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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?

5 comments:

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  2. I wish there was an economics class at school (maybe there is) that would combine and focus on public policy and economics, and that can better relate the two.

    I think it would be interesting to tell students to come up with some policy that is highly relevant in todays economy (although most usually are I guess). Things like seeing how gay marriage(possibly unconstitutional to discuss in class I suppose), or CO2 emissions via cap and trade or taxing, or the topic of outsourcing and tax incentives to keep jobs domestic.

    I think that could be one of the best ideas for a class. Through these kinds of exercises, it would be hitting on the principles you talked about in your post. Have students propose plans, and walk through the best and worst ones, or even all of the proposals if people worked on them in groups. Discuss how each policy demonstrates some of the basic principles. I think it would be tremendous for students to see how economics plays such an important role in politics, and how policymakers think, and especially how it affects students' lives on a daily basis.

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  3. @Matt: the class you're wishing for is called Public Economics (Public Finance at some schools). There are also upper-division classes in Environmental Economics (SDSU has two - one on environmental econ in general and one on common resources called Economics of the Ocean) and Labor Economics that may cover many of these policy issues. SDSU even has a class on the Economics of Marriage and Family, though I'm not sure whether they talk much about gay marriage. Unfortunately, although these courses MAY cover these policy issues, there is no guarantee that they will if the professor decides instead to spend most of the class time on more abstract theoretical models...

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  4. Another "Book at Borders" to include in your list is Richard McKenzies' "Why Popcorn Costs So Much At the Movies." Partly because many of his examples of pricing puzzles don't necessarily have the answers he comes up with (living in flood plains and flood insurance leaps to mind here), so there are opportunities for students to find their own answers.

    In fact, the greatest weakness of hte book is that students don't have the opportunity to find their own answers first, before McKenzie provides his "right" answer.

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  5. Thanks Doc - I haven't seen that one yet. Seems like there are new econ-for-the-masses books popping up all the time, which is really great!

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