have anything to do with me being an advisor but these students clearly seemed to think that making appointments, even during office hours, is standard practice for most 'regular' faculty.

I know that there are some faculty who don't have office hours, or they say they do but then they only show up if a student says they will be coming by. But I always assumed those were the exception. In my department, everyone is expected to have office hours, and I think everyone is always actually there during their posted hours (or if they are not, there is a sign on their door to say they are sick or something like that). But I don't know, and have never asked, if my colleagues tell students they can just drop by or if they see their office hours as times when students can make appointments. Is it really so unusual to have drop-in office hours? What's your office hour policy?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lower supply means higher prices: Avocados edition

Avocado fruitnfoliage
A story on NPR caught my ear the other night - it was about how San Diego used to be the country's top supplier of avocados but producers here are facing increased costs for water and labor, and increased competition from other countries. What really caught my attention was the very end of the story:
"Ironically, 2011 was the best year ever for San Diego avocado growers. High market prices pushed the monetary value of the crop up, even as the acreage shrank."
This isn't as bad as some examples I've seen but to some, it could sound like the speaker is suggesting that the higher prices are somehow surprising or inconsistent with acreage shrinking. This would be a great example to have students show, using a supply and demand graph, how the higher prices are exactly what we should expect, because of the shrinking supply.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day!

$ pillow
I've always wondered if academics in other fields date each other at the same rate that economists do - god knows a lot of economists end up with other economists but I'm not sure if it's correlation (i.e., when you spend five+ years in grad school with other economists, who else are you going to date?) or causation (i.e., when you think like an economist, the odds of finding a non-economist who really understands you goes down significantly). During the ten years I dated economists, I would have said it's the latter but since I'm now with an engineer, I'm more inclined to think it's the former... At any rate, I have to say that one downside of dating outside the profession is that my boyfriend really doesn't get the following links. If you follow any other econ blogs or twitter accounts, you probably have already seen these but in case you haven't, enjoy!
  • Justin Wolfers started the hashtag #FedValentines for 'Fed-themed valentine's wishes' on twitter and shares some of his favorites over on the Freakonomics blog. I think my favorite is "When I look into your eyes, I have no fractional reserve."
  • Elisabeth Fosslien shares 14 Ways an Economist Says I Love You [by the way, Fosslien is apparently an alum of Pomona College so if there are any fellow Sagehens out there, you should also check out her Pomona in 47 Charts].
  • On a more serious note, Christopher Coyne discusses the Economics of Valentine's Day in this video - yet another economist telling us that most gifts are inefficient but at least he talks about the signalling effect of Valentine's gifts (rather than just saying we're all irrational).

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday fluff: For the love of books

When I was a kid, I was a voracious reader. I don't just mean that I read a lot of books but once I started reading a book, I hated to put it down until I had read the last page. When my mom would tell me to set the table for dinner, I'd say, "One more chapter" and then keep reading until she literally took the book out of my hands. I still remember reading Gone with the Wind in one weekend, most of it spent spread out on the living room floor, stopping only when my mom insisted I join the family to eat.

This habit wasn't always so good for my sleeping patterns (there were way too many nights I stayed up til 3 in the morning to finish a book!) but I do have many, many happy memories associated with books from my childhood and I firmly believe that my love of reading is one of the big reasons I always did so well in school. So it sort of broke my heart to read this post by Mark Anderson, a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx who won a contest for $450 to spend on school supplies. I come from a family of teachers so I am well aware that the vast majority of K-12 teachers spend an insane amount of their own money on things for their classrooms, usually for items that they really shouldn't have to buy themselves but either their schools don't have the money or they have to fill out so many reams of paperwork to get any materials that it just seems easier to buy it themselves. In Mark's case, he ended up using the money for books, including some of my all-time favorites (well, really, does anyone NOT have E.B. White on their list of all-time favorites?). For some reason, it was seeing The Cricket in Times Square on the list that brought tears to my eyes. Although I don't think it's as well known as books like Stuart Little, I remember reading The Cricket in Times Square over and over - there is something about the story that just really touched me - and it makes me really sad to think about all the kids who have never even heard of it.

That post also made me start thinking about all the other books I loved as a kid but haven't thought about in years. Did anyone else love the Encyclopedia Brown books? I'm convinced that my logic/analytic skills developed early because of him. We also had almost the entire Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series (which I still can't believe my mother sold at a garage sale a few years ago!). Betsy-Tacy kept me company throughout grade school; then I believe it was junior high when I met Anne of Green Gables. My sister, our neighbor and I used to act out the poems in Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends and charged our parents 25 cents to watch the 'show'. Sigh. Makes me think that maybe I need to take a break from all these 'adult' things I read and get back to something simpler. I hear Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series is really good...

Happy weekend!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Not all costs and benefits are monetary: Going solar edition

In discussing incentives or cost-benefit analysis, any good Principles textbook will mention that not all costs and benefits are monetary, and a whole lot of the behavioral economics field is built around the fact that people respond to incentives other than money.  But we economists (and an awful lot of non-economists) still seem to have a strong tendency to only count those costs and benefits that we can, well, count. Case in point: I recently installed solar panels on my house and as I was researching options, a big focus of everything I read was whether going solar would be 'cost-effective'. But what 'cost-effective' generally seemed to mean was that the monthly payment to cover the panels would be offset by the drop in the monthly electric bill; the prevailing opinion seems to be that if it's not, then you shouldn't bother switching (in fact, one company would not even give me a quote for a system because once I gave them my consumption information, they said, "With your level of usage, it would not be cost effective for you to convert to solar"). Of course I understand that for most people, that's an important comparison but what I find interesting is the reaction I get from people when I say that for me, my monthly payment is going to go UP (at least in the short run). Many people react to that with confusion and something along the lines of, "Then why are you doing it? Are you that much of an environmentalist?"

To a certain extent, the simple answer is, yes, apparently I *am* that much of an environmentalist. The benefit I get from a kilowatt of electricity produced by conventional power plants is reduced by the knowledge that such production is also destroying the planet. Or to put it in economics parlance, my individual demand for clean energy is higher than for dirty energy. So even if my quantity consumed doesn't change at all, I would be willing to pay a little bit more for that quantity when produced with solar rather than with conventional technology.

But the answer is also a little more complicated than that. Because my demand for clean energy is higher, not only am I willing to pay more for the same quantity of clean electricity, but if the price per kilowatt is the same for both clean and dirty technologies (which, on the margin, it is, given the way solar interacts with the electric company's grid), I will buy more of the clean energy. In my case, I have resisted installing central heat and air conditioning in my house almost entirely because I don't want to use that much more electricity (with the corresponding pollution) but with solar, I don't have that concern so once the panels are in, central air is the next item on the list. I thought of this when I read a Digitopoly post drawing a parallel between cheaper solar energy and cheaper computing power - rather than trying to conserve, the falling cost means people can actually consume more.

All of this is to say that a simple comparison of the cost of my current monthly electric bill to the cost of my monthly payment for solar ignores the fact that my benefits with conventional electricity are not the same as my benefits with solar energy. By switching to solar, I not only get to stop contributing to environmental damage but I can actually be a lot more comfortable in my home - and maybe I'll even stop obsessively turning off the lights every time I leave a room...