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Monday, June 30, 2008

Gas prices are getting boring

Is it just me or is anyone else getting bored with all the talk about gas prices, especially in the econ blogosphere? I mean, I'm not any happier than the next person about paying over $4.50 a gallon but I guess I just don't care anymore about why gas prices are so high (and seeing a bunch of different blog posts about whether it's due to speculation, all linking to the same debate going on between two other bloggers is just not interesting). I just want to know when other markets are going to catch up and provide good alternatives!

I hope to get back to posting more regularly soon...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Nice online resource for economics teachers

I just came across this online Handbook for Economics Lecturers from the Economics Network of the UK's Higher Education Academy. It's aimed at university instructors but could be useful for high school economics teachers as well (and although I haven't explored it too much yet, the Economics Network's homepage also looks like a gateway to a lot of other useful links).

Monday, June 23, 2008


I'm afraid that I won't be posting much this week because my grandmother passed away this weekend, and I'm home in the Bay Area, helping my mom and aunts take care of things. Grandma had been sick for quite some time so this was not unexpected but she will be dearly missed.

And because I still see incentives everywhere, I have to add that at least I can rest easy knowing that she died peacefully and of natural causes, not from the dreaded Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Something's gotta give

The education policy community is buzzing this week about a new report from the Fordham Foundation that high-achieving students have not done as well as low-achieving students under No Child Left Behind. What I don't understand is why anyone is at all surprised by this. As I pointed out last week, life (and economics) is all about choices and the classroom isn't any different. Eduwonk puts it well:
...choices do have to be made. It doesn't mean that we throw different groups of student under the bus, but any accountability system that holds people accountable for everything holds them accountable for nothing. So choices have to be made about emphasis. And considering the yawning achievement gaps, graduation rate gaps, and outcome gaps that separate poor and minority students from other students, that's where I'd argue the emphasis should be placed.
Of course, you can avoid such choices if you spend more resources (more teachers, more hours in the classroom, more days in the school year). Unfortunately, policymakers and the general public routinely assume that public schools (and I'd extend this up to higher ed) don't need additional resources, they just somehow should do more with what they have. Since no one is going to argue that schools should do less for low-achieving students, surely one response to the Fordham report could be to call for additional resources so high-achievers are not left out. I'm not holding my breath but it could be very interesting to see if the policy response is any different when it is the parents of high-achievers (who, let's face it, are more likely to be affluent, well-educated and white) who are making those calls.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Are the costs of learning new technology getting bigger?

I'm still thinking about Steve Greenlaw's post about why some faculty are more willing than others to re-think and re-design their courses. As Steve points out in his comment to my previous post, the costs of fundamentally rethinking a course are really large. I'm particularly aware of this because for the last couple months, I have spent an absurd amount of time prepping my fall courses, and I know I'll spend an even more absurd amount this summer. Having this amount of time is a luxury that most of my colleagues do not have and it's really only available to me because a) I have tenure and b) I have established myself in my field of research in such a way that my colleagues are unlikely to consider me a 'slacker' even if I don't publish anything for awhile (which, at the rate I'm going, is entirely possible!).* On the other hand, there are lots of things I could have chosen to do with this time and I chose to spend it on my classes.

But I digress... The point I wanted to make is that while re-thinking courses has always been a time-consuming undertaking, re-designing a course to incorporate new technology can be particularly time-consuming, and I wonder if the necessary time investment might be growing. It could just be me - I have spent much of my time exploring Web 2.0 tools (for example, setting up this blog!) and I've found this fascinating new world of blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, etc. to be both addictive and somewhat overwhelming. Every new blog I read leads me to others and every new tool I discover opens possibilities for my courses that I want to explore. I know that I'm probably biting off more than I should for my fall courses but I can see so much potential for using technology to make my 500-student class actually interactive that it's hard to hold back. I realize that other faculty, even those who are just as eager to improve their classes, may not dive in quite as deeply, nor would they need to.

