Fitness Friday – Trying The 5/2 Diet

~700 words, ~3 min reading time

So, I’m in the midst of a “cut”, and I’m trying a new technique: the 5/2 diet. Let me compare it with what I’ve done in the past.

Previously, I followed the Kinobody cutting diet. So, five days per week, I’d eat in a calorie deficit, and two days per week, I’d eat at a slight surplus. After some experimenting, I’ve found that 1600 calories on my low-calorie days and 2500 on my high-calorie days was about right to hit my weight loss goals. This approach basically has “diet breaks” built in on those two high-calorie days per week, and diet breaks have been shown to have positive effects on things like maintaining lean body mass and metabolism. Greg O’Gallagher at Kinobody also suggests taking explicit diet breaks whenever weight-loss stalls.

The 5/2 diet, though, reverses things. Rather than five days of deficit and two days of surplus, you eat five days at maintenance and two days at a very sharp deficit. After doing the calculations, that means I’m eating 2300 calories per day five days per week, and 800 calories per day two days per week. Yes, 800 calories is VERY little – but it is fairly easy to hit simply by fasting for most of the day, and just eating a reasonable dinner. (Note: the original Fast Diet – which the 5/2 diet comes from – says to eat “normally” – that is, don’t bother tracking – for 5 days, and to eat 500-600 calories for two days of the week. I’m following the modified version that I linked above.)

In terms of weekly calorie intake, the two diets are very similar. 1600×5 + 2500×2 = 13,000 calories per week. 2300×5 + 800×2 = 13,100.

The big difference is in the eating pattern. For me, the 5/2 diet has been significantly easier, because I don’t feel like I have to track quite as closely. On maintenance days, I keep track of what I eat, try not to go overboard, and then make sure I hit fairly close to my calories by adjusting my evening snacks after the kids are in bed. In contrast, during my 5 low-calorie days per week under my previous diet scheme, I had to pay a lot more attention to what I was eating each meal to make sure that I was (1) not using up too many of my calories, but also (2) hitting protein goals along the way. That was a lot of attention having to be paid to what I was eating. The 5/2 diet reduces that significantly.

Another big benefit that I’ve found for the 5/2 diet is that I can keep doing it – or something close to it – even when I’m traveling. On my previous diet, I would simply abandon the diet if I went on a trip, simply because it’s too hard to control food intake. I figured 7 days wouldn’t do any permanent damage – and this is correct, as far as that goes. But, it does set you back a bit. But, I’m out of town this week for a seminar – and I’m mostly sticking to the 5/2 diet despite that, even though I’m not tracking calories exactly. 5 days, I’m eating “normally” more or less (so, probably near, but slightly above maintenance, I would guess), and two days, I’m just eating dinner and maybe a smaller snack. In any case, not eating until dinner time basically ensures that I won’t be eating maintenance-level calories those days. So, while I may lose some ground from not tracking calories precisely, I don’t expect I’ll lose much ground – and that’s something.

One downside, though: I am definitely hungry on my 800 calories days – where I hadn’t really experienced that as much on the 1600/2500 split. But, it’s not that big a deal. Drinking lots of water helps, and you do get used to it on some level. Plus, it’s just one day – then I know I get a couple days eating normally.

Naturally, there are some people who absolutely should not do this – it’s particularly dangerous for diabetics. Children and pregnant or nursing mothers should also do something else, most likely. But, it seems to be going okay for me so far – sadly, it’s too early to report results.

Marx’s Capital Volume III – Chapter 5 – Economy in Employment of Constant Capital

~700 words, ~ 4 min reading time

Summary

Since workers create surplus value, it makes sense for capitalists to minimize how much they spend, relatively, on non-labor. (That is “constant capital” in Marx’s terminology.) In general, they can do this by increasing working hours. Since the same building can operate for 8 hours or 24 hours, a greater profit margin will be attained if work happens for more hours. In addition, capitalists look for ways to use the “excretions of production” – that is, by-products or “waste”.

Marx goes a bit deeper on a couple of examples. He discusses savings on labor conditions – pointing out that capitalists can decrease their expenses by tolerating unsafe or uncomfortable working conditions, and presents data showing that disease and mortality are more common among workers in industries where conditions are particularly bad. Marx also observes that large-scale production is encouraged, in part, by the way that power works in industrial machinery. It is often more economical to operate one large plant than multiple smaller ones. These economies of scale (to use the modern phrase) allow capitalists to economize on constant capital. Marx goes a bit deeper into the “excretions of production”. Strangely, he criticizes capitalism for not putting human feces on fields to use as manure. Finally, Marx observes that new inventions are often not economical – so that the first to buy a new product end up paying far more than when the product gets more developed.

