Principles of Economics

Here at Brown University, our Econ 101 course is actually numbered EC0110 and is called “Principles of Economics”. Like a lot of introductory undergraduate-level economics courses, it uses Greg Mankiw’s book of the same name. What is a principle of economics? Here’s the list that Mankiw suggests in the book:

1. People Face Tradeoffs
2. The Cost of Something is What You Give Up to Get It

3. Rational People Think at the Margin
4. People Respond to Incentives

5. Trade Can Make Everyone Better Off

6. Markets Are Usually a Good Way to Organize Economic Activity

7. Governments Can Sometimes Improve Market Outcomes

8. A Country’s Standard of Living Depends on Its Ability to Produce Goods and Services

9. Prices Rise When the Government Prints Too Much Money

10. Society Faces a Short-Run Tradeoff Between Inflation and Unemployment

Are these principles? I cannot square any of 5 through 10 with any definition of “principle”; those are, at best, positive economic results (not to be too facetious, but by 10 I think many students must be asleep). A principle, to me, is something that you hold as a fundamental truth, before, during and after you do anything. I see the logic in writing a list that looks like this: it summarizes a lot of the “received wisdom” in our discipline.

That, however, is exactly the problem. How can I teach an anti-capitalist student economics if my first lesson says “Markets Are Usually a Good Way to Organize Economic Activity”? “Good” is a normative judgment; the statement is loaded with value and intent. It’s a huge result built on so many layers of qualifications that I couldn’t possibly say it with a straight face. It’s not possible to sell economics as scientific and flexible if we recite dogma in lesson one. Economics is not capitalism. Maybe that should be a principle.

I should probably make some kind of attempt to define “principles” as I see them.

1. Economics tries to describe and predict things about the world around us.
2. Economics is divided into value-free positive method (what will happen, or how do I achieve a particular goal) and normative opinion (what ought to be done). It can inform debate through the former, but cannot settle it, because there are no right or wrong opinions.
3. Economists assume people act as if they try to get their preferred outcome of the ones that are available, but they don’t restrict what people’s preferences are.
4. Positive economics uses simplified models or empirical observation to describe or predict what will happen, and must never make value judgments. We can try to interpret the validity of positive results by testing them against real-world data or by figuring out what would happen if we made different simplifying assumptions.

I’m just thinking (typing?) out loud, and certainly a more thoughtful attempt would be justified. My “list” is certainly less snappy, that’s for sure. In general, though, I really believe that “principles” should describe the foundations of economics, not its received wisdom. The foundations of economics can accommodate everyone, not just those who would find themselves nodding agreement at a statement like “A Country’s Standard of Living Depends on Its Ability to Produce Goods and Services”. With no exaggeration, I can say this is like opening Music 101 with a list of principles that includes “Only Rock Music Is Good Music” or something equally ridiculous. It is heartbreaking.

Rather delightfully, this list of “Principles of Feminist Economics” – again, I must confess, I don’t often see how “[blank] economics” is distinct from “economics”, especially since the [blank] is usually a value judgment – is, despite dripping with normative statement, actually more palatable to me than Mankiw’s list. At a bare minimum, looking at them side by side reveals how neither of them can possibly be considered “principles of economics”. I’m sure mine can’t either, but you get the point: I think a minimum requirement for a list of principles is that they be basic and as agreeable as possible to the people who care.

I applaud the goals of this page entitled “Great Ideas For Teaching Economics”, even if a few of them are really more “how to get people interested”. Allow me to quote at length this contribution from Hugh Himan:

“For a number of years I have devoted 6-9 class meetings in the Principles of Economics course to class debates on current economic issues.

Objectives:

1) to acquaint students with the reality that economists as well as people in general do not think alike on economic issues;

2) to have students realize that disagreements on issues reflect both different positive economic views (cause and effect) as well as normative difference (values)

3) to challenge their own thinking about economic issues

4) to have each student experience through a debate on the beliefs and values of the three major paradigms of Conservative, Liberal and Radical.

The debates are evaluated by the students and instructor on the basis of specific criteria with final scores tabulated on a 100 point scale. The evaluations are based upon how well the team presented their assigned position, not whether the evaluator agrees or disagrees with that particular paradigm.

It has been my experience that the students truly get involved with these debates, well beyond the proportion of the final grade their scores represent. Most enjoy the role playing, some even dressing as they think a Conservative, Liberal or Radical would appear.

Beyond the enjoyment many experience, I like to think that they have gained deep insight into issues i.e., that problems can be viewed differently based upon one’s belief as to “truth” causes and effects as well as on the basis of values (no good vs. bad but in terms of relative priorities). For so many students I have taught over the years who tend to think there are single, simple answers to such problems as poverty, unemployment, national defense, acid rain, exposure to the complexity of such issues is important to their education.”

This is, indeed, a great idea. Is there a better way of understanding the very concept of normative judgment than to force students to debate from all sides? I think it might be fun to ask students to shout out anything they can think of, and to write down an “economic model” that proves it. This really invites students to think of 1) how flexible positive economics is, 2) the importance of assumptions, 3) how to judge an economic theory, and 4) the role of normative opinion.

We need all three levels of understanding in economics: positive, value-free, empty economic science; interpreting whether the positive results are correct, either empirically or by exploring the implications of alternative assumptions; normative, value-laden opinion. Exercises that can explore these distinctions are the most valuable in our teaching arsenal. A list of “principles” pregnant with loaded statements is not the right way to present our discipline.

One thought on “Principles of Economics

  1. Nice post. I enjoyed reading it. Interesting that Mankiw has a blog- how many of the most famous economists have blogs now? Levitt (if you can call him an economist), Lucas, Mankiw, the Op-ed page of the NYT for Krugman (!), anyone else?

    Like

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