But it also seems like every time I learn what one thing is, I see a reference to some new thing I haven't heard of before (Plurk? are you kidding? I just got onto Twitter!) and I sometimes feel completely overwhelmed by all the stuff I still don't know (is it just me or does Second Life intimidate the hell out of anyone else?). And that's just understanding what things are, let alone figuring out which tools might be most useful for improving my teaching. Yet, I know I'm way ahead of most of my faculty colleagues, some of whom can hardly find their way around Blackboard. So I wonder what will happen as the frontiers of technology pull farther ahead - will it become harder and harder for late adopters to catch up? Or might they actually have some sort of advantage because they'll be able to dive into Web 3.0 (or whatever it will be called) without having to unlearn the previous version? Or is adapting to/adopting new technology itself a skill, so even if you get a late start, you can learn how to adapt/adopt as you go?

* For those who are curious, I do research in education policy and am currently working in Sacramento on legislation that will hopefully lead to pretty major reform of California's school finance system. Since the legislative process is anything but smooth, I've had lots of time in-between meetings with legislators to work on other things, like my classes.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Price gouging or rational rationing?

The Undercover Economist highlights the importance of price as rationing mechanism, especially in times of shortage. I think this is a particularly interesting example because the seller specifically says that the reason he raised prices was to get people to stop panic-buying and it's pretty clear that the alternative was a physical shortage, leaving some buyers completely out in the cold. As I was reading this, it did occur to me that one upside of today's crazy gas prices is that, as an economics teacher, it allows me to talk about the gas shortages of the 1970's without sounding like I'm just old!

Monday, June 16, 2008

What does it take to get faculty to redesign their courses?

Any professors who are truly interested in thinking more deeply about their teaching really should check out Steve Greenlaw's blog, if you haven't already. I always find that his posts make me think hard about my own teaching. In a recent post, Steve ponders why some faculty are more willing than others to make big changes to their courses. He observes that most faculty seem to see previous choices as constraints; that is, once we have chosen to go down a particular path, it becomes difficult (or perceived as difficult) to switch to a different path. So, for example, once we have prepped a course, most of us keep teaching that course in the same way semester after semester. This leads to a certain resistance to major changes, like adopting new technologies. And yet, there are some faculty who embrace these changes - what makes them different?

The typical economist answer is that anytime someone chooses to do something, it must be that they believe the benefits outweigh the costs. Steve points out that the decision to redesign a course can be difficult because it takes a huge amount of time and effort (i.e., the costs are high) and old courses are working just fine (i.e, the benefits are low). I'd add that most universities give faculty depressingly little incentive to make that investment. Thus, the primary benefit is 'just' the intrinsic value I personally place on being as good a teacher as I can be, and as I've mentioned before, I tend to believe a person either has that desire or they don't.

On the other hand, I think that many professors DO make at least marginal changes to their courses over time - we all tinker between semesters, tweaking things we know did not work. I know that most of my colleagues in economics at least try to keep their examples updated, to tie material to relevant current events. Of course, that is not quite the same thing as thinking deeply about pedagogy and redesigning courses, but it seems like a good place to start with faculty who may otherwise be resistant to the idea of making larger changes to their courses. If they can be shown ways to incorporate new methods incrementally (for example, having students create current event examples for you via blogs or wikis), and can be convinced that technology can actually make their life easier in the long run, I would assume more faculty would be more willing to at least give Web 2.0 a try. That is, it seems to me that rather than asking why some faculty are more willing than others to innovate with their teaching, we should be asking how we can convince our colleagues that the costs of innovation are smaller than they think, and that the benefits are larger?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Choice and responsibility: self-help or just good economics?

On the first day of every class I teach, I ask students to write down how they complete the sentence: Economics is the study of _______. The answers rarely surprise me - money, the economy, supply and demand, maybe scarcity or trade-offs from someone who has taken an econ class before. Then I tell them my answer: Economics is the study of choices. I follow that with "And since life is a series of choices, economics is really the study of life." There are always a few snickers at that and I acknowledge I'm being a little melodramatic but I also tell them that even if it seems an exaggeration, I hope they will come to see the ways in which it is true.

