Friday, August 28, 2009

WIPTE October 12-13, 2009

"WIPTE 2009 early registration fee of $50.00 is available through September 14th. After September 14th the registration fee is $100.00. ... WIPTE 2009 will be held on October 12-13, 2009 (at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg VA) ... WIPTE is open to anyone with an interest in instructional technology. A wide variety of disciplines are embracing Tablet PC's and similar pen-based devices as tools for the radical enhancement of teaching and learning. " (Read more at the WIPTE page)
Here is a flyer for the wall... WIPTE stands for Workshop on the Impact of Pen-based Technology on Education.

Frustrated with the Tablet PC market and Best Buy in particular

If you have read this blog or know me then you know that I am a big proponent of Tablet PCs or laptops that have a digital pen input option. Having a pen on the mobile computer makes so much sense for taking notes and presenting, especially in quantitatively demanded disciplines. I use a Tablet PC in each class I teach and in my graduate classes in statistics and econometrics each of my students have Tablet PCs. So yesterday I am at Best Buy looking at the only pen enabled PC they have. The pen is gone and the sales staff have no idea where it is. Nothing in the signage points out that it is any different than any other laptop near it. The sales clerk says in all his years no one has ever asked for a Tablet PC, they just say they want a laptop. I pointed out that they do not carry more than the one (a nice multi-touch HP) and never do anything to market. He argues it is a niche market and there are too many varieties to carry them. I was incredulous as I looked at the wide variety of laptops stretching on for hundreds of feet of counter. Why carry even one and he pulls out the small included multimedia remote control and says this is why. I wanted to scream or at least be unpleasant. I simply left disappointed and disgusted. But it not just BestBuy, none of the big box stores in our area carries the Tablets, no one markets them to students. no one says "you want a pen with your laptop?"

I went home and looked at and found their laptop discovery tool. My choices are price, speed, and other items, but not anything about the input device. Tablet PCs do not exist in Best Buy's thinking. Why?

I can not imagine a better feature for students. I have advised a youth heading off to college that a mobile lightweight tablet would be of great value to him, but he ends up getting the laptop with the largest screen possible and weighing what can only be a desktop computer. I have tried to influence young professors and one gets a desktop. I am frustrated with the marketers, the big box stores, and students and faculty alike that do not see the value of a simple attachment of a pen to their notebook. Where are the Tablets so one can see and touch them? Where is the store that guides people to understand there is an option and to help them see if it is for them?

Now where is my netbook with a pen?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Equality in the classroom: Incentives matter

Students are fixated on grades, I am fixated on learning. This typically drives my students to distraction, but I am one that does not feel that grades and learning are always strongly correllated, but I am sure they are positively correlated. I had an email sent to me by one of my friends that was called this "economics" professor is a genius. I spent some time unsuccessfully trying to find the source and I have heard similar explanations, but this is a good and telling theoretical explanation why incentives matter. So here is the story (and all good theories can be told as stories):

"An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had once failed an entire class.

That class had insisted that Obama's socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

The professor then said, "OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama's plan". All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A.

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy.

As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little. The second test average was a D! No one was happy.

When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F. The scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed.

Could it be any simpler than that ?" (source unknown)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Did AT&T Kill Google Voice (or was it the FCC years before)

The economic issues in this WSJ article are mind boggling. Why AT&T Killed Google Voice

Health Care -- Overspending is preferable to Rationing.

I have always admired Martin Feldstein as one of the clearest economic thinkers of our time (and president of the National Bureau of Economic Research). I agree with his last paragraph in his WSJ opinion article on Health reform and want to sign on to it. He says "Like virtually every economist I know, I believe the right approach to limiting health spending is by reforming the tax rules. But if that is not going to happen, let's not destroy the high quality of the best of American health care by government rationing and misplaced egalitarianism. " The opinion article is "ObamaCare Is All About Rationing: Overspending is far preferable to artificially limiting the availability of new procedures and technologies."

Dr. Feldstein knows lots of economists so his opening is pretty striking.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Health-Care Reform: Do Animals or People Get Better Care?