Why It Matters

Here we’re getting much more to the practical criticism of the capitalist system that Marx provides. The most important part here is the criticism regarding requiring long working hours and the one about unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. These are the two activities that look the most like “exploitation”, and, I would suggest, are often at the heart of criticisms of a market system.

Where Marx Goes Wrong

Here, Marx’s wage theory is what creates the biggest problems. Since Marx buys into the classicals’ iron law of wages – that is that wages will stay at the level of subsistence – Marx misses the actual dynamics of what is happening. For example, people will trade off wages against other features of a job. So, for example, people may be willing to accept worse conditions – but they only do so if they are compensated for it financially. Conversely, it can sometimes be cost-saving for a company to offer more benefits but pay less – in fact, Marx himself points out a case where a business ended up saving money by installing safety equipment. Marx’s argument then, in this section, relies on the existence of two “irrationalities” – one of which Marx is explicit about, the other of which is missing from the explicit argument, as it is ruled out by Marx’s wage theory. The first irrationality: that capitalists habitually seek to avoid certain kinds of costs – specifically for safety devices. Marx reported one case where a group of manufacturers spent more paying lawyers to fight the imposition of safety regulations than it would have cost to simply implement the regulations themselves. A second is that workers care only about wages and pay no attention to the conditions of production. But these are unlikely to be true. There are systematic differences in certain wages which are explained by differences in job characteristics – sometimes explicitly. This makes perfect sense – people would be willing to be paid less for safe, comfortable jobs, other things equal – but doesn’t fit the iron law of wages which suggests that wages will fall to subsistence levels. In addition, employers take this fact into account when making decisions about safety procedures and the like. Do they get things wrong sometimes? Of course. But, it hardly seems accurate to suggest that employers regularly, irrationally avoid measures that are actually cost-saving – in a competitive world, such decisions put you at a disadvantage compared to your competitors. Which brings us back to a central issue with Marx – for Marx, competition between competitors seems to exist sometimes, but is not worked into the logic consistently. So, competition keeps prices of products in check – but doesn’t let wages rise above subsistence. Competition leads to capitalists being cost-minimizers – but they do so very poorly.

Marx’s Capital Volume III – Chapter 4 – The Effect of the Turnover on the Rate of Profit

~300 words, ~2 min reading time

Summary

The previous chapters were considering the rate of profit for a single “turnover” of capital – effectively a single productive period. In this chapter, Marx broadens the analysis to examine the annual rate of profit if there are multiple turnovers of capital in one year. For example, if I advance $100 in wages at the beginning of the year for wages, and workers make a product I can sell for $110 at the end of the week, then I can “turnover” the $100 from my revenue to pay for wages in the next week. As a result, the same $100 can be spent on wages 52 times over the course of the year, resulting in a profit of $520, while I only had to advance $100 – a 520% return. Marx shows that the annual rate of profit is simply the rate of profit for a single turnover multiplied by the number of turnovers in a year.

Why It Matters

If you’ve read his previous volumes, you’ll know that Marx is a bit obsessed with the idea of “turnover” with capital. The reason is simple: it is what makes capital self-replicating in the Marxian system. So, it makes sense that, as Marx is turning to questions of profit, that he would consider how profit is affected by turnover.

Where Marx Goes Wrong

Marx’s devotion to the labor theory of value muddies his analysis because his price theory is a bit goofy. Sensibly, if a particular set of labor and materials allows for twice as high a turnover, and therefore twice the rate of profit, it seems obvious that entrepreneurs would bid up the wages and material prices, which, in turn, lowers the per-turnover rate of profit. Marx’s system doesn’t seem to allow for this, because it is bound by the labor theory of value.

Marx’s Capital Volume III – Chapter 3 – The Relation of the Rate of Profit and the Rate of Surplus Value

~ 800 words, ~ 4 min reading time

Summary

If we define the rate of profit as the profit divided by the expenditure (not too far from profit margin by standard accounting, though also not quite the same), and the rate of surplus value as the amount of surplus value (that is, profit) divided by the wage bill (that is, the amount of variable capital), then we’ll find this relationship:

Rate of profit = rate of surplus value x (variable capital/total capital)

“Capital” here being the term that Marx uses for “costs” – including wages (that is variable capital), depreciation, materials, etc.

This chapter mostly focuses on different ways in which the rate of profit can change/differ. He considers a number of cases, but comes to this conclusion in the end:

(1) The rate of profit moves in the same proportion as the rate of surplus value if the share of variable capital stays constant.

(2) The rate of profit moves more than the rate of surplus value, but in the same direction, if the share of variable capital moves in the same direction as everything else.

