The challenge of econometrics


Econometrics is the single most useful undergraduate class for careers that an economics student can take — but, at the same time, a difficult teaching and learning challenge. It’s a class that requires mathematical and economic reasoning, neither sufficient without the other.

Although I have not been teaching econometrics in the regular session, from time to time I will be offering a time-compressed version of this class. It meets two hours and 40 minutes a day, four days a week. There are two “live” sessions each class day and then the remaining 40 minutes is take up with pre-recorded material. Although the content is difficult, in my years teaching the course I have come up with many intuitive examples and exercises that boost learning.

Some students who have difficulty with a traditional semester format for econometrics thrive in the four-week setting. But it is a lot of work in a short period of time! This is not a cut-down or “baby” version of econometrics, as it covers all of the material in my semester-length version of this class.

I’m proud of the accomplishments of those who have taken this class. They have gone on to spheres as diverse as senior executive wealth management and Peace Corps service. If you take this class and do the work, you have every probability of following in their footsteps. There’s just one more thing to know as you make decisions about taking this class: I have a sensible but extreme technology policy.* Reasonable students never have a problem with it.

I look forward to seeing a number of you in econometrics next time around!

*My Econ 385 classroom is a no-technology pro-technology zone. I am pro-technology (first taught online 2001, have had my own money-making websites for years, published multiple articles on the use of technology). But the most important part of econometric technology is knowing what to tell the computer to do, not getting the computer to do it.

Therefore in the in-person version of this class all devices, including phones and laptops, will  be banned. I will use the offline environment to create a high-energy experience. In the absence of this policy, it would be possible for someone to pick up part of the content while paying half-attention to the class, free-riding on other class members who would be counted on to keep the energy level high. I are specifically ruling out this course of action. You have an affirmative duty in this class to contribute or listen actively when we are having discussions and hands-on activities. Therefore, the only acceptable place for your phones and smart devices during class time are in your personal belongings (such as in a backpack) or in the provided boxes. On the table in front of you is not acceptable. Each day there are two 10-minute breaks for you to catch up on anything necessary. If you find that to be insufficient time, please do not enroll in this class.

Thanks for the shout-out!

In this issue of Reason, there’s a nice profile of Gordon Tullock: “The Joyful Contrarianism of Gordon Tullock.” Read the whole thing, as they say. The author, Michael Munger, included a nice shout-out about a piece of research I did together with J. Brian O’Roark of Robert Morris University:

. . . and it’s just as he described — the safety improvements in NASCAR increased the number of crashes and pileups. There’s a lot more when you look at the original article, but that’s basically it.

Academics can rarely say that a single paper changed their lives, but this one changed mine, introducing me to the world of sports economics. A lot could be said, but I’ll leave it at this: The people who do sports economics, even and especially the top ones in the field, are just downright nice. Not every subfield of economics, ahem, has that reputation.

A new assignment

Starting July 1, 2019, I became head of JMU’s Department of Economics. Among other things, that means I handle enrollments, major applications, and the like. At first I’m keeping all of the existing systems in place, but in time I hope to streamline and automate some of that. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in getting into a class you’re not currently registered for (the most common request), here’s all the information. My main objective is to get everyone the classes needed to progress and graduate, so let’s get this done!

Return to macro

In spring 2019 I taught the macro principles class for the first time in a few years. It was an interesting experience because I’ve been a regular participant in our department’s weekly macro seminar and I had a bunch of new material and in-class tricks to try out. One thing I noticed: Macroeconomics is harder than my students would think from spending time on social media. There, people get lots of agreement when they say the case is “overwhelming” for one macro policy and there’s “no evidence” for another. Trust me, on all of the major controversies, from the minimum wage to monetary policy, there are no overwhelming cases or totally unsupported positions. With the framework of introductory macroeconomics, though, it’s possible to make sense of the competing arguments and come to a reasoned judgment. Students who worked hard in that class came away with a good skill set for making sense out of the clutter.

The power of econometrics

Professor-screen
In econometrics class at 8 a.m.