I was reminded of this when I saw a post on Zen Habits about taking responsibility. The post points out how many people fail to take responsibility for their lives; everything is someone else's fault. As a teacher, I see this all the time in my students (the excuses are generally more creative than 'the dog ate my homework' but they are excuses nonetheless). But what I try to get across to my students is that economists simply don't believe one can ever say, "I had no choice". Some decisions are so trivial (do you get up when the alarm goes off or hit snooze?) or so easy (your money or your life) that we may not think twice about them but they are still choices, and choices have consequences. Usually when someone says they "had no choice", it just means that the consequence of the alternative was so awful that the choice was easy but although it may be horrible to consider disappointing your parents or losing your job or even dying, that doesn't mean you have no choice about going to college or working overtime or handing over your wallet.

These may seem like bizarre examples - I'm certainly not advocating that students drop out of school or employees tell their bosses to jump in a lake. My point is that when you realize that all your actions are choices, it's harder to play the victim, to avoid taking at least a little responsibility. At the same time, it means you have more control, over the good AND the bad. Making good decisions requires being clear about the costs and benefits of your options but first you have to recognize that you HAVE options. I often think that if I can just get this one idea across to my students, to get them to REALLY believe it, then I will not only have taught them some economics but I will have helped them to become better people.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

And my faith in Freakonomics is restored...

Levitt points his readers to this wonderful speech by Bill Gates on 'creative capitalism'. It's clear that Gates is both a realist and an optimist and in the speech he makes a great case for a system that harnesses the power of capitalism to serve the greater good. Given the mistaken view of many people that self-interest is incompatible with altruism, it's really wonderful to hear someone give such an articulate explanation of why they are not. I'm definitely going to have my students all read this!

Monday, June 9, 2008

The dismal science indeed

You don't have to read very many of my posts here to know that I'm a huge fan of Freakonomics. But Dubner's post on "locavores" (i.e., people who try to eat locally-grown food) versus the efficiency of specialization is a rare example of the type of economic thinking that drives me crazy (rare for that blog that is, though unfortunately not rare among economists in general). It's the view that efficiency must, or at least should, be the primary criterion for assessing whether something is 'sensible' or not. Dubner is partly trying to point out that proponents of buying local often try to use efficiency as an argument FOR buying local (e.g., it's cheaper, it's better for you and the environment, etc.) when it's much more likely that the gains from specialization make it less efficient. That's fine - I'm all for pointing out flaws in the positive analysis. And Dubner also points out that one person's labor is often another's leisure. But in pointing that out, he calls it "a curious fact," and the tone throughout the post is that this is somehow not 'sensible'.

I find that really disappointing because as a teacher, I try to help my students separate out positive from normative. That includes pointing out that economics, as a field, often has normative judgments embedded in our core principles, the primary one being that efficiency is valued above all else. I do find it interesting that the Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics all seem to be carefully written as positive statements; for example, Standard #8 reads "Prices send signals and provide incentives to buyers and sellers. When supply or demand changes, market prices adjust, affecting incentives". In contrast, Principle #6 in Mankiw's textbook asserts that "Markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity." Hard to get more normative than saying something is good or bad. And it's not even that I disagree, I just think economists would have more credibility (not to mention a better reputation in general) if we were more upfront (or even aware) of the biases that are embedded in how we see the world.

Friday, June 6, 2008

How much should I be influenced by the Economics section at Borders?

In addition to preparing the Economics for Teachers course, I’m also re-vamping my Principles of Microeconomics course. Partly because of the work I’m doing on the Teachers course, I’ve decided to spend considerably more time talking about the basic principles of individual behavior that everything else builds on. For those familiar with Mankiw’s textbook, I'm talking about his first four principles, focusing on the No Free Lunch Principle and opportunity costs, rational people decide on the margin, and incentives matter. In the past, I’ve sort of glossed over this first chapter of the text, basically telling students that all that stuff will become clearer as the semester goes on. But doesn’t it make more sense to spend the time upfront to make sure students have a solid grasp on these principles first, before getting into the more sophisticated tools that rely on them? Part of what has convinced me of this is the recent explosion of popular books showing economic thinking in everyday life (‘explosion’ might be a bit strong but it certainly seems that the huge popularity of Freakonomics has also given increased visibility to books like Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, Robert Frank’s Economic Naturalist, etc.). Aside from the fact that these books provide a plethora of great examples, it’s striking to me that talking about those examples never requires anything more complicated than a supply and demand graph, and rarely even that. And yet, don’t these books exemplify the kind of thinking that we want our students to develop?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Where is the demand for better K-12 teachers?