(3) The rate of profit moves less than the rate of surplus value, but in the same direction, if the share of variable capital moves in the opposite direction, but less than, the rate of surplus value.

(4) The rate of profit moves opposite the rate of surplus value if the share of variable capital moves in the opposite direction and more than the rate of surplus value.

(5) The rate of profit stays constant if changes in the rate of surplus value are offset exactly by changes in the variable capital share.

Marx feels a need to explain #5. So, let’s look at Marx’s example (but I’ll use $ instead of pounds). Let’s say that, originally, the capital is divided as: $80 constant capital + $20 variable capital + $20 surplus value. In this case, the rate of profit is 20% ($20/$100), while the rate of surplus value is 100% ($20/$20). Then, let’s say that wages fall, so that you can produce the same stuff with just $16 paid in wages. Then, we’d have $80 constant + $16 variable + $24 surplus value. The problem is that this would mean that the rate of profit has increased 25%. For that not to happen, the constant capital has to have increased, for example, like so: $104 constant + $16 variable + $24 surplus value. Now, the rate of profit is $24/$120 = 20%. The change from $80 to $104 constant capital means that either labor productivity has dropped – that is, that workers need more materials to produce the same quantity of product, or that the cost of materials has increased.

Why It Matters

Marx’s big point from this chapter was to establish that it is possible for two capitalists to have the same rate of profit, but different rates of surplus value. The above examples shows how that can happen. Similarly, it is trivial now to show that two capitalists can have the same rate of surplus value, but different rates of profit. I’m still not 100% sure where Marx is going with this – but I suspect part of the point is to show that, since there is a tendency toward rates of profit to equalize, we’ll have capital-intensive firms (for whom the wage share is low) with relatively higher rates of surplus value. That is: an increase in capital intensity across the economy leads to greater labor exploitation. But, I’m just speculating about that at this point.

Where Marx Goes Wrong

This chapter was mostly mathematical identities. But, I do want to point out two oddities in Marx in this regard:

(1) Marx’s use of the rate of surplus value is really strange. Why “profit divided by wage bill” is meaningful at all is unclear to me. Even if we accept that constant capital should basically be discounted, and only consider a “value added basis”, it seems that the rate of surplus value should be “profit divided by value added by labor (that is profit + wage bill)”. No idea why Marx does what he does on this.

(2) Marx’s use of “labor productivity” is also a bit non-standard to the modern reader. Where we typically think of labor productivity as the ability of labor to make a product in a period of time, Marx is thinking in terms of relative value added (compared to the value already “embodied” in the means of production) – so a lack of productivity is seen more as a worker needing more tools/materials to produce the same thing, as opposed to the modern notion where a lack of productivity is seen more as a worker needing more TIME to produce the same thing.

As is always the case, a definition can’t be “wrong” per se. It’s just more or less useful. These are similar – but could cause confusion because of the difference between modern usage and Marxian usage.

Marx’s Capital Volume III – Chapter 2 – “The Rate of Profit”

~300 words, ~2 min reading time

Chapter summary

In this chapter, Marx distinguishes between the rate of profit and the rate of surplus value. In money terms, surplus value and profit are the same. But, they are different as rates. The rate of profit in Marx is the profit divided by the capital expended (including both constant and variable capital, that is non-wage expenses and wages). The rate of surplus value is the profit divided by the variable capital (the wage bill). Marx says that capitalists really only care about the rate of profit, as they don’t care what their expenditures are, exactly – they just care about the total expended. As a result, changes in the degree of exploitation (the rate of surplus value) are difficult to discern.

Why It Matters

I’m not quite sure where Marx is going with this at this point, but a point he emphasizes is that the same rate of profit may obscure significant differences in the rate of surplus value. So, for example, a firm that is capital-intensive may the same rate of profit as a labor-intensive firm. However, the rate of surplus value is higher for the capital intensive firm since it generated the same profit with a lower wage bill – so, more “surplus labor”.

Where Marx Goes Wrong

This chapter lacked theoretical substance, for the most part, so there wasn’t much wrong with it. The key problem of the labor theory of value runs through Marx, and that is no different here. If we start from the assumption of derived demand/value imputation, however, then everything turns on its head. What Marx calls “profit” is what Bohm-Bawerk identifies as “interest”. “Profit” then, is the result of capitalists delaying consumption for the money that they’ve tied up in the capitalist production process. It has nothing to do with the exploitation of labor.

Marx’s Capital, Volume III – Chapter 1 “Cost-Price and Profit”

~600 words, ~3 min reading time

Summary

In this chapter, Marx lays out the idea of the “cost-price” of a good. Suppose, for example, that a firm pays $400 for means of production (including some wear and tear on capital), $100 in wages, and sells the good for $600. By Marx’s terms, there were $400 in “constant” capital, $100 in “variable” capital (that is, labor), and $100 in “surplus value”.

