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.

Results Update 2018

~1200 words, ~6 min reading time

Introduction

So, I’ve tracked biometric data for a while, and have started tracking strength about a year ago. So, I decided it would be good to do some yearly testing – and, though it feels weird to report this, I figured I would for those that want to know.

Because I’m an American, everything is in pounds and inches.

Strength Results:

Dumbbell squat (combined, estimated 1RM): 149lb -> 180lb (+31lb)

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts (combined, est 1RM): 144lb -> 173 lb (+29 lb)

Dumbbell Floor Press (combined, est 1RM): 116.1lb -> 140 lb (+23.9 lb)

Combined: 409.1 -> 493 (+83.9 lb)

Bodyweight Dips: 10 -> 6

Bodyweight Pullups: 6 -> 8

Bodyweight Pushups: 17 -> 21

So, lifts all went up decently – not “wow” levels, and I’m still not “strong” by any reasonable measure – but stronger than before. Dips dropping wasn’t a big shock – last year, my routine included dips, what I’ve been doing this year really doesn’t.

These also probably understate my true maxes – I didn’t really warm up, and just lifted 90% of last year’s estimated 1RM. To be more accurate, I should get an estimate, and test at 90% of that estimate to double-check. But, I don’t care that much.

Biometrics Results:

Overall:

Weight: 166.6 lb => 162.2 lb (still in goal range)
BF%: 15.3% => 16.3% by the Navy method, 14.5 => 14.6 by bf% scale (a bit on the high side of my goal 10-15% range)
Lean weight: 141.1 lb => 135.7 lb (using Navy method estimation) (surprised it fell, given other measurements)

By body part:

Maintained in Goal Range:

Neck: 16 -> 16
Hips: 36.75 -> 37
Calves: 14.75 -> 15.5

All of these were in my goal range in 2017, and stayed there in 2018 – though hips and calves showed some growth in that range.

Moved up into Goal Range:

Chest: 39.5 -> 41

My chest just hit my goal range.

Still Below Goal Range:

Biceps: 13.5 -> 14
Forearms: 11.25 -> 11.25
Thigh: 20.75 -> 21.5
Shoulders: 46.75 -> 47.5

While none of these are in my goal range yet, they’re moving the right direction. Biceps, Forearms, and Thighs are all about 1 inch from the goal range (though, honestly, I don’t care much about my legs…) – I feel like this is going to be excruciatingly slow going. Shoulders are within spitting distance, and moving there pretty quick.

Still Above Goal Range:

Waist: 33.5 -> 34

Also, moving the wrong direction. Ideally, we’d be looking at something closer to 31. But, this is very affected by diet. It’s winter, so it’s a reasonable time to focus on gaining rather than losing weight, and for being in that phase 34 isn’t worrisome, especially since I measured at the end of the day after a big day of eating.

What I did this Year

This year, I went through a few distinct phases – combinations of various routines and diets. Diets were generally fairly simple bulking or cutting diets, depending on my bodyfat %. Not very interesting.

Workouts, though – I tried 4 fairly distinct workout routines this year. First, I finished using HST (Hypertrophy-Specific Training). It’s not a bad program, but I had gotten to where some of the exercises were getting cumbersome (especially leg exercises).

Second, I moved into a self-designed full-body program using some linear progression principles I picked up from Stronger by Science. Basically, you do 3×8, progressing linearly. Once you fail to make a step, you switch to 5×5 and proceed from there. Once you fail again, you switch to 5×3 and keep going. Once you fail again, you go through the same cycle, but with one more set – so 4×8, 6×5, and 6×3. Then, add another set if you cycle through again. The problem: the workouts pretty quickly got much too long. Why? Because I do arm exercises, not just big compound lifts. That means that the “steps” in linear progression are actually very big. While I actually made some good progress under this routine, it just got terrible to keep up with.

So, I switched to RippedBody.com’s Intermediate Bodybuilding Routine. This wasn’t too bad, except that I found that I just hated leg days. A lot of this is because a lot of leg exercises require machines to do comfortably. Yes, I can lay on the floor, stick a dumbbell between my feet, and do leg curls. But it’s awful. Same with leg extensions. Since I don’t have a machine, and they would be kind of stupid for me to buy right now, these were awkward and I hated them.

So, I switched to Lvysaur’s Intermediate Aesthetic routine – it avoids the more awkward leg exercises, and doesn’t have a leg day at all. Instead, deadlifts, squats, and calf raises are integrated in with other days. The results on Lvysaur have been weird, if I’m going to be honest. I switched to it during a bulking phase. But I gained basically no weight at all in the first 7 weeks (though this may have just been a failed VERY lean buld). Then, I switched to cutting for about 6 weeks – lost 4 lb of fat, but also 3 lb of lean. Not a great ratio, but okay. Since then, I’ve been doing a very slow transition back to a bulk – which means I’ve still been losing weight – about 0.5 lb of lean, but no fat. Not great there, either.

