A Series of Unfortunate Events – Paid in Coupons

The Baudelaire orphans have been sent to the Lucky Smells Lumbermill and are being forced to work on the production floor. After a grueling morning of “log day,” the workers are given an entire five minutes for lunch, but the Baudelaire’s come to find that lunch consists of gum. Frustrated, they wonder if they can use their wages to buy something else, but it turns out that the Lucky Smells Lumbermill pays their workers in coupons rather than actual currency. The coupons don’t have any value since the workers don’t have any money to go out and buy things anyway. The workers also don’t have power to leave or demand better conditions because Lucky Smells is the only place to work in town.

When a single firm controls the labor market in a region, they are said to have monopsony power in the market. Monopsonies can pay workers below competitive wages because workers are unable to find alternative employment opportunities. In this case, the Lucky Smells Lumbermill pays them almost nothing since the coupons can’t really be redeemed anywhere.

A Series of Unfortunate Events – Aunt Josephine’s Risk Tolerance

The Baudelaire orphans have been sent away to live with their Aunt Josephine. They’ve been told how formidable and fierce she is, but it turns out that Aunt Josephine is incredibly risk averse. She has disconnect the doorbell and the telephone because someone may be electrocuted if they have a faulty pacemaker, even if no one in the house has a faulty pacemakers. Risk averse individuals are willing to give up some benefits (in this case, doorbells and phone calls) in exchange for avoiding possible negative consequences (electrocution).

Family Guy — Volcano Insurance

A traveling salesman sells Peter an insurance policy to protect his home against a volcano eruption. He convinces Peter “a volcano is coming this way” despite the fact that Peter lives in Rhode Island, far away from any active volcanoes. He convinces Peter to purchase the policy by using the gambler’s fallacy and convincing Peter that Rhode is “due for one.”

If this were actually true, the premiums associated with this policy would be extremely high and likely be the same as the cost that an actual volcano would inflict on the town. Insurance markets function on the interaction between uncertainty, risk aversion in consumers, and risk neutrality for firms. If some horrible event were guaranteed to occur imminently, there would be little incentive to sell insurance.

Thanks to Alex Marsella for the clip submission and most of the summary!

Frozen: Let It Go

Frozen is the story of two princesses, Anna and Elsa. Elsa has magical powers that she is forced to hide her entire life until her coronation ceremony. Elsa flees to the cold, remote mountains and sings “Let it Go” after finally accepting her magical powers and letting go of the pressure to hold back her true self. When she sings “the past is in the past”, it’s a reminder of the role of sunk costs in the decision-making process. Sunk costs should be ignored because that time/energy/money cannot be recovered in the present.

Thanks to Matt Rousu for the clip.

History of the World — Unemployment Insurance

For someone to be considered unemployed, they must actively search for employment and not be currently employed. In this scene from Mel Brooks’ History of the World, the unemployment officer asks two key questions of citizens looking for their unemployment payment:

  1. Have you worked (killed) last week?
  2. Did you try to work (kill) last week?

She also warns that their unemployment is about to run out and that they need to make sure that they find work, which is similar to how many unemployment systems are setup.

Thanks to Alex Marsella for the clip submission!

The Office — Automated Assitant

A new phone system can replace many of Pam’s tasks. She normally spends her day connecting incoming calls to different sales people and departments, but this new phone system will make it so that anyone calling Dunder Mifflin can dial directly to the department they want. She thinks she still has value at putting our candy, but then realizes a vending machine can do that as well.

Jim swoops in to save Pam and play the role of Michael Scott, the branch manager. Jim is in love with Pam and doesn’t want to see her fired, so he acts like Michael and tells the salesman that they aren’t interested. He’s almost busted, but luckily gets away with it.

Thanks to Richard McGrath for the clip submission!

Volkswagen — Buying a Used Car

Asymmetric information is a condition in which one party to a transaction has information that isn’t known to the other side of the party. This can disrupt the market for used goods because the buyer may not know the full extent of what they’re purchasing. In this Volkswagen ad, the father and son duo are unaware of the older lady’s past experiences with the cars. This is a great segue to Akerlof’s Market for Lemons, which is based on the the used car market.

The Simpsons — MoneyBART

The local little league team has a new coach, and she plans on using statistical analysis to improve their chances of winning. She tracks player tendencies and digs into the work of Bill James to bring a Moneyball approach to the Isotots. Bart laments that she has taken the fun out of the game, which begs the question of the team’s objective function. Are sports teams win-maximizers or should some teams focus on having fun?

At the end of the segment, Bart has a choice to make. Should he take the statistical approach to win the game or should he swing and try to preserve his hot streak. The hot hand fallacy is the belief that previous observations are correlated with upcoming observations. This fallacy leads us to believe batters “get hot” even though the probability of the next hit is independent of the previous ones.

Brooklyn 99 — Moneyball

Captain Holt and Lieutenant Jeffords want to streamline the department and improve efficiency across the precinct. Jeffords is concerned that Capt. Holt is getting to greedy and can’t make many more improvements, but Capt. Holt believes he’s taking a Moneyball approach to the department. The film is his favorite and he finds the statistical analysis beautiful.

While he may be improving efficiency through his new statistical approach, the two should be concerned about diminishing returns. Productivity can increase with revised strategies, but additional productivity may require a significant increase in cost. In order to determine the optimal outcome, the two should focus on marginal analysis.

Adam Ruins Manufacturing

A lot of the recent discussion on the manufacturing industry has framed the loss of employment as a reduction in manufacturing capacity. The US manufactures more physical goods than ever, but it’s using labor as the primary input. In this segment of Adam Ruins Everything, we meet Hank who has recently been laid off from his job at the factory. In an earlier segment, Hank and Adam discuss major economic measures like GDP and Unemployment. In this segment, they discuss some of the misperceptions about manufacturing.

Adam Ruins Everything is a half-hour informational comedy where host, Adam Conover, debunks popular myths. Each episode is divided into 3 segments with some common themes. In the Spring of 2018, James Tierney and I sat down to go through all three seasons of Adam Ruins Everything to pick out examples in each episode that could be used in an economics course.

In the Summer of 2020, the paper was officially published in The Journal of Economics and Finance Education, which you can read online.

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