Marx also considers how changes in the components above change the value (and therefore sales price) of the good. A change in the cost of the means of production would change the value – and therefore sale price – of the good. However, a change in the wage simply changes the division in how much of labor creates “surplus value”. This follows from two of Marx’s premises: (1) the price of a good reflects the value. (2) the value reflects the total labor content embedded in the good. So, if the cost of the means of production increases, then that is a sign that the value of the means of production increases – this value is then passed through to the final product. However, if wages change, that, in itself, doesn’t change the quantity of labor in a good. So, it doesn’t change the value of the good.

This chapter focuses on distinguishing cost-price from other ways of accounting. For example: we wouldn’t use the entirety of durable goods in calculating the cost – on the wear-and-tear portion transfers value to the finished goods. Also, Marx emphasizes that the sale price – NOT the cost-price indicates the real “value” of the good. Eliminating profit then would not eliminate the exploitation of labor. Rather than the surplus value accumulating to the capitalist, it would accumulate to the consumer.

Why It Matters

One of the most significant points that Marx makes in this chapter is that changes in wages do not change the value of the good (as stated above). So, for example, if wages get cut in half, then the value of the good will still be $600 (as above), but the money will be divided $400 for constant capital, $50 for variable capital (that is, wages), and $150 for surplus labor.

This has profound implications for things like minimum wages and labor union negotiations. Because, in the Marxian framework, wages do not affect prices, wages and surplus value are effectively just dividing up a fixed pie. So, imposing a minimum wage, or having powerful unions, would simply result in workers getting more money.

Where Marx Goes Wrong

The fundamental problem: this chapter is infused with the labor theory of value. This is the opposite of the more correct view – which is reflected both in Austrian economics and in mainstream microeconomics, though using slightly different language. Austrians discuss the idea of “imputation” – that is, that value starts in the mind of the consumer, and then is imputed to consumer goods and up the chain of production to the various producer goods and labor. In mainstream lingo, the demand for labor is a “derived demand” – specifically, it is derived from the demand for the goods being produced. Both of these show value coming from the final good to the goods being used to produce that. This is the exact opposite of Marx – where value starts in the labor that goes into the good – whether raw labor or labor embodied in the means of production.

To outsiders, this might feel like a very philosophical disagreement – but it has profound scientific implications. If Marx is right about the labor theory of value, then it DOES follow that the only effect of minimum wages would be a decrease in profit. If modern economics is correct, then minimum wages can create negative employment effects and price effects as well.

Redesigning Microeconomics – Reflections

~600 words, ~3 min reading time

This semester I redesigned my Principles of Microeconomics course. I want to give a brief run-down of what happened and thoughts for going forward.

(1) Engagement/Mastery division – I still like this idea, though since I’m switching to specs grading (more detail in a later blog post), the “weighting” of each will go away. But, I think it is helpful to be clear with yourself what the point of an assessment is. Is it simply to get students to engage with the material, or is it to test students’ mastery of the material? It is helpful to separate the two.

(2) Short Paper process – This semester, I required rough draft, peer reviews, and final copy (including a response to peer reviews). I’m scrapping the process in the future. Or, rather, I’m making it optional. The justification for the process was twofold: (1) students write better for each other than for professors, and (2) students understand comments from other students better than from professors. Students that I talked to were mixed about the value of the peer review process’s value for them. And, from the reviews I read, a lot of them were pretty useless. As such, they were mostly busywork rather than meaningful.

(3) Engagement activity options – Students were a little confused by the fact that they had choices, but this went okay. One tweak: I’m going to scatter due dates through the semester rather than have everything due at the end, just for the sake of grading sanity.

(4) Grade proposal – Scrapping this. Most of them were written by students who had earned an A anyway. A few were by students who did worse – but they were rarely very convincing. Also, they didn’t prevent grade-grubbing. On the whole, I think was pretty useless.

(5) Comprehensive Final & Midterm Diagnostics (not for a grade) – I liked this. Building in a buffer worked, and scores turned out okay – no worse than when I used non-comprehensive tests.

(6) Class attendance – not going to be part of the grade going forward. Including it in the grade led to some students coming who were WAY disengaged in their time in the classroom, and others grubbing their attendance. Strong correlation between attendance and other grade elements suggest this is not necessary.

(7) Class preparation questions – went pretty well, though I need to refine them. Multiple choice need to be sure to reflect the final exam to some degree, and short answer should be more closely linked to Bloom’s taxonomy levels. I also asked students for “curiosity questions” that could be used to inform the class if time permitted. Scrapping these. Students often used these not for curiosity/discussion questions, but for “here’s a topic I don’t understand” questions.