Focusing just on the “good” bulking phases, I gained more lean mass each week under Lvysaur’s first bulk (the one that wasn’t a transition period) than I did under either of the others.

So, I think I’m going to stick with Lvysaur for now. The most important thing is finding a routine that you can stick to. For me, that means figuring out what to do when I miss days, since working out is A priority – not my #1 priority. (Done!) There should also be a reasonable plan for failure (Lvysaur is very good with that) and progression (also pretty good), and the routines shouldn’t be outrageously long (yep).

I’ve also been experimenting more this year with putting my own twists on routines. For example – even though Lvysaur’s leg stuff isn’t as bad as some others’ I found myself hating it again. So, I switched up those particular exercises to something reminiscent of 5/3/1, which isn’t as awful. I also added in more arm work, since I know that’s a lagging body part for me. Also, I hate doing “as many reps as possible” sets – and am awful at feeling out what weight will hit a certain target on any particular day, so I changed how Lvysaur’s accessories work.  Might be a good idea to add some wrist curls as well – so I might modify that, next time around.

My plan for next year:

Diet- I just switched to a higher calorie bulk – I figure I can always scale back, if needed. But, I’ve been wasting time on too much transitioning. Anyway, I’m going to continue doing this until late April. Then, I’ll switch to cut – and I’ll maintain the cut until after our beach trips OR until I get down to 10% bodyfat, according to my body fat scale (I’m predicting the beach trips will come first…). Though I have debated whether I should just devote an entire year to bulking at some point….

Routine – I’m a bit unpredictable on this. I tend to do things until I hate them, and then switch to something else. So, I’m still thinking about that. Right now, I don’t have a good reason to ditch Lvysaur, as it seems to be doing alright. I’ll probably just make some more tweaks (adding wrist curls, maybe) and proceed.

Medicare For All Update – Getting the Math Straight

~600 words, ~3 min reading time

Okay, so I’ve been looking at the Mercatus numbers.

First, Think Progress IS wrong in their representation. (Think Progress makes the very simple error of acting like an ADDITION to cost is the WHOLE cost.)

HOWEVER,  my initial impression was also wrong. My error was a bit more complicated – I assumed constancy in some things that weren’t constant in the Mercatus estimates, and ended up misrepresenting the results, TOO.

So, let’s try to get it right, and we’ll just focus on one year.

Before we hop in, we need to figure out what we’re talking about. We’re going to look at National Health Expenditures (page 5 is my reference here). What this is: Personal Health Care Expenses + Government Administrative Cost + Net Cost of Insurance (Basically, private administrative costs, I would guess) + Government Public Health Activities

Mercatus starts by looking at personal health care expenses in 2022. They suggest these are projected, under our current system, as being $3.859 trillion. (Note: this includes both public and private systems.) With Medicare 4 All, there would be a big jump in healthcare utilization – amounting to $435 billion. This comes from the currently uninsured being covered and from Medicare covering things that some private insurance doesn’t, and from people using more medical care because they are no longer responsible for copays or coinsurance (so, on the margin, they go to the doctor more often – though I suspect this effect is small). BUT, providers would receive less because of M4A’s pay structure. That would cut $384 billion from provider payments, and $61 billion from prescription drug costs. Net effect: personal health care spending FALLS by $10 billion in 2021.

The other change is that total administrative cost is expected to fall by about $83 billion. Basically, we’re eliminating private health insurance costs,  but Medicare’s administration would have to eat that up – but with some economies of scale, there would be a net savings on the administrative side.

So, total effect: $93 billion in National Health Expenditure savings. The other years in the estimate project savings of up to $300 billion in NHE by 2031.

Now, Mercatus’s point is that, EVEN WITH this savings, the government would be spending an additional $2.535 trillion that year – since it is absorbing the private insurance industry’s costs. They want to know where the money is coming from, since doubling income taxes on both individuals and corporations wouldn’t be enough to bring in that money.

On the one hand, progressives can reasonably point out that we’re already spending this money, it’s just a matter of redirecting it. And there’s a point in that. This $2.535 trillion is not new to the ECONOMY, it’s just new to the GOVERNMENT BUDGET. Okay.

But, would progressives then suggest that we should just have the government absorb the health insurance premiums currently paid by employees, employers, and individuals? I suspect not. That would mean that each person’s premium would vary not based on income, but on their current employer. This would be an administrative nightmare, I suspect. So, while the money is there, there is still the practical question of how best to collect it in a way that isn’t politically disastrous.

