Thus far, these Roundup posts have mostly looked back at what I’ve written in the newsletter over the past couple of years. Even over that short period, I can see changes in how I’ve been writing about certain subjects and, in some cases, changes in the evidence. This is especially true for COVID, of course, but in many areas, science evolves over time.
As I reflected on this, I got curious about what I might find if I looked even further back. I started seriously writing for a popular audience right around the time Expecting Better came out, in 2013. How would I react to those pieces now? So … today this post takes a weird trip down memory lane to when I used microeconomics to give dating advice in the Wall Street Journal, my feelings on Vibrams, and a few other stops. Join me!
Oh, and I did want to remind you: if you’re looking for content from this newsletter, you can always search the archives.
My dating advice, circa 2013
Nearly a decade ago, I briefly wrote an advice column in the Wall Street Journal called “Ask Emily.” Unlike most of my more recent work, it didn’t focus so much on data but on using the principles and ideas of economics to provide life advice.
For reasons I’m not totally clear on, the column had a heavy dating focus. Perhaps my favorite was this column, in which some poor soul was upset to find his ex already sleeping with someone else. Should he try to get her back? I told him no, and explained it through an “s-S” model, which is a concept from microeconomics. It’s a bit of a stretch, but the basic idea was that relationships have their ups and downs, and if you got to the point where you were below the breakup threshold, you probably shouldn’t get back together even if you claw back over the positive line.
I have at least one other column in which I discourage someone from getting back together with their girlfriend, in this case due to the letter writer having changed the “type” they are. There is something about sunk costs in there too.
Frankly, re-reading these, I’m not sure I give the greatest dating advice, then or now.
Managing your household
Around that same time, I also wrote a series of columns for Slate, mostly about using economics principles to manage your household. I have to say, when I re-read these, I’m so struck by how much they’re influenced by my mother, who was the source for nearly all of these insights.
One column’s lesson was about comparative advantage — a lengthy treatise on how it might be good for your spouse to do the dishes even if you’re better at it, strictly speaking. At the end of the column, I talk about “learning by doing” and the idea that specialization in household tasks is valuable in part because people then learn to do them better. My only caveat to this, in re-reading, is that specialization can get too extreme. When my spouse is away now, the dishwasher is a disaster, and I do not know how to get the TV to work.
I also wrote about the marginal value of time with kids, in a column that provided a small preview into what it would be like to write controversial things publicly. I talk about how even though I love my kids more than my job, I still want to spend a larger number of hours at my job, because the marginal value of time with my kids declines more quickly. I continue to think this is a valuable decision-making principle, and I wrote about it more in Cribsheet. Despite the pushback I got at the time, I think there is value in being willing to say that we love our kids but do not want to spend every waking moment with them.
Interestingly, I’ve found that as my kids have gotten older, the marginal value of my time with them declines more slowly than it once did. So even though they’re in some ways more independent now, my inclination is to spend more time with them, not less. Maybe I’m just anticipating the not-too-distant future when they do not want to be with me at all.
Sports and muffins
Shortly after Expecting Better came out, I started writing regularly for FiveThirtyEight, about data in personal decisions. A lot of this was similar in topic to what I write here — breastfeeding, Tylenol in pregnancy, sunscreen — but because there was a bit more of a male/sports orientation, I ended up writing about some less typical topics as well.
For example, there was this piece on the optimal running speed, in which I conclude that running slowly is slightly better than walking, and doing it a few times a week gets you significant benefits. If I were writing it now, I’d focus much more on the fact that it’s very difficult to figure out questions about optimal exercise, given the association with other behaviors and characteristics.
I delved into the then-crucial question of five-toe running shoes and whether they are better for you. At that stage, the data was unclear. My sense is that this has been the topic of considerable further study since then, though without much consensus. Running barefoot or with minimal shoes definitely changes the way you run, but to what end is not entirely clear.
My FiveThirtyEight writing additionally features a takedown of the value of calorie counts on menus, which has important information on the number of calories in a typical muffin (520, more than most people suspect).
The very first column I can find of mine on Slate is about why Doctor Barbie costs more than Magician Barbie, at least at the time. This remains one of my favorite teaching examples. However, on a new Amazon search I realize Mattel has discontinued the magician line. If I ever go back to teaching introductory microeconomics, I’ll have to find another way to illustrate price discrimination.