(8) Flipping the classroom – worked pretty well. Class time was more focused on covering what students didn’t understand – so less wasted time. Classroom response system (“Plickers”) worked well, though I need to assign them at the beginning of the semester rather than have students pick them up and turn them in each time. I still need to work some on becoming a less-awful discussion facilitator.

Going Forward

Apart from changes listed above, I think that switching to Specs grading will be good. I’ve also debated switching to a more problem-based learning format, but don’t currently feel confident in making that switch for Principles of Micro. However, it might make sense to design my Environmental Economics course around this format…

Hacking Backward Design

~1000 Words, ~5 min reading time

The “state of the art” in course design is called “backward design”. This design philosophy isn’t new, by any means. But, let’s walk through what it is for those who might be uninitiated. First, though, let’s consider the opposite of backward design. I’ve seen a few names for this – I don’t like any of them. But, here’s how the course design runs…

Step 1: Pick the topics for the class. (Perhaps based on textbook.)

Step 2: Present the topics to the class using various methods (lecture, demonstrations, practice problems, etc.)

Step 3: Come up with a test or other assessments (papers, problem sets, etc.) based on what you did in class and assignments outside of class.

This is often the way that college professors will design a course, ESPECIALLY if we’re teaching it for the first time. The old joke runs that you just have to stay one chapter ahead of the students. And, often, that is basically the way that we approach course design – flying by the seat of our pants, so to speak.

However, there’s a serious weakness to this approach: the question of WHY you’re teaching what you’re teaching is often secondary. “It’s in the book” is hardly a good answer, seeing as so many things are in the book that we don’t teach. Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t think about these things – but rather that the “why” question tends to be asked piecemeal, with little attention paid to the overall story of the course. A shame, since we know that one of the best ways that we learn is by making connections between what we know and what we’re trying to learn. A well-integrated course design that tells a clear “story”, then, can be profoundly beneficial.

So, what does “backward design” look like?

Step 1: Determine learning outcomes for the course and the various units within the course.

Step 2: Determine assessment instruments based on those learning outcomes.

Step 3: Determine teaching methods – lecture, demonstrations, etc.

Unlike the previous method, backward design is filled with intentionality. The “Why” question should be obvious to the professor, at the very least, even if it isn’t obvious to the students.

The point of this post, though, was not to convince you to use backward design. It was to help you “hack” it. Why hack it? Because most college professors have almost no pedagogical training. As a result, Step #1 above is extremely difficult. We may have learning outcomes handed to us by our departments (the Higher Learning Commission certainly wants us to!), but we generally don’t know how to write them ourselves. The fact that most learning outcomes that are given by departments are at the course level doesn’t help – as they tend to be so broad as to be basically useless. So, let me allow a small hint.

If you don’t know how to write learning objectives – or are even just a bit hesitant about doing that – skip step 1 above. Instead do this.

Step 0: Write a traditional test (essay, short answer, problems, multiple choice, whatever you’re comfortable with) based on what you anticipate teaching.

Step 1: Determine what learning outcomes that test would assess. A well-written learning outcome is basically a test question, but stated in terms of what the student has to do to answer it. (Notably, very few course level learning outcomes you find in syllabi are written this way.) Eliminate those that you realize aren’t actually important. Add new ones as you’re inspired.

Step 2: Determine how to assess the learning outcomes. (Note: it might be that the test you write is the best way to do it. But, it doesn’t have to be so.)

Step 3: Determine learning activities.

My own experience is that I’m not very good at writing learning outcomes in a vacuum. However, I love writing test questions. What this method does is let me start with something I can do, and then forces me to back up and ask the “why?” question.

Consider this example. Test question: “Suppose that the economy is booming, and incomes are rising. What happens to the demand for filet mignon, given that filet is a normal good?” This is a pretty standard Principles of Microeconomics multiple choice question. What learning outcome does it imply? Something like “Students will be able to identify the effects of changes in income on demand for normal goods.” Notably, “identify” is the verb I used. “Predict” would be appropriate as well. “explain” would NOT be. Why? Because the question doesn’t ask the student to explain the answer. So, as a professor, I can start asking myself – “Do I want students to identify or explain or both?” I can also use this outcome to imply other outcomes. Do I want students to be able to identify the effects on demand for inferior goods as well? What about other demand shifters?

Through this process, you can develop a refined list of learning outcomes based on the test you’ve written. Then, start working backward. If I decided, for example, that I want for students to “be able to explain the effects of changes in income on the demand for normal and inferior goods”, then I know that the original test question alone will NOT be sufficient. I may need to break it apart into a couple. If “explain” is the verb I want I’ll definitely need to change the responses, at the very least – I might even need to change from a multiple choice format to something else.