Another big point: Blahous is very clear that he’s being generous in his estimates of savings because he wants to estimate the MINIMUM amount of additional tax revenue that would be required.

Letter to Mises U Students (2017)

To Mises U students – especially those planning to enter economics as a vocation – an autobiographical note:

TL;DR – You’re amazing. Act like it.

After this week, you may feel inspired and overwhelmed. This is normal. It happens to me, too. Still. Every year. The level of interest, talent, and devotion to the study of good economics that I see among the students and my colleagues on the faculty is inspiring. And overwhelming. I know there are many of you – and I’m speaking of the students and young faculty here, not just David Gordon – who have out-read me. Easily. Many – possibly most – are cleverer and more insightful than I. Many of you will out-write me – if you haven’t already.

I write these not as mere empty words of encouragement – I don’t believe in such things. I write them because they are true – and that is something that I find encouraging, and believe you should, too.

I also write these things with very little regret, regardless what the tone may sound like. The reality is that I love my life and the balance that I have achieved between the various aspects of it.

So, here is my advice to you based on my own – admittedly limited, but rapidly becoming less-so – experience:

(1) I was asked today what the threshold of significance is to write a paper and send it to a journal. My answer: Do you think it is worth your time to write it down? If so, then share it. The reality is that, early in your career, you haven’t the slightest clue how significant your ideas are. You don’t have the experience to make that call. That’s what editors and referees are for. So, simply tell yourself that the odds of rejection are fairly high (which is true even for excellent papers, by the way), do your best, and send the thing out. Yes, rejections hurt. Especially the first few. But, you will learn more from being shot down in a rejection than you will learn from any acceptance. Maybe what you learn is that that editor is a jerk, but far more often, you will receive feedback that will help you refine your ideas or the presentation of your ideas.

(2) At first, follow Carmen’s advice I mentioned in another post – that is, add to what the Masters are doing. Expand, explain, defend, and apply (in no particular order). I especially advise doing this with people who are currently alive. One paper I’m still working on connects Mark Thornton’s Skyscraper research with some basic, fairly mainstream, urban economics and Rothbard’s theory of wages. I presented a draft of this paper at the Austrian Economic Research Conference. What happened? Mark Thornton asked me to coauthor a response to a critic of the theory. It should be obvious but, DON’T SAY NO TO THAT. Coauthoring with an established economist is amazing. It’s far less work than working alone. You get the benefit of their name attached to what you’re doing. You get to observe their research process. And you get to build a relationship with them that can lead to further projects.

(3) Get started early. You’re lucky. Austrian economics is still a small field. As a result, we, frankly, can’t afford to be as credentialist as most other fields. You don’t have a PhD. So what? Look at the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. It’s pretty common for there to be articles in there that are not written by PhDs – they might be grad students, or even undergrads. But, they all go through the same double-blind review process. Yes, if you have a PhD, your odds of acceptance are higher – but that’s because people with PhDs probably have more experience with academic writing and publishing than you do. So, get that experience. Read academic articles – I mean QJAE, not Mises Wire, for this purpose – and try to write them, too. You’ll learn.

(4) Go ahead and write popular pieces – like for Mises Wire and others. This is good practice for writing clearly – something that is far too often missing in academic writing. Confession: when I was a Fellow at the Mises Institute in 2004, I spent a great deal of time commenting on the Mises Blog. This caught the attention of Lew Rockwell, who asked to see me in his office. Yes, I thought I was in trouble for not taking the Fellowship seriously, and spending too much time arguing with people in comment threads instead of doing real economic research. Instead, he said he was going to set me up with a password so that I could post on the Mises Blog on a regular basis. This writing was important for my development, as I had to think far more about being sure that I was clear. Now, it’s true, I haven’t written a popular piece – self-published or published by anyone else – in a LONG time. But, that’s not my focus right now, and it doesn’t take away from the fact that you may learn a lot from doing it.

(5) Keep your life in balance. What that means is purely up to you. But don’t wear yourself out, beat yourself up, or put yourself down just because you don’t write 80 pages a day like Murray Rothbard did. You aren’t Murray Rothbard. Now, that doesn’t mean you aren’t as brilliant as he. But, it does mean that you very well may have different preferences. If you do, don’t pretend otherwise. Austrian economics may be a small field – but there are far more of us than there were just 20 years ago (before I even knew of Austrian economics). We each have a part to play in the division of intellectual labor. Take a break when you need to, and let others take on their roles.

It has been 14 years since I was in your shoes. From this side, it’s a very short time. Make the most of your time – whatever that happens to mean to you. I can only hope that, in 14 years, when you have filled my shoes again (and likely have outgrown them!), you will also find yourself inspired and overwhelmed – but, most of all, encouraged by the days ahead and the bright minds that will lead us there.