The Hockey Stick of Human Prosperity

by on June 26, 2014 at 7:20 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

We are pleased to announce a brand new course at MRUniversity, Everyday Economics. The new course will cover some of the big ideas in economics but applied to everyday questions. The first section, premiering now and rolling out over the next several weeks, features Don Boudreaux on trade. Tyler will appear in a future section on food. You can expect more from me as well. Indeed, you may spot both Tyler and I in some cameos (ala Stan Lee) in some of Don’s videos!

Here’s the first video on trade and the hockey stick of human prosperity.

1 ummm June 26, 2014 at 7:33 am
2 Eric June 26, 2014 at 7:59 am

I can’t think of a more Canadian phrase than “hockey stick of prosperity”. Nicely done.

3 dan1111 June 26, 2014 at 9:16 am

What about “Soary, but those hosers ate all the poutine, eh?”

4 Eric June 26, 2014 at 10:41 am

Fair enough, but Alex would have to work harder to get that into an economics lecture.

5 Urso June 26, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Hardly – illustrates the scarcity principle, relative value principle (what red-blodded American would eat poutine, yet the frostbacks pay good money for it!) and the venerable anti-hoser principle from Wealth of Nations, Book I Chapter VII I believe.

6 martin June 26, 2014 at 8:32 am

A little too Panglossian or perhaps self-congratulatory for me.

7 Dkr June 26, 2014 at 9:11 am

“spot Tyler and me” not “spot Tyler and I”

8 kb June 26, 2014 at 9:49 am

we expect this from engineers not social scientists

9 Daniel Klein June 26, 2014 at 9:15 am

Nice, Congrats to all.

10 londenio June 26, 2014 at 9:42 am

It is clearly that MR University is evolving in style, topics, interaction, etc. Would Alex or Tyler write a short post summarising what they’ve learned? Some questions would be:
1. What do you know now about online courses that you did not know when you started?
2. What surprised you about the way participants learn/behave?
3. Are you more or less confident on the success of the model than you were when you started?
4. Is it more work than you thought, or less?
5. What trends do you perceive in terms of the evolution of the format?

11 Marie June 26, 2014 at 9:47 am

I would not use this course with my kid entering high school.

The life expectancy sound bite alone is enough to entirely turn me off. The point could be made without using skewed data. Infant mortality should be brought up to mitigate the effect of the lower life expectancy number, not enhance it. I would not trust the rest of the course after this.

12 Greg Krehel June 26, 2014 at 10:34 am

Very nice piece!! Depressing to read grumpy comments of others.

13 Keith June 26, 2014 at 11:08 am

Very well done!
After trying to buy a house in the San Francisco bay area for the last few weeks, this puts my plight in perspective. My life isn’t so bad.

14 T. Shaw June 26, 2014 at 11:12 am

Most days, I am the puck.

15 Brett June 26, 2014 at 11:26 am

The “hockey stick of prosperity” always seemed rather glib to me, unjustly smoothing over the massive changes and technological advancement that led up to the beginnings of industrialization in the late 18th century. We know that a lot of labor-saving technology and improvements started spreading in the Middle Ages, for example, and that there’s talk about an “industrious revolution” that preceded industrialization.

16 derek June 26, 2014 at 11:50 am

Sure. Faraday figured out all the stuff that I use in application from day to day. Early commercial application came about late 19th century, more ubiquitous up to pre WW2, then afterwards became common use and widely distributed.

The technological advances that made the really big difference is in manufacturing and distribution. Things like assembly line up to the world wide supply chains that are common now make the actual technology they distribute and sell seem common.

17 Graham Peterson June 26, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Fantastic series, guys. Keep it up!

18 brian keegan June 26, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Really well done, folks. As both a professor and a textbook editor, I appreciate your sound choices about scope and length. In particular, I know from my students that right-sizing the chunks matters. A LOT. Go over 5 to 8 minutes and people stop clicking through. Khan academy also does a great job of right-sizing for optimal consumption.

It no longer surprises me, but it still amazes me how many smart people raise objections about details that are mostly pertinent when you drill down to a level of more detail.

Folks, you can’t make a 5-minute introductory video that appeals to a a neophyte audience if you stop to spend 2 or 3 minutes detailing the relationship between infant mortality and life expectancy. Etc. Is it an important detail? Of course. Do you need to skip over details (for the time being) to deliver the broad strokes in a timely fashion? 1000 times yes.

I recommend that all instructors ask their students about how they use the web to search for and choose instructional videos on youtube and other sites. In particular, ask them to tell you the video length at which they decide to keep looking instead of clicking through. I can guarantee that there’s a precipitous shift between 5 and 10 minutes, and a cliff by 10. Instead of ignoring this as laziness, I invite folks to consider whether it indicates something about how people optimize learning for themselves now that tools and options are available.

19 Marie June 26, 2014 at 4:41 pm

” As both a professor and a textbook editor,. . . Folks, you can’t make a 5-minute introductory video that appeals to a a neophyte audience if you stop to spend 2 or 3 minutes detailing the relationship between infant mortality and life expectancy. Etc. Is it an important detail? Of course. Do you need to skip over details (for the time being) to deliver the broad strokes in a timely fashion? 1000 times yes.”

That’s upsetting.

I don’t want to sound mean, but this is not oversimplication, it is cherry picking to make a thesis sound like a fact. As another example, we note scary pre-modern stats based on world numbers, but the cheery post-modern stats all apply only to the U.S. or developed world. We make statements about ancient peoples’ fighting disease that seems like common sense, but which are not supported — while there were fewer tools for fighting disease, there was likely much less disease to “fend off” 3000 years ago.