It’s a simple hack, really – but one that can be very time-consuming if done properly and completely. But, that’s what backward design IS. It’s going to be somewhat time-consuming precisely because it’s not slapdash. However, at the same time, it ends up saving you a lot of wasted time preparing to present material that doesn’t really matter, and lets you spend more time emphasizing and re-emphasizing what does matter.

Redesigning Microeconomics – Part 1

~700 words, ~4 min reading time

Because I, apparently, don’t actually believe in breaks, I’ve decided to do a major redesign of the main course I teach: Principles of Microeconomics. This has been inspired by a few things – some of it being the research which I’ve linked and summarized here.

Thus far, I have redesigned my syllabi for both my online and face to face courses – including the “Honors addendum” for my face-to-face honors students. I’ll summarize a bit of what I’m doing here:

Assessment

Both face-to-face and online sections are now basically 40% engagement and 60% mastery.

In my online course, I’m using a point system. Students accumulate points in 3 ways: Knewton Homework assignments (100 points, based on successful completion), Short Papers (300 points total), and Engagement Activities (100 points).

Knewton is an adaptive online homework system designed to help students achieve mastery of the course material. The system tries to teach through trial and error. So, if a student answers questions in a topic correct consistently, they won’t see as many questions on that topic. If a student answers them incorrectly, then Knewton tries to adjust the difficulty level to where students can start seeing what a correct answer should look like, and builds them up to the point of mastery. I’m counting this as “engagement” because their grade, in the end, comes from their willingness to keep participating until they “get it” rather than from a summative assessment.

The Short Papers are three papers, each of which is designed to evaluate one of the main course learning objectives in an “authentic” setting. For example: the first paper asks students to choose a good and to make a forecast for the price of that good 1 year from now, and explain that forecast in terms of supply and demand elasticities and supply and demand shifts. In the Spring, I am modifying this assignment a bit by requiring a rough draft and self and peer assessments before the final copy is submitted.

The Engagement Activities give students an ability to customize the course to their own interests. These are generally completion based assignments. Right now, I offer three different options: Excel projects (which teach some basic Excel skills), Economics in the News, and Book Reviews. Students are also free to make their own, if I approve them. These are all completion based, and really just have the goal of convincing students to think a little bit about economics as a field.

My face to face course uses a weighted system, which explicitly separates “Mastery” and “Engagement”. “Mastery” is evaluated based on their performance on the multiple-choice final exam, which can be modified by an optional Grade Proposal – in which they provide evidence that they should get a specific grade for their mastery of course material. This idea was taken from “Rethinking Exams and Letter Grades…” by Kitchen et al. So students aren’t in the dark about the final, I will also have them participate in a “Midterm Diagnostic” which will look a lot like the final, but won’t count toward the course grade.

The Engagement portion is evaluated based on 4 things: (1) Class attendance, (2) Class Preparation Questions, (3) Short Papers (like I use in my online course – but, here graded more on participating in the process than for mastery), and (4) Engagement Choice Activities (which mirror the Engagement Activities from the online course).

For my Honors students, half of their Engagement Choice Activities points come from their Honors Project.

Weekly Rhythm

I’ve established a “Weekly Rhythm”.

For the online courses, the Weekly Rhythm is: Reading, Lecture Videos, Knewton Assignments, Short Paper Step.

For the face-to-face courses, the Weekly Rhythm is: Reading, Lecture Videos, Class Preparation Questions, Short Paper Step, Class Activities.

Next Step

Now that I have my overarching design set up (sequence of course topics, etc), and an assessment plan in place, the next step is to set up my assessments – so I need to write the final and the rubrics/checklists for the papers for my online class – this should help me align everything during the semester with how students will ultimately be evaluated. (YAY for backward design!)

Fall Commencement Address 2018

~2400 words, ~12 min read time

What follows is the text of the Commencement Address that I gave today, December 16, 2018, to the graduates of Kent State University’s Stark Campus.

Congratulations, graduates! This afternoon we are here to celebrate your accomplishments with you. You have worked hard to master the skills and the content that we have thrown at you, and today you receive the evidence of what you have achieved. So, on the behalf of the faculty, let me say “well done.”

When I was asked to give this talk, I naturally thought back to my own college commencement. Do you know what my commencement speaker spoke about? Well, neither do I. So, it is with a certain sense of what I will call “humble realism” that I approach this talk today. It seemed appropriate, then, to talk about the value of humility.

To demonstrate the value of humility, I hope to make three points – first, arrogance is destructive. Second, humility leads us to a realistic view of ourselves. Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.

Before we get too far, let us consider what humility is and, first, what it isn’t.