The other day, when I asked where is the demand for better teachers, I was mainly thinking about college teaching. But what’s really disturbing is to consider whether one might ask the same question about K-12 teaching. Obviously, there are entire departments devoted to training K-12 teachers so I’m not talking about the demand for training versus no training, as with grad students who go on to be professors, but there is a lot of complaining out there in the world about the quality of that training. To be fair, I do research in education policy and teacher labor markets so I probably hear more of such complaining than the average person, but there is no doubt that many people perceive the K-12 teaching force to include both amazing individuals and some major duds. But given that K-12 teaching does require at least a year of very specialized training, how does anyone even get to a K-12 classroom without really knowing how to teach? One reason might be that, other than meeting the basic requirements to be accredited, there isn’t really much incentive for any particular credentialing program to produce great teachers. Given the constant demand for teachers of any quality, most programs do not need to worry too much about placing their graduates (as long as they can pass the appropriate courses and tests), and most applicants to credential programs are more concerned about location, convenience and costs than the whether the program will make them an outstanding teacher. I’m not saying that there aren’t some great programs out there; I’m just saying that there is nothing about the market for teachers that gives less-than-amazing programs any incentive to improve. And as every Econ 101 student learns, when markets do not work, there is often a role for government to improve outcomes…

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Two more exam questions...

First, read The Economics of Sawdust. Then use supply and demand diagrams to explain a) how the downturn in housing construction could lead to higher prices of sawdust and b) how higher sawdust prices could lead to higher prices of milk.

Beauty premiums

A recent Freakonomics post rounds up a few different pieces of research on the wage premium for attractive/tall people that could be useful in talking about labor markets.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Why aren't there more micro-oriented blogs?

Free exchange at Economist.com claims that "The economics blogosphere is now deeper and broader than that of any other non-technological academic field..." I have no idea if this is true, though given the number of economics blogs I know are out there and the general lack of interest in blogs that I've seen from academics as a group, I can certainly believe it. But what I find interesting/frustrating about the economics blogosphere is that it seems that the vast majority of econ blogs are macro-oriented (i.e., they talk primarily about fiscal and monetary policy, 'the economy', growth, etc.). There are some obvious exceptions, such as Freakonomics and Marginal Revolution. And I wonder whether those blogs are so popular because they focus more on the micro principles that lead economists to claim that 'economics is everywhere' (of course, I'm sure it doesn't hurt that the primary authors of these blogs have also written popular books - Tim Harford's Undercover Economist is another micro-oriented favorite). I just can't figure out why there aren't more like them, particularly given that among economists working in academia, there are certainly more microeconomists than macro. Of course, I certainly haven't explored every econ blog out there but I recently discovered the list of economics blogs at the AcademicBlogs wiki so as I make my way through that list, I'll try to post about any interesting micro-oriented blogs I came across...

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Where is the demand for better teachers?

Following up on my previous post, of course I realize that there is virtually zero chance that graduate schools will suddenly decide that they should expend resources on training their students to be better teachers. This is because, while I doubt there is a college administrator in the world who will ever say that undergraduate education isn’t their top priority, there simply isn’t sufficient demand for training grad students to teach well. Yes, there are many, many institutions that want good teachers; there are also just as many who really don’t care (or at least, it isn’t part of the hiring criteria). In economics, the latter group hires more Ph.D. students. I think there are also enough students who self-select into teaching to fill most of the positions with the former group. I was one of those students - I knew before I even got to grad school that I wanted to go teach at a small liberal arts college like my alma mater. So I volunteered to teach classes and I worked hard to figure out how to be a decent teacher. If enough people seem inclined to do the work on their own anyway, why should any University expend resources on providing training to grad students?

So then maybe the real question is why isn’t there stronger demand for good teaching? Why don’t students demand it? And what does it take to shift a university culture that doesn’t seem to value teaching on par with research?