Advocacy <-> Action

I teach economics at the University of Memphis at both the undergraduate and graduate level.  I’ve been teaching economics for around 13 years, going to back my days as a graduate student at Georgia State University.  In those years of teaching I’ve developed many pedagogical tools to help my students better understand economics, which believe me, can be quite a challenge for many undergraduates, if not graduate students.  One of the tools I’ve developed is emphasizing how cause-and-effect relationships can describe what motivates people to change their behavior.  For example, an increase in the price of some good should motivate consumers to buy less of that good.  In this example, the direction of causation is one way: the change in price causes people to change how much they purchase, not vice versa.  Of course, I am implicitly relying on the ceteris paribus assumption: that all other relevant factors, including income, tastes and preferences, the price of related goods, are held constant.  In other words, we consider only the relationship between the price of the good and the quantity of that good that consumers wish to purchase at that price. All other factors are held constant.

Of course, in reality it is most difficult to hold all other factors constant.  We economists have many tools at our disposal for dealing with these challenges, among them regression analysis, but we fully recognize that reality is far messier than our models allow.

What brings all this to mind is something my wife said the other night.  I don’t remember what we were talking about, probably something about my cycling advocacy efforts, but what she said really made me pause for a moment.  What she said was this: “You live the life you advocate.”I’d never thought about my cycling that way.  When I first decided to begin biking to work, I was already aware of the many reasons to do so: improved health, less money spent on gas, less traffic congestion, reduced demand for parking spaces, and so on.  But I never considered then that I might take my efforts and project them onto a larger screen.  I never imagined that I might take my cycling a step further and attempt to influence others to get out of their cars and onto a bike.

But that’s just what I’ve been doing for the last nine months or so.  Last summer I became the faculty advisor for the University of Memphis Cycling Club, a registered student organization at my school.  In that time we’ve organized several group bike rides, even a bike-to-campus day back in October.  I can’t claim that these efforts have resulted in a marked change in how many students, faculty, and staff bike to school or elsewhere around town, but I don’t expect that my advocacy will pay off in a matter of days.

Admittedly, the results of my advocacy efforts have been meager thus far.  The cycling club hosted a group bike ride today, from campus to the Greenline, then out to Shelby Farms and back.  Only one other person showed up to ride besides me.  Don’t get me wrong, biking out to Shelby Farms with a faculty friend was really great; we rode for around an hour and twenty minutes at a leisurely pace, meaning that we had plenty of time for conversation and camaraderie. Still, it would be nice if more people showed up.

Regardless, I’ll keep doing what I do: biking around Memphis and telling people about it.  In fact, I attended a meeting tonight about the plans for new bikes lanes on Madison, Volluntine, and McLean and got to meet several other cycling activists … and many small business owners who are concerned about bike lanes going in near their businesses.  I tend to think that these concerns are much ado about nothing, but I understand why a small business owner would be concerned.  At one point I stood up and said a few words about my experiences as a commuter cyclist in Memphis.  My comments were generally well-received, at least in the pro-cycling contingent present, and apparently they made their way onto the evening news.  Good to know that my words are being heard.

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