When I teach econometrics it’s fun (really!), but there’s a lot of power in econometrics for good or ill. Econometrics can be used honestly to study and understand the material world (my favorite use) or dishonestly to advance the agendas of corrupt politicians, executives and others. At one point the practice of econometrics got so bad that a leading practitioner wrote an article, “Let’s Take the Con Out of Econometrics.” That’s the agenda when I teach this class — no con job, just deliberately seeking the best that econometrics has to offer.

Construction time!

Yes, construction is going on right outside our building. Here’s a webcam of the construction site:

And here is what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done:

A point about micro

If you haven’t studied microeconomics and you’re a strong conservative, studying microeconomics will probably make you a more moderate conservative. If you haven’t studied microeconomics and you’re a strong progressive, studying microeconomics will probably make you a more moderate progressive.

At least, that’s the experience of past micro students. This semester, let me know how it seems to you. (And if you’re adventurous, take the challenge posed by this economist.)

Inspired by Socrates: ECON 345

When I teach Industrial Organization (ECON 345), I use the Socratic method. Named after the Greek philosopher Socrates, this method involves getting to the bottom of a logical puzzle as the instructor asks questions and reacts to student answers. Some students find the Socratic method intimidating, but most of my past ECON 345 students have found it liberating. I’m proud of ECON 345 alumni, some of whom have gone to to achieve distinction in the fields of law, public policy and consulting.

Experimental summer class

Here’s some nice coverage from the College of Business on the experimental ECON 222 class, taught in the summer:

Summer Course Focused on Building Lifetime Wealth

image: /_images/cob/economics/econ-summer-session-2017-1000x600.jpg

SUMMARY: One CoB summer session is focused on building lifetime wealth, using principles of personal financial literacy developed by WISE, as well as advice from radio show host Dave Ramsey. In the photo above, car buyer Dan Peters gets the keys from sales associate Kristine Parisi after a simulated auto sales negotiation in the course.


Contributed by the Department of Economics

A select group of students at JMU’s College of Business (CoB) is learning how to build lifetime wealth – and help others do the same thing – in a grant-supported experimental class.

The course design and material development were supported by grant funds from the George and Shelley Payne Endowment for Faculty Support in the College of Business. George Payne, of Keswick, Va., is a 1979 CoB graduate.

“This class goes deeper than a traditional personal finance class,” says the course’s instructor, economics professor William C. Wood. “It shows students the principles of wealth building but also qualifies them to tutor high school students in personal finance through a nationally standardized test.”

As part of the class, students are taking the national WISE test in personal financial literacy – a standardized test developed by the New York-based nonprofit Working in Support of Education.

“Students took a standardized pre-test on day one, and they’ll take the full test as a post-test on final exam day,” Wood says. “We can compare scores and see how much they’ve learned.”

Students who pass the test as WISE-certified will be fully qualified to serve as volunteer tutors in their home school districts in Virginia or in the area surrounding the university. The WISE test also has been used by JMU to qualify teachers of Virginia’s required high school class in personal finance and economics.

In addition to standard personal finance materials, students are studying the online Gen i Revolution game, for which Wood served as economic content developer. Students play the personal finance game and then submit reviews to be used in a future redesign of the game.

Students also will be reading “Dave Ramsey’s Complete Guide to Money,” which offers advice on budgeting, saving money, getting out of debt and investing. Noting that Ramsey often tells callers to his radio show that “debt is dumb,” Wood says the class will explore whether that statement is always true—or if there are circumstances in which it may be wise to take on debt to finance appreciating or essential purchases such as homes, education or cars.

“Dave’s down-home advice is often at odds with traditional personal finance,” Wood says. “In this class we’re studying why down-home advice may actually beat more sophisticated financial plans.”

The Capstone

From time to time I teach ECON 488, Senior Capstone Seminar in Economics. This is the class that’s designed to bring together our economics majors’ knowledge in one last class before they graduate. When I was first assigned to teach the class, I knew that it was important to have our students write — but what kind of writing assignment? The traditional seminar paper is long and high-stakes. The one-minute paper is too small. But the upper blogosphere — sites such as Marginal Revolution and Econbrowser — would be perfect! So I designed the writing assignments to take on the form of posts to the upper blogosphere in economics. Students’ posts, under assumed names, appear at our class site, econ488.com. I invite you to have a look.