The following list clarifying what humility is not comes from Dr Larry Osborne.

Humility is not low self-esteem. We have another name for that. Low self-esteem. In the words of the Dalai Lama “there is clearly a distinction to be made between valid confidence or self-esteem, and conceit – which we can describe as an inflated sense of importance, grounded in a false image of self.” So, humility does ask us not to have an unrealistically high opinion of ourselves. But, it certainly does not require that we have an unrealistically low opinion of ourselves, either.

Humility is also not a lack of ambition. One can seek to accomplish great things – and still do so with a sense of humility. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is quoted as saying “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit.”

Humility is, thirdly, not downplaying our own accomplishments. There is nothing humble in claiming to be bad at something that you actually do well. There are only two possibilities here. Either you are delusional, and don’t realize your own strengths. Or you are dishonest, and simply want to cover them up. Neither delusion nor dishonesty are part of humility.

So, humility is not low self-esteem, a lack of ambition, or downplaying our own accomplishments. But, what is it?

The best definition I could find comes from a very scholarly source. Urbandictionary.com. No, I’m serious. Urbandictionary.com offers this definition: True humility is to recognize your value and others value while looking up. It is to see there is far greater than ourself into who we can become, who others can become, and how much more we can do and be. To be humble is to serve others and be for their good as well as your own. To be humble is to have a realistic appreciation of your great strengths, but also of your weaknesses. We’ll come back to these – but let’s first look at the opposite of humility: arrogance.

How easy it is for confidence – which is not a bad thing – to be twisted into arrogance. The arrogant, then, demand credit for all the wonderful things they do – and somehow find a way to shift blame away from themselves whenever their plans go awry. Once arrogance takes this turn, it, in turn has morphed into something else – fear. As the wise Jedi Master Yoda reminds us – Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. And this is true – the arrogant person becomes afraid that, if people don’t know their accomplishments – or if people discover their failings – then their value as people will be diminished. Then, all it takes is not receiving credit for something, and the arrogant person lashes out in anger – is overcome by resentment, and begins plotting revenge.

Imagine with me, if you will, a hypothetical city filled with arrogant people – people who are continuously seeking credit for themselves, and seeking to shift blame to others. Let’s call this hypothetical city… say, Washington. What can we expect Washington to accomplish? I suggest that the best answer is “little to nothing”. So, why is that?

I’m an economist – and my wife can assure you that I’m an economist 24 hours a day, whether she likes it or not – so I can’t help but fit a little of that into this address. One of the most basic principles of economics is the division of labor. That is, we can accomplish more if we divide up tasks according to people’s relative abilities to do them. But, when each person is consumed with a desire for credit and fear of blame, cooperation – which is really just the common word for the division of labor – becomes impossible. And, without that cooperation – that division of labor – it is remarkably difficult to accomplish any complicated task – even the making of something as simple as a pencil cannot be done without an astounding amount of cooperation. I dare say that a society filled with such arrogant people will find itself paralyzed by continuous conflict and a lack of productivity. Such a society will destroy itself – unless it can live parasitically off of another group of people – a group of people that is more interested in accomplishing a goal than in receiving recognition for doing it – and, as such, is willing to cooperate to get the job done.

Arrogance – and the dangers that accompany it – is nothing new. There’s a reason that so many religious and philosophical systems – spanning time and civilizations – warn of the dangers of arrogance.

Solomon – one of the Kings of ancient Israel – is reported to have said that “When pride comes, then comes disgrace.”

Jesus warned his disciples that those who exalt themselves would be humbled.

Aesop shares a number of fables about the dangers of arrogance. I’ll share three:

Roaming by the mountainside at sundown, a Wolf saw his own shadow become greatly extended and magnified, and he said to himself, “Why should I, being of such an immense size and extending nearly an acre in length, be afraid of the Lion? Ought I not to be acknowledged as King of all the collected beasts?’ While he was indulging in these proud thoughts, a Lion fell upon him and killed him. He exclaimed with a too late repentance, “Wretched me! this overestimation of myself is the cause of my destruction.”

A gnat settled on the horn of a Bull, and sat there a long time. Just as he was about to fly off, he made a buzzing noise, and inquired of the Bull if he would like him to go. The Bull replied, “I did not know you had come, and I shall not miss you when you go away.”

A deer was drinking from a river and began to admire his antlers. He then began to think about his hooves, and he wished his hooves were as big and majestic as his antlers were. To the deer’s surprise, a hunter appeared and fired an arrow, barely missing him. The deer took off into the trees and realized that he was able to get away only because of his small, nimble hooves. He realized how truly great they were, but as he was looking at his hooves, his antlers got caught in some tree branches. The hunter caught up to the deer and just before he met his fate, he lamented his love for his antlers and wished he should have realized how great his hooves were sooner.

