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?
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