Microeconomics in six words

This is certainly frivolous, but in the spirit of the addictive six word memoir (see here and here), I got to wondering about the six word memoir for the traditional undergraduate Intermediate Microeconomics course. My best effort is:

“Markets work, except when they don’t.”

Intermediate Microeconomics is a course I have both taken and lectured. It’s the gateway drug to economics electives, in a way that the Principles courses I hate so well are not: it is dry and musty with terminology, calculus and diagrams. Relating student to material is the difficult part, as with all of these positivist courses. When I took the course, it was split half and half between the dry stuff and policy debates that applied it, which was perhaps a good idea.

A six word syllabus for Micro?

“People, firms, markets: now with calculus!”

The technical parts of the course are about the foundations of all scientific theoretical economics: how we can model people, how we can model firms, how we can model interactions. It builds, in my opinion, towards the two monumental political economic results in our canon, our intellectual arguments for and against markets as a resource allocation mechanism. They are the first and second theorems of welfare economics. The first one sets out the conditions under which markets will give a Pareto efficient allocation of resources, and the second one sets out the conditions which would make lossless redistribution of resources possible.

First of all, these are tremendously elegant, in the mathematical sense. Second, they are utterly unrealistic. Together, this makes them a fascinating and infuriating jumping-off point for all debate about the appropriate way to allocate resources, in specific situations and in the wider sense. They don’t answer the questions. They beg us to ask when we can do better; they beg us to ask what better even means. All philosophical, moral and political debate on economic policy bursts fractal-like from these seeds, the painstaking culmination of the “how”, the layering of the interactions of all the actors in the economy.

That’s when technicalities can become interesting. It made me want to follow those paths where they led.

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