Having seen that arrogance is personally and socially destructive, let’s turn then to consider humility. First, the fact that humility requires that we have a realistic sense of our own strengths and weaknesses.

The philosopher Socrates showed the virtue of humble realism in this story, which I paraphrase from Plato: The story goes that Socrates went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask who was wisest – as, knowing his own ignorance, Socrates wanted to learn. The Oracle declares that Socrates was the wisest person in Greece. Not believing this – after all, Socrates knew that he knew nothing – Socrates visited people of various occupations – politicians, poets, craftsmen – but he found that everyone else lived under a pretense of knowledge – that is, they believed they knew things that they did not actually know. Socrates – and he alone – recognized what he did NOT know. And, so Socrates was forced to conclude that the Oracle was right. For, while Socrates knew nothing, he was at least aware of that fact.

True humility requires that we recognize both our strengths and our weaknesses. In this facet, humility is a form of clarity of perception reflected in the Delphic maxim “gnothi sauton” – “know thyself”. If we truly know ourselves, we will recognize that we have often been wrong – or at least I have. This should lead us to a more tolerant view of those we disagree with. This does not mean that I have no confidence in my beliefs – if that were the case, I would change them. Rather, it simply means that we recognize that we may not be 100% right on all of them – and we’re not quite sure which ones we got wrong.

True humility requires a recognition that – regardless how good we are, we can always be better. One of my college friends recently told me that he had come to two realizations in life. First, he would never be good enough. Second, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t better than everyone else. I think if we reverse the order, we discover humility. Humility asks us to recognize that, even when we are better than everyone else, there is still room to be better still.

Can you look at yourself and your accomplishments objectively? Can you see the things you have done the way that other people would see them – with all of their flaws and glories? If so, you are on the path to a humble realism.

Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.

True humility requires that we take on the role of a servant. I’m guessing this story is fictional, but it, none-the-less, is a good illustration. In the early days after the United States was born, a rider came across a group of soldiers trying to remove a tree that had fallen across the country road that the rider was traveling. The rider noticed that one soldier was standing aside, doing nothing, and asked the man about this. This person clarified that he was the corporal – so it was his job to give the orders. The rider accepted this fact, got down off of his horse, and helped the soldiers. With his help, the tree could be removed and the road cleared. After this, the rider walked up to the corporal and said to him “The next time this happens, just ask the Commander-in-Chief for help” – for the rider was none other than President Washington, himself. True humility asks us to serve others – regardless our relative positions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that being a leader is a bad thing. On the contrary, leadership often places you into a position where you are able to serve more broadly – as long as you have the strength of character not to let the position go to your head.

Many of the ancients – from Laozi to Jesus to Muhammad – suggest that humility is rewarded with exaltation – and often leadership.

Humility is so central to Islam that even the term “Islam” can be translated approximately as “humility” or “submission”. And the Qu’Ran declared that “Success comes to believers who humble themselves.”

Jesus tells his disciples not only that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but that the reverse is also true: those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Laozi says “I have three precious things, which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle, and you can be bold; be frugal, and you can be generous; avoid putting yourself before others, and you can become a leader among men.”

Why do so many – across time and civilizations – see a connection between humility and being exalted to a position of leadership? For the answer to that, I turn to a more modern source.

This past October, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses”. Why is that? Because humble leaders are more successful at inspiring teamwork, rapid learning, and high performance in their teams. Humble people are more aware of their own weaknesses – sound familiar? – are more eager to improve themselves, and – here is a key – are appreciative of others’ strengths.

Putting these pieces together, a leader that displays humility recognizes the value of working as a team – so that each person can show their own strengths, and that each person – including the leader – can minimize the effects of their own weaknesses. It is no wonder then, that those who are humble would find themselves lifted up into positions of leadership.

I am convinced that each of us can change our own little corner of the world – and for the better – if we follow three rules. Let us do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

I will close by asking you to do some self-assessment. I’m going to ask each of us to consider these questions:

Are you overly sure of yourself? Do you find it difficult to admit when you are wrong or make a mistake? Do you find it difficult to respect people who disagree with you? Are you upset when you don’t get credit for things you do? Do you look for others to blame when things don’t go as they should?

Are you realistically aware of your own strengths and weaknesses? Can you look at your accomplishments objectively – as if they were accomplished by someone else? Do you recognize when others are better than you are in certain tasks or traits, and try to learn from them?

How do you serve those around you? Do you seek to build teams, helping each person you come into contact with discover their own strengths?

Do you do justly? Do you love mercy? Do you walk humbly?

Again, congratulations, and all the best as you walk the path that lies before you.

Thank you.