If you think health care is expensive now, wait until it is free. (HT Greg Mankiw for this article)

AUGUST 8, 2009
"Man vs. Mutt" Theodore Dalrymple on who gets the better treatment in Great Britian, and what this means for U.S. health-care reform. His conclusion: "on the whole it is better to be a dog."

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Wall Street Journal's List of the top 25+ Economics Blogs

Some of my favorites are here in the Wall Street Journal's Top 25 Economics Blogs. Students interested in learning economics should read some of these or other blogs.

I use Google Reader and subscribe to many of them, you can do likewise. For an excellent summary of many blogs and commentators look at the Economics Roundtable. It has on one page what almost all of the economics blogs are publishing.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen

What is Seen and What is Not Seen is an essay written by Frederic Bastiat in July 1850. Before you discount this as an old idea remember that (1) Adam Smith laid down the foundations of our economy in 1776 with the Wealth of Nations and (2) good ideas never age and do survive the test of time.

Consider these first three paragraphs from Frederic Bastiat (then go read the rest):

"In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

"There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

"Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil."

(You are going to go read the rest aren't you?)

Consider the heralded Cash for Clunkers passed this year to be effective to November, but ran out of money in just the first week. So the House has approved an additional 2 billion dollars bring the total to $3 billion dollars. What is seen? The consumers are diverted towards buying a new car and the dealers benefit from new car sales and the car industry receives an influx of cash that certainly helps them. What is unseen? The price of new cars are typically discounted in periods of slow sales and this props up the price. The trade in clunker is destroyed (see economist mom) and is denied to the used car market. And more, but first:

In the transaction to the above new car sales, there are three parties. (1) the consumer who buys the new car, (2) the seller of the new car, and (3) everyone else in the economy who is the "forgotten man." (The forgotten man is (3) above as first explained by William Graham Sumner also from the 1800s who wrote a lecture against progressives in defense of classical liberalism and as cited on pages 12 and 13 of Amity Shlaes The Forgotten Man.) We could list the government here, but I want to take up that later.

Before pursuing this consider two things that all economists teach in their classes: (1) incentives matter and (2) opportunity costs of things foregone are critical for understanding human behavior. The incentive here is I can pick up a hefty government sponsored rebate if I trade my clunker so I am more likely to buy a new car than other things because of the rebate. The opportunity cost if I do that is my money spent can not be used elsewhere harming for example new computer sales (as an example of spending foregone) or my retirement (if saving foregone).

So what is the unseen from the cash for clunkers. Here are some ideas.
(1) the consumer will:
  • reduce sales in other markets and industries harming sellers of items other than new cars.
  • reduce their savings for some item in the future or their "retirement."
  • not be purchasing a used car
  • be going into credit that may not have been the best idea for them in the absence of the government rebate.

(2) the auto sellers will:

  • not be selling used cars due to lower demand
  • will see a reduction of the supply of used cars since they have to be destroyed.
  • reduced demand and reduced supply of used cars may result in upward pressure on used car prices, but will definitely reduce revenue from sales of used cars.
  • if you are a used car seller without new cars to sell you just got killed.

(3) the "forgotten man" includes:

  • sellers of items that do not get purchased because consumers have bought new cars and if new car buyers take on more credit than they would have without the cash for clunkers then the effect on other markets may be not only large, but lasting for years
  • banks who do not get interest on the savings of consumers
  • children of new car buyers who get less gifts (if I buy a new car, there is less for my kid when he wants something.)
  • all of us who pay taxes used for this purpose and do not benefit directly from this transactions.
  • and a list of individuals who are demanders and suppliers in the society that do not receive and who may never even recognize that they have been harmed.

What about the role of government? Government can not enter a market without creating distortions. In this case, they distort by increasing the demand for new cars (arguably a good thing) and the markets have adjusted faster and more quickly than the "government" expected since they have run out of money in the first week and have no money for the next 2 months of the planned time period. But let's not forget that the same action that so many are lauding has also distorted other markets not immediately seen. Sometimes the harm not seen is worse than the good that is seen.

Bastiat suggests that we can learn from experience or from foresight. The former is easy, but brutal and rude, the latter turns out to be more gentle. Can we not learn to think through the economic problems and balance the seen with the unseen?