I did believe that the coffee came from Guatemala. And the video had a fun patter and lots of energy. But it distresses me that this is an ad for an academic product.

20 Turkey Vulture June 26, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Strongly agree on the life expectancy point. There is already a broad belief even among highly educated people that dying at 30 or 35 was pretty standard in the old days. I have seen statements to that effect in academic work being presented at a law and economics seminar. This is a complete misunderstanding of what life was like, and it should be a central aim of anyone who wants to educate others to avoid propagating a currently widely-believed falsehood.

21 GiT June 26, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Well, it’s not like you should expect much from most people at a law and economics seminar in the first place.

22 Turkey Vulture June 26, 2014 at 6:36 pm

Well I meant presented by an academic, with a healthy smattering of econ Ph.Ds in attendance. Perhaps your poimt still stands, but regardless, it illustrates the prevalence of this misunderstanding among the educated.

23 Marie June 26, 2014 at 6:49 pm

I agree on the prevalence and the circles.
In fact, I ran with the same assumption, probably for most of my life, despite being a history teacher. That’s probably why I get so agitated, you always kick back hardest against the error you’ve fallen for yourself.

24 Turkey Vulture June 26, 2014 at 7:31 pm

Yeah I was a history major but didn’t really give the claim much besides surface thought until after school. I am actually reading a history of Europe between the Thirty Years War and Waterloo that makes a throwaway statement that seemingly embraces the false understanding as well. So I think it is an issue that deserves its own teaching segment to initially instill the correct unserstanding and dispel the falsehood in those of us who imagine people in 1000 AD thinking of 35 as a ripe old age.

25 observor June 26, 2014 at 8:22 pm

50% of the population’s life expectancy goes from 35 to 70 in 200 years and that’s using statistics erroneously?

26 observor June 26, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Roy Porter’s ‘The Greatest Benefit to Mankind’, of whom tragically passed away, like Julian Simon at fifty, is a good read.

27 Turkey Vulture June 26, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Yes, when the impression given is that there is something approximating a normal distribution around the mean, when that is not the case, I’d say that’s using statistics erroneously.

28 observor June 26, 2014 at 9:07 pm

turkey: good solid reply for an academic but you’re still just a whiner.

29 rayward June 26, 2014 at 2:23 pm

“Here’s the first video on trade . . . .” On trade? Really. While I might not expect a lecture on comparative advantage, I did expect something, something, about trade. Robert Wright, in his book, The Evolution of God, makes the point that the spread of Christianity promoted trade (because the common religion promoted trust) and, hence, economic prosperity. A debatable point, but a point to consider. The hockey puck? At any point on the time line it appears to the person on the time line that she is standing on the edge of the hockey puck. I enjoyed the short video, but I thought it more appropriate for a Tony Robbins “life changing weekend” than a classroom.

30 Chris S June 26, 2014 at 2:31 pm

I am not sure I understand that comment… but it seems that through most of history, people pretty much expected the next 100 years to be like the previous 100, and they were right. Admittedly, I wasn’t there…

31 JWatts June 26, 2014 at 2:38 pm

I thought the video was well done. And the price was right. 😉

32 Spencer June 26, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Exactly what type of student do you think this targets and how will it work as a lead into further study of economics?

33 Todd Kreider June 26, 2014 at 4:39 pm

I liked it, and it will be fun to see the episode where Tyler is standing next to the hockey stick and explain why it will flatten for 40 years. I really want to see a graphic of the beveled hockey stick!

34 Dismalist June 26, 2014 at 4:50 pm

I liked it very much: The point that we’re well off compared to the past cannot be made often enough or forcefully enough.

35 observor June 26, 2014 at 8:35 pm


36 Robert June 26, 2014 at 9:26 pm

of course . . . way better . . .but not for the long run

one species cannot dominate a planet at the expense of every living thing . . .what?

we can do that . . .but probably not the right thing or the smart thing

37 Robert June 26, 2014 at 9:17 pm

everyone should keep in mind that the “boner inducing” industrial revolution is only good for humans . . .

other species . .not so much

38 observor June 26, 2014 at 9:25 pm

zero-sum game . . . and also, be realistic, if we’re not here? who gives n s? dinosaurs, protozoa around deep sea, steam vent pipes? sure . . .

39 Robert June 26, 2014 at 9:51 pm

like that shortsightedness ..

we are the beings who can choose to limit our impact on other species . .. can choose to not expand our boundaries as we are blessed with the intelligence to understand that it is in our long term interests .. .so that we may survive

but no matter . . .the earth will push on with or without us

40 observor June 26, 2014 at 10:02 pm

what are your recommendations? and is there a paradise lost that we can go back to?

41 Robert June 26, 2014 at 10:27 pm

are you kidding me?

there is no paradise lost . . .but who are we do trample every living species on the planet? Can we cannot contain ourselves . .. . .are we that unintelligent and indifferent?

42 observor June 26, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Robert, 99% of the species who have ever lived are extinct . . . I think, I’m not presuming, that you may live in a zero–sum-game mindset. I’m not capable of broadening your horizons in this conversation but tell me where paradise was?

43 John B. Chilton June 27, 2014 at 5:10 pm

I like Don’s delivery, but a reaction I got from a student was this would be better if they hired an actor to read the script, and actors are cheap. I prefer Don. But what do others think?

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